Hints and tips for photographing animals for portraits

This is the essential starting point for a good result. If a painting is done from a photographic reference, the end result will only be as good as your photograph.
I have found it better to use a digital camera. You can immediately review the images taken, and you will not have to spend a fortune getting the images developed. Animals will rarely strike an appealing pose on demand, and a success rate of about one in a hundred is pretty good going.

You are aiming for maximum detail in your photographs. If possible, use a lens with a focal length of 70 mm or more, or a zoom lens. A lens with a short focal length can cause distortion.

Sort out your camera settings before you start. You don’t want to miss the perfect shot while you’re busy fiddling with knobs and buttons. Try to select an automatic setting, so all you have to do is point and press. Fairly basic digital cameras should do automatic focussing which makes the job much easier, especially for the optically challenged. However be aware of the length of time the camera will take to get the image in focus. From experience I can say that this is sometimes two or three seconds, which is frustrating to say the least. I have lost count of the number of good shots that I have missed because of this. Keeping the shutter button half pressed will focus the camera so you are ready to shoot. Try a few practice shots beforehand.

Burst mode is a useful feature if you have it. As the name suggests, this lets you take a number of shots with a single press of the shutter button. Animal subjects will rarely stay entirely still, if you can take a few shots in quick succession you stand a greater chance of getting that one special picture.

A few words on focussing. This is not so much of a problem with domestic animals, as they can usually be coaxed into an area without awkward obstructions. Wildlife and livestock are a different matter, and you will often find a hedge or bush between you and your subject – or the dreaded mesh or bars at the zoo. This is the downside to the “point and press” technique of digital photography, as there is a risk that the camera’s sensor will home in on the nearest object, giving you a great shot of everything you don’t want. If this is likely to be a problem, you should know how to manually focus. With some cameras this is simple, with others it isn’t. I’m afraid there is no alternative to making yourself a cup of tea and settling down to read the instruction booklet (or book!)

In short, make sure you know your camera. On the job training wastes time and may take years off your life!

Avoid flash. You will get a flat, uniform picture that can easily be turned into a chalky mess when you use it as a reference for a painting. I have done portraits from flash photographs through lack of choice, usually because the animal has passed away, and with many years experience I can produce a respectable result, but it is not easy and you will just be making work for yourself.

Always remember that you are painting light. It is the way your subject is lit that will bring the painting to life. You will ideally be taking shots out of doors on a sunny day with a soft cloud. Most importantly, you want the animal’s eyes to show. A very bright day can cause the eyes to vanish into little slits, and animals have a habit of backing the sun. Bright sunlight tends to produce strong contrasts, which can sometimes cause detail loss. Also, if it’s too hot you can have a problem with dogs – they pant and show their teeth and a big pink tongue. Tongues tend to look wrong on a portrait, and teeth draw attention to the mouth rather than the eyes – as well as taking ages to paint.

Ideally the sun needs to come from the side and to the front, but unfortunately sometimes this is almost impossible to organise as it largely depends on the co-operation of the animal concerned.

The next thing to bear in mind is to make sure the photograph is taken from the animal’s level. It is surprising how many people will photograph a tiny dog on the floor whilst they are towering over it, giving a good shot of the top of the head and a little nose sticking out.

Photographing animals takes a long time if you want to get the perfect shot even if the animal is quite obliging.
Before you start, think about what you are going to paint. For a portrait, you will usually want to photograph your animal when it is still and alert - not distracted/excited/worried/distressed. It is usually better to have an assistant to help pose your subject while you do the photographing. Cameras can be heavy and need to be kept steady, so you will really need both hands. To make the subject appealing it helps to have it look interested. Remember that a portrait is forever, which is a long time to have a bored animal looking down at you.

You will need to find out what will get the animal’s interest. I usually take a bag full of treats and squeaky toys, and over the years have learnt to make a variety of animal noises. Don’t make your subject over excited, you don’t want to be chasing a blur round the garden!

You won’t be entering a photography competition so don’t worry about what’s in the background, you won’t be painting this. But – be aware that background colour may reflect in the animal’s coat. It is best to choose a neutral coloured background. Your bright green lawn may be the envy of your neighbours, but a visit to your local art exhibition will show you just how difficult this colour can be to paint. When you come to the portrait, it will be the devil of a job to get rid of any unwanted reflected colour.

Once you are satisfied you have some good general shots, there is nothing wrong with taking close ups of bits of the body, e.g nose, ears, eyes, you can use these for detail later. Just remember that all the shots you use must have the same light source, so it will cause problems if you take shots with the sun on one side and then on the other.

Assuming you have used a digital camera, you will be working from the printout of the image you have chosen. You will have one main image, which will form the basis of the portrait, but there is nothing wrong with having a selection of pictures to work from, as mentioned above, e.g. different parts of the body, close ups etc. You may have a computer programme which will allow you to crop your pictures so the image is properly framed on the page. Otherwise it will be a job for Mr Heath Robinson, and you may find it best to experiment with a frame of masking tape until you are satisfied with the composition.

As with anything, you will learn by experience. Just remember to be patient!