Trying to capture the beauty and personality of your favorite pets? These pro photographers walk you through their tried-and-true methods for taking incredible photos of animals.

The photojournalist Elliot Erwitt takes legendary photographs of dogs because, in some profound sense, he understands dogs. According to the late British author Peter Mayle, he’s even been known to occasionally bark at them as if to speak. Taking a picture of a dog (or a cat) requires more than just snapping the shutter. It takes subtlety, gentleness, and a willingness to play. Often, it means throwing human “rules” out the window, getting down on the floor, and offering up some pats, toys, or treats.

Erwitt, of course, photographed dogs in all situations. He met pampered pets, but he also immortalized homeless animals he met on the streets. Photographs of dogs and cats make us happy, but they also have a vital role to play in this age of pet overpopulation. In the United States alone, an estimated 6.5 million animals enter shelters every year in hopes of finding forever homes. Many don’t, but the lucky ones do, and many times, it’s because someone spotted their photo online and decided to adopt.

That’s why more and more photographers are volunteering their time and skills to helping animals in need by taking moving, funny, and adorable pictures. We asked six photographers from different backgrounds to tell us about working with companion animals, whether they’re in a home or shelter environment. Here, they share some of their favorite stories and their best tips for capturing one-of-a-kind pet photos.

1. “When photographing pets, the main thing to keep in mind is that you want them to look happy, relaxed, and alert.”

Crystal Alba

6 Photographers on How to Take Fantastic Images of Dogs and Cats — Lexi

Image by Crystal Alba.

Tell us about the most memorable pet you’ve photographed.

One of the most memorable sessions I’ve done was for Lexi. At the time, she was available for adoption at BullsEye Rescue in Atlanta and had been searching for her person for a very long time. One of my friends offered to let us use her gorgeous loft for the photos. I thought getting shots of Lexi relaxing in a home environment would help her get adopted. She’s a super friendly and happy dog, and I wanted to show that side of her to the world. She was totally into the session, getting on the bed and the couch and rolling around on the floor for belly scratches. I’m happy to say that she was finally adopted into a wonderful home. Sometimes seeing a shelter dog outside a typical shelter environment can help give them the boost they need.

Pro Tip:

When photographing pets, the main thing to keep in mind is that you want them to look happy, relaxed, and alert. If the dog (or cat) looks scared, it’s simply not going to work. I always spend just a few seconds saying hello to each animal before photographing. A big, loud camera can be intimidating and a quick moment of reassurance goes a long way.

When it’s time to start shooting, I just let the animals find a comfort zone. For dogs, rather than trying to force them to do something specific, I give them a little time to settle. Some dogs are comfortable sitting on something (like a cute bench or chair), while others are more comfortable on the ground or standing close to someone they know. I’ve also photographed terrified shelter dogs who only wanted to be held. In that case, I’ll ask a volunteer to be in the photo cuddling the dog.

It’s also good to give them some time to get a little energy out. That way, they’re more relaxed, and I get that happy-looking, tongue-out face. Once they get settled somewhere, I focus on getting their attention. Depending on the dog, this could be done with toys, treats, or a sound that I make. A well-timed squeak will usually get that nice head tilted, ears up, open-eyed expression that looks good in adoption photos.

Of course, none of these methods I use to photograph dogs work on cats. The best trick I’ve found for photographing cats is to provide some type of warm spot for them to sit on. If you’re working in a cool room, a heating pad or even a blanket fresh from the dryer provides a perfect place for a cat to snuggle up.

I don’t use a lot of props for animal photos, but I do love using colorful quilts as backdrops. Black dogs are notoriously hard to find homes for, so it’s especially important to create a vibrant, eye-catching portrait of them. I also try to incorporate the environment into the photo. If there’s a blooming tree, a pretty sunset, or a nice patch of light, I always use it for the photo. Nothing grabs attention like a colorful, well-lit photo of a happy dog.

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2. “Be patient, and remember: don’t make the animal work for you—work with the animal.”

Photography by Adri (Adri Pendleton)

6 Photographers on How to Take Fantastic Images of Dogs and Cats — Be Patient

Image by Photography by Adri (Adri Pendleton)Gear: Nikon D610 camera, Nikon FX 50mm f/1.8 D lens. Settings: Exposure 1/400 sec; f2.8; ISO 400.

Tell us about the most memorable pet you’ve photographed.

I was just fifteen years old when I wanted to get a dog, but my parents were not so fond of the idea. I brought up the idea of fostering a dog through the local animal shelter, and they agreed that we could try it. I remember going through the shelter kennels and looking at the dogs that were available to be fostered. This dog stood out. She was one of the few that was not barking; she just stood on her back legs, her front paws gripping the bars of the kennel, and she stared at me with eyes I’ll never forget. I ended up taking her home, and from that moment on, we have been inseparable.

I’ve endured a lot of hardship over the years due to a chronic nerve disorder called Fibromyalgia. Nelly has brought me so much happiness and comfort; even on my worst days, she’s been by my side. She’s not a cuddly dog, but she knows when I don’t feel well and will try to make me feel better. If I cry, she will shove her head under my hand until I start petting her and stop crying. She’s a joy to photograph, and she’s always so eager to do whatever we need to do to get good photos.

6 Photographers on How to Take Fantastic Images of Dogs and Cats — Work with the Animal

Image by Photography by Adri (Adri Pendleton).

Pro Tip:

The most important thing to do when photographing a pet is to let them just be themselves! During the first few years I was learning photography, I photographed almost only dogs and cats. Most of these dogs were with shelters and rescues, and they were being photographed to help them find good homes. I quickly learned that trying to force an animal to do something it doesn’t want to do is not going to work in your favor. If the dog doesn’t want to sit for a photograph, don’t try to make them! You’ll only get frustrated when they don’t cooperate, and they’ll pick up on your frustration. Be patient, and remember: don’t make the animal work for you—work with the animal. Capture their quirks and the things that make them special.

Ask yourself, “What makes this animal unique?” Don’t photograph their looks; photograph their personalities. The energy you give off when working with animals is important. Show them through your body language that you are respectful of their space, and do anything you can to make them comfortable and happy with being photographed. And always, always remember to have fun!

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3. “I almost always greet the animals first when I arrive at my sessions, and I call them by name.”

InBetweentheBlinks (Tara Lynn)

6 Photographers on How to Take Fantastic Images of Dogs and Cats — Make the Animal Feel Comfortable

Image by InBetweentheBlinks (Tara Lynn)Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 1/500 sec; f2.8; ISO 250.

Tell us about the most memorable pet you’ve photographed.

I adopted my own dog Baxter in 2008. He was my very first dog. He had been with a family that had seven children, and we were told that the family moved out and just left him in the backyard. He was found howling and all alone around midnight one evening with an injured paw.

My husband (boyfriend at the time) and I drove two and a half hours to meet and adopt him after seeing a basic snapshot of him online. Baxter was supposed to be Brandon’s dog and lived with him in North Carolina, while I lived and worked in South Carolina. I missed this dog so much after just two weeks that I started volunteering at a local animal shelter to walk dogs.

The staff wasn’t always able to photograph the animals to get their pictures on the website. But I knew the power of those photographs because we drove hours to adopt Baxter based on a snapshot we saw online, so I began taking photos of the animals. My passion and drive exploded with each photo I took. In 2016, I left my ten-year career as a local news reporter and anchor to pursue my passion for pet photography and helping animals. Baxter remains my main model and muse (and best-selling subject on Shutterstock!).

Pictured: [1] InBetweentheBlinks (Tara Lynn). [2] InBetweentheBlinks (Tara Lynn).

Pro Tip:

If you have a passion for pets and want to start photographing them, the best thing to do is simply spend time with animals and do some general research on animal behavior and training. You want to make sure you recognize the signs of when an animal may be nervous or scared so you can help put them at ease before sticking a camera in their face. I almost always greet the animals first when I arrive at my sessions, and I call them by name.

I will set down my camera bag and let them check it out and sniff me to help put them at ease. My main priority is to always make sure the pets are safe. I always bring treats and a squeaker to my sessions, and I ask pet owners to bring any favorite treats or toys their pets are familiar with. Photographing pets and children can be very similar in that they don’t stay still for long. Thankfully, dogs usually are more willing to sit and stay for a treat than kids are.

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4. “…I think that the most important thing is to follow your pets around and take pictures of them in their natural setting.”

Kristi Blokhin

6 Photographers on How to Take Fantastic Images of Dogs and Cats — Natural Settings

Image by Kristi BlokhinGear: Sony DSC-RX1 camera, 35mm f2 fixed lens. Settings: Exposure 1/640 sec; f2; ISO 100.

Tell us about the most memorable pet you’ve photographed.

Angel is a very unique looking eleven-year-old calico cat who inherited many characteristics of the Maine Coon breed, such as a big build, long fluffy hair, a large scary-looking face, large paws, and the sweetest personality. Her mom was a polydactyl Maine Coon cat with six toes on each paw.

Angel came from a shelter and was very sick and tiny when my family got her as a kitten. With a few years in our care, she transformed into the regal beauty that she is today. While purebred pets are beautiful too, I feel that it is important to focus on homeless, shelter-adopted, and senior pets to show people, even through a stock photo, that they can make just as wonderful companions.

6 Photographers on How to Take Fantastic Images of Dogs and Cats — Natural Behaviors

Image by Kristi Blokhin.

Pro Tip:

I mostly photograph my own pets, and I think that the most important thing is to follow your pets around and take pictures of them in their natural setting. I almost never do studio or set-up shots, and I try to photograph the day-to-day activities of my pets, even if it doesn’t make for good lighting. Since there are so many good studio shots of pets already out there and few quality shots of pets in their natural environment, there’s a great opportunity to fill that demand.

I personally always walk around with my very portable camera. When a cat yawns, grooms, scratches, or sniffs something, I’m there to capture that moment. Each pet has an individual personality, so it is important to keep that in mind when working with them. You have to love doing this and take a whole bunch of pictures all the time in order to capture the most unexpected and funny moments.

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5. “Plan to spend some time with your ‘client’ just playing and getting to know them better.”

Anna Hoychuk

6 Photographers on How to Take Fantastic Images of Dogs and Cats — Get to Know the Pet

Image by Anna HoychukGear: Nikon D810 camera, Nikon 24-85mm lens, basic strobes with umbrellas to diffuse the light. Settings: Focal length 42mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f5; ISO 100.

Tell us about the most memorable pet you’ve photographed.

We have fostered many dogs through our local humane society, and one of the most memorable dogs I have photographed was our foster Bramble and her six puppies. She came to us when she was pregnant and gave birth to her litter in our kitchen. I liked the color scheme and the posed, but still candid, look. She and her puppies perfectly illustrated the concept of “running out of ink,” as her babies ranged from black to light. All of her puppies were quickly adopted, and Bramble was spayed after this. It was her last litter.

Pictured: [1] Anna Hoychuk. [2] Anna Hoychuk.

Pro Tip:

If you are interested in pet photography, then getting as many “models” in front of your camera is key in gaining experience. When I started in pet photography, I quickly realized that not all dogs respond to visual or audio stimuli the same way our dogs do. Make sure to get as much information on your subject as possible. Find out what they like to play with, what they are scared of, or if there is an exciting word or toy that makes them jump with joy.

Plan to spend some time with your “client” just playing and getting to know them better. Sometimes adding a human element will make a photo more touching and easier to take, like including a hand in the shot or a shoulder for them to lean on.

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6. “A quick once-over to remove drool/stray dirt, etc. will save you hours of using the healing brush tool after the shoot!”

Eric Krouse

6 Photographers on How to Take Fantastic Images of Dogs and Cats — Prep Beforehand

Image by Eric KrouseGear: Nikon D7100 camera, 105mm 2.8 VR lens, two Einstein strobes. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec (estimated); f5.6; ISO 100.

Tell us about the most memorable pet you’ve photographed.

The absolute most memorable pet I’ve photographed is my own black Lab, Jack. He was a rescue from the local shelter, a tether dog, and a triple return before I got him. He’s a fantastic companion, and he will hold poses for cheese! He also tilts his head when I ask him. Strange but adorable.

6 Photographers on How to Take Fantastic Images of Dogs and Cats — Play with Your Subject

Image by Eric Krouse.

Pro Tip:

The best advice I can give is to have an arsenal of noisemakers: rattles, squeakers, crinkly paper, etc. I’ve also become an expert on vocalizing duck calls and airplane/spaceship noises. Anything to get the head tilt! I shoot under strobes to freeze motion; if you have a pet that seems spooked at first, try lowering the flash intensity, hitting the “Test button,” and then giving a treat immediately after the strobe fires. It’s a classic Pavlov trick. Flash equals food! Remember to get down low, and expect your lens to get a tongue mark on it eventually. And remember to bring towels. A quick once-over to remove drool/stray dirt, etc. will save you hours of using the healing brush tool after the shoot!

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Top Image by InBetweentheBlinks (Tara Lynn).