Photographing Pets for Painting

Photographing pets for artworks graphic by Sarah Douglas

When I create pet portrait paintings I work from photographs. Mainly because it would be almost impossible to get a pet to sit still long enough for me! It also means I can work on portraits for people based further away from me and there isn’t the need for me to visit people directly or for them to come to me so it is much more convenient. However, not everyone has access to professional photography skills and when photographing pets my clients often want to know:

“How can I take a good picture of my pet?”


“What, as an artist, do you need to create the best portrait painting of my pet?”


So I thought I’d write a blog to give a few of my own tips for taking photos for pet portrait reference, as well as sharing some helpful articles I’ve found on the subject.


Contented cat photo
This is a good photo to paint from. Everything is in focus, the lighting is good but not too harsh and all of the cat can be seen.

My Tips for Photographing Pets for Art



  • Lighting is very important to consider in photography as well as in creating artworks, so this is one of the most important aspects to consider for getting a good photograph to work with.
  • Lighting is particularly important for photographing animals because they move! Ensuring you have plenty of light will mean you have a better chance of capturing a still, non-blurred shot.
  • Photographing in direct sunlight is not always the best idea as it can create unwanted shadows and contrast that mean details are obscured for drawing.
  • You need lots of good quality, natural light – think about where you are photographing your pets – outside can be a great place and often in the shade on a bright day or outside on an overcast day can create good conditions for photographing pets.
  • Avoid using your camera flash. I would consider your camera flash to be bad or unnatural light, so it’s best to turn this off completely when photographing your pet and look to use light from a different source. Your camera flash bounces light straight onto your pet from the same direction as the camera and this can flatten the image as well as creating harsh and high contrast images. Flashes are particularly bad for capturing photos of your pet’s eyes, as it just bounces back at the camera, and at the same time is probably fairly alarming for your pet!
  • You can take good photos indoors too as long as there is enough good lighting, for example on a bright day with lots of light coming in from the windows. It is possible to take good photos using other light sources indoors but I would suggest using natural light is the easiest.



Bichon Frise taken on an iPhone, an example of photographing pets with a phone
Not an amazing photo as I have not taken advantage of the light. Taking it from the other side might have been better.


Angles & Composition

Another consideration which can affect the outcome of your photo is where you take it from, and how it is composed. Remember that often all I will have to work with are your photos and I prefer to use a single main photo as it makes it easier for me to get all the details and likeness of your pet right.

  • Try getting down to your pet’s level to take photos. If you take all your photos standing over them and looking down they can get a bit boring and might not express your pet’s individuality as much. Taking a picture on the same eye-level as your pet can make it more focused on them. You see them closer and it can look more like a portrait rather than a general pet photo.
  • Consider the framing of your photo: have you got all of your pet in the photo or has some of them been cut off? Do you like how your pet looks in the angle the photo is taken in?
  • Another consideration to bear in mind is if you want a portrait with multiple pets in but can only get photos of each pet individually. In this case you will need to consider the angle you are using to photograph them in order to make it consistent. I can’t alter angles in a painting so this needs to be addressed in the photos.
  • Is there anything obscuring the view of your pet? If you don’t want this in your pet portrait then consider re-framing or re-taking your photo. Things such as grass, blankets, cushions or pets fur can get in the way in photos – even if it’s just your pets fur obscuring one of its eyes!
Photo of a dog looking off center
What a lovely pose! Although the background is blurred in this photo, the majority of the dog has still been kept in focus so details in the fur and features can be seen for painting.


Photographing animals is not easy! It’s hard to get them to pose for you and they might get confused or scared if you are pointing a camera in their face and they aren’t used to it! But here are some ideas that might help you to get a better pose for your pictures:

  • You might want to get them used to the camera first if they are a little wary. Take some photos of them from further away to warm them up, and try and act naturally – there’s nothing scary going on here furry friends! If they are scared of the camera it’s going to be difficult to get a good photo so try and make sure they get used to the camera first and let them have a good sniff to check it out if they need to. You want them to be relaxed and happy for your photos!
  • If your pet is well trained you might be able to get them to pose for you by asking them to sit, lay down, stand etc. If you can get a picture you are happy with that way, then that’s great!
  • If you struggle or want to try something else you can try using food or toys to encourage them to look at you, or look off-camera. Treats and toys can help them to focus on you and make them happier for the photo.
  • It will make it a lot easier if you can get someone else to help you with this. One person focusing on taking photos and the other on keeping the pet interested and posing for the camera!



Tanya the border collie an example of photographing pets that are scared or uncomfortable
Poor Tanya looks a little wary here with her ears back. She is much more relaxed in the next photo, shown below. But as you can see, I have taken this in shade and it has produced a nice even exposure.


I know a lot of people will want to use their phones to photograph pets, and this can be ok as long as you can get a sharp and good-sized photo from it. However, if you can, using a proper camera will usually produce a better photo even if it’s not top of the range. I also like to be sent large format photos so that I can zoom in on details whilst I’m painting. So please remember to use a large sized photo setting.


A word about focus

An in focus photo is obviously the desire here so that the artist can see all of what makes your pet unique! If I can only see a general blur of fur then I’m sorry to say but I could be painting any cat or dog and we don’t want that!

Blurred out backgrounds which use a very small focus area admittedly can look fantastic for pet photography, but when taking reference photos for a painting it is not so desirable. Generally I won’t be painting the background of your photo so you don’t need to worry too much if your laundry is in the background etc. This shallow focus technique can compromise some of the details that are further away from the camera but are still part of your pet, for example their back or tail.



photo of Tanya the border collie, an example of photographing pets well
A good photo to paint from. Detailed and well lit in natural light, well focused with sharp detail in her eyes and fur.


The most important things to remember are to get enough lighting, trying to capture your pets personality and making sure it is crisp and in focus. It can be difficult, and not being a photographer I struggle myself with photographing pets! However, I do believe it is worth putting in the effort to get a good photo and you don’t need to be a professional to do this if you follow some of the tips above. The better the photo, the better the pet portrait I can do for you!

I hope I haven’t put you off photographing pets, and if you do have trouble don’t be afraid to ask me for advice or to look at the photos you’ve taken and give feedback to let you know if I can use them or not. Don’t worry if you cannot get the perfect photo, and if you capture a great pose for example but part of your pets ear is cut off or his fur has been blown over one of his eyes and you don’t like it just let me know and I’ll suggest what we can do! Any good pet portrait artist will want to help get a good reference photo and won’t mind looking at all the photos you send through to them and talking about solutions or workarounds!


Further information

The links below have a good selection of tips and some examples of photos to give you some ideas. There’s also an article about photographing black cats and dogs which will be particularly useful to some of you. The link for photographing dogs with different personalities is great if you want tips on how to work with the type of personality your dog has whilst trying to photograph him or her.


How to photograph black dogs and cats

Photograph your pets with your iPhone

Tips for photographing dogs of different personalities

A slightly more advanced article aimed for those with a D-SLR or a camera that has more settings

For more information about my pet portraits visit the Bespoke Pet Portraits section of my website from the main menu or click here

Graphic for article about photographing pets for painting.

Happy New Year!

Sarah Douglas Dog Breed Watercolour painting Collection Exhibited at The Brewery, Cheltenham

Hello everyone, I hope you all had a good break over Christmas and are starting your new year well! I’ve got lots of plans for the new year to work on for my business and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into some more pet portrait commissions too! I was very busy over the holiday period painting new portraits of some gorgeous pets for Christmas commissions and would like to say a big thank you to everyone who has ordered from me! Thanks, I really enjoy working on commissioned pieces and it makes me happy to see people so pleased with the finished pieces. Please do share photos of my work with your friends and family if you like it as this will really help me to get noticed more and keep going with more commissions.

I’ve also still got some of my work exhibited in The Brewery, Cheltenham (above Arcade Artisans) until the end of January so anyone who is nearby and wants to see some of my original work, do pop in. There’s other local artists there too and I’m selling some prints and cards there. My calendars will be put on Sale tomorrow to £5 each so anyone who hasn’t got a calendar for the new year you can buy from the exhibition or online at my etsy store SarahDouglasArt.


Sarah Douglas Dog Breed Paintings calendar

I am in the process of starting a mailing list, so if you’d like to join there is a link on my home page / portfolio page where you can sign up. I’ll be using this to send out updates on my work, painting processes, exhibitions, new products and letting followers know when I’m free for commissions first, I’ll also send out details of deals on my work so it’s worth signing up to get the best prices on my pieces and hear about new work first! I promise you wont be inundated with spam emails from me, I’m not like that!

I’m hoping to start some new projects this year, to expand upon my dog breed collection (which will is pictured in the photo and will be making it’s way to my website soon) and to start some more cat paintings as well as horses and rabbits! I also very much like painting street scenes and buildings, and I hope to do some images of Cheltenham and other places too. So look out for those!

Thanks again to everyone who has supported me and I hope you all have exciting plans of your own for the new year!




Upcoming craft fairs & Christmas cards

Hello! I hope you’re all well and starting to feel festive. I know I am sitting here in my Christmas jumper! Going to all these craft fairs has really brought on the Christmas feeling earlier for me this year. I’ve been busy working on commissions of many beautiful dogs and cats for presents for peoples loved ones. There’s still some slots available if you’d like to give a pet portrait as a gift this year. Just email me (

So these are my remaining craft fair dates:

Thursday 26th November – (Cheltenham) Smokey Joe’s Late Night Craft Fair 6pm – 9:30pm
Friday 4th December – Cheltenham Animal Shelter Festive Evening 5pm – 8pm
Thursday 10th December -(Cheltenham) Smokey Joe’s Late Night Craft Fair 6pm – 9:30pm

The next one is coming very soon, this Thursday at Smokey Joe’s in Cheltenham, it should be a lovely event, there will be Christmas cocktails, mulled wine and minced pies along with plenty of beautiful artisan stalls to browse for some unique gifts for your friends and loved ones. Click the links above for more details of each event.


Also I just wanted to let you know about my Dog Christmas Card range. These are all professionally printed cards with an added handmade santa hat to each card for a cute festive card that dog lovers will adore! These are available to buy via the shop link on my website. Also another great gift for dog lovers is my calendar I wrote about in my previous post. This is also available to buy and is currently on sale, reduced to £12.




New Products and Events!


I’ve been pretty busy recently painting, making and organising craft shows for the run up to Christmas! I have made a calendar which is available to buy now from my online store and a few prints and cards, some of which are also in my online store. I will be selling a larger range of prints including some of my illustration work as well as dog prints and taking orders for pet portraits at the 4 upcoming Christmas events I’m attending, so if you are local to Gloucestershire come along! These are (click for link to facebook event pages):

Sat 21st November – Dumbleton Village Craft Fayre 10am – 3:30pm
Thursday 26th November – (Cheltenham) Smokey Joe’s Late Night Craft Fair 6pm – 9:30pm
Friday 4th December – Cheltenham Animal Shelter Festive Evening 5pm – 8pm
Thursday 10th December -(Cheltenham) Smokey Joe’s Late Night Craft Fair 6pm – 9:30pm

I’m also now working on pet portrait commissions for Christmas. If you want one I still have slots available so get in contact to order your own bespoke pet portrait as a Christmas present for a loved one. Just email me at to enquire, I’m happy to answer any questions you have so don’t be shy! The dog calendars also make a great gift for dog lovers!

Beagle is available to buy as a print at craft fairs and online.

My dog calendar available to buy at craft fairs and online.


Support artists and craft makers by buying handmade this Christmas

Hope to see you soon!

Watercolour pet portraits and website updates

Watercolour painting of dalmatian

Hello! I’ve been busy lately working on some water colour pet portraits. If you’re following me on instagram or facebook you might have seen some of the work I’ve been doing. This dalmatian painting is one of them. I’m planning on updating my website soon to reflect the pet portraiture work I’m now doing, so don’t be alarmed if things are looking a bit odd for a while whilst I’m doing this! If you want to get in touch I’m still available for commissions for pet portraits or illustration work so either send me an email or contact me through facebook or instagram or through this website.

If you’re not already following me on social media and you want to, here are my accounts:

instagram: heyrara
facebook: Sarah Douglas Illustration
witter: @iamsarahdouglas

Do get in touch, and feedback is welcome if you like what I’m doing! 🙂

Thank you everyone!




Botanical watercolour painting of a tulip



botanical watercolour painting of pink tulip

As promised, here is a painting I’ve completed in the botanical watercolour style I’ve been practising. I bought myself some lovely tulips so had something pretty to decorate my room with as well :-).

I think I’d like to do a painting focusing on the flower head of a tulip maybe, as that is the most interesting part and it would look good if it was bigger!

Have a lovely weekend!



Practising watercolour illustration

White cosmos watercolour illustration

I’ve been learning how to do watercolour illustration and practising a more realistic, botanical technique. These two artworks are from some lessons I did and are just tutorial images.  Creating these images has really got me into the technique and working with this medium, which is quite different from what I have done with gouache in the past. It takes quite a lot of control and very careful looking to see all the details that need to be painted but I’m really pleased with the images I’ve created. I still like my old style of painting but learning something new has been really fun and is inspiring me to develop my style into something new.
Blueberry watercolour illustration


Botanical Illustration

Inspiration comes from botanical artists and especially Anna Mason whose online lessons have helped me to get to know this kind of painting. Anna Mason’s work is very precise and shows beautifully the forms, patterns and textures of fruit, flowers and more. She has done a particularly stunning painting of an owl that I love. Rosie Sanders is another botanical artist that I love. She captures really deep colours and creates large compositions of flower heads and close ups that really celebrate the flowers she paints.


I’m hoping to continue working with watercolour now I have more of a grasp of it. There are so many techniques using this kind of paint and I’m inspired to try to mix up some of the more realistic techniques with a more loose and watery approach in some parts of the watercolour illustration. I think I’m going to need a lot of practice to loosen up now I’ve learnt this technique! It has helped me develop more patience when creating artworks, now I love spending time on my paintings and getting them to the finished standard.

I’ll be back later in the week with more artworks and watercolour illustration and details of my progression since starting to use watercolour.



I’m back!

So I’ve been away from my website and this is my first post in a long while… I’ve been up to a few different things. I created a website for local village, Gotherington which you can see at This was a little side project that I really enjoyed doing, learning some HTML and CSS and using WordPress child themes…

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 14.36.43


Anyway, I’ve tried to tweak my own website a little today and so it might not be quite right yet and soon I will be uploading new pieces into my portfolio to reflect the new direction I’m taking with my work. I’ve been practicing water colour painting and refining my skills ready to create a new series of paintings. So I’ll try and post more often now as I’m back into creating art full time and have lots of new stuff to show you, I just need to photograph it :).

See you soon!


New Art Prints for sale

I’ve been working on getting some new art prints done recently. I’ve put a couple in my etsy shop and new stuff will be coming on my website soon. The prints are giclee on Hahnemule photo rag paper and will be signed. Take a look!

Dining Room giclee print by Sarah Douglas
Dining Room giclee print by Sarah Douglas
Yellow Door giclee print by Sarah Douglas


The Wilson Art Gallery, Cheltenham

Linlin Cui - Falling. Cheltenham Illustration Awards 2014

This weekend I visited The Wilson which is Cheltenham’s museum and art gallery. Since it has been refurbished I have really enjoyed making visits to see exhibitions. It is completely different to what it used to be and has really been brought up to date. Instead of the stuffy, old, creaky rooms with only the arts and crafts and museum items on display it is now big, bright, airy and contemporary. Not only is the space so much better but the gallery is really making the most of it and putting on some great exhibitions. I have been to a few including a Photography Portrait exhibition, Glass Sculpture and they even had Rodin’s The Kiss. Coming up next year are watercolours by Turner! Not bad for the local art gallery!

Cheltenham Illustration Awards 2014

The Beekeeper, Dan Des Eynon. Cheltenham Illustration Awards 2014
The Beekeeper, Dan Des Eynon. Cheltenham Illustration Awards 2014

The gallery is currently exhibiting entries and winners from the recent Cheltenham Illustration Awards. The illustration awards have been going on for a few years now and this year they had some well known guest illustrators; Shaun Tan and Lara Hawthorne. Shaun Tan is an illustrator I looked at during my university study and it was great to see his work on display. This years theme is Being Human and the illustrations on exhibition had all tackled the brief well and from unique perspectives.

Linlin Cui - Falling. Cheltenham Illustration Awards 2014
Linlin Cui, Falling. Cheltenham Illustration Awards 2014
Ian Tiseo, Being Human. Cheltenham Illustration Awards 2014
Ian Tiseo, Being Human. Cheltenham Illustration Awards 2014

Ahead of the Curve

Ahead of the Curve is another exhibition currently on at The Wilson, which I saw this weekend. On show was a selection of contemporary china work from Chinese artists. China is something I find particularly beautiful and the striking contemporary ideas created in traditional porcelain were wonderful.

Wan Liya, Birds Twitter and Fragrance of Flowers 2010
Wan Liya, Birds Twitter and Fragrance of Flowers 2010