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.

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