Pet Portraits from Photographs - Tips and Hints!

What makes a good photo for a pet portrait for a dog, cat horse or other animal?

The two photos below are of a dog called Molly. She visited our art studio to have her photo taken for a pet portrait. I took around 50 photos of Molly that morning, making sure the camera focused on her each time she moved. That number of photos may seen extreme, however, the more you take, the more choice you will have. I was kneeling down on her level, outside on a clear day so the lighting was good. Nicholas was behind me holding a treat to keep Molly's focus while I snapped away and we took some beautiful photos. The photo below of Molly is a perfect photo for us to work from and would make a perfect head and shoulders portrait.

Good head study photo for a pet portrait

The photo below of Molly is an excellent pose for a full body portrait. This would require some form of background in oils or the inclusion of some grass if it was in pencil.

Good full body photo for a pet portrait

Focusing on your Subject

We know that pets move when we take photos, they just will! So some of your photos will naturally be out of focus when either you move or your pet moves. This is why we encourage our clients to take plenty of photos so you can delete any, just like the photo of Gus below left. I took photos of him when he visited the studio and he was very good, he sat extremely well. In fact Gus was the perfect model!

looking straight at your pet on their level opposed to looking down at them when taking a photo.

Using Natural Light

The photo of Bailey below is the perfect pose and has been taken in the perfect lighting setting. Natural light is imperative. This is especially important if you are using a phone as their lenses need extra light to keep the photos in focus.

Cat Photography Tips

If you have to take photos of your pets indoors, find a light room or by a window on a sunny day. Make sure the sun is on their face as opposed to coming from behind their head. This can shade their face and make their fur colour darker than you would naturally see it. The two photos of Blue the Beagle below were taken by our client Ben for a pencil drawing. The photo on the left was taken when Blue was in shade. The phone had a lot of trouble focusing which resulted in a fairly dark and grainy, undefined image. Ben took more photos of Blue in much brighter conditions and the photo came out clear and in focus. Phone lenses need a lot of light to focus. So let light be your friend.... take your pet and sit them next to a window!

Pet Portraits from Photographs

Take Photos of Your Horse Outside

The same goes for horses. The ideal is to take your horse outside into a yard or field for the photo shoot. Comparing the photos below, the stables are fairly dark and the camera used flash to help add light into the scene. Comparing the same horse on the right where the photo was taken outside, you really get to see the true colour of the coat. We actually painted Inca in all her finery and you can find the painting in our horse gallery.

Horse Photography Tips

As mentioned above with the photo of Bailey, the direction of the light is also an important factor when taking photos. Make sure that the light source is behind you, so it's bathing the subject in light. The photos of Whiskey below were taken on two separate days. In the photo on the right, the sun is shining over the photographers right shoulder bathing the horse in warm sunlight and creating lovely deep shadows. Perfect for a painting. In the photo on the right its a much duller day and the sun is behind the horse, so the overall feel of the coat is quite dull. Try to adhere to this advice when photographing all animals.

Horse Photography Tips

Get Up Close

If you are looking at having a head and chest study, try to fill the frame with your pets head and shoulders. In the photo of Baily below, you can see the photo was taken full body from fairly far away. Great for a full body portrait, but you will gain much more information and detail in the photo if you walk towards your subject slightly, or zoom in if your camera allows without degradation of the quality of the photo.

Cat Photography Tips

Similarly if you would like to commission a horse portrait, the ideal is to fill the viewfinder with the horses head. We aren't for example, able to paint a head study from the full body photo below left. When zooming into the photo there is not enough information within the photo to work with. However if you step forward a few paces you can quite easily get a photo similar to the example below right. You can clearly see both photos were taken on the same day, at the same time. However there is far more information within the photo on the right to work from.

Horse Photography Tips

Get On Your Cat or Dogs Eye Level

Although the photo below is extremely cute and we looking down at our pets quite often. However the inclusion of their chest in the photo allows us to create a head and chest portrait, rather then just a disembodied head.

Cat Photography Tips

Getting down on your pets eye level is best when taking photos for a pet portrait. To take photos at the correct level, you can crouch or sit down on the ground - or if your pet is able, place them on a table or other stable surface to take photos. I took two photos of our dog Lily below, one looking down on her and the second on a garden seat. Understandably she is a Tibetan Terrier and it is rare that you actually see her eyes because of all of her fur...! However by putting your pet up higher like Lily is below, you have a better vantage point with which to take photos and you can vary your level and angle much more easily.

Take photos outside or in good lighting to avoid using flash.

Tack - or no Tack

It is extremely difficult for us to remove tack or a head collar when working from a photo, as it means 'imagining what is underneath' and in effect making these areas up. So we do prefer to paint or draw the photo exactly how you have taken them. Winter rugs and coats can also cause a problem as it is also very difficult for us to make up what's underneath. If you can take off the head collar, as in the photos of Comet below, it really does help us in the long run.

Remember we cant always take out the tack when drawing or painting if you have photos of your horse wearing tack

The two photos of Elly below are excellent for a portrait, however the photo on the left is perfect for a portrait if clients done want collars or tack. Many owners like to see their horse more naturally without any reins, rugs, coats, tack etc. Other clients prefer to have their horses painted in their full finery. The choice is yours, however make sure you take photos exactly how you would like to see you horse in the artwork.

Horse Photography Tips

Case Study - Boo and her Pet Portrait

Boo is our very special model who is helping us with our case study. Here we helped our client take the perfect photos for Boo's portrait. When Sienna emailed us her photos, our first suggestions was to Take Photos Outside. Phones tend to struggle in low light and you can easily end up with grainy and shaky, slightly blurry photos. The photos of Boo below show how, with two very similar photos, the photo taken outside has given a much sharper result.

Dog Photography Tips

Getting on Boo's Level!

If you have a small dog like Boo, you can place them on a table or as Sienna did, on a step on a patio, so they are more level with you. Alternatively crouch down on the floor take photos. In both instances it is useful to have someone to help you when taking photos so that you can keep their attention while the other person takes photos.

Dog Photography Tips

Avoid Pinch and Zoom!

Try to avoid zooming in on your phone, instead taking a step closer to Boo allows us to fill the frame. Using the pinch and zoom feature can reduce the quality of the photo. A zoom on some phones uses a 'digital zoom', the further you zoom in, sadly the less detail and pixels there are in the photo. Modern phones have much better quality of zoom these days, so just make sure your device doesn't degrade the quality of your photos.

Fill the Frame with Boo!

Also try to fill the frame with your dog just like the photo of Boo. The more detail in the photo, the more we can paint or draw!

Take Lots of Photos of Boo!

Another good tip is take as many photos as you can - you can always delete them. It means you can pick your favorite photo for a pet portrait.

Email Photos 'Actual Size'

Dog Photography Tips

Clients send us photos of their pets on a weekly basis and we are used to seeing an array of varying quality photos.

We always try to encourage clients to send photos at their 'actual size' as this way we are able to see the full resolution photo.

When we are drawing or painting dogs, we zoom in to the photo to see the detail in the dog - ie eyes, nose, coat, tags etc and by allowing us to see the full resolution image, we can invariably add more detail into the portrait.

Avoid Sending Screen Shots

Dog Photography Tips

Taking screenshots of photos to send via email seems to be a very popular way of sharing photos, however this really degrades the quality of the image. The image shown is a screenshot and we know this is the case due to the black areas top and bottom. You can see the image should be a really good quality however it is low quality.

Phones can take such incredibly high resolution photos, they can be sharp, full focus and thoroughly detailed. When you pinch and zoom and look at the photo most of the time you can see the amazing detail in the image.

However, by taking a screenshot, it is reducing the quality of the image - to the phones screen resolution. We try to encourage clients to avoid sending screenshots and instead, find the photo in your photos app. You can then send individual or multiple photos via email without reducing their size or quality. If clients need any help or guidance, just drop us a line.

The Perfect Photo of Boo

The photo below is pretty much perfect for Boo. We can see the fur clearly, the photo is in focus, close in the frame and it doesn't cut any of Boo out of the frame, we can see her paws and tops of her ears. It was the perfect photo to paint from.

dog photography tips

Here is the oil paining of Boo, you can see that she looks beautiful and it was well worth all of the effort to take good photos for the painting.

dog photography tips

And Finally....Take Your Time

Extending the photo shoot over the day, weekend or weeks can really help get the perfect pose. We all keep our phones handy, so take some snaps as and when you can when your pet is in the right mood. You may find that there will be a moment in the day where your pet is in the ideal position and you will be able to take the perfect photo.

Horse Photography Tips


Melanie and Nicholas,
Cheyenne arrived today safe and sound!!!! We cannot believe that it got here so quickly – it seems that from Wales is quicker than if I send something to another state. She looks amazing, we are so very happy with the painting and the frame. Your packaging was also amazing. We will definitely send you a photo and a note when we return from Florida but I just wanted to let you know that she arrived. Thank you so very much again,
Best Wishes,
Miriam and Dan


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