Composition tips for better pet portraits

Composition is something that is a part of every single photograph yet all too often we simply capture the scene as we come to it without giving thought about how best to organize the image visually.  Today I’d like to offer a few simple and practical guidelines to help you make better pet portraits.

M_Kloth_Pantera_5756One of the easiest ways to make stronger pet portraits is to get down on their level (or bring them to your level).  For the most part, our pets are considerably shorter than we are so if we point a camera at them, chances are pretty good that the floor (or ground) will play a big part of the composition.  That can be fine of course, but there are a lot of other interesting backgrounds out there to choose from too.  Mixing up your point of view will add visual diversity to your portraits.

Shooting down on your pet can make for some cute photos...

Shooting down on your pet can make for some cute photos…

But getting down on their level not on can make for a more intimate portrait, but it can make for a much more interesting background. Had I photographed Maebe from above, I would have had a dirt background instead of the colorful flowers I used for this portrait.

But getting down to their level makes for a more intimate portrait and it often offers a much more interesting background. Had I photographed Maebe from above, I would have had a dirt background instead of the colorful flowers in this portrait.

A second way to add visual diversity to your portraits is to consider your framing.  Without a doubt, there is a place for centering your pet right in the middle of the frame.  I often use this composition for headshots when my subjects are looking directly into the camera.  I find these portraits to be very engaging, but there are great reasons why you might want to move your pet around in the frame.  One obvious reason to push your subject off center might be to give a sense of the location.  If you take the time to visit someplace beautiful for your portraits, then make the beauty of the scene part of the image.

In this portrait I wanted to show a sense of the park's trees. I brought Jack Jack up off the ground so that I was lower than him and positioned in on the right side of the frame. The park isn't the main subject because it isn't in focus but by making these small changes, I embraced the location.

In this portrait, I wanted to show a sense of the park’s trees. I brought Jack-Jack up off the ground so that I was lower than him and positioned him in towards the right side of the frame. The park isn’t the main subject, but by making these small changes, I embraced the location.

Finally, consider how the negative space plays a role in the composition.  You can think of negative space as the area in a photograph that does not contain your main subject.  The simplest way to begin working with negative space is to photograph your pet against a plain background.  This might mean using a plain wall or perhaps using a shallow depth of field to blur the background – either of these setups can offer the perfect opportunity for you to play with the concept.    When you position (and pose) your pet with the negative space in mind, you add a new layer of interest to your portrait.  As an added bonus, negative space is useful if you plan to add text to your photograph.

The way that the negative space is used in conjunction with the kitten's pose introduces a conceptual element into the composition.

The way that the negative space is used in conjunction with the kitten’s pose introduces a conceptual element into the composition.

Hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought.  If there is one take-home lesson that I’d like you to consider it’s this:  experiment with your compositions.  Of course, you should take  photos from a perspective that appeals to you, but once you have that, give yourself the freedom to try new approaches to photographing your pet.

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