Capturing the Best Expression

Once the animal is ready to be photographed, it is your job to try to get the best expression you can from your subject. After photographing hundreds of animals, I am still amazed at the wide range of emotions that animals can demonstrate through their expression.

It seems that an animal's face can sometimes can be more expressive than a human's. Animals can have their mouth closed, opened wide, or opened a little bit, can squint or enlarge their eyes, can position their ears it what seems like infinite combinations (especially when they move each ear separately which is just amazing), and can move their head in a full range of motion.

Some combinations of the positions of these eye, ear, mouth, and head elements make for a much more desirable image than others. To make things really interesting for you, an animal can change any one or all of these elements from second to second! And, you really don't have much direct control over any one of these elements. You can't instruct an animal to put their ears up, or tilt their head. Instead, you must learn how to work with and try to invoke the emotions of the animal to get the best expression. This is an important distinction because if you are only accustomed to photographing human adults, you can pretty much tell them what you are looking for, a technique that obviously has no effect on animals and would be frustrating to even try. When you are photographing animals, you must rely on a bag of parlor tricks to get what you want (which oddly enough, has a lot in common with photographing children).

What Look are You After?

By combing the facial elements mentioned above, animals can look happy, sad, angry, inquisitive, sleepy, content, and just about every other emotion there is. Some animal shelter photographs display the sad, animal behind bars look which we do not recommend. We usually try for happy, inquisitive, or content looks. Our favorite look from both dogs and cats is the irresistible head tilt, ears forward, wide-eyed, inquisitive look. However, we usually have to work hard for these kinds of expressions.

Don't be Shy

Once your handler has calmed your subject, they will usually be susceptible to facial manipulation through the use of noisemakers. I have a long lanyard that I wear around my neck that has various whistles, bells, and bird calls, and any other goofy noisemaker I can find on it that I use for most animals. Noisemakers that you can use with you mouth allowing you to keep both hands on your camera work well.

It's important not to use any of your noisemakers until the animal is posed and you are watching them through your lens, ready to trip the shutter. This is because after the first few times an animal hears a noise that same noise is no longer a novelty and is therefore not effective in getting the animal's attention any longer. Basically, the more variety you have the better.

If the noisemakers don't work, you might to resort to yelling, waving, snapping your fingers, or various other vaudevillian moves to get the animal's attention. This isn't a time for you to be shy, do whatever you have to do to get the image you want! After a while you will learn what works well for you and it will become pretty easy for you to coax the right expressions from your subject.

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