How to shoot successful pet portraits this Christmas

Discover how to take gorgeous photos of your pets this Christmas with these simple tips, tricks and camera techniques.
Canon Camera

Pets can be so wonderfully cute – many of us will often find ourselves reaching for the camera to capture their crazy antics, funny expressions and quirky habits. But Christmas is the perfect time to try to capture a portrait of your favourite pet. A picture of your cat, dog or hamster posing in festive gear would make a fun image for a home-printed card, or could be framed to create a bespoke gift.

The challenge is that most animals are completely uninterested in having their photo taken. In fact, some creatures will do everything within their power to frustrate and outwit you. So, you'll need a few tricks up your sleeve to grab their attention. A combination of camera skills, posing tricks and a pocketful of treats should give you the edge in this battle of wills.

1. Style the scene

A man in a mustard jumper decorating a Christmas tree.

A Christmas tree makes a bold, bright background for your festive pet photos, especially when thrown out of focus.

A ginger tabby cat peeking out under a red and white Christmas hat.

Props, hats and scarves can provide a splash of colour, add to the character of the shot and – in this case – give the photo a fun, festive feel.

A Christmas tree makes for an attractive backdrop for your Christmas pet portraits. It gives you both bold colours and bright highlights. Props such as Santa hats and scarves can look great too, as long as your pet is amenable to wearing them. Ideally choose a room with large windows for your shoot. Natural light is ideal for pet portraiture as it's soft and gently fills in the shadows, while using a flash may spook your animal. Position your pet facing the window, with the Christmas tree and lights behind them.

2. Pose your pet

A woman waves a toy to distract a ginger tabby cat which is being photographed in a room decorated for Christmas.

It helps to have an assistant who can hold a toy or stand behind you to attract the animal's gaze while you shoot.

A man in a mustard jumper holds a cat food bowl above his Canon EOS 850D.

Bring a favourite toy, food bowl or anything else that is likely to attract the animal's attention. Gently tapping the bowl on the top of the lens worked for us here.

Dogs tend to be a bit easier to pose than cats, as it doesn't take as much to get them interested. A quick whistle, a cry of 'where's the cat' or any funny noise will usually get their attention. All animals have their own individual characters, but it's fair to say that cats are usually less eager to please. Patience is key, and you may need to wait a while for the cat to relax. Try getting them settled in one position, such as a comfy chair or a stool (you could even bring their pet bed). Keep a favourite toy or food bowl to hand, and gently tap it above the lens to grab the cat's attention. If they won't do what you want then be prepared to change your approach – after all, if being aloof is part of their character then why not capture this in the photograph?

A ginger tabby cat in a Santa hat resting its head on the floor.

It helps if you can get your pet settled in one position. If they're not willing to co-operate, adapt your plans to suit their mood.

3. Set your exposure

The settings screen on a Canon EOS 850D.

If you think your pet will stay fairly still, a shutter speed of about 1/200 second is ideal. We also recommend selecting a wide aperture and setting ISO to Auto.

The high speed continuous shooting setting on a Canon EOS 850D.

High speed continuous shooting means you can fire off several quick frames at once – seven frames per second with the EOS 850D – which improves your chances of capturing those adorable but fleeting pet expressions.

Choose an exposure setting that you can set and forget, as it will free you to concentrate on the posing and framing. The simplest way to do this is to set your camera to manual exposure mode (M).

Your shutter speed needs to stay fast enough to capture the action. Around 1/200 sec is ideal if the animals are fairly still, but you'll need to go faster if they're moving around a lot. We also recommend a wide aperture (f/5.6 here), as this will separate the subject from the background and create lovely bokeh.

Setting ISO to Auto means it will adapt to the conditions – in a bright room with plenty of window light, the ISO should hover around 800-1600. At these ranges, a camera that performs well in low light, such as the Canon EOS 850D, will allow you to capture relatively noise-free shots. If – like the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM we're using here – your lens has stabilisation, then it's best to switch this on too.

4. Focus

AF points over the face of a ginger tabby cat in Live View mode on a Canon EOS 850D.

Live View can be useful when focusing – tap the screen to position your focus points over the eye that is closest to you.

Focusing can be one of the biggest challenges in pet portraiture, as you need to focus precisely on the eyes of a creature that might move its head at any moment, or scamper off.

As such, it's inevitable that not every shot will be sharp, but if you have a camera that reacts instantly to the subject's movement then you can improve your chances. Set your Canon's focus mode to AI Servo. This means the camera will track the movement of the subject and adapt the focus to lock on to their shifting positions. Precise focusing is crucial when shooting close-ups, so it may not be enough to simply lock on to the face. Instead, try switching to a single focus point, then aim this over the eye that is closest to the camera.

5. Enhance background bokeh

A Golden Labrador about a metre in front of a Christmas tree.

The dog is positioned only about a metre from the tree and the background looks rather cluttered.

A Golden Labrador positioned further away from a Christmas tree, so the tree lights are blurred.

Moving the dog further away from the tree creates stronger bokeh and a more attractive backdrop.

It's usually best to use a wide aperture for your pet portraits as this means your shots will have a shallow depth of field, and the background will be thrown out of focus. For festive shots like this the wide aperture has another benefit – the out-of-focus Christmas tree lights are transformed into beautiful spots of bokeh. The bokeh will be stronger if you can put some distance between the subject and the tree, so move the pet as far from the tree as you can. Using a longer focal length can also enhance the blur, so try stepping back and zooming in with your lens.

6. Add foreground bokeh

A portrait of a ginger tabby cat surrounded by blurred fairy lights.

We can add blurred foreground bokeh to our pet portraits by holding up a set of lights next to the lens and shooting through a gap in the wires.

A photographer dangles a string of fairy lights in front of the camera while shooting a cat on an armchair.

Fairy lights or other shiny objects out of focus in the foreground as well as the background can add a greater sense of depth to your photos.

As well as throwing the background out of focus, you could also add some bokeh in the foreground. Try holding Christmas lights in front of the lens, and find a gap to shoot through. At the right angle, this can result in beautiful out-of-focus highlights that surround your subject and add an extra element of depth to the scene.

7. Get down low

A man lies on the floor of a living room to photograph a ginger tabby cat walking in front of a sofa.

Getting down on the ground to shoot places the subject and viewer at the same level.

A ginger tabby cat photographed at eye level.

Being at the same level as your subject means your image is likely to have more impact.

Whether you're shooting portraits of your pets or your pals, capturing your subject at eye level helps to create a connection, as it places the viewer on the same level. Of course, with pet portraits this may mean crawling around on the floor in order to get low enough, but it can better show the pet's point of view.

You're bound to have lots of fun trying to capture that perfect shot – even if your pet isn't always willing to cooperate. Whether you're attempting an animal portrait at Christmas or any other time of the year, it's a great opportunity to practise your technique and enhance your photography skills.

Written by James Paterson

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