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If you want to be successful at photographing animals, two things are necessary (besides a good camera!). The first is luck. The second is patience. While the element of opportunity is more prevalent with animals that are conveniently in confinement (i.e., backyards and zoos), the same techniques apply to capturing their best sides on film. It also requires a sense of humor in appreciating that animals—just like young children—have the uncanny ability of stopping whatever cute or magnificent thing they were doing just as soon as you start to focus…and resuming it the very second that you put the camera away!

OUTDOOR vs INDOOR

As a general rule, outdoor photographs of your tame tabby or that fierce jungle beast will almost always come out better in natural light. Even one of the many varieties of throwaway vacation cameras can do an adequate job if you happen to be in the right place at the right time. Obviously with a more expensive piece of equipment and a telephoto lens, your chances significantly increase, affording you the advantage of stealth! Outdoor photography also eliminates the need for a flash and the subsequent risk of “red-eye,” which has a tendency to make an animal of even the sweetest disposition suddenly look like a radioactive alien! (Anyone with a Siamese cat or an agate-eyed Sheltie can attest to this disturbing phenomenon!) Another important factor to consider is that the short burst of light that we as humans take for granted can startle your unsuspecting subject, compelling him or her to run away every time you attempt to take a picture. Particularly with your own beloved pets, establishing trust is crucial if you plan to fill the family album with a photo chronology of how they’ve grown.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

When photographing animals at a zoo, outdoor nature museum, or wild animal compound, the time of day—and even the time of year—can make a big difference in how accessible the animals are going to be. First thing in the morning or very late in the afternoon in the fall or spring are usually the best opportunities for photo shoots, given that families with squealing young children tend to visit these places most heavily between the hours of 10 and 3. Let’s face it, pint-sized bundles of unpredictable energy represent a major source of irritation to beasts who are not residents of the facility by choice. Between the noise level and the frenetic movement, who can blame the lions, tigers and bears for crawling back into their caves until the din dies down? Nor is it a good time to try to photograph them right after they have eaten; with tummies full, they are likely to prefer an afternoon siesta to preening themselves for a bunch of silly tourists. Pregnant critters are also difficult to lure in front of the lens, perhaps sharing the human vanity that the camera will make them look even fatter. Just wait until after they’ve given birth, though! Not only are baby animals a joy to take pictures of, but it’s the one time their proud parents seem amenable to showing them off to the world.

SNEAK ATTACK

Let’s say you just brought home two adorable puppies. It’s a given that throughout most of the waking hours of their formative years, they will be doing something worthy of Kodak. The trouble is, the moment you go off to the next room to get the camera, one or both will immediately follow at your ankles to see where you’re going. You coax them back to their pile of squeaky toys and try to engage them in whatever behavior that was so priceless. No way! The puppies are infinitely more interested in seeing what that thing is that you have in your hands and keep pointing at them. The result? A lot of smudged images of puppy nostrils on your camera lens or the blur of fuzzy bodies as they scoot out of range. The key to photographing household pets—particularly young ones—is not to let them know you have the camera or that you are even interested in what they’re doing. This means that the camera needs to be physically on your person, fully loaded, and ready to go. Even a noise as slight as removing a lens cap or hitting the automatic focus button will instantly distract them. Nature walks, too, call for even more preparedness on your part if you want to get those “lucky” shots. Unlike puppies and kittens, you can’t just pick up raccoons or elk and plop them back down on the forest path to accommodate your timing.

THE BRIBE

With household pets, there are two pretty dependable ways to get them to “pose.” The first is with food. Holding a favorite treat in their line of sight is often effective, as is that age-old method of making funny sounds to trick them into cocking their heads and looking quizzical. Unless you have an especially long repertoire of funny sounds, however, food as an option has greater longevity; the older your pet, the more likely he or she has heard all your best noises and, by now, is pretty nonplussed with every one of them. The second strategy is to use an accomplice whose role is to distract the animal while Sneaky You gets to operate the camera. Young children are good at this role. What the dog or cat perceives as play-time is, in fact, a creative photo op. Even better—and if you can afford it—are the video cams that enable you to freeze-frame and print only the best pictures. If you have a highly active pet (or, for that matter, highly active kidlets) this may be the only way to capture their antics for posterity.

A FINAL WORD

Who’d have thought your darling calico, ‘Princess,’ was part unicorn? At least that’s what it looks like with the pussywillow seemingly growing out the top of her head. Too often in our zeal to get the best shot of an animal, we discount what’s in the background. While this can have amusing results, it can also be devastating if it was a once in a lifetime opportunity (i.e., a Kenya safari). The good news, though, is that—for a price—nothing is so bad that it can’t be air-brushed out. Likewise, the practice of selectively cropping and enlarging favorite animal photographs for framing can yield lasting mementos that might otherwise have ended up in a drawer as less than picture-perfect.