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How to Photograph Pets and Wildlife

Written by Jenn Gidman. Images by Alex Cearns. Brought to you by Tamron and Looking Glass.

There’s nothing predictable about photographing animals, so Australian photographer Alex Cearns is always ready for the unexpected when taking pictures of pets and wildlife. “They sometimes react in unexpected ways to a movement or action, which triggers a response,” she says. “Animals have done their business on me, chewed on me, jumped on me, scratched me, knocked over lights, and wrecked props. Some animals like to push the boundaries, others are just overly exuberant. Safety is always my first priority, and for the things that go astray, I simply laugh, dust myself off, and get back to it. To be honest, each incident makes for a great story.”

Alex taps into the Tamron SP 24-70mm VC and SP 70-200mm VC lenses for her pet photos. For her studio animal portraiture, she goes straight for the 24-70mm. “I also use this lens for natural-light wildlife photography when I want to bring the environment into my image,” she says, citing its fast focusing ability, crisp colors, and moisture-resistant construction. For most of her wildlife photos, Alex uses the 70-200, namely for its speed, ease of use, light weight, and the bokeh it offers when she’s shooting at F/2.8, her preferred depth-of-field.

Alex generally shoots handheld and rarely uses a tripod, which means the Vibration Compensation (VC) feature on both of these lenses is always on. “I mostly use studio lighting for indoor shoots, and natural light outside (and I always use my lens hood outside),” she notes.

Read on to see how Alex photographed her furry and feathered friends, as well as for tips for your own animal sessions.
Lucky the elephant is a resident of the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center in Cambodia. She’s been in care since she was young, so she’s used to human contact. I love to zoom in close and crop my subject “in camera,” showing little environment and filling the frame with their faces. This works well with large animals when you want to remove the background.

Lucky was standing in a jungle area, filled with branches and leaves. My first aim in taking her portrait was to go for an uncluttered shot. By zooming in with the 70-200, I was able to eliminate all of the distractions around her. Had Lucky not been so accustomed to people, using a zoom would have been handy to avoid any unsafe interactions, providing me with enough distance from her, yet allowing me to zoom in and capture the image I wanted.

My second aim was to emphasize Lucky’s eye. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and it’s no different for animals. Elephants are old souls, and they express a lot of emotion and character through their eyes. I also wanted to be creative and go for something off-center.

© Alex Cearns using the Tamron 70-200mm (145mm), F/4, ISO 400, 1/640th sec.
Images tell stories, and by planning the story I want to tell through my photos, I’m more likely to capture everything I need. I think about what I want to shoot and why that angle or scene might be interesting. Do I want to do a close-up? Full body shot? Have lots of background in the picture? These are all things to consider and experiment with. Taking the time to plan your shoot and the images you see in your mind’s eye is useful. I often jot down the poses and expressions I’m keen on capturing, and I keep shooting until I check them off my list.

Learning to be patient is a crucial factor when taking portraits of wildlife. You don’t have any control over where they’ll go, how they’ll look, or what they’ll do. This majestic tiger was captive but wild, rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in Cambodia. He lives in a large fenced compound filled with native vegetation. The compound has a small 3-by-2-foot wire window on one of the side fences, which is used as an access window for photography and filming.

Curious by my presence, the tiger walked toward the window, stopping about 45 feet away. I wanted to fill my frame with his face, but every time he looked straight ahead, he was surrounded by distracting vegetation in the background and a patch of dappled light, which wasn’t giving me the result I wanted. Noticing the pattern of stripes on his side, I waited until something piqued his interest and he turned his head to his left. This gave me a frame filled with his face and body only.

© Alex Cearns using the Tamron 70-200mm (170mm), F/5.6, ISO 250, 1/125th sec.
These adorable greyhounds, Ray and Gretel, were photographed for a client in my studio. The background is a black curtain hanging on a rail, and I had two lights positioned at the front, slightly off-center. The dogs are lying on a soft square ottoman, which just fits two pooches of their size.

Most dogs are won over by either toys, treats, or both. Once I decide which motivator my subject will respond to the best, I use that to get their attention. Greyhounds by nature generally relax quickly in new environments and are pretty happy to lie down and be horizontal as soon as they can. Ray and Gretel jumped up on the ottoman for me and sat down; then I showed them a treat and slowly pulled it away from their faces, in the direction I wanted them each to lie. They complied and I was able to capture a chilled-out shot with an out-of-the-box pose, showing their true character.

© Alex Cearns using the Tamron 24-70mm (31mm), F/13, ISO 100, 1/200th sec.
Before every dog photo session, I ask owners if their pooch does any tricks. Then I warm the dog up by asking it to do the trick for me a few times. Once they realize that if they do the trick, I reward them with a treat, I start taking shots and try to capture them in action.

Some dogs will raise their left front paw, which often crosses over their face as they lift it up. I have to time the image right to make sure I don’t catch the moment their face is blocked. If they raise their right paw, it’s easier for me to take a clear shot, featuring both their paw and face, so I often work toward this. Some dogs get bored pretty quickly and will only raise their paw once or twice once I have my camera in my hand. I have to make sure I’m ready from the get-go for those.

This sweet Rottweiler was still a puppy and loved performing for treats. My favorite type of paw shot is where you can see the whole pad underneath, with the leg held up high. He delivered!

© Alex Cearns using the Tamron 24-70mm (24mm), F/13, ISO 100, 1/200th sec.
You can often relay a story without having to show the entire scene. This photo was also captured at the Phnom Tamao center, where wild macaques jump the fence to get in. They know they’re safe from hunting inside the confines of the sanctuary.

This baby macaque was sitting with her mother on the top of a fence. The mother was holding her close and had wrapped her up with both arms. I approached slowly but was able to stop at a safe distance as I was using my 70-200. Mother macaques are very protective of their offspring, and I didn’t want to get too close to them for fear of alarming them.

The baby was quite curious and began reaching her hand out toward me—it made for a great shot, but her mother was looking around and wasn’t facing me. It made the scene look disjointed because their heads were facing in different directions. So I zoomed in and cropped the mother out, still leaving her hugging arms in the frame and the baby fully featured, reaching out.

© Alex Cearns using the Tamron 70-200mm (200mm), F/2.8, ISO 640, 1/400th sec.
The simple key to relaxed pet photos is to create an environment where your subject is relaxed and happy. Making sure your subject feels safe and at ease is the key to capturing that perfect split-second moment. The easiest way to work with pets is to first make friends with them. I always maintain a calm, even energy, speak in a soft voice, and move in a slow and deliberate manner, which helps my subject to relax quicker.

When Cosmo came in for photos, he was a bundle of fluffy puppy—he was very happy to be the center of attention. I sat him up on the studio ottoman with his body positioned slightly parallel to me, then waved a treat in front of his face to draw his head toward me. I shot several images in this pose: mouth closed, mouth open, tongue out, tongue in. This one was my favorite, as it looks like a cheeky smile, with an almost human connotation to it.

© Alex Cearns using the Tamron 24-70mm (50mm), F/13, ISO 200, 1/200th sec.
I think Australia has some of the most adorable and unique native animals, and so when I was photographing Luwanna the koala, a resident of Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary in Hobart, Tasmania, I wanted to photograph her in a studio setting to eliminate any distractions. I set up a makeshift studio in the sanctuary owners’ attic, consisting of a white paper roll, one light positioned at the rear right, and one light at the front left. I was sitting on the floor and shooting from the front. If you don’t have a studio backdrop to use yourself for a photo like this, you can isolate your subject against a blue sky, green grass, or even a textured wall.

We arranged for a branch on a stand to be positioned in the center of the backdrop. Luwanna was carried in by a handler and placed onto the branch. Studio lights don’t tend to have any impact on native animals, so Luwanna wasn’t fazed by the flash. However, she wanted to visit me, so she kept climbing off the branch onto the ground and walking over to me, then putting her paws on my knees and looking right into my face. The first time this happened, I burst into tears—she was just so beautiful. Once I composed myself, we encouraged her to climb back onto the branch and waited until she was settled. When I saw her drop a paw forward to reach for me, I knew that was the shot.

© Alex Cearns using the Tamron 24-70mm (24mm), F/13, ISO 100, 1/200th sec.

To see more of Alex Cearns’ work, go to


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