October 06, 2019

10 Practical Tips For Taking Animal Photos

By Michael Davis

(Especially when commissioning me to paint Some Ink Nice for you)

The majority of paintings I do are based on photos that I've taken myself. 

This here list is a collection of the things I look for when going through my own pictures, to assess which ones are suitable and which would make the best paintings.

Because as a general rule -

The better the reference photo, the better the painting.

Some are specific to the way I work.

Some might seem obvious (but they're easy to overlook, especially when you only see them on a tiny phone screen or camera viewfinder).

And some you might find handy, for any art, design & photography situation.


1 - Focus

Yes, the obvious one.

But the most important.

And surprisingly easy to think you've got it spot on, until you see the image on a large screen.

Whole thing in focus, please.  If not possible, then the face is the priority.


2 - Angle

Ideally, a photo taken at the same height as your lovely pet works best, I find.

Not looking down on them at your feet.

Not looking up at them as they peer down at you from the top of the door.



3 - Shape

Simple shapes are more pleasing to the eye.

So flailing arms, legs, tails, wings and all sorts of other details are best tucked in.

You also want to make best use of the space on an A4 / A3 sheet of paper.  So long, thin details, or animals lying down, are tricky to frame.


4 - Resolution

The more detail that's visible, the better I can recreate the texture.

Sometimes getting closer to the creature in question simply isn't possible.

Cropping & zooming in might be fine, but check there's the information there in the image to be able to see them clearly.



5 - Lighting

Natural light best, well exposed.  Remember, the more visible the detail, the better. 

Also be careful with direct sunlight.  A bit of contrast is good, but heavy shadows can cause havoc.



6 - The 'Whole Thing' Trap

Particularly with larger animals, you might feel an uncontrollable urge to fit the whole creature into the photo.

Which often ends up with a nice, familiar shape.  But it ends up being so small that there's no detail, and so no personality to it.

Focusing in on a detail (specifically, the face), and not worrying about the rest, is often a much better move.

Everyone knows the giraffe has long legs, you don't need to show them to prove it's a giraffe.  Likewise a dog's tail.

I get the same urge to 'capture it all' when taking pictures.  You don't want to feel you might miss something out.

The way round it?

Take a photo of the whole thing first.  Done.  You don't need to use it, but you've got it.  You can relax.  Then zoom in and take some more interesting, 'detail shots'.



7 - Colour

Much like shape, simplicity is more appealing to the eye.

Fewer colours work better, they're less chaotic.

For example, the bird below is stunning in real life.  But when I painted it, the colours all clashed a bit too much.

It's like adding too many conflicting flavours to a good stew.  If they don't complement each other, the whole thing ends up tasting of nothing at all.

Also, no filters please.  It really helps to know what colour the animal 'should' be first, and tweak it to enhance something afterwards.



8 - Faces

To me, the best paintings are the ones that convey a sense of character.  Otherwise they can feel cold, like the 100% accurate, clinical illustrations of a medical textbook.

You want the face to be interesting, with a bit of contrast. 

So either straight-on, looking at the camera (unless they have eyes either side of their head, which 'disappear' when looking straight on).

Or turned slightly to the side, to create a bit of shape & shadow.



9 - Eyes

Similar to the last one, visible is best.  Nice and bright and open. 

This is where you want the focus of the image to be.



10 - Multiple Animals

Going back to simplicity and shape, if you really, really want there to be more than one animal in the image, then one last tip.

Unless you're adamant that you want a painting highlighting how your two dogs don't like each other (hey, this is the internet, anything is possible) - have them 'together' in the photo.

Aside from the Simple Shape thing to make it more appealing, it also gives a feeling of connectedness, of warmth.

If you don't have a photo like this, let me know, I can photoshop two together and match the lighting before painting it.

(Within reason, obviously.

'I want a painting of my two dogs, but I only have this photo of Maureen down a disused tin mine and this photo of Buster leaping from the 1st floor of a burning office block in the midday sun.  Can you merge them?'

This kind of thing will incur an extra fee.  On principle.)



Interested in your own painting?

See the FAQ page, then the contact page and / or send me an email at hello@someinknice.com.

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