The number one problem with many photos is that they are slightly out of focus... and this problem worsens the larger the photo is blown-up. Of course, what needs to be in focus is the main subject, particularly its most important features -- in the case of persons or animals, the face area. A photo of a dog standing in front of a wall of ivy, in which the ivy is in perfect focus but the dog is slightly out of focus, probably should not be submitted for anyone's approval.
Number two problem is that most photos are too dark; then a good chunk of the rest are overexposed; the remaining fraction represent "good enough" lighting to "sensational" lighting. Very often a generally well-lit photo has just one little flaw -- it is too dark in the worst possible place... this being the subject's face and eyes. If the face and eyes disappear into shadow, the viewer's interest is usually not held by the photo. Try to position your subject so that the light source shines directly into their eyes. If the source is too strong for this, try to get the subject to look askew while the light source is still beaming toward its face. A flash, of course, can often help, though they can also create their own problems... but it is usually far better to be slightly over-exposed than under-exposed in the face area.
Number three problem is distracting, disturbing, clunky, clumsy backgrounds... this being a flaw that wallops many a photo that would otherwise have been good. Backgrounds should be very non-intrusive but also "contrasty" with the main subject. Solid color backgrounds are often the best, though it is critical that the background be a color and texture that the subject will not blend into. The idea is to showcase the subject, not camouflage it. A green parrot in front of a green plant, for instance, probably won't cut it. Diffused or out-of-focus backgrounds are often good, and sometimes very "arty". Backgrounds such as a swath of leaves or the sky or a fence or wall usually look good -- in or out of focus.
Some pets are just harder to photograph than others. Dark-colored pets can be a challenge. All-white animals can also be tough. Medium to light shades are often the easiest to capture nicely on film, thus the volume of great shots of pets such as Golden Retrievers. Small animals are usually harder to photograph than larger pets. In getting close to shoot, say, a mouse, focus becomes critical and tougher to control.
Your camera equipment can be part of the solution, or part of the problem. Instamatic-type cameras are designed to shoot wide-angle photos... nice for landscapes, often not so great for portraits. More sophisticated 35-mm cameras with 50-mm or larger lenses give you much more control over your shots, yet it you are not familiar with the workings of the camera you may be better off with an Instamatic.
When and where you are shooting also can have a huge impact on your pictures. Indoors is rarely optimal, unless you have a good flash system and know how to use it. Shooting in a dimly-lit room without a flash is usually a complete waste of time and film. Outdoors is the place for most pet photography, but try to avoid occasions that are too sunny. Professional photographers love to shoot in the early morning and late afternoon because the light is often quite dramatic and never too harsh. Except on overcast days, early afternoon can be the worst time to shoot because the strong sunlight washes out detail and colors and throws shadows everywhere.
Practice (and patience) can make perfect... or at least a lot better. When photographing your pet, take it seriously. Devote some time and an entire roll of film, or two or three rolls, to get that great shot of your pet. Keep in mind that even professional photographers shoot many rolls of film seeking just a few good images. Isn't your pet worth the expense of a few rolls of film to get one great shot?
Keep working at it, and you'll be amazed at what you are capable of doing with a camera. That portrait of a lifetime is waiting to be snapped. Not only do you have the good taste and ability to snap it, you have one other sensational asset going for you... the best subject in the world to work with.
The photo below taken by Helen Redlus of her golden Mozart is an excellent shot, taken in low light with a flash. That old Golden Retriever magic comes through again. See if you can get something like this portrait of your pet... in daylight or using a flash. You can see more of Mozart at Golden Retrievers in Cyberspace.
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