Taking Photos for Pet Portraits – Artist Tips with Examples

If you’ve stumbled across this page then you are probably considering commissioning a hand-painted portrait of your pet.

Whether you would like me to work on this painting, or if you have a different artist in mind, it is likely you will be asked to provide your own photos of your pet for the portrait to be based upon.

It is often the case that the better the reference photo the better the finished portrait. So it’s important to take the best photos you can.

I understand that some will be in a position where their pet has sadly passed away. Taking photos specifically for a portrait will not be an option.

In this case it is worth looking through any photos you already have to find your favourite. Perhaps family and friends may have some too.

In this situation I always encourage the client to send as many photos as possible. This way I can potentially piece together the best parts of several photos to acheive the right likeness.

I am often sent less-than-perfect reference photos to work from and that’s okay. That’s where a bit of artistic license comes in useful!

If you have any concerns about your images, I am sure your chosen artist will be happy to answer and give their professional opinion on the best way to proceed for great results.

If you’re based quite a distance from your chosen artist it is unlikely they will be able to meet your pet in person. It’s your job to make sure the photos capture your pet accurately.

It is surprising just how much the lighting and angle can make on how your pet looks, and therefore how they are painted by the artist.

The Quick Answer

To take good photos of your pet for artist reference make sure you are in a well lit area, and take the photo at the pet’s eye level. Make sure your pet is relaxed by finding a place with no distractions. Or use a toy to direct their attention. Having a small pet in a sitting position is also helpful.


Here’s a breakdown of the key factors that can help you take the best photos of your pet:

  • Equipment
  • Atmosphere
  • Lighting
  • Angle
  • Background


When you come to take photos of your pet, make sure you use the best quality camera you have access to. This could be a digital camera, or a good quality smartphone camera will work well too.

An artist will not need professional quality images to work from, but the photos will need to be clear and show your pet’s key features in detail.

To get an idea of whether your photo is good enough, try zooming in on the eye details. The colours and reflections of the eye will need to be visible if you’d like the artist to include these details in your artwork.

In the below photo I have taken a full headshot and cropped to just include the eyes, this photo would be ideal to use as it still shows an excellent level of detail up close.

The way you choose to send your photos to the artist will also have a bearing on the image quality. Often photos sent via social media will be compressed, so will appear smaller and less detailed than they do originally on your device.

I always advise my clients to send reference photos via email to preserve the image quality.


When trying to capture your pet at their best, you’ll want them to feel at ease, but not bored! Taking photos in a quiet place will help with this, but it often pays to have a helper on hand to catch your pet’s interest with a toy, for instance, as this can help you capture a bright and lively expression.

This can also be done by yourself. For the below photo I placed a toy on the windowsill to the left to keep the dog still and focused while I used the camera.

Example of a good reference photo


I always advise my clients to take photos outdoors if possible, so the weather will be a key factor! Overcast days are often ideal for capturing an ‘accurate’ view of your pet’s colouring. The light will not be strong enough to make your pet appear too pale, and you can avoid potentially harsh shadows.

A reference photo with ideal lighting

The lighting in the above photo is ideal for an artist to work from. There are enough light and shadowed areas to create interest but they are not too strong or harsh.

You may also be able to capture interesting effects with the stronger lighting on a sunny day, and these types of image can work very well for a painting too.

It really depends on the effects you would like to see in your finished painting, and you can always ask your artist for their opinion too if you’re unsure.

Different coloured fur

Dark coloured pets for instance can look great in brighter lighting, as it can emphasise the gloss of their coats. I find that lighter coloured animals however can appear bleached in bright lighting, and the details in the fur are not picked up by the camera.

If you are unable to take photos outside, try taking your photos in the brightest area of your home, perhaps close to a window. Allowing some natural light into your image will help you take a good accurate photo of your pet.

This comparison shows just how much difference lighting can make to your photos. These photos were taken with the same smartphone camera on the same settings just moments apart, the only thing that changed was the amount of light falling on the dog.

As you can see on the photo on the right, not only does this lack the interesting highlights in the fur, but the image is also no where near as sharp or detailed.


How you position yourself and your camera will make a huge difference to how your photos turn out. When I am photographing animals myself, I always make sure I am at eye-level with my subject.
I am often sent photos where the photographer is looking down on their pet. Whilst this looks cute in photographs it rarely translates well into a painting.

This is because the head of the pet can look disproportionally large in comparision to the body. As shown in the photo below.

Example of a photo taken from the wrong angle.

If your pet is small then crouching or sitting down may be the bestway to reach their eye-level. If you’re photographing a larger animal such as a horse, you may need to raise yourself onto a higher level. Or step further backwards and use your zoom to focus on the subject instead.

TOP TIP: If you are photographing a dog or a cat, having them in a sitting position usually creates the most flattering pose. Even for a headstudy where only a small amount of the body is included.


The final thing to consider is your photograph’s backdrop. This is mainly a consideration when you would like the setting included in your painting, so may not be applicable to all artworks.

Having said this, it can help the artist to pick out the fine hairs surrounding your pet if you take their photo against an uncluttered backdrop. This could be something to keep in mind even if you would like this to be changed in the portrait.

I always offer my clients the option of having the background of the image changed. This could be to a simple shaded background or an alternative landscape or domestic scene.

This is entirely down to personal preference and can be something to discuss with your chosen artist. Personally I like to provide digital mock-ups for potential clients if they are unsure. This can help envison the end result.

Final Thoughts

And there we have it! Those are my five key factors to keep in mind when photographing your pet for their portrait. In summary, the main things to take away are:

  • Equipment – make sure you use the best quality camera you have.
  • Atmosphere – Choose a location where your pet is comfortable, and have something available to picque their interest.
  • Lighting – Take your photos outside wherever possible.
  • Angle -Take your photos at eye-level with your subject.
  • Background – Keep the focus on your pet and avoid distracting or cluttered backgrounds.

I hope this guide comes in handy when you are taking reference photos of your pet! If you would like to check out some examples of the acrylic and pastel work I have produced. Please see my Pet Portrait page here and get in touch if you have any questions.

Acrylic Painting by Amber Tyldesley