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5 Tips For Taking Stunning Sanctuary Animal Portraits

You will find that several points in here build upon points in the previous post, so if you haven't already, go and check that out here. Today we will be looking at some tips and how I, and you too, can take stunning portrait photos of sanctuary animals.

1. Get To Know Your Subject

This is one point which links back to one from the previous post, but this time, I mean more than researching the animals and their usual behaviours. This time I mean actually getting to know the soul you are capturing. Suddenly walking up to a sheep and sticking a camera in his/her face, even if they are used to people, is likely to just make them run away and you will end up with lots of photos of sheep bums and nothing else.

Take time getting to know them, introduce yourself to them the same way you should to a cat or dog. Let them get comfortable around you before you even lift the camera up to your face for the first time.

Vegan sanctuary photographer cuddles a kune kune pig in the grass
I have got to know Jeff here very well over the years

The way I like to do this is by taking a tour of the sanctuary when I arrive, saying "Hi" to everyone, giving them some love and attention, letting them get used to me and my presence, so they know for a fact that I am not a threat. Even then, you still need to be wary, as pointed out in my last post, because many of the animals at sanctuaries will have been rescued from traumatic pasts and you have no idea what your camera will look like to them, many animals suffer from PTSD, just as humans do.

All of this adds up to being able to capture the subject's personality and character in a single frame to share with the world.

2. Use the Right Equipment

When people see this, they immediately think of expensive cameras and equipment and while they can help, you can get started without.

First of all, if you do have a DSLR or Mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses, then great, you have a lot more flexibility. What you need in this case is a fast shutter speed for moving animals and, especially if inside, good low light performance. A telephoto lens is an essential part of your lens toolkit, this way you can get close-ups without disturbing animals as much as possible, especially useful if you have shy and nervous animals to take photos of. I also like to have a wide-angle lens and my nifty-fifty (available at a reasonable price for all makes and models of DSLR and Mirrorless cameras) for those super-friendly guys that just want to come and say "hello" all the time.

If you do not have one of those cameras, then you can also get started with a smartphone. Technology in a lot of smartphones nowadays can take photos which are just as good as DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras. You have a bit less control of the settings and obviously don't have a choice of lenses, but that doesn't stop you practicing your craft with the dog or cat in your life! You can still work on composition, editing, lighting etc.

Another piece of equipment that you might like to consider is using a stabiliser or tripod. I very rarely use one, but I always have my tripod with me, just in case.

Another piece of equipment that is worth mentioning, but as a "do not use", is flash. Like I said in my previous post, we should not be using flash, it will startle animals who have no idea what it is and who have come from traumatic background. If you are unable to use natural light, use a handheld light, like a torch or something similar.

A portrait of a brown alpaca
This shot was taken using the light coming in through the barn door

3. Find the Right Lighting

Theoretically, we should all shoot during golden hour or on cloudy days all the time. While the softer light of these times is preferable, in reality, going to sanctuaries means you are at the mercy of the elements. Most of the time, I end up shooting in the sunshine in the middle of the day. This is arguably the worst possible time, because the light is harsh and bright. However, you can still make great photographs in any weather.

Look for the animals in the shade of tress, or a man-made shelter, using the light coming through the doorway, which is something I love to do. Another technique is to get silhouettes of your subjects. This is an area that takes practice and that you will always be working on to some degree, no matter how many years of experience you may have under your belt.

Basically, look for whatever you think looks good and shoot it!

4. Get On Their Level

This tip is vital for producing engaging photos of your subjects. Bringing the viewer down to a duck's view allows you to be immersed in their world more. You will hopefully notice that this is the case for the vast majority of my photos. Part of this means wearing clothes that you don't mind getting dirty! Because, for ducks, chickens, cats, dogs, smaller pigs etc, you will be laying down in the mud.

Now, like all good rules, this one can be broken, but it should be a creative choice. For example, if you want to portray the sheer size and dominance of a large bull, you might take the photo from lower than their eye-level, or if you want a small ferret to look especially small and cute and maybe a little vulnerable, you might take the photo from above eye-level.

The rule of thumb though? Eye-level.

A rescued pig scratching his ear on a wooden pole taken by sanctuary photographer James Gibson
As you can see, this was taken at the eye-level of the subject

5. Capture Their Personality

If you have followed all of the previous points, this one should be a lot easier to accomplish, if not, this will be incredibly difficult. You should try to capture the unique personality and character of each and every animal you photograph.

If you followed the first point and got to know the animals, you should be able to tell their facial expressions, when they're happy, sad, tired etc and your photographs should capture those emotions. This could be them on their own, it could be them interacting with their friends, playing with a toy, or even grieving!

Linking back to my previous post you should, under no circumstances, be manufacturing these emotions just to get a photograph. A treat here or there to help them relax a bit around you is one thing, and if you want a photo of them eating, stay around for lunch time, but as the photographer, your job is to observe and capture.


Most people who do animal portrait photography will have access to a studio but, unless you happen to have one set up on a sanctuary, that is extremely unlikely in this particular niche. So we do have less control than people who do portraits of pets, our experience is more akin to wildlife photographers, but we are trying to capture photos like a portrait photographer an showcase their beauty and personality. It takes patience and practice. By following the tips in this post, you will be well on your way to capturing stunning portrait photos of your favourite rescued animals.

If you are interested in learning more, or even coming along on a visit with me, I am currently working on courses and workshops at some of the sanctuaries I visit. Subscribe to the newsletter on the website for updates and release information and I hope to see you along for one in the near future!

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