Behind every picture there's a story, and this is certainly true of the snapshot of my dogs perched on a windswept bluff over the Pacific Ocean, their long coats swirling around them, their eyes intently focused on the endless expanse of silvery blue before them.
I had been trying to get that picture for 15 minutes, working with two dogs who were tired of sitting, tired of being asked to look alert and in the same direction. Behind me, my brother Joe, a good sport if there ever was one, rattled keys and promised treats, to no avail. Toni was getting ready to flop down, and Andy had that look that meant the word "stay" would shortly no longer apply to him.
And then it happened. Their heads swung round, in unison. Their ears came up. Their eyes focused just over my right shoulder. I snapped the picture, gratefully, and turned to see what Joe had finally done to capture their attention so perfectly.
He'd fallen off the cliff.
Although it was a very small drop and he wasn't hurt at all, he was through as a photographer's assistant. He had decided in the instant he tumbled over the edge that if I were going to make a fool of myself in public taking pictures of animals, I was going to do it alone.
Which is pretty much exactly what has happened, right down to the foolish part. With a thankfully idiot-proof camera and no sense of decorum, I've taken hundreds of pictures of my pets and other animals, and come up with a few very good ones.
Taking lots of pictures, as it turns out, is one of the keys to successful photography. Keeping your camera ready to use is another. Always have film in your camera and put it where you can grab it quickly. Great pet pictures, like great kid pictures, pop up when you don't expect them.
For more formal photo sessions, here are a few tips:
-- Use the right attention-getter. Dogs will react to jingled or thrown keys, or squeaky toys or tennis balls, but try the same thing with a cat, and the only thing you'll get a picture of is the tip of a tail as your pet departs in disgust. Talk sweetly to your cat for a better response, or tease with a favorite toy. Food is another winner, and it works with both dogs and cats.
-- Get an assistant. A child is a wonderful helper as well as subject. Let your helper work on getting your pet's attention so you can frame the shot to your liking. A tip: If you want your pet to kiss your child for a photo, do as the pros do: Put a little butter on your child's cheek, and let the pet smooch it off.
-- Head outdoors. Natural light -- early morning is best -- avoids the dreaded red-eye shot, where the flash makes your beautiful pet come out as a monster. Taking pictures outside also gives your new pet a more natural, healthy look. If you must take pictures inside, avoid the reflection by not pointing the flash straight at the animal, or by having the animal look off to the side, at your assistant.
-- Come in close. If you want a good picture, you're going to have to go where your pet is. Shoot at just below your pet's eye level and zoom in as closely as you can for good detail.
-- Watch your backgrounds. Think neutral -- a plain wall, not a cluttered cabinet. Think contrast -- light for a dark pet, dark for a light one.
Keep your sessions short -- kids and pets get bored quickly -- and don't forget to keep them fun, with lots of praise all around. With a little knowledge and a lot of practice, you, too, can take pet photos you'll be proud of.
CYBERLINKS: Pet pictures are everywhere on the Internet, by the millions. Bring up a browser such as Alta Vista (http:www.altavista.com), put in "cat," "dog," "hamster," etc., plus the word "picture" and you'll be browsing for hours. Or visit "The Amazing Cat Picture Page" (http://www.islandnet.com/(tilde)jensal/cats.html). You'll find some wonderful pictures there that will inspire you to get your camera out.
Gina Spadafori, the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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