Digital photography has changed my life. Instead of wasting roll after roll of film -- or not bothering to take pictures at all because of the trouble and expense -- I now take hundreds of pictures, happy in the knowledge that if I get just one or two good ones out of every few dozen taken, I haven't wasted anything except my time.
With a few clicks of the mouse, the out-of-frame, out-of-focus or "just not right" images are jettisoned forever. A few clicks more, and those images with potential are fixed up and made suitable for framing -- a crop here, a red eye changed to brown, the elimination of items cluttering up the background.
The result: The best pictures of my pets I've ever taken.
Years ago a pet photographer told me the best suggestion he could offer when it comes to getting good pictures is to constantly be taking them. That's advice I'm finally following, but I've also had good luck paying attention to these other tried-and-true tips:
-- Head outdoors if you can. Taking pictures outside gives your pet a more natural, healthy look. If your pet is a solid, dark color, use your flash to bring out the detail in your pet's face. If you do end up with red eye, use photo-editing software (basic programs come free with many new computers) to fix the problem.
-- Get close. If you want a good picture, you need 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. If your cat loves to sleep on the busy fabric of your sofa, for example, consider throwing a solid-colored blanket down first. You might be able to edit the distraction out with photo-editing software, but it's easier to avoid it in the first place.
-- Get kids to help. I love pictures of kids and pets, and have always found that kids make the best photographer's assistants as well. Children can help by getting a pet's attention with a toy or treat, or by holding the pet for a picture of child and pet together. One of my favorite things to do is give the children in my life throwaway cameras and let them take their own pictures. I get the images put on a photo CD, use photo-editing software to make them look better, and then give the best as prints in inexpensive frames to the young photographers.
-- Be creative. If you want your pet to kiss your children, do as the pros do: Put a little butter on your children and let the pet kiss it off. This is a tip I got years ago when I interviewed a woman who trained animals for commercials. I've smiled every time I've seen a dog smooch a kid on TV since, knowing that more than affection was at play.
-- Take some "record-keeping" shots. You never know when a pet will get loose, and having good pictures can help with a swift recovery. Take a picture from the side and one from the front, as well as close-ups of any distinctive markings. Get prints made and put them in a place you'll remember, just in case you need to make up "lost pet" posters.
Final advice: Enjoy and share your pictures! You'll find several sites on the Web that welcome images of pets, or you can use a free Web site to post images on your own. And photo-developing companies offer more than prints of digital images these days: Think note cards, calendars or even posters.
I've put up a few of my own pets on my Web site, (www.spadafori.com -- click on "My Animals") and plan to keep adding as I take more great photos.
It's important to provide all pets with toys, but even more essential to keep a good selection of playthings available for those who spend large chunks of their lives in cages or other enclosures. The catalog and Web merchant Doctors Foster and Smith (www.drsfostersmith.com) offers an interesting twist on the topic of pet toys: supplies for making them yourself. Designed for birds (but also appropriate for rabbits, rats, ferrets and other such pets), the do-it-yourself toy parts include wood blocks, plastic chains, leather shapes and cotton rope, all in various sizes and colors. Making pet toys is a great afternoon project for children.
PETS ON THE WEB
When military families get moved, pets are too often left in the lurch. With local shelters inundated and few prospects for new homes in a community where everyone's in the same situation, these pets too often face euthanasia, while their families go through guilt and grief at an already stressful time. The Web site NetPets (www.netpets.org) is trying to help, organizing a network of foster homes to take care of military pets until the families can take them again. There's a form on the site for people in the military to fill out, and anyone wishing to foster a pet can e-mail for an application. What a great idea!
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Our cocker, Sam, has beautiful "feathers" on his legs and underbelly. He looks great when he comes from the groomer, but it doesn't take long before all that beautiful, long fur is matted, tangled and (in the summer) full of burrs. Any suggestions for keeping him neater? -- P.D., via e-mail
A: Show breeders have a tendency to overdo when it comes to the lovely features of any breed. That's why you see poodles look the way they do in the show ring, in a ridiculous parody of what was once a cut designed to help keep a working dog functional. In cockers, breeders have gone for more and more "furnishings" -- longer, more luxurious coats that look stunning in the show ring but are too often mess in real life.
While show people work to keep every inch of coat, for the purposes of everyday life it's usually better to keep things cut short. That's why pet poodles are kept in body-hugging "puppy clips" and terriers have their wiry coats clipped instead of having dead hairs pulled individually, as is normal for show. (Exhibitors call this "hand-stripping." It's tedious work but essential for winning.)
Ask your groomer to clip your dog's feathers to a functional length -- short enough to keep combed and brushed, long enough to maintain a degree of attractiveness.
As for burrs, here's a tip from hunting-dog trainers: Spray a little nonstick cooking spray (such as Pam) on the area. The lubricating effect will make it easier to slide the burr out of the fur.
Q: I lost my sweet old cat a couple months ago, after almost 18 years. She was an "only child" for most of her life. I tried to bring in a kitten once, but she would not stop attacking the interloper. In her later years, I tried to bring in another older cat, but she wouldn't come out from under the bed.
Since I work, I feel it would be better to have two cats, so they can keep each other company while I'm gone. This summer I'll be adopting a kitten. Should I adopt two at once, or stagger them? -- W.N., via e-mail
A: Your sense of the matter is correct: Companionship is a wonderful thing, especially for indoor cats who are left alone while their people are at work or school. While some cats clearly would prefer to be loners, many form what are clearly strong attachments to others of their kind.
It's a great idea to adopt two kittens at once, but here's another option to consider: Welcome a pair of already bonded adult cats into your home.
Almost every shelter or rescue group has cats who are better off staying together. Homes for these cats – many of whom have been together since birth -- are few and far between, which means these often loving companions end up being separated or not adopted at all.
Adorable kittens have a much easier time finding homes than adult cats do, and the situation is more difficult for cats who need to be placed together. Since you're looking for a pair of companionable cats, why not adopt two who already are comfortable with each other?
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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