1. Get Down On Their Level
Every single book, article, and webpage you see will emphasize the importance of getting down on the level of your pet. Why does this matter? Unless you have an Irish Wolfhound, you probably spend a lot of time looking down on your pet in your daily life. While it is possible to get very cute photos of your pets looking up at you, getting all your pictures looking down at your pet limits the types of images you can get.
Action shots from your pet's level can make for some very exciting images.
"But Liz", you say, "I have a short-legged doggie, and I have knees that have seen better days. How am I supposed to get down to her level?" Save your knees and your back, and get your pet up to your height. Use common sense with this - don't ever put your pet any place where she (or you, or both of you) are uncomfortable. With a little creativity and a close inspection of your surroundings, you can probably find a location where you and your pet can see eye-to-eye.
This is Rosie the Corgi. She definitely meets the criteria of being a short-legged dog, and while there have been times when I have flattened out on my belly to photograph her, that isn't always necessary. During this particular session, Rosie hopped up on a small rock in our local park. The rock is maybe a foot tall, but there is a sloping hill on one side of the rock, and I was able to get in a comfortable position and still capture Queen Rosie surveying her park.
If you don't have a rock handy, try your sofa, or your bed. As always, keep your pet's safety and comfort level in mind when choosing a 'perch'; a nervous pet (or you being nervous about your pet's safety, which your pet will pick up on) isn't a photograph you want hanging on your wall.
2. The Eyes are the Window to the Soul
Make sure the eyes are in focus. Most cameras have a default 'auto area' focus which means that the camera decides what points in the frame should be in focus (this is done using an algorithm that uses color and light information, aka "magic"). In a pinch this can be handy (most cameras' algorithms include a face recognition component, as well), but if you are trying to focus on your pet's eyes, and use the auto area focus mode, you might have the eyes in focus, or the nose, or even the chest while the eyes aren't, and unless your pet is very patient, you'll find yourself 'settling' for an image where his eyes may or may not be in focus.
To avoid the 'press and pray' approach to focus points, read your camera's manual (you can probably find it online if you've lost it) to find out what focus options you have, and then experiment with the different focus modes on your camera and see what suits you best. I personally prefer a single point of focus - I can make sure the eyes are the point of focus and then frame the image how I'd like it. Hint: move the camera side to side - not forward or back, as that can make what you had in focus go out of focus.
Of course, the rule about the eyes always being in focus is meant to be broken. Just make sure you are purposely focusing on something else, and not just on whatever the camera picks for you. A nose in focus can create a fun, whimsical portrait.
3. Make Sure Those Eyes Sparkle
Those 'sparkles' in your pet's eyes are called catchlights, and until you start actively looking for them, you may not even be aware of them. Catchlights are created by the eye's reflection of the light source (which can be the sun, windows, a flash, a lamp, etc.). Eyes without catchlights tend to look dull and lifeless. Before you take your photo, look at your pet's eyes - can you see the sparkle? If so, make sure the eyes are in focus (unless you have a good reason for them not to be) and fire away. Otherwise, move your pet and/or yourself (if you are outside) or your light source (if you are inside) until you see some 'sparkle' in his eyes. If you are outside, an easy way to get those catchlights is to have your back to the sun. However, if you are shooting in very bright sunlight, avoid having your pet face directly into the sun; he'll squint, or shut his eyes completely. Either look for some partially shaded areas, re-position yourself so he is at a 45 degree angle to the direction of the sun, or wait and take the photograph when the sun is lower in the sky (early in the morning or in the late afternoon).
In the picture below, it was late afternoon, and Abby was running after a tennis ball and the sun low in the sky highlighted her eyes wonderfully.
4. Avoid using the on-camera flash
While you want your pet's eyes to sparkle, you don't want them to glow or turn into laser beams. Just as humans get can 'red eye' when an on-camera flash (the pop-up one) is used, pets can get green or yellow eyes from an on-camera flash. You know the look, so I'll spare you some examples. If you don't have an external flash (also known as a speedlight), look for natural light sources, or ways to enhance natural light.
Windows, of course, are a great source of natural light. Look at the way light comes into the different rooms in your house at different times of day; if there's a specific room in which you want to photograph your pet, make sure you plan your photography at a time when the room is well lit with diffuse (not direct) sunlight.
If natural light isn't quite enough to give you a sharp photo, consider using additional continuous lighting (what the rest of the world calls lamps or lights; photography, like most technical skills, has its own jargon). Below is Max, a 14 year-old black Lab. Max's living room had a couple of south-east facing windows which let in a nice diffuse light, but it was an overcast day, and I wasn't getting quite enough light to reveal the contours in his face. So, I turned on a floor lamp to the right of the camera, and that gave me just enough light to capture Max in the 'natural' light of his living room.
While keeping these general tips in mind, don't forget the most important tip of all: make sure you and your pet have fun! Photographing your pets can be a great way to bond with them while also working on basic skills like sit, stay, and treat dispensing! *grin* When your pet has had enough (you'll know they are 'done' when they are restless, they stop looking at you, or they literally walk away), call it quits for the session. You want to keep this a fun experience for both of you.
What tips work best for you?