Hello and welcome to #TutorialTuesday, where every Tuesday we at the American Gerbil Society will be helping you learn fun new ways to care for or things to do with your gerbils. Today (a day late, with apologies from the management) in preparation for our upcoming Virtual Show, I’m going to walk you through how best to take pet portraits of your gerbils.
Please note, this is not a tutorial for how to best take pictures of show gerbils – you can find a wonderful tutorial of that here. Today we’re going over how to best take pictures of gerbils for entering our Pet Class, putting up pictures of to show off for adoption or your kennel’s website, or just to share on social media.
So first, a little bit about me – my name is Julia Hass, and I’m the social media manager for the American Gerbil Society. I have been a gerbil owner for over ten years and currently have two gerbils/interns/models, Sasha and Rizzo, who like all my gerbils aren’t show gerbils, just dearly beloved pets. Because I’m a social media person, I take a lot of pictures of Sasha and Rizzo to share, and so I get asked a lot how I went from this:
The answer is, honestly, luck, a lot of practice, and the following tips:
One: Get Your Gerbils Used To The Camera
Just like training and socializing dogs, there are a bunch of different schools of thought on how to best socialize and train gerbils. The answer with dogs, or gerbils, or cats, or pretty much any animal, is that there’s no one answer that fits every member of every species. What’s worked best for me so far is to start as I mean to go on. When my gerbils come home with me, I immediately start handling them, speaking to them, hand-feeding them when I eat, petting them, and kissing them. I teach them that this is normal and safe, but that if they show signs of distress (nipping, soiling themselves, prolonged evasion that is clearly not playing, loud squealing) I will leave them alone. This gives my gerbils a clear idea of what to expect, when to expect it, and how to communicate back to me.
I use this same technique to get my gerbils used to my cell phone camera. From the time my gerbils come home, they are taken pictures of. At first a lot of them are really put off by this rectangle that keeps getting shoved in their face. They try to eat it, or hide from it, or freeze and start panicked thumping at the shutter noise. When Sasha first came home, he HATED having is picture taken.
But eventually he learned what we all think is obvious as humans, which is that the camera is perfectly safe and nothing will happen to him if I use it. This is him now, a year and a half later, posing like a champ:
Two: Learn Your Gerbils’ Habits
Gerbils are wonderful pets and lovely little critters, but let’s face it, they’re not exactly complex geniuses. (That’s okay, we can’t all be.) Gerbils are like humans in that they like to have a routine and repeat certain habits, and what’s nice is that they’ll adapt their habits to fit yours. You may notice that if you feed your gerbils, say, every morning around 8:00 before heading to work, if one morning you’re home sick, your gerbil is still going to come out at 8:00 on the dot wondering where their food is.
The good news about this is if your gerbil does a cute behavior, not only are they going to repeat it, but you can easily figure out what stimulus produces that behavior so your gerbil will repeat it, this time when you’re ready with the camera. Here are some examples of Sasha and Rizzo’s predictable behaviors:
Other gerbil management tricks can include herding your gerbil by either patting/thumping the area you don’t want them to go with your hand (they’ll run away from the sound) or making noises when you want them to look up and at you, though every gerbil reacts differently to different sounds, so you’ll have to experiment on what works best for each different subject.
Three: Learn the Rules of Composition (And When to Break Them)
I have to admit that I have a secret advantage I’ve been keeping from you all, which is that even before I started taking gerbil pictures, I wasn’t exactly new at this stuff. I come from photographers on both sides of my family (one grandfather was a professional, the other was an avid hobbyist, as is my dad), I took two years of darkroom photography in high school, and I’ve taken so many years of art and illustration classes I’ve honestly lost count, all of which means I’ve been trained from a really young age to instinctively know and create good composition.
Here’s the good news, though: you’ve subconsciously been learning those same rules too, you just have to learn to do them more consciously. Some more good news, the internet is chock full of photographers who are thrilled to explain these rules to you. Here’s one. Here’s another. Here’s a third.
It’s also important to know when to break these rules to set a mood or tell a story. For example, if you want a cute picture of your gerbil peeking around a corner, you might want to make it so it’s all negative space except for your gerbil in that corner. Allow Rizzo to demonstrate another example:
There’s a lot of visual interest in that box and not a lot of visual interest above him. It’s bottom-heavy. But it works because you want to get the sense that he’s popping upwards.
Here’s a picture that breaks all the rules:
When a picture this strongly breaks composition rules, some people are going to like it, and some people aren’t. If you do like it, it’s because you’ve been conditioned to like it by this:
The dirty secret about composition is there’s not really such thing as “good” or “bad” composition, it’s all just a way of telling a visual story. There are certain things we are either taught to or inherently find appealing (symmetry, the rule of three, the Fibonacci spiral), but a lot of what we find appealing is the familiar, or to put it another way, a visual story in a language we already speak. The best way to teach yourself composition is to start paying attention to how the images you enjoy are laid out. Where’s the focus? Do you favor a certain side to have more visual weight than the other? Do you prefer busy pictures, or ones with lots of negative space? What do tweaking visual elements do to the mood or message of the picture? Try cropping pictures you take weird ways and comparing them side by side, or rotating them slightly, to see how the same image becomes different or suggests different things based on orientation and cropping. Experimentation is the real key, here.
Four: Get A Good Light Source
This is the part where people panic and think that gerbil photography is going to be prohibitively expensive and they’ll need all sorts of fancy equipment. I’m guessing there would be better results if you did, say, have a DSLR camera and professional lighting. Then again, this is my setup:
My gerbils live next to my bed. On my headboard I have a clip light with a regular old incandescent lightbulb in it. I can swing the light to light the cage when I want to take photos there (or when the gerbils are cold in the winter and they like to nap under the heat), and I can swing it to my bed when I want pictures of the boys running around.
There’s also an excellent light source that’s free called the sun:
Most gerbils aren’t morning people (me either), but if you can get them to cooperate, daylight works really well.
Five: Focus, Focus, Focus
The number one question I get is about how to get the camera to focus on a gerbil, which is both small (something cameras have problems with) and fast (same). Honestly, this is something I struggle with too, and a lot of my pictures come out blurry or grainy. There are two ways to deal with this. One, take pictures using the burst setting. (On a cell phone that means holding down the shoot button). Two is to use the “macro” (that’s camera code for “taking pictures of small things”) setting, which a cell phone will do automatically but a digital camera will require being set to. Cell phones have surprisingly good macro cameras. I took this, for example, on my cell phone:
It helped that Sasha was standing directly in the sunlight. The better the light, the more detailed your camera will be able to focus without going to the dreaded grainy place.
If you’re using a touch screen phone to take a picture, the easiest way to make it focus where you want to focus is to tap that part of the display. You should see a yellow box pop up. That means your camera went “I’m focusing here” and is calibrating properly. You may notice the light or colors change when you do that, that’s because your camera is adjusting everything – not just the focus – to be balanced based on what’s in the yellow box.
The thing about shooting macro is it has what the photography trade refers to as a “shallow depth of field”. Depth of field is how much space there appears to be in your photo before it blurs. A photograph taken for the news will often have a really big depth of field so the viewer gets the full visual context of what’s happening. A portrait often has shallow depth of field because you only want to focus on the face of the subject you’re taking a picture of. You can also play with depth of field and focus to tell a story, the same as you do with composition. For example, let’s look at this picture of Sasha:
In reality, the sunflower seeds were about two inches from him, max. But by playing with the composition and shallow depth of field, it makes the treats loom large, the way you would imagine they loom in Sasha’s brain.
Six: Shoot From Below, Not From Above
If you’ve ever taken a selfie, you’ve either noticed or heard the advice that it is always more flattering to take a picture from a higher angle than a lower angle. Well, in gerbils, I’ve found that’s often the opposite. In fact, almost every picture I’ve used as an example so far I have shot at least slightly below the gerbils’ line of vision. Allow Rizzo to demonstrate with a rather extreme illustration:
I’m not sure why exactly this is true, but it’s probably for similar reasons it’s not flattering to humans, namely, it makes them look more blobular (technical term). The other reason, if I had to guess, was that the gerbil mouth is hidden a little under their snout. If you shoot a gerbil a little bit from below, you can see all their features: eyes, snout, whiskers, mouth. If you shoot from above, it’s mostly eyes and the snout shape. This also may be my personal preference speaking, but I think one of the cutest things about gerbils is those tiny pink mouths they have with the wibbly (another technical term) lower lip. Kills me every time.
Seven: Props Are Your Pals
Gerbils, like Mary Poppins, are practically perfect in every way, but they do have one major flaw: they won’t wear costumes. Believe me, I’ve tried. So if you want to take a picture that has a theme or something more interesting going on than your gerbil standing there, you have to get creative.
The first and easiest way to do something thematic is props. Props are pretty easy to find, actually, because anything works so long as it’s small enough to fit in the same picture as a gerbil. Here, for example, is Rizzo modeling a mug designed by a friend:
Here is one of my favorite gerbil pictures I’ve ever taken, of Rizzo with his miniature mouse twin, which I got because my brother’-in-law’s grandmother was getting rid of it and my sister rescued it and passed it on to me. I didn’t plan the matching expressions and could never in a million years replicate this one, but it cracks me up every time I look at it:
Other things that work really well with gerbils are props made for dolls or dollhouses. You can even get those cheap at yard sales or second-hand, just be sure to wash them in warm water either with diluted vinegar or an all-natural soap to make sure there’s nothing on there that if your gerbil tries to put the prop in its mouth (and they will) will make them sick. Also, if the object is really small, you’ll have to watch closely to make sure your gerbil doesn’t try to eat it. (They will.)
And you can of course get creative and make your own props quite easily using construction paper and some ingenuity. My friend was once doing a scavenger hunt and one of the items on it was “a rodent taking a bath”, so of course she hit me up. Gerbils can’t get wet without becoming susceptible to pneumonia, so what I did was I took the nice, sturdy box my iPhone came in, cut out a construction paper bath and regular white paper in the shape of bubbles, applied some tape, and put some treats in the box. Voila:
The one thing gerbils will tolerate is a hat balanced on their head while eating a treat, which was a discovery that changed my life. A whole new world was suddenly open to me. For example, acorn caps:
Crowns (you can find many different versions of these on Etsy for very cheap, just look up “crown charm” or “crown ring” – I got five for under $5 including shipping):
And of course, whenever it’s the one of the boys’ birthdays, I like to throw them little party:
Eight: Reward Your Models Handsomely
If taking pictures is rewarding for your gerbil, they’re going to let you take a lot more pictures of them in a lot more different ways. Always make it a fun experience for them by giving them something new to explore, or chew, and definitely lots of treats after. I also always give my boys smooches after they’ve been good. This is really a reward for me, because my boys are definitely not fans of the smooch. That’s fine, though, not everything is about them.