Hello and welcome to the first of a three-part series of how to best 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 in general, 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 coordinator 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. I get asked a lot how I went from taking pictures like the one on the left, to taking pictures like the one on the right:

The answer is, honestly, luck, and a lot of practice. This series of articles will share tips and strategies I have personally found to be useful.

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 pretty much any animal, is that there’s no one answer that fits every member of every species.

What’s worked best for me is to begin socializing them right away, in the manner I’ll be handling them in the future.

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 I will leave them alone.

Common signs of a gerbil in distress are nipping, soiling themselves, prolonged evasion that is clearly not playing, and loud squealing. This respect of boundaries 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, I take lots of pictures of them. 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.

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. 

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.

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.  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:

Creators Vice: 9 Tips for Composing the Perfect Picture
PetaPixel: 20 Composition Techniques That Will Improve Your Photos
Techradar: The 10 rules of photo composition (and why they work)

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 on the right. 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.

When a picture this strongly breaks composition rules, like the second image to the right, some people are going to like it, and some people aren’t. It comes down to a matter of personal taste and what kinds of pictures speak to you, not only as a gerbil owner, but as a budding photographer as well.

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.

In the next installment of How to Take Photos of Your Gerbils, we will be covering light sources, focus, and how to get the perfect angle to best display your fuzzy subjects. Please watch this space and stay tuned for Part 2!

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