Whether you pull out your cell phone or a DSLR camera, it’s hard to resist taking photos of your dog. They’re cute, cuddly, and entertaining subjects. But dogs aren’t always the most cooperative models. Whether it’s getting your dog in focus but the background blurry, or capturing an action shot, it can be tricky to get the kinds of portraits you see on the web. Professional photographer Laurie Clouthier, owner of Ordinary Moments Photography, has some great tips for getting the best shot as well as instructions for setting up five specific scenarios.
Capture Your Dog’s Personality
The first rule of pet photography is bringing out your dog’s character. Clouthier suggests choosing a location where they feel safe and comfortable. Then make the session fun. You can bring treasured toys and rewards to put them at ease. Or highlight their quirky personality with familiar games or their favorite tricks. Think about what they love to do whether that’s giving you a high five, playing fetch, or spinning in a circle.
Read your dog’s body language and watch for happy expressions. That will give you the best images. Don’t push them to perform. If you see signs of stress or fatigue, like pinned back ears, a droopy tail, lip licking, or shaking, it’s time to stop shooting. You won’t be getting your dog’s best self, and they certainly won’t want to pose for you again in the future.
Tricks of the Trade
It also helps to know a few photographer’s tricks. For example, Clouthier loves to take photos either in the shade or during golden hour (the first hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset) for the best natural light. She also suggests focusing on the dog’s eye and composing your shot with the rule of thirds in mind. And, if you can, use a reflector to add life to your dog’s eyes. Something as simple as a sheet of white foam core board can do the trick. Finally, get at your dog’s level. Clouthier advises, “Be prepared to get down and get dirty. You need to shoot at eye level for best results which means you are often flat on the ground in whatever conditions are on location. Sand, mud, water. Embrace it!”
Dreamy Background Blur
Nothing makes your dog the focus of a portrait like a blurry background. But it can be hard to achieve. To get that dreamy feel where the background looks compressed and out of focus, Clouthier’s instructions include placing your dog eight to 10 feet in front of a beautiful patch of backlit greenery. Next, set your aperture to F2.8 and focus on your dog’s eye. You can control the aperture in manual mode or aperture priority mode in a DSLR, but many smartphones and point and shoot cameras give you this ability as well. Finally, if you can change lenses, choose a zoom lens set at 200mm and get as close to your dog as the lens allows.
Small Pup, Big World
“Great wall art of your pet can often come from combining a beautiful landscape image with your dog’s portrait,” says Clouthier. To achieve this look, take your dog to a picturesque location like the mountains, a waterfront, or a farmer’s field. Or pick scenery that has special meaning to you. Try to choose a day when the sky has lots of character. Next, compose the shot so the landscape takes priority and your dog is only a small part of the picture. Set your aperture somewhere between F8 and F11 to ensure both your dog and the landscape are in focus. If you can change lenses, shoot with a wide-angle lens (16-35mm) to capture as much scenery as possible.
Focus on the Details
Clouthier believes, “There is nothing like detail shots to help fill out a wall collage or album of your furry friend.” Get in tight and photograph specific body parts. Think about what you love best about your pet. Is it the color of their eyes? The shape of their nose? Or maybe your puppy’s oversized paws. Try capturing just that feature in your photographs. Also, think about characteristics specific to your dog’s breed, like the curly tail on a Pug or the cords of a Puli. Use a macro lens on your DSLR or macro mode on your phone and shoot up close.
Shapes and Silhouettes
For a timeless image, Clouthier recommends capturing your dog’s silhouette. This calls attention to your dog’s form rather than details like color or expression. To achieve this look, place your dog in front of a much brighter background. This can be as simple as a white wall for a black and white image. Or try the sky at sunrise or sunset for more visual interest. Be sure to position your dog for the best silhouette. For example, place them sideways to show their full body shape. On manual mode, set your camera’s or phone’s exposure for the bright background. That should leave your dog completely black. Then shoot from a low perspective for the best result. Clouthier suggests, “If you can get a friend to operate your camera, you can include your own silhouette with your dog’s to highlight your special connection.”
“There’s nothing like an action shot of your dog in motion, doing their favourite thing,” says Clouthier. “Whether it’s dock diving, ball chasing, agility, or just running free in an open field, these are all great opportunities for dynamic fun photos.” However, your first concern with this type of photography is safety. You will want your dog off leash, so unless they have a strong sit and recall cue, Clouthier advises keeping them in a fenced, safe location.
To capture your dog running, Clouthier suggests having a friend place your dog in a sit and stay position about 40 yards from you. Then, for the best perspective, lay down on the ground with your camera. Consider a location with soft grass or sand to make yourself more comfortable. Have your friend move behind you, then, when you’re ready, have them call your dog. They can use toys and treats to encourage your dog to run toward you. As your dog approaches, use the burst mode in your camera or phone to shoot lots of photos for the best chance of one turning out. Clouthier says, “The success ratio is often low in this type of photo as there are so many variables like focus, movement, and expression. But when you get it right, the shot will be priceless.”