Dogs are considered man's best friend for a reason. They ignore our greatest flaws, fawn over us, always show up regardless of the circumstances, and their favorite activity, outside of eating, is staring up at us with that love drunk gaze. The world would be a better place if we could just all be the person our dog thinks we are!
Despite the undeniable bond we share with our canine companions, they are often some of our most difficult photography subjects because they wiggle and don’t really understand the purpose of the camera. While they present their own wiggle-based set of challenges, getting the shot is possible. Here are some pointers to up the ante on your pooch photography.
Introduce Yourself Properly
Sometimes we think of our dogs as humans but they aren’t. We call them our babies or our furkids. Despite the goofy grins and an occasional skeptical eyebrow lifts, dogs are very different than people. They can’t talk and because they don’t, they use body language to communicate. The first step to photographing any dog is the proper introduction. If you are photographing your own dog, you are well past this point.
If you are just meeting a dog for the first time, approach slowly and quietly. Don’t make large gestures and loud noises. If the dog seems hesitant, make yourself smaller. Kneel down and extend your hand about half-way between you and the dog. Let the dog bridge the remainder of the gap. Allowing the dog to come to you shows you are willing to give them needed space and respect the signs they are giving you. It is an easy and quick way to gain a dog’s confidence. Talking is a soft higher-pitched voice can also be a good idea. Avoid prolonged, direct eye contact as dogs use that action to establish dominance and at times initiate conflict.
Watch their Body Language
You should also watch for how the dog is reacting to you. Relaxed dogs are not tense. Their body movements are fluid. Their tall might wag or be still but it will be relaxed. They will look comfortable and jovial. There muzzle will lack tension and sometimes be open with their tongue hanging out. Their eyes are their normal shape and the whites of their eyes should be mostly, if not completely, hidden by their upper and lower eyelids.
There are also many signs that a dog is uncomfortable. Lip licking outside of eating and drinking is a coping mechanism frequently seen in dogs. One raised front paw, what we call the “Paw of Oh No” in our house, is another sign of uncertainty. Pacing, sweaty paws and yawning are indicators signs of nervous dog. Cowering or tucking their tail between their legs is a sign of fear. Scared dogs often become defensively aggressive when they are approached.
Tension in the jaw, freezing or stiffness in the limbs, a head that is lowered with ears back and flat on the head, growling, a high raised tail which is quivering or making small fast movements, or wide eyes are a sign that a dog is very uncomfortable, sees you as a threat and is ready to act out aggressively should you not retreat.
Let Them Get Used To Your Gear
Dogs who don’t live with photographers might be confused by your camera and accessories. My dogs all know that just like I change my clothes, my other face is a camera. They were raised around my gear and caught on pretty fast. Now they flat out ignore me when I bust out my camera. Other dogs are often intrigued by the camera. When I do a session with a dog, I always sit on the ground and put my camera down so they can sniff it while I talk to the owners. It just makes it less scary and foreign. Dogs are more likely to actually look into the lens if they aren't scared of it. Also, bring lots of lens wipes and a lint free towel with you. Drool and nose prints are imminent in this line of work.
Noises make for Interesting Expression
One of my favorite expressions to get out of a dog is the one they make when they hear the shutter for the first time. Click once and be ready to take a second shot immediately. I also always bring a couple of different noise makers. Most pet-centric retail stores sell just the squeaker part of dog toys for replacing the broken squeaker in your dog’s favorite toys. Often they have a couple different models that have differing sounds and they are really inexpensive. I keep a few in my camera bag for those adorable head tilt shots every dog owner wants to frame. They also work for babies who are too young to really take direction yet.
The Power of a Cookie
Bribery. There, I said it. The things most dogs will do for food are insurmountable. They dig through the trash. They learn to open the fridge. They have even been known to steal the Thanksgiving turkey right off an elegantly dressed table. Use that instinctual drive to eat to your advantage. If you are photographing someone else’s dog ask what their favorite treats are or if the dog has any food allergies if you intend to supply to goods yourself. I usually just request owners bring treats in my pre-session consult email or phone call. Sometimes sticking a treat just above or below your lens is the only way to get a dog to really look at into the camera.
High Speed Continuous
There are moments you will only catch if your camera is in high speed continuous mode. If you are unfamiliar with high speed continuous mode, it essentially allows you to take a series of pictures in quick succession. How many pictures you can take at a time and the frames per second achieved depend on your camera body, the speed of you lens, and the writing speed of your memory card. Those water shake off photos where water is going everywhere but the dog’s eyes look fairly normal. Those are achieved with high speed continuous and the other fifteen shoots look really gross. It’s also a great way to get shots of a dog running at full speed.
Up the Shutter Speed
Dogs are by definition one big blur. Unless they are really old or asleep. Otherwise they are equal parts happy tail and wiggle. Upping the shutter speed will assure you get crisp (enough) photos even when your subject is weaving through your legs or chasing a tennis ball with fervor. I recommend at least 1/200 second shutter speed.
Get Down on Their Level
Just like kids, dogs are shorter than adults. Getting down on their level makes us less intimidating and more approachable. It also provides more flattering angles with a higher likelihood for eye contact and interesting backgrounds. It also alleviates those shots where the dog is bent at unnatural angles trying to figure out what the heck you are doing.
Don't Forget the Details
My favorite things about my dogs are the little details that make them different from each other. I have three dogs and have tended towards terriers since I was very young. I like little, sassy, smart, hell-raisers. They all look very similar but their little quirks are important to me and what set them apart from each other, visually. The swoop of a tale, the particular eye color that is unlike any I’ve seen before, the curve of a soft paw pad, the stubborn folded ear tip that never fully straightened. Those are the little things I don’t want to forget when they are gone, as a dog’s life is unfortunately short in comparison to us.
Include the Owner
The bond between and dog and its owner is one of the most special bonds on Earth. It’s also what attracts us to canines. If someone is requesting you take portraits of their dog, it is fairly likely they consider them part of the family. Make time in your session to include "Mom" and/or "Dad" in a few family shots. If people are uncomfortable posing, trying getting so action shots of the dog and their owner participating in one of their favorite activities. This takes the pressure off for people who feel awkward being posed or even photographed. If you are photographing your own dog think about doing some self-portraits using a wireless shutter trigger and tripod.
Keep the Fur and the Muzzle in mind
Dogs have long faces. Even Pugs and French Bulldogs with their smushed faces and night-time snoring have a muzzle that extends beyond the point of a human’s nose. When you are setting your aperture, keep it in mind. Shooting wide open (small F-number) and focusing on the eyes like you should in most portraits is going to cause the nose and mouth to be slightly out of focus, and it isn’t going to look intentional. It is going to look like you were being careless.
They also have fur on their muzzle and above their eyes which blocks light. Pay attention the direction of the light and if it is meeting the eyes. The direction of the light will also help give definition to the dog’s fur which is especially important with dogs who are darker in color. Dark dogs are notoriously difficult to photograph due to the way light falls and reflects on their fur. If you have a reflector, use it, or an off camera flash can add light and depth where a photograph would otherwise be flat and dull.
Go beyond the Standard Portrait
If you are photographing your dog, think about what you love about your dog and what your dog loves to do. Those two factors will give you some direction for your session. If you are photographing someone else’s dog, ask them those questions to establish the feel of your photo shoot. Even doing the session at their favorite park will add complexity to your session.
Dogs are part of the list of joyful things that make life fulfilling. Infuriating and trying as a defiant puppy can be at times, the relationships we share with them are rewarding, companionable, and somehow soft and uncomplicated in ways which are rarely experienced in relationships between two humans. Capturing that heart-felt essence in an honest way is often technically and creatively difficult.
Remember that the dogs you photograph and looking to you for guidance on how to act and feel. It is especially important to keep your body language positive and watch for signs of their discomfort. Oh yeah, and have fun!
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