Updated: May 5, 2021
Whilst I would obviously recommend having professional portraits done of your gorgeous Fur Babies, I realised that so many precious moments just happen spontaneously and you will want to document your dog’s life with you much more than once every so often.
Taking doggie pics can be a bit of a challenge for Pawrents, but with these basic tips you’ll soon see a vast improvement in capturing the magic of the moment!
One of the biggest challenges you will face is the very small window of opportunity to get that perfect shot, you can’t really coach your dog to smile, or pose a certain way as you can for a human subject, but that doesn’t mean you can’t capture wonderful memories in beautiful images.
1. Buy the best camera you can!
I’m not saying cameras guarantee a good photo - they don’t! Ansel Adams once said it’s the 12 inches behind the camera that takes the shot - you! You would no more tell a great chef that it was all due to his oven, or a great writer that his typewriter was responsible. But having a camera with a reasonable shutter and drive speed can make a huge difference in the world of pet photography.
You don’t need the biggest and best that costs a fortune, but something that has features such as a high shutter speed, a high speed drive shooting mode, or the ability to alter things like aperture (which controls the depth of field or how much of an image is in focus) will really make a huge difference to turning your “snaps” into portraits. Usually this will mean at least an entry level DSLR camera, but I found the Olympus TG4 (a basic point and shoot camera) to be amazing and have a good shutter speed when set to “sport” mode.
2. Know how to use your camera!
I can’t stress this enough, no matter what camera you have you need to know how to use it’s features. Just leaving it on “Auto” or other basic program mode will only ever give you what the camera thinks it right - and your photos will be generally nothing more than snapshots. READ THE INSTRUCTIONS AND PRACTICE USING IT. My personal preference is to always shoot on manual - and it’s not as scary as you think. There are really only 3 factors to a good exposure, ISO, Shutter and Aperture - if you understand these and how they relate to each other you will NEVER give control back to the camera again!
3. Get your dog comfortable with the camera
Cameras can look intimidating and make funny sounds and noises that can upset some dogs, other dogs couldn’t care less. If your dog is one of the former, let them sniff it and see you with it in your hands when it’s not being pointed directly act them. Use it to take photos of other stuff so your dog gets totally comfy with it and any strange sound it makes (eg shutter release) before you start pointing it at them.
4. Basic Composition
Understand that putting the subject in the middle of the frame is not always the best spot. Whilst it certainly can be for a HERO shot - this is also the position of what the majority of “snaps” look like. If you want to raise the bar in your photography study a bit about the basics of composition from stuff on the internet to find out about other ways of placing your subject in the frame, such as the Rule of Thirds, Triangles, Spirals etc. Practice and find out what works for you and your pooch.
Whilst I am the light mistress in the studio with my professional Pro Photo B10 Strobes, Softboxes, Light Modifiers, Icelights, Off and On Camera Flashes etc - I really only use them when I absolutely need to, I honestly prefer to shoot with natural light whenever I can. I believe it is the most flattering light for all portraits regardless of subject. You do need to understand a little about what makes “good light” - colour, intensity, direction etc. but there are plenty of free videos on the internet to help you with this.
As a rule of thumb, filtered window light for indoor shots is great and if you are wanting outside shots, try to go for early morning light just after sunrise or later in the day before dusk. These times are called “golden hour” but actually can sometimes only last minutes. Cloudy overcast days can act as a natural “soft box” filtering the sun making good light but it can also be very flat looking. If you end up taking photos in the hard sunlight, try to find some shade and don’t shoot directly into sun, unless you can adjust your camera manually to compensate for that.
6. Basic Obedience
Whilst not essential, taking photos of your dog will be much easier if they have at least a basic obedience level, such as Sit, Stay or Come (for those great action shots I call the “Run to Me” shots). These basic commands can at the very least buy you a few seconds to get the shot you want.
7. Grab Attention
Ideally, you want to have eye contact with your subject, so have some ideas to grab your dogs attention (once you have your camera adjusted to the conditions and all set to go!) You can try treats, toys, noises. There are apps you can get for your phone that make all sorts of noises such as Dog Teaser, Dog Translator or Dog Sounds. I also have a Hunters Duck Call I use, along with a rubber plastic pig that snorts as well as my own repertoire of vocal noises I can make to grab their attention, and often get the cutest looks as they try to figure our what the crazy lady is up to!
8. Zoom In
You your camera has a zoom function, or you have interchangeable lenses, using the zoom is a great way not to be in your dogs personal space but allows you to get close ups of that gorgeous face. Optical zoom is far better quality than digital zoom.
9. Clean Uncluttered Backgrounds
It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and just focus on your dog, only to regret it later when you see how messy or cluttered the background it. You want the viewers total focus to be on the dog, so check out the area beforehand and tidy up anything that will be distracting in your photographs. If you can adjust your depth of field (aperture) on your camera this can help soften and blurry the background creating Bokeh which can help with busy backgrounds, or obviously if your skills include Lightroom or Photoshop things can be corrected, but in the first instance even professionals try to get it right in camera in the first place!
10. Get down to Doggie Level
Whilst shooting your pet from above is how you normally see them, and getting those puppy dog eyes looking up can be cute, for more portrait-like shots get down to their eye level, or even lay down on the ground to take the shot. YES, this means you might get “down at dirty” but trust me the shot will be so worth it, because it gives your images a whole new angle and takes your photography to a much higher level.
11. KISS principle
Remember the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!) principle. Try not to overcomplicate things with props or silly cosutlems, work on getting great shots of your dog a la natural to start with and then when your are comfortable with your camera and the kind of pictures you are taking then you can add in the more complicated stuff. To be honest most dogs look so much better just as they are!
12. Be Patient
I shoot dogs, especially for action shots, on high speed drive mode with a fast shutter of at least 1000. This means I get lots and lots of pictures that are very similar, but this also allows me to capture the perfect moment! If your camera can’t do this, then you need to realise that it’s going to take a lot of time with a lot of pictures to eventually get even one good one - and that’s totally okay, it’s a learning curve.
After you shoot, go through and check your pictures on your computer so you can view them properly, the small screen on the back of the camera is just too hard to check. If a photo is out of focus - ie your dog is not sharp, or at least their eyes are not sharp, then it’s a dud - ditch it, there’s not really much you can do about it. However, if the dog looks great but there’s a person walking in the background, or rubbish on the ground you missed, this can be edited out and there are some free software programs you can get online to help with this. If you want to purchase something more professional start with Photoshop Elements - it has most of what you will need as an ameture without the hefty price tag.
14. Make it Fun!
You know your dog best, and all dogs are different. So find out what works and doesn’t work for your Fur Baby. Watch their body language especially around you and your camera and find ways to make the experience fun for them, without getting them over excited or stressed out. I always work with each individual dog I photograph, and read their body language to ensure they are relaxed and having fun - because that’s what makes the best photographs!