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If you have a great dog (and we all do,) you can make great dog pictures.
Here is the secret to great dog photography: be smarter than your dog. At my house this takes focus, hard work, a polished plan of attack, and a well-developed sense of humor. Here are a few tips, tricks and hard fought lessons that might help you make some pictures of your best buddy worthy of framing, displaying on your desk at work, or sharing with complete strangers in line at the grocery store.
Equipment, Part I – Almost all cameras have a “Portrait” setting. If you can find the little picture of a human head on the dial on top of your camera, select it and you’re good to go. This will produce images where the subject is in focus and the background will be nicely blurred. Select the picture of a sprinter if you want to make action shots or they tend to happen whether you like it or not. If you’ll be using your phone camera, don’t worry about settings. Your phone is smarter than all of us combined and knows better than you what kind of pics you want. Delving into those camera settings requires more work, focus, and more time than we have here…
Timing, Part I – When is your RezDawg most likely to pay attention to you for ten consecutive minutes? Are they a morning dog or a night… uh… owl? Schedule your photo sessions for whenever they’re awake but not necessarily up for a jog. You want them energetic and engaged, but not too energetic.
Location – You have enough pictures of your RezDawg playing in the pool. Go to a park for your photo shoot. Go to a National Park. Go anywhere and make a day of it. Good dog photography is about documenting good memories with your best bud – get off the couch and go make some.
Perseverance – Don’t expect great dog pictures from a single session. Returning several times to the same location at the same time of day will create some familiarity and when it comes to good dog photography, familiarity and comfort are key. To them, this photo shoot is all about you. They’ll wonder why you’re going to a park on a Tuesday and more importantly, why you keep holding this strange little box in front of your face. They might not like the way things are going at first but through repetition – same place, same time, same thing held in front of your face (and in theirs,) – they’ll chill out and begin to act like themselves and when that happens, so does good photography.
It’s not always about the dog – Sometimes, it’s about the background. Your dog is cute enough to ensure beautiful pictures but ALWAYS pay attention to the background. Cute pictures don’t count when your dog has a flagpole sprouting from their head.
The center of the universe – Once you’ve found a good location and have mastered the suggested camera settings, put some distance between your RezDawg and the background. The result will be an image where your dog is in focus and everything else is nicely blurred.
Creative direction – Who has ultimate authority at this photo shoot? Not you. The images you’ll value most are the ones that catch your dog’s patented look of exasperation (two minutes into the shoot) or that look of bliss as they curl up to take a nap (five minutes into the shoot.) They know what makes them cute… your only job is to pay attention and execute the shot.
Pace yourselves – Don’t break out the treats too early. Favored snacks will help you regain your buddy’s attention later in the shoot, but do your best to capture your pics when the dog is interested in what you’re doing rather than what’s in it for them.
Timing Part II – Photographers talk about the “Golden Light” that appears shortly after dawn or right before the sun sets when, oddly enough, sunlight takes on a golden tone. If your dog is naturally relaxed at these times of day then you are, as they say, Golden. Otherwise, avoid shooting at midday if at all possible.
The shotgun theory of effective pet photography – Even if you successfully convince your dog to sit still for a nice portrait, perfectly quaffed and posed (or for your dreamers out there, with their tongue in their mouth,) 90% of your shots won’t be as good as you thought. Digital “film” is free. Use it all.
Equipment, Part II – For those that have expensive cameras or want to take more control over the results (both of you,) use Aperture Priority, f/5.6 with an ISO of 800. f/8 with an ISO of 800 is a good all-around setting that nearly guarantees your subject will be in focus whether you’re moving or posing nicely. Experiment with different settings to see what changes give what results. You may well like your mistakes better than your “best shots.” This phenomena happens all the time for professional photographers. We just refuse to admit it… (did I say that out loud?)
Respect the dog – Treat your RezDawg as though they’re a Royal Buddhist Monk – ie, keep your camera at or below their eye level. How about a show of hands: who likes pictures of the top of their dog’s head? Who likes pictures of the top of other people’s dog’s head? Exactly. You getting down on their level will be a new experience and they’ll be curious… the perfect opportunity to get a shot of their curious face. Repetition is key here too. As soon as they stop messing with you and your camera, they’ll go back to their usual business and that’s when you’ll make the best shots. Continue shooting while this situation resolves itself. You might not like the process, but you’ll love the results in an 8×10.
Prepare the field of battle – Small dog owners who treat their RezDawgs like Royal Buddhist Monks will often find themselves splayed flat out on the ground. If you’re shooting in the back yard, be kind to yourself and pick up the dog poop before starting. The penalty for not performing this maintenance is obvious but it’s also a great opportunity to make a shot of your a dog laughing uncontrollably at their silly human as you mumble-swear your way to a clean shirt. This goes double for shooting in parks. Trust me, you won’t regret this little bit of preparation. Go: write this on a sticky note and put it on your camera now. Also put one on the back door, and on your dog as well. Over preparation in this area is not possible.
OK, the truth is that you aren’t likely to ever be smarter than your dog – especially if you have a RezDawg. No dog photographer ever is. But if you follow these guidelines and pay attention to how your dog poses naturally, you’ll have a leg up on other photographers.
We always welcome comments and suggestions about the blog. Is this the kind of content you find interesting? The longer you let me go without guidance, the more insane and odd my posts are likely to get. Seriously, give me direction now or you might end up reading about how stray dogs in Moscow take the train into town every morning to beg and return home on the same route to sleep in the suburbs (where they’re much safer.)