“That’s a great photo of a dog, you must have a really good camera”
As a professional dog photographer, I hear it all the time.
It’s true that when you want to get a certain level of photography skill, you’ll need to step it up with an SLR or a mirrorless body, especially if you want to get really crisp action shots.
There are however, certain principles that will help you get good pictures of your mutt with any camera, including the one on your phone.
1. Get your dog used to having their pictures taken.
Some dogs are terrified of the camera. This is not a good start if you want to get great images of you pet pooch looking longingly into the lens.
Some dogs however, will act like they are Naomi Campbell and pretend they were born to be on the front cover of “Dogue”
If your canine is the former, start small. When I was making my book “Rustie and Co, a year of dogs” I worked with a tiny fox Terrier named Nelson. He was so small, he actually weighed less then the camera itself and would shake when he heard the sound of the shutter go off.
Luckily he was very food driven, however for a boy that size he was so small we knew it would not take much for him to be full. I asked his owner to bring Nelson to the next session with a very empty stomach.
I just put the camera on the floor and put tiny pieces of chicken on it. After a while, I would give him chicken and press the shutter, and within about 20 minutes he was posing up a storm like a pro.
2. Change your vantage point
This is a good tip for all photography, but it is particularly relevant for animal shots.
It’s great because it doesn’t matter what camera you use, the principle is still the same. Eye level is always a good one, but sometimes even lower is better.
When I am on a photo shoot with dogs I spend most of my time lying on the ground.
With this image of my kelpie Rustie, I am flat on the grass in front of her and she is running directly at me. She fills the frame and you really see the expression on her face
Getting down really low also helps to emphasise the perspective.
In this image of Hero jumping and catching the frisbee, the low vantage point illustrates the height of his jump.
Take the photo any higher up and you would miss that negative space. The image would then lose its dramatic edge.
3. Get their attention.
Always have treats on hand. This will be different for all pets, but whatever your furry friend loves will help you get their attention.
Most dogs are food driven, so I usually carry some chicken with me and hold it above my camera to get them to look into the lens.
This is also a good way of getting them used to the camera.
You can even enlist the help of someone else to hold the item to get them to focus in the right spot.
Other dogs are toy driven, so a well positioned ball or frisbee will also do the same thing. With some animals, a noise can be the best option. I find this is particularly affective with cats and puppies.
If you are lucky, you might even get the much sought after head tilt portrait, just make sure you have a nice background and you are on to a winner!
4. Use Burst mode
We all know how much our pets move, its impossible to get them to keep still sometimes, even with the best trained dogs.
I almost exclusively have my camera set to burst mode even if I am taking portraits. This means that the pictures will be taken continuously while the shutter is pressed.
With any kind of moving object, this by far increases your chances of getting a good shot. You can then go through, pick the best ones and delete the rest.
There will always be some blurry ones, but with a bit of practice you might be able to get some good action shots!
I also use the same principle with my camera phone. For the iPhone users out there, you can activate the burst mode, by pressing and holding the shutter release and sliding it to the left of the screen.
Alternatively, try holding down the up button on the volume on the side of the phone.
5. Find a nice background
When considering back ground, think about the colour of your dog. A black dog against a black wall could get lost, but a white dog in amongst a dark green forest backdrop would look very dramatic.
Also, in order to showcase the main subject…ie your dog, you want to make sure they are not getting lost in the surroundings or getting mixed up with distracting elements in the foreground such as branches of trees.
In a camera phone, using the portrait mode can help with this, and obviously with an SLR camera you can use a big F stop like f2.8 to make your dog pop out of the image.
You can also try increasing the distance between the back ground and the subject as is evident in the photo of the epic Floyd catching a ball below.
6. Consider the lighting
While we are on the subject of the colour of your dog, also consider the light you are working with. Photographing outside can be difficult because the sun moves, clouds come over and the dog might decide to move into the worst location for effective image taking.
Full open sky sun can be very difficult to work with, especially with white dogs. I try to pick overcast days as the clouds act as a giant diffuser, or if I don’t have that kind of luxury, I seek out shade.
7. Pay attention to stress.
When dogs are stressed they will often pant when its not hot, avoid eye contact, their ears will be back and their tail will be down.
These are signs of discomfort, and it will make for awkward imagery. You want your canine pal to be comfortable and relaxed.
Try not to do a photoshoot with them when they are obviously really hot, or if there are stressors around them such as other dogs.
Get them comfortable first with some treats or a game with a toy, and if they are hot, move into the shade or try another time of day.
8. Choose your timing
You know your dog better than anyone, if they are hyperactive like a puppy and you want to get a more serene quiet photo, take your photos after they have had a good play or a walk.
If on the other hand you are keen to get some good action pictures, do it first thing in the morning when they have just woken up and don’t give them any breakfast so they will be hungry for treats.
With my dog Rustie, she is like a hurricane in the morning and a Tasmanian devil in the afternoon, so I bear this in mind when I’m taking pictures of her.
Penny on the other hand will be keen to go anytime of day. All dogs are different, work with the dog in front of you.
9. Use dog photography as a perfect excuse for training.
Practice STAY, DOWN, SIT and practice it in a range of different environments.
This will make it so much easier for when you want to take pictures, plus training your dog is a great relationship builder.
You can even train tricks like SIT PRETTY or HUG A TREE for even more interesting shots.
Improve your connection with your pet and get great images, its a win win!
10. Candid is often best
At some point in my photo shoots, I always like to give the dog a break and take a candid moment. I lie down on the ground, let them be themselves and snap away.
Sometimes I don’t even look through the viewfinder, I just put the camera down in front of them and see what I get.
11. Bonus Tip
For those of you with an SLR or mirrorless camera body. To really freeze time with that epic action shot, make sure your shutter speed is a minimum of 1/1000 s.
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