By no means would I claim to be an expert in any type of photography. I have been accused of being a "jack of all trades, master of none" and that is pretty true, I think. I do like to dabble, and with every new interest, I find that I've learned a bit, and I like to pass on what I managed to learn.
In September, we lost our beloved dog Zeeke, and in the days after his passing, we found ourselves grasping for little things to remind us of him. Naturally, you would think that as a photographer, I would have tons of pictures of my sweet boy, but no! I barely had a handful. We always much preferred to play with Zeeke and indeed, whenever a camera was pointed in his direction, he was quick to inspect it so that the best shot you could get of him was with his nose pressed to your lens. I decided that I would never make the mistake of missing out on precious moments again with my dear pets. We still have Ash, and in November, we welcomed Molly into our home. These will be the best photographed dogs in the history of dogs.
So, In the spirit of passing on knowledge, I will tell you a few things I've learned about photographing dogs. Ready? Okay, here we go...
It helps to have a dog who knows a few commands already- especially sit and stay. Lay down is also useful, as you'll be asking your dog to sit still for a few moments at a time. If you are photographing a dog who hasn't learned manners yet, you can sometimes get them to sit briefly by holding a treat above their heads and just over their noses until their butt goes down. Be quick! They don't stay that way for very long.
Treats are a must! But, don't use great big normal size treats, have some "training bits" handy. These are little kibble sized bites so that you don't make your dog's tummy upset while training. Food is always a great reward for good behaviour, but then you run the risk of over-feeding. Molly and Ash love "Beggin' Strips", So I tear them into tiny bits and use those as incentive.
An assistant is also very helpful, but not 100% a must. Most of Molly's photographs I have done with just Molly and myself. I hold the camera with one hand, and a treat in the other, just above the lens. But Molly is a very patient dog. Your assistant can stand just off to the side holding treats and giving commands, and in some cases, wiping drool from mouths.
I've found that when there are elements I want in the photo besides the dog, it's easier to shoot these by themselves and composite them into the photo later. Molly didn't like having paper hearts dumped in her face and would flinch and walk away, so what I did was lock my focus with her sitting and looking up at me. I got the photo of her that I wanted, and then, with the camera still in place, but without her in the frame, i dumped the hearts and clicked away. This took several tries to get the "falling hearts" effect I wanted. Then, using masking layers in photoshop, I merged the photos together.
(For a brief video of how I use masking layers- see here https://youtu.be/TukmAS2JHGg)
If you want to put a headpiece or a hat on your dog, make sure the dog is comfortable with it. Some dogs hate having anything on their head. Molly doesn't care. If your dog is like Ash and simply hates it, you can try to build his tolerance by practicing with the headpiece or hat a little everyday and offering lots of treats if/when he leaves it on. Praise him muchly.
Watch for signs of stress in your dog while you are photographing, especially when you've introduced props. Sometimes it's a good idea to let the dog get used to your setup, smell whatever he/she wants and generally explore. You won't get any good shots if your dog is freaked out. Signs of stress can include excessive panting, yawning, or wide eyes. In a calm dog, you should not be able to see white in their eyes. In a stressed dog, you'll see a lot of white around the iris.
If your dog gets stressed, take a break and let them relax for a bit. Don't force them into anything. Give them plenty of time to get used to anything you are doing. Sometimes, it's best to just call it a day and try again another time.
If your dog is completely unwilling to shoot "on set" with props and backdrop and lights, try using his/her natural environment. A set can be really intimidating for a dog, but they are not un-used to cuddling on a couch or curling up in bed, so sometimes, the best pictures are of your fur-baby in his everyday life. Treats and encouragement always work, whichever situation. Good lighting is a must for good photos. If your dog is afraid of studio lights, look for natural light options. Open windows or use a white sheet on the opposite wall for a reflector. In the photo above, there is a window to the left, and I hung a white sheet to the right for a more even light. I didn't want her to be backlit, so the window behind her is shut.
And, of course, if all else fails, you might need to let your dog call the shots. Take him/her outside to play and see what you can get. I have a fenced in yard, so 3/4 of my yard is either ugly chain link fence or the back of my house. Not very appealing for photos. But the back fence is easy to blur out with the right camera settings and the yard behind us is filled with trees. Ash here is sitting on top of our trampoline with his favorite ball, and honestly, this is my favorite picture of him, because it reminds me of how funny he is jumping all over our trampoline and playing keep away with his squeaky ball.
I think you can find a pretty place to shoot even if you don't have a great yard. Take your dog for a walk in the woods. If you have a thin leash and collar, they are easy to edit out in photoshop. If someone else is holding the leash- have them stand off to the side while you shoot. If your dogs attention is on you, holding the camera, you'll end up with a nice portrait of your dog, ears erect, and probably at the happiest you'll see him, since he's outside and on a walk. Remember to take one shot of the scene without anyone in it. That way you can composite the scene and the dog and "mask out" the person and the leash.
(again, for a video on how to use masking layers- see here https://youtu.be/TukmAS2JHGg)
These three photos have one thing in common. It's a mistake that novice photographers make in most of their photos and I was no different in the beginning. Perspective is important, and an interesting photograph will have a perspective that one doesn't see everyday. Everyone can see a dog from this angle. These were taken from a standing position shooting down on the dog. A more interesting angle would be to get more on the dogs level. That means having to get down on the ground yourself, or at the very least squat low. It takes some work on your part, but it's worth it!
Find your niche with pet photography. I've borrowed my ideas from some of the artists listed below, but these are mostly for my personal use, I'm not trying to sell these. I've seen artists with nothing but photos of dogs jumping in the air, or dogs trying to catch treats... Sophie Gamand made waves with her "Flower Crowns on pit Bulls" (which I've borrowed shamelessly from) All for good causes and bringing a spotlight to their breed of choice.
Maybe your thing is dogs splashing in mud, or dogs getting baths. Who knows. Be creative, think outside the box and never be afraid to try new things.
Once you've become comfortable with pet photography, What do you do with it? Well, It's been a proven fact that great photos can play a large part in helping shelter dogs get adopted, so why not volunteer some time to your local ASPCA or Animal Care and Control and see if they would like you to photograph their adoptable dogs?
Yesterday, I had the incredible honor of photographing Marley, from Fort Wayne Pit Bull Coalition, a local rescue dedicated to helping Bully breeds. He has an amazing personality and such a sweet demeanor. It was the most fun I've had on a shoot and I got to cuddle a doggy, so BONUS! Marley's rescuer has dedicated Monday's on her blog to telling his story and you can read about it, and our photoshoot at Peace-a-Bull Assembly under "Marley Mondays"
Would you like to see some other amazing pet photographers? These photographers are also giving to local shelters and rescues with their time and talent- So, if you're looking for inspiration or just looking to oooh and ahhh over cute pups- check these out:
Seth Casteel Photography_
Sophie Gamand Photography
Jessica Trinh Photography
My Fellow Fine Artists
Tammy Zurak of Z Photog Studio | Memphis, TN, USA | Fine Art/Illustrative Photography Gallery:
Pam Korman of District Photography | Philadelphia, PA, USA | Fine Art Photography:
www.bonniealrifai.com Fine art photography
Handy Andy Pandy