If you have a dog in your family, spend time with other people’s, or work with canine colleagues, you’ll know what amazing creatures they are. But taking pictures of dogs can be tricky. They’re faster and less predictable than human subjects, and vary wildly in colour, and size, and behaviour. I’ve been shooting pictures of dogs professionally for over 10 years, and of course I shoot my own dogs all the time, too, so I’ve got to know a lot about the subject, both technically and in terms of working with dogs. So, from kit to technique, with a bit of laying on the floor in between, here are some tips that can help you out.
Choose your moments
Depending on the type of pictures you want, choose a moment when your pet is in the right mood. For example, there’s no point trying to shoot a calm portrait when they think it’s walk time. Conversely, if you want some action shots, try to shoot them near the start of a walk, before too much energy is expended and they’re cover in mud. The better you know them – and dogs in general – the easier you’ll be able to pick the moments to shoot.
Pick the right lens
Again, select the right lens for the right situation. Much as with humans, if you’re shooting a regular portrait, focal lengths from 50mm all the way to 200mm can be a good choice, the top end of that helping you fill the frame with smaller dogs. And if you pick a prime lens you’ll likely get a big maximum aperture like f/1.4 or f/1.8, that’ll help you blur the background behind your subject.
Often though – and especially when shooting on a walk – you’ll want a zoom lens that’s more adaptable to a subject who’s always on the move. A 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is a great choice, and my favourite for dog photography, but you can get a lot done with a variable aperture 70-300mm zoom, too. In the latter case, you may just need to shoot at higher ISOs to allow for the smaller apertures available.
If you want something more quirky, try shooting close up with a wide-angle lens, where you’ll get some fun distortion that can be really comical.
Get their attention
Your dog might be well trained, but he or she still won’t obey commands just like a human subject. The most common way to get around this is using lures, like their favourite food or toys. With the right placement of treats you can get them to look right down the barrel of your lens giving brilliant eye contact with the viewer. Beware though, the longer you go on using food as a lure, the more drool you’ll get in your pictures!
Make them look good
That brings us on to a bit of housekeeping. You don’t need to take your dog to the groomers before every shoot, but unless the objective is to shoot them in their completely natural state, which normally means coming out of a puddle, some attention to detail can help the visual impact. Try to shoot without a lead on if possible, and take a look around them for any other distractions. Pay attention to drool – unless it’s important for the shot – gloop in their eyes, stray hairs, and anything that could be stuck in their coat. Most of the time, a brush or a quick rub down with a wet flannel does a great job, for a clean and tidy look.
Keep it sharp
Sharpness in pictures comes from lots of things – mainly good focusing and the correct exposure settings – and both of those need to be adapted to your subject. If you’re shooting action, increase your shutter speed to at least 1/1000sec, using a wide aperture and a high ISO if required. For portraits you can use slower speeds, but remember a dog may not hold still like a human subject – if there’s subject blur increase the shutter speed. Image stabilisation won’t help with this as it only affects camera shake, not subject movement.
Shoot at their level
Just as with human portraits, your images will have a greater connection when shot at the same eye level as the subject. This is going to mean either seating them higher up, or – most usually – getting down to their level. As you crawl around on the floor, they’ll likely think its a game, but ignore them and they’ll soon go back to normal. Obviously you can make use of your camera’s vari-angle screen for this, but if you’re shooting low down outdoors get yourself some waterproof trousers.
Improve your lighting
If you shoot portraits, you’ll know all about improving subject separation with hair and rim lighting effects. Well, it works even better with furry subjects. When you’re working outside, try to position the sun behind the subject, then use a little positive exposure compensation so that you’re not underexposing the image against the light. If you’re lighting with flash or continuous lamps, you can set up a light behind the subject to get the job done, too.
Focus on the eyes
There aren’t many instances when you want to focus away from the eyes, so try to get your sharpness there, if possible. In action shots, where you’re using Continuous focus, try keeping a group of AF points over the head, or using a tracking mode. If it’s a regular portrait you’ll find it easier, but moving the active AF point closer to the position of the dog’s eye will mean you don’t need to focus and recompose. If you’re having trouble keeping eyes sharp, use a smaller aperture, so there’s more depth-of-field.
Some of the latest mirrorless cameras, which use hybrid focusing systems, like those from Sony and Nikon, even have an Animal Eye AF mode, which will continuously keep your dog’s eyes in focus.
If you want shots with a difference, experiment with much slower shutter speeds. You can use panning techniques on running dogs, just like you can use them on moving vehicles, though the way an animal moves makes it more difficult to achieve sharpness in the places you want, trial and error will get you some great shots. Depending on the speed of your subject, try shutter settings from 1/30sec to 1/125sec. If you go much lower it’ll be difficult to get anything sharp at all.