Composition & Basics

1.      Turn off your flash. You’ve seen those ghoulish green eyes that dogs get when their photo is taken indoors with flash, and you’ve seen the over-bright faces that make the dog look surprised, or even spooked. This unflattering look can be avoided entirely by turning off your flash. If you use a more advanced camera, like a DSLR, this is simple. If you are operating a point-and-shoot, it could be trickier. But pull out your manual and figure out how to navigate the menu to deactivate the flash. While you’re at it, see if you can change the ISO (a terminology relic left over from the film days, ISO refers to film speed, and higher film speeds are better for lower light conditions) to a higher number, like 800 or 1600. Your camera might automatically bump up the film speed when you turn off the flash, so you can hold off on the ISO piece until after you can check out your first photo. If the photo isn’t blurry, you’re good to go.

2.      Find a spot with great natural light. If you are shooting indoors, this means positioning the dog next to a bright window, with the light source at a 45 to 90 degree angle from head-on (so, the window should be at the dog’s side, lighting the side or side/front of his face) If you are outside, find a nice shady spot. Our instinct is to put the subject right in the sun, but have faith—the shade is more flattering. The best light is often found under the awning of a building or in an exterior doorway. If the photo comes out blurry, your location is too dark.

3.      Grab the tastiest treat you can find. It’s best if you can make a collection of photos of your adoptable dog, including a full-body shot, a profile or “action” shot, and a headshot. Perhaps the most important of these is the headshot. Those soulful brown eyes are what will really draw in potential adopters. If you are coordinated, get your camera ready in your right hand, and then wave the yummy treat (or favorite toy) in front of the dog using your left hand. Raise the treat up to camera level, and snap the photo. The goal is for the dog to follow the treat with her gaze so that at the moment you take the photo, the dog’s eye contact is almost directly with the camera. If you are not coordinated enough or if the dog is not cooperating, enlist a helper to handle the toy/treats or hold the leash so that the dog can’t foil the setup.

4. Pay attention to background. Chances are, the dog will look better against a nice grassy field, a clean bed, or a brick wall than against a chain-link fence, a stack of paperwork, or the legs and feet of the person holding the leash. If you can, try to create a non-distracting background for your photo shoot.

5. Get creative. One favorite look for dog portraiture is the top-down angle, where the photographer simply stands up straight and takes the dog’s photo from above. But, there are many choices. Try crouching way down to take one from a worm’s-eye view. Try having the dog lie down, sit, stand, or do any cute tricks she knows. Try offering her a ball to chew on, or a toy to play with.

And remember: in some ways, dog photography is just like training. Some dogs are naturals, while others take more work. Experiment with different techniques to see how you can get and keep the dog’s attention, and try different angles to see what is most flattering. The possibilities are endless, and you may be surprised at which photos really capture the dog’s personality best.

Lollie demonstrating nice natural light, good camera position, and non-distracting background.

17 responses

  1. Pingback: On Dogtography |

  2. I’m looking forward to seeing more. But I will say that you make it sound so easy. In my small house, just getting room near a window can be tough.

    I guess the next suggestion will be practice, practice, practice.

    • it is easy! everybody (except apartment-dwellers) has a door to their house that receives indirect light at some point during the day. prop the door open, have honey sit in it, and practice, practice, practice! try lining yourself up with the light source behind you, to your side, to your back . . .

  3. It helps that Lollie is such a pretty, cooperative model 🙂 Great tips.

    Sometimes I find that when the treat is too tasty, I just get shots of drooly dogs after awhile, lol.

  4. Love these tips. My issue (well, one of many) is I’m usually taking the photos at night so don’t get natural light. I could try to take photos before going to work in the morning but that usually doesn’t happen, and by the time I get home it is too dark. Hopefully I’ll have better luck in the summertime when it stays light for longer. 🙂

    • Yeah, I have that problem too. I often end up shooting by ambient indoor light (lamps), but to do this you really need a decent camera and a fast lens. Even then, the effect is not quite as good as when you have natural outdoor light. I have been experimenting with garage/shop floodlights for indoor lighting and thus far have had little success, but I have not given up yet. The most success i have had with floodlights was in this post:

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  6. Pingback: Dogtography. « Our Waldo Bungie

  7. Thanks for the tips – I will put them to good use after much practice! I just picked up “The Art of iPhoneography” from the library which shows me how best to use my iPhone when I am taking photos with it and yes, I use it a lot (it now is more of an iTouch). My dog Justus zeros in on a squeeky :).

  8. If you have to use a flash, bounce it off the ceiling–even if it means taping a piece of paper to a smaller camera to diffuse/bounce the light so that it fills, but indirectly.

  9. Took me forever to realize I had to turn off the flash for pet portraits!! I wish someone would have told me years ago when I was trying to take pics of my cats! They always ended up looking like demons. 🙂

  10. This is really wonderful! I hope that you will have some more updates soon. Something that helps me is to use the continuous shooting mode. It’s kind of cheating but my photos are far from professional-looking. I just have to keep practicing!

    • Thank you! I use a Nikon D300 and primarily a Sigma 30mm/f1.4 lens, plus Adobe CS4 for processing.

  11. Pingback: Photography Week: Intro & Basics | Peace, Love, & Fostering

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