If you’re lucky enough to have a wonderful dog around while you’re stuck in lockdown, this is the perfect opportunity to hone your pet photography skills and try to get some beautiful portraits of your furry friend.
With a dog of my own, I know how much I have loved getting to spend this extra time with my pet. We have a black working cocker spaniel named Willow who often gets mistaken for a black labrador puppy. She is sweet, incredibly loving and affectionate. She loves nothing more than being with her pack and evening snuggles on the sofa, and has unbelievable patience with our kids.
Her worst habit is hiding everyone’s shoes; her best habit is her ability to know instinctively if you are unwell or upset, and to nuzzle in anxiously to check on you. On walks she is as energetic and cheeky as anything, which is why she has been an amazing subject for me to practice photography on fast pets!
Sadly, because dogs don’t live as long as we do, photography is hugely important for capturing all the lovely memories.
I realized recently that because I had been so busy with client work, I had not taken many photos of our gorgeous Willow and she is starting to go a little grey around the muzzle (although that might be the stress of having the kids around so much!). So lockdown has been the perfect opportunity to shower lots of attention on her, and take some heartfelt pictures.
While I’m at it, I thought it would be useful to share some of my top tips on how to photograph your dog well. And since we’re all isolating, it’s important to note that you can take these photos whilst in your garden or on your daily walk!
1. Camera Kit
My ideal lens for photographing dogs is a zoom lens. My favorite professional lens, which I bring on all my dog photoshoots, is a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens—this is perfect for capturing action shots from far back, as well as beautiful portraits with lots of softness in the background thanks to the low 2.8 aperture.
If you have a DSLR camera that can do ‘back button focus,’ look this up in your camera manual. This is a great way to improve your hit rate on shots. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but is a game-changer for fast-moving subjects.
I don’t use flash, as it can be unsettling for dogs and I prefer the look of outdoor natural light.
When photographing your dog, be prepared to get dirty—you will definitely be kneeling and lying on the floor to get the best shots. I would suggest you wear clothes you don’t mind getting grubby, or waterproof trousers if it’s a wet day.
Treats can be super useful if your dog is reward-driven, and you’d like them to stay still or follow a command for a particular shot.
Having a toy that your dog really loves (e.g. a ball) can also be handy—hold it just above or to the side of your lens, or move it around the lens, to get different expressions from your dog.
The noise of a squeaky toy when they least expect it can make for one of my favorite shots. Ensure the dog is calm and looking at the camera, then give the toy a squeak behind your back. They will look straight at you and cock their head to the side to try and figure out where the noise is coming from. Just be quick with your shot!
Having an assistant with you can be a great help, whether it is holding the dog whilst you back away for a shot before they are released, throwing a ball, or making noises behind you to get their attention.
3. Get down to dog level
One of the best tips for photographing your dog well is to get down to their eye level. This is why I am usually found kneeling or lying down on the beach or forest floor to get the most beautiful and emotive shots.
4. Get portraits first
If you want to get some beautifully still portraits of your dog, I’d recommend taking these photographs first so that they are not panting from the exertion of running around and their tongue is then hanging out!
5. Focus on the eyes
They say eyes are the gateway to the soul, so you should always make sure they are in focus.
It’s easy to miss the eyes and get a dog’s nose in focus instead, if they are looking straight at you. To achieve sharp focus, it’s best to use a single focus point on your camera that you can move within the frame to sit exactly on one of the dog’s eyes as you take the shot.
Also: I have been known to balance a treat on the top of my lens hood to ensure the dog is looking straight at me!
6. Capturing your dog on the move
Capturing a dog mid-air is probably the hardest thing to photograph, as they can be very, very fast (especially if you have a spaniel like mine!).
Problems include them running fast towards you and filling too much of the frame, you missing the focus, or you getting the shot but because of the way their ears are flying and their teeth are bared they look terrifying in ways you would not normally notice.
There is certainly a bit of luck to it…
To increase your chances of getting a good shot of your dog moving fast, try the following:
- Don’t zoom in too much, you can always crop the photo later
- Position your camera’s focus where you think the dog’s head will be, so that you are ready when you release the shutter
- Use a fast shutter speed. My shutter speed never goes below 1/500sec on a dog photoshoot, and I ramp it up to 1/1000sec if they are running or jumping. You may need to increase your ISO to compensate.
- For moving shots, use small group of auto-focus points on your camera instead of a single focus point. This will give you a better chance of sharp focus
- Have your camera set on ‘sports’ mode or continuous focus / tracking mode
- Use the burst mode on your camera to take a sequence of fast shots to increase the odds of getting a perfectly-timed shot.
7. Photographing black dogs
It can be tricker to photograph black dogs, as your camera can struggle to pick up all the detail in their fur and they can end up looking a bit like a black smudge with eyes!
The best tip for photographing them is to look for soft, even lighting. So find shade, choose a cloudy day, or photograph them early in the morning or late in the evening during the ‘golden’ hour, when the light is coming from a steeper angle.
I also tend to underexpose my shot for a dark-coloured dog, to ensure the camera picks up the detail. Then, in post, you can increase the exposure on just the dog when you come to edit the photo.
8. Capture the feeling
The bond between owners and their pets can be a truly beautiful thing to photograph. Make sure you use an aperture setting that will keep both the dog and owner in focus (e.g. f/5.6), and then just wait until a natural moment unfolds.
9. Natural light and bokeh
A good background can make the difference between an average shot and a great shot. Choose a background that is not distracting, and set your camera to a small aperture number (e.g. f/2.8) to give your background that lovely dreamy look.
If mother nature is giving you beautiful soft sunlight or stormy skies, incorporate this into your photograph too to make your photo have the ‘wow’ factor.
10. Be patient and make it fun
If your dog sees the time you are photographing them as fun, and not a task, then you will get shots that reflect them at their happiest. Not only this, but they are likely to interact with you for longer and are less likely to go padding off to investigate and sniff.
Have fun together, and I hope this blog has given you some helpful tips to capture your gorgeous four-legged friend at their very best!
About the author: Rachel Hughes is a self-taught family and pet photographer based in Jersey, Channel Islands. To see more of her work, visit her website or give her a follow on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.