This list is by no means comprehensive, but is a sampling from my bag of tricks for working with pets. You will need to pick and choose which combination of techniques works best for the personality of the pet you are photographing. After all, each dog or cat has a personality that is different from the next, and you want to get the photograph that captures them perfectly.
15 Tips To Better Dog Portraits
- Treats: everyone has a different opinion on this one but for me treats work well. I have three dogs and only one of them is more interested in pets than treats. Even then she will still sit for a snack if she knows you have it. The treat isn't necessarily for eating, it is for getting their attention. Of course, in order to continue to hold their attention you must give them a treat now and then. When photographing my dogs I will hold the treat close to the lens so they look at me, but I don't necessarily give them a treat with each shot taken.
- Kneel: get down to their level. I find that I get the best results if I'm placing my camera and lens at about eye-level with my pet. In my opinion this creates an engaging portrait and looks like a more natural when you are looking at the images later.
- Focus: make sure you are focusing on their eyes. Whether you are using manual or auto focus you'll want to make sure that you are positioning your pet's face so that the lens has their eyes in focus. At times you may want to focus on other points of interest like their paws, or their nose, but for most portraits I find that I prefer for their eyes to be in focus. It adds to the drama of their portrait.
- Energy: know your pet, if there is a time of day when they are so energetic they won't hold still then don't set yourself up for disappointment. The flip side of that is you most likely won't get great portraits when they are exhausted either. For my dogs mid-morning seems to be best.
- Help: consider enlisting a friend or a spouse to help. JB often performs multiple jobs when I want to grab a quick portrait session of the dogs. He holds all the treats, or will help usher them into one spot while I'm getting ready to photograph them. A buddy can do a variety of things: hold the treats, call to the pet, help position them, or just be a second set of eyes for that key moment.
- Happiness: make the time spent photographing fun for you and your pet. I don't always come away with the photograph I imagined, but I always come away with a photograph I'll treasure. Make sure your pet is having fun and that it isn't stressful for them. A happy pet will create better portraits.
- Attention: You want them to enjoy the attention you are giving them. Your pet should be used to their name, words, or sounds you can use to get them to quickly look at you. Treats help in this capacity, but you should practice calling out to them or getting their attention in some way so that when the moment counts you can get them to look at the camera.
- Camera: familiarize the dog with your camera. Careful! They shouldn't have access to it or come near it as they could damage the equipment. But the more you photograph them the more they will start to get used to the camera being a part of the time you spend with them. My dogs now get excited when I pull my camera out, because they know they are going to get to play, receive treats, and have fun. My oldest dog will actually pose in front of the fireplace now (even if I do not have my camera) because he thinks it is a quick path to treats and attention. Over time, familiarity will make portraits easier and easier.
- Location: make sure you are using an ideal location for photographs. Fortunately, we have a fenced in yard. Before that, I used to take them to the dog park. I like to get them in a setting where they do not need to be leashed because then I don't need to do any excessive cropping or photoshop the leash out of the photograph. In some cases, as with the image shown above, if you crop while taking the photograph you can eliminate the leash entirely. Location also matters because the dogs will feel more relaxed and they are safely contained within an area. I never try to photograph my dog while walking them on a leash unless someone else is handling the dog. I don't want to be distracted and their safety ALWAYS comes first.
- Weather: the time of year and season makes a huge difference in my portraits. I will take photographs at all times of the year but I have the best luck in the spring, autumn, and winter. Summer is a great time for photographs too, but it can be very hot for your pet. Again, their safety always comes first, and if I want to take their portrait I will stick to the mornings when it is cooler or in the evening right before sunset. If I do take photographs of them during the day, I like to make sure that it's only for a few minutes and that we have plenty of water. Comfortable dogs are happier in their photographs. Winter is an amazing time to take photographs as you can get flurries on their fur. Again, make sure it isn't too cold for your dog and don't spend too long outside in low temperatures. In my case, my dogs all have double-coats of fur and are breeds well known for loving winter. Even then we are only outside for a few minutes at a time.
- Lighting: using natural light is the most effective path to success. Overcast days offer the best lighting for your photographs as the clouds diffuse the light. Additionally, I've found that in bright sunlight the dogs are sometimes squinting at the camera which is a drawback. Other ideal lighting opportunities include the early morning, or the evening about an hour before sunset.
- Distractions: minimize anything that may grab your dog's attention. If you know that school buses come around at three o'clock every day and your dog likes to bark at the kids, this won't be the best time for portraits. My three always need to bark at the mailman, so I won't plan any portraits while he is delivering on weekends.
- Candids: I sometimes like to get photographs of my dogs doing every day things. Part of capturing their personality is getting that image of them with their favorite toy, making a happy face, or interacting with the family. I try to mix it up so that every photo isn't a portrait but more of a candid shot of them in their normal routine.
- Beds: I have a lot of luck with photographing my dogs while laying on a bed. If I ask them to jump up and signal them to lay down, I can usually get some good shots. My three love the bed so this usually puts them in a good mood and they make adorable faces. The bed makes it easier to photograph indoors because they are calm and positioned in one spot. If your pets are not allowed on the bed you can always try this on their own pet bed as well. Just remember tip #2, you'll want to get down to about eye-level for the best shot.
- Action: I have a lot of photographs of my dogs. A few of my favorites are action shots from when they were running around like lunatics. I love that moment when their feet don't touch the ground or they make a goofy face while moving at top speed. In some cases you just need to show up with your camera and let them have a blast---because the best photographs are the ones you weren't expecting.
Have fun photographing your pet and I'd love to hear how these tips work for you---enjoy!