Pet Photography Tip #4- The Subject

Composition, lighting, background. All things that are important in a photo and all things that we’ve delved into a bit here on the Team Unruly blog, but it’s time to stop tip toeing around it and get to the subject of the photos, literally. It’s time to talk about the thing you’re all actually photographing, the dogs themselves.

The tricky thing about dogs is that they are alive. They move, they breathe, they don’t always listen, and they don’t understand what the heck we’re doing with that clicking thing in our hands. Landscapes and still photos are easy. You see what you like, you take as long as you need to set up, and you take the photo. People are a little less cooperative, but they most likely know what a photo is and you can explain to them exactly what you’re looking to accomplish. Animals, on the other hand… forget it!!!

The good thing about [most] dogs is that they are trained to some degree. They can be pretty tricky to photograph,  but they’re easier than, let’s say, cats. You can tell Fido to sit and stay, but Whiskers is probably going to walk away and flick you off with her tail as she goes.

So here are some tips on working with the dog part of dog photography.

Posed Photos
Let’s talk about the simplest type of dog photo, the portrait shot. These are the photos you get framed to hang over your fireplace. The ones that show off your dog as a beautiful and well-mannered member of society, the truth of the matter aside. We see them all the time, the dog sits poised against a lovely background, looking regally into the distance.

This is where the power of the sit-stay or the down-stay comes into play. The best way to get these photos is to place the dog exactly where you want it, tell it to stay, and back up to get just the right shot. But what if your dog doesn’t stay? This is where a second person really comes in handy. You may not be able to explain to your dog where you want him to sit and why, but a friend or family member can certainly get the point across. While you back away from the camera, have your assistant position the dog, then step briefly out of the photo. It may take a few tries, but it’ll save you having to walk back and forth and tearing your hair out.

Perhaps the most important part of these portrait type shots is getting the dog to look alert and interested. There’s nothing that ruins this type of photo than a dog who isn’t paying attention or is about to leave the scene. Crinkling treat wrappers, trilling with your tongue, or having your handy dandy assistant wave a toy just out of sight of the camera will accomplish that look.

For an extra twist, try positioning the dog away from the camera, then getting his attention so that he gives you that sexy over-the-shoulder gaze.

Head Shots
To get a more personalized feel for a dog portrait, try cutting out the dog’s body all together and just shooting the dog’s face and head. Dogs have expressive faces, soulful eyes, and active ears for a reason! This type of shot is also a great way to avoid the issue of posing your dog if he doesn’t always listen and you don’t have access to a second person.

Here, for example, Herbie was tied in a barn full of clutter and people. There was a lot going on and getting her to sit still against a nice background simply wasn’t going to happen.

A head shot gives you the opportunity to explore the individual nature of the particular dog you’re shooting. The wrinkles in his face, the color of his eyes, the whiskers on his chin. These are all things that a head shot can reveal to a person who doesn’t know your dog.


Action Shots
The great thing about shooting a living, breathing subject is the potential for action shots. Dogs do a lot of fun things like running, jumping, and tumbling that are a lot of fun to photograph. Much like portrait shots, action shots can be arranged to a large degree for best results.

Once again, having a second person can be very helpful. Someone who can, for example, throw a ball or lure a dog to jump with a tug toy. I suggest someone with a high play drive and lots of energy. My favorite second person is Mike. He loves to get Herbie all amped up:

So I can get shots like this:

When shooting action shots, there are a few things you want to keep in mind.

1. When shooting action shots, with the rare exception, the photo is going to be more effective if you can see the dog’s face. Try shooting with the dog coming toward the camera or with his side turned to the viewer. Butt shots are rarely attractive or interesting.

2. Try to keep the dog’s pose in mind. This takes some timing and some practice, but if you can get a dog with all four feet off the ground or his lips flapping wildly in his face, the photo will be enhanced that much more.

3. Keep in mind how a dog’s action affects his background. Sand, snow, water, and even fallen leaves frequently create a fun photo effect if you can get a dog sprinting through them.

4. Action shots don’t necessarily mean that you have to have the whole dog in the frame. Close ups can be just as effective here as they are for still photos.

Candid Photos:
Of course, the best part about shooting tricky subjects like dogs is that all the things that make them hard to photograph are also the things that make photographing them so rewarding. Dogs have personality, expression, and unpredictable behaviors that make them so much fun to shoot! Sometimes, the best way to get a photo of a dog is just to follow him around and wait til he does something fun.

Like grabbing a piece of a shovel out of the back yard:

Or jumping through a pile of sand:

Or simply curling up in bed at the end of the night:

The best piece of advice I can give you as a pet photographer is to always have your battery charged, your memory card loaded, and your camera nearby because dogs are liable to provide us with photo ops at the drop of a hat (or you know, tennis ball).

…And not to give away the section about must have photo equipment, but I would definitely suggest having a zoom lens, so you can capture all these actions without gaining so much of the dog’s attention that he stops what he’s doing to come see if you’ve got something for him.

10 thoughts on “Pet Photography Tip #4- The Subject

  1. I couldn’t agree more with having a zoom lens! I can’t imagine photographing dogs without one. I just recently got a nice all purpose zoom (18-200mm) and it’s awesome to have for canine photography.

  2. Excellent tips!
    I’m trying to save up for a nice zoom lens. Not sure if you’ve done a photography tip post on equipment, but if not, I’d like to request such a post.

  3. Thank you for your tips. It’s really hard when you’re the one throwing the ball and taking the photo all by yourself haha

    • I feel you on that one! For one thing, when I have the camera up and I’m trying to throw the ball I have terrible aim and sense of where I’m throwing it. Yesterday I tossed the ball, but must have tossed it right at the ground. It bounced back up and instead of getting my dog running away from me I had him basically jump on ME to get the ball. Oops!

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