Dog Photography Tip #1: Composition

People frequently ask me for photography tips and I have to be perfectly honest: I don’t really think about it! Photography is something I do so that I can share my world with others. It’s not about art for me. It’s about showing how I see things, what I experience on a day to day basis.I actually had a photography teacher in high school tell me that I had no talent and should quit while I was ahead. Obviously, I didn’t take his advice. Instead, I started to experiment with things that worked and things that didn’t. Over time, I have discovered that certain things really do help make a better photo.

It’s time to share those things! Let’s see if I can make a series of 10 Dog Photography Tips in the upcoming weeks..

Composition - This is the one thing that I learned from taking the one photography class I enrolled in. It’s also something you’ll learn in most basic art classes, starting in middle school. There are a few basic concepts that will help make your photo more appealing to the eye.

The first thing to keep in mind is your focal point. This is the focus of your photo and the thing you want your viewer’s eye to be drawn to. When it comes to pet photography, this is most commonly the pet. However, it’s often fun to switch this up. For example, in this photo, which I still feel is about Herbie, the focal point is actually the kitten in the foreground.

Keeping the dog blurred emphasizes the kitten as the focal point of this photo.

Remember, it’s always fun to switch it up! We all love to see cute and charming pictures of dogs and especially puppies, but it may be more interesting to focus on a specific aspect of your dog. Dogs have great textures  on their paws and their noses. They have soulful eyes and favorite toys. They leave footprints and wear dog tags. All of these things make for alternative to your standard dog posing or face-focused photo.

In this portrait of a ferocious looking happy greeting, the dog’s teeth are very obviously the focal point.

There are several things you can do to draw attention to your focal point. The first is to use the rule of thirds. This rule dictates that, rather than placing the focal point in the middle of your shot, you divide the photo into thirds and place the focus where those lines intersect.
Here we see the dog placed on the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds creates visual interest and lets you do things like play with negative space (the empty area in a photo). It’s important to pay attention to this negative space because the way you balance it can really change the feel of a photo. A photo that is well balanced in its use of visual space can give a calm, relaxed, or still feeling, while a photo with dramatic negative space can come off as dynamic or full of motion.

Here, for example, the dog is laying still and the photo is cropped close. The dog takes up about half the space in the image and the photo feels peaceful and balanced. You feel as though the dog is going to stay put for at least a little while.

This photo on the other hand features a lot of negative space and background. The pose alone would make for an exciting shot, but leaving a lot of the background allows the viewer to imagine just how much open space there is and just how far the dog could run. There is a sense of motion and speed about the shot.

Another compositional tool is the leading line, a literal line in a photo that leads the eye to the focal point. Trails, long dog legs, or dogs arranged in size order are just a few examples of leading lines that can really make a focal point the center of attention.

In this photo, for example, the line of reeds in the background draws the eye horizontally across the photo and to the dog.

A final compositional concept that I frequently use in my photography is that of natural framing. We’ve all seen photos framed and hanging on the wall, but natural framing refers to objects in the photo that seem to surround the focal point, really making it pop. My friend’s boxer, Kole, has a fun habit of naturally framing himself!

Kole demonstrates natural framing.
So there you have it, the basics of composition broken down a la textbook… only featuring dogs as the subject! Check back soon for more dog photography tips… including how to get the best light, capturing poses and expressions, and selecting good angles and backgrounds for your photos.

12 thoughts on “Dog Photography Tip #1: Composition

  1. i look forward to more posts in this series as well! and dont forget the section on how challenging it is to get dogs (especially multiple dogs) to stay where you put them AND look at the camera! and maybe the tricks you all use to keep your dogs focus, hehehe.

    • That will be included! That and how to keep them AWAY from you and the camera when you’re trying to get action shots. Stay tuned!

  2. I have to admit that while I agree with most of the compositional points you’ve made, I disagree with a couple–and wouldn’t feel comfortable publishing a couple of those photos, for other reasons.

    Focal point? A-okay — but I wouldn’t publish either the Herbie/kitten shot or the foxhound (?) due to guaranteed misconceptions about the dogs pictured. *I* know Herbie would never harm a kitten, but “pit bull staring at kitten” is guaranteed to alarm plenty of people who don’t know better; the hound may be giving a happy greeting, the ferocious appearance would be sufficient that I’d only share that photo among lovers of the breed and those who personally know the dog in question.

    Rule of thirds: Can’t argue with that on principle, but I’m undecided on how well it applies to that dog/sunbeam photo. While the dog is placed on third-lines, the large block of sun is large enough and centered enough that it distracts significantly from the dog.

    Negative space: Can’t argue with that on principle, though I find that the sense of peace/balance or motion/speed (respectively) is portrayed more by the dogs’ own activity (or leisure) than the space around them.

    Leading line: Can’t argue with that on principle, though I don’t think the line of reeds has that effect in this photo. I feel that the dominant contribution to the center of attention in that photo is the strong contrast between the dog and the rest of the image; the reeds actually function (to my eye) as more “natural framing” than leading line.

    Natural framing: Indeed. :)

    • I don’t eat everything I look at. Neither does Herbie. The photo is supposed to portray watchfulness, not hunger. She’s not panting or licking her chops.

      I actually took the fox hound photo to make him look fierce. The reality of the situation is irrelevant. Anyone who thinks all foxhounds are ferocious based on my one photo is silly.

      I’m pretty sure the dog is still the focal point of the sunbeam photo. Feel free to disagree.

      If the leisurely dog was pictured in a wide open field rather than up close, the photo would have a completely different feel (one of surveillance rather than leisure, for example). Feel free to come back in a few weeks when I do my post on narrative.

      The reeds act as both leading lines and natural frame. The photo displays LOTS of rules of composition… including contrast, rule of thirds, and symmetry. I was merely pointing out one of them. This wasn’t a photo break down post, but a simplified tutorial. Obviously, all photos mean different things to different people.

      I have other leading line photos, but they’re even better for future posts that I plan to make.

      Easy, trigger.

  3. I’m not sure I agree about publishing photos of dogs where they look “ferocious” or any such thing. Dogs have teeth. A lot of sharp teeth. Plenty of things they do make them look ferocious when they’re in fact anything but. No one would ever publish any photos of dogs playing bitey face then, for fear that someone might think it was a dog fight. I mean…dog fight or play?

    If we avoid posting photos of dogs where their teeth show for fear someone might think “bad evil monster dog!” then people aren’t going to think those things ARE normal and you’ll have a lot of folks afraid of dogs. It’s like the amount of people who have thought my dog looked scary for her smiles.

    I also see nothing wrong with Herbie sitting and watching a kitten. She’s not attacking it and the kitten is right in front of her. That ought to be enough to tell people what is happening. I can understand the sensitivity to the pit bull stereotype but I personally like moving beyond that by showing that yes they CAN be sitting around, watching a kitten, and not trying to eat it! To each their own though.

  4. Hey, just to clarify, I meant no disrespect to the photographer or his skills; I think the photographs are all beautiful, and was just looking to discuss the technical aspects of some of the photos. I hope I didn’t upset anyone! (If I did, I apologize.)

    • Hey, to each his own opinion. I believe in sharing photos both happy and gritty. If I see starved animals in my day to day life (as I so often do) I share the photos with the public. It doesn’t advocate starving your pets, but shows the reality out there. THIS is the reality of dog body language. The point of the post wasn’t to promote breeds. It was to discuss composition. A photo of a dog eating a dead bunny would do the same if it was full of great leading lines and followed the rule of thirds. I think you somewhat missed the point of the post, but you’re allowed to do so. With photography, a lot of what goes on is subconscious and hard to explain. A photo of a horse running, for example, is dynamic on its own, but it is MORE dynamic and less cramped with some negative space surrounding it. It’s the difference between a snapshot and a great photo (and I’m not claiming these photos are great, they’re just examples). As for the photographer, SHE was not offended :-P

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