We’ve talked about lighting. We’ve talked about composition. You KNOW we’re going to talk about the dogs themselves, but let’s talk about the third thing that makes a photo a good photo, and that is… background. There’s nothing that makes or breaks a photo like what is in the backdrop. We’ve all seen those funny Facebook memes where people are posing for a photo and someone has their pants down in the background. It just totally detracts from the point of the photo. That example is obvious, but there are many more subtle things that make a good (or bad) background for a dog photo.
Let’s talk about things you want to avoid, first. The rule is pretty simple: anything that’s distracting. This includes people meandering into your photo, objects like sheds, bicycles, or trash cans, and sharp lines that cut your photo into pieces or seem to magically grow out of your dog’s head or torso (fences and telephone poles are particularly good at doing this).
Here you can see a photo I took where the background was really terrible. Look at how distracting the line of the porch is:
But what are some ways you can avoid these situations? The biggest thing you can do is just be mindful of what is going on behind your dog. It’s very easy to get focused on how great your dog looks and overlook that there’s a big telephone pole sticking right out of his head in the background. Frequently, the fix is as easy as taking two steps to the left or right or changing the height from which you shoot your dog.
This photo was taken in front of the same porch, but I walked closer to the puppies and made sure to keep the edge out of the photo. A blank background is often better than a distracting background, even if it’s not very interesting:
Another example: my boyfriend has this big, brown shed in the backyard of his mom’s house, where we frequently spend weekends with Herbie. It’s a great place for storage and it’s quaint and photogenic in its own right, but it’s a terrible background for photos. The feel of my photos changes completely if I shoot from a different part of the yard and avoiding getting the shed in the photo.
Here you can see two photos of Herbie with her pig friend. They are taken in the same spot, and you can see the same fence in the background. In the first shot, however, the fence takes up more of the photo and is much more distracting. By simply tilting the camera down, I was able to get rid of much of the distracting fence:
How do you get your dog against a more appealing background? There are a few things you can do. One of my favorite dog photos that I’ve taken is this shot of my friend/vet/boss’s dog, Iko:
My favorite thing about this photo is the bright yellow flowers in the background. I spotted them from a distance and just knew I had to play with them. So I did the easy thing, walked Iko over and put her in a sit-stay while I backed up to take the photo. While I was at it, I did the same thing with Herbie.
Another trick is to make your dog ‘fetch into a desired background’. I love to get photos of Herbie running, and fetch ensures that she’ll be facing me on the way back. My favorite thing to do to avoid the shed in Mike’s backyard is to throw the ball so that Herbie is nowhere near the shed, as seen here:
Of course, this can take some planning, and if you’re really gung-ho about getting some great photos of your favorite pet, you might be best off going somewhere with your background specifically in mind. I have found that going someplace that’s photogenic in general means you’re more likely to get a photo with a background you like. Hiking, beach trips, and big, open fields are especially ideal.
Now let’s talk about some easy good-background ideas. As you’ve probably guessed, flowers make for a great background. They’re pretty easy to arrange a photo in, provided your dog has a good sit-stay. I’m also a big fan of trees as background. The great thing about trees is that they all kind of look alike from a distance. They can easily blend to make a smooth, natural back drop for your photo, and there’s typically nothing distracting about them. In fact, we see trees so frequently that we most likely don’t pay attention to them at all.
What else makes for a good background? Pretty much anything with a consistent texture or pattern. When in doubt, grass makes for a pretty neutral background. So does the sky… and water… A blank wall is also a good way of adding interest to your photo.
Finally, let’s discuss working with the background you have. Sometimes you don’t have a lot of control over where your dog is or what’s behind him when you take a photo. Maybe your backyard is full of tennis balls. Maybe your living room is as cluttered as mine. Maybe the side of your house is just plain ugly.
Don’t give up hope. There is still a lot you can do to salvage your photo. Most of the time, cropping your photo close to your dog will remove a lot of the distraction. Another idea is to blur your background or black it out. We’ll talk about that when we get to the nitty gritty details of camera settings, but I promise it’s not hopeless. Here, for example, there were trees, a building, and part of a fence. Instead, I focused on the pretty colors, blurred the background, and got a nice photo in spite of myself.
So there you have it… you can improve your photos by being mindful of your background. Look for things that would make a photogenic back drop. Search out backgrounds that are full of nice colors and repeating textures. Take your dog someplace that is pretty on its own. Move your feet or your dog to eliminate things that are distracting. Sometimes just changing the angle of your shot will do the trick.And, if all else fails, fill your photo with your dog and/or blur the background.
Let’s see some of YOUR photos. What is the best background you’ve ever shot your dog against? Share the inspiration and get those ideas flowing!