Essential Rule Number One:
When on a mission for a great image, always have your camera handy with a clean memory card and fresh batteries in it. This may seem obvious but it is easy to get rushed and forget. While fiddling with loading a memory card or changing batteries, you may watch a great photo opportunity evaporate.
The easiest environment to get good photographs is outdoors where your dog can lay in the grass or by a river, a place where it feels relaxed and natural. Prepare the spot by removing distractions, so your dog settles down and relaxes. It will be most relaxed without a lot of people around.
To separate your dog from the background of your image and bring it close to you, choose a telephoto lens. This blurs the background, leaving no question as to what the image is about. Remember that most dogs have a comfort zone. If you get in their space they respond by jumping at you.
Watch for distractions in your background. Take the time to check your background and make sure it will not detract from your image. The classic is the lovely shot of a dog with a tree sticking out of the top of its head. Memorable, but probably not in the way you hoped. Bright lights in the background, particularly when your dog is standing in subdued light or shade, can also be distracting.
Most dogs will be interested in you and your camera at the start. Your best tool for a great image is your patience, not posing a pet. Bribing them with treats or toys makes them hyper-focused on you and you won’t get a natural shot. So, just sit quietly and wait. Once they’ve relaxed, it’s sometimes fun to make a little noise so that they tip their heads. Or, if you do have another person with you, have them throw a ball or stick to capture a natural dog/person interaction.
Catch your pet in different moods, at different times of the day -- a lazy afternoon and a crazy-excited morning outing. Take your four-legged friend to a place where he/she can play with kids. You don’t have to direct what unfolds -- spontaneity makes great photos. Watch for the right moment, and the next right moment. Experiment with camera angles and perspectives – take a shot from above, or one on your belly shooting up. Practice and play. Get close to your dog, fill the frame, and then back up. All the while, your central focus needs to be on their eyes.
Learn to anticipate the moment you want to capture. You’ll get some of your best outdoor shots during “the golden hours,” the two hours after sunrise and the two before sunset. Photos taken when the midday sun glares look harsh. Direct, bright overhead light burns out texture in highlights and blocks up the areas of interest in dark shadows. Go out and shoot on overcast days, or days of snow or rain and wind. Look at adverse weather conditions as opportunities to take unusual photographs – leaves swirl at your subject’s feet, their fur ripples, snow frosts their eyelashes. These details don’t detract from your photo – they enhance it.
If you must photograph during “high noon” sunlight, sit your dog in the shade and try to keep bright spots out of the background.
Avoid using flash. The most endearing portraits are those that don’t look like a camera was present, images that catch an animal just enjoying being who they are. Once they get relaxed or sleepy, you disappear. Don’t startle them awake with a harsh, bright flash.
You can easily adapt these tips for photographing cats, though you probably won’t want anyone to throw a stick for yours. And, most of these tips apply to children as well.
No matter the subject of your photo shoot, remember that the core essential trick to taking great pictures is to take lots of them. Click away.
Special thanks to Nikole Rae (nikoleraereflections.com) for sharing her pet photography wisdoms!