First things first,
Whether this is the 1st thing that you’ve read about photographing dogs or the 5th, some principals are universal across the board. I’m going to attempt to analyze that I’ve read from other blogs and compare them to my actual experience on location. This should serve as a short comprehensive guide to shooting dogs in an approximate 4x5 meter mobile studio area. I use the term mobile studio because all of the equipment can be setup and tested in roughly an hour and in even less time if you have someone to help.
One of the first things you’re also going to want to do is scout out your location. Ask yourself questions like, “How much space am I going to need?” and “What will be requirements for lighting (e.g. natural light or studio strobes)?” Lighting is the foundation of a photograph, so it makes sense to have this as a primary concern. If you’re in an open area with a lot of windows which let a lot of light in, you may want to get something to block them. Something that works well is a 1 ½ meter black roll of paper. This roll of paper will serve two purposes. One is to block unwanted light from the windows. This takes about 5 minutes to setup per window *depending on the size*. We’ll go over the 2nd purpose, in a following paragraph. But in order to block the light you’re also going to want a roll of gaffers tape. With it, you’ll be able to attach the paper to the wall without ripping off the paint or leaving a nasty residue. A roll of paper towels will also do wonders. Sometimes dogs get a little too excited and accidents happen. Keeping paper towels and rubber gloves on standby will help for these occasions.
After scouting the area that will be used for the shoot you’re going to have to decide on a shooting schedule. Writing down the name of the dog and the dog’s person next to a time will help tremendously. I found that giving 10 to 15 minutes per dog is ideal for 3 to 5 portfolio worthy shots. It’s possible that the first five minutes or so can be spent just waiting until the dog is calm and relaxed enough to get some shots. Remember, it’s likely that this will be a new experience for the dog and person as well, so be patient and give them both some time to adjust. If it takes less time great! But don’t get impatient and try to force the shot. Coordinate with anybody who is there to help to keep track of time to keep you from going over into the next person’s time. When you’re in the zone, it can be difficult to keep track of time.
Next you’re going to have to decide on equipment to use. Camera body is of course on the list, but what kind of lenses do you plan on using? Yes, L-E-N-S-E-S with two capital ‘S’’s. Some dogs will not mind the lens too much and they might even get curious of it. Other dogs detest it and it will make them even more uncomfortable. I generally like to shoot studio portraits with a 50mm (prime) lens, but if the dog starts to show signs of unease it’s best to back off a bit and pull out a zoom lens. For these occasions I have a 70-210mm on standby. With this lens you can back off and have the dog focus their attention on the dog’s person/handler, who would be considerably closer. I can’t emphasize staying calm yourself will help keep the dog calm. It’s like they can sense if you’re nervous so remember to read the dog’s actions and communicate with their person/handler.
Now back to lighting… For the most verity of dramatic shots, you’re likely going to use some sort of studio lighting; either off camera flash, or continuous lighting. Experimenting before the shoot is always ideal because you’ll have an idea of what angles to position the lights to get the best effects. When the lights are where you want them to be for the shoot, it’s best to leave them there. You want as little extra movement as possible, especially when the dog is there. If you try to adjust when the dog isn’t there I could be that the lights are not as flattering as you had hoped and the shoot will be a botch. So know where you want your lights before your subject arrives.
Tricks and Treats
Next point to touch; dogs love treats and toys. Bring a bag of all natural treats will help tremendously when wanting the dog to listen. They also work well in luring them to sit in certain positions. Of course, you’ll want to clear it up with the dogs human before you try to give their dog treats. Some people have a very strict treat diet that you will want to avoid crossing. Simply asking them if they mind if you give their dog treats will certainly break the ice. As far as the squeaky toy goes, you’ll use it to get the dogs attention and look toward the toy. If you want the dog to look away from the camera, you’ll need a second person to walk with the toy. Wherever the toy squeaks, the dog will look. This is a great tactic for profile shots.
The final point of photographing dogs is to get down with them and get high above them. Whenever we see a dog it’s likely going to be from eye level, which is, on average, around 175cm (69.2 inches). Changing the perspective adds a huge level of interest to your shots. It’s not only abnormal for humans to see dogs from these levels; it is also unusual for the dog. They will contort their bodies in more interesting positions creating more dynamic shapes and interesting photos.
Now, keep these things in mind if you ever find yourself wanting to photograph your dog. And remember be patient with the dog and HAVE FUN!!!