"Honey! Hurry, get the camera. The dog is doing something cute." As your companion runs, stumbles, and fumbles with the lens cap, the dog's interest wanders and by the time the picture taker is ready, your four-legged model has gone on to something new.
If this has happened to you, take heart: You're not alone. Dog photography is a lot like fishing: "You should have seen the one that got away'' But just as a good fisherman heads onto the water with a tackle box full of appropriate lures for the kind of fish he wants to catch, and a map in his mind of where those fish will be, a budding dog photographer will benefit from planning. Taking the time to prepare for a picture will lower your frustration and heighten your level of success.
Over my years as a dog-lover-turned-professional-photographer, I've realized how simple the creation of good shots can be. All you really need to get good pictures of your dog is a solid understanding of your dog's natural beauty and behavior; patience; a clear vision in your mind of the kind of picture you want; a working knowledge of how your cam era functions; and a plan for reaching your objective.
A Natural Beauty
As the saying goes, "The best photographers know their subjects well." This doesn't mean that you have to be an expert on whatever breed your dog may be. As it relates to photography, it simply means that you should know your dog's best features, what colors he looks best surrounded by and his level of activity and trainability.
Let's start with the basics. What kind of dog are we talking about, and why does it matter? Each breed of dog was created for a purpose, and often the natural setting for that original purpose makes a great backdrop for your classic dog portrait. If, for instance, you own a Golden Retriever, a breed that was originally created to retrieve game birds from the water, then a picture taken out of doors, near or in the water, might be beautifully appropriate for your dog. But contrasts work too, and a tiny Chihuahua might look great posed on top of a giant boulder. So use your imagination-and sense of humor-when considering your dog's "natural setting.''
Colors and Patterns
A black dog in a dark setting will probably blend into the background.
What color is your dog? Is it a solid color or does he have markings? A black dog in a dark setting will probably blend into the background; a tan dog in the desert will do the same. A dog with a brindle or spotted coat will look its best in a setting of even and contrasting tones behind it. If your goal is to take a surrealistic picture of a dog blending into the background, then you might choose a background that will blend with your dog. Otherwise, contrasting complementary colors are a much better choice.
Your dog doesn't have to be an obedience star for you to get good pictures of him, but the basics of "sit" and "stay" will make your photography adventures much easier. And a cooperative dog on a photography shoot makes the experience a lot more fun! If your dog falls in the category of "less than trained," it's never too late to begin. Believe it or not, you can teach your dog to sit and stay in just one afternoon. So find a book on obedience or join a training club and teach your dog these fundamental commands. You'll thank yourself when the pictures you take include your beautiful dog rather than a blur or an empty background.
There's an old saying in horses, "A sour temper sours the horse." Any good horse trainer knows that when he's about to lose his temper, it's time to put the horse back in the barn. The same wisdom applies to dogs. If your goal is good pictures, you must keep your words and hands soft. What have you accomplished if you've bullied your dog into sitting still but he's so scared or embarrassed that his ears are pinned back and his head is hanging low? Great pictures require great patience. That's why the "Buddy System" was invented.
Your time spent photographing your dog will be much more enjoyable if you can find a friend to help handle him. Taking pictures of your own dog can be frustrating, especially when you get down on her level and are trying to get her attention. Your buddy can help by posing the dog and walking wherever you want the dog to look when you push the shutter. If and when your dog leaves the "set," your buddy can bring her back to the spot and you can stay in place. Now, if your dog breaks her sit, you'll be laughing instead of fuming.
Your Vision and the Background
When planning your picture, you must visualize your result. Is it a head and shoulders portrait or full length? Either way, you'll want to focus the lens on the dog's eyes because that is where your viewer's attention will be drawn.
What kind of background have you selected? Are you sure that it allows for your dog to be the center of attention? Be careful that objects in the background aren't sticking up above your dog's head, giving him a third ear. Keep the background clear of litter, and if you're shooting in a park, watch out for garbage cans. If you want to use flowers for a background, make sure that they complement your dog rather than overpower the picture. The same can be said about props. Too many props can spoil a picture, so add them sparingly. Remember, your dog is the main focus. Make sure he stands out well against the background.
Most of all-and it may seem simple -many people forget to look through the viewfinder. Look at the image you see there as though you're seeing it for the first time. What do you notice that looks out of place? Does it help to turn the camera vertically, horizontally, or to move yourself slightly, so that the framing is different? Pay close attention to the image in the viewfinder, so that you aren't surprised by the final result. This holds true for digital cameras as well as film cameras. Many people who shoot digital get hung up on looking at the LCD display screen, but the viewfinder is almost always a better measure of the final result than the little screen on your camera.
Know your Equipment
Many people erroneously believe that shooting digitally requires a different technique than shooting with film. The main difference between digital and film is the output of your pictures. All the same rules of photography apply. If you want a background that is completely out of focus, you will have to use a very wide aperture (how wide the shutter opens) such as F2.8 or F4-. If your camera has a built-in lens that doesn't allow for aperture manipulation, you will have to physically separate your subject from the background, i.e., pose the dog far, far in front of whatever you are hoping to be out of focus. In this case, it is helpful to use a zoom lens. Luckily, most of today's pocket cameras have a zoom feature. But if you are shooting with a 35mm camera and only have the standard 50mm lens, it is going to be very hard to separate your background from your subject unless you do it physically.
If you are shooting action, make sure that the shutter speed is set high enough to capture it. Usually a 250th of a second is fast enough. Some cameras allow you to set the shutter to continuous release, so that you can shoot rapidly. If you do not have this feature, you must count out the beats of movement and click at the particular moment you seek. Although this sounds more difficult, most pros prefer to shoot action in this way, so try it for yourself Perfection will take some practice but you can do it. Just keep trying.
When shooting outdoors, it is best to keep the sun behind you, shining directly onto your subject. Some people believe that if it's a bright sunny day, they don't need a flash. If it's a the dog's pupils open more, which increases your chances of "red eye." If you're shooting digital, coloring in the red eye is easy with image manipulation software, and if you're shooting film, most photo counters have a special marker for coloring in red eye on a print, for just a few dollars.
Putting the Plan in Action
Whatever your level of expertise, you can take good pictures of your dog if you will just follow these simple rules. We live by the adage, "Success is when opportunity meets preparation." And even if you are caught off guard when your dog is doing something "picture perfect," having the quick knowledge of how you want to capture the moment will make your chances of grabbing it more than likely ... if you can get that lens cap off in time.
Kerrin Winter Churchill and her husband Dale are professional dog and horse photographers who wrote How to Photograph Dogs, a Comprehensive Guide. They breed Welsh Ponies, and drive carriages, accompanied by Prudence, their English Cocker Spaniel. For free tips on photographing your dog visit http://www.dogphoto.com/dogread/