How to take better dog photographs

By Geoff Harris

While it’s a brave soul that ventures out on the street to take photographs at the moment – and in many countries under lockdown it’s illegal – there’s nothing to stop you practicing your pet photography skills during this difficult time.

Many dog owners will have access to a garden or back yard, so you don’t even need to leave the perimeter of your house. If not, it may still be ok to safely walk and photograph your pet in a nearby green space so long as you observe social distancing rules (check the latest updates).

With this mind, here are some tips to help you get some great dog images you will treasure long after the virus crisis has passed. We’ve included some winning images from the Dog Photographer of the Year competition, organised by the UK Kennel Club; why not enter yourself, as there is a wide range of categories.

1) Focus on the eyes

A lot of dog photography skills come from conventional human portraiture. If you are unsure where to focus, the eyes are usually ideal. They tend to be the first things we look at in a portrait and can really capture a dog’s character. You can either choose single point AF (autofocus) and move the focus point to the eyes, or try activating the eye detection feature in your camera. The Real-time Eye AF on the latest Sony camera’s will easily recognise a dog’s eyes.

2) Blur the background

This is another classic tip from human portraiture. Selecting a wide aperture, such as f/2.8 and carefully focussing on the eyes is a great way of blurring the background so all attention is on the dog. Or, you can use a telephoto lens, which has a similar effect.

3) Place the dog in context

The winner of the last Dog Photographer of the Year competition was Dreaming Merlin by Denise Czichocki. As well as expertly blurring the background, the decision flowers as a framing device turns a good portrait into a great one. It also tells a story about Merlin, who is deaf, but still has a keen sense of smell.

4) Make the most of natural light

Monica van der Maden from the Netherlands won the 2018 competition with an image of Noa the Great Dane, seemingly alone in a forest. As well as capturing the emotion in the dog’s eyes, Monica shot early in the morning, when the light was simply gorgeous. If you can’t get out to a forest location owing to travel restrictions, try placing your dog by a north facing window indoors and using the flattering light to illuminate its face.

5) Capture dogs in motion

Monica also did very well in the 2019 competition, with this fantastic image of a dog in motion. Note how she again focussed on the eyes, but used a fast enough shutter speed to capture the energy and forward movement. The faster the shutter speed the better, but also use your camera’s burst mode and fire away as the dog comes towards you, again focussing carefully on the eyes or head. You may need to widen the lens aperture or select a higher ISO in order to enable a fast-enough shutter speed in poorer light.

6) Put dogs in pairs or groups

Jamie Morgan was a winner in the 2016 competition with this stunning, painterly portrait of two Afghan Hounds. As well as the carefully blurred scenic background, including both dogs creates a much more impactful image. Groups of dogs can work very well too. Note how the second dog in Jamie’s image is off centre, following the rule of thirds; this creates a more pleasing composition than plonking them dead centre.

7) Show dogs interacting with people

These creatures are man’s best friend, right? While you don’t want to be too cloying or sentimental, showing the bond between a dog and its owner can create a really memorable image. Polyna Ulyanova’s image from the 2016 competition is a sterling example. You can show working dogs out in the field with their owners, too, or playing with kids. Again, think carefully about the lighting and composition.

8) Experiment with flash

Kaylee Green showed how to get great results with flash in the 2017 competition, bringing out lots of detail, colour and character in the pooch’s face while also freezing the water droplets. On-camera flash is easiest in this kind of outdoor situation, but you might be able to fix up off-camera flash, triggered by a remote or a phone app, if you are shooting in your back garden.

You must prevent the background from being too underexposed, so with on-camera flash, it’s wise to start off with lower flash power, until you get the right settings. It’s also a good idea to bring in higher ISOs and wider apertures if the light is starting to fail. High-speed synch flash can also be used for great effect when it comes to ‘freezing’ a fast moving dog, such as one leaping up in the air.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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