How to take amazing photos of your dog

You can thank these people for your maltipoo

Since dogs are so commonplace, we often don't think too much about them.  Most people think of dogs as fun pets who sometimes poop in the wrong place or eat things they aren't supposed to eat.  Since they are so common, you might think that taking serious pictures of dogs is silly or mundane.  But have you ever really thought about where dogs came from?

Dogs are grey wolves that have been selectively bred over the last 10,000 years to love you.  Your ancestors' ancestors picked the nicest, most social wolves and bred them together.  Since the characteristics that humans desire in dogs are genetically tied to traits that are dominant in puppies who go through puppy puberty more slowly, selective breeding led to dogs who matured differently than normal wolves.  This led to dogs with traits like floppy ears, soft fur, and a strong desire to sit on your couch with you.

So your dog (or the one you are borrowing for your photo shoot) is basically an overgrown wolf-puppy who was designed since the dawn of man to love you.  If you are alive now, that means that every single one of your ancestors didn't get eaten by saber-tooth tigers - that's a pretty rad start.  But as an added bonus, your ancestors also passed down a genetically modified cuddle buddy in the form of your dog.  So do your ancestors proud and take some epic pictures of your dog!

Part 1: What you need

You are going to need some basic photo equipment to take cool dog photos.  However, you don't need anything too specialized.

1. A Digital SLR camera

While you can of course use a film camera, taking dog photos requires lots of trial and error.  You'd spend a fortune on film trying to get good shots.  Also, we are well into the 21st century!  So take your film camera back into the past, you time traveler.

If you don't have an SLR camera, feel free to play around with your point and shoot camera using these same techniques.  However, you will be at disadvantage because your camera may not be able to take a series of images quickly and it probably doesn't let you control depth of field very well.  But if is all you have, you might as well use it!

2. A good wide angle lens or a good portrait lens

The best dog shots happen when you get close to the action and move fast.  These are domestic animals, not arctic foxes.  Leave your giant National Geographic zoom lens at home.  It will slow you down and make it impossible to get in close for the best angles.

Instead, I'd recommend taking a good wide angle lens or a good prime lens.

For a wide angle lens, you want something around 24mm to 30mm.  If you have a crop sensor camera (like most anything under $2000), that will make it harder to get a wide angle shot.  In that case, get something in the 18mm to 24mm range.

For a prime lens, get something like a 50mm F1.8 or a 50mm F1.4.  Both Nikon and Canon have 50mm lenses that are excellent for around $100.

3. A wireless flash or a reflector/diffuser (Optional)

If you are going to be taking pictures outside in the middle of the day, you might want to bring a wireless flash or something you can use to bounce or diffuse light.  It's not required, but it can help in a pinch.  See the section below on "Lighting your dog" for more information.

Part 2: Getting the shot

Position yourself low

Since dogs don't usually walk on their hind legs like humans, they tend to be a good bit closer to the ground than us.  You need to get down to their level.  Along with getting closer, this is the best thing you can do to improve your dog photos.

Fill the frame by getting closer

Consider this quote from one of the great war photographers of the 20th century:

"If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”

– Robert Capa

Dogs are smaller than you think.  You need to get really close to them when you take photos.  Chase them around and get right in their space while they play.  They will love it and your photos will be many times better.  Also, Robert Capa managed to "get closer" while shooting pictures on D-Day, so I think you can handle getting closer to your dog.

Your goal should be to fill the entire picture with the dog.  In fact, try filling the entire picture with just the face of the dog.  Get as close as you can to the dog as your camera's focusing capabilities will allow.

Not sure if you are close enough? Take two steps forward. Photo copyright Adam Geitgey.

Use a wide aperture

Just like when taking portraits of people, try using a wide aperture setting on your camera to blur the background.  This will give you some great results.  I recommend shooting pictures in "Aperture Priority" mode on your camera.  This will allow you to set the camera's aperture size while letting the camera adjust the shutter speed automatically.  If you are using a portrait lens, try using an aperture of F1.8 or F2.0.  If you are using a wide angle lens, use the lowest aperture the lens supports.  This may be something like F4.

Keep in mind that with these aperture settings, only part of your photo will be in focus.  So make sure you are focusing on the dogs eyes, not his feet or snout.  There's nothing worse than an almost great shot that has the wrong part of the picture in focus.  Your camera may have different selective focus features to play with if you want more control where in the scene it is focusing.

This shot uses an F1.8 aperture setting for a nice shallow depth-of-field effect. Notice the blurred elements in the backgroud and foreground. Photo copyright Adam Geitgey.

Take lots of shots

The whole point of a digital camera is that it doesn't cost anything to take a picture.  Since you don't have to pay for film, take lots of pictures!  You can always delete pictures you don't want.

Dogs move fast.  Your strategy should be to run with the dog (camera positioned low to the ground) and taking pictures like crazy.  If two dogs are playing, a split second can make the difference between the best photo ever and a lame picture where one dog's paw is blocking the other's face.

When dogs are moving fast, make sure you snap lots of pictures to make sure you get the one that stands out. Don't be afraid to take 20 shots and delete 19. Photo copyright Adam Geitgey.

Forget standard camera-holding technique

Here's the ultimate secret of dog photography.  You don't even have to look through the camera!  With enough practice, you will figure out where to hold your camera so that the dog fills the frame without you having to bend over and look through the camera.  You just hold the camera low, point it at the dog, and shoot.

This skill will allow you to hold the camera close to the ground in the middle of the action without having to lay down on the ground.  Laying on the ground will slow you down too much with dogs.  Using this technique, take lots of photos and check them on your camera's screen as you take them.  If you see something really cool happening, then you can decide if you need to lay down on the ground to frame a perfect shot.

Part 3: Lighting your dog

Unless you happen to own an indoor dog park, you'll probably be doing most of your dog photography outside.  And unless you can schedule your life around taking dog pictures, this means you might have to deal with the worst lighting of all - the midday sun.

Dealing with harsh sunlight

Lighting dog photos is just like lighting people photos - except dogs don't always take direction so well.  If you are going to be taking pictures outside in the middle of the day, you'll have the same ugly harsh shadows from direct sunlight that you would have with people.

You can try to fix this in a few ways:

  • The best solution is to take all your dog pictures at sunrise or near sunset. This will give you great lighting.

In a perfect world, you wouldn't have to take pictures any time except sunrise and sunset. Photo copyright Adam Geitgey.

  • You can also use the weather to your advantage.  A horrible, overcast day is perfect for dog photos!  Lots of clouds in the sky make the sun act like a giant soft box.  You won't have any shadows at all.  So if it is cloudy, get outside and start shooting!

There are no shadows on cloudy days. This makes lighting really easy! Photo copyright Adam Geitgey.

  • If that isn't possible, you can use a wireless fill flash to try and eliminate harsh shadows. However, this is going to require having an assistant to hold the flash as you both chase the dog. Not only will you look silly, but your shots will not be consistent. So this isn't ideal, but it will work if you have no other option.

  • If you have a reflector or a diffuser, you can use them with a dog just like you'd use them with people. But again, dogs don't stand still so make sure you have a nimble assistant.

  • If all else fails, make sure the sun is behind you and try to avoid horrible shadows as much as you can. Sometimes you can even work them into the photo itself, like in this case:

Working with bad lighting as best as possible by putting the sun behind you at an angle. Photo copyright Adam Geitgey.

Lighting Indoors

If you are shooting pictures indoors, your enemy is bad lighting. You don't have a giant burning orb of gas that bathes everything in natural light.  Instead, you have horrible florescent bulbs with green light or incandescent bulbs will orange light.  Your brain is smart enough to correct for this, but your camera often isn't.  Use the "custom white balance" feature on your camera to fix this.

To set the a custom white balance, first you take a picture of something white (like a sheet of paper) in the same room where you want to take photos.  Then you use the "Set Custom White Balance" option on your camera to tell it that the image of the white object represents true white in that light.  The camera can then adjust all your other pictures to match.  Just remember that you have to reset the white balance anytime lighting changes - even moving from room to room.

The other solution is to turn off your house lights and find a different source of light.  Use window light or use a wireless flash to do something interesting.

Use a flash indoors to create interesting light. Be careful to set your white balance.  Photo copyright Adam Geitgey.