Introduction

As a professional animal photographer who does studio work, I hear dog owners ask, 'How do you get a dog to pose for you?' The short answer is, 'I don’t.' Photos of a dog staring straight into the camera go nicely into a high school yearbook. Dogs I know don’t go to high school and wouldn’t want such a photo hanging in their living rooms.

A successful dog photo captures the natural beauty and personality of the dog. Dogs I photograph don’t pose.  I capture them being themselves. Accomplishing this goal isn’t difficult, but requires two important things: familiarity with your dog’s behavior, and patience. Lots and lots of patience. To those of you who want to give it a try, I offer some pointers to help you get the most out of photographing your 4-legged best friend and have some fun doing it.

Sleeping beauty

It’s hard to imagine anything more relaxing than to look at a puppy snoozing away, little legs treading air, chasing bunny rabbits in her dream. A sleeping puppy offers a photographer the best opportunity to observe and photograph a dog in her natural, relaxed state. The dog is stationary but isn’t posing. Perfect. Walk quietly around the dog and find an angle that will best showcase your intention for taking this photo. If you want your audience to say, 'Awww I want to kiss that cute little puppy nose,' get down to the puppy’s nose level, as close to the nose as your camera will allow. If you want to show off the harmonious geometry of a dog curled up in a ball, take a shot from the top down to display the circular shape that the puppy makes.

A sleeping puppy offers a photographer the best opportunity to observe and photograph a dog in her natural, relaxed state.

Once you have a few good shots, try giving the dog a gentle belly scratch or a little tickle behind the ear. Your dog will change body positions. She might stretch her legs out. She might roll over and stick her legs up in the air, or she might curl up into a tighter ball. Have your camera and creative thinking ready to capture those moments. Don’t worry if your dog wakes up. Dogs sleep a lot. Your next photo opportunity will come along soon.

Since the dog isn’t moving, you can use a low ISO with no flash regardless of the lighting condition. However, a tripod is useful to avoid camera shake at slow shutter speeds. Remember to turn the flash off. Put your camera in Aperture Priority Mode and set it to the largest aperture (smallest F-number) available. This will give you an image with low noise, natural lighting and, at least on a DSLR, lots of background blur.

Make it fun

The next good opportunity to photograph your dog is when she’s playing, especially with another dog. By photographing your dog while she plays, you get great action shots, at the same time conditioning the dog to associate photos with fun. This association will help you take better photographs in other situations. If a canine playmate isn’t available but your dog likes to fetch or tug, enlist a friend or family member to play with your dog while you take some photos. It may take a little practice to capture the actions, but it’s worth the effort.

A good opportunity to photograph your dog is when she’s playing,
especially with another dog.

This is where the advantage of an SLR over a point-and-shoot camera becomes really apparent. You will encounter much less shutter delay on an SLR. This doesn’t mean you can’t get good action photos using a point-and-shoot. By pressing and holding the shutter button half-way to pre-focus the camera, you will be able to take a shot when the action happens with considerably less delay. This holds true for both point-and-shoots and SLRs. You’ll also want to use a fairly fast shutter speed to freeze the action. Setting the shutter to 1/1000 second on Shutter Priority is a good place to start. You may be able to use a slower shutter speed if you want to incorporate a little bit of motion blur to convey motion.

Your dog, the supermodel

Now that you’ve mastered photographing your dog staying perfectly still and playing full-tilt, it’s time to learn how to get your dog to model for you. Note that I used the word 'model', not 'pose.'

Start by letting your dog sniff the camera in your hand to get her used to being around a camera. Praise the dog as she sniffs. Once she’s determined that the camera is nothing to be afraid of, press the shutter button a few times without raising the camera to your face so she’ll be used to the sound of the shutter. Again praise the dog as you fire off the shutter. Once the dog gets used to the sound of the shutter and ignores it, start acclimating her to having the camera aimed in her direction. You will notice that your dog doesn’t want to look directly at the camera. The dog perceives the camera lens (especially a big SLR lens) as a large eye ball staring at her and instinctively avoids staring back. This is not a bad thing since we rarely want the dog to stare straight at the camera anyway. (Remember we’re not taking a school yearbook photo.)

Next make your dog sit. The purpose of this isn’t so you can take a photo of your dog posing in a sitting position. This provides the dog with some mental exercise. It takes a dog a lot of concentration to obey a command. Your dog will look tense and a little confused at first. She will want to get up and walk away. Do not let her. Calmly place her back in the 'sit' position. Be sure to praise her as soon as her rear end touches the floor. If your dog already knows the 'sit' command, try something a little more difficult such as 'down' or 'shake'. Do not get upset at the dog if she doesn’t obey the command. Be patient and keep at it. After 15 minutes of this exercise, she will be mentally exhausted and her body will relax naturally. Often your dog will do something interesting at this point. 

One of the most common behaviors is a 'stress yawn' where the dog closes her eyes, lets out a huge yawn with the tongue curled up.

One of the most common behaviors is a 'stress yawn' where the dog closes her eyes, lets out a huge yawn with the tongue curled up. A dog does this to relieve the stress of being in a situation she can’t get out of. It’s difficult to anticipate when this happens so be sure to have your camera pre-focused to the dog’s eye as often as you can so you are ready to capture the moment when it happens. Once the dog settles into a relaxed state, her body position will look much less strained whether she’s standing, sitting or lying down. I often place the dog facing one direction and have an assistant call the dog from the opposite side of the camera so the dog will turn her head and look, creating more interesting lines in the composition. Good photographs can also be taken when the dog moves from one position to the next. It’s not the mere shape of the dog we want to record, but the spirit and personality we want to capture. These movements convey the dog’s personality. 

Focus on what’s unique about your dog

When it comes to capturing the personality of your dog, her face, especially around the eyes, is one place to start. But there are many other parts of the dog that uniquely represent her. A Pug’s tightly curled tail, a German Shepherd’s pointy ears, a Rhodesian Ridgeback’s ridge crown, just to name a few examples.  Close-ups of these body parts often work better as framed artwork than traditional full-body portraits of your dog.

Close-ups of body parts often work better than traditional full-body portraits.

This article provides you with an overview of the process involved in taking great photos of your dog and have fun doing it. Future articles in this series will address specific techniques, equipment choices, lighting and exposure, as well as more dog behavior tips.


Andy Sheng is the owner of Otis & Lucy Photography in El Segundo, California. Andy worked in the motion pictures industry for nearly 13 years as a digital FX artist before turning his passion for photography and animals into a new business in 2008. He has photographed the pets of many celebrities and his commercial photography work can be found in pet-related magazines and product packing. Andy is an active volunteer at spcaLA, where he photographs shelter animals in need of new homes. He is currently working on an art photography project featuring photographs of Pit Bulls and is co-authoring a new book on life-lessons people learn from their dogs. To see more of Andy’s work on animal photography, please visit www.otisandlucy.com.