Dogs

Tips on how to take great photographs of your dog by Ian Timberlake

I'm not going to string you along on why we love our dogs so much; you know why you love your dog and your dog knows why they love you. I know that if I'm not careful my entire Facebook and Instagram feed would belong to my two pups. I don't think I'm unique in how many photographs I've taken of my fuzz-balls but I do think I can provide some quick and easy tips to get a shot worth hanging on a wall. Or at a minimum, more Instagram likes ;) 

 My youngest pup, Henry, stopping to look at me while doing hot-laps around the yard. He is a toy Australian Sheppard mixed with something else we don't know. This photo was taken with a 50mm prime lens, f/1.8, 1/400th sec, ISO 100.  

My youngest pup, Henry, stopping to look at me while doing hot-laps around the yard. He is a toy Australian Sheppard mixed with something else we don't know. This photo was taken with a 50mm prime lens, f/1.8, 1/400th sec, ISO 100.  

We can start with what constitutes all but a small percent of photos taken of our dogs... the human angle. That is, the human holds their cellphone in front of their eyes and points it down towards their dog in front of them. There are two problems with this: the first is that the wide angle lenses on cellphones capture a lot of surrounding light that would otherwise distract us from the photo of your dog. And more importantly, there is nothing special or unique about this photo. 

Getting down to your dog's level is the first, easiest, and provides the greatest improvement to your shots. With how good cellphones have become at taking photos, you can certainly get better shots than a DSLR if you use its features to your advantage and change the perspective from that human angle, to the dog angle.

Wide Angle Lens

Taking advantage of your cellphone's wide angle lens (or your DSLR wide lens) would mean getting really close to the nose of your dog to make sure they fill the frame of the photo. An alternate cellphone composition (wide angle lens) requires a little more attention to detail. If you can incorporate an interesting surrounding scene in the photo, and have your dog in the foreground looking out towards the view, then you can make the viewer of the photo feel like they are partaking with your dog in embracing the surrounding environment. See below:  

 My youngest dog, Henry, camping with us in the "Lost 40" Chippewa National Forest in Central Minnesota. Taken with a 10-18mm lens at 10mm, f/4.5, 1/500th sec, ISO 100. 

My youngest dog, Henry, camping with us in the "Lost 40" Chippewa National Forest in Central Minnesota. Taken with a 10-18mm lens at 10mm, f/4.5, 1/500th sec, ISO 100. 

The above isn't in my top 10 dog photos, but I do like it and it's a good example of composing options. The following is an example of using that wide angle close to your dog and still getting a cool scene in the background. Notice how the camera is no higher than the height of Walter's nose.

With both of these types of compositions, it's likely you'll want a long depth of field to be sure your camera focuses on both your dog and the scenery in the background. This means your f-stop should be somewhere in the mid range or your subject is further out from your hyperfocal distance... that is, the minimum distance your subject can be while still keeping the background in focus (sort of, this requires its own post). The photo above has an f-stop of a larger aperture, which leads to a shallower depth of field, but because Henry is further out from that hyperfocal distance, the entire image is in focus. The shot of Walter below has a higher f-stop because he's closer to the camera and I still want to keep the background in decent enough focus. If I were to have taken this photo at the same size aperture above, the background would've been somewhat blurry. While the below image will still see a little blur, it won't be nearly as bad. Wide angle lenses are very good at "resisting" near and far blurriness.   

 My oldest pup, Walter, hiking along the shoreline of Split Rock State Park on the North Shore of Minnesota. This photo was taken on a 10-18mm lens at 18mm, f/16, 1/100th sec, ISO 160. 

My oldest pup, Walter, hiking along the shoreline of Split Rock State Park on the North Shore of Minnesota. This photo was taken on a 10-18mm lens at 18mm, f/16, 1/100th sec, ISO 160. 

Outside of the photo at the very top of the page, these are composition examples involving a wide angle lens and something you can do with your very own cellphone. With that said, it's still better to capture these shots with a DSLR as the physical quality of the image will be better and you'll have more flexibility when it comes to fine tuning the photo in the edit. 

Standard and Long Length Lenses

As you increase the focal length of a lens, the foreground, midground, and background will compress linearly to the focal length. In other words, they'll appear closer to each other than they are. The very top photo of Henry was taken with a 50mm lens, but because I took it on a crop-sensor camera (not full frame), I need to multiply that number by 1.6 because the focal length of the lens is always designated by a full frame standard. This means that my 50mm lens looks like what an 80mm lens looks like on a full frame camera. The point is there's a noticeable difference in compression between 50mm and 80mm. Also, the longer the lens, the more narrow the field of view is so there's less "stuff" to see outside of your subject.

This lens also has an extremely large aperture which causes a super shallow depth of field. You'll notice that I focused on his eyes and the tip of his nose is blurry. I did this because I wanted to draw attention to the eyes that melt your heart. When you combine this shallow depth of field and the compression of a longer lens, you can pinpoint exactly where you want the viewer to look because there's no real background or foreground and what there is is blurry... you basically have no choice but to lock eyes with Henry. 

A prime lens (non zoom) is almost always going to be sharper than a zoom lens because the optics are designed perfectly to that focal length, there's less glass to pass through, and there's less play between parts because there's no moving parts outside of the focus ring. That means I'm able to get an extremely crisp photo of Henry. A zoom lens at these lengths will still work great, but it's worth noting there's difference. This isn't a review of that lens, it's just what I used for that particular photo; any composition that takes advantage of these types of lens characteristics will result in a similar style of shot.

A longer lens will make the viewer feel like they can reach out and touch your dog. 

Necessary Settings and Motions

Dogs usually get distracted very easily... take a lot of photos. It'll be to your advantage to have your camera set to high speed. If their head and body aren't moving all over the place, usually their eyes are. The goal is to capture a photo of them looking at something. The photo is far more interesting if you can make the viewer wonder what's going through your dog's head, even if the answer is "nothing". The top photo is clearly Henry looking into your soul. The second photo is Henry looking at the same view we're looking at. And the third photo is Walter looking longingly out of frame, making you curious as to what that might be. 

In almost every scenario you'll want a fast shutterspeed. With their fur flying in the wind, their tongue panting, eyes darting, and unpredictable movements, it'll be nearly impossible to get a crisp shot without a fast shutterspeed. Of course you can get lucky, but just know that you're more likely to get a quality photo the higher it is. Don't forget to balance the shutterspeed with the depth of field you want predicated by aperture size.

The ISO should, as always, be as low as possible. If you're photographing your dog while he/she is moving fast, it might be easiest to set the ISO to "auto" and optimizing your settings to keep the ISO acceptably low.  

Remember

  • Get down to your dog's level, this is by far the most important tip.
  • Play to the strengths of your chosen lens' focal length.
  • Focus on the eyes and make sure they are looking at something. 
  • Try to keep the shutterspeed as high as is reasonable. 
 Walter and Henry backpacking in the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area in Wyoming. 

Walter and Henry backpacking in the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area in Wyoming.