Cameras

How to Shoot a Great Dog Photo

Scroll through your Facebook feed and you’ll realize that almost everyone seems to love two things: cat videos and dog photos.

When it comes to directing felines, you’re on your own, but we can help you take stunning photos of anything that barks, thanks to a few simple tips from Derek Glas, a nationally recognized canine photographer, whose work ranges from portraits of Westminster-bound show dogs to moody magazine cover shoots.

Dogs don’t know whether they're being shot for Dogster magazine or your Instagram feed, he argues, so the trick is getting your pet focused on the camera—whether that includes an SLR, a point-and-shoot, or a smartphone.

After supplying us with some of his best images, Glas explained how he managed the dogs (and, at times, the owners, too). He also revealed the techniques, settings, and equipment he used to turn a great setup into a great photograph.

The Classic Dog Portrait

This charming Norwich Terrier is Glas’s very own best friend. And what a dog she is. Valley, aka Max-Well’s Valley Girl, won Best of Breed at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012 with Glas as the owner-handler. The photographer took advantage of his 24/7 access to take a world-class portrait of a world-class show dog as a puppy. 

The Dog: Even though she was a champion show dog in the making, Glas explains, Valley was just a puppy. An especially curious and energetic one at that. So before taking the shot, Glas gave Valley some play time. They used the green ball you can see in the foreground to play fetch, and afterward Valley was willing to chill for a few minutes. “You want her to be calm and relaxed,” he explains.

When the mood was right, Glas got down. Literally. Unlike most amateur photographers, he never aims his camera at the dog from on high. He works face-to-face with his subject, even when the pup sits only a few inches off the ground. “You want to get close to their level,” Glas says.

After he framed the shot, he made a noise he knew was bound to get the pup's attention, then he pressed the shutter. A moment later, Valley darted off to chase a squirrel, her personality-filled pose nothing more than a memory.

The Shot: The key to this picture, Glas says, was preparation. He recognized that the dappled late afternoon sunshine in his backyard provided perfect lighting for photography. “The light was warm, which is better for ‘fur tones,’” he jokes.

Though bright sunlight may be great for a walk, the unfiltered rays cast harsh shadows, which are problematic even for a pro photographer. That’s why Glas prefers to shoot in the hazy morning light, the so-called “golden hour” of late afternoon, or on overcast days when the light is perfectly uniform and flattering, a lot like you would find in a studio. “It’s like the sky is a giant soft box,” he says.

The less-than-bright conditions also allowed him to shoot with his Nikkor telephoto zoom at f/2.8, the lens's widest possible aperture, to get the “bokeh” effect that separates Valley from a blurred background. In terms of the composition, Glas framed the photo to put Valley off-center, which added visual interest to an otherwise simple shot.

The Dog-and-Person Pose

The only thing we love more than pictures of our dogs is pictures of our dogs and the people we love. But, as Glas explains, it’s harder than it looks to get a shot in which both Jenny and her corgi, Molly, both look great.

The Dog: “The challenge is finding a pose that’s flattering for both subjects,” Glas says. The perfect position accomplishes two things. 1) It gets Jenny's and Molly's faces in close proximity. 2) It makes the dog look good. This setup does both. The subjects' faces are where they need to be, and Molly's comfortable perch on Jenny's lap doesn’t call attention to the corgi’s short legs.

Don't be afraid to try multiple setups and abandon whatever isn’t working, Glas says. That day, he snapped some shots of Molly on a stone wall, and they simply didn’t pan out. An alternate shot of Jenny standing, cradling the dog yielded better results.

If you can, enlist an assistant, too. “It’s good to have someone getting the dog’s attention,” he explains. In dog-only shots, Glas often recruits the owner for that purpose, but for great dog-and-people shots, it helps to have a third party handy.

In this picture, Jenny is looking at the camera and Molly is focused on Glas’s assistant—which adds a subtle tension to the shot.

The Shot: With dog-only shots, Glas gets reasonably close to the animal, as he did with Valley above, but when people are in the image, too, he’ll often use a medium telephoto lens—a setting of around 135mm on his Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 zoom—which tends to be more flattering to the human face. He’ll also shoot with the lens aperture wide open for a shallow depth of field, which isolates the subject.

Be prepared to take lots of shots to get one where all the elements come together. “It’s hard enough to capture a dog’s expression or a person’s expression," Glas says. "In this kind of shot, you need to get both at the same time.”

The Action Shot

What’s better than a dog just being a dog? How about capturing that moment in a photo? 

The Dog: Sonny, a champion golden retriever, had been patiently posing for Glas’s beauty shots for much of the afternoon. When that chore was done, the dog knew it was playtime, and this shot captures the boundless energy and enthusiasm that followed.

“It shows the personality of the dog,” says Glas. “At the end, we let it all loose and he got to be the happy, fun golden he is.”

Glas often tailors the setup to the characteristics of the breed. Sonny’s a natural-born retriever, so he'll chase a ball or a stick again and again, allowing Glas to wait for the dog to come into the frame. With a more independent-minded terrier, however, you need to be ready for the dog to dictate the action.

The Shot: When you're shooting action, a quality camera can make a huge difference. You need a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion—Glass tries not to shoot slower than 1/125, and this exposure was shot at 1/250. Just as important is a lens that auto-focuses precisely and fast. When shooting action, Glas will often set his Nikon D-700 SLR to Continuous mode and blast multiple frames in the hope of capturing the right millisecond.

Because Sonny was moving, Glas minimized the challenges by remaining in one position, close to the ground, cradling the camera securely to minimize blurring from camera shake. Though some amateurs crank up the ISO to shoot action—all the better to achieve a high shutter speed—Glas avoids going to extremes. He won’t push the ISO above 500, unless he’s shooting in challenging indoor conditions at a dog show.

“I don’t like to use a really high ISO because you get a lot of noise and the photos get grainy,” he says.

The Candid

Most great dog pictures take some planning, but sometimes a perfect photo op pops up out of nowhere. That’s what happened in this adorable candid of a young girl and her bulldog puppy. 

The Subject: Glas was shooting one of the family’s other dogs when the young girl grabbed the pup and started carrying him to the backyard pool. The photographer had the presence of mind to drop everything and turn his attention to the magic at hand. “It was the cutest thing ever,” he recalls.

The Shot: Glas was lucky to have his SLR with him, but he would have taken these with his iPhone 7 if he had to. In a quickly evolving situation like this one, he notes, it’s important to be thoroughly familiar with your equipment. There's no time to be fiddling with your exposure or focus settings.

Glas decided to process this shot in black and white, even though it was shot in color. It allowed him to eliminate the slightly distracting background colors and shift the viewer’s attention back to the girl’s quizzical expression. “It’s got more of that timeless feel and puts more focus on the subjects,” he explains.

The Art Shot

When Dog News hired him to shoot a magazine cover, Glas decided to try for a very special image. “It took quite a bit of time to get to this point,” he says of the end result, a dramatic backlit shot of the French bulldog, Princeton.

The Dog: Although Glas generally aims for a dog’s-eye view of the world, in this case he brought the dog up to the camera, placing him on a medium-sized table. Princeton had some room to roam between shots but could still be corralled when it was time to press the shutter.

Glas employed three assistants to tend to the dog, freeing up himself to focus on the complex lighting setup.

The Shot: “This image is all about controlling the lighting,” Glas says. Given the high-risk, high-reward stakes, he started out by banking some conventional shots. Only after that “coverage” was done did he attempt the more evocative images.

The key to the great cover shot is the precise placement of that single backlight in an otherwise pitch-dark room. Glas used a strobe slave—a pro-quality, remote-controlled flash—positioned behind the dog, but you can achieve a similarly dramatic effect with a $10 LED spotlight from Ikea.

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