Basic photography tips to up your doggo Instagram game no matter what camera you use.
My dog Rumble is my creative muse; the Uma Thurman to my Quentin Tarantino. I love taking pictures of him. In fact I take pics of very little else. His expressive face and unusual markings make for some great shots, and his sable tones really zing in the sunshine.
But it's not all him - knowing how to compose the shot and get the best out of the moment is fundamental, and that's down to me, calling upon years of image making experience as a photojournalist and videographer.
But you don't need the same experience to up your photography skills; just a few simple tips can transform a mundane pic into something you'd want to print on a canvas and stick on the wall. So let me give you five basic photography rules that you can apply to your dog pics, whether you're using a phone camera or a dedicated camera.
(Short on time? Click here for a 60-second summary!)
What's your motivation?
Let's start with why we're taking the picture, or rather, making the picture, as that's essentially what we're doing. As fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld said: "Photographs capture a moment that's gone forever, impossible to reproduce". I find this inspiring, as it gives you intention, and with this in mind you find yourself looking for those moments and waiting, like a hunter, to capture something special, be it a look or an action. There's a story taking place in front of you. What is that story and how best can you capture it?
The photo above wouldn't be as good if Rumble was looking at the camera. Snapping the shot as he looked up helps to share his perspective and to get a sense of his feelings, being a bored dog on the pub floor wondering if dad's going to order another beer or not. That simple glance upwards illustrates his emotion in the moment. And conveying a feeling or a thought makes for a much richer image and helps us connect with the subject.
"The best camera is the one that's with you." - Chase Jarvis, photographer and iPhoneographer
In the old days of film cameras, you'd have to wait for those moments. But the benefits of modern digital photography mean you can fire off dozens of shots and then go through and find that one special moment from the batch, deleting the rest. But being disciplined to wait and watch will often lead to a shot you didn't see in the first instance.
Move to improve
The next point is also well illustrated in the first shot, as well as the one above. Getting down to your dog's level puts the viewer in the dog's world, seeing it from their perspective, as illustrated in the first shot. Being on the floor with Rumble gives us insight into being a dog in a human-sized world; it's empathetic. When photographing animals or kids, getting down to their level helps us connect with them and imagine the world from their point of view.
There are other reasons for getting dirty knees and bringing your camera down low, such as separating your subject from the background, as in the sunset pic above. If I had shot it from the default, lazy 5-foot off the ground perspective, Rumble would merge into the dark grass and trees and I wouldn't have got the intended silhouette against the bright sunset. It's not the best of shots, but serves the point, and was taken on a fairly old camera phone, so I'm not complaining.
You could also get right down below your dog's eye-line, even placing your camera at ground level and angling upwards, to add drama and make your dog look bigger and bolder, mighty or proud.
Conversely, there are times when shooting down on your subject is warranted. If your dog's been naughty, maybe destroyed the sofa or eaten the TV remote, and they're pulling that hilarious 'It wasn't me!' look, then being taller than them and looking down will emphasize how small they're feeling in that moment. Shooting downwards at a puppy sells their diminutive size too, and makes them look cuter as they look up at you with all their youthful inquisitiveness, waiting for what comes next in their new, exciting world.
So, the point here is: your legs are your tripod (well, bipod), and they're adjustable. Consider whether getting lower, or standing on something and finding a higher point of view, will get you a better composition or help convey the story better.
In the same vein, moving left and right, as well as up or down, can also make or break a good pic. It's easy to be focused on the subject and not notice what's going on in the background. But take a moment before you hit the shutter button and see if there are any distracting objects, such as a branch from a tree appearing out the top of your dog's head, or has a dark area that matches your dog's coat blended them into the background? Simply move a little left or right until the offending object is away from your subject and nothing distracts from your stunning canine model.
Let there be light!
Photography is essentially the art of capturing light. Learning to pause before taking your shot and considering where the light is and how you can use it to improve your shot will pay the biggest dividends in creating a great picture.
It makes sense to ensure your subject is well lit, so placing your dog in the light rather than shadow will make for a clearer shot. And checking for rogue shadows across your subject, like a street sign or even your own shadow, is a good rule to add to your checklist. But often placing the light behind your subject will turn a nice snapshot into a dramatic, arty photo.
Sunset silhouettes are a good example, and they're easy to shoot as your phone or a camera on automatic settings will expose for the light, making the subject much darker than they are, creating your silhouette, especially around dawn or dusk.
"Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography." - George Eastman, pioneer of mainstream photography and the man behind Kodak
Placing the sun behind your dog on a bright day can create stunning lighting effects such as a lovely halo of light around them, highlighting their shape in the frame and focusing the viewer's attention on the subject. The shot above of Rumble laying on the gravel has the backlit halo around his head creating contrast and highlighting his outline. It also has an unplanned but welcome circular light flare at the bottom, almost creating a frame, and balancing out the light effect at the top of the shot. And finally, helped by the wood and gravel being a similar color, it emphasizes Rumble's sable coloring and amber eyes with its warm cast.
The effect can be more subtle and help to create depth in your shot, separating the foreground, midground and background. This shot, above, of my late dog Rossi in our kayak, is improved by the sun in the background (but to the side and not directly behind) creating a little halo of light around his muzzle and the top of his head. This edge of light is also where the focus is set, further separating him from the background. What amazes me about this shot is that it was taken on a smartphone in 2015, and I printed it on a 4ft wide canvas and you can see every detail of every hair. Which leads to my next point...
Cheat with technology
Cameras on the phones in our pockets are insanely good these days and most have a feature that allows you to blur the background. Photographers and filmmakers draw attention to their subject by blurring the background using expensive lenses with wide apertures. But you don't need to understand how lenses work with a modern phone camera as it'll do it for you using Artificial Intelligence.
Current iPhones and Android phones have a Portrait mode which does just this and it means you can remove distractions from the background simply by blurring them away. It'll turn a hurried snap into an artful portrait of your pooch, like the shot below.
Lead the eye
One simple thing you can do to improve any image is add depth by being aware of foreground, midground and background. Your dog can be in any three of these areas, but try to compose the shot so that there is something in these three 'layers' of space.
This shot of Rumble chewing a stick is not a great shot but it's definitely improved by placing the stick close to the camera in the corner and adding 'foreground interest'. The stick is blurred in the foreground and leads the eye right to the main subject in the midground. The background usually takes care of itself.
In this pic of a Pug, the pup is in the midground, although far away, with the wall forming the background, and the rest of the shot is mostly foreground. The large proportion of foreground emphasizes the Pug's small size and, combined with his sad-looking face, makes him look isolated and alone in all that space. So the part of the photo that has nothing in it tells as much of the story as the part with the subject in.
And this last example places the Weimaraner in the foreground. The coastline forms the midground and creates a line that points to the buildings in the background, which is where the dog is looking towards. That space to the right of the dog is necessary as everything leads to those buildings in the background.
There's so much more we could go in to, but these tips are enough to take your dog pics to the next level. To consolidate these points, here's a 60-second checklist:
Before you hit the shutter button, ask yourself...
What's in the background? Is anything distracting from the subject?
Where is the light coming from? Is it creating any unwanted shadows? Could you move to make better use of the light?
Would the shot be better if you were lower to the ground on your dog's level?
Is there any depth to the shot? Could you add some foreground interest to improve the shot or to lead the eye to the subject?
Is the subject in sharp focus? Make sure you've tapped on the screen to choose the point of focus. If you're close up on your dog, focus on the eyes otherwise the camera is likely to choose the nose to focus on. Unless you're after a boop shot, of course.
Happy snapping! And if you want to see more of my photos of Rumble, follow us on Instagram