thank Dog. photography » fun, artistic, modern pet portraits | Dallas,Texas

tips from a paws in the city photographer

I occasionally am contacted by aspiring pet photographers looking for tips…. so here’s a few rambling thoughts.

One piece of advice I pretty much always give is to volunteer services to a rescue organization.  It’s a win-win — not only do decent photographs help the animals find homes, but it provides great practice.  There are innumerable lists of tips on how to improve your pet photography, but in my opinion, one of the most valuable things is to really learn to understand the animals (I will admit, I’m much more fluent in dog than cat!).  Practicing on your own animals is great – particularly to help you learn your camera and what all it can do.  But you know your pets.  It’s different when you are confronted with unknown animals – their personalities are as different as ours are.  Some are easy to make friends with – think the stereotypical bounding, slobbery golden – others are much more reserved.  In the rescue world, you definitely come across both.  The nervous dogs present obvious difficulties, but the overly friendly ones offer challenges of their own when it comes to photography. Plus sometimes even the most outgoing dogs are not comfortable with a camera pointed at them.

As has been noted on here a bunch of times, I volunteer my services to Paws in the City.  Paws tries to place as many of their dogs  as they can in foster care, but they have relationships with several boarding facilities to handle overflow.  Urban Paws in Deep Ellum boards quite a few Paws dogs normally.  Since those dogs are not being fostered, their need for a good photo is even greater — they don’t have anyone really getting to know them one-on-one, talking them up, training them, etc.  So I head over to Urban Paws every so often to photograph some of the dogs (the photos included in this post are from a recent visit).  It’s not an easy feat.  I usually just wade out into the play area during an open play session – sometimes with up to 20-25 medium to large dogs, both Paws pups and Urban Paws’ clients.  I don’t want to take away any play time, so I just try to shoot them in that environment – plus I feel it better showcases their personalities.  It’s not easy – I often have dogs jumping up on me, wrestling at my feet, trying to grab my camera strap…. all while I’m trying to shoot.  Needless to say, this environment presents unique challenges when it to photographing the dogs.  Some obvious – keeping the camera steady and the lens (reasonably) clean.  But it also is very different from client shoots as I have very little control over the background, and there’s really nothing I can do about the photobombing pups.  Of course, what makes a good shot for Paws is not necessarily what makes for a good client shot.  For the Paws shots, I’m not really interested in the background or environment — I’m looking for a (hopefully) compelling thumbnail portrait, something to get potential adoptive owners to click on the photo and want to meet the pup.  I try to herd the dogs into decent light as best I can, and I tend to shoot wide open to blur out the background.   I also deliberately crop out other dogs (in camera), often times where I wouldn’t do so if it was a client shoot.

*Not a Paws dog – but fairly typical of my view when I look down toward my feet after I’ve been out in the yard area for a little while (up to that point, there would be a lot more dogs in the photo!).  The other dogs in this post are currently up for adoption through Paws in the City.

Not sure you can tell, but that’s two dogs wrestling on my foot.

* I actually like this kind of photo – to me it shows the dog is dog-friendly, particularly important with the bully breeds.

During my normal client sessions, I admittedly bribe a lot — treats are doled out generously.  Toys are used.  Whatever works.  But at Urban Paws, I can’t rely on those as there are just too many dogs, too excited.  So I have to rely on sounds and other tricks to get dogs’ attention.  I admit that I sound – and look – like a crazy person.  I’m squawking, clicking, cooing, etc., waving my arms around – whatever works.  But I watch the dogs.  For some, that waving catches their attention for a second – just long enough to fire off a shot.  Others get nervous by my flailing about.  Some dogs just want to get some loving – and are quite forward about it; others I don’t ever touch.  I don’t push it – if they are not comfortable, I give them their space.  The same is true of my clients.

* I never touched either of these guys, though neither seemed particularly scared – the dog on the left is just a young’un who seems to be going through that shy stage (I’m sure that given a little time – and maybe fewer distractions – we’d have become bestest friends); the one on the right just didn’t have much interest in me (he was all about chasing an aussie who was chasing a ball – understandable as it’s hard to compete with an aussie).

It is amazing how much you can learn if you really watch the dogs — how they relate to each other, how they react to me (or to the Urban Paws employees monitoring their play).  Having done so has given me even more confidence when it comes to strange dogs.  I grew up with lots of animals, but I knew them, they knew me, and we trusted each other completely.  But that’s not always the case with other people’s dogs.  Learning more about dogs has helped in my business – I know how to approach all sorts of dogs (I’ve actually had several clients comment that they were shocked how easily their dog bonded with me, though there have been a few that tolerated me but never truly warmed to me).   I can now typically tell if a dog’s bark is play, nerves, or a protective instinct kicking in so I can behave accordingly.  Rather than being tense around riled-up dogs, I now have the confidence to wade in authoritatively to settle the dogs down (and the knowledge to know when not to).  Plus I have to admit, I find dogs fascinating.

The dog on the left appears to have been de-barked.  The procedure hasn’t stopped him from trying to bark but now it sounds painful, though it doesn’t appear to be.

On another Paws note…. Paws in the City is selling customizable holiday cards, with photos taken by yours truly (with one exception – both the founders of Paws in the City lost their babies in the past year and it was decided to offer cards with their photos.  I was lucky enough to meet and photograph Max, Tara’s golden, but I never had the opportunity to meet Becky’s baby so we used a photo of Logan taken by Becky herself).  The cards are $75 for a set of 25 folded 5×7 cards with envelopes.  You pick the photo for the front (starring the pets of Paws volunteers), select a greeting for the inside (or write your own), and a font and color.  You’ll receive the cards in 5-7 business days.

Click here to purchase the holiday cards.

Leanne - FANTASTIC article! And fabulous pictures – sounds like I have it easy at the rescue I use!! (dogs don’t mix, so it’s all one-on-one!)

Kelcey Olson - You’ve just inspired me to do this for the local shelter in my area! My parent’s bred German Shepherds and Corgis ever since I was in diapers, and I just LOVE being around all sorts of dogs. Mixing my love of animals with my love of photography is a great idea, and it’s so nice seeing you do a great thing like this for these animals in need of a home :]

Mica - I do the same thing by volunteering at the DFW Humane Society. One thing I’ve noticed is that I often have to switch between my 70-200 and my 16-35 lenses because some dogs are up in my face while others are stand-offish. What is your lens of choice in this environment? And for dog portraiture in general?

Debbie - Thanks, girls! I think you’ll find it rewarding, Kelcey!

Mica – I use my 24-70/2.8 a lot, and sometimes the 50/1.4. I don’t pull out my 70-200 with these guys too often in part because of the weight, but also because most of the dogs let me get somewhat close, perhaps because the rest of the dogs provide the scaredy ones with a sense of security. I do use it in my client sessions though, often for action shots.

Jennifer - Thanks for the tips Debbie. I have been taking some pics for Operation Kindness lately and while challenging, it’s very rewarding! I have discovered the power of the kong replacement squeaker for perky ears. I’ve been using my new 35mm/1.8 but thanks for the lens tips so I can add to my bag at a later date.

JulieD - You’re such a talented photographer! I wish you lived in Florida. :)

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