Pet Portraits: Capturing Your Dog’s Personality
We had met this charming canine earlier while photographing something else – on location at an animal rescue centre in Guadalest, Spain. She had come up to say “hi” and to nose around what we were doing. She was probably prospecting for attention, too. But by the time we realized she should be our next model, she was too dozy to care one way or the other. The temptation then was to wake her and ask her to pose. But I decided to take her as she wanted to be: very, very relaxed.
Before you work with children or animals, set up first. Set the camera to macro or close-up mode if you’re going to be very close, and use a wide angle – I had an idea of the shot I wanted – from low down. I turned off the flash. I flipped out the LCD screen so I could see the image while the camera was at ground level. I set it to aperture priority with a small aperture for maximum depth of field. I thought if I am going to be resting the camera on the ground, and the pooch lies still, I can get by with a long exposure time.
Safety warning: If you do not know the animal, check with its owners that it is friendly and will not react badly, especially if it has been woken up from sleep.
Use the Right Lighting
To make sure the delicate and subtle textures of fur register in your image, you must work in subdued lighting. Fortunately, our mutt had chosen open shade under a bush. Her ideal spot was also our ideal spot. I moved slowly, smoothly and quietly to avoid startling or disturbing her. Nonetheless, she did wake and enquire what we were doing, so I snapped a normal portrait, and quietly said she could take it easy; I was just some pesky photographer who’d go away soon.
Get in Close
Once she settled down again, we could get to work. I found the camera was complaining about focusing, and realised that it was pointing straight at her paw – which was too close. I wanted her face sharp anyway, not the paws. So I pointed the camera at the area I wanted to keep sharp, pressed the shutter halfway to obtain and lock focus, then reframed for the shot. It doesn’t matter – indeed, it might be better – if not all of the animal is in focus.
Oops; framed too low and snapped just has she looked up to check on a noise.
Better framing, but she doesn’t look too comfortable.
She’s looking much more relaxed – it’s hard to be more relaxed than this – but the framing is not quite right. There’s too much foreground, and the body shape is not very flattering.
This is better: we’re closer, so there’s less foreground but the head shape isn’t too good – the composition is not well balanced.
A change of position brings us a different background and shape for our dozy subject, but this still feels too far away.
Better still – we’re getting closer and concentrating on the face, where the character and charm of our canine resides, and also make more of her lovely chubby paws. The background too is better because it’s cleaner, and the red flower is not a bad thing.
This is it – we can see her face clear, the big frown, cute paws. The background is clean and the other paw is just visible, which helps a lot to balance the shape. I like the red flowers, but that’s maybe just me. The focus is at her ears, so the depth of field extends to most of her face and back to much of the body. This gives us a good sense of her fur.
She’s waking up, so it’s time to take our leave. Thank you, sweetheart, for being so patient!
If you don’t know the work of Elliott Erwitt, his work with dogs is peerless and extremely funny. Look in his site for dog pictures: www.elliotterwitt.com
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