Pet Portraits: Capturing Your Dog’s Personality

Great dog photo

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.

Select Settings

Photo of Sharpei 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

Lighting for dog photo
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.

Photo framed too low

Oops; framed too low and snapped just has she looked up to check on a noise.

Uncomfortable shot

Better framing, but she doesn’t look too comfortable.

Framing not quite right

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.

Poor composition

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.

Photo too far away

A change of position brings us a different background and shape for our dozy subject, but this still feels too far away.

Almost great

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.

Great dog photo

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.

Time to leave the dog alone

She’s waking up, so it’s time to take our leave. Thank you, sweetheart, for being so patient!

Must See

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:

Or go to the Magnum Photos site look for Elliott Erwitt under “Photographers” then link to his books. Then check out the Dogs slideshow.

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June 17, 2008 @ 1:29 am

Great photos and very helpful hints


Lorri Collins

July 19, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

Excellent article. I’m a pet portrait artist and this article is one that every one of my customers should read. It’s clear and with the images (worth a thousand words) give the user the knowledge to take that perfect picture.

Thanks for a great article. May I put it on my web site? Give me a shout.

Kind regards,




December 3, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

You cheated!! What a great dog for portraits!! My Catahoula Leopard Dog is camera shy, LOL!

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