What says holidays more than a photo of your four-legged loved one to share far and wide this season?
Here’s how to ace it for 2020, courtesy of award-winning Austin-based animal photographer Randal Ford.
“As someone who has photographed over 150 dogs in the studio for my new book, Good Dog, I’ve learned the tricks to guarantee a great portrait of your dog, even with an iPhone. Grab some dog treats and get ready to take the perfect photo of your pup! And be sure to post your pet’s glamour shot on Instagram along with the tag #GoodDogPortrait.
1. Train your dog to sit and stay, even in the most distracting environments
Before you even pick up the camera, spend the time it takes to train your dog to hold a sit/stay command in a distracting environment. This is the single most important factor in getting a great shot of your dog. If your pup is in motion and wiggling around, it’s going to be tough to get a great shot, especially if you have limited light. Practice at home first, and then practice at the park with people and dogs running about. Almost all of the dogs I’ve photographed in-studio have mastered the sit/stay. Otherwise, my shoots would be a mess!
2. Get on your dog’s eye level
Station your camera lens at the same height as your dog. It sometimes works to shoot from different angles, but in general, the most endearing portraits of dogs are shot at eye level. Get low to the ground or let your dog hop up on a bed, couch or park bench. In the studio, I use a platform for the dogs to perch on so we can stay eye-to-eye.
3. Use dog treats
The best way to keep your dog’s attention once they have learned a good sit and stay is to use treats. If you’ve got a picky eater, use something even more enticing like cheese or bacon. Let the dog get a whiff of your treat and then move it away. They should naturally follow the treat, which will give you control of the dog’s line of sight, which is very important when creating a charming portrait. For my studio portraits, we use super stinky treats like anchovy paste or Vienna sausages—recommended only in small amounts of course!
4. Work with a friend
If you use treats to control your dog’s line of sight, it’s tricky to do that and take the picture at the same time. So, grab a friend, kiddo, or ask your partner to jump in and help out. Work on the composition and framing of the picture while your friend uses treats to control your dog’s line of sight. For my studio portraits, I work with two trainers that help maintain the eye line and pose while I focus on capturing that split second when the dog shows me their best expression.
5. Make some noise
When I’m photographing dogs in the studio, I have a bag full of different noisemakers we can use to grab the dog’s attention. I have duck callers (highly recommended), whistles, shakers and bells.
Here are two tricks to make the most out of your noisemakers. Don’t make the noise until your pup is posed and ready for the picture. Most dogs will only respond to an odd sound a few times and then you have to move onto the next noisemaker. The second tip is to have only one person make the noise. Ten different noisemakers blaring at a dog only confuses them. So, have everyone around be quiet, then go for it. I’ve been known to come up with some very unique sounds myself—cat meows, cow moos, goat sounds, whistles, you name it. I’m sure you can too!
6. Go outside, but stay in the shade
The most accessible and softest light for photographing your dog (or people for that matter) is outside in the shade. Under a tree or shaded by a wall will give you soft lighting that is bright enough to capture the best expressions in detail. What you need to be careful of here is making sure the background is not super bright. The easiest way to do this is shoot towards the end of the day and be mindful of the background. A cloudy day can work just fine too. For my studio portraits, I use large soft light umbrellas that mimic a shady day while also creating a little bit of sheen and pop so the pups are shown at their best.
7. Keep the background simple
Not only do you want to capture the love and charm of your dog, you also want to make him or her the focal point of the image. In order to achieve this, you will want a simple background with little distractions. If you have a larger camera, you can use a small aperture, or, if you are working with an iPhone, try and frame the image where there isn’t anything distracting behind the dog. For my book, “Good Dog,” I took this to the extreme and either photographed the dogs on a white or black background to showcase the dog and what made them special, without any distractions.
Getting a great portrait of your pup is not always an easy task, but it’s worth it! Working with your pet to master their sit/stay, as well as practicing patience “on set” is an opportunity for the two of you to work together. Plus, it’s a great activity for the whole family—the more helpful hands the better.”
Go behind the scenes with Ford on YouTube: “How this photographer captures the essence of a dog,” introduces his latest book.
Cover photo courtesy Randal Ford