Photographing Your Dog

In the old days, photographing your dog or anything else was an exercise in patience. Film had to be purchased, a limited number of shots taken, and hopes that “the good one” you saw through the lens would actually result in the desired finished product after a week of waiting for the drug store to process the little packet would all to often culminate with the need to start over. It was only experts who possessed the most expensive equipment including their own darkrooms who got results any quicker than that, and even then, gratification was best defined as anything but “instant”.

Today we have generations of people who have never known any of this. While the instant gratification era surely has it’s questionable value on many levels, it has absolutely created an abundance of good photography where only a small number of top level picture takers once existed. With the ability to check every shot with no more than a glance at the camera window, no film to worry about, and downloading and printing the chosen best in a matter of minutes, even the most amateur photographer has every chance of producing top level photos with a minimal investment in both time and money.

With all of the waiting, hoping, and marching back to the drawing board out of the way, there are still a few tricks of the trade that are important to note if you are serious about getting the best shots of your beautiful Collie or Sheltie.

Just as in the old days, one of the most important considerations you will need to make is in the matter of lighting. While indoor lighting conditions can be greatly enhanced by previously unavailable camera settings, along with properly placed lamps and open window shades, it is still true that natural outdoor lighting almost always results in the best finished product. Of course the advantage of indoor lighting is that you can place lamps in any desired position, whereas you must work with the placement and brightness of the sun (subject to time of day, cloud cover, and seasonal weather conditions), a well thought out shot in natural lighting is still to be preferred whenever possible. Letting the late afternoon or lightly cloud covered sun come over your shoulder as you take your shot is time honored advice still producing great photos with all types of cameras.

If you’re photographing a tri color or bi black dog, you probably already know that extra effort is needed to insure that the face is not lost in a two dimensional result. Bringing out the features on the face of a black dog, especially inside, typically requires lighting from at least two sources, and lighting from three sources, if available, should be considered. Working indoors with the sun coming through an open window (when possible, open the whole window, not just the shade) you can easily add the necessary additional illumination with spot lights placed strategically on either side of your subject.

To photograph a show dog for advertising or featuring on your web site, you naturally want to accentuate his best points and not draw attention to his faults. This takes a very honest and accurate assessment of where the dog’s faults and virtues lie. If you don’t know these things, that fact will soon become apparent to everyone of discernment once you post your pictures, so give some serious thought to what you’re saying with your ads. It is indelibly true that a picture paints at least a thousand words, and all too often we see pictures that say things like, “Here’s my dog with his straight front, straight rear, dippy topline, and unparallel head planes. I’d like to thank the following judges who obviously have no clue as to what a Collie or Sheltie is supposed to look like for putting him up in spite of his being unsound and a poor representative of the breed.” Needless to say, this is not what you want to tell the world about your dog! Another turn off we all see on a much too regular basis is a show photo of a dog with his tail planted firmly between his legs. My guess is that these pictures are used because they represent the only available show photo. Nonetheless, they are horrible representations of temperament, whether accurate or not, and should not be posted by anyone spending time and money to say positive things about their dog.

Certainly all dogs have faults as well as virtues, and an off moment or two when being posed for a photo. Just as you extend great effort in presenting your dog to a judge with a mind to accentuating his virtues, you also want to do the same in presenting his photo to everyone who never gets to see him in the flesh. Don’t show off to the world the points you were hoping the judge would overlook as he went over the entire dog. Similarly, don’t display for everyone the off moment the judge was able to look beyond because he had the living specimen in front of him. Most people viewing your photo on the internet or in a magazine will never see more of your dog than the one expression, the one view, the one moment in time that you choose to display. You are the one who knows the dog better than anyone, and you are the one who knows (or should know) his best features. What you display will therefore be perceived as the best he has to offer, whether it’s a beautiful expression, a bad front, a shaky temperament, or a perfect outline.

If expression is your dog’s greatest feature, get a face shot that really shows off that expression. If he has a perfect stop and beautiful head planes, take a full on profile. A perfectly laid back shoulder and wonderful outline is sadly becoming rare in our breeds today, so if your dog has got it, by all means flaunt it! If he doesn’t, however, don’t post a full on profile body shot that will just make everyone wonder if he has any virtues at all.

Getting the dog’s attention so you have that nice alert look can be difficult if you’re working alone, or if your dog has become bored with the whole idea of getting his picture taken. As we all know, nothing looks more undesirable and unhappy than a dog who clearly exhibits the fact that he’d rather not be in the picture at all. Motivation to elicit the desired alert expression can come from many sources, and the more creative you can be with them the better chance you have at getting good results. Of course we all know about throwing food and using squeaky toys. While some dogs will respond to these things almost endlessly, most will not. A dog who anticipates the arrival of a school bus or a mail truck every day, however, can be set up to photograph at just the right time to catch his excitement at the opportune moment. One who is inspired by the sound a cat meowing, a telephone ringing or other particular sounds would be best set up near a tape recorder placed in just the right spot. A few seconds of silence at the beginning of the tape will give you the time needed to position both the dog and the camera to get the shot you want.

Once you have a group of pictures you feel are worthy of using to make your final selection, look very critically at each and choose the one that best shows your dog’s attributes. Be careful not to be overly impressed with one feature in a shot to the point of not seeing the whole picture. I once had someone ask me to post a photo of their dog “because this one really shows off her long neck.” I pointed out to her that while that was true, it also showed the handler stringing the dog up so tightly in order to show off that neck, that the dog’s expression gave the appearance of an animal about to upchuck at any moment! Again, this is not the impression you want to give the world about your dog (or your handler!).

Even in a group of good shots, there should be one that wholly jumps out at you. When you go over it carefully and still feel it is the best, you have your choice photo. At this point, and in consideration of all the modern technology that brought you to it far more easily than was ever possible in the past, you have one more point to consider.

Today we have PhotoShop. Should you PhotoShop your picture, or should you proudly state that your photos are always “unretouched”?

Personally, I love PhotoShop. It offers me the opportunity to grab a good shot regardless of the background or setting, and replace that background with a better one. Sometimes taking the background out completely and just leaving the subject by itself on a white or plain colored canvas enhances it so impressively that it is actually revitalized out of near oblivion. With PhotoShop you can remove any distractive elements such as a leash, a hand that accidently got into the shot, or even parts of another dog standing nearby. Additionally, there is the ever present problem of a Collie or Sheltie catching an ear in the wind at just the wrong moment, and putting that ear back down with PhotoShop can save an otherwise beautiful shot.

If you’re an expert with PhotoShop, and you can put a coat on a dog who doesn’t have one, lengthen the neck, move the front legs from under the ear to under the shoulder where they belong, or repair head planes which are incorrect, and you choose to do such things, then I have to wonder “why”. What is the perceived value to the fancy or to the breed if the photo is changed to appear as tho depicting an animal which does not in fact exist? Are you offering the actual dog at stud, or have you found a way to offer the enhanced image instead? As well, what do you expect people to think of YOU when they see the dog in the flesh and realize that the photo has been heavily doctored? (Many with a good eye can detect even expert doctoring in the photo itself — no need to even see the dog in the flesh.) Of course, if you’re changing the dog itself for the purpose of creating an animated image, a commercial ad for a product, or a generic depiction of breed perfection, then my question is reasonably answered. Like so many things in modern technology, PhotoShop has it’s positive as well as it’s negative uses. While we all hope to see photos of beautiful representations of our breeds being shown and offered in breeding programs, no one wants to be lied to through the use of PhotoShop or any other graphics program. So if you choose to learn to use PhotoShop, have fun with it, enjoy it, and for the good of the breeds as well as your own reputation, use it responsibly.

Happy picture taking!

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4 thoughts on “Photographing Your Dog

  1. Hello! I’ve been following your weblog for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Dallas Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the great work!

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