Start with the Basics: A Beginner's Guide to Dog Photography
7 Tips & Advice for Beginners
Thinking of becoming a dog photographer or just looking to sharpen your photography skills? As a beginner, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Our social media feeds are filled with beautiful, almost magical images of our furry friends. You feel as if you'll never be able to take pictures like that.
However, I’m here to tell you, you don’t need the most expensive photography equipment. You don’t need to know every Lightroom preset or Photoshop technique to be a good dog photographer.
Post-processing is amazing, and can certainly help, but it won't make or break your success as a beginning pet photographer.
After all, the most important thing is not someone's presets, actions, or secret editing techniques. Rather, it is the basics that will help you get started on your journey and create beautiful images.
So don't worry if your photos don't look like they were taken in a fairy tale just yet. With a little practice, you'll be taking enchanting photos in no time. In this post, you'll find 7 tips for beginners and some extra advice to help you on your way.
1. Get to know your camera and understand its capabilities and limitations.
When it comes to photography, understanding your camera and lenses is key. Not only do you need to understand what your gear can do, but you should also be aware of its limitations.
Automatic mode is a great starting point for beginners, but for more control and a better understanding of light and exposure, try to get off auto as soon as you can. This will help you recognize the capabilities and limitations of your gear.
There is no need to purchase the latest, most expensive equipment. This is especially true if you are just beginning and don't yet know what you need.
Personally, I started my pet photography journey with a Nikon D3300 and a kit lens. I upgraded my gear along the way, as I gained a greater understanding of my camera's settings and lens capabilities.
2. Understand the exposure triangle.
The exposure triangle is one of the most important concepts in photography, consisting of three main elements: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These three camera settings control how much light enters your camera.
Manually setting these elements gives you a lot more control over your images and quality.
The Aperture (F-Stop), which is the size of the lens opening, affects how much light hits your sensor. This in turn partially determines the depth-of-field, or DoF.
Your depth-of-field affects the sharpness of an image. A large depth-of-field means that more of the image is in focus, while a shallow depth-of-field means that less of the image is in focus.
Aperture settings can range from wide open (low aperture) to closed (high aperture). If it helps, view this setting as a tape measure.
Want to capture a blurry background? You'll need a shallow depth of field. Retract your tape measure by lowering your F-Stop.
Need a larger area in focus? Extend that tape measure! Raise the F-Stop to increase your depth-of-field.
This is the time it takes for the shutter to open and close. It controls how long the camera will take to capture an image and how long light can enter your camera before it closes.
A faster shutter speed will result in a darker image. A slower setting will result in a brighter image, because more light was able to enter the camera.
Your shutter speed also determines how motion is captured in your photo. A fast shutter speed will freeze motion, whereas a slower setting will result in more motion blur.
ISO is your camera's light sensitivity. View it as your final exposure dial, once you've determined your F-Stop and shutter speed. A higher ISO will result in a brighter image, at the cost of image quality, by capturing more noise.
The amount of noise depends on your specific camera. Newer cameras are able to capture images at higher ISO, while having relatively low amounts of noise.
What is an acceptable level of noise, you wonder? That's entirely up to you. Are you a pixel-peeping stickler for detail or relatively unbothered by some noise in your images? Neither is right nor wrong.
Once you have a solid understanding of the exposure triangle, you'll need an objective way to measure light. You can't rely on your camera's screen or your own eyes. Our eyes are too good at adapting to ambient light to judge the exposure of an image.
Learn to use your camera's light meter and read an image's histogram instead of relying on guesswork.
3. Create an image that is deliberate.
Knowing what each setting does, where should you begin?
Well, what type of image are you creating? Choose your location, pose your model and set your exposure settings accordingly. What do I mean by this? Let me explain. I'm mainly a portrait photographer; it's what I'm most experienced in and what I teach. During my in-person workshops, we often have a variety of models - with varying levels of obedience!
Now I could exclusively invite perfectly trained, well-behaved models. Who wouldn't want that?! A great way to practice those techniques I teach my students before the photoshoots, definitely. But let's face it: a group of perfect models wouldn't make for a very realistic representation of our craft, nor set the right expectations for my students.
So, if one of our furry models decides they've held a pose for long enough and it's now time for the zoomies, some students attempt to frantically switch from taking portraits to attempting action photographs of an overexcited pup in full sprint.
And I understand! You don't want to miss out on that potentially amazing photo. However, the outcome is often far from amazing. I had to learn this the hard way myself; chasing clients' dogs through prickly shrubs and heath.
If you're anything like me, you'll get better results setting up your shots in a more controlled fashion. Having learned my lesson, these days I, myself, am either in portrait mode, shooting my prime lens wide open or I deliberately set up an action shot to capture, using a fast telephoto lens with the right exposure settings.
For me, the two don't mix. If a pup needs to run off some energy after posing for a while, I let them. I don't need or feel pressure to chase them for that "amazing" lucky shot.
Once their dog is calm again, I'll ask the owner to reposition their pup, and we continue the photo session. A bit of patience, that's all there's to it.
4. Light is everything.
Light has a greater effect on the quality of your images than your camera, lens or post-processing skills will ever have. Unlike in a photography studio, you're not in full control of the light. However, that doesn't mean you can't use natural light to your advantage.
For me, soft, diffused light is the key to creating my fine-art portraits. It creates flattering transitions from highlights to shadows, with all values well within the dynamic range of my camera.
Bright, direct sunlight I avoid. Not because I'm secretly a vampire, but it does nothing for the image quality and portrait style I strive for. Blown out highlights, harsh shadows and extreme contrasts. No, thank you!
I'm often asked by students when and/or how I use spot metering for my portrait work. The answer? I don't. Never use it for my portrait work.
How's that possible? I schedule and search for soft light on location. When neither highlights nor shadows are at extreme values, I have no need of the spot metering mode. White dogs and black dogs can be just as simple to photograph as any other coat color. The key is to find the right light.
5. Get down on their level.
Shoot from a low angle. Get down at a dog's eye level and focus on the eyes.
No, actually, get even lower! Position yourself flat on the ground and only shoot from a higher angle if the location absolutely calls for it. You don't need an expensive portrait lens for those soft foregrounds.
Low angles allow you to position the horizon lower in your image's frame. Get low enough for that foreground blur, and you'll notice a much stronger sense of depth in your work. No editing or fake blurs required!
Photographing from high angles, you're tilting your camera downwards, filling your background with, well... the ground. If you find yourself unconsciously rising to a higher angle, consider bringing a bean bag. Not only is it a great way to support and stabilize your camera, it's a constant reminder to stay low.
A true (outdoor) dog tog's clothes don't stay clean. Be sure to bring home some soil samples in your hair as a badge of honor!
6. Develop your photographer's eye.
When I look at the world around me, I sometimes imagine it through my camera lens. I realize that what my eyes see isn't necessarily what my camera will capture. Our eyes simply aren't portrait lenses.
Naturally, this takes some practice. If you're not doing so already, try capturing images at locations that appear dull to the naked eye. We recently had a thread going in our Facebook Group. I asked photographers to post their own examples of final portraits, along with wider shots from behind-the-scenes.
It's truly amazing to see what our experienced members can create in seemingly dull locations. It just goes to show how great their photographer's eye and creativity are. Pay attention to your surroundings, to the way light affects locations and different types of dogs. Don't be afraid to try a location you normally wouldn't. With a little effort, you can develop your own eye.
Learn about composition. Start simple; use the rule of thirds as a guideline. By positioning a dog along the lines formed by the rule of thirds, you can create strong compositions that are visually balanced.
7. Be critical. Be Persistent. Just don't forget to have fun.
It's important to be critical of your work. Not negatively, but in a way that allows you to grow and improve. Take a close look at your photos and ask yourself what you could do better next time. Was the composition good? Was the lighting right? Did you capture the dog's personality?
Dog photography can be challenging, yet at the same time incredibly rewarding. Don't be discouraged if you don't get the perfect photo every time; while easier said than done, it's just not a realistic expectation.
You can't control everything. Mistakes are allowed and unless you're worried about the amount of clicks on your camera, you can take as many pictures as your memory card allows. Until the zoomies strike, that is.
Just don't forget to have fun. At the end of the day, dog photography is supposed to be fun. Don't take yourself too seriously. Have fun and let your personality shine through.
With the right attitude, it's an amazingly rewarding, creative outlet!
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