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A few people have been asking for some tips on taking dog photos so here are some tips. These aren't going to be detailed instructions on how to use your camera or how to use Photoshop. You can probably find that kind of useful information online on real photography how-to sites or you can go to school for three or four or ten years and get a degree in it or whatever it is they do these days.

The pointers here are specifically geared to taking photos of shelter dogs for their adoption website pictures. You can try these strategies out on other subjects, of course, but if you do and then you post those photos of, say, your new baby up on Facebook and strangers start contacting you about when it'll be available for adoption, don't blame me.

I try to get a decent image in as little time as possible because:

1. I'm lazy
2. There are usually lots of dogs to get through
3. It can get really cold in the winter
4. It can get really hot in the summer
5. It can get really wet in the spring and fall
6. For the most part, the dogs would rather be walking and sniffing than staring at a camera so I try to accommodate that as much as I can with the time I have

But even though I'm a lazy photographer, I usually give myself about 30 - 45 minutes for each dog (this includes time just walking or hanging out) so that means if there are several dogs which need pictures, I'm at TAS for a good part of the afternoon. Plus, on top of that, I spend about an equal amount of time editing and processing the photos for each dog. So, that's a minimum of an hour per dog. You're own results will vary, of course, but this will give you some reference point.

I generally want adoption pictures to be clear, to show the dog in a flattering but realistic light, to express some aspect of the dog's personality and to establish an emotional connection with the potential adopter. To do this, I try to take about 100,000 pictures of each dog and pray to God that one or two of them turn out. An infinite number of monkeys, etc. Now, 100,000 pictures takes a bit of time so barring that, here are some other ideas:

1. Try to get the dog comfortable with you before you start taking photos. Some dogs, like some people, are natural hams and you can just start snapping away at them but I find those to be the exception. Most dogs are a little unsure of that camera thingy you've got in your hands which looks like a big evil, alien eyeball and some dogs are extremely nervous having a camera pointed at them. If the dog doesn't know you at all and doesn't know if you might want to eat it for supper, it just exacerbates the camera anxiety problem and you may end up with a lot of shots like this:

Or this:

So, before you even take the camera out, spend some time with your model. Get to know the subject a bit. Take it for a walk. Sit down with it. Reassure it that it's not fat, that it's just as beautiful as it was when it was younger and if Gaultier didn't already have a muse, it would be a shoe in. Get your assistant to uncork some Cristal or lay down a couple of lines. Mention some important friends who are big fans who are coming over later and ... umm, we're still talking dogs aren't we? Ok, never mind that last part.

2. The most important things are the eyes. Make sure the photo makes eye contact. If you can only have one photo to show off the dog, try to make it one where the dog is looking out of the photo directly at the viewer. This is the best way to establish an emotional connection with the viewer. Shots of dogs looking into the horizon or looking off to the side may reveal personality but unless they are especially strong images, they probably won't be as good at establishing a connection between the viewer and the dog.

Here's one with Baby looking off to the side. It's fine to look at perhaps but I don't find myself connecting strongly with the dog:

Here Baby looks right at the viewer with her big, sorta sad, brown eyes. Now here's a dog I'd want to say hello to:

If you ever see a photo taken by me of a dog not looking at the camera, either that dog has some amazing profile or I screwed up and didn't get a decent shot with eye contact.

When you're taking the photo, have different strategies ready for getting the dog to look at the lens. This isn't always easy (re: evil alien eyeball). Use treats, squeaky toys, yodel, make gang signs with your hands to show how cool and ironic you are and if you want the dog to think you're sexy, make duck lips because all the best kids are doing it on Facebook these days - just do whatever works to get that dog to look into the lens.

Don't let red eye ruin your photo - although with dogs, maybe it should be called green eye.

Green eye happens when the flash from the camera illuminates the inside of the dog's pupils and makes the dog look like a vampire dog with glowing eyes. That's super distracting since most people want regular dogs, not vampire dogs. The only people who want vampire dogs are Twilight wannabes who have blood oath'd to name their future children Bella and/or Jacob and I'm pretty sure they shouldn't be allowed to have any pets because naming a child after sparkling, fairy vampires or werewolves is just too tacky.

The best way to prevent red eye is to not use a flash. Which takes us to lighting ...

2. Unless you've got a studio light set up, take your photos in natural light as much as possible and have the dog in a location which is out of direct sunlight. Full direct sunlight is way too harsh for dog photos I find. The best light is the light on a cloudy day. It's a soft, even light and will show off all the lovely details in the dog's features.

For example, this next photo, taken in direct sunlight, is too harsh. There's too much contrast: the shadows (at the back of the neck) are too dark and don't have much detail and the highlights (on the tongue) are too bright and also don't have much detail. The colour of the fur is also stretched from yellow to black on what is an all-black dog.

The following photo was taken on a cloudy day. You can see how rich the tones are in Flander's black fur. He's like velvet and the emotional impact from the image is different. This photo is calming. The previous one made me want to squint.

3. Use a shallow depth of focus to accentuate the eyes and face. I quite often shoot with the aperture at f/2.4 or less (the lens I use most often is a prime 18mm f/1.8). This means the eyes and face are in focus while things further away from the eyes are more and more blurry, as in the picture below.

4. Use photography software to colour correct, clean up dirt and get rid of distractions. The aim of the adoption photo is to represent the dog in the best possible light but not to misrepresent the dog.

The first version, out of the camera, has a chalky, grayish cast to it. O'Malley clearly did not have a grayish cast in his fur so this needed correction:

I've warmed the colours up a bit in Photoshop by increasing the saturation and applying a sunlight filter:

Learning Photoshop, or any photo processing software, may be an investment but it can really make a difference. It's also good for a few larfs like when you want to stick your co-worker's head on top of a gorilla body or a ham sandwich.

5. Don't cut off the photo taking session too quickly before you're sure you've got a decent image. The only reasons I've ever had for ending a session before I felt ready was if the dog was getting too cold/hot or too anxious.

Don't prolong the session longer than the dog will tolerate. Dogs are very much like kids in this respect. They're good, they're good and then they're not and it's hard to get them to pay attention again once you've lost their attention.

6. Sometimes I don't get a good enough picture the first time round. There's nothing wrong with doing a reshoot, especially if the existing photo is not doing the dog justice.

Ok, that's all I can think of for now.

7 Comments to “Photographing pound dogs”

  1. SA MVH says:

    Fred, this was fantastic. I loved all the photos, especially the first one of Baby........I literally felt like I could reach and and rub her nose. All your tips so helpful. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous says:

    awesome! i just started doing it in January of this year for our local shelter, so I'm a total newb. thanks for the pointers!

  3. Alex says:

    One thing you don't say, but should be obvious, is don't try to take a through the bars picture.

    No-one can relate to prisoner #147651, no matter how good the rest of the photo is.

  4. JAW says:

    What a gem of a person you are. Have thoroughly loved your posts, photos, sense of humour and now tips! We thank you for your devotion to these dogs and their causes. Kudos for a job well done.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I love your photographs and tips. I have also found that you can make a dog look very cute and vulnerable if you shoot from above with him sitting and looking into the camera. His head becomes much bigger and his paws little. Very cute.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Great tips, thank you.

  7. Manders says:

    You are an amazing photographer and the photos you took of Ginger (formerly Gucci) are the best ones I have of her. Keep up the fantastic job! I also like your witty comments.

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A request

The reason for this blog is to help get specific dogs adopted from TAS but equally important is to try to normalize the idea of shelter dogs being just as good and just as desirable as any other dogs including those which are regularly merchandised by backyard breeders, puppy millers and those few remaining pet store owners who still feel a need to sell live animals. The single greatest stigma shelter animals still face is the belief that shelter animals are substandard animals. Anyone who has had enough experience with shelter animals knows this is untrue but the general public hasn't had the same experiences you've had. They see a nice dog photo in a glossy magazine and too many of them would never think of associating that dog with a dog from a shelter. After all, no one abandons perfectly good dogs, right? Unfortunately, as we all know, perfectly good dogs are abandoned all the time.

The public still too often associates shelter dogs with images of beat up, sick, dirty, severely traumatized animals and while we definitely sometimes see victims such as these, they are certainly not the majority and, regardless, even the most abused animals can very often be saved and made whole again.

Pound Dogs sometimes discusses the sad histories some of the dogs have suffered. For the most part, though, it tries to present the dogs not as victims but as great potential family members. The goal is to raise the profiles of animals in adoption centers so that a potential pet owner sees them as the best choice, not just as the charity choice.

So, here's the favour I'm asking. Whenever you see a dog picture on these pages you think is decent enough, I'd like you to consider sharing it on Facebook or any other social media sites you're using (I know many of you do this already and thank you for that). And when you share it, please mention that the dog in the photo is a shelter dog like so many other shelter dogs waiting for a home. If we can get even five percent of the pet buying public to see shelter dogs differently, to see how beautiful they are and how wonderful they are, and to consider shelter dogs as their first choice for a new family member, we can end the suffering of homeless pets in this country.