Saturday, mid-afternoon, Joey and I are cruising Pet Co. because we need kibble. (Actually, I’m the one who needs the kibble. Joey would much prefer take-out steak tartare.)
We pass a pen closing off a couple of aisles and a young woman with a major Nikon, who coos over how adorable Joey is, and suggests that we take advantage of the special deal on pet photography.
I explain that Joey is photophobic and formal efforts to take his picture result in something that the Amnesty International Canine Division would use as a poster for the prevention of exploitation of dogs.
“Oh, but I have a fast shutter!” she told me.
It was a worm on a hook. I couldn’t resist the challenge. I’m a photographer. I love Joey and I know the issue isn’t shutter speed. It’s the invasiveness of a light-flashing, pointed, black prong challenging him that he HATES.
I thought: She’s a PetCo. sanctioned photographer; I’m a sitting-at-Starbucks-isn’t-that-cute-photographer. She has a Nikon; I don’t. And the price isn’t going to force me to share Joey’s yet-to-be-bought kibble. So I give the girl a chance.
He turns away. I dance outside the pen and call his name. He turns away. I crouch beside Ms. Nikon and call out all my pet names for Joey. He turns away.
Ms. Nikon shows me what she’s been able to capture. Joey takes advantage of the distraction and heads off toward the kitty feathers department.
A good friend of Joey’s and mine periodically sends us information about contests for pet photos. I’ve never entered because it is truly challenging to create a great pet photo. But here are some suggestions I’ve culled from experience and research.
- Be prepared. When cute happens, there are no instant replays. You have to have the camera at hand and set for the lighting and distance conditions of the moment.
- Be sensitive to your dog’s sensitivities. Joey doesn’t like flashing lights and he doesn’t like aggressive looking things pointed at him. The solution is a long lens at a distance or a lot of distraction.
- Get close. Whether your dog will allow you to get physically close or whether you have to use a telephoto lens, your dog’s image should dominate the visual field. Unless the message of your photograph is something else, in which context (see below) might dominate.
- Capture your dog’s personality. The best picture of a pet reflects how that pet is different than all others. It will never be possible for me to get a picture of Joey grabbing a Frisbee out of mid-air. He doesn’t do that. It will never be possible to capture Joey playing chase in a dog park. He hates the experience. It is possible to capture him curled up for a nap, or begging a treat.
- Use a fast shutter speed or slow it down and pan the camera. If you have a digital camera that allows you to give priority to shutter speed, you can set a fast shutter speed (500 or above) to stop action. But sometimes giving the blur of motion tells the story. In that case, you can lower the shutter speed and follow your dog as he or she runs to create a blurred background.
- Shoot from a dog’s view. Make a point of looking at the world through your camera lens as if your camera were a dog’s eye. All too often photographers stand and shoot from human eye level, with very ordinary results.
- Think context. What is happening around your dog as you are taking the picture? If you have a Chihuahua playing at the feet of a Great Dane, you need to decide what the photo is about, how much of each dog needs to be shown to create context and what is the meaning of the photo.