How to Take a Great Photo of Your Dog

For fab holiday pictures, focus on your dog’s natural behaviors.
By Karen B. London PhD, November 2020

Dogs are beautiful, charming, endearing—in fact, they ought to be in pictures. While this is true year-round, it’s especially appropriate this year, when many of us are doing our best to inject some fun into pandemic-beleaguered holidays. Focusing on our fabulous dogs is a good way to do that. Read on for ways to optimize the results.

The difference between a reasonably cute photo and a must-be-framed-and-hung-on-the-wall shot comes down to two basic issues: technical and behavioral. On the technical side, go for lighting and backgrounds that work in your favor. A proper understanding of your equipment means you can ensure that focus and exposure are spot on. Finally, the right perspective can make a huge difference; for example, capturing your dog at roughly her eye level will generally give you a better photo than a shot taken from above. (See the “We Recommend” list for more tips.) Behaviorally, understanding how dogs naturally respond to a variety of cues goes a long way toward getting a photograph that does justice to your dog’s good looks.

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

For a dog, a camera is a scary, giant eye. Dogs find staring rude as well as threatening, and a camera looks like the biggest eye ever to them. Because a larger lens used at a distance is less worrisome to them than a smaller lens used close up, a portrait lens is a good investment. And speaking of eyes, that’s where you literally need to keep your focus. A blurred tail or windblown fur can convey the essence of your dog by capturing her energy, but her eyes must be sharp or the photo will look off.

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Go for the head-tilt. There’s something adorable about a dog who’s cocking her head. Noises are key to drawing out that head-tilt, and the easiest way to get a dog to do it is to make an unfamiliar (and nonthreatening) sound. Smooching, tongue clicks, saying “woop, woop,” or even singing or imitating a bird may cause your dog to look at you inquisitively—and voilà, there’s the cute head cock. Some dogs will hold the tilt for a while, but many do so only briefly, so be ready to take the shot as soon as she moves her head.

Some training helps with directing your dog’s attention and positioning. For most dogs, training is best described as a work in progress, but there’s no need to despair. In terms of photographs, the goal is mainly to keep your dog in position and get her attention. Even if your dog doesn’t necessarily or consistently offer those behaviors on cue, there are ways to achieve them for a photo.

Many dogs are riveted by motion, so wiggling a finger, waving an arm or shaking a toy will often keep a dog occupied and looking in the right direction long enough to take the shot. Dogs who don’t have a solid stay can be encouraged to remain in place with a slight lean-forward by the photographer. If you ask your dog to sit and then need put some distance between you to get in position, back away instead of turning your back. Our dogs have a tendency to follow us when we turn away from them—a great thing in general, but not during a photo session!

Admittedly, reliable responses to cues make the process simpler. I once took my dog Bugsy to a charitable event that included a photo booth. When I asked if Bugsy could have his photo taken, those in charge assumed that a dog would require too much time and hold up the line for the kids behind him, but grudgingly, they let me give it a try. I led him to the mark, said, “Bugsy, sit, stay,” then stepped behind the photographer and said, “Watch.” While Bugsy looked at me, the photographer took a few pictures, then sent us on our way. It took about 15 seconds, significantly less than it took to photograph any of the humans.

Capture your dog’s individuality. Is her life divided into moments in which she is fetching and moments in which she is wishing she were fetching? Include a tennis ball or two in the frame. Is she drawn to particular toy? Use it in the foreground. Does she hold her ears asymmetrically, one up and one down? Does she tend to let her tongue hang out, or habitually raise her paw? Catch those moments and you will see not just a beautiful dog, but your beautiful dog. Capturing what makes a dog unique results in a picture you love and want to share.

Embrace the bloopers. No matter how hard we try to take that elusive perfect photograph of our dogs, sometimes the best shots are the bloopers. In this photo, Erin caught her dog Saylor during an awkward moment, chewing one of the many treats Erin was using to help her associate wearing a costume with feeling happy. The result is one of my all-time favorite dog photographs. It was certainly not the picture Erin had in mind when she began the photo session, but this “blooper” is the happiest of photographic accidents. (Note that the lighting is perfect and Saylor is looking at the camera and holding her stay.)

Do you have a favorite photo of your dog, either one that’s just what you imagined or one that fits into the blooper category? Please share—we’d love to see your dog’s picture!

Photo: iStock

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life

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