Creating stunning portraits of our canine companions requires so much more than technical knowledge of photography. Understanding how to coax a dog into just the right spot while keeping them relaxed and happy is crucial to capturing genuine expressions with perfectly composed surroundings. Adding a few special items to your gear bag for those times when you venture out to photograph someone’s four-legged friend can have a much larger impact on your photos than choosing the perfect lens.
It doesn’t matter how expensive your equipment might be, a tack-sharp photo with impeccable colors and tones of a dog who appears uninterested, disengaged, and even anxious might as well just "sit and stay" on your memory card until the next time it’s formatted. Photographing dogs is less about knowing your camera settings (though that certainly helps) and more about understanding how to work with your subject. To facilitate working with dogs, here are a few things to bring along to every dog session:
A variety of treats. Treats that the dog enjoys will keep them interested in you, making it easy for you to get the eye contact and engaged expressions that are hallmarks of a beautiful dog portrait. I remind the owners to bring treats, but always keep some on hand for when they forget. My favorite treats are locally produced freeze-dried raw treats made from poultry and beef.
A variety of noisemakers. Making sounds that garner a dog’s attention is an effective technique for capturing those wide eyes and perky ears. Dogs become habituated to the same noise when used over and over again, and will eventually ignore it altogether. Bring three or four noise-making devices with you. If you’re in a pinch and out of sounds, crinkling the bag containing the treats is another trick to get them looking your way.
A leash. Although I always require the owners bring a leash for their dog, there are instances in which either the leash is too short, or they forgot to bring the leash altogether. Leashes are essential to positioning a dog in just the right spot, and keeping them safe and under control. Keep a simple leash on hand for every dog session, because the time that you decide to leave it at home is the time that you’ll need it the most.
A tie-out stake. Depending on where you have your session, you might be able to tie your subject to a lamp post, bench, or boulder. But for those times at a sandy beach or grassy field where you really need the dog to be secured, a stake stuck into the ground can be your best option.
Poop bags. You would be surprised how often dog owners forget to bring these little bags along with them for a session. Though their dogs may have done their business just prior to meeting with you, sometimes the added excitement of a session can leave you digging in your pockets for another bag. Having to run back to the car to get these will waste time, interrupt your session, and could make the client feel embarrassed for having forgotten them. I keep a compact roll of these in my camera bag at all times.
Peanut butter. If there was ever the perfect food to guarantee comical expressions from our dogs time and time again, it’s peanut butter. Dogs almost always love to eat it, and every little morsel they chow down gives you a few seconds of wide-eyed and tongue-out pure gold. One strong word of warning for peanut butter: avoid the “low-calorie” versions that contain the sweetener xylitol, as this substance is fatal to dogs when consumed even in very small amounts.
The most helpful asset at a dog session is most often the owners themselves, as they know their dogs best, and hopefully (with your advice), they have brought items with them that their dog enjoys, such as favorite treats and toys. By packing your bag with a few extra items, you will not only capture better photos, but create a better experience for your client as they will appreciate how prepared you are for a session with their beloved pet.
I’m always looking for extra things to add to my “bag of tricks” that I bring along to dog sessions, and I’d love to hear if you found anything particularly helpful!