Simple Tips for Effectively Photographing Dogs in Studio

Simple Tips for Effectively Photographing Dogs in Studio

I will start this article off by saying that I am not a pet photographer. I am a portrait photographer that typically captures humans for magazines and ads. However, a couple years ago I started a pit bull charity (Not A Bully) and it unexpectedly led me to some jobs photographing rescue animals. If you're reading this, you already know that capturing animal portraits is a unique challenge in itself. I've done some of the difficult leg work for you and put together a list of tips to hopefully make your next in-studio pet portrait session much easier.

Photographer: Douglas Sonders (additional credit: 2 of the cover animals were captured by Carli Davidson)

Cover Design and Magazine Creative Director: Michael Goesele

Magazine Photo Editor: Diane Rice

Typography Design: Andy Smith

Retoucher: Taisya Kuzmenko

Recently I did a cover shoot for Washingtonian Magazine comprised of various animals from the Washington Animal Rescue League (WARL) in order to promote bed adoption in the region. We had to setup a makeshift studio in the actual WARL offices and they would bring in each animal one at a time. I set up a blue paper backdrop (as suggested by my awesome photo editor Diane Rice) and my four Profoto D1 lights (two rear strip lights for edge, an overhead beauty dish for key, and an eye-level strobe with 7" reflector and 20 degree grid for fill and eye light), then we got to work. You can see the behind-the-scenes photos below (thank you to Rich Kessler and Vithaya Phongsavan for photographing behind the scenes and helping):

The setup

The need for a helper holding treats

Shooting tethered to Capture One Pro 8 was crucial to allow the client to approve and review images on-site. Especially with our tight deadline.

Obviously this shoot was not with its own challenges. WARL is an awesome animal shelter, but you have to imagine that a lot of these dogs are pretty wound up already because they are in a shelter, and then you try and get them to pose for a quick photo so you can move on to the next animal. Not easy indeed, but it was a lot of fun and for a good cause. Below is my list of suggestions to make your life easier next time you take some dog and cat portraits in studio:

  • Bring a helper: Trust me, whether you are shooting in a studio or on-location, you will always benefit by having a helper come and get the dog in position and keep its attention. I typically suggest the dog's owner or foster parent, and if that isn't possible just bring along a person that is naturally comfortable with animals and has a good calm energy. Animals feed off the energy of those around them.
  • Toys and treats: This one should be pretty self-explanatory. Want to get a dog's attention? Use their favorite treats or toy to lead their eyes to where you need. It wont always help when a dog is completely freaked out, but it should be pretty effective at least half of the time. I found that toys that squeak help the best to get their attention.
  • Limit distractions: Close the door if you can and limit the amount of people and other animals in the room. Nervous dogs are easily distracted. Keep the room quiet, calm, and still except for what is going on in front and around the camera.
  • Use a table or platform: It is awfully difficult to try and photograph animals, hold a camera, and get into position when you have to lay on your stomach. Since my Phase One is about 10-15 pounds with my favorite leaf shutter lens (the 75-150 LS), that is pretty much impossible. The best solution is to use a large table and drape it with a blanket the same color as your background or just roll the backdrop over it. Your back will thank me. One drawback is that you may make the animal nervous because it feels like it is at the vet on that table, so you need to really take time to calm it. The next tips may help with that.
  • Massage therapy: Cesar Millan actually taught me this. We did a TV segment together in-studio a while back for my own dog charity, and when he saw I was struggling to calm my anxious furry friends (you can tell they are anxious when they start to pant heavily) he made a great suggestion. Don't scratch or pat the dog to calm it down, that will only continue to get them more wound up or excited. Instead, give them a deep tissue massage. Kneed their skin gently down their back and on most occasions the dogs will immediately chill out. You can see this in the video segment here.

  • Take a moment to bond with your subject: Just like a human subject, you should take time to introduce yourself. Give them a nice rub and maybe a treat. Take the opportunity to let them know you are not a bad person, trying to give them medicine, or performing an examination.

  • Patience, patience, patience: Even if you are in a rush, these things take time. Take breaks and make sure to relax. As I mentioned before, animals feed off of your energy. You want to be chill on set and have fun. If you are having fun, better chance that your subject may as well. Some of the shots you see on that cover were of very hyper dogs. We didn't think we would get their portraits at all, but we were patient and calm and with the right timing we got some really fun captures up there.

Shout out to Washingtonian Magazine for going out of their way to help local animals, and to my photo editor Diane Rice and creative director Michael Golese for being so supportive and creative. They are an awesome team and they took a gamble with me and this shoot. I'm very happy it came out so beautifully and hope we get some dogs adopted!

Want to help animals with your photography too? Reach out to your local shelter and offer to take photos of animals up for adoption. They don't have to be fancy. Sometimes even a snapshot will suffice. Dogs and cats with photos that can go online have an infinitely greater chance of being adopted than those without. It's easy and rewarding!

Have more tips to share? Comment below!

Douglas Sonders's picture

Commercial Photographer (mainly Phase One medium format digital) and filmmaker based out of NYC. Started a site called to spread stories about well-behaved and positive pitbulls. Love cars, 80s movies, dogs, and adventure. Free time is spent traveling, sleeping, adventuring, or working on my baby, a 1969 Mustang Mach 1.

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Whoa I did something similar as well, except the people I worked with have strict photography rules and wouldn't let me do anything you were allowed to do. I was only allowed to touch the animals, but even then they had a handler for them. They kept all the animals in a room together so they were all barking and distracting. No table, no flashes (only continuous light). My images came out NOTHING like yours, I was limited a lot, but I still got some good ones. Here's one from what I did:

im sorry to hear that, but based on the results, i think you did a great job

Great to see this article. I'm working on my pet portfolio and in the first few sessions I noticed some of your suggestions, and learned even more from your post. Thank you!

what a cutie!

I literally searched Fstoppers last night at about 11:00pm looking for tips because we'd just gotten our dog back from the groomers and had him dyed up to get ready for the Hawks to crush the Pats. I found some older articles and ran with it. Thanks for this post though!

Cool a show us your dog thread, I think we should do cats in armor next.

Well if it's a show us your dog thread I must join. lol. Hoping my upcoming project centered around homeless dogs can get similar traction that Not a Bully has done. Keep up the good work Douglas.

This is a lovely shot!

This is the first time I shot a dog in the studio. I think my girl made a good model.

Nice one Douglas, dog sitting next week for my cousin so this is perfect timing. Sure they'll come in handy!
Great pics, too :)

That is so awesome Douglas. As an owner of two Pit Bulls, I want to share a few photos of my babies. The first black and white is Barley as a pup and the second one with the clouds is her grown up. Just got Stella two weeks ago and she is now 9 weeks old.

What a beautiful set of portraits!
I literally just did this at the weekend. Sadly one of the little jack's is on her last legs so my brother-in-law wanted to get all of his dogs together for a shoot.
This was my first effort, and would love to get some coloured background on the go. Cheers for the inspiration

I am a wounded warrior and I volunteer for an organization called Soldiers Best Friend who trains disabled veterans and most often, dogs from shelters to become service teams. I use a three light setup now and it is challenging at times even with the trained animals and the crappy places I have to photograph them in. Patience is very key to success and having a fill light is almost always essential! More of my work can be seen here Thanks for the post and tips, I will probably be using the massage tip next time!

thats great and a wonderful cause! how can more of us get involved?

First off, this article is great. I've always found that I have a way with animals and getting them to focus & relax, but this brought up several things that I think will be helpful!
However, I have tried to photograph my dog on a table when he was still a baby, and he managed to jump/fall out of a basket, flip the table and get away unscathed. We had much better luck a few months later, on the floor, when he was more patient. We mostly shoot outside now, but this is still one of my favorite photos of Carson.

Awesome!!! We love our 2 year old Pit Cinna! :) We got her from a local shelter, she was 1 of 7 pitbulls that they had. They said they're always grateful to get people who can adopt pits because so many places ban them. It's sad.

But Cinna is 61.5lbs and she loves all dogs, she even guided my parents 20lb blind bichon frise around the house and stopped him from bumping in to walls. She repeatedly gave him kisses. I wish I would've gotten a photo of them together lol, 20lb bichon, 60lb pit, best friends :)

Thanks for sharing Douglas!

It is muy difficult when you're by yourself. And you don't have a studio. And you don't have treats. lol

A friend had me petsit their Labrador, so I got to take some portraits of her against one of the walls in my house. It turned out alright. Thank goodness she was well trained.

Great tips!!! I'm new to photography and have started taking pictures for a non profit that rescues dogs on death row. It's great experience and very rewarding. Thanks for sharing.

Love the Not a Bully campaign!! And your images are gorgeous. I would be an awful pet photographer because I wouldn't be able to stop snuggling with the dogs. That last picture with the beagle just made me squeal like a kid.

dog photography is real fun! :)

I don't have a studio to be able to take photos of kittens and cats but I think I do ok with what I have. My main goal is to get these babies adopted :) and it seems to work.

This was great to find just before shooting a Bulldog, lizard and one-eyed cat with a mohawk!

Just a few tips. I've been doing shelter photography for over 10 years and we've come up with a few things that really help get the good photo's. We put two leashes on every dog, don't let them run around our little studio unleashed. 2 handlers, one on each side. 99 percent of the time having the leashes on the dogs calm them down. I use paracord for the calm dogs but if I've got a big strong dog that wants to pull I would use leashes made of bigger rope, don't want to injure the dog with the paracord. I photoshop out the leashes. Only takes a few seconds and you'd never know they had 2 leashes on. Also we use polywal. It's a 4x8 sheet of flexible plastic that is bullet proof. Pee, poop, mud, washes off with ease. I would love to use the colorful paper but here in our shelter every picture has the same white background. If the dog is really scared of the strobes I have the Godox light stick. Have to crank up the iso some but I get a lot better picture. Scared looking dogs don't make very good pictures. I only have to use it a couple times a year but it's good to have. With the two leashes we get them in, get good shots and on to the next one.

I love photographing animals. I have nine cats that I found on the street.