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Get Down Low: Sample Lesson

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I would say that my #1 piece of advice is to get down low to the ground.

And no matter how many times I say it, whenever I teach a workshop or a lesson, I usually STILL need to tell the student to get low. Nope, lower than that. Keep going. 

You may need to be lying on your belly, or crouching over your camera if you have a flip-out screen. The important thing is to (almost always) get down low. 

I know there’s a long lesson coming up, with several topics… because I cannot stress the importance of getting down low to the ground enough. 

Take a look at the photos below.

Which one connects you with the dog more? (okay, Journey’s expression in one is TERRIBLE)

Which one gives you more of a sense of “place”? 

Which one FEELS like a more interesting photo?

These were all taken at the EXACT same location. I didn’t move, I simply got closer to the ground!

I think it goes without saying that the perspective or angle at which we take our photos can determine whether they are impactful portraits with a sense of depth and context… or not. It can determine how majestic our dog looks, how connected we are with the dog, how powerful they come across, and can often separate a professional-feeling photo from an amateur one.

Have a look at just how low I get while taking a photo of Loki…

Portrait Photos / Portraiture

In general, for our portrait-style shoots, we want to focus on including a soft blurred foreground in our image. This helps to give a sense of depth and perspective, and to really place the dog within the scene. These layers can really help our images feel more 3D, and invite our viewers into them. !

Our subjects need to have presence. If you’re here,I can only assume it’s because you’ve moved beyond taking happy snaps of your pet, and want to create something beautiful, with presence. Maybe you want to find your style, and make something that could be powerful, or emotive, dramatic, intense, or joyful. In any case, I would argue that our subjects always need to have some kind of presence in the scene, whether it’s a close-up headshot, or they are amongst a mountain range. Without presence, we may as well continue scrolling.

Even just slight changes in height and angle can affect this feeling of presence and depth. 

Some people recommend you try to be at the level of the dog’s eyes… but I’d go one step further and say you should be at the level of their elbow, at the highest. Most of the time, my camera is about 10cm off the ground, unless there’s a lot of foreground & bushes.

You can play with the angle and perspective. Sometimes shooting straight across works better, sometimes shooting with your lens angled upward works better. 

I’m always trying to achieve a balance between the amount of blurry foreground in the image, and the rest of the scene. Getting low doesn’t mean you need 1/3 of your image to be blurry foreground!

Below are two sets of two very similar photos in terms of mood, location, lighting and so on, but to me one of them definitely feels like you are more drawn into the scene, that you have a sense of the whole scene, and of Loki or Journey’s presence within the scene. 

Notice how that bit of extra foreground blur just adds an extra element of depth to the scene.

This concept applies equally to Phone photos, as well as wider-angle lenses… however! You may need to play around a little more to get the perfect angle, as going too low can look a bit comical and strange with wider angle lenses. The photo examples below: one taken higher, or the normal angle I see many new photographers using, and one getting very low, were all taken with my iPhone 11.

How low do I need to be though, really?

This really depends a lot on the foreground and even on the camera and lens you’re using.

My camera which hasn’t articulating screen, for example, means I don’t have to (myself) get quite so low, however my camera is usually still very close to the ground.

In order to achieve this we may need to lie on our belly, kneel down on hands and knees, be on all fours with our elbows and knees on the ground, crouch down with one knee on the ground and the other up – you’ll see that I do this quite often because of my screen.

We may be able to sit cross-legged and really lean forward if you’re flexible enough. I’ve even seem people lying on their back and kind of twisting forward, so it really depends on the situation, the location and exactly what you’re trying to achieve.

As long as you’re focusing on the foreground and the dog having a sense of presence, that is the most important thing.

As you look at the images below, think about how you may have been positioned when taking your most recent photos. Have a look through some recent photos and ask yourself: is the dog powerful? Do you have a sense of the scene? Are there layers to the image? Do you get a sense of the dog’s size and presence?

Could you be even lower?

Other Creative Options?

Of course there are a lot of other creative ways that you may want to pose your subject, so how high or how low you need to be is really relevant to the kind of mood and aesthetic that you’re going for.

If you want your dog really towering over you then you’re going to need to be quite low.  I would however, caution that in most cases being slightly above your dog is usually not the most flattering angle, or the most impressive.

It doesn’t really tell a story and it doesn’t really do much to enhance our images at all.

In general it’s better to err on the side of being slightly lower, assuming that the dog still has catchlight in their eyes, so whether you have them posed somewhere interesting or doing something interesting it usually works better in our favour if we are lower rather than higher.

I can’t really think of very many examples except for the overhead shots where I would want to be taking photos of my dogs from a higher perspective.

Ears!

While the saying goes that the “Eyes are the windows to the soul”, I would argue that the ears play just as large a role when it comes to pet photography.

After all, take a look at the two photos below. Which one feels like it has more connection?

I’m willing to bet the one on the left feels better. But he’s looking at the camera in both!

But in the photo on the right, his one ear is just slightly turned away. It’s like he’s a teenager sitting on the couch while scrolling on his phone. You’re having a conversation with him. He’s making the appropriate noises, he might even be looking at you and nodding… but he is definitely not fully engaged in that conversation!

Now, this does NOT mean I require my dog to be looking into the camera at all times…

But in general, wherever they’re looking or whatever they’re engaged in, they should be engaged in it. I prefer the ears to be alert but relaxed. Not crazed BC who’s just seen a ball, not bored and subtly listening for something more interesting… If he’s looking to the left, he’s looking there alertly. 

What happens if the ears aren’t alert??

I mean, the whole world won’t fall apart… but your photo probably won’t FEEL as good, either. Have you ever had your photo taken when at a work or family function and you really weren’t in the mood? You smiled, sure, but you can TELL by looking at that photo that you didn’t want it to be taken.

This is probably how your dog’s going to look. 

 

Some dogs will be very obvious when they’ve “disconnected” and aren’t involved in the photo any more, or they aren’t paying attention to whatever is around them. They’ve switched off. They’re over it. Ears are back or down.

If the ears of your dog are always looking like this when you’re taking photos, I encourage you to re-evaluate the amount of reinforcement the dog has regarding taking photos. Are you putting too much pressure on him? Does he not understand his job? Has he been posing too long or without reward? Or does he not have enough history of reward for the camera and therefore just hates it every time you get it out?

Depending on the situation you may need to go back several steps, to low-distraction environments, and just work on building up his reward history associated with the camera.

If he is uncertain about his job, try praising him while he’s posing. Journey’s best alert expressions often come from me enthusiastically crying: “YES! SUPER!!! WOOOOWWWWW AMAZING EARS BABY WOOWWWWW!”. There is absolutely no doubt in his mind that whatever he’s doing at that moment is amazing.

Here’s another example of good ears, vs. very disconnected ears.

If looking at the camera is too much pressure...

Let him look around and create his own photos. If he’s been posing too long, make the posing time much shorter and more rewarding!

Play sounds from your phone. This isn’t you asking your dog to do anything, it’s just sounds for him to react to. Journey LOVES voice notes from his favourite people, and YouTube videos of orchestras and interesting instruments 🤷🏻‍♀️

Here is a selection of another 4 ears from Journey (who is very sensitive to pressure), ranging from completely and utterly disconnected, to halfway there, to ALMOST but not quite… and finally, the photo I ended up using. 

The reason I chose the one of him looking up?

First, I find these photos can often tell a more interesting story than another photo of my dog standing and looking at the camera – especially in a location like this which is quite open but there’s light toward the top, and second, he is totally engaged in whatever he’s looking at. He’s totally focused. I would much rather this, than a photo where he’s half-listening somewhere else.

Ear Examples

On the left column/1st photos, you’ll see good connected ears. On the right/2nd photo, you’ll see disconnect.

Catchlights

Catchlights are the shiny white parts in a dog’s eye, which are always reflections of a light source.

They might be reflecting the sun, the sky or a soft-box. What light-source they’re reflecting and how big that light-source is will determine how big those catchlights are.

It might seem like a relatively small and unimportant topic, but trust me when I say catchlights are a hot topic in pet photography, and can make the difference between your pet looking bored and dull, or alert and interested. 

Big, bright catchlights are considered ideal, and you will often see pet photographers enhancing catchlights A LOT in order to make those eyes look bright and alert.

How the catchlights look depend on:

  • the light source
    • small light sources, eg., a bare flash or very small area of sky through a thick canopy in the forest, will make small catchlights
    • large light sources, like a big clearing in the woods, or being on a field or at the beach, or big soft-boxes or umbrellas will create larger, brighter catchlights
    • far away/distant light sources like the sun, or windows on the other side of the room will create small catchlights as the light source is at a distance
    • the closer the light source, the softer the light and the bigger the catchlight!
  • The face-shape of the dog. Dogs with large, overhanging brows will naturally have their eyes shaded by those brows, preventing light from overhead to reach the tops of their eyes
  • Where the dog is looking. If the dog is on a tall log, for example, looking down at you, their face will block the light from the sky from hitting the top of their eyes, potentially limiting any catchlights.

 

An example of good catchlights, especially in his right eye which would be reflecting some sky. The left eye is usually smaller with Loki because he tilts his head, throwing that side of his face into shadow. 

An example of catchlights pretty deep in the woods on a bright day. If you click on this picture to enlarge it, you can see the reflections of the trees and branches overhead. 

Lovely catchlights from the dog looking into a large area of open sky.

An example of a dog with a “Difficult face shape.” Due to that large brow, his eyes are set back deep into his face. You can click to enlarge and see that the catchlights are limited to two or three small dots. We were in the woods here as well, so light was a bit limited.

A note about snow:

Snow is rather annoying when it comes to catchlights. Because while you might have a reasonably bright sky, that light is reflecting off the snow… and which is closer to the dog? Snow or sky?

Snow.

So we often end up with these weird underneath catchlights on snowy days.

I personally would NOT be enhancing those as they really do look a bit strange.

The same dog as above but with more snow on the ground. He actually had a LOT more light overhead: a HUGE open sky… but because I was down low and he was on a little rock, he looked down just enough to block the sky reflection and end up with snow. As you can see here, it’s not the prettiest look. There isn’t too much you can do about snow reflections though! I just tend to work on them in editing to make them less obvious. 

Window Examples of Distance

This is just a phone photo inside my house. Have a look at the catchlights. On the right, you can see the ledge of the windowsill, so Journey was sitting extremely close to it. You can clearly see the reflection of the window in his eye. On his right eye (camera left) you can see a tiny white spot? That’s our other window, about 8 meters away (there’s a BTS below so you can get an idea of this.)

This is why the sun makes a quite small catchlight! Because although it’s huge, it’s really, REALLY far away at least compared to the sun!

Loki is extremely difficult to NOT get catchlights in his eyes. It might be his face shape and eye shape, but even when I tried to get photos of his eyes for demonstrating this lesson, he still managed to have catchlights unless we were in a pitch black room.

Again, you can see the window reflection in his left eye (camera right), and in his right eye, he has TWO white spots. The one closest to the middle of his face is from a window directly behind me (check the BTS below), it wasn’t far away at all, maybe 1.5 meters? And the furthest white spot is the far away window. 

Now, it is an overcast, grey dark day, so the light source from outside through my not-huge windows isn’t that strong, but I think it’s really fascinating to look at.

Go check some of your recent photos and have a look at the catchlights. Is your dog a challenge when it comes to capturing catchlights? Or easy like Loki? Did you get large ones or small ones? Can you remember how the location looked like, especially overhead?

Here you can see the two windows. I was standing directly in front of Loki, so the window to camera left was the one with the biggest reflection in his eye. The other window didn’t show up in Journey’s eye at all!

The window way over there is the one that showed up in both dog’s eyes as a tiny dot.

How to get nicer catchlights

Obviously, getting nicer catchlights will depend on where your challenge lies. 

If your dog has a thick brow: try getting him to look up just slightly, even if he’s only slightly looking over the camera. Make sure you don’t put him on something high while you go very low to the ground. Just be prepared that you might not get catchlights in every photo, and his face shape is who he is.

If you’re in the woods and the catchlights are small: find an area with more open sky overhead. You’re probably in too dark of an area anyway and the light won’t be enough on the dog’s face, and/or your ISO is going to be super high, so if the catchlights are looking tiny, it’s probably time to find a better location anyway. 

If the dog is on a log/rock/whatever: Don’t be quite so low, OR use a reflector to bounce light from the sky onto their face (the catchlights will probably be in the lower part of their eye though), OR get them to look up, not down at you. 

What’s the worst that can happen?

When you’re learning, there’s no need to be afraid of taking bad photos.

What’s the worst that can happen?

You take some bad photos, waste a bit of your time, and add a couple of shutter clicks to your camera.

At the end of the day, you can delete the photos and move on. Not everything needs to go in your portfolio or on social media.

Photos can be taken for different reasons, and when it comes to learning, they can be taken simply for learning. There doesn’t need to be anything else attached to them.

When I was learning a new camera-based skill recently (off camera flash) here’s what I did a LOT. 

I would get one of the dogs. A stuffed toy would work fine too. 

I got them comfortable on my bed or the couch. Somewhere comfy where they could just relax. I set up my equipment, dialed in my settings. Nearby, I had the course info up on screen so I could refer back to it. 

Then… I would take a photo and analyse it. Is it too dark? Too bright? What settings or parts of the scene could I change to get closer to the effect I wanted?

I would make those changes – just small changes! Unless it had been a complete disaster 😅 then I would take another photo. Analyse. Too bright now? Change settings. Change something. Try again.

Over and over. 

This is how my Lightroom camera roll looks from one of these shoots where I was literally just playing with settings, moving something, taking a photo, seeing how it looked, changing something, taking a photo….

These photos aren’t MEANT to be pretty. They’re not meant to be good! These photos were for learning. That’s it. 

So, whether you’re just learning how to use your camera, or you’re learning some really new concepts around composition, light, or editing… just remember that there’s never going to be any harm in experimenting!

Take the photos, analyse them, reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and what you can do differently next time, then improve. 

The only thing that could go wrong is if your dog isn’t very patient, or you’re putting a lot of pressure on him to stay in place while you experiment. If this is your dog, then don’t include him in these shoots, or take photos of him while he’s asleep. He doesn’t need to be looking at the camera, putting his ears up, or anything like that for these photos. Maybe ONCE you have all your settings dialed in and the light direction correct and the composition how you want it, ask him to look at he camera (if that’s even necessary). But don’t make him hold his attention on you for 10 minutes straight while you experiment. That isn’t the point here. 

Other than that… be free to play, experiment, and learn. 

Using your Phone for Photos

I’m the first to admit that I am not an expert at photographing with my phone – after all, I love the results I get from my camera and lens, so my phone is mostly reserved for happy snaps.

In this lesson, we’ll be looking at some ways you can get the most out of your phone, and things to keep in mind when using your phone for photos. Keep in mind that the majority of lessons you’ll be seeing in your membership are still VERY applicable to phone photography, or possibly even moreso!

Some things, like getting down low, may need some modifications because of the wide angle. 

Other things, like making sure you’re conscious of light direction and how much ambient light there is is even more important with a phone. 

Phone Settings & Modes

What camera setting you use will depend on what kind of photography you’re doing. Obviously different phone models and brands will have different capabilities, so it’s worth seeing what yours is capable of.

It can also be worth checking out premium camera apps like Halide that allow you to take photos in RAW format, meaning you have more data to work with. 

Landscapes with dogs? Use the normal “Photo” mode. Get low, play with angles. 

Portraits in the woods? This is where “Portrait” mode will come in handy.

The next options and settings are more specific to an iPhone as that’s what I work with, so find the equivalent in your own phone if you use something different.

Above: Photo mode zoomed in 2x vs. portrait mode at f/1.4. Keep in mind these photos are taken in a really ugly, average location, with flat lighting, and aren’t edited. They aren’t meant to look good, they’re here as examples.

In "Photo" Mode

When in Photo mode there are a few things you can adjust to change how your photo comes out.

  • Zoom: Zooming in can be a good way to change the look of your photo, as it will reduce some of the distortion from having a wide lens. Keep in mind that because this is “optical zoom”, it’s kind of like zooming in on your photos on your computer rather than a lens moving or glass changing to magnify the image. This means the more you zoom in, the picture quality may also get worse, because the camera/sensor can’t actually SEE the object/subject any better, it’s just cutting out more and more of the surrounding image.
  • HDR, Macro etc. Personally I have HDR turned off as I feel like it goes to the extreme of making contrast. Macro mode has proved useful for taking photos of snowflakes, but I’m not sure it will be so useful for dog photos. 
  • Flash: I highly recommend you avoid using flash directly on your subjects. The light is harsh and unflattering. Get more light in your location if your camera is being forced to use flash.
  • Styles: Some cameras have photo styles, from Standard to “Rich Contrast,” “Vibrant” and more. Personally, I would rather do these edits myself than have them attached to the photo
  • Exposure: This looks like a Circle with a + and – symbol, and allows you to manually darken or brighten your photo. This could be quite useful! For example, if you’re photographing a dog but he looks too dark, slide the exposure to the right to brighten the whole image. Or, if your camera sees a black dog and decides the whole photo is too dark, you might want to turn down the exposure by sliding the slider to the left. Be aware that raising the exposure/making the photo brighter might make areas in the background way too bright. Be aware as well that darkening the image may make some parts of your subject so dark (especially if they’re black) that you lose detail and data in those areas.

In Portrait Mode

Portrait mode gives us a couple of other options that it’s worth being aware of. Portrait mode also gives us a digitally blurred background, that tries to emulate/create the look of a portrait lens. The issue with this can be that the software tries to figure out where the subject ends and the background begins, and this can be very difficult with furry dogs, as they aren’t made of smooth lines like people generally are, so you can get some weird effects of not-blurry-background next to blurry background. 

Making sure that there’s an obvious difference between the background and the subject, and getting a good amount of light on the subject will help your phone cut it out from the background. A fluffy brown dog on a textured, leafy brown background is going to be much harder than a smooth brown dog on a further-away green background, for example

  • Change the f/ number: with portrait mode, we can change the f/ number, or the aperture. This makes the background more or less blurry. A smaller number, sliding the slider to the left, makes the background blurrier, and a larger number makes it less blurry. Keep in mind that quite often more blur can be too much blur, especially when we’re trying to cut furry dogs out of the background and it looks a bit weird. 
  • Change the light settings: From natural light to a few weird studio light setups, you can change the light here. I’ve never used this feature and don’t think it would be especially useful for pet photography.

The Most Important Things

Because of the sensor size, and the fact that you’re probably shooting in JPEG, one thing to be especially aware of is getting enough light on the dog. Taking photos in low-light situations, deep in the woods for example, is going to be more difficult with your phone, and especially with black dogs. The phone simply can’t retain as much data. So finding good locations with enough SOFT ambient light (more on this in the Light lessons), will make sure you get the highest quality photos from your phone.

Finding the right angle and perspective is also something to be aware of, since your phone’s camera is a rather wide-angle lens, which can result in distortion, particularly if your dog’s head is for example, at the very top of the photo because you get down low (which I recommend). You can fix this by zooming in (potentially resulting in a loss of image quality), or fixing it in an editing program like Lightroom.

Lastly, be creative and purposeful, if you want to make nice pictures with your phone. Remember we talked about purpose? Taking 3,675 photos of your dog sleeping on the couch is one thing, but if you want a nice, artistic, impressive photo, you may need to spend a bit of time: find a good location. Check the background. Check the light. Play with your angle. Play with the dog’s pose. Think about composition. There’s a reason why not everyone is a photographer just because they take a photo. Great photos take time, thought, effort, and knowledge. 

Get Down Low

Table of Contents

I would say that my #1 piece of advice is to get down low to the ground.

And no matter how many times I say it, whenever I teach a workshop or a lesson, I usually STILL need to tell the student to get low. Nope, lower than that. Keep going. 

You may need to be lying on your belly, or crouching over your camera if you have a flip-out screen. The important thing is to (almost always) get down low. 

I know there’s a long lesson coming up, with several topics… because I cannot stress the importance of getting down low to the ground enough. 

Take a look at the photos below.

Which one connects you with the dog more? (okay, Journey’s expression in one is TERRIBLE)

Which one gives you more of a sense of “place”? 

Which one FEELS like a more interesting photo?

These were all taken at the EXACT same location. I didn’t move, I simply got closer to the ground!

I think it goes without saying that the perspective or angle at which we take our photos can determine whether they are impactful portraits with a sense of depth and context… or not. It can determine how majestic our dog looks, how connected we are with the dog, how powerful they come across, and can often separate a professional-feeling photo from an amateur one.

Have a look at just how low I get while taking a photo of Loki.

Portrait Photos / Portraiture

In general, for our portrait-style shoots, we want to focus on including a soft blurred foreground in our image. This helps to give a sense of depth and perspective, and to really place the dog within the scene. These layers can really help our images feel more 3D, and invite our viewers into them. !

Our subjects need to have presence. If you’re here,I can only assume it’s because you’ve moved beyond taking happy snaps of your pet, and want to create something beautiful, with presence. Maybe you want to find your style, and make something that could be powerful, or emotive, dramatic, intense, or joyful. In any case, I would argue that our subjects always need to have some kind of presence in the scene, whether it’s a close-up headshot, or they are amongst a mountain range. Without presence, we may as well continue scrolling.

Even just slight changes in height and angle can affect this feeling of presence and depth. 

Some people recommend you try to be at the level of the dog’s eyes… but I’d go one step further and say you should be at the level of their elbow, at the highest. Most of the time, my camera is about 10cm off the ground, unless there’s a lot of foreground & bushes.

You can play with the angle and perspective. Sometimes shooting straight across works better, sometimes shooting with your lens angled upward works better. 

I’m always trying to achieve a balance between the amount of blurry foreground in the image, and the rest of the scene. Getting low doesn’t mean you need 1/3 of your image to be blurry foreground!

Below are two sets of two very similar photos in terms of mood, location, lighting and so on, but to me one of them definitely feels like you are more drawn into the scene, that you have a sense of the whole scene, and of Loki or Journey’s presence within the scene. 

Notice how that bit of extra foreground blur just adds an extra element of depth to the scene.

This concept applies equally to Phone photos, as well as wider-angle lenses… however! You may need to play around a little more to get the perfect angle, as going too low can look a bit comical and strange with wider angle lenses. The photo examples below: one taken higher, or the normal angle I see many new photographers using, and one getting very low, were all taken with my iPhone 11.

How low do I need to be though, really?

This really depends a lot on the foreground and even on the camera and lens you’re using.

My camera which hasn’t articulating screen, for example, means I don’t have to (myself) get quite so low, however my camera is usually still very close to the ground.

In order to achieve this we may need to lie on our belly, kneel down on hands and knees, be on all fours with our elbows and knees on the ground, crouch down with one knee on the ground and the other up – you’ll see that I do this quite often because of my screen.

We may be able to sit cross-legged and really lean forward if you’re flexible enough. I’ve even seem people lying on their back and kind of twisting forward, so it really depends on the situation, the location and exactly what you’re trying to achieve.

As long as you’re focusing on the foreground and the dog having a sense of presence, that is the most important thing.

As you look at the images below, think about how you may have been positioned when taking your most recent photos. Have a look through some recent photos and ask yourself: is the dog powerful? Do you have a sense of the scene? Are there layers to the image? Do you get a sense of the dog’s size and presence?

Could you be even lower?

Other Creative Options?

Of course there are a lot of other creative ways that you may want to pose your subject, so how high or how low you need to be is really relevant to the kind of mood and aesthetic that you’re going for.

If you want your dog really towering over you then you’re going to need to be quite low.  I would however, caution that in most cases being slightly above your dog is usually not the most flattering angle, or the most impressive.

It doesn’t really tell a story and it doesn’t really do much to enhance our images at all.

In general it’s better to err on the side of being slightly lower, assuming that the dog still has catchlight in their eyes, so whether you have them posed somewhere interesting or doing something interesting it usually works better in our favour if we are lower rather than higher.

I can’t really think of very many examples except for the overhead shots where I would want to be taking photos of my dogs from a higher perspective.

Composition Basics

In this lesson...

Composition is a scary word, but it’s all about how our image is put together.

This might include:

  • where the subject is positioned in the photo
  • how much of the frame they take up
  • what other elements are in the photo
  • how much space they take up
  • the over all “balance” of elements in the photo

Maybe the most important thing when it comes to composition, is for the photo to feel comfortable to be in and to spend time in.

Our aim with our images should be to try and find a balance, and composition is a big part of that. Some elements of an image take up visually more space than others, so begin thinking about whether your image feels balanced, or if it’s being “pulled” to one side or another.

 

Our audience should be able to move through our photo, to return back to our subject.

In this lesson, you’ll find my three most important guides to start thinking about regarding composition, before you consider anything like rules, guides, or grids.

The Most Important Thing: Don't Chop the Dog

In general, we want to avoid “chopping our dog”. 

There are slightly different rules with horses as they are so big, but smaller animals like dogs, cats, and so on, shouldn’t be “chopped.”

This means: chopping through the legs, chopping off paws or toes, chopping off tails, chopping bodies in half, and chopping off the tips of ears, should all be avoided.

Are there exceptions to this “rule”?

Of course, there always are.

For example, head and shoulders photos, where the dog is chopped through the widest part of the shoulder, feels totally ok. 

Some extreme close-up shots can also be fine if the top of the head is chopped, for example. These should be purposeful! If the toes or paws are cut at the wrists, this doesn’t feel purposeful, the photo is awkward and a bit uncomfortable, or it feels unfinished. 

Below is a lovely selection of my old photos from when I had just started learning pet photography (or before I’d even started learning!) of where I make some pretty significant compositional errors, but for the most case the problem is with chopping the dog.

 Compare them to the second gallery, with full bodies and headshots – ALSO from very early on in my learning process so we can’t blame fancy-editing for the improvement.

Some improvement on composition (still some work to be done!)

The Second-Most Important Thing: Breathing Room

Now that you’re not chopping the dog, I bet a new problem has popped up:

Not giving the dog “breathing room”.

What I mean is, giving the dog a bit of room to breathe. A bit of space below his feet and above his head. Behind him, in front of him. Does this mean he needs to be smack-bang in the middle of the photo?

No.

But photos like this:

Can also feel a bit “claustrophobic”. 

Does this mean your dog always needs to be super far from the camera?

Nope.

But being conscious of where their ears, feet, tails etc are during the shoot, OR having the skills and tools to take extra photos to fix your composition if needed (I do this all the time, since I get too excited and just take photos) is really important.

Dusty has plenty of "breathing room".

The Third Most Important Thing: Space to Look Into

In general, if your subject is looking to one side, they will need “space to look into”. 

The more severely they look to the side, the more space they will probably need. 

Giving them space to look into means we can move through the photo, their gaze isn’t blocked by the edge of the photo, and it will generally “flow” better.

These are some not-so-great examples from my past:

You’ll notice I’ve included a couple of photos here where the dog is in the middle of the photo, and he does “technically” have space to look into…

But because he’s looking to the side, but with a centred composition, the balance of the photo is off. You’ll see what I mean (hopefully) with the examples below. 

You’ll notice also a few portrait orientation photos, and you might be spiralling into a panic right now because you’ve been told that photos in portrait orientation do best on Instagram, but how can you possibly give the dog space to look into with portrait orientation?!

Well, there’s a whole lesson on this topic coming up.

But let’s just say that first of all, I believe dogs fit much, much better into landscape orientation pictures, since they’re horizontal creatures.

Second of all, I don’t make my photos for social media. I make them to be beautiful. 

Thirdly, I would say that… 95% of my photos on Instagram are in landscape orientation. I’m currently sitting at 53,000 followers. Similarly, the majority of well-known, high-level, professional pet photographers shoot mostly landscape orientation.

Why? Because the composition will make more sense. 

So… either create photos for a social media orientation, even though I’d argue it makes no difference at all…. or create them to be beautiful and compositionally balanced.

And of course... some much better examples

Hang on Em! Some of these photos are portrait orientation and you just said not to do portrait orientation!!!

Indeed, there are some photos here in portrait orientation. Have a look at the gazing direction of the dog. Is he looking to the side? 

Or is he looking… up?

Can this rule be broken?

Of course! Any rule can be broken! But again, I think it needs to be done purposefully or for a reason… and I don’t have many examples of that!

I think the photo below is probably one of the few times I’ve really purposefully broken the rule, and even then I would argue she STILL has space to look into, as she’s looking up to the top right corner in a diagonal, rather than directly to the right.