As pet photographers, we are most confident behind the camera, capturing our four-legged subjects’ personalities and stories. Occasionally we get brave and include a person in the photos too… But I know many of us have only a few photos of us and our own pets! Whether we’re professionals or just love taking photos of our dog (or cat, or ferret) for instagram, we tend to have thousands of photos of the pet… and none of us with our pet. 

Now, don’t click away! Don’t freak out! Please trust me when I say that although being on the other side of the camera can be uncomfortable, it is extremely rewarding. The photos I have of me and my boys are so much more precious and special to me than the thousands I have of them looking cute, majestic, wistful or dramatic by themselves. And trust me when I say that not having (hardly) any photos of me and my old boy Mallei breaks my heart now that he’s gone. 

I found these 5 photos. The rest had my ex in them (not ideal). And of them, only one is a non-posed photo. Not my favourite kind!

Why Self Portraits?

As I said above, I think it’s so important for us to capture ourselves with our dogs, but here’s the thing – the more I think about it, the more I don’t think this means sitting and smiling at the camera. I think it means capturing a real moment with your dog. Something that truly shows the way you two are together, the bond, the connection, the relationship you have with your dog. Because that is what is magical. That is what is most important. I wish that I had one photo where Mallei was looking up at me with his happy, silly, goofy grin, his tail blurred as it wagged so fast, and me smiling back at him because of it. 

Whether they are sweet comforters who cuddle in close when you’re down, silly nostril lickers, whether they do butt dance when you scritch them just right, or pull faces as if to say MUMMMMM STOP IT! You’re embarrassing me! These are what self-portraits are to me. Real, genuine moments of interaction caught between you and your dog.

How to Take Self Portraits

Of course, taking self portraits can take a little more planning and forethought. But, in my opinion, if we manage to capture a genuine moment between you and your dog, then some of the other elements of taking the “perfect photo” might not be as important. Take the photos above. Are they good enough to win an award? Probably not. My head is chopped off in half of them. The light is a bit strange. The background isn’t very exciting. 

Do I love them anyway? Hell yes.

So you can possibly let go of a few of your pre-conceived ideas of the “perfect photo” and focus instead on just being in the moment, interacting with your dog, and having fun! 

Is Loki perfectly in focus? Nope. Do I care? Nope.

Equipment

First, you may need some extra equipment, depending how fancy you want to get. 

A tripod is really useful, whether you’re taking the photos with your phone, or your camera. Failing that, I often balance my camera on a log, rock, or the camera bag! Don’t miss the opportunity to be involved in a photo if the location is beautiful, and the light is magical, just because you don’t have a tripod with you! Use the lens-cap, camera strap or a stick under the lens to angle it where you want it. 

The camera was sitting on a little embankment for this photo, with the camera strap and lens-cap underneath the lens so it was pointing at us, rather than sloping down and photographing the ground. Get creative!

You may also wish to look into a remote. This isn’t a necessity by any means. Most cameras have a self-timer function, or an interval shooting function which will take three shots every 5 seconds (or however you set it up) and some even have apps or the ability to control the phone through your phone. This is what I was using for my photos until very recently, when I bought a wireless remote, and let me say, I will never go back.

Here’s why:

  • Self timers can feel awkward. We set them up to go off and then run back into position and then have to do… something… then it goes off, and we have to return to the camera and start all over again. We can never get into the “flow” of taking photos and just interacting naturally with our dogs as we’re constantly interrupted by needing to set the self-timer going again. 
  • My phone app was absolutely useless. I wanted to hurl it against the wall, no joke. It wouldn’t work if I was more than half a meter away, and it didn’t help focus on me, it just did its own thing. It WAS useful for making sure I was in the frame and not chopping off parts of myself but the fact that it was so unreliable made it pointless. Just when I would start doing something, it would disconnect from the camera and I would have to mess around with it for another five minutes.
    • I also found it really difficult to trigger the shutter, since there was no physical button to press, just the phone’s screen. So I had to always have the phone (big and bulky) in my hand or on my knee, look at it, make sure my thumb was in the right place, then press.
  • My interval timer picked a spot in the horizon and focused there. It never re-focused on me. So, I had to pre-focus on one of the dogs, and then we couldn’t move at all or we would be out of focus. Try telling dogs to not move at all. Not great if you want to be “genuine”. 

My remote is small and discreet, has worked every time, I can just continually press the button to trigger the shutter without looking at what I’m doing, and with the camera set to focus on shutter press and on Eye-Autofocus, it finds me eye and refocuses each time (theoretically). More about that in a minute. You can find bluetooth remotes even for phones online very cheaply!

How to Do It

Find a nice spot with a good amount of light. I recommend not taking photos in full/harsh sun! See my blog post on things I wish I’d known before starting pet photography for common mistakes people make. Set up your equipment, whether on tripod or camera bag. Get all your settings ready.

These might be a bit different to normal if you’re using a DSLR! You need to consider:

  • Shutter speed for slightly moving subjects. If you’re playing with or interacting with your dogs, you’ll want it 1/500 or possibly even faster, depending on what you’re doing.
  • Aperture will probably need to be slightly narrower (bigger f/ number) than you might usually use. This is so even if you and your dog aren’t perfectly in line, you should both still be in focus. Do some experimenting here to see what is going to look best based on your lens, the distance from you to the camera, and how blurry you still want your background to be. 
  • ISO will need to be set according to the rest of the settings. This is why you will probably need a good amount of light, due to the other settings, you ISO may end up quite high. 
  • If you normally use back button focus, turn it off. You NEED the shutter to trigger focus now! Otherwise it will like having single-shot focus, it won’t refocus unless you press the back button again. 
  • If you have some kind of eye-autofocus system, use it!
  • I usually use a “zone” or “wide” focus area, because I want to be able to move around and for the camera to still find me. I can’t be restricted to one small area of the frame. 
Put the dog where you want to take the photo, or, if they don’t stay, use some kind of marker so you know where to go (unless you’re using a phone app and can see yourself). Do a test-shot with a dog and without you to make sure it all looks ok. 

Now, go and join your dog!

Feeling Awkward, Posing, What to Do With Yourself

Here’s the part where I think most people get tripped up and turned off of self-portraits. You set your self-timer (or whatever), then run over to join your dog and suddenly it’s like… well, what do I do?

So, you smile awkwardly at the camera a few times, go and check the photo, and decide never to repeat the experience again. Sound familiar?

If we’re shifting your perception of self portrait from “smiling and posed” to “capturing genuine interactions” then we need to change this part of the process too! Try this:

  • Forget the camera is there. Look at your dog. Ask him a question. Get him to do a trick. Ruffle the fur on his head. Blow gently on his ear. Depending on his personality, do what makes sense for you. If he’s cuddly, then cuddle him! If he loves listening to you, then talk to him!

These photos sum up my boys pretty well!

  • Play with him. Be silly with him. Half my photos are of me and my boys just being idiots together, but this tends to:
    • illicit genuine laughter and smiles 
    • illicit genuine behaviour and reactions from your dog.
  • Another option, is to look at him. Really look. Think loudly about what you would say to him if he could understand you and read your mind. This made me cry when I tried it. See below. In the middle one, he’s literally licking away my tears. 🤷🏻‍♀️

The point is, don’t overthink it! Just get in front of the camera, forget it’s there, interact with your dog for a little while, however is natural for you… then go and check the photos. Make sure you’re in the frame. Make sure it’s focusing properly. Check if you need to move slightly in one direction or another. Don’t look at your face, the things you’re worried about in your body, your chin or your stomach or whatever it is.

None of that matters.

Because here’s the thing… you don’t need to share these photos. You don’t need to post them on social media. You don’t need to have them printed. You probably won’t want to. Maybe not at first. But the more you take, the more I promise you’ll grow to love having them, even if you never really grow to love taking them. 

But, this brings me to the April challenge!

April 2021 Challenge (Finished! But you're welcome to do the challenge for yourself)

Every month on Instagram, on my Facebook page and here on this blog, I hold a challenge with a different theme. And April’s challenge is, you guessed it, a self-portrait challenge. So, in this case, you will have to post your photo to social media in order to be in the challenge. But I’m 99% sure your audience will love seeing you genuinely interacting with your dog. 

And if you don’t have a dog? You could either just submit a self portrait of you! Or, you could take it with a client’s dog (great for some Behind the Scenes action) or a friend’s dog, whatever you like!

As always, if you found this blog post helpful, please share it everywhere! I really want as many people as possible to get out and take self portraits. We really, honestly do not take enough photos with our dogs, and there is nothing that compares to it. 

If you want to learn how to take better photos, make sure you sign up for the mailing list. Why not get access to a sample lesson from the “Improve Your Pet Photography” course, and my free mini course while you’re at it? Maybe you can use some of the tips I’ll be sending you to take a really amazing self portrait!

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In the meantime, happy photographing!

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