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Symmetry vs. Asymmetry

The first and most obvious thing to decide is whether your image will be symmetrical / centered – with the dog straight in the middle, or asymmetrical, with the dog off to one side. 

When I’m talking about symmetry here, I don’t mean that both sides of the image will be identical – this is rather difficult in natural environments. More that the dog is more or less in the middle, without the balance of the image being to one side of the other.

There are a few reasons you might choose to do it one way or the other. Symmetrical photos are great with balanced, even backgrounds (eg., there isn’t one side that is very dark and one side and one very light side.), where the dog is quite perpendicular to the camera, looking directly into the lens. 

These photos tend to be powerful but not very dynamic, and quite safe. They can make for dramatic, strongly-connected images. Some examples of symmetrical/centred photos:


Asymmetry is when the image is “off-centre”. There are two instances when you can use asymmetry.

  • One, where the dog is looking to the side instead of straight forward. You should give him “space to look into”.
  • The other is a little more tricky. The dog may be perfectly situated for a centred, symmetrical photo, but you compose it so that he is off to one side. This is quirky, a bit interesting, and should suit the mood. For example, I would not necessarily use a quirky off-centre photo with a very dark and intense mood (but again, rules are made to be broken). These can make use of elements or frames in the image (eg., tree trunks) where it wouldn’t make sense to have the tree in the middle of the mage.

Here are some examples of off-centre asymmetry where the dog COULD have been centred.

Action & Candids

Candids & Action Photos

For the most part, candid photos and action photos still require us to be low to the ground so that we can get that soft for foreground in.

However if you are doing photos of say disc dogs or agility dogs or dogs who are kind of in the air you may then need to lift your camera higher in order to track them so you just follow them up as high as they go. 

So it really depends on the effect you’re going for. By seeing no ground and pointing the camera higher, they will have the sense of being higher… but sometimes having the ground gives us context as to their height!

The photos below are variations of “leaping” photos. For some, the drama comes from perceived height: they are so high we can’t even see the ground.

For a few others, the drama comes from seeing the ground and having that extra layer with the blurry foreground. We get more of a sense of their place in that space and how they’re moving through it. 


Otherwise in general we still need to be trying to keep a sense of the space and of the size of the dog and we can do that by being nice and low.

However we also need to be conscious of not cutting our dogs ears off or having them get too close to the top of the frame which can be quite a challenge in candid shots where they are moving around and you’re trying to track them. 

So just try and keep them more less in the centre of the frame. You may just need to lie on your belly so that you’re forced to stay down low.

Plenty of examples below of different kinds of movement or candid photos.

Head and Shoulders

Head and shoulder portraits obviously don’t require you to be quite as low, but still aim to be no higher than the dog’s eye level – and this is possibly even lower than you would think! 

It’s still worth getting some foreground or surrounding foliage for context and to really place the dog in the scene. Finding a place where you can frame the photo with some leaves, flowers or other bushes can help create the depth we are aiming for in more “artistic” portraits.

Notice how all of these photos feel like you’re looking directly AT, or slightly up at the subject. We have a real sense of being on the dog’s level.

Zooming in… Zooming out

Recently, I taught a one-to-one lesson in person with one of my Learning Journey students and we came across an interesting situation.

To note, I don’t ever use my zoom lens. I have one, but I don’t use it. But this student was using a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens – super common amongst pet photographers!

She had the lens zoomed in to 135-200mm which would also be my recommendation, and had the lens on a crop-factor body. So… suddenly, at 200mm, we have a huge amount of compression, and cropping of the scene.

Now, I’m a BIG fan of compression… but in these woods we’d found a couple of beautiful backlit areas with sparkly bokeh, and while we could get really cool rimlight around Journey, we were missing out on the charm of the location because of the compression of the scene! eg., We were only able to see a really tiny amount of the background because of how much it was ‘pulled toward us’.

But of course… we didn’t want to loose that narrow depth of field by simply zooming out to get more of the scene in in order to see the bokeh. If we did, all the leaves, grasses, and stuff in the foreground and background would be more in-focus, with more detail. Not what we necessarily want!

So I suggested to this student that she play with depth of field here. 


What we did:

I suggested my student zoom her lens OUT. Maybe all the way…. and then move HERSELF toward Journey. By zooming OUT, we have less compression, and more of the scene/background in the photo… but by moving CLOSE to Journey, we narrow up the depth of field again!

Below are the two different photos we got. Journey hasn’t moved, but the student has zoomed out and physically moved herself forward in the 2nd photo.

So this is just a reminder that if you are using a zoom lens, that although zooming all the way in gives you beautiful, soft backgrounds, and lovely compression, you can play with the zoom length and how close you are to the dog to include more of the scene in, if it’s beneficial to do so. 

Don’t feel like you always HAVE to be zoomed in – or you might be missing some pretty bokeh oportunities.

Times to NOT Get Low?

There are a few different “image types” we want to consider when it comes to deciding how low or high to take our photos. In general, we should aim to be quite low – enough that we have a foreground layer of some description, however it may not be enough to apply a blanket rule to all images that one should simply “get down low.”

After all, we can be taking:

  • Portrait photos
  • Candids
  • Action
  • Head/shoulders
  • Puppy-dog-eyes/looking down from above
  • Dog on an object
  • Other creative options

And of course, the exact height and angle of our camera and photo will depend on the height and pose of the dog, the location we’re shooting in, whether there are bushes, leaves, flowers etc in the foreground, or if the space is more open. 

These images needed quite different considerations when it came to the height at which I held the camera. The image to the left needed me to be very low to get any kind of foreground to to the flat, open nature of the snow. The image to the right required me to be higher, and in fact to cut off much of the dog’s legs. To be any lower would have meant half an image full of dark grass, and probably the dog’s face covered by the sparkly tops of the grass. What I’m saying is that by making conscious choices about where we position our camera, our images will make more sense. 

And of course, the type of foreground you have in your image (whether bushy or open) is also a stylistic choice.


Puppy dog eyes/looking down from above

These photos work best with a wider-angle lens, unless you’re really tall – although I have taken them with my 85mm before, but then I’m usually standing on a stump or a hill.

They work best when you aren’t directly overhead of the dog but overhead enough that they’re looking up at you, with a good amount of catchlight in their eyes but not so much that it overwhelms the eye with the reflection of the sky and the trees above, making it turn completely white.

It will just take some experimentation and practise to find the perfect overhead angle for these types of shots.

In these photos, I don’t think it’s necessary to have context or foreground. They work best as the dog alone, though it doesn’t hurt to have some vaguely interesting ground colour/texture to add some visual interest.

Dog on a log/hill/bench/raised surface

A point to be careful of, is having the dog on some kind of raised surface – such as a log, bench, stump, rock and so on. If we get too low in this situation, the dog will have to look down to see us, which blocks the light from the sky from hitting their face (meaning their face is dark) and because of this, they also may not have catchlights in their eyes.

For these shots, you may want to treat them similar to head and shoulders photos – be at eye level to them, or slightly lower. You may not be able to get a foreground layer from the ground because then you’ll just be too low. Having something else in the foreground (leaves, the log itself, the slats of the park bench, bushes) can help add extra depth to your image.

If you are not used to shooting with a low perspective, you may need to be slightly lower than you think! But remember, we probably don’t want our dog looking down! If you want to get them towering over you for artistic effect, have them looking off to the side, or up (like watching a bird) to keep their faces and eyes bright and well lit.

In each of the examples below, I was either NOT on the ground/down extremely low… and/or, if I was, the dog was looking up or up and to the side.

Composition Rules and Guides

There are a few compositional rules or guidelines within photography. If you use Lightroom, when you’re in the crop tool, you can press “O” on your keyboard to cycle through a variety of different compositional options!

The most well known of these is the “Rule of Thirds”

Rule of Thirds

This divides your image up into equal thirds. The idea is that you should position important elements (such as the eyes) of the image either along the horizontal or vertical grid lines, or, even better, on an intersecting point. 

I’ve found this can be a little bit hit and miss with dog photography, given the perspective at which we shoot, the size and height of our subjects and so on. I would definitely advise against squashing your dog into the frame just to get their eye on an intersecting point. 

You can also use rule of thirds for more landscape based photos, where one third might be the sky, another third might contain your subject and the “scene” and the lower third could be foreground.

Rule of thirds is a nice place to begin really thinking about composition because it’s pretty safe and well known, it’s generally easy to line our subjects up on one or another of the grid lines, and many cameras even have a rule of thirds grid-line overlay in their display, so you can compose the photo with the rule of thirds already in mind. 

Here are some examples.

Other Options

There are actually other grid options you can play with! You may find yourself getting creative if you explore some of these other grids. I haven’t used these grids very much, but have recently begun to play with them a bit to see how they could help me create more interesting images.


This grid is great when there are diagonal elements in the image. You can also use it along with the rule of thirds grid to see if there is some/any crossover (and if so, it should be a compositionally strong image!).


This one seems like a fun and interesting option. The idea is to place points of interest within each of the triangles.

Press Shift + O on your keyboard to rotate the grid. 

Maybe something like this??

Golden Ratio

This is thought of as a more “advanced” version of the rule of thirds, but with more emphasis on the corners and less on the centre.

The idea is the same place interesting things on the grid lines or at intersecting points. It’s possible that when I’m breaking the rule of thirds rules, I’ve been accidentally using this grid. I’ll have to check that!

Golden Spiral

The golden spiral is a mathematical concept, created by making squares from Fibonacci numbers.

This doesn’t mean a lot for us. Suffice it to say that golden spirals and Fibonacci sequences are seen all throughout nature and classic art. 

For photography, the idea is that the most important or detailed parts of the image should be located at the smallest part of the coil, and the rest of the elements of the image should help lead the viewer toward that point. 

Since nature is made up of plenty of curves, we should be able to use this concept within our images. I would say many of us do, in the way that we (myself especially) darken areas and create the “flow” through the image. Remember back to the “Location and our photography goal” lesson, we looked at how a viewer might travel through our image? This is much the same! 

When I tried this overlay on many of my photos, the spiral ended up somewhere over their nose or face. I’m not sure how “perfect” you need to be with this, or if it should lead to the face in general, rather than the eyes specifically.

I like this example especially, as the bushes at the bottom of the frame perfectly follow the line, you reach the dark edge of the photo so travel back across, reading the dark edge behind Journey, so are brought back into his face again, exactly as I had wanted, but without realising the spiral fit within it like this.

Leading Lines

It can be fun to experiment with “leading lines”. These are lines within the photo which lead the viewer’s eye to your dog. 

The most obvious example is train tracks, but this has been done to death, is often illegal, can be very dangerous, and is clichéd now. Please don’t use train tracks for leading lines. See what other lines you can find out and about. Can a tree trunk, branch, tree roots or fern frond lead the viewer to your subject? How about using a path? Are there other lines within nature, or urban landscapes which can be used to lead toward your dog? 

Playing the Check-in Game with Lola

In this video, I introduce Lola and her owner Melanie to the idea of the Check-in game. 

Please make sure you’ve read about the concept of the game before you watch the video.

Keep in mind, this is NOT a game to play during your photography shoot. That isn’t the point of it.

It’s more for your OWN dogs, who find certain things highly distracting, to get them to CHOOSE to orient to you. 


A lot of pet owners I see, seem to feel like their dog falls into this category, when they really don’t.

I suspect the only dogs who are really in this category are extremely people-oriented dogs like Golden Retrievers, some spaniels, and so on, who would do ANYTHING for a kind word and scratch on the head. 

Of course, many of our dogs can find praise rewarding. Both my boys are reasonably happy if I just celebrate them in a positive voice because I left the real rewards at home…

But for most dogs, especially those who aren’t naturally biddable or have that real intrinsic desire to please, this just isn’t going to be enough. 


According to Polona, there are 2 main types of players, and these usually go back to their breed/breed history as their method for playing is closely linked to their instinctual needs.

They are:

  • Chasers
  • Fighters

I actually think there’s a third category but I have a feeling it’s pretty rare, and can’t figure out what purpose it serves from an “instinctual” perspective… so I’m going to call it:

  • Show-offs.


These dogs love movement.

They tend to be your herding dogs: collies, Aussies, kelpies, who are a bit obsessed with the movement of their stock, and having to chase it/outrun it/circle around it to stop it from moving. 

How many Border Collies or other herding breed dogs do you know who would literally fetch until they dropped dead?

Loki is one. Fetch might be right up there with food as a preferred reward, but unfortunately for him, the dangers of fetch far outweigh the benefits, and he’s just as happy to eat as he is to fetch – with eating being much safer! 

Journey, on the other hand, will fetch… because it’s a job. He fetches in the water more eagerly, but usually because we follow with his favourite game. Fetch is NOT his favourite thing. 

Other dogs who may love the chase are your retrievers, whose job it is to literally run out, grab the thing, and bring it back. 

Chasers may not love “fetch”… but they MAY love the chase. These are your hunting-instinct dogs, the ones who chase deer or rabbits and have a “strong prey drive”.

These are dogs who might love a fluffy toy attached to a long string, and chasing it as you run away. They may love a fluffy toy on a string made into a rabbit, running away, darting, hiding, twitching… They will NOT appreciate toys that “come to them” and leap into their mouths. 

They also probably won’t really be that into the tug/kill part of the game. 

These dogs will thrive on movement and chasing, so find what works best for your individual dog. Maybe they chase the “rabbit” on the string and catch it. Instead of starting a game of tug or taking the toy away, have it “play dead” until the dog is distracted… then the game starts again!

Or how about a game of 500-balls! This was one of Lumen’s favourites (Loki’s too but he was only running because he was chasing Lumen, not the balls!). I had a bag of about 20 different balls, and a huge space. I would throw a ball to the left. She would run to it and pick it up (or not. She had her favourites. I didn’t care, it’s not about bringing it back). I would yell: “READY?!?!?!?!” and throw the next ball to the right. She would run past me and pick it up (or not) and so the game would go back and forth. Lots of chasing, no boring bits. 

For some dogs, just chasing YOU might be enough!

For a dog like Loki, snapping grass out of the air is also a great on-the-go game for when there’s no toys. It’s movement and stopping movement. 


These are usually your bully breeds and protection/guard dogs. 

These dogs love the SECOND/THIRD part of the chase>catch>kill>eat cycle. 

They are going to want games of tug. Lots of physicality. Head-shaking and violence. 

There’s some really important things to note with these dogs:

  • Texture of the toy. Every dog is different. Some dogs LOVE rubber toys, others love fur, others love hard canvas material. Try everything, then use what the dog loves.
  • Pressure on/off.
    • Imagine being in a boxing match with a friend, where your opponent is just constantly pummelling you and pushing in to your space and getting up in your face the whole time. At first you might put up a good fight… but pretty quickly it’s going to get WAY too much and you’re going to need him to back off so you can regain your composure. 
    • Picture how dogs play tug together. The worst games are where one dog is going overboard, thrashing, growling, head-shaking, biting closer and closer to the other dog’s snout… and the other dog is just holding on and not reciprocating… cos the first dog isn’t really giving him a chance to. Similar, it’s probably not all that fun for the enthusiastic dog that his partner was so passive.
    • The point is, there needs to be a GIVE and TAKE in this game. Pressure on, pressure off.
    • Pressure can be a lot of things in a game of tug: eye contact on or off. Hitting the sides of the dog vs turning away from the dog and showing the back. Actively tugging by shaking the toy vs. holding it more still, being very close to the dog or looming over the dog vs. being smaller and angled away, blowing on the dog’s face/being right up in their face vs. looking away/turning away, letting the dog climb on you etc. 
  • Letting the dog win. There’s some old myth out there that if the dog wins at tug it will somehow go feral/not respect you any more/some kind of alpha theory BS. Let me say that Journey wins ALL THE TIME (as do many other dogs) and it doesn’t mean anything. In fact, it can make them want to play MORE. However, it’s all about balance:
    • Imagine you’re playing a game with a friend, or doing an arm wrestle. Your friend is physically very strong but you think you have a chance. Somehow, you constantly win, even when you’re not trying very hard. How long before you get bored and go find something else?
    • Same scenario as above. This time, your friend wins every single time, absolutely demolishing you, so you don’t even stand a chance. How long before you give up and go do something else?
    • Same scenario as above. This time, you are sometimes winning, and sometimes losing. The game feels very evenly matched. You have to put in a lot of effort to win, but you are winning those rounds! Sometimes, you slip or get distracted and your friend wins. These losses and wins make you more determined each time, because the game feels fair, achievable, and well-matched. How long until you go and do something else?

Tug should be a give and take, not dragging the dog around at the end of a toy, not with the dog just hanging on cos he should (Loki is like this. He’ll “play tug” but he’s not really playing. He’ll hold on for an eternity and not engage in any way, and when he wins he just spits out the toy and waits for it to “come alive” so he can chase it). 

Games of dog should be realistic in some way. Maybe it’s the rabbit trying to escape the dog’s jaws. Therefore, if the dog DROPS the tug, it should NOT spring immediately back into the dog’s mouth! How boring!

OR… if simulating a game between two dogs, if one dog were to win the toy, would that dog immediately give it back to his friend? NOPE! He would likely turn quickly and run off, flaunting his prize, inciting the other one to chase and grab the toy again. 

These dogs MAY also love PERSONAL play, eg., wrestling with you without toys. They might grab your sleeves or clothes (Journey did this as a puppy a LOT) or just wrestle with you. Loki can’t do this, because he doesn’t want to bite me. He will always grab a toy. He doesn’t understand this game AT ALL. For some dogs with soft mouths (like retrievers) they may play like this, but I suspect it’s challenging for most dogs to wrestle without mouthing and accidentally hurting us. 

If you have a dog who likes personal play, many of the same guidelines as above apply re: give and take and pressure. Think about how dogs play with one another, and try and copy that.

Be the dog.


I think these dogs are pretty closely related to the fighters, but there’s some slight differences. I haven’t met many of these dogs, but Journey is definitely one so I’m going to be framing this very much from my experience with him.

Imagine these dogs just want to prove how brave, strong, fierce and tough they are.

They might not want you to grab their toy and tug on it. They might just want to “tease you” with their amazingly cool toy, but when you try and get it, they either start a game, or leap off. Think about dogs who LOVE a game of keepaway! We often squash this game because it’s inconvenient to us, and the game is “supposed to be” bringing the toy BACK, not running off with it….

But imagine if instead, you found ways to work with this game. If you have a dog who LOVES to play keep away, what happens if you embrace it? Chase that dog! Pretend to try and get the toy! Sneak up on them! Make a lunge for the toy!

If you manage to grab it, suddenly the tables turn! Now YOU run away with the toy! YOU guard it and spin away with the dog tries to get it. 

In this case, you will need a system for telling the dog that the game is over now and it’s time to quit. Maybe a word that means “drop the toy”, or some signal or cue that says: “come on here now, we’re not playing any more.”.

Of course, rewarding those interactions is a little more tricky if the biggest reward is keep away, but it can be done. Try this:

  • You play the game of keep away.
  • When you’re “done”, tell the dog to come in to you. 
  • When it does, throw a party and start the game again.
  • Repeat.

This teaches the dog that coming to you doesn’t automatically end the game… in fact, it COULD mean the game starts again! Sometimes, the game ends. Sometimes, it doesn’t! And if it does end, then a bit of food probably wouldn’t go astray.

Journey isn’t a keep-away dog, but he is a show off.

His favourite game is to have a leaf and to spin, leap, and to bash my hands with it.

He doesn’t want me to take his leaf and play tug. He wants to be fierce. 

When he has a tug toy, most of the time he just pushes it and bashes it into my hands again and again. Or he climbs onto my back while he’s bashing me.

He’s happy if we play tug, but that’s not his ultimate goal. I’ve never met a dog who plays like him, so learning what he loved and how to play in a way that he found the most fun in the world was INCREDIBLY important to our relationship. 

When he was younger, I tried bringing a toy on walks. When he came in for a recall, I would pull it out and try and give it to him for a game of tug.

He hated this. He wouldn’t engage at all.

But, when I let HIM carry a toy on the walk… he would come RACING back to demand I play a game, bashing my hands with it and leaping around growling. Yes, we would tug a bit, but it was almost as if I had “outsmarted him” and had managed to get a hold of the toy… so he would try and get it back, and when he “won”, he would get all bashy again. 


Many dogs will work, in one way or another, for food. 

It’s one of the most basic physiological needs, and therefore they will probably do SOMETHING for food. How enthusiastically or how much they care about food really depends on the dog and the situation/environment they’re in.

For example. Journey works very well for food at home. He is enthusiastic and enjoys learning. He eats happily and engages in whatever kind of training we’re doing. He learnt many tricks and behaviours as a puppy and young dog for food. 

However. If Journey sees a deer in the woods and runs back to me… he will spit out his food, demanding to play with a toy/leaf/something instead. Why? Because it’s his preferred reward. It’s more rewarding for him to play, than to eat. Similarly, at the agility hall. For a long time I tried to train him behaviours using food, as this often allows us to teach more specific behaviours. However, as soon as I rewarded him once or twice with a toy, he understood the behaviour MUCH faster, and MUCH more accurately. More on Journey and his play preferences later.

Why he prefers a toy over food is anyone’s guess, and it’s not right or wrong. Maybe it’s because he’s always been well fed. Maybe it’s just preference, the way some of us would prefer to do some other activity over going out for dinner, or some of us just find food a boring part of being alive, and we eat because we have to!

Some dogs, on the other hand, are happy enough just to eat. 

Loki is a great example of this. He is a dog who will eat until he physically cannot fit any more in his stomach (this is about 1kg of kibble, for reference.) He will eat enthusiastically under almost any circumstance (screaming at agility is MAYBE the exception and he only won’t eat then because he’s over threshold and too high to know his own name). Any type of food is his favourite food. He will do any trick or any behaviour at 500% for the most boring piece of kibble. 

Some dogs prefer food, but are not obsessed by food. The food is the end part of the hunt->kill-> eat cycle, and in order for food to be rewarding, it needs to be a part of this cycle. 

Lumen was one of these dogs.

To just feed her, even very rewarding treats like hotdogs, was… fine. She didn’t care that much. 

But… when I made food into a GAME… when food became rapidly moving prey that she had to track, hunt, chase and eat… THEN she was happy. Every food reward had to be a high energy game with Lumen, and I had to invent ways to make this work for us. 

  • Food in containers that I could swish around on the floor and throw, for her to chase, bring back, and open.
  • Food in little velcro pouches that I could swish around, throw, and she could open and eat by herself.
  • Large chunks of food that I could move about rapidly then throw in one direction, then the other direction, so she could hunt it back and forth.
  • Big pieces of food like pig’s ears, attached to string that could “run away” from her like a rabbit. 

Notice how in all these examples, the food is not food. It’s prey