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Which Eye?

One thing you might be wondering, or not even aware of, is which eye should be in focus – most especially when we are taking a very close up photo of our dog where they are angled to the camera with one eye closer to the camera, and one maybe slightly further away, and we have a very narrow depth of field.

You’ll be learning more about depth of field, but it’s important to note that it’s normal (and in my opinion totally fine) if one eye is in focus, and the other isn’t.

If you’re working under these conditions, it’s very important to make sure that the eye closest to the camera (and usually the most visible) is the one that is in focus

This isn’t apply if the dog is looking directly into the camera, as the eyes will be on the same plane of focus as each other, or if you’re working with a wide enough depth of field that both eyes are in focus.

It’s important when only one eye is in perfect focus.

So make sure your focus area is over the eye closest to the camera, and that you choose the photo where that eye is in focus.

Below is a rather subtle example. The key is to look at the fur around the eyes, and where it’s sharpest.

An extreme close crop of a similar image. 

Disconnected Ears

The ears of your dog can be a subtle but important part of your dog’s expression.

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 looking like this, 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 you’re putting too much pressure on him, stop doing that, and 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!

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.

The examples below show some pretty “bad” ears and engagement.

Here is a selection of another 4 ears from Journey, 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 on 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, 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.

Subtle ears

In my eye, the examples above are pretty obvious, but some dogs can be especially subtle in when they’ve “tuned out”. It might be as simple as one ear very slightly rotated away. 

For Journey, this means he’s only half-engaged in what we’re doing – it usually only happens when I’m asking him to look at the camera and he’s a bit over it – and he’s half listening for something more interesting, without moving his head or looking away (border collies are too clever, right?!). These photos have a distinct feeling of “disconnection” about them, and I won’t use them. I would much rather he be looking totally away and be engaged and interested and alert, than bored and disconnected.

The first one is good. The 2nd two aren’t even subtle. 

Good, alert, connected expression on the left photos, ear flick/disconnection on the right. Some are much more subtle than others! Can you see?

Gazing direction

Looking off to one side can often give us a more wistful feeling, like we’ve just happened upon the dog in the woods, or they’re watching another animal, smelling a smell on the wind, or are involved somehow in their own story.

As mentioned elsewhere, we are not a part of this scene necessarily, but we are observers. Therefore, the pose should support this feeling – depending on what exactly you’re going for. If you want the feeling of a dog “in his natural habitat” or as part of his own story, then his posed should be less forced/unnatural. 

If we are showing off a trick or it is part of a bigger story where the dog could have been interrupted mid movement or similar, then the pose can “feel” a bit more staged. Eg., the dog mid-roll, lying on his back and looking up. There are such a huge number of poses and potential options here, that it’s really just a matter of going with what “feels” like it suits the scene.

I would say though that in general, a photo where the dog is looking off to the side should look/feel less posed than one with the dog looking forward at the camera.

Different “angles” of looking will have different effects, too. A 45 degree angle (over one of your shoulder) can be a bit more dreamy. A 90 degree angle has much more of the dog’s focus and intention and creates less connection with the audience: the dog is really involved in their own world.

 Seeing the dog look into the distance asks questions of adventures, or possibilities, or dreaming of things to come. 

Looking up also has an entirely different feeling: dreamy, whimsical, romantic, wondering, or perhaps something joyful if the dog’s face is being “bathed in light”. 

You don’t have to plan where the dog will look, down to the exact angle, but being aware of the feelings of different angles will help you to create that story or mood in editing. Having a small idea of where you want them to look will also help you with composition, as you’ll make sure there aren’t plants or trees blocking their view. 

That being said, if the dog is looking all around… take the photos!! Some dogs will do better without being “nagged” for attention all the time. Let him watch the birds, the squirrels, sniff the breeze, listen to the deer… and take those photos, then create his own story. And when he’s looked around, make a sudden, sharp, surprising noise and be ready. 

 

I was recently asked how to train a dog to “look up”, and the truth is, that I don’t. While I have taught both my dogs a “look” command, they interpret it to mean “look somewhere else”. 

To get any dog to look up, I rely on one of two things. Either:

  • an interest in birds, squirrels or trees making noises above
  • a helper/owner luring their attention upward

For Journey, he loves looking all around. If I ask him about squirrels, he will look up into the trees. So of course, you could associate a word with looking up FOR something (eg., birds/squirrels) if your dog is so inclined. Just be aware that you are drawing attention to squirrels and you may not want this, at all. 

In that case, your best bet is to use a helper. They can stand close to the dog, get their attention upward while you take the photo. Then, remove both the owner and dog from the scene and take a photo without changing focus of the scene. Use this extra photo to remove the owner in Photoshop.

 

As you look at the gallery below, think about the way different angles of gazing direction, whether they’re looking slightly up or straight across, and even the way their bodies are shaped or curved, helps to create the mood or story of the picture.

Looking into the camera

Photos where the dog is looking into the camera has a sense of connection with the photographer or the viewer. Owners will tend to choose these photos more often because the connection. 

The means that when setting up the mood or story of the image we need to be conscious of this gazing direction. Photos where the dog is “aware” of the photographer will be less likely to have the feeling of a “story”, but more of a posed photo. This isn’t good or bad, but it’s helpful to keep in mind when making the rest of the mood, and as you head into editing. 

There are some cases where the pose, expression and scene can still give us the feeling of the “dog in the wild” or as a part of his own story, and he just happened to notice us. Usually we want the camera to be “peeking through” some foliage or similar, for the dog’s pose to be not overly posed or forced, and for him to be holding his head and body in such a way that he just spotted us there in the bushes. A true “alert” dog with head up, ears up, looks like it is being asked to look at the camera (which of course, it is).

Aware vs. Unaware. In the first photo, it’s clear Loki has been posed next to this bramble. He looks sweet and compliant and is totally a part of having his photo taken. 

In the second photo, through the ferns, it feels like Loki could have snuck up on us, and is peering at US through the bushes. Of course I’ve put him there, but I wanted it to have the FEELING of being unposed: a creature in the wild. 

These two examples demonstrate how, while a dog looking at the camera usually has a more “personality” or posed feeling, it doesn’t have to, depending on what you want to create. 

Here are plenty more examples of dogs looking at the camera.

QU: I only have a “kit lens”! Does that mean I can’t get blurry backgrounds?

Do some experiments using the above guidance and see. Most likely, it will be more difficult, or the background blur effect won’t be as strong. You won’t be able to get photos with the soft backgrounds like I have with my 135mm on an iphone. It’s just not going to happen. Of course you can use portrait mode, but it does have some issues especially with the furry ears of long-haired dogs, because it’s an artificial blur and relies on the phone’s technology to recognise what is the subject, and what is the background. 

It’s also possible to blur the background in editing, but in my opinion and experience, this is VERY difficult to do in a way that appears believable and realistic, because of the way depth of field operates – it’s hard to mimic without some effort. There are probably apps out there which may be able to do it, again they will rely on being able to distinguish the subject from the background and blur only the background.

In my opinion, if you have a phone, your best bet is probably going to be using portrait mode. There is SOME depth of field if you get close enough to the dog, and some phones’ portrait modes and DOF will be better than others. 

If you have a camera, I would seriously recommend investing in a lens with a wide aperture (f/2.8 or smaller f/ number), and a mid to long length. Make sure you check out the “Choosing a Lens” lesson for more information. A good quality lens, with a wide aperture, can do wonders for your photography, as it can achieve effects that other cheaper lenses just can’t due to their construction. 

 

Lens Focal Length

Different lens lengths result in different depth of fields (depending on all of the factors discussed above as well.). Shorter lens lengths show more of the background, and therefore it takes more of the above factors to get a narrow depth of field and a blurry background (for example, a 35mm lens at f/1.2, far from the background but mid-range to the dog may have a blurry background, but a 20mm lens at f/1.2 may need you to be closer to the dog to achieve the same effect). 

Longer lens lengths (85mm, 105mm, 135mm and so on) compress the background (meaning it shows only a very small portion of the background) which makes it much softer and blurrier. The amount of background blur I achieve with my 135mm on even a full body shot of a dog, I could only achieve by being VERY close with my 28mm lens. 

Longer lens = more blur.

Shorter lens = less blur.

Zoom lenses can also achieve some great compression – keeping in mind what we discussed about aperture above. When you zoom in on a zoom lens, you get more compression, and therefore can achieve background blur.

This is one reason why phones and many kit lenses, or even lenses recommended to beginners (eg., the 35mm) do not provide people with the blurry background that they want. 

Compression is simply the magnification of the background based on the lens length.

A wide angle lens will often have distortion in the opposite direction (think fish-eye lenses, or bobble-head dog photos) where the middle seems to bulge.

Compression with longer, portrait or telephoto lenses on the other hand, pulls everything forward, magnifying and stretching the background, and flattening the subject a bit. This can be helpful with our dogs as it can make their snouts look less ridiculously long than if we’re using a wider angle lens.

Below are examples of how different focal lengths affect the DOF. The first is with me 28-75mm lens, at its shortest 28mm, and f/2.8. The next is my 85mm at f/1.8, and the last is my 135mm at f/1.8. I realise in hindsight that this wasn’t a completely fair trial because of the difference in aperture, but it wouldn’t have really done a lot for either of the longer lenses.

Hover over the photos for information.

More examples

In this set of examples, I kept the aperture at f/1.8 regardless of the lens, and tried more or less to keep the dog filling the same amount of the frame, however this was difficult at the waterfall due to not being able to physically get closer with the 35mm.

These examples were also all taken at f.1.8 and were taken for this lesson, only lightly edited. 

I wanted to show both how being closer or further from the dog would change the depth of field, but also the lens choice. So here, I will be comparing the focal lengths at similar “distances” from the dog – keeping in mind that my distance from Loki with the 135mm would have been much, much further than with the 35mm. It’s more about how much of the frame they fill.

135mm

50mm

35mm

Assignment!

If you have a zoom lens, take it outside – you don’t have to go anywhere fancy. Set your settings, then take a series of photos – at the least zoomed in, mid-point, and zoomed in all the way. Play with the distance between you and your dog, testing the zoom each time. A 70-200mm lens zoomed in to 200mm will have a different effect for a full body shot, or a headshot.

Try out your lenses to really get an understanding of how they operate, so you know how to achieve the effects you want!

Distance from the subject to the background

The further the subject is from the background, the blurrier/softer it will be (relative to all the other factors discussed in this lesson). So, if you place your subject amongst the bushes, then a good amount of those bushes will be in focus. If you place the subject far away from the bushes, they will be blurry. Let’s have a look:

Distance from you to the subject

One big factor which affects depth of field (and therefore how blurry the background is) is how close you are to your subject. The closer you get, the narrower the depth of field will be. This is especially important with wider focal-length lenses, as you may need to have them in a very tight headshot in order for the background to be blurred.

This is a big reason that action photos can be especially difficult, as the dog closes the distance to us, the depth of field becomes narrower so the focus needs to be more precise, and the dog is quite a small creature so they are already especially close to the camera compared to other moving objects that we tend to capture with the camera like people, cars, horses, even birds in flight tend to be much, much further away. 

 

Remember!

The closer you are to your subject, the narrower the depth of field, and… 

the further the subject is from the background, the blurrier it will be!

Try it yourself. Hold one finger up and close one eye, like you’re looking through a viewfinder. Start with your finger outstretched, far from your face.

Now move it very close to your face. The background should be much, much blurrier now than when you had the finger outstretched!

In each of the images below I have outlined the focal plane (the area which is in focus) between the two purple lines. Although the width between the lines looks the same, keep in mind the actual distance represented! In the first image, approximately 50-60cm of the image is in focus, taking in part of the grass in front of and behind Loki. In the second image, the area from just behind his snout to his ears is in focus, probably about 10cm. In the last image, only his single eye and a narrow strip of his face is in focus, probably about 2cm. 

These were all taken with the exact same lens at the same settings (f/1.8), with my 135mm lens. The only difference is how close I was to Loki. The closer I got, the narrower the depth of field became!

Consider these three images below, compared to the ones above.  These were taken with a 28-75mm, f/2.8  lens. You can see that it takes until the very close headshot to get a very blurry background. The middle photo is slightly soft, but definitely not blurry. 

Mountain examples

Below, you will see photos taken in more or less the same location. The settings for each are the same: f/3.2 with a 35mm lens. The only real thing that changes is the distance from me, to my subject. Note the difference in the background in each photo.

Again, same location, same settings. The difference? Distance from me to the dog. Note the difference in the blur of the mountains behind.

Multiple lens examples

Here, I took a series of photos for this lesson, to show you how varying my distance from the dog would affect the DOF and background of the image. You will see these again in the “Lens length” topic.

They have all only been very lightly edited. 

Each time I moved back slightly, but how far I was from the dog was relative to the lens. Eg., the closest photo with the 135mm was likely the furthest distance I got with the 35mm. 

135mm

50mm

35mm

Assignment!

Go out and take a series of photos as shown in the last examples in this lesson.

Take some photos as close as possible without chopping off the dog’s ears.

Now move back a little, take a photo. Back a little more, take a photo, etc, until you have 70% scenery, 30% dog in the scene.

Note what happens to the background each time you move back.

 

Aperture

Now, you mightn’t be familiar with the exposure triangle, or what aperture is yet, and that’s ok. You might be still working in auto mode, or one of the priority modes. As you’ll come to learn, I am a big fan of using my camera in manual exposure and taking full control over my photos.

Why?

Because my camera doesn’t know what I want. It doesn’t know that I’m taking photos of a living, breathing, potentially moving animal. It doesn’t know that I want to have a soft, blurry background. If you’re not comfortable shooting in manual yet, or adjusting the aperture, don’t worry – we’re going to cover this in future lessons until you’re confident changing the settings! So feel free to file this one away for later if you need to. 

In this lesson we’re not going to be discussing how aperture relates to shutter speed, ISO, or light getting to your camera’s sensor, but more about its job relating to depth of field. 

Similarly, if you’re using your phone, this section isn’t AS important to you, although some phones and some apps allow you to control the aperture (but I suspect it’s “digital aperture” rather than anything actually changing in the phone’s lens. Still, it theoretically makes the background even softer and blurrier, but can be a real nightmare with fur.)

What is the aperture?

The aperture is the hole in our lens that controls how much light is let into the sensor. If you’ve got a camera, grab it, set it to manual exposure, and find out which of the knobs changes the f/ number. With a mirrorless camera, you can actually see the aperture changing as you change the settings – I’m not sure about all DSLRs. 

 When the number is small, the hole is much bigger, allowing more light into the sensor. 

When the f/number is big, the hole is smaller, allowing less light in.

Aperture and depth of field

A wide aperture (an f/ number of say f/2.8 or smaller – f/2, f/1.8, f/1.4 etc) is one factor in creating a narrower depth of field. 

Many “kit lenses” have apertures from f/3.5. Some of the kit lenses which zoom have a minimum aperture which changes, so it may say f/3.5-f/6.5. This means that when zoomed all the way in, the widest aperture it can use is f/6.5, which is not very helpful for getting soft backgrounds! 

This was taken at f/7.1 Although the trees and mountains still look somewhat blurry, you have to remember how far away they are from Zombie (which is another factor in getting soft backgrounds)
This was with a longer lens length, and at an aperture of f/1.8, and a bit closer to Nami. You can see how narrow the depth of field is now.

Example 1.

Below, you will see a photo taken on a very sunny day in Scotland. These photos were not taken with the attention of being award-winning photos, but as an opportunity to show you how depth of field changes as the aperture changes, without changing any of the other variables.

Hover to see the aperture/f number used, and take note of how the castle in the background changes. 

These were all taken with a 50mm lens. Note that I am relatively far away from the dogs, and the castle is also relatively far. More on this coming up!

Example 2.

You’ll see this example in the “What about the nose” lesson, but I think it’s useful here too. I stayed reasonably close to Journey throughout this sequence of photos, adjusting only the aperture and ISO (to compensate for the reduced amount of light getting to the sensor). 

Have a look at how the depth of field changes as the aperture changes.

Keep in mind this was with a 135mm lens so the background will stay VERY soft, especially with a narrow depth of field due to my distance from Journey (as you’ll see in the next part of this lesson!). So there are two factors here keeping the background nice and soft and  blurry even as the aperture changes.

Hover to see the settings, click to enlarge.

Assignment!

Get your camera or phone, whatever you’re taking photos with.

Find out how to change the aperture. If you’re not comfortable on manual mode, use “Aperture priority” for this assignment. Go outside on a reasonably bright day.

Set the aperture to as small a number as you can. Check your lens! There should be a lot of numbers written there. Some will be the lens length (eg., 18-35mm or 70-300mm), and some will be the aperture, eg., 3.5-6.3, or 3.5-5.6.

Take a photo at the widest aperture (smallest number).

Now change the aperture by 1-2 points. Take another photo. Change the aperture again. Go as far as you like. I stopped at f/8 above, but you can keep going to f/11, f/17 if you have enough light!

Import your photos and compare! Notice how the change in aperture changes your depth of field and the background.