To be fair, I think photography is one of those skills that is best developed over time with consistent practice, which is pretty much like every other skill that a person might learn. That said, here’s my abbreviated guide to get you started. Do you think I missed anything? Let me know in the comments.
Lyle will be turning sixteen in a few days. I wasn’t a photographer when we adopted him as a scrawny little puppy but it wasn’t long after we brought him home that I bought my first digital camera. While I can’t say that he loves modeling like Spring did, he’s still spent a fair bit of time in front of my camera and we have quite a number of pictures of him through the years. When he was younger, he was fairly easy to work with and pose but over the last few years, his decreased mobility has changed the nature of our sessions. Today’s post shares a bit about that journey and offers tips for working with senior dogs.
In a lot of ways, working with seniors is like working with puppies; they both have short attention spans and they (can) have other limitations making it difficult or impossible to create certain types of photos. The key here, as it really is for all pet photography, is to understand your pet’s abilities and work within those limits. Lyle was perhaps the easiest puppy I’ve ever known. Part of that comes from his personality but I also credit our girl Little Bit for showing him the ropes. Still, he didn’t come magically understanding what we wanted of him and it took some time to teach him the basics like sit, stay, and down. Those three commands go a very long way towards making great photos. The other aspect is trust; once you have that, the sky’s the limit.
Over the years, Lyle has allowed me to make a wide variety of photos and, for the most part, he was happy to participate because he knew he’d be well rewarded. Now that he is a senior, I really stick to just a handful of poses because he is physically limited in what he can do during a session. That doesn’t mean that I don’t continue to make new portraits, but rather that I make them with his current abilities in mind. With that said, here are my tips for working with senior dogs:
- Know your dog’s current abilities. While our senior girl, Maebe, has her full range of motion, Lyle is no longer able to sit comfortably so I don’t ask him to pose sitting for portraits.
- Always respect what your pet is telling you. Lyle has good days and days where he is too tired or is in pain. On those days, it is best to let him rest.
- Be liberal with your treats and praise. These sessions should remain fun for both of you. Just be sure to use treats that won’t cause an upset stomach.
- Keep the sessions short. It is important to finish the session early enough so that your dog has plenty of energy to make it comfortably through the rest of the day.
- Don’t skip the candids in favor of posed portraits. Those everyday moments are just as important as the formal portraits. Photograph them when they walk, nap, play, snuggle, and whenever the inspiration strikes.
Most of all, shower your seniors with love and affection. Whether it’s days, weeks, or years, our time with them is never long enough.
This image was made in the Cotoye Ridge Corrections Center in Eastern Washington as part of the Ridge Dogs programs. Inmates worked with dogs that were deemed difficult to adopt by the local animal control facility. They lived with and trained the dogs in all aspects of basic training. The program was a huge success for both the dogs and the men they lived with in the facility.
Composition is something that is a part of every single photograph yet all too often we simply capture the scene as we come to it without giving thought about how best to organize the image visually. Today I’d like to offer a few simple and practical guidelines to help you make better pet portraits.
One of the easiest ways to make stronger pet portraits is to get down on their level (or bring them to your level). For the most part, our pets are considerably shorter than we are so if we point a camera at them, chances are pretty good that the floor (or ground) will play a big part of the composition. That can be fine of course, but there are a lot of other interesting backgrounds out there to choose from too. Mixing up your point of view will add visual diversity to your portraits.
A second way to add visual diversity to your portraits is to consider your framing. Without a doubt, there is a place for centering your pet right in the middle of the frame. I often use this composition for headshots when my subjects are looking directly into the camera. I find these portraits to be very engaging, but there are great reasons why you might want to move your pet around in the frame. One obvious reason to push your subject off center might be to give a sense of the location. If you take the time to visit someplace beautiful for your portraits, then make the beauty of the scene part of the image.
Finally, consider how the negative space plays a role in the composition. You can think of negative space as the area in a photograph that does not contain your main subject. The simplest way to begin working with negative space is to photograph your pet against a plain background. This might mean using a plain wall or perhaps using a shallow depth of field to blur the background – either of these setups can offer the perfect opportunity for you to play with the concept. When you position (and pose) your pet with the negative space in mind, you add a new layer of interest to your portrait. As an added bonus, negative space is useful if you plan to add text to your photograph.
Hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought. If there is one take-home lesson that I’d like you to consider it’s this: experiment with your compositions. Of course, you should take photos from a perspective that appeals to you, but once you have that, give yourself the freedom to try new approaches to photographing your pet.
Those of you that have known me and my work for a while know that I credit Little Bit for setting me on the path as a pet photographer. When she was diagnosed with lymphoma, I realized that we did not have many photos of her, so I set out to document what time we had left with her. She responded about as well as we could have hoped for and she was with us for an additional 20 months after her diagnosis. She was nine years old when she died on August 26, 2006. It is fair to say that Robin, Lyle, and I were devastated.
By that time, I had begun volunteering my services to the Woodford Humane Society (WHS) in Versailles, Kentucky. Earlier that summer, I met Spring (née Samantha). She was a skinny little 13-pound dog when I met her and took her out for our first photo adventure. At that point, I was preparing my application to graduate school, and I needed to create a portfolio of both color and black and white photographs. My concept was to photograph adoptable dogs in a park setting for the B&W photos, then again in my studio for the color prints. Once we were in the studio, she was so comfortable that she quickly fell asleep while I worked. I probably spent two and a half or three hours with her on that May morning before I brought her back to the shelter. She was soon after adopted but it didn’t work out, and she had been returned to WHS by the time that Little Bit passed.
The week after Little Bit died, Robin and I were at an event for WHS in Midway, Kentucky. I can’t say with any certainty if we were set up by our friend Sandy at WHS or not, but one way or another, Spring was at the event. Out of all of the people at the busy event, it seemed that Spring only had eyes for me. Robin and I proceeded to spend the next couple of hours walking her around (and if I’m honest, we mostly had to carry her) to introduce her to people that might be interested in adoption. At that point, Robin and I were adamant that we were not ready to bring another dog into our home because the pain of loss was still too fresh.
A short time later, we were at another WHS event, only this time I was there as the event photographer, so I didn’t have any dogs with me. It was a fairly busy event, and sure enough, Spring was there too. EVERY SINGLE TIME she saw me through the crowd, she’d get up on her back legs and pull on her leash in my direction. It couldn’t have been any clearer that she had chosen me as her new owner, so Robin and I finally agreed to take her home. In the eleven years that followed, Spring learned to love Robin as much as she loved me. With few exceptions, she would be at my or at Robin’s side.
It would be an understatement to say that our first morning together made a strong impression on her because it was clear that she LOVED to be in front of my camera. As much as Little Bit started me on my path as a pet photographer, it’s Spring that helped me refine my craft. Whenever I was ready to experiment, learn a new technique, or just play around, Spring was there as my trusted model. She was a real professional. I believe that I made more than 10,000 photos of Spring in our time together.
Spring became sick on Labor Day weekend, and we brought her to the emergency veterinary hospital for emergency surgery. Because of her underlying medical issues, she took a while to recover, but we were finally able to bring her home on Thursday. She continued to improve once she was home to the point where we were able to remove her nasogastric tube on Saturday. Sunday evening it became clear that she suffered a major complication from the surgery. We spent the night trying to make her as comfortable as we could while we came to grips with the situation, and in the early hours of Monday morning, we said our final goodbyes.
Spring was our youngest at 14 years old, so we’ve long known that our time with our dogs is limited. Still, knowing we have old dogs doesn’t help, and her loss has hit us like a ton of bricks. As I leave you this week, I’d like to remind you to love and cherish the time that you have with those that you love. It’s never long enough.