I’ve never shared this before, but the worst grade I ever got in high school was in an elective photography class. I thought I would love shooting photos, but no matter how many hours I spent in the dark room or how carefully I framed my shots, I got solid B minuses for the whole semester. For an uptight, straight-A student, it was a total nightmare.
When I decided to launch my dog blog, The Dapple, in the fall of 2017, I was thrilled about the whole idea and then I realized something—great blogs had great photography. I was still deeply insecure about my ability to take photos. But how was I going to create content people wanted to read without being a photographer?
After three years, a LOT of trial and error, and a ton of coaching from my amateur photographer husband, I finally feel like I know how to take a great picture of our dogs. I’ve learned so much about how to set up a shot, how to style a photoshoot, and how to pose our dogs. I even take on occasional freelance photography projects.
But the real test of my new-found confidence came this year when Simon & Schuster’s Tiller Press turned our blog into a book, Life’s a Puppy Party: Recipes, DIYs, and Activities for Celebrating the Seasons with Your Dog. Because of the pandemic, my husband and I tag-teamed the process of shooting the photography for the whole book ourselves. The book has photos on almost every page that were all shot in our very small urban house with two crazy dogs and our toddler rumbling through like Godzilla.
So how does a very not-naturally-talented photographer end up with a book deal for a photo book? Here are my five hacks that can help a newbie like me get up and running with dog photography:
Light is Your Friend
If you’re the kind of person who turns on a ring light for Zoom meetings, you already know this one. But for everyone else, the most important thing to remember is that lighting can make or break a shot. And while we do use a light set and a seamless backdrop for some of our photography, we still often shoot our blog and Instagram photos using natural light. You just have to find a spot that has great natural lighting. For a long time, I shot all of The Dapple’s photos on the roof of our Upper West Side apartment building, even if they were styled to look like they were shot inside. (I can only imagine how crazy it looked to our neighbors!) Currently, I shoot a lot of our blog content in our living room because it has windows on three sides. Just figure out what that dog-friendly and well-lit space is for you.
Know Your Dog’s Angles
Shooting photos of dogs involves its own set of challenges that you don’t have to deal with when taking photos of people. Because our dogs are both very low to the ground (#dachshundproblems) it can be tricky to get a photo out on the street since you basically have to lie flat on the ground to get their faces in the shot and you still end up with a photo that’s mostly sidewalk in the background. That’s why you’ll notice that a lot of our photos are shot inside, often with our dogs lying on their backs or sitting on a piece of furniture. If this comes naturally to you, it can seem basic. But it took me a long time to figure out which angles made reliably good photos.
Plan Your Shots
Sure, dog photography is a photo of your dog. But is your dog on a rug? Or standing on a pile of laundry? In front of a clean room? Or standing in front of whatever Netflix you’re watching? You can change the whole feel of the shot by thinking through the different pieces of it that will be visible. It always helps to think about what’s under your dog’s feet and what’s behind them. When I shoot lifestyle photography for our blog, I often shoot products on our marble coffee table from above. It makes a clean, natural background, and it’s easy to capture photos of our dogs sniffing things or looking at things on the table in a realistic way. If you don’t have a space like that, I’m a big fan of the very realistic tabletop or kitchen backgrounds you can find on Etsy. Replica Surfaces is a great resource for 3D backgrounds that make it seem like you have a gorgeous gram-worthy kitchen, even if IRL you’ve got dishes in the sink and a dated backsplash. (Guilty!)
Bring Treats (And Squeakers!)
Any pet photographer knows that the true secret to great dog photography is treats. Our dogs love having their photos taken because they love getting snacks. As soon as the treats come out, both of our pups suddenly sit up straighter and turn on their puppy eyes. It’s the absolute best way to get a great photo of them. And I highly recommend keeping a squeaker toy nearby. Just being able to get their attention—both our dogs fall asleep when they’re having their photo taken!—can really make that perfect shot.