This dog photography portrait how-to was an exciting one to do for me because it was the first time I’d shot video on the new Sony A7RIII and, although it absolutely wasn’t perfect and there’s so much more to explore there, it was indeed an awesomely fun experience. What more could you ask for!?

If you’d rather watch than read, go forth and do so. However, please do subscribe to the YouTube channel because that’s how I know I’ve helped someone, which is what this is all about! 

Let’s get to the juicy stuff straight away:

1.0 Light for stunning dog photography portraits

This is kind of not really included here, but it’s so very essential that I’d be an idiot not to include it. The light your shooting in has to be soft, it has to be dreamy, it has to have interest and, ideally, it should be warm – That’s to achieve this kind of shot. Your best bets for this are shooting late in the day, close to or in golden hour, or early in the morning, just after sunrise. Any other time of day is a little hit and miss. 

If you absolutely have to, just go for a large shaded area. That’s the worst-case scenario. If it’s full sun and this isn’t a paid shoot, reschedule. 

Extra tip: I went out with the sole intention of shooting for bokeh today, so the trees to the right of our garden were a perfect backdrop. They have light coming through them and that paired with a wide aperture/low f-number, gives us fluffy light circles in the background – lush!

2.0 Settings for stunning dog photography portraits

Your core settings are going to vary depending on the scene you’re in at the time, so always follow the principles set out in the exposure triangle post and shoot to the light you have available. 

However, there are some additional things to bare in mind specifically for taking stunning dog photography portraits in natural light and they include: 

 2.1 Set your aperture very, very wide

This really needs to be as wide as you can possibly get, but sometimes that’s not an option with the lenses you have available. For example, you may have an old, non-camera brand 2.8 lens. Just because you can shoot at 2.8 doesn’t mean that the image is going to be amazing. In fact, a lot of these older lenses really struggle with sharpness, chromatic aberration and vignetting at what we call “wide open” (aka, the lowest f-number it offers).

Essentially we want to achieve as small a depth of field (DoF) as possible. This involves a few things:

  • The longer the lens, the smaller the DoF at any aperture compared to a shorter lens
  • The lower the f-number the smaller the DoF
  • The closer the dog is to the camera and the further they are from the background in relative distances, the smaller the DoF

Are you still with me?

So, the ideal would be to use a lens over 100mm, at it’s lowest possible f-number (or very close to it) with the dog closer to the lens than it is to the background, in a rough ratio of 75:25. So 75% of the distance is behind the dog and 25% is in front between it and the lens of the camera. 

A great comment came in on the video, from Johan, which pretty much sums up what I’ve written here but didn’t explain in detail within the video:

As I popped into my reply, Johan is completely right, there’s just a little more to it than that for those who are new to this kind of thing. As Johan noted, you can get the entire dog in focus at f4, and the entire background soft and stunning, but you’ll need a hefty chunk of space between your dog and the actual background.

Similarly, you could shoot at f4 and have just the head in focus and the background blurry, but you’ll still need that distance. In the garden here, that kind of distance isn’t possible sadly.

Anyhow, it’s worth playing with these things, because, as Johan pointed out, you don’t have to be wide open, or super low on your f-number, especially at longer focal lengths to achieve this look, you just need a big gap between the subject and the background (relatively speaking, of course – remember 75:25!).

 2.2 Set your shutter speed high enough to stop motion blur

You guys will know if you’ve studied the exposure triangle video that the general rule is to set your shutter speed a minimum of 2x the focal length of the lens to remove hand-held camera shake.

However, we’re also shooting dogs, so add a little cushion room for any movements they may make. 

 2.3 Set your ISO as low as you can without compromising the other settings

Get that exposure right from this point onwards with your ISO, where possible. If you’re reaching ISO levels of 1600+, you want to start getting a little concerned. Assess the situation in editing afterwards and note what is, and isn’t, safe ISO numbers for your cameras noise handling capabilities. 

 2.4 Drive mode – single shot

You don’t need to be reeling off 10 frames a second so set that machine gun wannabe back to single shot, ok?

 2.5 Single point focus

It’s very rare for me to ever shoot not on single point focus, so if I ever don’t mention focus area’s, just assume it’s a single point. We went through how to set up single point area modes in our Action Photography how-to, so head there and find that part for a recap. 

 2.6 White balance 

If you’re shooting in RAW (which you should be) then this isn’t absolutely crucial, but it’s never a bad idea to have a white balance card like this with you at all times. That way, you can take a photo of it at the start of your shoot, and during if the light changes, then you’ll be able to drop that little eyedropper in Lightroom onto the card in the photo and bam, that’s perfect white balance! 

As I always say, if you have warm light and blue shade in the same photo, balance more to the blue than to the warmth. Warmer images are never a bad thing, so err on that side over cool. 

 2.7 Composition 

It’s not a setting, but it’s crucial. If you aren’t a composition wizard, go here and brush up before you shoot this portrait. 

 2.8 Backgrounds 

Always analyse your backgrounds, again, not a setting but worth mentioning. You can find all of the base essentials in this post here, the 10 tips for dog photography, which should fill in any gaps I’ve missed! 

 2.9 Get down low

Again, not a setting. Sorry. I should have titled these differently shouldn’t I?! 

This is crucial and here’s why: 

Can you tell why? It should be obvious. In both of these examples, the dog is in the same place and so is the photographer, the angle of shot is the only thing that’s changed. 

You should be on the floor, with the lens at or well below the eye level of the dog. Crucial. Do not miss this or that stunning dog photography portrait will flop before it starts. 

3.0 Extra tips: 

  • Always focus on the closest eye
  • Always get attention from the dog OR frame for their distraction – a bored dog creates a boring photo – reward for attention from the dog!
  • Always try to not clip highlights in either the sky or on the subject
  • Always take the time to get “the shot” don’t just snap and hope
  • Practice! (x 300000 times)

Editing of the photographs is covered in the video above, spanning both Lightroom Classic and Photoshop CC, so if you need to check that part of your portrait, do go ahead and skip to that part of the video. 

At the end of the whole process, if you’ve done it all perfecto, your end result will be simply sublime. Have you completed this tutorial? Show us in the Facebook Group, remember to specifically ask to have no critique if you’d rather the community not offer pointers or advice!

Some portraits for inspiration, either by me or my some of my past students: