dog chewing a bone

Photos: Jaymi Heimbuch

Any dog owner knows that each dog has his own distinct personality. The goal of photographing a pet is to capture the unique personality cherished by the owner. But there is a significant hurdle: Certain elements of a dog’s personality will be on display when he’s faced with a clicking black box — anything from fear to playfulness. A trick for cutting through this and capturing the real personality of a dog, what comes out when he’s most comfortable, depends on using the right camera gear and having the right approach.

In photographing dogs for a local rescue group, I've discovered some common ways that dogs respond to being photographed. To get the best photo, it’s helpful to know which of these personality types is coming through and how to work with it. Is the dog scared of the camera? Or will he not stop bouncing around? Does he instantly look intimidating despite his heart of gold? Here are seven of the most common personality types dogs show photographers (even you, the owner!) and a suggestion for working with them to get the best portrait.

timid dog

The timid/wary dog

Many dogs are afraid of cameras, and understandably so. Having something big and black aimed at you, in a way that covers up the ever-important eyes of the person holding it and making it hard to read their intentions, and then having that thing make clicking noises at you at unexpected and random times, can be much too much for a timid dog to handle. For this, distance is key. Stay back from the dog and give him the space he needs to feel secure. Using a long lens like a 135mm on your dSLR or the zoom on your point-n-shoot allows you to stay well outside of a dog’s personal space bubble, so he is then able to avoid you altogether or focus on someone who is holding treats instead of a scary clicking box.

Pascal, pictured here, was quite wary of me and my camera at first. I sat in one spot and ignored him, letting him come up and smell me, and hear the shutter click a few times, then go about his business. By sitting in one place with a long lens (70-200mm) on my camera while he wandered about his back yard, playing with his owner and investigating, he quickly learned that I was no threat but rather just an oddity from which he could keep his distance. Meanwhile I was able to capture portraits as he jumped through flower beds and ran up and down stairs. It turned into a great experience for both of us. If you have the time to work with the dog you're photographing, you can also use the old click-n-treat strategy to make them comfortable and fearless with the camera.

German shepherd portrait

The hyper/exuberant dog

A hyper or highly playful dog might be completely different from the timid dog, yet the approach you take might be exactly the same. For a dog bursting with energy that can’t be easily channeled, I recommend using a long lens or zoom lens and staying farther away. This serves two purposes: First, you aren’t as likely to send the dog into a flurry of excited activity based on a body cue or sound that remotely resembles an invitation to play. It is too easy to have a moment of calm broken because you leaned forward slightly and it looked like a play bow and now it’ll take 10 minutes to get the dog off of you or back from its whirlwind trip around the yard and settled again. Second, having distance puts you are in a better position to capture the dog in action while still making an image that looks like a portrait. Being too close makes their bounciness look like comical chaos (not necessarily a bad thing), but a zoom flattens out the scene and lends a feeling that everything is a bit more under control, even if in reality it isn’t! It can provide a more polished portrait look, and in less time.

This strategy worked great with Tansy, pictured above, who would take any excuse to start bouncing around on the lead. Bursting with energy and curiosity, without much training to reel her in, I needed to stay back so she wasn’t overwhelmed with the excitement of more than one person in her play zone. This helped me to capture some great portraits that highlight the dignified side of her that shines through when she sits still long enough.

intense, focused dogThe intense/focused dog

There are certain dogs that can have an intimidating look to them. Often they are big, muscular, short-coated dogs with solid stares. And often they’re dogs with golden or light-colored eyes, which remind us of their wild canid cousins and are more intimidating than the deep chocolate browns of many domesticated breeds. The physical features of these dogs can belie their true personality, which in many cases is gentle, cuddly and calm even if highly focused. I had this experience with a dog I photographed for a rescue group, the pit bull named Tinkerbelle pictured here. With the typical broad and firm pit bull stance and her (gorgeous) golden eyes, if her attention was focused on a target she easily looks quite intimidating. This was certainly not the look we wanted to present to people looking to adopt, and certainly not a look that illustrates her real personality, which is gentle and loving.

To overcome this, I used a wide-angle lens and got in close. This lens gave added dimension and depth to the scene and to her body. The comical proportions of a big head and small body helped lend a softer feel to her, and bring an aura of humor and cuddliness. And being close to her makes the viewer understand how approachable she is. Tinkerbelle has a wonderful ability to focus intently on something (especially a treat in your hand!) and this wide angle lens gave that focus the gentle edge the portrait needed to show her spirit and get the attention of potential forever families.

dorky, goofy dogThe dorky/floppy dog

Let’s admit it. Some dogs are big dorks. They’re just happy-go-lucky pups that always have a ridiculous look to their face or a silly bounce in their step. Think Labrador puppies, or pit bulls with gigantic grins, or big, furry Bernese mountain dogs rolling in the grass. For these dogs, every single shot might look like an out-take. Which is fine; after all, that is their personality. But to get something really special from the photo shoot, I recommend using a portrait lens like a fast 50mm or using the "portrait" or "macro" setting on your point 'n' shoot. Using a portrait lens with a shallow depth of field can allow you to capture just a portion of their silly mugs, highlighting a feature that keeps enough of their ridiculousness in focus while also bringing out the endearing qualities of their personality.

Here, Shiva helps point out what I mean. Her lolling tongue and joyful face make it easy to shoot her silly side. But by isolating just her oh-so-kissable nose, we could pull out the sweetness that’s in her and create a portrait that is something more special than a snapshot.

disinterested dog

The disdainful/indifferent dog

There are those dogs that act more like cats than canids, giving attention to you only when they feel like it and acting above it all the rest of the time. Despite your best efforts, you can't get these dogs to look at you when you ask. You have to sit tight and have a few tricks up your sleeve. First, allow the dog some space to be indifferent — let them curl up where they choose or sniff at a bush in an effort to show they're ignoring you. Just watch their actions and wait for a moment or movement that expresses their real personality. You can speed this along by surprising them every so often, perhaps with an unexpected treat tossed toward them which might make them trot or look up expectantly for more. You can also turn yourself into a noise machine. Even the most disdainful of dogs will perk an ear and look at certain kissing noises or a squeal from the squeaker toy hidden in your pocket.

Posey, pictured here, wanted only two things: to sit in a sunny spot with his owner in view, and to have the rest of the world (including me) ignore her. So I used that to my advantage. We put her in a scenic and sunny space that illustrated her endearing side, and I had the owner stand behind me and off to the side. Then we simply took our time, letting Posey do as she wished until we got the right tilt of the head and loving glance at her owner — and voila! A portrait showing her as sweet as she is when she's comfortable at home.

mellow, attentive dog

The mellow/attentive dog

With a mellow dog, especially one that is trained, you can pretty much have a free-for-all on which lens you choose, your location, and how you interact. They typically don’t mind the camera or the person using it, and can be coaxed to pose as a photographer pleases. But to get the most from a shoot, find out what kind of mellow this dog is. Is he lazy-mellow? Happy-mellow? Bored-mellow? Attentive-mellow? Once you know what kind of mellow you’re dealing with, you can decide how to show off that great part of their personality. For example, with lazy- or bored-mellow, maybe you’ll want to grab your camera and flop on the ground with him to get a portrait from a low angle with their head resting on the hardwood floor as they snooze. With a happy-mellow, maybe you’ll want a nice wide angle to bring out the joy in their calm smiling face. With an attentive-mellow, maybe step back with your camera to get portraits of them posing in the distance with a shallow depth of field so their gaze is isolated from the scene around them.

Niner, pictured here, is my dog and he’s well versed in posing for the camera. He’s even trained that when he hears “focus” he looks at the camera until I give the release cue. He mostly falls under the category of attentive-mellow. With a dog like this, it helps to know what you want the portrait to be like before you begin, because he will often just follow your lead and stare at you while you click. You'll be waiting for a spontaneous move just as long as you'd have to wait with the indifferent dog personality.

playful dog

The playful/cuddly dog

The playful, cuddly dog is one that just wants you to pet and scratch him and tug on a stuffed toy. It can be hard to get enough distance between the two of you to get a photograph at all. The easiest thing to do with a dog like this is not fight that intense desire to be lovey. By using this to your advantage, getting on their level and in the same mood, you can get some wonderful portraits of your pet. Unlike with the hyper, energetic dog where getting in close could just set them off running and bouncing around and make getting a portrait a real challenge, getting close to a playful and cuddly dog will yield some sweetly intimate portraits of a big-hearted canine. You can try to capture him rolling over to have his belly rubbed, or lying next to (or chewing!) his favorite toy.

Macy, shown here, was not interested in a human standing there staring at her with a black box. She either wanted to be pet or played with. So I got down on the ground and tossed her toy for her, which she promptly grabbed and brought back, offering it to the camera for tug-o-war. The result was loads of photographs of her running around and back up to the camera with her toys dangling from her mouth, showing how happy-go-lucky and joyful she is. And who says you can't have a prop in a portrait!

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

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