It's my pleasure to welcome professional photographer and writer Helen Peppe, who is blogging today about photographing dogs, especially shelter dogs, although her tips will be helpful for pets as well. Janet MacPhail, the protagonist in my new Animals in Focus mystery series, is an animal and nature photographer, so when I met Helen last summer, I felt I was meeting my own character! Janet is not Helen, of course, but Helen has been a terrific resource to keep me accurate as I write the second book in the series. And now to Helen's tips and enchanting photos. ~ Sheila
Good Dogs, Good Pictures
Photographing Dogs Solo
by Helen Peppe
People often complain to me, via comments beneath my own posted images or right to my face, “I don’t have an assistant like you have, so what can I do to get my dog to act natural?” The assumptions surrounding my job as a professional animal photographer are hilarious for how insulting they are, the most common being that owning an expensive camera is my primary skill. But one truth is that with a little bit of patience and a little bit of common sense, the average person can take an above average picture of her dog without an assistant. Having photographed my own four dogs by myself ad nauseum, I can say with complete confidence that other people’s dogs are considerably more difficult because the dogs’ owners often impart their frustrations to my subjects, who respond by either going off the canine deep end or crumpling into a submissive pose. Hunched dogs, their ears plastered tight to their heads and their eyes averted, make for poor pictures.
Several times a month I donate my time to local rescues to photograph homeless dogs. Rescues are often the most challenging to photograph solo because they lack training vocabulary—sit, down, off—and are desperate for attention, an undesirable combination. I am alone but for my whistles, Audobon bird songs on my iPhone, squeak toys, laundered tennis balls, and a leash. I do not bring treats. First, I don’t want the dog near me but away from me. Second, I want to avoid bubbling saliva and long loops of drool. Third, I don’t want begging. At one facility, I am allotted about fifteen minutes per dog as the yards must be available for regular boarders. This deadline could ruin my shoot, but I never allow myself to think negatively in the presence of dogs because their ability to read my mind is unfathomable.
The kennel worker will lead me to a row of pens whose occupants are either barking territorially at the wire doors or cowering quietly in the corners, a puddle of urine darkening the cement beneath their haunches. The worker will direct me to an outside enclosure and then leave. There are no offers of help, no explanations of which dog I might not want to kneel face to face with, no, “Let me get you a leash.” My one objective is to shoot three heart-tugging pictures that capture the dog’s size and his need to receive and give love. When I return the animal to the pen, I might see the kennel worker again, and she might ask if the dog moved its bowels and question me on the stool’s consistency, and I will feel inclined to withhold what I’ve learned in my fifteen minutes.
When I open the metal door that runs from floor to ceiling, I can hear my mother’s voice ring clear from my past, “Don’t you have any sense at all? You’re just asking to get bitten or worse.” Back then I wondered what “worse” was and didn’t understand why sense, common or otherwise, didn’t include loving animals. But I have no time to reflect on the echoes of my mother’s advice. The seconds are moving, and I must connect emotionally with the dog so that I get my three perfect pictures in fifteen minutes. I clip on my leash, exclaiming, “What a good dog, yes you are,” because I know everyone loves to be called good. And then I ask, “Want to go for a walk?” and the dog almost never answers no.
Once outside, I note where the sun is, preferring to keep it at my back—I use a flash for shaded areas—unhook the leash, sometimes the collar if it’s frayed or dirty, and sit down, all the while talking quietly as if we’re old friends, and then I wait for the dog to do what I may or may not tell the kennel worker before I leave. Post-business, I reserve several minutes for pats, eye-cleanup, and an intro to my camera, marveling as I always do about a dog’s willingness to want to please me and wish my children felt the same. Five minutes of my fifteen have passed, and I apologize to my subject for the need to hurry. If the dog is a mixture of any breed that adores retrieving, I throw one of my tennis balls and then kneel on the ground in my waterproof wind pants and focus on the dog’s head, not releasing the shutter until the dog is front-first on its way back to me, not rear-last on its way from me. Similarly to swinging spit, I am on the watch for dogs’ anuses because no one, except possibly children, wants a picture of a dog’s butt. I’m always surprised when people show me just such a picture and wait for my praise of their dog’s cuteness.
If my subject is not the retriever type, I run, and dogs being the saps they are for love and prey, chase me. I began my photographic career as a horse photographer and long ago mastered the art of running fast backward while rapidly focusing. Sometimes, however, if it’s hot, the dog might not want to run, and I won’t want a long-tongued picture. In these instances, I wait for the dog to stand, sit, or lie down and then I hoot like a chimpanzee, meow, purr, trill, squeak a toy, or play bird songs on my iPhone. All sounds work for only a few seconds because dogs adapt quickly to their environment. Never do I say a dog’s name because I want the dog to stay. This simple rule is one almost all owners who help me fail at. Repeatedly. Because of the come-here potential of sounds, the whistle and name calling work with only a few breeds, such as the small terrier sort, who pride themselves on keeping away. For the shy type, patience is my only tool. I don’t try to get close as a dog’s eyes and body position tell a story, and I don’t want his to be either I’m-a-worrier or I’m-a-warrior.
As I write this, I am scheduled to photograph seven rescue puppies in need of pictures. I don’t know anything about these animals, but I will know enough five minutes after meeting them to get the three shots they need to find a good home. If anyone wants to take an above average picture of a dog that friends will ooh and aw at, that person must relax and hang out, throw toys, and learn how to make head-turning sounds. This person should try to keep the sun at her back or use fill-flash for shade, not be afraid to fill the frame, and experiment with natural light and angles. Some dogs are intimidated by the camera, but time resolves all conflicts. Behave with confidence and compassion, leave the treats and stress behind, and dogs will behave naturally without an assistant, which will result in pictures that will be treasured long after the dogs are gone.
Helen Peppe is a writer and photographer. Although primarily a photographer of horses and dogs, she photographs all animals and sometimes, if they have pets, even photographs people. Her short stories, poems, articles, and photographs have appeared in numerous equine books, fiction anthologies, textbooks, and magazines, including Dressage Today, Equus, Practical Horseman, Dog Fancy, Dog World, and Cats Magazine. Author of Pigs Can’t Swim, The Maine Stable Guide, History of the State Theater, and former editor of the Eastern Equerry and Wordplay Magazine, Helen's writing and photographs have won awards and recognition, including finaling for the 2011 Annie Dillard Award. She lives in Maine with her family, four dogs, eight rescued rabbits, three cats, and four guinea pigs.