Holiday Photos. With Dogs.

I just did a photo shoot for a magazine cover with Willie (more on that later) and I was reminded while doing it how many pet dogs are going to be asked to participate in the GREAT HOLIDAY PHOTOGRAPHIC ADVENTURE. Except I don’t think dogs would use the word “adventure” if they could talk about it.  I thought this might be a good time for a bit of advice, based on my experiences. I’d love to hear about yours too.

1. First and foremost, remember that big round black lenses can be terrifying to shy or nervous dogs. They look exactly like big, round threatening eyes (the kind that dogs get right before they bite you), and are very, very scary to some dogs.

I was rudely reminded of this when a TV station rushed me and Willie into a side room for a “teaser shot” before we went into the main studio. We were completely prepared for the studio, but not to be rushed into another room in a panic and to have a cameraman thrust his huge hand-held TV camera, with its huge, round black lens, literally inches from Willie’s face. Willie was terrified, began to bark and try to hide behind me, while the photographer chased him around my legs and I attempted (unsuccessfully) to 1) stop the cameraman 2) soothe Willie and 3) appear cheerful and professional while on camera.  You can imagine how much fun this was.

If your dog has any shyness at all, ask the photographer to stay well away from your dog and use the zoom function if need be. Your dog will thank you for it. (Be careful with flashes too… they can scare some dogs as much as the lens.)

2. Dogs asked to Sit and Stay in the middle of family photos must think we have all lost our minds. First off, how many dogs have been taught to sit and stay in that situation? Very few… usually “sit” is when they are facing you, so just asking them to face the same way as you is confusing to them. If  you want shoulder to shoulder shots, then help your dog learn how to do it. Ask him to sit beside you (not facing), and give him a treat when he holds that pose for a half of a second. It’s even better to have someone pretending to take pictures. We did that on the photo shoot yesterday with Willie (I’m teaching him that as a cue: “Photo Shoot!”, meaning sit beside me and look at the camera!) and he was such a good boy. Of course, we used the usual “shake the treat bag over the photographer’s head” for the perfect shot, but it helped to have Willie thrilled to get into position, beside me on the couch.

3. Honor your dog. If Fluffy just really, really doesn’t want to be on a Sit-Stay beside  Ginger, maybe that’s cuz Ginger has been sending her dirty looks all day. Give the dogs some choice about where they are going to be positioned. It matters greatly to them; more than to you.

4. And the best advice? Drop the posed shot and go for casual snaps of life as it happens. Aren’t those the ones you cherish later anyway?

What’s your advice? Any amusing stories about pictures with dogs in any context? I am sure everyone would enjoy them as much as I will.

I said I’d get back to the photo shoot that Willie and I did yesterday: Here’s the bottom line. Madison Magazine is doing a feature on me for their February issue, including a cover of me and Willie on the front. That is so kind of them and I am truly grateful. And if only there was a way to get that done without, oh, actually having to do it. Photo shoots sound so cool, but in reality are simply miserable to someone like me. That’s not because of the staff, at least in this case the art director and stylists were exceptionally nice, and have my undying appreciation for understanding about Willie. We talked about what Willie needed beforehand and the art director and photographer were fantastic: they put the camera far away (we ended up moving it much closer because all was going so well) and they gave me lots of time to get Willie acclimated. Overall, I’d say Willie had the time of this life, and I suspect it’s hard to believe he’s ever been anything but a perfect dog. Yeah, just what we wanted!

So Willie was the great part, he had a great time, and did virtually everything I asked him to do instantly and did it perfectly (did I mention how proud of him I was?). The hard part for me is that everyone has a vision of what the cover will be: the art director has colors and background picked out, the stylist needs your hair to be smooth and not frizzy so she looks like she knows what she’s doing, the style coordinator wants you to dress with at least a modicum of fashion and to match the vision of the art director. And you? Well, you want to look like YOU (but of course, your best possible version. Okay, maybe even a little better than usual? But still you, if you know what I mean.).  So you go in and they have clothes they want you to wear (did I actually blurt out “I’d rather be dead that put that on?” Yup, I guess I did.), someone you’ve never known does your hair and make up and you just never end up feeling like, well, yourself. So heaven only knows what the cover will look like. All I can say is that all the folks I worked with yesterday were truly kind and considerate, and tried hard to make me comfortable while still getting what they wanted.

This afternoon they come to the farm for photos for the article, inside the magazine. Ah, so much easier for me! It’ll be my fly-away hair and my very unfashionable clothes and Willie and the lambs… but holy moly, now I need to clean up the house! Oh well, too late!

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: 4 more inches of snow yesterday, and then freezing drizzle that coated the snow with a layer of ice. Poor Willie’s paws got so tired up the hill that he stopped asking to fetch his stick and just lay down. Wish I could put snow shoes on him (but if it keeps up I’ll get him boots). I’m still trying to adapt to the winter… not successful so far. We took more pictures of the lambs but they were terrible, but I’ll keep trying.  Right now the yard light is out (making walking down the icy hill to the barn an adventure), my internet doesn’t work at the farm, my television doesn’t work, my LP fireplace doesn’t work and neither does my printer. Ah life.

I’ve decided to cheer myself up with some flowers from New Zealand. I hope they make you smile too!

Boy do roses love NZ, and do Kiwis love roses!

Look at the pollen sacs on this loaded down bee!


  1. says

    I am so glad you included this post about photographing pets. I take TONS of pictures of my dog much to his chagrin. He usually just wants me to put the camera down and play with him. The roses are lovely, too!

  2. Alexandra W says

    When I first got Romeo, he hated cameras, and would run away from them. I have a few pictures of him from when I first got him, and then almost none for a long stretch of time.

    Recently I went on a long walk at my favorite park, and I took a whole roll of film’s worth of pictures, because I’m going away for five months and want lots of pictures of my dog to look at. And Romeo didn’t freak out at the camera at all! Part of that’s probably because he’s become more confident in general since when I first adopted him, but part of it is that the “click” sound the disposable camera made sounded a bit like his clicker… and he knew he’d get hot-dog if he sat still for a moment or two!

  3. Kat says

    In general Ranger doesn’t mind being photographed and is pretty willing and cooperative but that’s when he’s not being asked to pose with a group of dogs. Our therapy dog group wanted some group shots for publicity purposes and the light was failing so everyone was in a hurry. Amidst all the chaos Ranger objected to the strange lady who suddenly swooped at him with a bandanna between her hands and tried to tie it around his neck. I took the bandanna and gave him a moment to see what it was and even let him bite it a time or two to release some stress. Once all the dogs were ready (I should mention was that this was after the launch event where the dogs got to sit around in the hot sun while people made speeches) they wanted all the dogs to gather by a large fairly low rock. A couple of small dogs got onto the rock and the plan was to have Ranger and another dog with their paws up on the rock one on either side. One of the rules for Therapy dogs is that when they’re dressed for work they aren’t supposed to interact so we’re not letting the dogs visit. Ranger took one look at the set up and flatly refused. I stopped and looked at it through his eyes and realized we were being stupid. Ranger has met one or two of the other dogs in a concept outside his job but not either of the two little ones. He wasn’t going to intrude on their space without knowing them that would be rude beyond rude. In the final photo I’m standing next to the rock and Ranger is sitting politely by my side the dog on the other side has his paws on the rock and is leaning as far away as he can and all the other dogs are arrayed however they could be gotten into the photo. And these were all calm, cooperative, confident and willing dogs. I can’t even imagine trying to do a group photo with shy or nervous dogs.

    Gorgeous photos by the way. The roses especially are stunning.

  4. Wendy Wright says

    While getting my ever-tentative Hope ready for her first flyball tournament, I painted quarter-inch thick plywood circles of various diameters with glossy black spray paint (cardboard would have worked just as well). I then used them as targets, rewarding touches with a click and treat. Within about two minutes, Hope decided that shiny black circles were fabulous. The exercise didn

  5. says

    Winter. We are warmish to cold with wind here in southeast MO but not below 0 by any means. Even so, the propane guy was in the area, brought me up to 40% even though I didn’t ask for any (am really trying to simply use my heaters) and wished me a “Merry Christmas.” Yes, very nice people out there doing not always glamorous jobs. Look forward to seeing the layout with you and Willie.

  6. says

    My most important thing to remember when having people take pictures is to very explicitly explain what I want from the pictures to the photographer. This usually results in me getting to the point of feeling bossy, but it’s a total waste if I don’t do it. I have seen even dog show photographers who don’t seem to understand that a Samoyed looks best photographed with an open mouth so you can see their “smile”. I often have to explain that I want a photographer to snap the photo the second I get my dogs’ ears up or that in some pictures I don’t want the dog to be looking at the camera.

    I must agree with the notion that in the end, posed photos don’t hold a candle to good candids.

  7. says

    When we adopted Maggie, a former stray, she was terrified of anything hand held — a flashlight, a remote, and yes, a camera. Nine years later, she loves getting her picture taken. I can flash her, I can pose her, I can cajole expressions from her … all because I long ago paired pointing the camera at her with (her doing) tricks and treats. She sees the camera and she gets excited. She tries to position herself in front of it for a piece of the action … even if, on that rare occasion, I am actually trying to photograph someone else.

  8. Marcy says

    My first dog was a GSD that loved to have her picture taken. Every year when we went to the local humane society to get her picture taken with Santa, she’d pose as if she was a model. When I got my Samoyed and I took her in for her picture with Santa, she was about 4 months old and was terrified of the guy with the fake beard. The photographer who had a real beard was fine, she wasn’t afraid of anything but Santa. I finally convinced St. Nick to take off his beard to meet her. Then she allowed him to pick her up for the picture (but she still wasn’t happy).
    I no longer go for pictures with Santa. My current pack of dogs are all shy. I’ve worked very hard with them and the newest member just earned his RN. I hope someday for him to get over his fear of men. In the meantime we’ll keep working on it.
    Thanks for much for the post on holiday photos.

  9. em says

    Otis is the first dog I’ve ever had who is good about photos…hammy even. I thought that it had to do with the new smaller and quieter digital cameras everyone has these days, especially because the advent of the flip-out viewscreen means that I seldom hold the camera up to my face anymore, but a professional photographer from the newspaper came to take pictures of the dogs at the park (tripod, huge lens, the works) and there he was, Otis von Hambone, front and center, mugging for the shot. The photographer was really great (clearly a man who understood dogs), taking his shots from far away, as unobtrusively as possible (it helped that he was snapping candids, not posed photos), staying calm and relaxed when the dogs approached. It made the experience very stress free. Despite the presence of more than thirty dogs, all very social but with varying levels of confidence, not one reacted to this strange man with his strange equipment in a negative way.

    Of course, this was a pretty ideal situation for low-stress dog photos. The dogs were outside, unconfined and unleashed in neutral territory. The dogs were in a freely interacting group of dogs and humans in which most of them knew and were comfortable with one another. The pictures weren’t posed, so the dogs didn’t have the stress of having to assume positions that were uncomfortable or follow directions that were unusual or confusing. The photographer didn’t make any effort to get their attention, direct, or control them in any way, so they were free to deal with his presence by avoiding or ignoring him, rather than reacting.

    Even in this setting, bolstered by the security of the social group, reassured by the freedom to move away if they wanted, and despite the fact that no one in the group showed concern or distress while crossing the field toward the photographer, Otis was the only dog out of thirty who was comfortable enough to approach all the way, sniffing delicately at the camera and sucking up to the photographer. The rest, friendly, outgoing dogs all, veered away at the last moment, maintaining a ten foot ‘safety bubble’ around the big-eye-thing. Weirdo.

    It does fit with a general quirk that I’ve noticed about Otis, though. He is particularly sensitve to and aware of the presence of humans around potentially scary objects. If a park maintenance worker is out mowing with a gigantic, noisy tractor, Otis could care less. If two guys are standing in the back of a beer truck, banging on the metal doors and walls as they run dollies full of clinking bottles into a restaurant, he is totally unconcerned. If a construction worker is standing beside a backhoe ripping up the pavement, he is not more than passingly interested. Lawnmowing tractor parked in the field by itself? MONSTER! BARK! BARK! Empty boat trailer rattles over a pothole? Jumps out of his skin. He very rarely reacts to anything, but unattended and out of place objects bug the heck out of him. High winds on trash day? It’s a mine field.

    Human controlled phenomena don’t bother him at all, but if that camera had been by itself on the edge of his familiar play field, he’d have freaked. (Well, for Otis, anyway…he’d likely have barked at it, danced nervously up to it if encouraged, sniffed it, and lost interest. For him, that’s a freakout.)

  10. em says

    Sorry to add to the already long and involved post, but I forgot my best example. Otis, same dog who growled fiercely at an errant trash can, once had to walk through a field in which several people were inflating a full-sized, around-the-world-in-eighty-days hot air balloon. Fire flaring, propane (or whatever it is they burn) popping, thirty yards of partially hot air-filled nylon billowing. I braced myself for a reaction (I know that I should expect the best, lest I communicate my worry, but come on, a hot air balloon?)

    Otis’s response? Zip. Strolled right past it, not a care in the world. I was (am!) flabbergasted. I stared at him. He looked back at me as if to say, “Yeah, I see it. Those guys seem to have it under control. What’s YOUR problem?”

  11. says

    Our dog, Dahlia, loves the camera. Once when we were walking by a guy taking photos in the park with his big fancy camera, she stopped and sat directly in front of him like “I’m ready for my cameo!” It’s a good thing she loves the camera so much because I love taking her picture!

    We’ve worked on getting her to sit and lay down facing us and next to us and so she poses great for photos (plus you can always get he adorable head tilt with the phrase “Dahlia tell me something…”). But you’re right, nothing beats candid photos! She looks best when she’s doing regular dog things and is captured while doing it.

  12. Frances says

    I think my two must also be naturals! They are used to relaxed, family snapshots, and my nephew is a keen photographer with an impressive professional camera, but I was still surprised at how relaxed they were at a recent professional photography session held in aid of our local rescue centre. They sat, laid down, looked at me, looked at the camera, posed alone and together – until I was asked half seriously if they were professionals! It helped that the venue was their familiar training hall, but the lights and reflectors were completely new to them, and didn’t seem to bother them in the least. I love candid shots, but these really are rather special – the photographer managed to capture their expressions in a way I never could. One in particular of Sophy gazing soulfully out past the camera, head slightly on one side, pondering the wonders of the world, is a real heart melter (she was actually trying to see whether I had just taken chicken or liver cake out of my pocket – every super models expects to be paid!)

  13. s says

    When I did my Christmas Card this year, I realized I don’t have any good pics of the dogs together and I didn’t have room for 2 separate shots along with the pics of the kids, so next year, I’m going to have to work on that! I don’t take “holiday” pics for my card – I just use random shots from the year and do a collage type card. less stress on all! But, I definitely need to work on getting more candid shots of the dogs playing or sitting or snoozing together…

  14. D says

    One tidbit I always remember from a photography class I took in college: always try to be at eye level with your subject, or even below eye level. It makes the photo “feel” like the subject is important. When you think of it, even our language gives clues – to say we “look down on” something/someone, means we hold it in some disdain. Yet if we “look up to” someone/something, it means we respect them.

    The fantastic photo your sitters took of Willie in the snow is a great example – the perspective is wonderful, like the viewer is having an eye-to-eye conversation with a very happy dog.

    Of course, some photos looking down at a pet are downright adorable, but overall I think most photos at eye level look best.

  15. Laura Anne Welch says

    About twenty years ago, I decided that it would be a good idea to take our year old Keeshond, Missy, to have her picture taken with Santa. We walked into the pet store and Missy, our “Valley Girl” went into a frenzy of party attitude, tail wagging, pulling towards everyone, knocking over displays, not a good thing. Decided to pull her out of the store, walk around a little bit to calm her down and try again. Same overexcited dog once we returned to the store. So, I thought it would work to keep her in a corner of the store and have her watch, then bring her up at the end of the photo time.

    After about 45 minutes, the line was way down and we went to the end to move up to Santa. She was calmer, but not a lot. We moved up to Santa and he greeted Missy nicely, let her sniff, etc. Then, I tried to get her to sit with Santa. She wouldn’t stay still at all. Santa decided to put his arm around her, and Missy reacted by kissing his face all over, knocking into him. We did get a picture. It is of Santa holding onto Missy, his hat knocked to one side, his smile a gritted-toothed, stressed grin, Missy a panting dog with her tongue hanging out of the side of her mouth,

    Now, after learning much more about dogs, I do wonder if Missy’s “playful” reaction was really stress. The picture is hysterical, but I don’t laugh quite so much when viewing it. Does make a good story, though!

  16. Crystal says

    I don’t take pictures of me and the dog, because it’s just the two of us, but I did take this one of just the dog–
    Proof that my boy will do anything for a cookie! First I let him look at the Santa hat, play with it a little, get used to it. He wasn’t really sure what I wanted and he was confused, so I got pictures like this ( Then I put him in a sit-stay in front of a tree. I took a lot of simple posed shots first (which were very cute too! using treats to keep his attention and so he would understand what I wanted him to do. On a whim I decided to try to balance the Santa hat on his head. It took a few tries, but he didn’t really mind, he just wanted his cookies. I couldn’t wait too long or he would start to drool, which doesn’t really make for a charming Christmas portrait. Patience and a willing dog and I have the cutest Christmas picture I’ve ever taken!

  17. Ellen Pepin says

    Last year I wanted to get some pictures of Joe, the dogs, and me in front of the Christmas tree. It was our first Christmas with our newest dog, an adopted, beautiful, white collie. First I tried to get Joe and the two dogs. Every time I tried, Tess would turn around and face Joe. I got some great pictures of her rear end. After a few tries, our other dog, Dakota, started to do the same thing. It was so frustrating to Tess and me that I just gave up. I did just what you suggested, Trisha, and took pictures of the dogs doing their normal things.

    This year, Tess is so much more comfortable with us, but I haven’t decided whether to try a posed picture. Every time I look at the pictures of her rear end, I have to laugh.

  18. says

    In the world of digital photography, I just lean to taking many, many photographs and then editing the best ones later as opposed to trying to set up pictures. Often, the best pictures I ever get were the ones I was never trying for in the first place.

  19. Angel says

    We took Bear to get his picture taken with Santa last year, and I think it was fine. I say I think because I know a lot more now than I did then, so maybe I just didn’t see it. The picture was taken at our vet’s office (was not our vet at the time, so no negative associations there). The picture was simple, just Santa sitting in a chair and Bear sat next to him.

    So I thought this year would be easy. Stupid human, laughs. The situation was totally different. It was at a open house held at a local dog training facility, so lots of people and other dogs around. The pictures were taken in the back room. The photographer is our trainer, so someone he’s knows and loves. The Santa was new to him and new to posing as Santa with dogs, so unsure of himself and what to do. Bear was so stressed. He has a great sit/stay, but did not want to stay next to Santa for anything. He was panting, lip licking, and yawning. My poor guy. I just wanted to get him out of there.

    “Please, Mom, can we go now?”

    This one just cracks me up!

    And we did get a pretty good one.

    Cute picture, but not worth the stress. Maybe next year I will just take his picture in front of our tree.

  20. AnneJ says

    No big holiday picture adventures here, but I did take a few shots of my 6 month old puppy in her favorite chair with some Christmas decorations. She’s kind of a ham for the camera, plus she got treats, so she thought it was great, although I did have to tell her not to eat the ornaments.

    Tessa’s first Christmas:

  21. Debby says

    This makes me think about my visit to Wolf Park this past summer. One of the pupppies decided that the videographer and his new camera were too scary for her. He went back to using his old camera temporarly and she has since become his “friend”. He had to slowly get her used to it, and of course win her over with lots of treats. She was the shyest of the litter. I couldn’t tell the difference, but obviously she saw something I didn’t.

  22. says

    My GSD, Axel, is the inspiration for my dog photography business/obsession and through some classes and a monumental amount of trial-and-error, I have a handful of tips:

    Never, ever scold or yell at your dog during a photo shoot. It’s confusing enough for them without them thinking they’re getting something wrong. (I know I don’t need to say this on this forum, but I’m going to anyway).

    Go outside where there’s plenty of light and turn your flash off.
    Set the camera on its “sports” setting if it has one (this will blur out the background which will help your dog stand out in the image and stop the action).
    Arrange things so that your dog isn’t close to the background (will also help blur out the background).
    Get down at your dog’s eye level. (This is a good idea for shooting kids too.) Lay down on the ground if you have to and if you don’t laugh too hard when he crawls all over you and licks you then he’ll lose interest in you and go do something else that you can shoot. An assistant can be really helpful here with toys and treats. (Sometimes I have to wait 10 or 15 minutes for a dog to stop licking me and trying to engage me and I’m sure my laughing doesn’t help, but who cares, it’s big fun and I know the dog will be more relaxed and will be more likely to act like himself which is always the goal. )
    Take lots and lots of shots. Like hundreds. I generally shoot about 600 in a 2 hour session.
    If your dog is black shoot him with the sun right in his face. Dogs don’t squint like people do.
    Snow is great for reflecting light back into a dog’s face and can be really helpful in shooting a black dog.
    Try to avoid midday if it’s bright and sunny out. If you have to shoot midday, then shoot in all shade. Look for a spot that doesn’t have bright light in the background and avoid dappled sun.
    Last, but definitely not least, be patient. It’s an unusual situation for your dog and the more relaxed you are, the more relaxed she’ll be. It’s like training. If you’re frustrated, stop and try again another time.
    And if your dog has heard it all and doesn’t look even your way for a even a squeaky toy, try a duck call, kazoo, or a rubber chicken but be ready because it’ll only be novel the first couple of times. This is especially useful if you’re going for a group shot and you want everyone’s attention at once.

    Happy Shooting and Happy New Year!

  23. says

    I never thought of the lens being scary & looking like a giant eye, great point! I love taking pictures of my dogs, so they are pretty used to the camera and know it goes hand in hand with some treats. People always ask me HOW I get the whole pack to sit together, and it’s really not that hard. Each of my dogs know their ‘sit’ & ‘stay’ very well, and I think that is the key to getting a good, posed picture.
    Here are some shots of my gang:

  24. Laura says

    I take lots of pictures of my dogs (and cats). I was inspired by the photo of Willie in the snow taken by the dogsitter to go buy myself a digital SLR for Christmas. My dogs are used to and fine with me taking tons of pics with my little point and shoot and it doesn’t bother them at all. This other deal is a totally different story. The DSLR is big, it makes noise and it is covering my face instead of just being held in front of me. It has a live view display screen but it is slower. As soon as I saw my dogs’ unease I went and got the treats so they will associate it with something good. It helped a lot and I’m sure it will continue to improve as they get used to it.

    Thanks for the wonderful pics of Willie and others including the flowers, birds and landscapes. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the money on the expensive camera right now and I just kept thinking of that photo. On of my dogs is 11 and I won’t be able to get the Frisbee shots for too much longer. I also have a kitten and we won’t be a kitten long.

    I don’t think it is possible for a person to have too many (or enough) pictures of their dogs (and cats).

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