Pet Photography Project 52, Week 48: Tips for Capturing Emotion in Dog Photography

William Eugene Smith posed the question, “What use is having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling?”

Emotion is essential for an effective photograph. I’d even go as far as to argue that it is the most important thing. How many photos do you have printed that, despite their blurriness and poor exposure, you absolutely love for the memories made in beautiful places with the special people, and of course, the incredible four-legged fur faces in them?  That is what you will remember, not the imperfect composition or the off-the-wall white balance, and that is what you should aim to capture.

Because week 48’s theme of the Pet Photography Project 52 blog circle is emotion, I’m sharing my two favorite ways of captuing emotion in dog photography.

1. Capture those candid moments.

When people are actively engaged with their dogs, they tend to let their guard down easier, which allows their purest emotions and genuine feelings to shine through. There is a certain comfort that comes with the companionship of a pet, particularly in a person’s body language, personality, and facial expressions. All of these elements work together to enhance the story of an image.

To achieve candid images between pets and their people, I will often ask my clients to love on their dog or play with them as they normally would. Giving belly rubs or chin scratches, planting a kiss on their dog’s forehead, or embracing them in a gentle hug are natural movements and activities that pet parents are familiar and comfortable with. They don’t have to put much thought into how they look doing so, which results in heartfelt emotions and spontaneous expressions, whether they be joyful, silly, exciting, or sentimental.

This image of Christy and her fourteen-year-old English Labrador George is one of my favorites from his Rainbow Session, photographed this past October. Initially, I wasn’t even sure I was going to deliver this as a part of Christy’s gallery, but I absolutely love the tenderness and vulnerability shared between the two of them. Christy, who didn’t even know I took this, is gently treating George to a snack prior to the start of his session. The result is this sweet reflection of compassion, its warmth enhanced by the golden hour sun flare over Christy’s shoulder.

english labrador kisses owner's hand at a rainbow session in south park

2. Consider the impact of color (or lack thereof).

Color, or lack thereof, can also affect the emotional impact of an image. I typically don’t include a lot of black and white images in my client’s galleries unless requested, but sometimes an image just calls for it, like this one of Nicole and her childhood dog Colby. Colby was another Rainbow Session I photographed this fall. When his mom Christine contacted me, she emphasized how important it was for her to have pictures of him in memory and with her kids. I adore the content expression on Colby’s face as he’s loved on and caressed by Christine’s daughter whose love for this 11-year-old goldendoodle is unconditional. I chose to convert this image to black and white to add to the innocence and tranquil reassurance of this moment.

goldendoodle receives pets and love by the lake near the north park boathouse

Black and white photography is one of the easiest ways to minimize distractions within an image and achieve a minimalist look that emphasizes the focus of the emotions and relationships of its subjects. Our eyes are not pulled a variety of directions by vivid colors and contrasts; rather, they are drawn in deeper with a stripped down simplicity that allows us to truly see the compelling connections of its story.

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, one of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, explains that “joy comes to us in ordinary moments.” She cautions that many of us often miss out on these moments because we get too caught up in chasing down the extraordinary.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I am not advocating settling for less-than-stellar photographs. What I’m simply encouraging is for you to embrace the ordinary, the gift of being able to look back on these times and remember the warmth of your fur baby pressed against you as you snuggle on the couch or the motion blur of a wiggle-bottom’s wagging tail, for example. For it is in those moments where you will find your joy.

And with that I say happy December! This month I am wrapping up the final 31 days of a personal project in which I take a photo-a-day. New Year’s Day will kick off the start of my fourth year of it, with many of my photos inspired by the prompts from Capture Your 365. First, however, I’ve got to power through December. After writing this post, I’m thinking I’m going to make it an entirely black and white month. During the holiday season, it’s so easy to turn my lens to the razzle-dazzle of Christmas lights, the glitz and vibrancy of beloved ornaments, and colorful Christmas cookie creations, so I imagine it’s going to be an interesting challenge to eliminate colors of the season.

Tell me: are you interested in following  my photo-a-day project on my blog as well? I’m considering doing a post at the end of each month featuring all of my daily images for that particular month. I do share most of them on my personal Instagram account, so you can always follow along there, but I think it’d be a fun new addition for the coming year. Maybe I’ll even start with December’s!


The Pet Photography Project 52 posts are part of a blog circle. To see what the next pawesome pet photographer is sharing for the weekly theme, “Emotion,” start with Rochelle from Dark Sapphire Pet Photography, Nelson, New Zealand. Continue to click the link at the end of each post in the blog circle and you’ll eventually find your way back here.

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4 thoughts on “Pet Photography Project 52, Week 48: Tips for Capturing Emotion in Dog Photography

  1. These are wonderful. I love George. This photo that you posted of him makes me love him (and yes I am a Lab person.) Colby looks adorable too – I love how happy they both look in this photo.

    1. Thanks, Kim! I am a total Lab-lover too! I think once you’ve owned one, you’re forever in love. Ours is only half-Lab, but he is truly something special.

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