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10 Tips for Photographing Your Dog from Rachael Hale McKenna

by Amy Azzarito

I am such a fan of the work of photographer Rachael Hale McKenna and of her two books  The French Cat and  The French Dog.  (You can read my gushing review of her first book here.) Rachael discovered her calling as an animal photographer when at 23 she won a photography competition in her native New Zealand. Her winning entry? A pig wearing a watch. In those days, Rachael did most of her animal photography in a studio. But she had a vision of shooting animals just “doing their thing”.  Her chance came when she moved to the South of France and cat were everywhere.  Lucky for us, Rachael brought her camera to New York and photographed dogs all over the city for her latest book The New York Dog. She has such a talent for capturing the both the individuality of the animal as well as their environment that we asked her to give us a few tips. (And I’m crossing my fingers for a New York Cat. I know two Russian Blues who would make great models.)  –Amy

(And if you’re hungry for more than just 10 tips, Rachael has 3-day at creativeLIVE in Seattle on March 27, 28, 29. The course streams for FREE and then after it airs you can listen anytime for $99.

All images from New York Dog by Rachael Hale

Design*Sponge: What’s a mistake that people often make when photographing dogs?
Rachael: People often rush to capture an image, the key behind any animal portrait is PATIENCE; wait for the perfect time to capture the image, connect with the animal you are photographing and make sure you never force them to do anything.

Design*Sponge: Do you have any tips for camera phone users?
Rachael: I LOVE using my iPhone to capture images when I am out and about, the endpapers for my latest book The New York Dog are actually created using a collection of images I captured on iPhone during our time in New York. When using your phone to capture images of your pets, if you what a great photo, it is still vital that you take your time. I know animals move fast and often it is not possible to capture the image, the action has happened, been and gone before you have even managed to get your phone out of your pocket or your bag! So be prepared; if you see that your dog is in a great setting or about to have a game of ball that will potentially give you an opportunity to get a wonderful image to post on Facebook or Instagram, get ready and anticipate the image before it is going to happen, this way when it does happen you will be ready to catch it. If I am out walking with dogs, I often run ahead knowing that they will charge to catch me up, I have captured some great images of dogs this way. (I captured one my iPhone the other day of a friends dog running to catch me up. Ed note: See the large image in the collage.)

Design*Sponge: How long should someone expect to spend to get a great animal shot?
Rachael: How long is a piece of string??? This really does depend on your patience, and the willingness and co operation of the animal. I have been known to go back to try and capture the perfect animal image 3 days running because the animal just was not willing to give me what I wanted. It is better to stop and try again another day than force the issue, you will never get what you want if the animal is not willing to participate, so don’t force it. Normally an animal will work willingly for half an hour to an hour, especially if you make it fun; give them plenty of breaks so they don’t get bored. I can remember creating an image for my book 101 Cataclysms of a kitten called Merlin wearing a little Wizard hat I had made for him, he would not wear the hat while he was awake so I thought I would place it on his head when he was sleeping, little did I know that it would take 7 hours of play time to finally get him to fall asleep; thankfully I have an abundance of patience and a lot of determination when I REALLY want that shot!

Get more tips after the jump!

Design*Sponge: What’s the best way to light an animal shot? (Best time of day?)
Rachael: I am a HUGE fan of natural light and use it in every available opportunity. So of course daylight is always needed for this! I do find animals are more relaxed in an environment that is more natural, and studio lights can sometimes make an animals eyes look startled, and not that natural. If I need to use studio lighting, I will always try to use it alongside natural light, so the natural light (ambient light) and the fill flash is balanced; the flash will just fill in the areas that may look too dark if you do not have enough natural light to work in. If you are wanting to create a ‘studio’ type of image with natural light using a background to isolate the animal from its environment, then anytime of the day is fine, you just need to find a place with great available light; for example a room with big windows, a deck or terrace with a diffused roof covering or shoot outside when the sun is behind a cloud. I try to avoid capturing images in bright sunlight, unless I am using it for an effect, as it can be too contrasty, making it a very harsh light. I much prefer a soft diffused light effect.

Design*Sponge: Is there an angle that you think works best for photographing dogs?
Rachael: A lot of people create images looking down at dogs, there is nothing wrong with this, it is actually the way we see our dogs most of the time as they walk along beside us; but I love to get down to the dog’s level to capture an image. I find this is much more eye-catching angle and really draws you into the character of the dog. There is no right or wrong way to photograph a dog, it depends on the photographers preference. Take into account your surroundings and what you are wanting to capture with your photograph. If you are in the mountains and want to show the scenery, maybe get your dog to stand up on a rock and get down below to photograph from an angle looking up, you will be able to see the background scenery a lot better using this angle than if you pointed your camera down at your dog. If you are in a setting that you are wanting to isolate the animal from the surroundings then this would be the perfect opportunity to photograph your dog from above. Try different angles, and see what works best for you.

Design*Sponge: When you do use a fancy camera what do you use? What is your favorite lens?
Rachael: From an early age I fell in love with Hasselblad cameras, my first camera was a 300 Series which I still have. I have stuck with Hasselblad since, the quality of medium format imagery is beautiful, I love that I can enlarge my images and feel like I can go in and touch the fur, the detail is so incredible. I now shoot with a Hasselblad H2 with a PhaseOne Digital back system which I adore. I shoot all my Professional work on my Hasselblad H2, but I was fortunate to be loaned an H4 system by Hasselblad UK to create the images for my latest book The New York Dog; I think I will have to upgrade my old system soon so the H5 will be on my wish list. I am about to get the opportunity to work with the H5 system for the first time while teaching my creativeLIVE workshop on the 27,28, 29th March, Hasselblad USA have agreed to supply me a camera for the workshop, very exciting. I normally create my images using a standard 80mm lens (the equivalent to a 50mm on a 35mm SLR camera) I find working with this lens allows me to work in close proximity with the animals, enabling me to interact better. For the type of imagery I create, whether it be for Book Publication, Product Licensing or Private Portrait commissions, working on the Medium Format Hasselblad allows me to supply top quality imagery, but I still have my iPhone handy to capture every day activities, the Hasselblad is a bit big to put in my pocket!

Design*Sponge: Does it help to have other people on hand or is that too distracting?
Rachael: This depends on the personality of the animal, sometimes it is not a problem to have the owner and my assistant(s) around while working with an animal, but animals are easily distracted, so in theory I try to work with as few people in the shoot area as possible. If I am working with a timid or easily distracted animal I might ask everyone to leave so I can work with the animal on its own; it really does depend on the situation, I tend to judge each shoot as it happens. When working with puppies or kittens it is important to have a few extra hands to help, I often work them up on a table to be able to get down to their level easier, so in these situations I always have someone either side of the table to stop anyone jumping off. While I am doing any shoot I insist on no one else making any noises while I am trying to interact with the animal, I need them to connect with me through the camera.

Design*Sponge: Is there a time of day that’s best for the dog?
Rachael: This also depends entirely on the personality of the dog or animal involved. I do find that dogs work best when they have had their exercise and have been feed, they will then be content. Most dogs will still be interested in a little treat if needed for persuasion but if they have been feed they hopefully won’t go manic for the treat, I actually try to avoid using treats if possible. Exercise is very important prior to the shoot, but do not totally exhaust the dog so they have no energy to sit for camera, judge the amount of exercise based on your dog, a high energy breed will need more exercise than a small ‘handbag’ type breed, but they all will need to go to the toilet so they are comfortable!

Design*Sponge: How can you take in account the personality of the dog and show that in the photo?
Rachael: I always like to meet my subjects prior to creating a portrait of them; this is vital for me if I am creating a more studio style image where I may use a prop created to enhance the image. The props I use can be influenced by the name or the personality of the animal I am photographing. I still like to meet my subjects before doing a location shoot with them if possible, but this is not quite as important; when we are out I am normally with the animal for a good period of time, so my understanding of their character and personality develops during the time we spend together. If I am photographing a more timid dog, I try to capture an expression that shows this side to their character. Whereas if the dog has a more happy go lucky personality, then an expression of joy is often a favorite to capture, a small smile with the tongue slightly showing; I do try to capture a few different expressions if possible so the client has a good choice of images to choose from.

Design*Sponge: Do you use instagram or VSCO cam? And if so, do you have a favorite filter?
Rachael: I do have an instagram account rachaelhalemckenna which I use often, I don’t do a lot to my images, but I am fond of some of the filters, Amaro, Hudson, X-Pro II and Sutro would be some of my favorites, and I do love the tear drop application that allows you to pin point the focus to a certain area within the image.


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