Tuesday, August 6, 2019


We’ve been doing portraits, here at The Storytellers in Meridian, Idaho, of people with their pets for over 30 years. In this blog I’ll share the most important rules and tips for the best outcome in your photo session. Most of these rules and tips apply to general portraiture of people without their pets as well.

Rule #1 - Do whatever it takes to be at your subject’s level.
  • I want may camera at my subject's eye level. So, if a family is seated on the grass I’ll have my tripod set low so that I’m on my knees.
  • If I’m photographing someone mounted on their horse then I’m on a 6 foot ladder.
  • Always bring squeaker toys on sessions; these work for pets and people as well!
  • Have different types or sizes of speakers toys that make different sounds because the animal will tire of the same sound and not respond after its novelty wears off.
NOTE: On one session after 10 minutes of trying different squeakers with no response from their dog the owner finally informed us that their dog was deaf! There’s a lesson learned in the planning for a portrait session.

  • Have dog treats on hand to reward good behavior. I wish this concept would work with people, but they’re way too finicky!
The impact of being at eye level….
f5.6 @ 1/100 sec., ISO 800; Lens @ 200mm
Here we have the girl on one of our posing rocks, so I’m on my knees. Their eyes are on the same plane so depth of field is fine @ f5.6.

This brings up Rule #2:
  • Never have your lens wide-open in portraits. Why? It’s simply not necessary.. As you can see in the above image even at f5.6 the background is nicely out of focus and the dog is sharp from his nose to his ears.
  • Besides, most lenses are not at their sharpest when wide open.
And Rule #3:
  • Always focus on the eyes.
Plus Rule #3A:
  • In group portraits always focus on the eyes of the person nearest to the camera.  
Here’s a typical seated family portrait with their dog…
 f6.3 @ 1/60 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 125mm
I’ve placed them near the peak of a grassy hill and I backed down the hill until the parents’ heads were against that light spot in the background. This put me on my knees at about the dog’s eye level, which was fine for the group as a whole.

The walking portrait with their dogs….

f7.1 @ 1/250 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 200mm
Because this is a portrait of the owners walking their dogs I’m standing for this one with my camera at the eye level of the people.

Portraits of just the dogs on leash…
Before Retouching
Rule #4:
  • Have the owners hold the dog’s leads straight-up over their dog’s heads—not laying across the dog’s bodies when you are not able to remove the leads. This makes the art work easier when removing the leads in Photoshop.
After Artwork
Then there’s really getting low…

f4.0 @ 1/800 sec., Iso 800; Lens @ 200mm
For this point of view I had to be on my stomach. It always seems that wether I’m doing baby humans or puppies (this was our baby Gadget when she was 16 weeks old) I’m on the ground and on my stomach!
  • Rule #5:
  • I use the most telephoto I can within my environment. 
You’ll notice that all of these portraits were done with my zoom lens in some telephoto range; usually at 200mm. That’s because a telephoto’s compression distortion ALWAYS looks better on my subjects than the wide angle distortion (called extension distortion) caused by a short focal length lens. In addition I always get better Bokeh in my backgrounds, with longer focal lengths, even with small apertures.

As always, if you have questions please don’t hesitate to ask…’Til next week…

Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman

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