Award-Winning Studio Dog Portrait

This portrait of Rufus, our studio dog, won ‘Dog Portrait of the Year’ at the 2018 Master Photographers Association Awards. Here’s how we created it.

It’s always lovely to win an award. It’s extra nice to win one for a personal portrait. This shot was taken for Sarah, my wife, as a birthday present. Sarah loves Rufus (a slightly errant working cocker spaniel) possibly more than she loves the rest of us, so I knew she’d be delighted with a beautiful portrait of him. One day, while she was out, my son, Jake, and I, spent a happy hour desperately trying to persuade Rufus to sit still and look at the camera.

I don’t think we took more than three images and this was by far the strongest. Still, you only need one – a beautiful framed print of this shot hangs on our living room wall. We might need to get a copy for the studio as well, now it’s an award winner!

Setting up the shot

I’ve used three lights in this set up. My main light (the ‘key light’) is a softbox, which is positioned above and slightly to the right as you look at the image. Study the catchlights in Rufus’ eyes and you’ll see the pointed edges of the bottom of the softbox reflected back.

I used a dark grey paper background, slightly lighter in tone than Rufus’ fur. However, without any light falling on it, the paper looks almost black in tone, and the dark outline of the dog would merge into it without any separation.

To remedy this, I’ve used two big strip boxes (long, thin soft boxes) which are pointing slightly back towards the camera. I’ve turned these to a low power setting, so they produce a really subtle rim light, giving just the slightest hint of outline to Rufus’ shape. Now, the dark background has stayed in the shadows, but we can still see the edges of Rufus’ fur against it.

Achieving eye contact

The shot has impact because of Rufus’ eye contact. When you look at this image, it’s as though Rufus is looking right at you, in that slightly sorrowful way that has helped him get out of trouble many times before (such as after this cookie episode).

To achieve eye contact, your best option is food. You’ve got ‘low value’ treats, such as dry dog food, which a hungry dog will pay a lot of attention to. And then there’s ‘high value’ treats, which are dog luxuries such as cheese and chicken. In the world of the dog, high value treats are like a cold beer on a hot Friday, the flashing notification light of you phone or those shoes you’ve been considering buying suddenly going on sale. Simply irresistible.

We had cheese, so that’s what we used. I set up and tested the lights so everything was as ready as could be. Then Jake brought Rufus to the spot I needed him in, by luring him into the studio and into position with a cube of cheese in front of his nose.

With a strong ‘wait command’, Jake then walked back towards me, eventually placing the piece of cheese on the lens hood of my raised camera. Some dogs look at the food; others eye their owner. Rufus was eagerly watching Jake’s face, hoping for some indication that the cheese was for him and that he’d be allowed to have it. So Jake looked at the cheese, which meant Rufus followed his gaze.

Rufus’ ability to sit and wait isn’t very strong (it’s negligible, if I’m being honest), so I had to be incredibly quick once he was in position and looking towards me. But in the millisecond before Rufus thought ‘This is torture – I’m going in for the cheese’, I had the shot I needed.

In case you’re interested, the judges’ comments were: “A simply outstanding portrait showcasing the personality of this dog. Texture, depth and detail have been retained throughout the image and it completely draws the viewer in.”

More importantly, however, Sarah loved it.

Bonus Tip

Once you’ve got eye contact, aim to generate a great expression from the dog. Strange noises are your friend, including any sound the dog is unlikely to have heard before. My favourite is the raspy quack of a Donald Duck impression. (Dog photography is not a genre to pursue if you want to look and sound cool and sophisticated!).

Camera Settings:

  • Focal Length: 185.0mm,
  • Aperture: f/5.6,
  • Shutter Speed: 1/250sec,
  • ISO: 200