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Dog's Joy: A positive approach to the shooting of our ‘smaller brothers’

Posted on September 08 2017

Original Russian Article:
Author: photar – September 4, 2017

I've never thought of shooting animals before, even if I'm the owner of a gorgeous and photogenic English Bulldog. But I needed to work with several additional breeds in the series “Pavlova’s Dogs" in order achieve my original plan. I aim at achieving certain quality result with my photography and knew this project would challenge me. When faced with a new task, I try to approach the job creatively and with my soul.

“Bavlova’s dogs” © Alexander Khokhlov

The essence of creativity on a project often starts with one idea, but can easily turn into something more. To thank the owners, who kindly agreed to take part in the shooting of "Pavlova's Dogs," I decided to take pictures of their favorite pets. But I wanted to do it my own way, taking into account the temperament of my lovely models while adding a bit of humor. Let me tell you how one of my most funny series, "The Dog Show" came to be. - In 2017 this series won the silver award at “The Prix de la Photographie”, Paris’s international photo contest.

© Alexander Khokhlov

Beginning of work

Before you start any creative photographic task, especially if it is a large-scale project, you need to think carefully about the concept of the series. When searching for inspirational images I came across the works by a great photographer from Germany - Elke Fogelsang, whose funny pictures of dogs have been a favorite all over the world. This determined my shooting course. - I decided I would do the shots in my studio, especially because it was in the winter time. I planned on doing face shots, close up using a wide-angle lens to give the portraits a humorous appeal. I had make sure I didn’t copy Elke’s style but do it my own way. For my test shot, I used Audrey, my own English Bulldog.

© Alexander Khokhlov

Test shooting, especially when you’ve never done this type of photography before, is exceptionally helpful for understand your own capabilities, estimating resources and costs involved and searching for possible pitfalls. From the first shooting, I soon realized that pictures of my English bulldog were OK, it was impossible to shoot her using wide angle with the perspective normally used for ID or passport photos. The perspective distortion, caused her ears to be hidden behind her head. The resultant shots featured her huge bald muzzle, not the look I was after. I then switched to my old-good 70-200 mm telephoto lens and while working out the lighting.

© Alexander Khokhlov

A dark background adds a dramatic effect to images. For this project, I did not want to use a high key, trying to avoid photos that look too “stock-like”. I found that the dark background gave the pictures a nice contrast. Subsequently, I began to experiment with different background colors providing some diversify and making the series visually more rich.

© Alexander Khokhlov

Technical aspects of the shooting

Having good skills working with studio light makes the shooting process runs faster. I found that an hour and a half was enough to set up the lights, work with the "model" and take the necessary number of pictures. In general, this can be compared to shooting children – when you are shooting dogs it is all about catching of right moment. But it's always a lottery: you'll never know what kind of emotion you'll get from this or that beast. Like shooting humans, the most interesting thing and the purpose of this project was to find in each animal something unique, funny and eye-catching that reflected the animal’s character. If when looking at the final portrait, the dog’s owner exclaims: "Yes! This portrait reveals my dog’s exact nature!", you can be sure that the session was a success.

© Alexander Khokhlov

Technically, the lighting set up is easy to prepare. I made my test shooting with just one of my Hensel Expert D 500 monolights with either a 90 cm Octabox or a Beauty dish with a diffuser as a main light and a bounce reflector for highlighting shadows. Subsequently, I added two extra monolights with strip boxes on either side of the dogs to sidelight them and separate them from the background. This provided more volume within the image.

Some images I used a white table for the dog to stand or sit on during shooting which served as a reflector, filling in shadows under the dog’s muzzle. In addition, you can use background lighting - for example, a reflector with grids.

Unfortunately, not all of our four-legged friends react favorably to flashes. During one of the shots our team were unable to hold in place a relatively small Staffordshire bull terrier, who after the very first flash got terribly frightened, jumped off and hid under the table. Neither persuasions, nor food helped coax him out. The dog acted as if we wanted to sell him into slavery. To solve the problem, I decided to abandon the use of the moonlights that caused the dog's stress, replacing them by a single Hensel C-Light continuous light source with power of 1000 watts. Under the warmth and brightness of the continuous light the tired dog quickly mellowed and calmed down. Then within 10 minutes I was able to capture animal’s uniqueness and managed to save the shooting.

© Alexander Khokhlov

Shooting dogs is a very dynamic process, so you'll need a camera and a lens with fast and accurate autofocus. For my shoots, I used a Canon EOS 5D Mark III digital SLR camera with Canon EF 17-40 f / 4L USM and Canon EF 70-200 f / 4L USM lenses. As an experiment, I tried to work with the latest digital medium-format cameras - Hasselblad X1D-50c and Fujifilm GFX 50S, but despite the high image quality, their slow focus was a significant inconvenience. Also, shooting with this equipment requires some experience and skill. However, at such shoots I rarely use follow focusing and work in One Shot mode, but it is by no means a guide to action, so you can safely use the Servo mode as well.

© Veronika Ershova

Practical tips for shooting dogs

In dog photography, there are a lot of subtle issues that are worth keeping in mind before starting such a project. Below is some practical advice based on my own experience.

How to get ready for the shooting of dogs in the studio?


  1. Learn about the breed

Study the breed, the features of its physics and character. For example, greyhounds are not very comfortable sitting on hard surfaces; bulldogs do not tolerate heat; basset hounds are incredibly stubborn; and the rare Pharaoh Hound is still a semi-wild animal, difficult to train.

During the shooting process, I learned about the much-tarnished reputation of bull terriers, who have been dubbed as killers in the mass media. The fans of this breed themselves are very concerned about this fact, because these small, thickset and weird-looking four-legged Englishmen are rather calm and friendly. But the power of propaganda is truly unique - during the shooting of the bull terrier called Navarra, I always had a slight feeling of anxiety when I looked at her typical "shark" smile in a couple of meters from me.

© Alexander Khokhlov

When you get on the set, be sure to give the dog time to get to know you and explore the territory of the studio. This will help the dog feel much more at ease. Treat the dog in a friendly, confident way, but try not to take liberties.

© Veronika Ershova

Spend some time talking with the owner. Find out what they think their pet’s individual features are, if it gets along well with people and other dogs, if it is not afraid of flash bursting, how it reacts to treats from other people's hands. The more information you collect, the better you'll shoot.

© Veronika Ershova

Like in dog shows, before the photo shoot some owners of dogs with fluffy or thick hair have their dogs "spruced up" according to the breed standard – they are combed and styled and some even use cosmetics. I highly recommend you have a ventilated studio if you are going to shots with a similar "make-up", otherwise you might get a headache caused by hair spray, which I personally experienced when shooting a charming Collie.

© Alexander Khokhlov

A spacious studio with windows will save you not only from the smell of cosmetics but the smell of the dogs too, especially when it comes to hunting breeds. And do not forget that these are all the same animals who, because of stress or overexcitement, can easily use the studio as a toilet, so the consequences in a closed room without windows will be felt much stronger.


2. Which dogs are best suited for studio photography?


As a rule, these are animals loved and taken care of. Such animals are in excellent shape, socialized and obedient. If we are talking about thoroughbred dogs, then the huge advantage will be if these animals have the experience of part taking in exhibitions where they have to stand for a long time on the tables for grooming and in the rings, so an hour or a half of shooting will not become a strong stress for them.

Pay attention to the peculiarities of grooming. For example, a portrait of a huge combed bobtail is not an interesting shot – with the eyes hidden behind the bangs of hair, the photographer's lens shows only the nose and tongue. During the shoot, we experimented with the combing the hair backwards to open the dog's eyes. When we put glasses onto that fluffy face and put a fan on it, we realized that we had made our point. In front of us we saw a living copy of the well-known Russian writer Ivan Turgenev.

© Alexander Khokhlov

The black poodle, who came to our studio, was the embodiment of elegance. But in his case, we needed to tinker with the light a bit more. Due to the thick and black hair, we needed the backlight to be stronger to create visible contours separating the dog from the background.

© Alexander Khokhlov

3. Should you rely on the dog’s owner to command the animal during a shoot?

The role of the master or coach at the is difficult to overestimate. It is always worthwhile to be ready, because in a new environment the animal can be stressed, can behave badly and react inconsistently to the commands. Therefore, you should not stand aside, hoping that the dog owner will solve all your problems. Any shooting is team work, and only if the team works harmoniously will your work be a success.

4. The role of the assistant

The photographer at the shoot works with the picture as a whole. Most likely the dog owner won’t know all the technical issues of getting the picture. Especially if this photo session is the first experience for both the master and the pet. To help make things run more smoothly on the site, your team must have an assistant. This person will take care of the setting up of lights and props, the outlooks and poses of the "model" in frame, give advice to the owner, inform the owner in which position to hold food or in which direction to throw a favorite toy. A good assistant is an invaluable specialist, able to keep track of a huge amount of details, helping to guarantee that you will get beautiful photographs.

© Alexander Khokhlov

© Alexander Khokhlov


5. What about food?

Dogs are often ready to work for food, but this method doesn’t always work. A dog is a living creature, because of emotions, it can refuse food, a favorite toy and will be very nervous if the owner and the photographer are not calming it down. For example, we managed to make one of the favorite portraits in the "The Dog Show" series with the Freibi basset only after feeding this little beast with... a banana. The dog’s regular lure which the master brought with him didn’t worked, but, the banana we bought for a snack turned out to be a coveted dog treat.

© Alexander Khokhlov

Make sure to a bowl with fresh water for the animal as overexcited dogs often want to drink, especially if it is too hot in the studio.

Taking pictures of dogs is not easy, but is exciting work, in which there is always a bit of intrigue. You should have your own approach, focus on the result and have patience to cope with the tasks in different ways. To succeed you’ll need teamwork: as the roles of the master or the trainer, assistant and photographer are equally important. If you yourself are the owner of the animal, then it will be much easier for you to make such a shooting and get across to the pet. If not, then do not worry and remember that there is a friend in front of you to whom you can always find a right approach. Good luck!

Author of the text and photos:  Hensel Ambassador Alexander Khokhlov (
Assistant: Veronika Ershova


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