Voice of the Artist: 5 Expert Tips for Making the Perfect Dog Portrait

Voice of the Artist: 5 Expert Tips for Making the Perfect Dog Portrait

Greg Murray discusses his journey into full-time photography and shares his tips on how to capture your own silly, sweet, or even dignified dog portraits.

Ask Greg Murray to choose a couple of standout portraits from his Offset page, and he’ll need some time to think about it. He photographs mostly dogs (and the occasional cat or bird) for a living—and, well, it’s hard to play favorites when your subjects are so stinking cute.

“Can I email you?” he says. A few hours later, his selections arrive.

There’s Ernie, a grimacing Yorkie:

Smiling YorkieImage via Greg Murray.

“This photo is one of my all-time favorites,” Murray says. “I captured him at just the right time to get a ‘mouth-closed’ smile . . . it’s a rare shot. I smile every time I look at this.”And then there’s Karma, a face-licking terrier mix:

Dog Licking Her FaceImage via Greg Murray.

“She had a rough beginning and needed a lot of attention and training in order to give her the life she deserved,” Murray says. “A similar photo from the same session was chosen to be on the cover of Reader’s Digest. If you knew Karma in the beginning, you’d never guess she’d grace the cover of a major magazine. It’s a cool story.”

Making the Big Switch

Murray has a cool story himself. He started his professional life in the corporate world, spending ten years working in human resources before quitting to become a photographer. “I hated going to the office every day,” he says. “I was firing people, hiring people, and dealing with a lot of employer-relations stuff, and physically and mentally I was suffering—every day, just dreading going in. I wasn’t happy.”

In 2014, after practicing photography for a few years, building his portfolio, and even winning local awards, he had a talk with his girlfriend (now wife), and they agreed that he should give full-time photography a shot for six months. If it worked out, great. If it didn’t, back to the drawing board. 

“And, here I am today,” he says. 

Murray’s most recent project is the upcoming book Peanut Butter Puppies, a sequel to 2017’s Peanut Butter Dogs, both of which feature—you guessed it—dogs and peanut butter. He’s also the author of Pit Bull Heroes: 49 Underdogs With Resilience and Heart

“I love pit bull rescues,” Murray says. “I love all dogs, but I get extra giddy if I’m working with a pit bull. You don’t even need to give them peanut butter half the time, they just look silly.”

Smiling Pit BullImage via Greg Murray.

Below, Murray shares his tips on how to capture your own silly dog portraits.

1. Make Sure the Dog Is Relaxed

Smiling DogLet the dog get comfortable with his/her surroundings. Image via Greg Murray.

Chances are, your own dog is pretty chill around you—you’re their human, after all. But, if you make a big deal about getting the perfect photo, they might get nervous and withdraw. That’s especially true if you’re photographing someone else’s dog. 

To get the sort of happy-go-lucky portraits that Murray is known for, you need to first put your four-legged subject at ease. 

“When a dog comes into my studio, I let them hang out for anywhere from ten to twenty minutes before I start to shoot,” Murray says. “I play with them. I run around with them. If they want to play tug of war, I do that. I throw balls. Or, if they’re just sniffing and want to do their own thing, I leave them alone. I want them to be 100% comfortable.”

Keep in mind that some dogs, like some people, are just plain shy. “Dogs can be like humans. Some are maybe born with some anxiety issues,” Murray says. In that case, be sensitive to their limitations. 

“Sometimes you have dogs that are skittish and you’re like, ‘Eh, we don’t want to push this dog any further, and we don’t want to stress him out. We got two good photos—that’s great.’”

2. Be Flexible

Dog Portrait Remember, dogs pick up on your anxiety, so play it cool. Image via Greg Murray.

Dogs can only sit for so long. So, rather than try to get all your photos taken in one consecutive chunk of time, plan to get them done in spurts. 

“Usually, they stay still for like ten to twenty seconds at a time—at most—and then, I let them go drink water or go have treats or go play some more,” Murray says. “Basically, a session is a lot of fun and playing, and then photos here and there. It takes an extreme amount of patience.”

It also requires that you check your expectations at the door. If you go into a photo shoot wanting, say, the perfect head-tilt photo and you aren’t managing to get it, the dog might pick up on your frustration or anxiety.

“Dogs feed off the way you’re feeling,” Murray says. “If you get nervous or stressed, they might get a little on edge.”

Plus, if you’re so fixated on getting one shot in particular, you might miss an even better shot that’s staring you right in the face. “I’m just always looking for fun, expressive photos,” Murray says. “The best photos are the ones that draw people in and make people laugh.”

3. Ply Them with Treats, Toys, and Dog-Friendly Buzzwords

Puppy Licking Face Going for the cute tongue shot? Try a dab of peanut butter. Image via Greg Murray.

Dogs won’t look at the camera just because you tell them to (they don’t know what a camera is!), but they will stare down a milk bone or tennis ball—or whatever their poison is—if you put it in their line of vision. 

“When I’m shooting, I have one hand holding the camera and the other holding a treat or a toy on top of the lens hood,” Murray says. (He asks clients to bring their dog’s favorite goodies to the studio, just in case his supplies don’t do the trick.)

You can also use certain dog-friendly words to your advantage. Does your pet’s ears perk up if you say “dinner” or “frisbee?” Does their head tilt when you ask them if they want to go for a walk? 

“I always ask owners to fill out a survey prior to shoots, so I know what words their dog responds to,” Murray says. 

As for how to capture one of Murray’s signature tongue shots, try giving a dog peanut butter (but not too much or it might show up in your photo). In general, a little swipe of the good stuff can help liven up a less expressive dog.  

“My wife and I had a mastiff and I began using peanut butter to get her more animated,” Murray says. “She had those droopy, sad-looking jowls. Happy dog, but didn’t necessarily have that happy look.” 

4. Take as Many Photos as You Can

Golden RetrieverTake as many photos as possible. Image via Greg Murray.

Murray shoots manual with a fast, top-of-the-line camera. The speed of his gear is key, because you never know when a dog is going to stick their tongue out or tilt their head—you need to just always be clicking. 

“In a regular studio session, I might take 150 to 250 photos over an hour,” he says. “I wouldn’t have gotten that photo of Ernie (above) if I wasn’t taking five photos in three seconds.”

If your camera isn’t quite up to par, or you’re shooting with, say, an iPhone, that’s totally fine. “You can still get great photos,” Murray says. Just be prepared to take a ton of them in order to get that one golden shot. 

5. Avoid Clutter

Dog PortraitBe creative, try interesting props, but don’t overdo it. Image via Greg Murray.

Murray will sometimes photograph a dog outside, but he’s best known for his in-studio headshots, which he loves for the way they bring attention to a dog’s eyes. 

“I do some full-body stuff, but those headshots really draw you in,” he says. “People can do anything they want and make great animal photos, but that’s my style.”

He’ll incorporate the occasional prop (a hat, a pair of funny glasses), but prefers to keep their use to a minimum. “I don’t mind those things here and there, but I don’t like to get cheesy,” he says. “You won’t see me making elaborate sets. You won’t see tutus in my photos. I don’t like to overdo it.”

His signature is using color to make his images pop. If he has a dalmatian in the studio, for instance, he’s almost always going to photograph it against yellow.

“You’ve got to catch someone’s attention right away,” he says. “With the studio shoot, there’s no clutter in the background. It’s just a bright, fun color.’

“I love putting my work out there and bringing a smile to people’s face,” he adds. “And, I think that’s what makes a great photo.”

For more animal photography tips and advice, check out these articles:

Weird to Couture: Images of Fashion-Forward Cats Ready for a Close-UpPet Photography Quick Tips: Keeping and Capturing A Dog’s AttentionAnimal Attraction: 5 Tips for Phenomenal Pet PhotographyThree Offset Artists Redefining Animal Photography6 Photographers on How to Take Fantastic Images of Dogs and Cats

Cover image via Greg Murray.

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