Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Have you ever strolled through an Instagram feed and wondered how a photographer was able to get that perfect glisten in a pup's eyes? Well, I suspect that while most of us would love to get that special sparkle (we can discuss lighting in another blog), we are usually just happy if our pups will look at the camera. Training a pup to look in the direction that you want while behind a camera definitely takes practice and a cooperative pup, but it is possible.
A Little Background. Bailey went to puppy school to learn how to sit, shake, and roll over when she was baby. She tends to be more nervous and reserve, and is pretty content wherever I sit her. She is very easy to photograph. Bentley, on the other hand, was loved too much as a baby and is now spoiled rotten. He does exactly what he wants when he wants to. He is also extremely nosy when it comes to determining what is in your hand, your bags, and your trash. Their behavior is on opposite ends of the spectrum, but my focal point method to get their puppy eyes on me during a photoshoot works for both of their personalities.
The Focal Point Method
Pick a Focal Point. In order to get your puppy to look a certain direction, you need to provide them with a toy, food, or person for them to look at. It must be something that their little hearts desire, or it will not work. For my pups, my focal point is solely food. I have used toys and humans in the past with some success, but food never lets me down, so I will focus on treats as focal points for this blog.
Side Note: There is a difference between a focal point and a distraction. I love my husband, but I had to fire him as my assistant after we brought Bentley home. Bentley loves my husband and will choose playing with daddy over treats if given the option. One of my early photo sessions with Bentley involved him repeatedly running from his mark toward my husband, leaving me with a large number of unusable blurry pictures. Needless to say we gave up and just had a play session that day. However, my husband now goes for a run when I set up for photoshoots, and Bentley behaves much better.
I have used a variety of treats, chicken, and cheese. Currently, I am using a treat that I know is the equivalent of candy for dogs. It is a special treat that they only receive when taking photos, which makes it even more desirable to my pups.
Make Sure Your Pup is Hungry. If your pup is not hungry, treats will not work. I usually give my pups a light breakfast on days that I know I will be doing a photoshoot, and begin the photoshoot a couple hours after they have eaten and completed their morning play session.
I also estimate how long I think the photoshoot will be, and divide out the treats ahead of time so I know that my treat stash will last the entire session, and my pups will not quickly overindulge on their special treats.
The Focal Point Must Be Easily Accessible. Ok, now comes the fun part. You have your pup, your camera, and now a handful of treats. How are you to mange posing your dog at her mark, securely holding your camera, and holding treats up for your puppy to look at? I can tell you that this does require some coordination, especially if you are like me and do your pup photography alone.
To assist in managing everything at once, I do two things:
I keep my camera around my neck with a comfortable scarf strap so I can drop it at any time without fear of breaking it; and
I wear shorts/pants with loose pockets to keep my treats easily accessible.
Putting the Method into Practice
Picture Perfect. I recently took this photo of Bentley and published it on Instagram. Picture perfect, right?
Well, here is what you did not see....
How I do It. I am right-handed, so I use my right hand to hold my camera (which is also secured around my neck), and I use my left hand to hold the treat in the direction that I want Bentley to look. In this case, I wanted Bentley to look up so we could get a good view of the writing on his bandana. So I held the treat right above his head just out of camera view. If I had wanted him to look left or right, I would have kept the treat at about that same height and moved it in the direction I wanted him to look. If I had wanted him to look more directly at the camera, I would have kept the treat centered, but brought it down a bit.
Roll with the Unexpected. Of course sometimes the pups move their head, and sometimes they just move their eyes (as in the photo below), but they all make for beautiful, unique shots.
Reward Your Pup for Following the Focal Point. Of course, training your pup to follow a treat takes practice, and requires more treats in the beginning. It's important that they do not feel like they are just being teased, but are instead learning a silent command. When I started with Bentley, he would get a small bite each time he moved his head on my cue. Now, the span between treats is longer (although he still seems to make out with more treats than Bailey).
I hope you found these tips helpful. Good luck with your next photography session!! If you have any tips for me I would love to see them in the comments below or on Instagram!