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Pet Portraits Are Better When They’re Solo

dog photography golden wearing a crown made from colorful scraps of paper

Written by J.B. Shepard, a professional pet photographer and founder of the Puptrait Studio.

Like people, dogs are social creatures and most tend to do better in groups. When asked, most dog owners agree that owning two dogs really isn’t all that more difficult than caring for one. In fact, in some instances where a dog demonstrates extreme separation anxiety or is an especially slow learner, it may actually be easier to live with multiple dogs under the same roof. But is it a good idea to photograph all of your dogs at once?

Photographing a dog isn’t the same as training a dog

If you live in a household blessed with multiple dogs you have probably noticed that they are aware of each other constantly. With rare exception, a dog will almost always gravitate their attention towards another dog. They look to each other for play, to ensure that they’re not left out of affection or treats, and they respond heavily to shared social cues.

This helps explain why your entire pack will explode in a flurry of barks whenever your Postal Carrier drops by and why many pet owners find that they have an easier time training puppies with an older dog in the house. And, while this behavioral quirk is often seen as perk when training, it can have a detrimental impact on activities that require greater focus from pups — like when visiting a dog photo studio.

Pet photography studios that allow multiple dogs

Group photoshoots are doable, but…

Is it impossible to photograph two dogs simultaneously? Of course not. Group sessions of smaller and less energetic dogs (especially younger puppies) can result in some pretty amazing photos. The same can be said for dogs who will hug each other on command. But both of those examples are exceptions that prove the rule. Solo sessions are simply better.

To be clear, we’re not saying that a professional pet photographer can’t capture group portraits of older, larger or more active dogs. In fact, many dog portrait artists will even go so far as to even guarantee that they can. But as quoted by Chris Farley in his titular role of the 90’s comedic classic Tommy Boy, “…if you want me to take a dump in a box and mark it guaranteed, I will. I got spare time.”

Solo pet portrait sessions make for better photos

We guarantee if you care about quality (even if just the tiny, teeniest bit) that you will be much happier booking separate individual sessions for each of your dogs.

Individual sessions are easier to execute, are less stressful for owners, and consistently result in more interesting, thoughtful and technically impressive pet portraits. Outside of removing the hassle of taking multiple trips, solo sessions outperform group shoots in virtually every measurable way.

Don’t believe me? Compare these photo sets…

Both of the example shots embedded below were taken in the same dog friendly photo studio, by the same photographer, during the same week, using the same photography and lighting equipment, on the same white background. And, if you haven’t noticed already feature the exact same breed — English Golden Retrievers.

A cute portrait of two happy looking Golden Retrievers photographed against a white background at a dog friendly photo studio

The photos from the solo sessions are technically better

The second set of photos are unquestionably better shots. The lighting, framing and focus is better in all FIVE of the portraits in the second image. More importantly the expressions in the bottom portraits are happier and more expressive.

The dogs from the solo sessions were more difficult to work with (on paper)

And trust me, that last bit wasn’t because the dogs were wearing hats, better trained or were healthier. In fact, the second set of photos includes an adolescent pup that was a recent rescue who was entirely untrained at its prior home, a dog currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments to combat canine lymphoma, and a very senior 14 year old puppy.

By all accounts, the second set of sessions should have been difficult ones – but because we were able to focus on each dog individually, unrushed, and free of distractions, each went off without a hitch.

Both clients spent the same amount on sessions

The most baffling contrast in comparing these two photo shoots is the price. For the simple fact that there is no difference to compare. The first client visited our studio once and completed a single 1.5 hour session. The second client visited us a total of five times and racking up over 8 hours of studio time. But despite the discrepancy in work, neither client paid any sitting fees.

Personal taste and session goals vary — and that’s ok!

It is important to note that the first client was over the moon with our work. They were well aware of the difference in quality prior to booking and they weren’t interested in costumed pet portraits. As the initial client booked the session as a surprise for their spouse’s birthday, they were more concerned with making a day of it. In this instance, the gift was the session and in many ways the impact of the surprise would have been undermined by scheduling multiple shoots.

But to achieve that goal, compromises had to be made. Which is why we’re writing this post, as we want to make sure that if we are making compromises that clients are entering their sessions knowing this information upfront, well prior to booking their shoots.

Creative dog portrait costs and sitting fees are now more affordable than ever for Washington D.C. and Baltimore dog owners. The Puptrait Studio is a dog friendly pet portrait studio located in the heart of Hampden.

Why are solo shoots better than group sessions?

As we touched on briefly above, there are several reasons why it’s not the best idea to schedule a group photoshoot for multiple dogs. Some of these restraints are technical, mainly related to the physical properties of light and how modern digital cameras function. Other issues are behavioral in nature and relate to how dogs are handled, think and act. But more importantly, group sessions restrict what creative decisions we can make while working in studio. To help readers better understand these common pain points, we will breakdown a few of the larger hurdles below.

Technical restrictions of photographing groups of dogs

Cameras can only capture a limited range of light and color

The average human eye can perceive roughly the equivalent of 20 stops or exposures simultaneously. Most cameras are really only capable of only capturing one. It is possible to expand this range through High Dynamic Range (HDR) camera features and compositing techniques. But even HDR is limited to a handful of stops and depend heavily on one form of bracketing or another.

This concept is important to understand when you appreciate that the strength and quality of light is directly impacted by the relative size and distance of the light source in relation to the subject. Remember that most dogs tend to present fairly extreme contrasts in fur colorations — dog can be pure black, pure white, both or everything in between.

Practically speaking, this means if you are photographing nearly white dogs (like English Goldens) it is extremely difficult (if not near impossible) to perfectly expose two dogs using the same light source with any consistency. The more extreme the coloring, the larger the dogs, the more dogs than need to be captured simultaneously, and the more they move – the more difficult lighting becomes. And without proper lighting, photographing black dogs, like Affenpinscher puppies, is a nonstarter.

Cameras can only capture a single focal distance

Modern DSLR cameras are only capable of capturing a single focal distance at a time. Whether you’re using auto focus or manual focus, your subject is either in focus or not. With some camera setups, particularly those using wide angle lenses, slower / smaller apertures, or cheaper / less clear lenses, it may be less obvious that part of a subject is out of focus. But even in those situations, the further a point is out of focus and the larger you print your photo, the more prominent the lack of clarity will become. Not to mention, in those instance you’ll be well beyond the “sweet spot” of the lens and even those aspects of the frame that are in focus, will no longer appear as clear.

When working with a single dog, we typically aim to focus tightly on the reflection in the eye or the tip of the nose. If we split the difference and focus on the dog mid snout, the image will look soft and suffer in larger formats. So much so, we will not even proof or present one of these soft shots to a client as a possibility for printing.

But when photographing two dogs compromises have to be made. Typically this means we are either splitting the difference (with both dogs slightly out of focus) or we are focusing on the dog in the foreground (with the rear dog increasingly out of focus).

There is a fix, but…

The only way around the limitations of focal distances is to photograph the dogs at different focal lengths and then composite the different images together. A commercial pet product photography technique that we employ often when photographing dog biscuits, pet beds, and other items that don’t tend to move. But considering that the dogs will constantly be shifting, moving and casting different shadows on each other – this technique is easier to execute reliably if we shoot the dogs separately. So, it’s not so much a fix as it is another reason to book separate sessions.

Behavioral restrictions of photographing groups of dogs

Nothing distracts a dog faster than another dog

It doesn’t matter what your dog is motivated by – be it pets, squeakers, tennis balls or treats – having another dog in the room is extremely distracting for a dog. And yes, this is still true of bonded pets and life long friends who are 100% used to living with each other. This is even true of dogs that are motivated by entirely different things, because either one dog will always want to make sure that the other dog is not receiving the particular thing that it likes or you’ll struggle to motivate both dogs simultaneously.

Dogs are unpredictable

Convincing a dog to engage with a camera is difficult. Convincing a dog to wear a hat is even trickier. Convincing multiple dogs to do either simultaneously is a Sisyphean effort. The moment one dog cooperates, the other will break. Generally speaking, the only way to make it work is to either capture each dog individually and composite them into a single image (again, why bother when you can just shoot them separately). Or to physically restrain the dogs with a leash or bullet proof training (either of which would be at odds with capturing an authentic expression).

Dogs are “bottom heavy”

Dogs don’t have shoulders. If you sit two dogs next to each other their heads are generally no where near each other. The only way to get them reasonably within the same frame is to pray that one of the dogs doesn’t understand (or at least, appreciates) personal space. If one of the dogs will either lean in or sit on their pack mate, you’ll be able to snap a few quick shots of them posing together.

But that type of behavior isn’t a given. You might have some luck with goofier, clumsier and more happy go lucky breeds like Goldens, Labs and Boxers. Many Pugs and Boston Terriers you can pretty much stack on top of each other like chubby legos. But more aloof, independent and anxiety ridden breeds like Chihuahuas, Dalmatians, Standard Poodles, and Russell Terriers are unlikely to be so cooperative. And, good luck trying to get two Akitas to do anything.

Creative restrictions of photographing groups of dogs

The attention spans of pet photographers are limited

Photographing dogs, even in controlled studio environments, requires photographers to juggle a lot all at once. While most of us try to prep for shoots – staging scenes, props, lights, cameras, water bowls, and other essential gear – well prior to clients ever stepping foot in the studio. There’s only so much that we can do ahead of time. At the end of the day, the magic really only starts to happen once we have a change to work with you and your pet(s).

That said, the more hurdles we have to overcome and the more difficult the basic technical aspects of the shoot become, the less we are able to focus on taking your session in more sophisticated and less obvious directions. Better and more experienced photographers can spin more plates than others, there is a limit to what we can concentrate on at a single time.

While we never rush clients at our studio, there is a relatively finite amount of time that we can work with clients before they begin to get tired, frustrated, or annoyed with being in the studio. And, the same can be said for their dogs.

Some concepts can ONLY be photographed during solo sessions

Our studio is best known for shooting concepts and styles of pet portraits that dog owners simply can’t find anywhere else. While our dog friendly studio certainly plays a role in this distinction, much of what we bring to the table is simply based on our skill and willingness to set the bar a bit higher than most other dog photographers.

But when it comes to these tricker shoots, especially our Paper Hat sessions and headshot approach to lighting, we simply can not capture these more creative styles of dog portraits when working with multiple dogs. Honestly, if it was that easy everyone would already being doing it.

Group portrait sessions are rarely the best option

Dog portraits are generally not something that many dog owners commission often – high quality professionally shot pet portraits, even less so. While we are happy to accommodate client requests and photograph multiple dogs at the same time, it is not something that we generally recommend. If you are serious about commissioning a one-of-a-kind custom art portrait of your dogs, we strongly encourage you schedule pet portrait sessions for each of your pups.

Pro pet photographer, J.B. Shepard, featured here with a rescue dog from Bella's Bully Buddies along the Baltimore Harbor waterfront in Canton.

About the author: J.B. Shepard, is a professional pet photographer, dog advocate, and founder of the Puptrait Studio. J.B. lives in Hampden, with his wife and two dogs — George (a Boggle) and Lucky (Jack Russell Terrier).

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