I love the outdoors, being surrounded by nature and the curious sounds of the wild. Both icy lakes or streaming rivers will get me out exploring. But once in a while, we head to the city to get our dose of urban inspiration and socialisation training for the dogs. Before moving to Sweden, we lived in a rather busy neighbourhood and getting the dogs used to the noise and crowds was just part of our daily life- getting them well behaved in the woods seemed a bigger challenge. And now it’s the opposite, especially with Oona who never lived in urban Belgium with us. She’s not used to see strangers, dogs, people walking by our house but she knows all about big moose, hungry deer in the garden or even that cheeky fox who curiously looked through our studio window. Being addicted to photography, training my dogs is often combined with creating photographs. Whether or not you and your dog are used to city life, there are some unique challenges that come with creating in an urban environment so here are my 5 tips to photograph your dog in the city:
1. Safety first. I love my dogs till the moon and back, but I am also rather strict and practice a lot on sit/stay and come back. I feel like training my dogs to behave, to trust, to respond consistent, helps both me and them through challenging moments. While training is the first and always ongoing part of safety for me, I also take an extra leash with me (and/or a helper) to create photographs without a visible leash- because I’m not a supporter of distracting lines. To avoid hours of editing time, you can for example attach a thin line to a collar, turn it backwards so you don’t see the buckle and drape the leash over the back of your dog. To get a natural/off leash and relax effect it is important to avoid tension on the leash. For Oona, this means photographing in the quiet streets with limited distractions. I build up the distance between me and her by praise and rewards even before I start shooting. But that depends on your dog of course. With Mogwai, who can focus really well and take small directions, I can just go for the shot that I have in mind.
2. Be the stillness in the storm. The city can be loud, busy, distracting and a constant stimulus of the senses. I found that being quiet and not trying to overpower all of the noise, works better for my dog’s focus. I’ve been teaching them hand signals or I speak in a quiet and relaxed way as an affirmation of their calm behavior. High voices, squeaky toys or clapping hands might be a good way to get your dog running around at the beach, but there isn’t space for eruptions of joy in the middle of the city.
3. Use your surroundings. Cities are not just streets and buildings, you can find benches, small walls, stairs, entrances, and so much more to work with. There are two reasons why using these will help your photographs. First of all, for many dogs, it’s a lot easier to sit/stay/… at a distance when they are on an elevated and limited object. Secondly, it will enact a connection between the subject and its surroundings- therefore both create a story and visually connect the different elements of your composition. If you’re very familiar with a place, it might happen that it starts to look boring or everyday to you, but often, what feels normal to you can look very exotic to someone on the other side of the planet, or even the other side of the country. So once in a while, look at your city through the eyes of a tourist. What would they notice?
4. Create different kinds of shots so you have variety and choice. I mostly take only one or two lenses when I go out. And both are probably primes (why I take two instead of just one all-rounder) so working with aperture is my biggest in camera variable for atmosphere and style. If you work with a zoom lens, you can go wide angle to include more of the surroundings or zoom in to create more detachment between your dog and the background. I personally prefer to show enough of the city to get an idea of the roots of the location and then look in all directions to -almost- create a 3D memory.
5. Look for some dog/photo-friendly places to take a break or to take your photographs. Dead ends, parks and quiet streets can be very welcome after walking through the city center or the shopping streets. They often allow you to walk and look more freely which can help to find that nice angle or the perfect light- without being an obstacle 🙂
So, this is how I work in the city or more urban places. What would your number one tip be? If you like to share, you can leave a comment or send me a message (feel free to include your Instagram account) and I’ll share it here.
If you want to see more photographs of both city explorations and wild moments in the forest, check our Instagram page.