More than twenty years ago, Amanda Jones, author of six books including DOG YEARS (Chronicle Books, 2015) and UNLEASHED (Chronicle, 2015), began her career like most Annie Liebowitz-aspiring portrait photographers—snapping pictures of people. But her chosen subject matter was proving less than ideal.
“I quickly realized humans don’t like having their picture taken very much,” Jones said. Add the stress of capturing those once-in-a-lifetime type shots of a couple kissing after their I dos, and Jones’ dream job was keeping her up at night. “I found myself having nightmares before every wedding shoot,” she said, “and that’s no way to have a job.”
A cross-country move from Maine to San Francisco provided plenty of highway hours to dream up the new iteration of her career. In California, Jones invited friends with pups into the photo studio one Sunday. At the time, she had never even owned a dog, but she had a notion it would be fun to hang out with them and take some pictures.
“I shot the dogs against a white background, and we kept it really simple—no collars and leashes or beds or anything.” The on-set vibe lacked all the halting insecurity and self-consciousness Jones had experienced with humans. With dogs, put down a tennis ball, she said, and all she had to do was click the shutter. “Their mouths are open, their tails are up, they’re completely alert. They’ve got this beautiful shape and energy. It’s much more creative to me to photograph a dog than a human being because I can just work with what they’re giving me, the shape that they make.”
That on-site serendipity carried over to the developed photos, and the reactions were a far cry from the squinting, self-critical assessments she was used to. “One of my friends was like, ‘I want every single one of these. I love them.’ They just had this amazing reaction to every image. That was when it clicked.”
On a large blank wall at a local pet store, Jones set up a gallery display of her black and white dog portraits, and the calls immediately started rolling in. Jones had found her new subject. She stopped having nightmares. “Everything came together, and it was just magic. I loved it from the first time, and it really hasn’t stopped since then. Give me any dog, and I can get a nice shot of it for their human in an hour and a half.”
Twenty-four years later she still hears from clients about how meaningful those “nice shots” really are, often long after their pets have passed away. “People say, ‘I’m so happy I still have these prints.’ Dogs are such an integral part of our families and our lives,” Jones said. “I felt I could give people joy from these photographs.”
Want to capture your hound at home? Here are some of Jones’ tips for always getting the shot.
Get down on their level
Photographs of pets up for adoption at animal shelters are often taken overhead, reinforcing an animal’s vulnerability. But Jones calls her photo sessions “a celebration of the animal.” Join the party by getting down on the floor with Fido.
Keep it simple
You don’t need costumes, bejeweled collars, props, or backgrounds to make your dog into a work of art. Let your pooch shine by keeping everything else in the shot minimal. “Keep your settings simple, keep your lighting simple,” Jones suggests. “Don’t shoot in direct sunlight. Find some shade or window light.”
Focus on the eyes
They’re the windows to a dog’s soul, too. A classic portrait of a dog’s head is Jones’ first order of business at a shoot. But how do you get those hair balls of energy to stay still? It helps to be tricky.
“I will ask them a question but I won’t say the key word, like, ‘Do you want to go for a—?’ Just that little bit gets their ears. But as soon as you say the word, they get up. So you just use a little bit of a tease.”
Sounds can also help keep your subject alert and engaged. Jones will cluck her tongue or make a subtle knocking noise. Or try rustling a candy wrapper behind your back. The sound of a treat will get their attention without making them go berserk.
Creativity with cropping
From there, try something more artful, like a closeup of a signature marking on your dog’s flank, or the charming way your beagle sits with her paws crossed. “Get the little details like the nose and the tail,” suggests Jones.
Appreciating those details is how to really showcase the individual beauty of your pet, part of what imbues Jones’s work with such dignity and wonder.
“From the tiniest little Chihuahua to the Irish wolfhound, I just love how varied they are,” she said. “Some dogs have no hair, and some have hair to the floor. All the hair is different colors. Some dogs have three legs and some dogs are missing an eye and some dogs are really, really old. They’re all dogs! I just love the variety. It’s endless.”
Find out how to enter for a chance to win a portrait session with Amanda Jones (worth $1600) by clicking here.