Dog Daze: Sally Davies Answers 22 Questions about her Canine Portraits

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No matter the pedigree, city dogs are a breed apart from the rest. While they may have less freedom and personal space than their rural peers, they bask in opportunities for socialization on city streets. For the past 14 years, New York-based street photographer Sally Davies has made distinctive portraits of the urban canines she meets during daily strolls through her favorite Manhattan neighborhoods. In the Q&A below, Davies shares some insights and images from her series, My Best Friends.

Jill Waterman: When did you start making dog portraits, and what inspired you to do so?

Sally Davies: I started photographing the disappearing Lower East Side around 2005. It was impossible to be out there documenting the city and not include the dogs. One year I did a project, “The New York Daily Dog,” and photographed one dog every day, Monday through Friday. Back in the day, the breeds and types of dogs changed as you traveled from one neighborhood to another.

Photographs © Sally Davies

JW: Your canine subjects look so incredibly relaxed. Do you have any tips for calming a dog to sit still for a portrait?

SD: Most of my dog photos are taken on the street, on the fly, sometimes with the assistance of the owner, sometimes not. The dog runs have always been good places to shoot. The dogs are with their owners and are usually enjoying themselves. As with most other photography moments, all you need is a split second to line up your pressing the shutter with them looking where you want them to. I usually get on well with animals, and that certainly helps. They usually trust me.

JW: Do you find there to be preferred times of day, day(s) of the week, weather patterns, or seasonal aspects to successful dog portraits?

SD: Because I am shooting them outdoors in the city, yes. The animals are happier when they are not weather stressed, so fall and spring beat out the cold winter and hot summer. I generally aim for late afternoon or dusk. The sun is usually not my friend with the dogs or with my street work. Also, wind is not the best, as it can create long messy hair over the eyes. It’s also harder for the dog to hear me in the wind.

JW: Is there much difference between photographing dogs of different ages—puppies vs elder dogs, for example—and if so, does your picture taking strategy change?

SD: Senior dogs are usually much easier to photograph. They are slowing down and not as frenetic. Puppies can go either way, but are often really hyper, and having the owner hold them can be a huge help. Whenever I am dealing with a jumpy pooch who doesn’t want to focus on me, I figure out my shot and get the camera set to what I need first. Then all I need to do is grab my half a second at the right time.

JW: You describe urban dogs as being much more socialized than rural dogs. Is this a general trait, or is it something you pick up on when interacting with a dog in a portrait session?

SD: I live in New York City and have had dogs here since 1989. I was here with my dogs before we even had a dog run in Tompkins Park. Even then, dogs had to be walked several times a day, so you would be out there, and they were socializing. They get to know the dogs on their block. Country dogs might be the only dog on the property, and because they have all kinds of room to run around, the owners don’t feel they have to walk them. Also, country dogs are often purchased for a different purpose. And sadly, they might be guard dogs, and socializing them is not a priority.

JW: You note that there are differences between dogs depending on what neighborhood they’re from, but that this doesn’t always manifest in the way you’d expect. Could you elaborate further about this?

SD: With New York City neighborhoods losing their individuality at record-breaking speed, that was far truer back in the day than it is now. The Lower East Side was heavy with pit bulls, chihuahuas, and crazy-looking rescues, while the West Village was more designer dogs. Now it’s pretty much the same everywhere you go.

JW: In general, how close are you to your subjects when making a portrait? And are you crouching or kneeling when you make these pictures?

SD: I am always low down, the point of view for a portrait needs to be at their level. I rarely shoot with a zoom. Most of the street dogs are shot with a 100mm portrait lens, so I have to be close. Shooting low is better up close anyway… when you say the dog’s name calmly, they look at you. And that’s your shot. This also applies to photographing children: It’s hard to get a soulful portrait when the subject has to look way up at you looming over them.

JW: Is the dog’s owner generally present when you’re photographing them and, if so, do you give any instructions or have any interaction with them to help keep the dog relaxed?

SD: If the dog is with its owner, I will ask the owner if they are game. I rarely get a no, but it does happen. If the owner wants to do it, they are usually very helpful. At that point it’s all pretty intuitive. Owners know how to get their dog’s attention.

JW: When you’re photographing someone’s pet, do you ever notice similarities between a dog’s personality and that of its owner?

SD: Summoning up the photo “timing gods” doesn’t leave much energy or time to spend on the owner. I am there for one reason: to get a great photo of that dog.

JW: Do you ever need to do any light grooming to a dog before making pictures? If so, are there any tools that you find helpful for this?

SD: Due to the nature of shooting on the fly, grooming is impossible. Any eye gunk or drool is usually removed in post, unless I think it adds to the charm of the subject.

JW: In terms of your process, is there much of a difference between making a close-up portrait and a full figure or environmental shot?

SD: It’s 100% different. If I am no longer close enough to see into their eyes, then somehow the environment has to tell the story. It can be equally successful, but it will definitely have a different emotional impact. There’s an undeniable intimacy between the viewer and the dog when that subject is looking the viewer right in the eye. When you back away and start to include an environment, the image will be more about the dog’s relationship to its surroundings, rather than to the viewer.

JW: What is your approach when photographing dogs in a group situation, such as at a dog run or something like the annual Halloween dog parade? Would you ever bring the dog to the edge or corner of the given space, to isolate them from the activities around them?

SD: I only did the Halloween parade once, and I got a photograph that day that remains one of my all-time favorites. That said, the dogs are stressed at those events, ergo not what I want. The dog run is usually good though, just not on busy days or high-volume hours.

But whatever the situation, I never move them. The least amount of change works better for me. In fact, I would say moving them can cause stress. I want them wherever they are, then I want them to be comfortable. I try to spend a few minutes with them first, if possible. I cannot be the enemy. If a dog is too hyper or too busy running around, I find another dog.

JW: What cameras and lenses do you use for your dog pictures? Are these images handheld, or do you use a tripod or any other accessories?

SD: I never use a tripod, ever for anything. In the beginning, the dog portraits were shot using a Canon 5D and a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 portrait lens. Later on, I became a Sony convert, and I now shoot with a Sony RX100 IV, or a Sony a7R III and Sony FE 100mm f/2.8 portrait lens. Never a flash, ever.

JW: Most of the portraits have a very limited depth of field. Is your lens wide-open to blur the background, or is the limited depth of field applied or enhanced in post?

SD: I usually shoot with a wide-open lens, for two reasons. 1: I am often shooting as the sun is setting, so I’m in low light, and 2: To blur my background. Most of these photos are taken in dog runs or out on the street, and I am not interested in the background.

JW: What, if any, editing or post production work do you do to your dog portraits?

SD: I use Adobe Photoshop in post, mostly for quick things like drool removal. Unlike people, who need to have all sorts of blemishes removed, dogs are pretty perfect.

JW: Many of your dog portraits are presented in a square format. Is this the native aspect ratio or do you crop from a 35mm frame? What is it about the square that you find appealing with these pictures?

SD: All the pictures are cropped from a 35mm rectangular format. It took me a long time to get into the square. Years of art college drilled it into my head—the square was tough. But with the onset of cell phones, Instagram and other social media platforms, the square is now part of our visual zeitgeist and I like it. When I want the surroundings to be less defined, I crop to the square format in post, resulting in a more traditional headshot format. I leave some images as full frame size, because I like where the dog is in the world at that moment and I think the surroundings are adding to a story.


JW: Most of your portraits feature beautiful catchlights in the dog’s eyes. Is this something you plan for when positioning the dog for a portrait?

SD: No time for that out there in the wilds of Manhattan—I’ve never had to worry about it. There seems to be light sources everywhere that end up in the eyes.

JW: Do you have any tips for how to capture a dog’s spirit through its eyes?

SD: You have to connect with the animal. There has to be real love and appreciation there. It’s hard to put into words, but I know when I see a soulless photo of any sentient being, there was no love connection.

JW: Do you have a favorite breed of dog to photograph?

SD: No. I love every last one of them; the little ones, the huge ones, the fat ones, the skinny ones, the quiet ones, the yappy ones...

JW: Have you done any work photographing other animals, or making portraits of a dog with its person? If so, how does this differ?

SD: A portrait of a person with their animals is always a home run to me—even more than a couple of people posing together. There is nothing more. The story is complete.

JW: Finally, do you make pet portraits on commission, and how can people reach you?

SD: Yes, I do portrait commissions. I can be reached through my website.

What are your favorite methods for picturing your pet? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

6 Comments

I really enjoyed these dog photos. I appreciate the photographer discussing what equipment and techniques she normally uses.  I was afraid she was using some ultra-sophisticated lighting set-up, so I was pleased to hear that she just uses natural lighting and a wide open portrait lens.  I'm going to try that on my dogs after a trip to the groomer.

Hi James, thanks for writing in to compliment Sally on her photos. It's amazing what one can do with some basic gear and an overriding passion for the subject. Have fun working with your best friends, and thanks for reading the Explora blog!

Really enjoyed your article and love the photos.  I have a Black Lab and love shooting her.  Thank you

Glad to hear you enjoyed this Q&A about Sally's pictures Lynnz S. Have fun photographing your black lab and thanks for reading the Explora blog! 

Enjoyed your article and photos. Thank you. I have been photographing dogs for 50 years. I now have 5 dogs of my own to use as models. I have found that later in the day, after running and playing, the dogs will more readily sit for the photo. They are like little kids, they need to burn energy off before you can sit the in one spot. On the other hand, I also like taking action shots at high speed.   My dogs compete and I belong to a dog obedience training club. This gives me many chances to photograph many breeds and in many situations, running, heeling, jumping, weaving and recalls. It is also nice when occasionally I run across a dog who is really born to sit for the camera  or ham it up.

Hi David, thanks for the insight about saving photo sessions until later in the day, after your dog has burned off some energy. This makes a lot of sense. And thanks for the compliment on Sally's photos, I'm sure she is thrilled by the feedback. It sounds like you're really in your element when it comes to canine photography. Keep up the good work and thanks for reading Explora!

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