Pet Photography Tips with Elke Vogelsang

Elke Vogelsang is a photographer from Germany specializing in portrait and pet photography. We love Elke's unique perspective on pet photography, and today, she's sharing some tips on how to capture those little moments with your pets to make them shine.

Tell us a little about yourself and your photography.

My name is Elke Vogelsang. I'm a commercial and editorial photographer living in Germany with my family and three dogs. I specialize in pet photography and I'm mostly known for my quirky dog portraits.

Dog funny sticking head in hedge

When did you decide to get into pet photography?

I grew up in a photography- and dog-loving family. When “Noodles,” my first dog, joined us, I felt I needed to improve my photographic skills to do justice to her beauty and charming character.

When my husband was taken seriously ill in 2009, I began taking a one-picture-a-day project to try to keep up a bit of normality and have a visual diary for my husband while he was in an induced coma and later on had no short-term memory at all. Often, my dogs found themselves in front of my camera which, alongside my photography were a welcome distraction. Thankfully, my husband recovered fully. But photography had turned into a passion of mine and I couldn't and didn't want to stop taking pictures and being creative with photography. More and more people asked me if I could photograph their dog, too. Finally, I decided to create a more "interesting" (or even exciting) life and registered a business as a photographer. After only a few years, I was able to leave behind my job as a technical translator and work full time as a professional photographer specializing in pet portraiture.

dog surrounded by bubbles on blue background

My photographs of dogs have gained international fame, awarded with appearances on television, including the Good Morning America show, and features in publications worldwide, among them, National Geographic, The Daily Telegraph, The Huffington Post, La Repubblica, and many more. My work has also been on the covers of dozens of magazines, including The Sunday Times Magazine. So, maybe every cloud does actually have a silver lining.

What gear do you use for your photos?

I'm a Fujifilm X photographer. My camera of choice is the Fujifilm X-T3. It's fast and reliable. For dogs in action, you need fast equipment. In the studio, the Fujinon 16-55mm f/2.8 is my favorite lens as I love to take a few quirky, wide-angle shots as well as some more elegant ones with the light telephoto range.

Dalmation smiling at camera on green grass

For my outdoor pictures, I love to use the telephoto lens Fujinon 50-140mm f/2.8, but I'm also a huge fan of prime lenses, especially when I'm out and about with my own dogs and want to keep the equipment as light-weight as possible. The Fujinon 50mm f/2 is my favorite lens for lots of occasions.

Can you give us a couple of tips on getting the best pet photos? How do you get the animals to behave? And how many shots does it take until you get the perfect one?

Over the years I’ve met hundreds of different dogs and I still keep learning how to motivate them with every single individual.

I also work with rescue dogs, going to Morocco to document the lives of stray dogs and the work of animal rescue organizations there. I took pictures of the dogs living on the streets and had to document whatever I was presented with. I couldn’t throw treats or get out a squeaker. Here I have to learn to wait for the decisive moment. Furthermore, I often have former stray dogs in my studio, which are in need of a home. They don't know any commands yet and can pose a real challenge. You learn how to motivate them in a calm but persistent way, making sure they gain trust and finally have fun.

Cute brown dog with a head tilt and white background

Generally, I'm never afraid of making a fool out of myself in order to get a surprised or interesting look from a dog. I do animal noises, whisper, squeak, whatever surprising sound I may come up with. I always start at low volume to not scare the dog. If the dog is too cool for this, I also have a variety of different sound-makers, which might cause a cute head tilt even from the most relaxed senior dog. There are kazoos, animal noise apps on the phone, hunting whistles, flutes, etc.

Most dogs would do anything for treats. Again, start with something low-priority with dogs you don't know. A treat obsessed beagle or labrador might otherwise now sit on your lap instead of posing for your picture. But for cooler dogs, I have bacon cream or liver paté.

white dog with mouth open ready for treat on gray background

If neither sounds nor treats interest my model, I try toys to attract the dog's attention and gaze. Some dogs react better to toys, but again, be careful. The energetic terrier might actually be a ball junkie and look utterly crazy when a ball is presented to him. Ask the owner a few questions about the dog's behavior beforehand.

It's also great to use the owner to entertain the dog. When my model is a very obedient dog who's not that much interested in my tricks, but rather looks at his owner for instructions, I let the owner hide somewhere to get the dog's ears up in bewilderment.

Adapt your approach to the individual dog. The energetic terrier might need action to really enjoy the session, while the sensitive sighthound might prefer a very calm environment and some super treats.

The key is patience, trust, repetition and lots and lots of bribery.

Another super important step in the process is to leave out the boring pictures and develop an eye for the ones that are indeed a bit more special. There's always that one shot that is slightly better than the rest. For this you need to keep on shooting, comparing, becoming critical about your pictures, repeat the process.

Dog funny close up on nose

There are some things I always try to achieve in my photos when it comes to composition or picture quality. First of all, I always try to get the eyes tack sharp. Furthermore, I try to go for unusual perspectives. I usually take photos on the animal's eye level or even below that. Why not try to get a bird's eye view on your subject? Make your photo more interesting by showing the world from a perspective that's different from our everyday view. I always make sure that there are visible highlights in the eyes. The background is just as important as the subject. Try to choose a background which suits the subject. The subject should be clearly visible and not blend into the background. Try to avoid distracting objects in the background. If it's not part of the story, it should not be part of the picture.

The best way to improve your pet photography is to practice, practice, and practice. And to get interesting pet photos, you should be willing to get your clothes dirty.

What's the most rewarding part about pet photography?

As I love dogs tremendously, it's a huge joy to be able to get to know so many individual characters among my models. Each and every one of them is so unique and amazing. Every photo session is unpredictable. I love the surprises and challenges.

dog smiling at camera with only mouth, nose and teeth showing

Any tips for someone looking to break into the pet photography field?

Meet as many different dogs as possible. Enjoy what you do and make sure your models enjoy the photo session as well.

Brown dog with paws on latter looking right at the camera

Also, meet with other pet photographers. There are quite a few out there. Connect and share. You will learn from others and others will learn from you. If you need to practice taking photos of pets and you haven't got a model, ask your local animal shelter if you can take pictures of the dogs or cats there. You might even find a home for one or two thanks to your photos.

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