Creating Pet Portraits in a Park

Author Recent Posts Nicole BegleyNicole Begley, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, is a zoological animal trainer turned pet photographer and educator. She created Hair of the Dog in 2012 to empower pet photographers to turn their dreams into reality by helping them improve their craft and grow their pet photography business.Nicole has authored a book “Pet and Equine […]

Written By Nicole Begley

On August 9, 2018

In this article you'll learn how to make park pet photos your clients will swoon over.

Holding pet photography sessions in local parks is a pretty popular location option, but it can also be one of the most challenging places to create an image.  There can be SO MUCH green and not much interest.  You can’t rely on interesting elements like columns, doorways, or buildings to build your composition…it’s all nature baby.

This is a recent image from a session, and I’m going to break down the elements that went into creating this image.  

5 Important elements for great park pet photos

  1. Lens choice
  2. Distance to background
  3. Background tones
  4. A kiss of backlight
  5. A slight hill

Let's dive into each of them. 

#1 – Lens Choice

I used my 70-200mm lens at 200mm and 2.8.  This creates that shallow depth of field but since I was at 200mm I could keep both dogs in focus.  (A longer focal distance gives you a deeper depth of field than shooting at 2.8 with 24mm). You can see that these dogs are sharp from nose to ears.

#2 – Distance to Background

That creamy background is created by having a good distance between my subject and the trees behind them.  They are probably about 50 meters behind the dogs, to start…and continue to go deeper into the background.  If they were in front of a line of trees or a line of tall grass, the background would not be as soft.  That distance between the subjects and the background is key.  (Bonus tip – if you don’t have a lens with a 2.8 aperture, get your longest focal length, even if it’s at 5.6, and get as much distance between your subject and the background – you’ll be surprised how much bokeh you can create)

#3 – Tones in the background

It’s important to look for backgrounds that are in the same tonal range as your subject.  This gives the image a cohesive feel and doesn’t pull your attention to the change in contrast.  Our eyes will often go to the point of highest contrast in an image, so make sure it’s not a change in your background.

#4 – Just a kiss of backlight

I remember when I was trying to shoot with backlight and I would be in FULL SUN backlight….that’s a recipe for disaster.  I love to look for areas like this, in which the sun is behind the trees off to the left of the frame and the backlighting is filters and soft.  That adds just that kiss of rim lighting around the back of the dog’s fur.  Remember to look for places in which your backlight is being filtered through trees, or if you are lucky enough, through a passing cloud!

#5 – A slight hill

You’ve got to get low and it helps if you can find a slight hill.  I’m not talking a ski slope, I’m talking about a very subtle grade.  If you put the dogs on the top of a little grade it allows you to create a horizon line in which you don’t see where the grass meets the tree line or the edge of the mowing area.  It allows almost the entire body of the dog to be against the background, which elevates the compositional interest of your image quickly and easily.  

3 critical things to avoid…


  1. Differences in tonality.
  2. A break in the grass.
  3. Shooting too high.


Let's break down each of these problems.


#1: Too much difference in tonality between where your subject is and the background. 

While you can pull the shadows up a little bit, that often adds some noise and degrades your image quality a bit.  A better option is to look for a background that is in the same tonal range as the grass that the dog is standing in.  

Like this photo:

#2: A clear line where manicured grass meets unmanicured grass. 

You can make this work by putting the dog IN the taller grass, because it often looks messy and distracting if the dog is in the manicured grass and the tall grass is behind them.  Like this cute puppy photo:


#3: Shooting too high. 

This is just an out-take to test exposure, but it’s taken at the same location as the first image that I shared of the two shelties.  Just look at the difference in the composition when you are standing up vs laying on the ground.  When you get low, you get the horizon line at the level of your subject, instead of above their head with them getting lost in a sea of green grass.


I hope that you found this useful!  Here is the straight out of camera file of this image. If you would like to learn more about removing the leash and the owner, check out this post.



Nicole Begley

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  1. tiffany stone

    Thank you for writing this article. I never considered the placement of a pet in regards to manicured/unmanicured grass. Those little details do make such a difference. I appreciate the included before shot at the end. Thanks for being one of those magicians that’ll share secrets!

  2. Michael Jackson

    I like the use of your own photography to emphasize the points you’re making. I also really love the fact that you put the BEFORE & AFTER shot. Great tips on the horizon lines.

    • Nicole

      Thanks Michael. I’m glad you found this helpful. It was a MAJOR a-ha once I figured some of this out! 🙂


    Thanks, Nicole! You’re awesome!

    • Nicole

      You are SO WELCOME!

  4. Linda Saper

    Awesome information! Thank you!


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