The camera looks both ways

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Imagine having your portrait made by two different photographers.  One is fun, energetic,  and makes the session a great time.  The other photographer gets you feeling nervous as he barks orders at you from behind the camera.  How different will your expressions be in those two sets of portraits?  Imagine the results from a third photographer who is clearly troubled over something and even tears up during your session.

There’s an old saying in portrait photography:  “The camera looks both ways.”  The energy and emotion we bring as photographers are often reflected back to us and into our images.  If you want a photo of a smiling baby, do you think saying “cheese” or popping your head out from behind the camera with a big smile and possibly putting on a silly hat will yield better results?  This same principle works with our four-legged subjects. 

My thinking is, “Be the emotion you want to see.”  It sounds simple enough, but our cameras can really get in the way here.  So much of our emotional communication happens through our faces, which we photographers hide behind a camera.  So a trick to work on is being able to compose your shot and then bring your head out so you can make eye contact with your subject.  When you do this I recommend you shoot a bit wider than you otherwise would, and plan to crop later.  This will leave you some room in case the camera moves when you move your head.

This technique works especially well for capturing fun play sessions.  Try getting down on the floor and playing with your friend.  Have your camera next to you and mix playing with taking photos.  It takes some practice to get this technique down, but it’s great fun.  The key is to not lose your connection with your friend while you make photos.  You can use you voice and gestures to help stay connected.  Sometimes you can even turn the whole thing into a fun game of peek-a-boo.  If your subject loses interest in you then set the camera down and rebuild the connection. 


Fun photo sessions make for fun photos!

All your hard work learning your camera so well that operating it is instinctive will pay off big here.  Few things seem to bore my four-legged subjects more than if I stop to fiddle with my camera.  Although some have kindly thought to help by pushing their noses into the camera. 

After you’ve spent awhile capturing fun play time you can try being mellow.  If you’re patient you’ll find your subject is likely to become mellow, too.  At first they may try for more play, but if you wait and stay calm — conveying it in your voice and actions — oftentimes they’ll mellow out too.  Yawning can help.  Once the pace shifts you can make some soulful images of your friend at ease.  Bringing your head out from behind the camera can work really well here, too.  But now you want to exude calm energy versus the bouncy, fun energy from earlier.

This month’s assignment

Have Fun! Or pick any other kind of energy or emotion and create a photo that has your furry friend mirroring it back.  I’m looking forward to your photos!


To help us learn even more from each other, I’d love it if along with your photo you’d include a note about your experience with the session. We’ll share this in the web component of our class, and in the magazine as space permits.  I’d love to hear about any challenges you had in creating your photo, key things you learned, what you love about the photo, and/or just fun stories about the shoot.

Class Recap

  • Try the exercise
  • Send your photos from the assignment to: Please put “Spot Photo Class” in the subject line
  • Go to Photography 101 on Spot's website to see your photos and those of your fellow students
  • Share your great work with your friends!
  • Check out David’s tips and comments
  • Meet David here in February for your next session!
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David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at

Study with David live! His pet photography classes are offered at Oregon Humane Society. See his website for details.

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