Just like any loving person in the spirit of Christmas, Kristen was looking for that special gift to surprise her boyfriend's mom for Christmas.
One day she saw my Instagram dog posts...and that gave her an idea! What if I surprised her with a big picture of their new puppy, Ava?
And in that simple spirit of generosity, I met Ava.
Ava was 9-months young when I met her, a white Golden Retriever puppy. Joey, Kristen's boyfriend, considers Ava the favorite child in his family. His mom and dad could care less about Joey at this point. Ava was their new baby.
So, in very deceptive fashion, Kristen and Joey came up with a fake story of why they needed to take Ava out one late afternoon. I don't condone deceptive behavior like this...but I have to admit the thrill of an undercover, super secret photo shoot for a secret Christmas present excited me.
The photo shoot started out like all other photo shoots: introducing myself to the furry model and letting her smell me and smell my camera. If the furry model has never seen a large camera , it can be frightening for her. It's a large, unfamiliar, strange black box. The sudden sharp sounds of the shutter snapping every second can be a surprising experience for any dog.
So that’s why I love seeing these close-ups of Ava when we first started. It shows her kinda unsure, start smelling my camera to figure out what's going on, and then eventually ease up a bit.
These are the kind of eyes that makes you just want to cuddle with her, or make you cave in and give her those cookies because look how cute she is.
But in dog language, she's also telling me she's unsure and a tad bit fearful. Her ears are down, and if you look closely in the background, her tail is low.
Now she starts using her main source of seeing the world: her nose.
I learned that when they open their mouths like this, it could still be a sign of nervousness. Her ears are still down so she’s still unsure of what’s going on here with this stranger with the strange black box. But for us humans, it gives off the appearance of a cute smile. What I love about dog photos is that this photo can look like all other dog photos…but for Kristen and Joey and Joey's mom and dad, photos like these mean the world to them. And the same goes for your dog. When you get your dog professionally photographed, they don’t become “just pictures of dogs” anymore, they become your fur-child's portraits and you see their portraits with more depth than anyone else can.
Now back to Ava's super secret, under-the-radar photo shoot.
Ava’s a 9-month young puppy. And in the dog world, we know that “puppy” = “endless amounts of energy.” And so for a one-hour photo shoot it was going to be quite a challenge. Of course, having a well-trained and well-behaved dog helps a lot, but for most of us we don’t have a dog that will sit, lie down, and look at the camera on perfect command. In fact, as soon as we pull out our cameras, our dogs will do the exact opposite!
If you have a puppy, or a very high-energetic dog; and you’d like to try to capture a photo of your dog, one of the very best things you can do is to get them tired. That means run them around, take them for a long walk, play with them. Get all of that energy out of the way. You can think of it like this: what if I gave you three shots of espresso before your photo shoot? If it was me, I’d feel like I needed to run three miles before I can focus and try to sit still for a minute. That's your dog. And they come with natural espresso inside of them.
For the first 15-20 minutes or so, were just walked Ava around the park and let her to sniff around to her heart’s content. It was a brand new park for her, so of course there were going to be a lot of distractions and and new scents to smell.
And here, she's already settling down. Ava knows some basic commands like lie down, so here we have her finally being cooperative for a whole 45 seconds to get some moments like these:
And I just want to say that I LOVE taking photos of dogs outdoors. It just feels like they’re at their happiest, natural state. Do you see that little piece of grass on her nose, and her paw on the left? That just cracks me up. It just tells me that she’s a dog through and through, and she loves to roll around in the grass. Especially after when she's groomed and cleaned.
Here’s another one of her with grass on her nose
I especially like this image because she still has that puppy-like appearance. Her 1st birthday was two months ago, and she looks like an adult golden retriever already. So I’m glad that they asked me to capture images of Ava in her puppy stage. They grow up to be adults at only 1 year old, so there’s a small window of getting pictures of them like this. If you or you know someone with a puppy, please get in touch.
Speaking of puppies, this next series of three images is purely puppy Ava:
To help her focus and play, I brought a toy. You can tell I'm still tugging on it because the rope goes off the photo at the bottom there.
Now she’s got my toy.
And....there she goes!
The next three are some of my favorites from any photo shoot.
I forgot to mention the jingle bells! I totally forgot to bring that up but you’ve probably noticed already that Ava is wearing a collar with jingle bells. This is a Christmas puppy photo shoot, so that was a fun detail to add.
And finally, we now come to a close of our photo shoot.
Remember what I said earlier before, about draining a puppy’s energy before a photo shoot? Well by the end of our photo shoot, Ava’s energy was now winding down and she was being unusually cooperative.
Would you look at that? She’s now sitting perfectly for us. Her ears are forward and relaxed, and we finally see her true golden retriever face.
A nice profile view! You don’t always have to get the dog looking at you straight into the camera. I’m trying to capture memories for a lifetime, so different angles are just as important.
And alas, about an hour later, we have our Golden Retriever calendar model. Satisfied, content, relaxed, and posing perfectly for us.
So can you guess which portrait of Ava did Kristen and Joey pick for his mom's Christmas present?
On deciding a large portrait to hang in your home, I like to advise my clients that they should try to pick a size so that the face of your dog is as "life-sized" as possible.
In other words, if you were to put Ava side-by-side with her final printed photograph, her head in the photograph should be just about the same size (or larger) then her real life self. This same principle goes for humans too. Do you ever wonder how some portraits at the museum have such a stunning impact when you see it? One of the reasons is because of the size of the subject's face. Humanly, there's more connection because it feels real. Or think about a life-sized cut-out of a celebrity. How many double-takes have you had to do to realize it wasn't the actual person standing there?
In Kristen and Joey's instance, they ordered a 20x30 frameless thinwrap. So with a 20x30 size, I suggested they go with an image where Ava's sweet mug fills more of the frame than the other photos (like the "calendar model" one wouldn't qualify because her face would still look small).
And the end result turned out so good that I ordered myself my own 20x30 of Ava for our own home.
If you're like Kristen and Joey, you'd have trouble picking out your favorite among so many great moments of Ava, but they decided on this one:
Now his mom's house has this big, beautiful, silly, dorky face filling up their home's space.
Here's what I meant by that side-by-side comparison I was talking about earlier.
I know, she looks like a cute stuffed animal that needs a haircut, but that's our Westie-Schnauzer mix, Maya. Maya’s face is not as big as Ava’s face in real life, but the scale seems pretty close to me if we were to put those two together in real-life.
So enough of my rabbit trail. How does this story end?
“They absolutely loved it! They actually started crying when they saw it!”
Kristen texted me that on the week of Christmas. What’s funny is the gift was just for Joey’s mom, but she said they started crying, so I’m going to guess both his mom and dad cried.
All credit goes to the fun, loving, generous, and beautiful couple, Kristen and Joey, who wanted to find that perfect gift for mom. You two were so fun to work with, and I enjoyed our undercover mission together.
For the rest of you, it's not too late to still reserve a dog photography session for the dog-mom in your life. You can still surprise her with a Gift Certificate that you bought a Dog Photography session for her fur-child.
Get mom, your wife, or someone special a different gift this year that will make her cry tears of joy:
Dog Photography sessions starts at $500. But for a limited time you can reserve one at $300. You can save $200 AND make mom the happiest dog-mom in the world.