Waterfowler's World: Photographing Your Retriever

Pro tips for preserving cherished moments with your favorite hunting partner

© BillBuckley.com

By Bill Buckley

When Annie came into my life, I was determined to make her the most-photographed Lab in America. At 13 months, she was long past the puppy stage, but in the following years I made up for it, capturing her first goose retrieves, her maniacal enthusiasm for retrieving bumpers in a nearby lake, and her penchant for starting each day by stealing a sock from the laundry pile.

As she got older and arthritis set in, my dedication to recording her life waned a bit. But as she morphed into more of a yard dog, new opportunities arose. Her love of birdseed made her an accepted member of the neighborhood flock of turkeys, the occasional deer herd, and even a passel of chipmunks. Her increasingly longer naps with her blue ball beside her—just in case—became some of my favorite photo ops. Still, I wish I'd taken more pictures and videos.

To capture memorable images of your faithful hunting companion, consider the following. 

Be Camera Ready

The key to getting great pictures of your dog is having your camera or cell phone within easy reach. Special moments happen in a flash, and they're often over by the time you fish your camera out of the blind bag. Spend as much time hunting for interesting pictures as you do for ducks. Good images don't just happen; they're made by being attentive and recognizing when everything is right. In the field, have your camera turned on and set to an ISO and shutter speed that will ensure sharp pictures. To stop action, 1/500 of a second should be your minimum shutter speed, with 1/1000 ideal. For sharp, stationary shots, you'll want to be in the 1/125 to 1/250 range. 

Good Light and Low Angles

Shooting in early morning or late afternoon sunlight will always produce better pictures than the middle of the day, when the sun is high. Kneel down to get on or below your dog's eye level, which will make him look more intense and show the environment from his perspective. If you want to replicate the pictures you see in Ducks Unlimited magazine, be willing to put down your shotgun and have a camera in hand. Your retriever will never look better than when he's locked onto incoming birds and anticipating guns going off. Also, take advantage of those slow days when prospects for hunting are poor but your dog doesn't know it. A dog looking skyward will have illuminated eyes and beautiful highlights. 

Cajole, Don't Coerce

I've photographed dogs in situations in which the owners manhandled them into the position they wanted. I've done it myself, and it never works. Happy, confident dogs with ears up and fire in their eyes make for good pictures; scolded, timid dogs don't. If you're trying to set up a photo opportunity, make it fun for the dog. 

Capture Your Dog's Best Traits

If your dog is a powerhouse, photograph him doing spectacular water entries and hard-charging retrieves. A picture of a dog in front of a row of dead birds does little to convey his intensity and physicality. If your dog is sweet and outgoing, get images of him with your friends, and be sure to ask them to photograph the two of you interacting. Those moments will often mean more to you than any others.

Home Life and Down Time

Because most of our dogs are much more than just hunting tools, your photos should also capture your retriever's personality at home, interacting with family, during play time, and before and after hunts. Two of my favorite pictures are of Annie holding a dirty sock on my front porch and sacked out in the back seat, head resting on a gun case. Those images tell stories—the litmus test for all good pictures.

Have Cell Phone, Will Video

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but even the best ones only record a moment in time. Videos can capture so much more, and cell phones make shooting them a breeze. Record your dog retrieving a goose, playing with your kids, or digging up your flower beds. Whatever the activity, videos will bring your retriever back to life long after he's gone.