If you’re looking for a little adventure inspiration, you might want to consider scrolling through the Instagram feed of a four-year-old golden retriever named Aspen. You’ll find him standing high above Canada’s crystal blue Lake Louise, emerging soaking wet from a swim in a Texas creek or trekking through fresh snow in the Colorado Rockies. The combination of adorable dog, stunning backdrops and killer photography has gotten “Aspen the Mountain Pup,” as he’s known on Instagram, nearly 200,000 followers since spouses and photographers Hunter and Sarah Lawrence created the account last year. “It just started as a place to put funny photos of Aspen,” says Hunter Lawrence.
After moving to Colorado a few years back, the couple fell in love with the outdoors and was soon doing some sort of activity, with Aspen in tow, just about every weekend “He just started becoming the subject of a lot of our photos. Whether we were on a hike or camping or it was snowing outside, we found ourselves taking some really fun photos of our dog in these kinds of exotic environments,” Lawrence explains. “We figured, hey, we have some fun content to share, but we never imagined it would turn into what it’s turned into with him. That was never the intent.”
It was during an “impulsive road trip to Canada” that Lawrence snapped the photo of Aspen in a canoe that put the pup on the path to Instagram stardom. They posted it to Instagram and then spent a few days without cell or Internet service until they crossed back into the U.S. “That’s when we logged back into Aspen’s account and saw how many thousands of new followers we had received because of that photo,” says Lawrence. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, what is happening?’ It got picked up and shared and reposted and reposted.” It’s now so well known that the photo has been turned into memes, sketched by artists and used in art classes.
The couple recently moved back to their home state of Texas, settling in Austin where they now get to photograph their favorite four-legged subject in a whole new environment. “We’re getting out and realizing there are quite a few beautiful new places to take him to,” says Lawrence.
Here, Lawrence offers some tips for taking photos of your own adventure pup.
Figure out what your pooch loves doing.
You’re never going to get a good shot if you’re trying to force your dog to do something he doesn’t want to do. The best photos are going to come when Fido’s blissfully engaged in an activity he loves. As for those photos of Aspen covered in snow or wading through a river? “That’s all him,” Lawrence says. “He loves the snow and loves water. A lot of it is catching him doing his thing, which is the most fun part of it all. This is what he enjoys. He’s out there and he’s having a blast.”
The couple got Aspen trained as a pup and it helps a lot with many of the photos. “We’ll tell him to sit on a rock and he’ll sit there. When he’s done, we’ll say, ‘OK,’ and he’ll release. He’s just been a well-trained dog from the get-go. There’s no way you can photograph a dog that has no training at all,” says Lawrence. And whether you do it yourself, take him to obedience class or hire a trainer, teaching your dog basic commands is pretty much a good idea no matter what. “Part of it is learning how your dog responds to you. And we’ve learned dogs are much happier when they’re well-trained,” he adds. “You’re pleased to have them around; they’re pleased to be around you. It’s pretty essential.”
Don’t plan ahead too much.
It’s fine to have a destination in mind, but Lawrence admits that some of the couple’s best shots of Aspen have come from stumbling into something unexpected. “We just see things as we’re going most of the time,” he says. “A lot of it is just about discovering hidden little places, which is really fun.”
Level with him.
Lawrence points out that while we humans are used to seeing everything from five or six feet from the ground, dogs have a completely different perspective, which can be cool to capture. “Sarah and I both try to think about ‘Hey, how is Aspen seeing this?’ If he is coming out of the water we put the camera at an angle where we kind of capture that as opposed to just looking down to him. And it has a whole different feel to it. Having your dog just looking up at you kind of gets old.” And sorry, those cool swimming shots typically don’t happen with the photographer on dry land. “Sometimes we’re knee deep in the water, sometimes we’re waist deep in the water.”
Get out there on a cloudy day.
Shadows are pretty much a photographer’s enemy, so jump on the chance to shoot your dog a cloudy day where you don’t have to worry about them at all. That doesn’t mean, however, you can’t shoot your dog on a beautiful sunny day. “You can make it work, you just want to avoid putting the subject somewhere that is overshadowed compared to the rest of the environment,” says Lawrence, who relies only on natural light to shoot Aspen. “If you have a really bright backdrop and you put your dog in a dark environment like underneath a tree, it can look really funny. Somewhere where there is even light distribution is always best.”
Your iPhone is just fine.
Lawrence is a firm believer in the philosophy that the best camera is the one you always take with you. “You don’t have to spend a couple of thousands of dollars on gear. It’s whatever camera fits into your daily life,” he says. “An iPhone is a great way to start. And on extensive hikes, you don’t want super heavy gear and extra pounds in your pack.”