Pet Photography Tip #5: Camera Settings

Now that we’ve talked about a few of the elements that make a good photo, let’s talk about how we get that photo. It’s time to get a little less artsy and a little more technical. Today we’ll delve into the different settings on your camera and what they do for your photos.

I’m going to preface this by saying that I do shoot with a dSLR, but these are important things to know, even when you’re shooting with a point and shoot or mid-range camera. Even your simple point and shoots frequently have modes other than automatic than can help a novice photographer shoot better under certain conditions.

It is very important to understand what all that fancy ‘photog terminology’ means and how you can use it to your advantage. I’m going to keep this discussion to things that are available to your average user. We’re not trying to make a professional photographer here; we’re just trying to get better photos of our pets, and I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but I’m on a budget! A $14k lens is just not going to happen!

Shutter Speed
The first and simplest technical aspect of photography is shutter speed. The shutter is the part of the camera that opens, allowing light to travel through the camera to record the image. The shutter speed, as you may have guessed, refers to how fast the shutter opens and closes.

Obviously, the longer the shutter is open, the more light it lets in. It makes sense, then, that if you leave your camera in auto mode while shooting in low light, the shutter speed will be slower (the shutter will be open longer). The problem is that a slower shutter speed means more potential for blur.

In pet photography, shutter speed is often key to getting a good, clear image. Dogs move, run, spring, and generally don’t hold still. It is important to have a fast shutter speed to keep up with their movements. You want a dog’s face to be in focus, even if he’s sprinting at the camera at Mach 10! If you’re shooting in broad daylight, this is pretty simple, and even in auto mode, the camera should pick a fast shutter speed.

In the shady woods, a fast shutter is key to preventing blur like this.

However, dogs aren’t always outside running in the sunshine. Sometimes we’re hiking in the woods, or playing in our living room, or it’s just not a sunny day. In those moments, our cameras sacrifice shutter speed to let in more light while maintaining depth of field and image quality. When we shoot a moving subject, however, we need to over ride our cameras and bump the shutter speed to keep our pictures in focus. This article will cover more about modes below.

Obviously, there’s more to photography than shutter speed. The shutter can only go so fast in poor light before the photo gets dark. Thankfully, there is another way to let in more light without sacrificing speed.

The aperture refers to how wide the camera shutter opens. Obviously, the wider the aperture, the more light it lets in. The aperture setting, or f-stop, can be a bit tricky to grasp at first. Basically, the lower the f-stop number, the bigger the opening, and the more light the camera lets in. For example, an f-stop of f/1.8 lets in a lot more light than an f-stop of f/5.6.

The problem is that it’s much more complicated than that. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field, meaning that the lower the f-stop, the less of the photo is in focus. That’s how people get those neat photos where the background is blurry and the dog is in focus (this concept is called bokeh). If you’re shooting from any kind of a distance, as we so often do with dogs, it becomes very tough to keep the whole dog in focus at a low f-stop.

So let’s recap:
Low f-stop= big opening= more light= small depth of field
High f-stop= small opening= less light= big depth of field

If you want to blur your background or focus on just part of your dog (as with a macro photo), use a low f-stop. If you want to shoot a fast moving subject with your background in focus, use a high f-stop.

This photo was taken at f/9 to keep the whole background in focus.

So what do you do if you’re shooting a moving dog in low light and you want your background in focus? The next setting you can control is your ISO, or the sensitivity of the camera sensor.

In film photography, ISO was determined by the film. Film was comprised of ‘grains’ of light sensitive material. The higher the ISO, the more ‘sensitive’ the sensor/film. Basically, the camera picks up more light with a higher ISO.

However, ISO should be the last setting to bump because the higher the ISO, the higher the ‘noise’ or ‘grain’ in the image.

A high ISO leads to a lot of noise, as seen in Mike’s jacket, skin, and jeans here.

Personally, I tend to shoot at 400 ISO as a default. It allows for a fast shutter speed in most light, without adding grain to the image. When dealing with still subjects in good light, I will drop the ISO further. When indoors, I bump it to 800. In truly atrocious lighting conditions, I will go all the way up to ISO 1600.

A common solution to low light situations is to use flash. This is something that I strongly advise against Most cameras have an in camera flash. Unless you’re using a dSLR with a diffuser attachment, don’t bother! In camera flashes create harsh, flat lighting, dramatic, distracting shadows, and, worst of all, red eye!

Nasty red-eye effect from in-camera flash.

If you are interested in shooting your pets indoors, your best bet is to invest in an external flash. As far as photography equipment goes, they are pretty affordable, and the difference is incredible. External flashes allow the photographer to control the angle of the flash (allowing the photographer to bounce light off the ceiling and walls instead of blinding the subject). They also make it possible to use more or less flash. Sometimes you only need a little extra light, and too much flash can ruin the photo.

For comparison, a photo taken with external flash. The lighting looks much more natural. (I know, I know, not a dog…)

With point and shoots, you’re better off just setting up ‘studio lighting’ by bringing more light sources into the room.

White Balance
The white balance of a camera is what gives photos their ‘tint’ or ‘hue’. The white balance can give a photo a ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ feeling. An improper white balance can shift an entire photo so that it looks slightly green or slightly pink or just… off.

The good news is that most modern cameras have a pretty good ‘auto white balance’, but it’s still a good idea to play with your individual camera and see what feel you like the best.

White balance varies from camera to camera. Canon cameras tend to have a ‘warm’ feel, while Nikons tend to lean toward the cool end of the spectrum. I tend to shoot with the ‘outdoor’ white balance on my Canon. I like the warm glow it gives my photos.

A cool photo, where the ‘whites’ look ‘blue’.

A warm photo, where the ‘whites’ look ‘golden’.

You can also set your white balance manually, but that’s a complex process that needs to be done continuously for good results. If you’re up to the challenge, the best advice I can give is to look it up in your owner’s manual.

Enough technical mumbo jumbo! Let’s talk about what all of this means for you. Now that you know about how all the different aspects work, let’s talk about what modes give you control over what settings. Most people shoot in automatic, which is the one mode I avoid no matter what.

Many cameras give you certain pre-programmed modes that you can play with. For example ‘portrait mode’ and ‘landscape mode’. These are all created using certain algorithms that prioritize what the camera makers think will be most important in those scenarios. In landscape mode, for example, the aperture needs to allow for a large depth of field. Portrait mode is designed with white balance in mind, so that skin tones look natural and flattering.

But the most important modes on your camera are the ‘priority’ modes. Let’s discuss them one by one.

My favorite mode, and the one I use most frequently when taking day to day photos of my dog, is P or ‘Program Mode’. P allows you to select certain settings without overwhelming you with the other options. The flash is off by default and you can select your ISO and white balance, rather than taking the pre-programmed options. The camera does the rest to create the best exposure in your given circumstances. You have the added option of choosing to over or under expose your image (if you’re going for a darker feel or you’re shooting a black subject, for example) and the camera adjusts accordingly. If you have no interest in worrying about all the settings, but want to step up from auto mode, this is your best bet.

Another option is ‘Shutter Priority’, frequently labeled ‘Tv’. This mode allows you to select your shutter speed (for example, fast for a running dog, or slow for an intentional blurred effect). The camera adjusts everything else to compensate and create the proper exposure.

Aperture Priority’ is the counter part, and is frequently labeled ‘Av’. As you can probably guess, Av allows you to select your f-stop and compensates with everything else. If you are looking to blur your background, or, alternately, want to ensure multiple dogs stay in focus, this is a good mode to try.

Once you get comfortable playing with all that, you can dive in and try to go full ‘Manual‘. As the name implies ‘M’ lets you pick all of your settings, completely from scratch. This mode produces the best results, but takes some multi-tasking and a lot of practice. It’s great for controlling all the tricky aspects of your photography, but is not good if you’re shooting in rapidly changing conditions or need to work fast to capture essential moments.

Your best bet is to really read your manual and experiment. My personal recommendations for dog photography, however, are ‘P’ or ‘Tv’.

(Quick Tip:
There are lots of other settings that  you can customize. One of the most important for shooting animals, especially in motion, is continuous shoot, which allows you to take multiple photos in a row by holding down the shutter button. This way you get a burst of photos and can pick the best pose when you’re done.)

There’s more to photography than just the camera, however, and there are a multitude of lenses to choose from. They range from affordable to insane and there are a lot of factors to keep in mind.

Lens length is measured in mm. The way I remember it is that 35mm is your standard lens, or what we see with our eyes. That means if you take a photo at 35mm it should match what you see with your eyes. Anything higher than that is a zoom lens. Anything lower than that is a wide angle. The down side to wide angles is that you have to get close to your subject and they have a bit of a ‘fish eye effect’. The down side to zoom lenses is that you have to back away from your subject and you get some distortion from the zoom, called pin cushion distortion. In both cases, the outside edges of the photo suffer from a little bit of distortion, as explained in this article.

As usual, these are just my personal preferences.

I think a zoom lens is a great idea. Getting some distance from your dogs is a great way to ensure that you don’t end up with nose prints and blurry close ups. It’s often easier to zoom in than compose a shot up close.

The other essential lens, especially if you’re competing in dog sports, is a lens with a low f-stop option. For example, I have a 50mm f1.8 lens that I use for shooting horse shows in indoor arenas. The problem of this lens is that it’s fixed zoom and I have to ‘zoom with my feet’ or crop photos afterwards (more on post processing in a later article!)

Regardless of what lens you get, it’s a good idea to be familiar with your strengths and weaknesses and plan around them.

Educating Yourself
And now for your homework! The best way to learn about settings is to browse photos you like and check out the EXIF info, aka the camera settings for the shot. Digital cameras ‘burn’ that information right onto the photos and there are many websites (deviantArt and Flickr for example) that make it easily accessible. Scrolling through this information can answer questions about how to get the look you’re seeking. The more photos you see and take, the better feel you’ll get for what tricks work!

An example of EXIF data (and now you know what it means!)

5 thoughts on “Pet Photography Tip #5: Camera Settings

    • There are a lot of things you can improve with post processing, but the better your in-camera image is to begin with, the better your end result is likely to be.

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