Pet Photography Tip #2: Lighting

Now that we’ve talked about the ‘book smarts’ behind taking good pictures of your dog, let’s start getting into some of the technical stuff that goes into taking pictures of your pet. We’ll start by discussing something that every aspiring photographer has to deal with… lighting. In most circumstances, there is not a lot you can do to control the light in a given situation. Unless you have a fancy studio set up (and let’s face it, most of us don’t) you kind of have to work with what you’re given. When we get to talking about your camera settings, I’ll cover more about shooting in low light and tricky situations. Today let’s just talk about the basics of lighting. In the mean time, here are some tips on working with what you’ve got!

Let’s start by talking about ideal lighting conditions. While this is sort of a matter of personal preference, there are definitely conditions in which it is easier to shoot, and which produce consistent good results.

For the most part, when it comes to pet photography, you’re looking to get clear, detailed shots of your pet. Whether the dog is looking adorable snuggling with his best friend or running full tilt down the beach, you want to capture detail and wind up with a shot that is in focus and easy to see. You want to avoid deep shadows on the dog’s face, washed out areas, and lens glare. Angle of light and time of day are both very important factors to keep in mind.

For me, the ideal lighting situation is a bright, sunny day, preferably mid-morning or early evening. The most important thing I can say about shooting in these conditions is to keep the sun behind you. This means you are shooting towards your shadow. The sun is illuminating your subject and you aren’t squinting into the horizon, wishing you were wearing sunglasses. Obviously, this is hard to do around noon, when the sun is directly above you. The closer to dawn and dusk you shoot, the more dramatic your light will be, and the richer your colors will become.

Obviously, you can’t move the sun and dogs are moving subjects that frequently change position. This is when photography becomes a sport of sorts as you use your feet to get the best angle for a photo.

This photo, for example, was taken near sunset at the beach:

As you can see, Herbie’s elongated shadow is pointing away from the camera. The details in her face and coat are lit up for all to see. The colors in the background are rich. The photo is clear and there are no shadows to distort Herbie’s features.

With that said, there are times when direct sunlight is a disadvantage. Herbie especially presents a challenge for photography because she is white. I frequently get questions about taking pictures of black and white animals, and I freely admit they are much tougher to get good pictures of. I have had great success using the same angle of light (light source behind you) while the animal is in a shady spot.  With the same mysterious camera settings that I will discuss later, dark and light animals suddenly become properly exposed.

You can even see the swirl’s in this white puppy’s coat.

As you can probably tell by now, I love to shoot photos outside. However, there are ways to take advantage of nature indoors when it comes to photography. One of my favorite things to do is a spotlight technique using rays of light indoors. By having the dog in a sunny spot in the house, I am able to create a beautifully illuminated subject with a dark background (to hide, for example, our hideous kitchen floor).

In this photo, I took advantage of a sunny spot in the kitchen to really light up a young Herbie. The clutter and linoleum of the background become invisible while the wrinkles of puppy skin are emphasized. The angle of light in this shot is from the right, which casts dramatic shadows and, in my opinion, enhances the photo.

The great thing about lighting is that you can do a lot of experimenting with it. Light can be used for a lot more than just showing your subject clearly and in great detail. It can be used to create mood or even tell a story. Once again, we’ll delve more into this topic in future posts.

When it comes to experimenting, I love nothing more than a good silhouette shot. In this technique, you actually do the opposite of ‘ideal’ light and shoot directly into your light source. This combined with a ‘blank’ background (the sky for example) creates some really awesome effects. My personal favorite is shooting into the sunset.

Ok, so it’s not technically a dog, but you get the idea!

Just remember that lighting is just one aspect of photography, and you can get a great shot even if the conditions are against you. This next photo was taken shortly after sunset, in low light, facing three quarters into the light, and without a blank background for a cool silhouette:

Sometimes there is just nothing you can do about lighting. Your dog decides to do something exciting and/or adorable and you’re facing into the sun or it’s a cloudy day. You have to make the best of your conditions or miss the shot. What do you do then? Check back for more posts on camera settings for tricky conditions and easy tricks for ‘saving’ a photo that came out less than perfect.

9 thoughts on “Pet Photography Tip #2: Lighting

  1. I can tell this is going to be a useful series. I have heard about the magical rays that happen in mid-morning and early evening, but I always find myself out with the dogs around noontime, when the light seems to be harshest. =P They stare at me all impatiently, keeping me from getting anything done, until I take them out! Maybe I’ll try mornings, if I can get myself moving and active enough. *laugh*

    Looking forward to more tips.

  2. I really, really love the very first picture in this entry.

    I need all the photography tips I can get, so thanks very much for this series! It may have helped if my camera had come with more of a manual than just a few stapled pages, but I don’t think it’s the camera’s fault!

    • What kind of camera do you have Jen? Sometimes you can track down way better manuals online. My camera came with a pretty crappy manual and it turned out someone wrote a whole book outlining how to use it. It was immensely helpful!

  3. I am so happy that you are doing this series. There have been several occasions after reading your post and gazing at your photos, that I’ve wanted to ask how you do it. Now you are doing this series, what a gift! Thanks Dom!

    (the comment verification is a bit annoying on here though…) :-)

      • Does wordpress allow us to ‘approve’ comments via email? I’ve found that’s a good way to keep spam from popping up without turning readers off to the commenting process. I honestly scroll right past most blogs with WV.

        • Usually I do that too (skip the comment, that is) I think some people just wait a day or two after a post and go through and approve their comments. Not knowing the volume of comments I don’t know how much time that would take, but may be an option. Either way, I will still read and comment. :-)

Leave a Reply