Sunday, 17 May 2009

Shooting pets without a studio setup

On second thoughts, I'm not so sure that's a good post title - still I'm a photographer so peeps should know that I don't imply I'm killing them!

Anyway, this is aimed at folks who don't have a studio or expensive studio lighting or, if you're like me and you're an opportunist photographer, you don't go everywhere armed with tripod, reflectors or any form of lighting other than a flash gun.

All you'll need -- a camera, a flash gun and an off-camera flash cable ( because you won't be wanting the flash mounted on the camera). And if your camera supports it, shoot in RAW mode for maximum exposure flexibility.

So how do you make the shot when the situation arises? Well here's one I made, following all the suggestions below.

Finished shot

This is how the shot of Bonnie, a Pomeranian, turned out. I'm pleased with the composition, the lighting, the texture of her fur and the sharp focus on her eyes. I did get a little softness, caused by movement blur, but it's at an acceptable level to my eye.

Tips to make the shot

Spend time getting to know and befriending the subject

They must be relaxed with both you and your camera (and the fill-in flash if you need to use it).

When they're relaxed with you, their inner character comes through and it's a a look that the owner will identify with.

So have the camera round your neck and stroke and talk to the pet. It's rather easy with our four-legged friends but needs a different approach with pet birds.

I'm not focusing on birds in this post, but I will say this about gaining a bird's confidence and befriending it. With birds, instead of stroking, you can offer food, talking to the bird gently and quietly the whole time. When the bird comes to take the food, blow very gently at the top of the neck and behind where you'd imagine the ear to be. Do this against the lie of the feathers, so your warm breath gently penetrates to the skin. They'll be a little unsure at first but will get to like it real quick.

Natural Lighting

Go for low ambient lighting, ideally on a bright day with light coming through a window and falling obliquely on the subject, but leaving the rest of the room quite dark. This will give shape and form to the animal's head and body and nice areas of highlight and shadow. It will also provide good texture in the animals coat.

I'll talk about fill-in flash below.


Make sure the background is uncluttered. If they have a favourite dark blanket, then pose them on that. If not, use one you've taken with you (very unlikely in my case!) or get one from the owner. Obviously if it's the pet's favourite, it'll feel much more at ease on that, familiar smells etc.


Well, with no tripod you'll be hand-holding the camera. Unless you're an absolute whiz with a tripod, this gives you a lot more flexibility -- you'll be able to focus your energies on composition rather than have to keep moving a tripod around.

Think about whether you want just a head shot or whether and how much of the body to include. Make sure the animal isn't looking directly at the camera but off into the middle distance -- and make sure there's enough 'space' for it to look into.

Get down to their eye level. In our day-to-day lives, those who we're 'connecting' with are at our eye-level -- we're not looking down at them and we're not looking up to them. So to get this same connection in your photos, you have to be at their eye-level.

Drawing the viewer's attention where you want it to be. You can do this in many different ways. Positioning that point on one of the rule-of-thirds intersections is one. Another is by choosing a low depth of field -- or how much of the shot is in focus -- and then focusing your camera on the point where you want their attention. With a small aperture number, anywhere further away or closer than that point will then be blurry.

And where should that point of focus be? The eyes of course, as they're the doorway to the soul and will be where most of the character of the pet comes through. And it's ok if the nose isn't sharply in focus as that brings attention back to the eyes.

Fill-in Flash

With all this low light I'm recommending, you're going to be hard pushed to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to prevent blurring a) because the camera is hand-held and b) because the pet naturally moves, even if it's just a slight turn of the head.

Fill-in flash to the rescue - but never when mounted on your camera.

You're really using the flash for two purposes, one to freeze any movement (of the pet or your hand-held camera) and the other, to provide a light source that sculpts the features of the pet, head and body. This is why the flash mustn't be camera-mounted -- because sculpting light has to fall obliquely across the subject.

Don't be afraid to take plenty of shots, trying bounced light shots, if circumstances allow, or just by holding the flash at different angles and distances from the subject. The low ambient light will prevent harsh shadows, even if you point the flash fairly directly at the subject and from quite close.

And all this can be a tall order, holding a heavy-ish camera in one hand and a flash in the other, while still holding the camera steady enough that you don't get motion blur. Still, no one promised easy :)

Once in the Digital Darkroom

Just a quick covering of this area as I've covered this to enough depth in the postings about Hamish and Willow, Bonnie's pups.

What you're trying to do in the digi darkroom is to enhance the lighting, texture and composition.

So in a nutshell, here's the techniques used; pretty standard workflow for me:
  • TLR Capture sharpening
  • Copy of background layer for a touch of dodging the highlights and burning the mid-tones -- this to help the light sculpting and texture of the fur
  • Convert to mono via the b/w filter and adjust colour sliders to get best conversion
  • A v. slight increase in contrast: add a curves layer, unmodified, changed blending mode to overlay and backed off opacity to 9% -- btw, this is a brilliant technique for applying contrast
  • Add a levels layer and give it a nudge to ensure I've got tones from deep black to pure white
  • Add a subtle vignette to help bring attention to her face: new layer filled with black, change blend mode to soft light, use softest eraser (about 2/3rds size of image) and erase from corners to Bonnie's face, change layer opacity to around 50%
  • Save, flatten layers, convert to jpeg, add a slight touch of sharpening using the unsharp mask
  • Save as new file and upload to here.

Your turn

Well, if you find this useful I'd love to see your results. Drop off your links in the comments. If you've got any tips of your own that you want to pass on or to help me improve, please feel free :)

Learning, learning, every day a school day!
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