Dog Photography - Level 4
Taking pictures of your dog indoors can be tricky, but with these easy-to-learn techniques, you’ll banish red eye, bad lighting and blurry pictures.
By Laurie Meehan-Elmer
For many of us, the majority of the time we’re with our dogs is spent indoors, and we want to capture that time in photographs. Unfortunately, indoor dog photography can be challenging. For the best photographs, you need to know your camera and understand light.
Know your camera
I know it can be boring, but with so many different camera brands and models, and with technology taking regular leaps and bounds, it’s important you read your camera’s manual to become familiar with all its features and functions. Almost all newer cameras allow some level of user control. When you understand how to use that control, your photos will improve dramatically.
All light has a color (also known as color temperature). Relative to daylight, some light sources are warmer (yellow/orange) and some are cooler (blue/green). For instance, incandescent light bulbs give off a warmer light that will look yellow in photos. Fluorescent bulbs will give off light that looks green in photos. Depending on the brand, age and intensity of the light source, the colorcasts can vary considerably. Even daylight color can vary, depending on the angle of the sun and how it’s diffused (cloud cover). The color of reflected light will depend on the color of the surface from which it’s reflected.
The human eye and brain have a way of filtering out colorcasts. The brain knows a white wedding dress is supposed to look white so that’s how you perceive it. Your camera isn’t that smart. Your camera has to compensate for colorcasts through its White Balance programming (or through film choice if shooting film). Your camera likely has several settings to choose from, including sunlight, cloudy (shade), incandescent light, fluorescent light and auto, where the camera guesses. If you have a more advanced camera, you probably have the ability to set a custom white balance.
How shutter speed, aperture and ISO relate
The full discussion on how ISO, shutter speed and aperture relate is much too long for this class, but there are a few basics you should understand. A photograph is made when the camera’s shutter opens up, creating a hole (aperture) that allows light to enter your camera, where it strikes a light sensitive medium (either a digital camera sensor or piece of film). Controlling the amount of light that enters the camera is key to a proper exposure. The size of the hole (aperture) created when the shutter opens, how long the shutter is open (shutter speed) and the sensitivity of the sensor or film (ISO) all contribute to the exposure.
ISO refers to the sensor’s (or film’s) sensitivity to light. Higher ISOs mean greater sensitivity to light and will allow photography in environments where there isn’t much light. However, there is a tradeoff. The more you raise the ISO or sensitivity to light, the more the sensor is vulnerable to noise (or grain if shooting film). Noise shows up in images as unsightly colored speckles. Some cameras are better than others at handling noise. Newer generations of digital cameras have made great leaps in this area.
Most cameras will allow for manually increasing or decreasing ISO. Almost all will raise and lower the ISO as needed to conform to other parameters you’ve set by choosing a shooting mode (preset program modes include “portrait,” “action,” “scenic,” and so on).
When taking photographs outdoors during the day, there is typically enough light for a proper exposure using fast shutter speeds, without resorting to using the flash. You can usually get away with just setting your camera on automatic. However, when taking photographs indoors, light isn’t as abundant and it comes in different colors (as we discussed above). The light from a built-in flash isn’t usually very natural or attractive and can cause red or green eye. If you don’t step in and take control, it’s likely your photo won’t look very good.
It’s all about light
By understanding your camera and the light basics above, you can drastically improve your indoor photos if you just think about the light. How much light do you have and what color is it? How can you add more light? Here are a few tips to consider.
Natural light is the easiest to handle. Find areas of your home where light is pouring in through windows. Skylights are great, too. Use dog treats or toys to coax your dog to this area for photos. If possible, turn off or disable your built-in flash. You may have to raise the ISO to get a shutter speed fast enough to prevent blur. (By increasing the ISO, your sensor is more sensitive, and your shutter won’t need to stay open as long for a proper exposure.)
Window light can be used to create stunning photos. However, it’s directional and usually means the side of your dog facing the light is well-lit while the backside is in deep shadow. You can remedy this by using a reflector. A simple piece of white foam board, poster board, or anything white and reflective can be used to bounce the window light back onto the shadow side to brighten it up a bit.
To photograph a stationary or sleeping dog, you might consider putting your camera on a tripod. This will allow much slower shutter speeds without taking blurry photos because of camera shake. Of course, this won’t help when photographing a moving pet. You need a fast shutter speed if your pet is moving.
If natural light isn’t an option, you are back to using flash, artificial light sources (lamps, overhead lights, and so on) or a combination of the two. I often bring in additional lamps or light fixtures to add enough light so flash isn’t necessary. Be sure to set your white balance to match the type of lights being used.
If you’re lucky enough to have a camera that accepts an external flash, you can use that flash for some wonderfully lit photos. The key is to bounce the flash off a white or light colored ceiling or wall (most can be aimed in different directions). This will give a much more natural-looking light than you would get by aiming the flash directly at your dog.
Remember the basics
While you’re thinking about the light, don’t forget the composition lessons from the previous dog photography course. Clutter and background distractions can be even more challenging in a home’s tight spaces. A beautifully lit photo still needs a nice composition. Lastly, if your only option is to use the built-in flash, go for it. A less-than-beautiful photo of a beloved pet is still better than no photo at all.
Laurie Meehan-Elmer is a freelance photographer and writer who lives in the Tampa Bay area with her husband, David (a veterinarian); her dogs, Nikon and Comet; and four cats and a parrot.
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