The above image is Mack, a black Border Collie mix I had the pleasure of photographing a few weeks ago. I will be the first to admit that he was probably one of the easiest dogs I’ve ever had to photograph, in terms of getting him positioned or interacting in a way I wanted. Mandy Kennedy, dog trainer of Unleashed Dog Training in El Dorado Hills, had everything else under control making my work that much easier. The challenge for this session, or any session involving a pet with very dark fur, was knowing how to best photograph a black dog.
This topic comes up time and time again in photography forums and online articles. I will admit that I always enjoy both the variations and similarities of the answers from different photographers. In this situation with Mack, I could have used fill flash or even a reflector because he had the temperament that would have allowed me to do so. But I have found that some dogs, and specifically shelter dogs that have not received adequate exposure to the world, can sometimes freak out with the use of a flash or big scary reflector. In these instances, I will work completely with all natural light.
So how do you photograph a black dog using all natural light and achieve an acceptable image that doesn’t end up looking like a black blob or possible Bigfoot sighting? I thought I would share some of my thoughts on how I do it.
Find the light. Not just any light, but definitely lots of light that is not too harsh. For shooting outdoor portraits, I personally love to photograph in the early morning or late afternoon to early evening, depending on the time of year. You don’t want the sunlight so harsh it makes the dog’s eyes squint when facing the direction of the sun. As a side note, this past year I’ve been using an app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) that helps me determine the best time of day for an outdoor session at a specific location. It’s a wonderful tool that allows me to more accurately schedule future sessions during the times that meet my specific lighting requirements.
Know the direction of the sun. The light from the sun can be used to create catchlights in the dog’s eyes, ensuring your photo will capture some kind of expression. Without catchlights, pets can look expressionless and ghostly. Pay extra attention to your dog if he has long fur over his eyes. Long fur can cause a shadow over the eyes making it even more challenging to get catchlights. I’ve taken many, many photos of Pippin with no catchlights when his fur was grown out. In these instances, try positioning yourself so that you are somewhat elevated from the dog (with the sun behind or closely to the side of you), encouraging him to look at least slightly up towards you (the camera). During early evenings or as the sun lowers, it does become easier to get those beautiful catchlights, particularly of the dogs with long fur. Obviously I didn’t need to be concerned with that in the case of Mack here.
Choose medium tones for backgrounds. Without the use of flash, it is best to locate backgrounds that are within a tonal range that’s not so spread out from the color of the dog. In other words, avoid taking a photo of him with a bright background, but don’t choose a color so dark that he just blends into the background. If you’re using a point and shoot camera or even shooting with a camera like mine in a mode ‘other’ than manual, getting good exposure will be close to impossible if at all if the tones are too contrasting. For black dogs, I like to look for textured walls and grounds or green foliage.
Take advantage of reflective surfaces. Using reflective surfaces will provide you with even more areas of opportunity to achieve catchlights and see more detail in the fur. Look around for surfaces like cemented walkways or sides of buildings, water in lakes and pools, light-colored sand or pebble walkways and paths, or even wearing a white shirt can be helpful. The image below was taken in 2010 with my very first DSLR, a Canon Rebel XSi (worth approximately $150.00) and a 50mm lens ($100). This black lab was on the cement walkway, near a pool with green background. The image isn’t the same quality as I get with the equipment I use today, but it does demonstrate that even with less adequate gear you can still get a nice picture of a black dog if you know what settings you should use (both in camera and in the environment).
Get good exposure. To get good, ‘consistent’ exposure when photographing a black dog in natural light, it is my opinion that you need to know how to shoot in manual mode. Understanding how your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO work together is extremely valuable when working with animals with very dark (or very light) fur. I tend to use partial metering (Canon speak) when photographing black dogs and spot metering only when I need to. This is also where I really have to give thanks to photographer and teacher Michael Willems. I initially learned how to use speedlights through his blog and by performing his suggested practices, I actually learned how to shoot in manual mode and understand how it works.
Practice. Ah yes, and finally practice. I don’t grow unless I actually take the time to do things repetitiously. Growing and developing my skills as a photographer has come with lots of practice and trial and error. It’s fun and sometimes even embarrassing when I look back at my old work. But I would not be where I am today without practice, nor will I ever get to where I want to go tomorrow.