I was going to do shelter pet photography tips part 2 (read part 1 here!), but as most of the questions I’ve been asked deal with my studio setup in general, this is going to focus on studio lighting and gear for intermediate to advanced photographers who own digital cameras and are possibly looking to invest in some lighting and studio equipment.
- Nikon D800E ($3,200).
A fancy expensive digital camera is NOT necessary for great photos. Until January of this year I was using the much less expensive Nikon D7000 ($800) and still getting great photos. I loved my D7000, though if you are looking for a beginner digital camera, you are probably better off going with the newer D7100 model. Of course, an expensive camera does come with more bells and whistles that are useful, which I’ll touch on later.
- Nikkor 24 – 70mm ($1800)
Likewise, you don’t need an expensive lens like this for great photos. Before my new year splurge I was using this 35mm lens for $200 with the D7000. What I love about the 24-70mm is that I can be a foot away from the dog and still capture everything. There is a little bit of distortion, but I don’t mind. The 35mm on a DX camera was sometimes difficult when I was photographing kittens or puppies without a second leash holder. They would run towards the camera and end up too close to me.Sample distortion when using the 24-70mm at 24mm:
- The Genius Lighting package from Paul C Buff ($1500), which includes two Einstein Flash Units. If I had to do it again I wouldn’t buy the package as a whole, but since this was my first strobe light purchase, I didn’t have enough knowledge to know what specifically to buy. The lighting stands it comes with are really too tall for pets. I was searching for shorter, but still sturdy, lightstands to use, when the amazing Amanda Jones (donate to her kickstarter project!) shared with me the lightstands she uses. I haven’t even taken it out of the box yet but I suspect these lightstands will be much more suitable for pet photography.Other great things included in The Genius package: A cyber sync commander and two trigger units. Very helpful!
- Paul C Buff Softboxes (large and stripbox), honeycomb grids, softbox grids and a reflector kit. Whew, that is a lot! I probably have a few more things here and there, but don’t worry – I don’t use everything in all my shoots and you certainly don’t need everything!
- Backdrop stand ($200). I purchased this backdrop stand awhile ago and it comes with two muslim fabric backdrops. I don’t use the muslim at all anymore – it just wrinkles way too easily. It’s lasted me awhile and is fine for the 53″ but I do get a little nervous with it holding the 107″. You could probably find something sturdier.
Out of all my gear, the BEST investment has been the Einstein lights. I almost didn’t buy them. This past January I splurged on a new camera and lens (how I ended up with the D800 and 24-70mm). One of the really expensive lenses I was planning on buying ended up being too zommed in for studio work (the 85mm), so on a whim I decided to get some new lighting. Prior to this I was using continuous lighting. I wasn’t even considering strobe lighting because I was afraid of it, but some other pet photographers convinced me it was the way to go. Boy were they right! I wrote up a small blog post to compare strobe vs continuous. While you can definitely make do with the (much!) cheaper continuous light, I am just SO in love with the Einstein strobe lights. Sharper, crisper images with much less post processing required. Also, continuous lights contain mercury and I have broken one or two. Reading the guidelines for cleaning up the continuous lights was one of the reasons I gave strobe lights a whirl (e.g. close doors and leave the room for 8 hours).
**UPDATE** — In less than 5 months both of my Einstein lights have blown their fuse and model light. This means they are unexpectedly dead and I have to email customer service for some replacement parts. The CS is speedy but both of these blow outs happened smack in the middle of all day sessions events – meaning the second half of the photos were missing the hair light. It didn’t kill the shoot and I was able to get by on one light but I really like the hair light and was super irritated by this. I’m going to ask for a few extras so next time I can switch it out during the shoot. It’s still a huge pain and takes some time because usually the lights are too hot to touch for awhile, but at least I’ll be able to fix it (and not have to worry about both lights blowing out and having to cancel the shoot).
I’ve played around with a lot of different setups, from using only one umbrella, to using a hair light, softbox, grids and reflector. So again, you can stay simple or get crazy. I’ll list a couple of my setups and the resulting photos.
- One strobe light with umbrella (even better if it has a diffuser on it) to my left, at a 45 degree angle to the dog.(Don’t worry, I will have actual images of my set up but I don’t have it for every variation so forgive my ridiculous drawings)
These did have some post processing done to them, which I will get to later. But as you can see, as simple as one strobe light with an umbrella and you can get the job done nicely! The nice thing about umbrellas is that the light wraps around your subject giving less harsh shadows. I actually like the light from softboxes a little more – adds a bit more drama, depth and realism to the shot (a softbox is direct light, which mimics natural sunlight from a window, while an umbrella is bounced light), but for speed – if you are photographing a lot of dogs at an event, or trying to photograph as many shelter dogs as possible – the umbrella is a great option. Oh and note that your results will vary depending on the room you are photographing in. These were shot in a small room with white walls so the light bounced around and filled in most the shadows, hence limiting the need for a second filler light.
- I just realized that if I go through ever variation of my studio set up, I may be writing this post for a LONG time. 🙂 So I’ll skip ahead to a more complicated set up with a softbox that I’ve been using a lot lately, and show you how the lighting varies.
In this setup I’ve replaced the umbrella with a softbox, added a white reflector for light filler and a strip/hair light in the back to help separate the dog from the background and give the shot a little more depth (both softboxes have grids on them). Personally, I’d rather have a third Einstein light than the white reflector. It just doesn’t fill in enough and I end up pulling out the shadows in post processing (especially for black dogs).Outcome:
Tips & Tricks
Enough with the details already! Lets get to the quick tips. 🙂
- Seamless background paper is awesome.
It never wrinkles, it’s not too expensive and you can just rip the paper off and throw it out when you are done (super useful for shelter shoots). The 53″ is very portable but the 107″ is great for 2 or more dogs at the same time. I chop/saw off a foot at the end of the 107″ so I can fit it in my car. For quick shelter shoots I’ll mostly use 53″, for client events I’ll buy the 107″.
- Control your lighting.
Turn all your lights off and snap a photo. Make sure the resulting photo is completely black. If it isn’t, increase your f stop till it is (I always have my shutter speed set to the max for strobe lights – 250). This is useful when you want 100% control over your lighting, but there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of natural lighting. For learning purposes, it comes in handy (or if you want a completely black background).
- Shoot RAW.
Shooting in RAW will help you fix your mistakes in post processing. You will have a much greater ability to pull out shadows and tone down blown out highlights, as well as fix the white balance (photos that may be too cool or warm). The downside of RAW is the size of the files – they can be huge! The D800 produces raw files that around 40MB each.
- Take advantage of post processing.
Not only a great way to fix in camera mistakes, but you can remove distractions like the leash, bring out highlights, etc. This can be especially useful for black dogs. You can even change the tint of the background color to give you some more variety without paying for more colors. I’d have to have a whole separate blog post for post processing tips. Maybe that will be next!
- Use a helper… who is not the dogs owner
For my shelter shoots, having a volunteer to hold the leash is sufficient, but for client shoots, a separate assistant can come in really handy. I had one shoot where the two little dogs were attached at the hip to their mom. They did not want to be more than an inch away from her. I was kicking myself for not bringing an assistant but fixed the situation by asking her to leave the room. It was just me and the pups for a little while. It helped a lot. Even after asking her to come back in, the dogs stopped crowding her so much. So an assistant or a separate family member who is not the doggies favorite can go a long way.
- Use show leads
Especially helpful for dogs that move to and fro and aren’t distracted by treats and squeakers. It will help keep them in place. I use them 90% of the time. Sometimes I even use them for cats. 🙂
I asked people if they had any specific questions for me. Most of the questions were on my lighting setup which I hopefully answered in the first part of this article. Here are a few other questions that were asked.
- Tips for photographing black dogs
My D800 is amazing for photographing black dogs because it captures an incredible amount of dynamic range. So if I’m photographing a whole bunch of dogs, only one of which is black, and I forget to adjust my settings – I can still pull a lot of detail from the shadows. But if you have a shoot with only black dogs, your settings will differ for one with a white dog. I only shoot in Manual and adjust as I see fit. Black dogs will generally require a lower f stop (or raise the light power). If you are shooting in shutter priority mode, you may want to bump up your exposure compensation as your camera won’t get it right. I am a control freak so for me, Manual mode is the way to go.Another tip – try to use a filler light or bring the reflector closer to the dog. Filling in the shadows are much more important for black dogs. But don’t be afraid to get creative!
- Dealing with dogs that afraid of your strobe lights
I deal with a lot of scared dogs at the shelters but none of them seriously freak out because of the strobe lights (the cats do!). When they are afraid, they are usually afraid in general – of everything: camera, lights… action. 🙂 For really tough dogs I wait it out. I’ll back up, let the volunteers interact, snuggle up and loosen up the dog.Some other ideas: if the dog is treat motivated, try giving them a treat every time the lights go off. Don’t worry about getting any good shots. Just go up to the dog, let them sniff the treat, snap a photo (of the floor is fine – deal with one fear at a time, first lights, then camera). Give them a treat. Every time you snap a photo so the lights go off, give them a treat.What I’ve mostly found is that treat motivated dogs will totally ignore the strobe lights in favor of the treats. Non-treat motivated dogs will remain scared (they are too scared to care about food or treats). Be calm and take your time. Limit distractions and people yelling at the dog. If you relax, and everyone in the room relaxes, it’ll help the dog relax.Another tip for dealing with this is to try and get the best shot the first time. This tip works best for shelter photography when you are only looking for one good shot. That first shot, the dog will look at the lights, curious — and there is your shot. The lights will highlight their eyes so this can actually work to your advantage. Even for dogs that are GO GO GO types of dogs. That first flash will stop them in their tracks, and they go — whaaat?? — and that’s your shot. For cats, in my experience, this is your best option. Get the best shot the first time. Some cats will just HATE strobe lights. If you are at a clients house, try just letting the cat wander around and take photos with natural lighting. I am certainly all ears if anyone else has better tips! Cats are also way more difficult to “wait out” than dogs. Most dogs will eventually relax. Ignore them 10 minutes and they’ll start to calm down. Ignore a disgruntled cat for 10 hours and it still might hold a grudge. 🙂
That pretty much covers it for today! Did I leave anything out? Please ask any more questions in the comment section and I will get to them next!
Christy Howell - Wow Stacey, this is amazing. Thank you so much for responding to my question on BBN! I appreciate this information and bookmarking your blog!
Keith Cannataro - One tip is to have your handler keep the leash up and away avoiding the the leash covering any part of the dogs body, otherwise extra time post processing to remove the leash from the body vs the super easy removal of the leash from the background.
Keith Cannataro - A question: What distance do you place the dog/cat from the background and how far from the dog/cat to your camera and at those distances what aperture and mm do you tend to use that works well?
Yuliya Brown - great post. thank you! quick question: do you do anything specific prior to bringing a dog into the studio? do you suggest to the owners to tire the dogs out prior? do they comply? I am especially concerned about leg lifting in the studio, particularly by intact males.:-)
Jody Adamson - Great Post! Can you tell me how did you get started? Obviously the equipment is quite an investment. theres lots of my family and friends keep asking me to take pictures of their pets! I always feel a bit overwhelmed and disheartened by looking at the amazing pix of pet photographers, but im not able to go out and buy all the equipment (or i have space) that I would love. Thanks
Kristy Lourance - Stacey I am just starting out with studio lighting. I have 2 strobes but I didn’t get a softbox with them and I’m kicking myself. I’m curious what size(s) you suggest? A softbox for both lights? Maybe keep one a main light, one a hair light and use a reflector? Would love your opinion on sizes. I’m shooting in a home studio that’s not super large. About 11×17.
Gil Kelly Vela - I have been shooting shelter animals for three years, your article is right on. THe only thing different that I use is a vinyl backdrop because I sterilize The backdrop in between animals for health issues.
Chrissy Russell Ayshazen Cattery - Hi I would like to set up and photograph my cats properly. However I am at a loss as to where to buy one of the portable tents that the photographers use at the cat shows when doing portraits. I have nosy and inquisitive Burmese and they are better off being confined or I will spend most of my time tryig to get their attention or retrieving them from something more interesting to them. I only seem to find the little 2′ x 2′ things on ebay and I need something at least 3′ x 3′ or maybe even a little larger. Please can you advise what I should be searching for?