Digital SLR Photography

Paws for the camera

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

If you’re a dog person then you’ll know that your dog can quickly become your favourite photographic subject – willing or not! Nothing brings a smile to your face like the weird and wacky nature of man’s best friend.
While more flattering, traditional images of man and pooch alike are often best shot with a longer lens – somewhere in the region of 50-135mm – for these fun canine portraits I’ve decided to shoot with an ultra wide-angle lens. Something in the region of 14-20mm works well, and allows you to get really close while fitting the whole scene in the frame. Plus, the natural distortion of wide-angle lenses tends to distort features and proportions out of shape, giving the images a light-hearted
and almost cartoon-like quality.

We’re going to use flash too – of course natural light has its place, but adding flash into the mix allows you to create bold images that really pop, full of vibrant colour and contrast.

If you’re shooting at sunset, as I was, then a flashgun is fine, and will have more than enough power. However if you’re capturing these images in the middle of a sunny day, then you may find that you need the extra punch of a location flash outfit to overpower the bright midday sun.

1 . Expose for the ambient

Set your camera to manual mode and a low ISO. Set the shutter speed to match your flash sync speed (between 1/160sec and 1/250sec) and an aperture of around f/11. Take a shot of the environment and check the LCD. To make our subject pop we’ll aim to underexpose by one to two stops. If it’s too dark, select a slower shutter speed. If it’s too light, pick a smaller aperture.

1 Ambient

2. Set up flash

A softbox offers more control and reduces spill, but you’ll have to be more exact with its position – tricky if the dog moves around a lot. An umbrella, on the other hand, spreads light far and wide, so positioning is more forgiving, but just watch for spill where you don’t want it. Position the flash just behind and to one side of you, pointing at your subject, at just above the model’s head height.

3 Set the power

Start with the flash on 1/4 power and take a test shot with the animal at roughly the desired distance from the flash – here the flash is around 1-2m behind. If the exposure looks good – perfect! If not, adjust power accordingly. You can also move the flash closer or further away to change the amount of flash that reaches the subject.

3 Flash power

4 Get low and wide

There’s a reason why we’ve selected a mid-aperture, and that’s because combined with a wide-angle lens, it gives you a wide depth-of-field, so you don’t need to worry about the pooch drifting in and out of focus. Get in position nice and low – if your camera offers a tilting LCD screen then using LiveView is ideal – hold the camera an inch or so from the floor for a quirky angle.

4 Low and Wide

5 Here boy!

Here comes the tricky part – getting the dog’s attention. For some animals it’s squeaky toys, for others it’s treats or affection. Remember to reward the dog for looking the right way, and take breaks so that it doesn’t become stressed or tired. It’s important to remain in control of the dog at all times. If needs be, ask a friend to help you, or attach a lead – this is then easily cloned out during processing.

6 Adjust on the fly

You’ll probably find that the dog wants to move around, and as their distance to the flash changes, so does the flash exposure. Rather than putting your camera down and adjusting the flash, simply adjust the aperture – if it’s too dark, open up the aperture and if it’s too bright, stop it down. Remember this will affect ambient exposure too, but you can control this by adjusting the shutter speed.