Photographing pets is notoriously difficult. Especially when they happen to be young, lively, feline and black. When most people photograph black animals, they wind up with pictures where the subject resembles a black splodge rather than a cat, dog, hamster or guinea pig. In a short while I’m going to explain my approach to pet photography. But first, I need to introduce you to Pee-Wee:
Pee-Wee is a photogenic cat with very big eyes. She’s staying with me for a few days whilst her owner has some building work done. Pee-Wee was very timid at first in her new surroundings so I gave her time to get acclimatised before taking any photographs. Whether your subject be human or animal, I think it’s vitally important they have a nice time whilst being photographed.
Getting the Right Exposure
Using the correct exposure is the first challenge when photographing animals, especially either black or white ones. Your camera in an automatic mode will meter the whole scene averaging it out. That means that unless your pet is filling the entire frame, if it’s black or white it’s most likely going to be under or over exposed. This means, for a black pet generally overexposing or for a white pet underexposing.
I wanted to photograph Pee-Wee in low light as to get her pupils nice and wide. That meant taking photographs before sunrise or after sunset. Shooting in low light presents extra challenges – simply getting enough light into the camera. To help get the level of light I needed, I boosted the cameras ISO sensitivity to 800. I could have pushed it farther to 1100 or even 1600 with only a slight-moderate fall off in quality but the detail in the cats features was important to me. Then I used a lens with a wide aperture – I took some shots at f/1.4 but found myself stopping down to f/2.0 in order to get in depth of field.
I was using a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second as to avoid getting any camera shake with the 85mm lens. This combination of ISO/aperture/shutter speed still didn’t leave me with enough exposure so I used a single speedlight (flashgun) to brighten things up. Using the speedlight affords two major benefits. I’m able to use it to light my scene so I’m no longer relying on just the ambient light. And it also gives me control of the direction and the hardness/softness of the lighting. I wanted a light source that would, so some degree, help show the texture of the cats fur. A speedlight is great for this as it’s quite small. I did still want to soften things up a little bit, so I used a Flashbender Rogue, which is basically a posh bounce card.
I didn’t want to mount the speedlight on the camera as this leads to very flat and two dimensional images. Instead I attached the speedlight to the camera using a cable and that meant I could hold it in my left hand, keeping the camera in my right. I positioned the flash (generally) as far left and as high up as I could reach in order to rake the light a little bit emphasizing the texture in the cats fur but also still get nice catch lights in the cats eyes. The power output of the speedlight was set manually, I used 1/64th of the SB-900′s full power when the subject was nearer to the camera and 1/32nd when it was further away.
I was shooting with a very narrow depth-of-field (selective focus) so it was critical I got the focusing right. I didn’t want the camera to automatically select the focus point for me, as it will focus on the part of the scene closest to the camera, which could be the cats nose or something else in the foreground. At f/2.0 on an 85mm lens, getting the cats nose sharp and in-focus could result in the eyes being slightly out of focus. The dSLR camera I was using to take the photographs has many focus points. When I framed the shot, I selected a single focus point which was on one of the cats eyes and focused the camera. In order to speed up the selection of the focus point, I changed the camera settings so that I could only choose between eleven. The default option gives the choice of 51 focus points, which means it can take too long navigating to the right one before taking the photograph.
When photographing animals or children and really wanting to get high quality images, it can take a little time. Even more so outside of the studio in a home environment. I like to let my subjects do their own thing and capture them candidly, so I waited until Pee-Wee was in a suitable place in terms of background and height. I didn’t want to be shooting down to him because it’s just not a flattering angle to the cat. As soon as the cat settled in a suitable location, I positioned the speedlight, set the focus point on the camera and then again waited for the cat to look in a suitable direction and give a suitable expression. When all of these things came together it was a case of focus! click! pray! In about an hour with the cat I took no more then ten photographs that I would have been proud publishing or showing the owner.
Post-processing / Editing
I like to capture my images as RAW files. These files are like digital negatives which can be “processed”. They are image files containing all the data the camera recorded when the photograph was taken. They are large and not very portable. They can be opened with specialist software like Adobe’s Lightroom or Photoshop, Apple’s Aperture, Canon’s Digital Photo and Nikon’s CaptureNX. The image exposures, saturation, sharpening and toning can all be tweaked until the photographer/editor is happy with the result. Then they are exported from the software as JPEG files which can be displayed in web browsers, shared via email etc.
I’ve used Adobe Lightroom to mildly adjust exposures, contrast and sharpening of these images. I’ve then applied further changes using onOne Software’s perfect Photo Suite. I used Focal Point to give some subtle vignetting and Perfect Black and White to apply the black and white conversions.
If you are interested in learning more about the skills and techniques discussed in this blog or you’d like to have your pet photographed with an expert pet photographer, why not contact the studio today.