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How to Photograph Black Dogs

A black staff wearing a golden crown. He is lit with specular highlights in a studio against a clean white background.

Photographing black dogs can be tricky. But it’s not as difficult as many aspiring dog photographers have been led to believe. In fact, with a better understanding of light and reflections it is possible to take great photos of black and dark furred dogs consistently.

Tips for photographing black dogs

We’ve put together a collection of tips and tricks to help pet photographers create better black dog portraits.

Fur is different from skin

Dogs are covered in fur. Fur picks up light differently than skin. While this might sound obvious, this is one of the most common mistakes that aspiring pet photographers make. Often, they don’t even realize they’re doing it and honestly, it’s not really their fault. Unless you went to art school or studied through a technical photography program, odds are you started learning photography as a hobbyist – focused primarily on learning specific applied techniques (related to landscapes or human portraits), rather than technical theory and more foundational concepts.

Which can be a great way to learn quickly, but does tend to present knowledge blind spots – particularly when presented with more unique situations or extreme challenges. It is important to understand that many of the lighting and photography techniques presented early in your education as being “generally a good idea” or a “rule-of-thumb” are often in actuality bad habits when working with furry pets.

A cute doberman puppy wearing stream punk inspired goggles made from newspaper and paper mache

Fur is really just short hair

In many ways, photographing a dog portrait is very similar to photographing hair. In fact, many of the lighting techniques that we depend as professional pet photographers to create sharp and detailed pet portraits, are ones that we picked up working with salons and beautician clients.  When working with hair, you need to break what are generally regarded as hard and fast rules. This is for the simple fact that shiny skin is generally regarded as a bad thing, but having sleek and shiny hair is actually quite positive.

Use harsh light when working with fur

Soft light is generally regarded in photography as better. When capturing human portraits, soft light can help hide wrinkles, frown and smiles lines, and blemishes.  But we rarely have any of these concerns when working with dogs. More over, this type of light tends to wash out details. As demonstrated in the diagrams below, it is better to use harder light when working with surfaces that depend on texture for contrast.

A diagram of soft light bouncing off a ridged surface.

Soft light washes out finer details.

A diagram of hard light bouncing off a ridged surface.

Hard light increases the contrast of finer details.

 

How to generate hard light

Direct natural light on clear and cloudless days is often quite harsh, but can be difficult to work with as it may present extreme contrasts, harsh shadows, and approach from less than flattering angles. Which is why whether working with dogs inside or outdoors that it is usually a good idea to photograph dogs with flash, though you may be able to achieve similar effects with a silver reflector.

Generally when working with dogs you want a larger light modifier that focuses on converging light rather than spreading. Deeper parabolic umbrellas work wonderfully when shooting dogs with black fur – as the reflected light effectively forms a beam. Snoots, grids and beauty dishes can also work well. Avoid using ring lights, shoot through umbrellas, soft boxes, scrims and other diffused light sources when photographing black dogs.

It’s also important to note that the size and location of your light source also matters. The wider the visual subtended angle of a light source in relationship to a subject, the softer the light and visa versa. Translated into simpler practical terms, larger and closer light sources tend to produce softer light than smaller light sources located further from subjects. That all said, film is wicked cheap these days  – especially if you shoot digital 😉 – so don’t be afraid to experiment with different lighting arrangements and placements. When working with a smaller subject, such as a dog, you might be surprised how much of a difference even a few inches makes.

PRO TIP: When photographing dogs on location remember that many light modifiers, especially reflective umbrellas, will turn into kites in windy conditions. Be sure to bring plenty of sand bags or help when packing for your shoot.

Photo of a Black Lab taken in studio with harsh lighting to accent specular highlights in the dog's black fur.
Specular reflections are good

“Specular” means “having the properties of a mirror” and contrary to what you may read in photography forums, specular specifically refers to reflections, not lights. When photographing skin, it is usually best to avoid specular reflections, as they may pickup as hot spots or make your subject look oily or greasy. But when you are lighting hair or fur, you typically want it to shine, as a good sheen is generally regarded as a sign of a healthy coat. If the dog you are photographing has a solid black coat (common with Black Labs, Affenpinschers, and bully puppies) capturing this sheen might be the only way to capture texture details in the snout and face.

Expose to the sheen, not the fur

If a dog’s fur is actually black, you’re not going to have much luck with programmed or automatic exposure modes. This is one of those situations where learning to use the manual setting on your camera will be tremendously helpful. The reason for this is pretty straightforward. Your camera can not distinguish between what is black and what is dark, for the simple fact that what we perceive as the color black is actually the absence of reflected light. To photograph a dog with black fur we to focus on exposing to the elements of the fur (usually those sections around the snout and eyes) that are not actually black or are specular (i.e. the sheen).

Avoid harsh shadows

Just because you’re using a harsh light source, doesn’t mean that you need to or should settle for harsh shadows. Don’t be afraid to use a reflector to bounce light into shadows or to even use a second strobe as a fill. Be careful not to wash out any fur details you are lighting with your key light, but the rest of the frame can be lit to taste.

Photographing dogs with black fur will make you a better pet photographer

While photographing black dogs can present a few challenges. These beautiful dark furred dogs provide a lot of opportunities to test pet photographers, helping them hone their lighting skills and expressive their creativity. Remember that when it comes to learning photography, especially lighting, that trial and error is key. But through practice and trying new lighting arrangements it is possible for even new photographers to create amazing images of their pets — even if they have dark or black fur. Just keep shooting!

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