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September 25, 2014

How to Photograph a Black Dog

First of 2 parts.


Black is the new black.

Good lighting makes or breaks an image and it makes or breaks a professional photographer.  But there are many things that shelters, rescuers and other guardians of black dogs can do without calling in the pros or breaking the bank. We all know that black dogs are the most difficult to get adopted. There are probably two main reasons for this: 1) the black gene is dominant so therefore there are more black dogs. 2) People like unusual colorings and markings. Most believe it adds to the “cute” factor.

But I suspect there is one more reason, and that is that black dogs, in fact all black animals, are notoriously challenging to photograph. Often one ends up with an outline only, with no detail in the face and completely hidden eyes. That basically gives the viewer an image of a black blob, sometimes sporting a brightly colored bandanna.

Therefore, when a prospective adopter is perusing the internet, looking for that perfect dog that “speaks to him or her”, they tend to carry on right past the dark splotch on the screen and onto a brightly-colored canine.

It’s an old saying but it’s true: the eyes are the windows to the soul. And this is the case with any species. So it’s important that we show not only the eyes, but also the detail of the face that frames them.

In the examples below, no attempt was made to work with conformation stacking or composition. This was done purposely, to show the difference with lighting alone.

Black pit, no lightHere is a typical image of a black dog.  We know there is a dog in the image as we can see the back and the white snip up her face.

Look carefully at the difference between her face and her back. One shows up and the other does not. Her eyes are dark and without life. These windows to her soul have blinds drawn. And the simple reason for this is, there is a lack of light.

Lighting is probably the most important aspect of all photography. It can turn a happy image into a dark and mysterious one.  It can reveal something we would not normally see and conversely, can hide the same. It changes colors. And, it makes the all-important difference when photographing black dogs.

Pay attention to light in your everyday existence for 24 hours. Look at a tree in your yard in the morning when the sun has just come up,  then at noon, and then again in the evening. You’ll notice that the leaves change colour. They transform from soft colors to hard, dark colors, to brilliant haloed hues when the sun is behind (backlighting). They’re all stunning and each would make a lovely image. But, if you were trying to find a specific leaf a home, or wanted to show its smile or exactly how the surface looked, you’d be pressing the shutter when the sun was directly on the leaf.

Sometimes we can work with the sun and use it to our advantage.  At other times though, it has hidden behind clouds or the dog needs to be with an unmovable prop that happens to be in the shade. Or, the dog and his/her person must be photographed together and although direct sunshine is great for dogs, it isn’t for people. It causes squinting and unrelenting, highly-unflattering shadows.

This is when we need to step in and either substitute technology for the sun, with a flash, or guide the rays with a reflector.

Almost all cameras and most phones these days have a built in flash. They are perfect to get some quick light onto a subject.

Black Pit with flash

Here is that same dog, in the same location but with light on her added by a flash. Note that the dominant eye-light is a bright spot in the pupil. Professional photographers avoid this simply because we tend to avoid flat lighting (Straight on: when at a angle, light will add a more 3D affect.), but for this purposes, it’s just fine. Now the viewer can see much more of the dog, including her beautiful eyes.


Zoey, no light

Here’s another black dog, but with a longer coat. Although there is some sunlight on her face, it can still be improved upon.

Again, on goes the flash and….

Zoey, flash

Once again we have great detail in the face and eyes.

It seems so simplistic that it cannot really be such a good fix.  Yet it is.  It’s is an easy but highly helpful way to make sure the dog shows up properly.

Next week (Thursday,Oct. 2nd, 2014), Part 2 will delve into using direct sun along with reflectors and how to make your own.

Please pass this along to anyone you know who has been having a hard time photographing their black rescues. Let’s see if we can get some of these black beauties into their perfect homes.

I’d like to thank my models, pitbull, Karma, and collie mix, Zoey.