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How to shoot pet portraits with off-camera flash

In this tutorial we’ll show you a simple way to set up an off-camera flashgun to shoot more dynamic pet portraits. We’ll also explain how to set up a quick home studio for your pet picture, as well as some easy posing tips.

If you have a furry four-legged friend that you absolutely adore, chances are you spend a lot of time taking photos of them. Shooting outdoors is relatively simple, as you’ll have plenty of natural light, making it easier to get sharp shots of your pet when it’s moving.

When it comes to indoor shots, however, you face a number of challenges. The first is light – it’s likely that you won’t have enough of it to capture pin-sharp shots handheld.

And, just as with portraits of people, the front-on light from your DSLR’s pop-up flash or a flashgun mounted on your camera’s hotshoe can be too harsh; it can cause ‘pet-eye’, the animal equivalent of red-eye (it’s usually greenish in colour), and may even frighten your subject.

Another challenge is that your subject probably won’t want to sit still for long; capturing engaging expressions can prove tricky too, as often it’ll happen so quickly that you’ll miss the shot. Finding a clutter-free backdrop for your shoot can also be difficult.

So in this project we’ll show you how to set up a simple DIY studio, and show you some easy off-camera flash techniques that will enable you to use a fast shutter speed to capture fleeting movements or expressions.

By positioning the flash to one side and using a reflector to bounce light back into the shadows you can produce more even lighting – and capture more flattering shots of your precious pooch!

SEE MORE: Animal photography: how to set up your camera for expressive portraits

Setting up your pet portrait

Setting up your pet portrait: step 1

01 Set up the backdrop
For the best results you’ll want a plain, clutter-free backdrop that contrasts with your subject. We arranged an old white bed sheet, both as a backdrop and for our subject to sit on; later on we hung up a piece of coloured material to create a different look.


Setting up your pet portrait: step 2

02 Shutter speed and aperture
Select Manual mode and set a shutter speed no faster than your camera’s top sync speed, which is normally 1/200 or 1/250 sec. To ensure that both of your pet’s eyes and nose are in focus, set a medium aperture, such as f/8, for a good depth of field.

SEE MORE: The Exposure Triangle: aperture, shutter speed and ISO explained

Setting up your pet portrait: step 3

03 Wireless flash control
Go to Flash Control settings in the first shooting menu. Ensure flash firing is enabled, select Built-in Flash Func and set Flash Mode to Manual. Scroll down to Wireless Func and select the first option, so that only the external flashgun will affect the exposure.

SEE MORE: Best wireless flash trigger: 6 top options tested and rated

Setting up your pet portrait: step 4

04 Flash settings
Select Flash Output to set the external flash power; your camera’s pop-up flash will fire a pre-flash to trigger the flashgun. Set your flashgun to Slave mode and ensure it’s set to the same channel as your DSLR; you’ll see this in the Built-in Flash Func menu settings.

SEE MORE: In-camera flash settings: exploring your built-in flash options

Setting up your pet portrait: step 5

05 Set up the flashgun
Open your pop-up flash, then adjust the flashgun so the head is pointing towards the subject and the sensor is pointing towards your camera.

Setting up your pet portrait: step 5

Take a few test shots, and experiment with the position and power of the flash to get the best results.

SEE MORE: What is TTL flash? A jargon-free guide for photographers

Setting up your pet portrait: step 6

06 Keep your subject happy!
Photographing dogs poses similar challenges to photographing children. They have a short attention span, so it’s best to work in short bursts. You’ll get more engaging shots if they’re happy and relaxed, so don’t be too firm with your commands!

Flexible flash
The benefit of using off-camera flash is that you can easily move it to create different lighting effects without having to change your composition. This is especially useful when you’re working with animals, as (unless yours is particularly well trained) you can’t simply ask them to change their pose or angle their head in a particular way, as you can with people.

SEE MORE: Professional Photographer to the Rescue: animal photography tips for any species

How to set up a home studio for your pet portrait

How to set up a home studio for your pet portrait

01 line of sight
The flexibility that off-camera flash gives you is great; however, when you’re using your DSLR’s pop-up flash as an optical transmitter, you need to ensure that you have a clear line of sight between your camera and your flashgun.

02 Backdrop
Adding a coloured backdrop will give your pet portraits a fun contemporary look. We used a green child’s play mat, but any piece of material will do. You can easily change the colour and remove any creases in Photoshop – see the facing page.

03 Tripod
Flashguns come with a stand, and you can simply use this and place the flash on a table or similar, but for maximum flexibility attach the flashgun to a tripod or light stand so you can move it easily. Position the flash to one side of the setup as shown.

04 Reflector
For even lighting, position a reflector opposite the flashgun to bounce some of the light back onto your subject and fill in shadows. If you don’t have a reflector, a large sheet of white card or paper, or even a white wall close to the subject, will do.

05 Subject
Before you start shooting it’s a good idea to get your pet used to the setup, which will be unfamiliar, so that they’re relaxed. Have them sit and lie in one place, and stay there, so they get an idea of what’s expected of them.

06 assistant
Your portrait shoot will go a lot more smoothly if you enlist the help of an assistant. They can attract your pet’s attention and engage with them, leaving you free to move around and concentrate on getting your shots.

Home photo studios: how to shoot pro-quality portraits with a basic studio kitcamera settings for studio flash

Posing tips for your pet portrait

Posing tips for your pet portrait

Treats aren’t just useful for bribing your dog to respond to commands, they can also evoke some fantastic expressions.

Your dog licking their lips is a great expression to capture, but you can hardly expect them to do this on command – we found that putting some peanut butter on my dog Bella’s favourite treat ensured we got plenty of lip-smacking shots.

Posing tips for your pet portrait

Toys are handy too – to get your dog looking in a particular direction just get your assistant to hold up their favourite toy or ball.

SEE MORE: Zoo photography: a fool-proof method for capturing animals through glass

Get creative with your pet portrait

Produce pet portraits with a difference by changing the background colour in Photoshop

Get creative with your pet portrait: step 1

01 Make a grid
Go to File>New and create a document with a height and width of 30cm. Take the Rectangle tool, and Shift-drag to create a square shape layer. Take the Move tool, Alt-drag the shape layer to make three copies, and position them as shown.


Get creative with your pet portrait: step 2

02 Select the background
Open four portraits, and select the first one. To select the background, go to Select>Colour Range, click in the backdrop and adjust the Fuzziness slider until the entire area is selected (it’ll turn white in the preview). Copy the selection, and paste it into a new layer.


Get creative with your pet portrait: step 3

03 Tidy and adjust colour
Ctrl-click the new layer’s thumbnail to load the outline of the backdrop as a selection. Go to Filter>Blur> Gaussian Blur and increase the Radius to blur creases in the backdrop. Add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, and adjust the Hue slider to change the colour.


Get creative with your pet portrait: step 4

04 Position on grid
Flatten the image, copy it and paste it into the grid document. Position and resize the layer, then move it above the corresponding square layer in the Layers panel and Alt-click the line between the two layers to create a clipping mask. Repeat for the other images.


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