The Lighting Handbook: Pet Photography

Making pictures of pets is a challenging undertaking. I learned this first-hand while assisting Atlanta-based pet photographer Theresa Lalla Sicurezza in capturing portraits of Fredo and Vinnie, a pair of totally adorable Boston Terriers.

Theresa explained that the gear used to photograph pets has to be simple and portable, yet powerful enough to use with a modifier at a smaller aperture for adequate depth of field. She believes that great pet photographs happen in the camera and not in Photoshop and, after working with her, I couldn’t agree more.


The dogs played around the studio while we prepped everything. The set itself is straightforward: an upholstered chaise lounge placed on four milk crates about 3′ in front of a rust-colored background paper. Raising the lounge lets Theresa use the camera at the dogs’ eye level without having to sit on the floor. It also seems to keep the dogs in place. Theresa records the setup of her shoots as references.

Theresa shoots both handheld and using a tri­pod (or studio stand in this case). When holding the camera, she uses a wheeled, knee-style computer chair so she can stay low while tracking the pups’ movements. All told, the photography took about an hour from setup to wrap. Dogs don’t have long attention spans.

lighting for pet photography

Pet Light

For the simple side of the equation, Theresa chose to light Fredo and Vinnie with just one light. She also wanted a brighter center on the background that would become dimmer toward the edges. The relatively small 35″ Rime Lite Grand directly over the camera did the job perfectly. This 16-sided, round, silver modifier makes a brighter area of light in the center that falls off rapidly, so the background looks like it’s lit separately. Look at the very slight glow behind the terriers. You can see how quickly the light darkens at the edges—like working with a soft-edged spotlight. The photograph’s edges weren’t darkened in Photoshop, they came out of the camera that way.

The specular reflections of the light source in Vinnie’s eyes (above) show the shape of the Grand. These catchlights look almost like a ring flash was used.

lighting for pet photography

The Gear

The 35″ Rime Lite Grand has a Dynalite studio flash head mounted in the speed ring connected to a RoadMax 800 Ws power pack at quarter power. The photographs were made using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX lens. The exposures were 1/125 at f/9, ISO 100.

The Shoot

My job was to keep the Grand over the camera while Theresa made the photographs. She told me to stay directly behind her so the dogs wouldn’t watch me. While Theresa shot the set with her Canon G1 X, she talked to them and whistled. I kept Fredo and Vinnie entertained with treats but, as I was holding one in front of Fredo, she leaned toward me and snatched the treat right out of my hand—tricky Fredo! I had to give Vinnie one, too, so he wouldn’t feel left out.

lighting for pet photography

The Payoff

A liberal hand with treats was all it took to get Fredo and Vinnie to sit up and be adorable for the camera.

lighting for pet photography

Lighting doesn’t have to be elaborate to be effective. We’ve seen what a great photographer can do with minimal gear. Until next time, light well and prosper!