Small Flash: Lighting Those Pets and Their Dark Coats
If you’re just starting out on the path to becoming a full-time pet photographer, or if you want to create better images of your furry friend, the dilemma of how to light your subject is bound to come up and possibly even confound a few of you. The only thing more difficult to light than a rambunctious four-legged critter is one of those critters with a dark coat that seems to absorb everything you flash at it. It can be done though, and your small flash has some distinct advantages for just such a task. We’ll cover some of those advantages here, as well as some techniques to start taking some killer pet photos.
Our first advantage in using a small flash is twofold, and that is speed: the speed of the light itself, and a faster shutter speed if we need it. Light travels at vastly different speeds upon leaving one kind of flash versus another. Just as your subject will blur if you use a slow shutter speed, this blur can appear in a slow, flash-lit photograph, as well. I bring this up first because from my foray into pet photography, I found that animals don’t like to hold still for their photo any more than a small child on the go. Rather than trying to restrain them, we can let the flash do the heavy lifting here.
Fortunately, the Nikon SB-800 Speedlight that I used emits light at durations as short as 1/41600. That’s fast and certainly takes care of our speed concerns on the flash front. Secondly, if there’s any ambient light acting on your exposure, you’ll need a fast shutter speed to freeze the pet in place. With studio strobes we’re capped at 1/160 or 1/250, depending on the camera. Not so with small flash. In a previous column we discussed Auto-FP mode on the Nikon camera. This mode allows a Speedlight to sync at any shutter speed, all the way up to 1/8000. So that wraps up that end as well. Move as they might, we now have the ability to light and freeze those pets for
Another great advantage of using small flash when shooting active subjects like pets is the availability of TTL or E-TTL control. This is like autopilot for your flash exposure in some ways. It emits and measures a small preflash “Through The Lens” then automatically sets your flash output for the proper settings. This works really well most of the time, but when photographing a pet with an extremely dark coat we need to offer it some assistance. What our camera and flash see as a proper exposure is really just a middle gray, or an even exposure. That’s why when you go outside and photograph a snowy field you get an underexposed gray, not white. In the case of our cat model here, straight TTL gave us a gray, overexposed cat, not the deep black handsome devil he really is. This is easily corrected by remembering to dial in –2.0 EV on your flash to compensate. Now TTL will light up that coat just right.
The final advantage of using small flash for pet photography might come as a surprise, and that is its size. When using small flash for portraits, we’re constantly turning to different modifiers to shape and enlarge the light source, to produce a softer, more pleasing light in order to flatter our portrait subject. This approach quite literally falls flat on today’s subject. Here’s an example using one flash and a large 60″ umbrella. I couldn’t take a bad photograph of a model with this setup but on our dark-haired friend here, nothing but a small catch light registers. Large, soft light serves to minimize spectral highlights, which otherwise translate into hot spots on a person’s cheek and forehead. When lighting an animal with a dark coat, we need to approach them like we would a reflective product rather than a person. We need to paint in those hard highlights to sculpt an animal out of all that dark fur. The small size of a flash delivers that hard light and punchy spectral highlight right out of the box.
For these specific photographs, you wouldn’t know it but we had one excited pup for a subject. This translated into a lot of movement and a variety of great expressions. Using all of the above to our advantage, we set up two flashes with their diffusion domes attached to reallyspread the light, while maintaining its small size. Then we worked the flashes on either side of the dog from 45–90° from the camera. Since our subject is all shadow to begin with, we’re just carefully adding the highlights to flesh her out. When working with the reflected flash angle of incident like this, it helps to have done well in geometry or to be a good pool player. If all else fails though, trial and error will carry the day. After all, digital frames are free.
Editor’s Note: If you enjoyed this article on Lighting for photographing pet, we have a lot more articles and tutorials on small flash. Eric Valind has a great view on these skills as do others. Check out our courses on KelbyOne