Thursday, November 29, 2012

5 Steps for Dog Photos that Don't Suck

Common occurrence in the life of an animal portrait artist:

Someone emails me a couple images of their beloved dog who has passed away, and wistfully asks if I can make a portrait from these snapshots, because it's all they have. And the snapshots are ... not great. The colors are all blue, the lighting is too dim or too harsh, the image is small and the details of the dog's face can't be seen very well.

Usually, my answer is yes, I can work with what they have; you'd be amazed what I can do with some pretty dismal photos. But it does take longer and I never feel the results are as good as they would be if my reference shots were better. And I'm saddened for the owners, who always wish they had taken better pictures while they still could. Pictures like these of Fozzie, above and below, which I took in a few minutes on a random Wednesday afternoon.

These are not professional-grade photos, but they're good (and for art-making purposes, excellent), and what's more, any yahoo with a digital camera can get the same results. No special training or equipment needed. Here's how:

1. TURN OFF YOUR FLASH.  See all that pretty sunlight, the soft shadows, and the warm color of Fozzie's coat? If you use a flash, all that goes away, replaced by a harsh blue floodlight effect. This is especially true if you're photographing indoors, which I don't recommend unless you have a nice sunlit window (ideal for cat owners!).

2. GET OUTSIDE. If you possibly can, photograph outdoors, preferably in early morning or late afternoon/early evening sunlight. Natural light is bright enough so that you don't need to use the flash to get a sharp picture. Early or late sunlight is perfect -- slanting and golden, it brings out the animal's natural beauty. If your dog is black and shiny, shooting right at sunset or on an overcast or hazy day may work better, so keep the camera around and keep playing.

3. GET CLOSE (and get help from a friend). For dogs, you'll likely need someone to distract them or hold the leash, or else they'll be dogs: "Hey! Whatchya doin'? What is that? Izzit a toy? Huh huh?" If you have a dog, you probably already have the Lens Full of Doggie Nose pictures that result. You just need to be close enough so the head and shoulders fill the frame and you can see all the expressive details.  It will help a lot to be on the dog's eye level, if you can.

4. LEARN TO USE YOUR WHITE BALANCE SETTING. This is in the menu of any digital camera, even the one on my cheap little flip-phone. The symbols for it are "WB" or a little sun, cloud, light bulb, or house casting a shadow for "shade." If you're photographing outside or in that sunny window, set your camera for sunlight. This will keep that warm golden tone in your pictures. If you don't set your camera for sun, your colors may look weirdly blue, like a poster that's been hanging in a shop window too long.

5. TAKE A TON OF SHOTS. This is digital; it's not like you're going to waste film. Have fun! If you've got 20 pictures and only one is good, you still have a good picture.

Oh, one last thing: Once you've got some nice pictures, back them up on a thumb drive, DVD, or somewhere else so that you don't lose your memories if your hard drive conks out.

Happy snapping to all my fellow amateur camera-hounds!

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