Behind the Lighting: Pet Portrait

| March 29, 2011

pet dog portrait

OK, time for full disclosure. I am not an expert at strobe photography yet but I am learning and I thought I would share my experiences with you as I go. Strobe photography can be intimidating for some but, like anything else, once equipped with the right information you can do just about anything. My motto is practice, practice, practice.

So, about a week ago, I set up my lighting gear at the house so I could practice strobe photography on a daily basis. My goal is to become more proficient using my lighting equipment shooting a variety of subjects. You may have guessed from some of my earlier posts that Donna and I love our dog. We rescued her about nine years ago after finding her tied up to a tree at a park in the rain. It is a real rags to riches story! Anyway, with my gear all set up and a freshly bathed pooch, I had a perfect subject to shoot. Well almost perfect. Our little Schnoodle may be cute but she is pretty energetic and it is tough to get her to sit still for any length of time. I figured if I could take a picture of her, I could rake picture of anyone!

With her pearly white coat, I thought a nice white background would look great for her portrait. To prepare the background, I set up backdrop stands and draped a large piece of bleached white muslin over the top bar. The muslin came from a local fabric store, it is 118″ wide, 15 feet long, and cost me $55. The stands I have came from They are quite nice and only ran me about $80. Of course you can use anything to hold the muslin. I just like the convenience of the stands.

pet portrait lighting

Pet portrait lighting setup

With the backdrop ready to go, I put my camera on the tripod and set up two strobes for the shoot. As you can see in the diagram above, my Canon 550EX Speedlite was mounted on a stand and fired directly into the muslin from behind Zoe. The goal for this strobe was to virtually blow out the background and turn it to a bright white. To accomplish this, I set the strobe to fire at +2 stops in fully automatic E-TTL mode, which made it really bright relative to my subject, Zoe.

To light Zoe, I mounted my Canon 580EX II to my 24″ square Lastolite Ezybox softbox and positioned it at camera right. This strobe was set to fire at +0 stops in fully automatic E-TTL mode. I have been very impressed by the quality of light that the Ezybox creates. It has a dual layer diffuser that creates a nice soft light. If you don’t want to pop $220 for the Ezybox, take a look at some of the online tutorials and create your own with easily obtainable supplies!

I used a Canon ST-E2 IR transmitter mounted to the camera equipped with a radiopopper PX transmitter to remotely fire the strobes, each of which were equipped with radiopopper receivers. Radiopoppers are pretty expensive but wonderful gadgets that allow the strobes to be fired from virtually anywhere with no need for line-of-sight to function. They create a radio-based two-way communication system between the camera and the strobes. The transmitter and the two receivers ran me $750. For lower cost setups, you could use the ST-E2 IR transmitter on the camera and the line-of-sight IR technology that is built into the strobes. You would of course be using different equipment if you were have a Nikon set up.

While shooting, my camera was set to full manual using a shutter speed of 1/160 and an aperture of f/7.1. My focal length was 50mm and the ISO was set to 400. During the session, I fired off about 30 shots trying to get a good pose. Of the batch, the photo above is the best of the bunch. To make this photo better, I could have tried to use a reflector to Zoe’s left of fill in some of the shadows a bit. I did not have an extra hand for the reflector so am considering purchasing another stand and boom to hold one for these occasions. I would not want to eliminate all of the shadows though because they are somewhat critical for helping to define the features of her face.

I am pretty happy with this result considering it is the first time I have attempted a pet portrait. Best of all, I feel that I was able to capture Zoe’s adorable features and her personality!

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Category: Photography, Tutorials

Comments (11)

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  1. Erin Duke says:

    Looks good, Lee! I’m no expert in strobes either, so posts like yours are always helpful for the “novice user!” Can’t wait to get photographing my 3 crazy pups 🙂

  2. Chris Nitz says:

    Aweee! Very awesome and informative post. I need to start playing with flash photography.

  3. Chris Wray says:

    Nice mini-tutorial. Thanks for sharing your studio secrets!

  4. Great post Lee, very helpful! I want to get into studio lighting just like this so I look forward to more experimental posts.

  5. Lee says:

    Thanks for all the comments!

  6. AutumnLeaves says:

    What a beautiful girl Zoe is!!! I love pet rescuers. Beautiful photograph too, Lee.

  7. I love Zoe! She’s beautiful!! Great captures here, Lee. Your blog article is very timely as I am nearly about to embark on a similar path with lighting and to be honest have been a little intimidated. Your blog has really taught me a ton of stuff, I really appreciate that!

  8. Martyn says:

    Dude I’m speechless. This is the best portrait of a dog I’ve ever seen.

  9. syls says:

    Love the lighting effect on your lovely subject.I enjoy photography but only have a digi camera that i use to record references mostly for my painting.
    All the best

  10. Nancie says:

    Lee – Zoe is beautiful, and your photograph makes her even more so. Great lighting & capture of her personality.

    A request – would you grant me permission to paint this image? I am such a dog fanatic, and she is so terrific. I don’t know if I could do her justice, but I sure would like to try.

  11. Lee says:

    Wow! Thanks for visiting and taking a peek at Zoe. Glad you like the shot!