We love our pets—they bring us happiness, laughter and unconditional love, no matter what their size, shape or color. But here’s the thing: if your favorite furry friend is all black, you may find that you consistently don’t love the photos you take of her. Instead of that charming, whiskered face, you’ve got loads of photos that feature a black blob with eyes. So what’s the secret to getting great photos of black animals? Keep reading to find out.
The Watchers by Flickr user eaghra
It’s all about the light
Before we get into the details of black animal photography, let’s take some time to understand what it is that creates impenetrable blacks in any photo. You may have noticed that you have this problem at other times, too, not just when you’re photographing your pet. There are times when you’ve hoped to capture detail in a shadowed area, but were disappointed to discover that your camera saw nothing but black there. What’s more, when you went into your post-processing software to try and pull the detail out of those shadows, you discovered that they were “clipped—” or in other words, there was no detail there at all, so nothing even available to be recovered.
This happens because of the dynamic range in a scene. The term “dynamic range” just refers to the difference between the very bright parts of a scene and the very dark parts. When you’re shooting in very bright light, like what you would get at mid-day in the summer time, there’s more dynamic range in the scene than there would be in a similar scene shot at a different time of day or in different weather conditions. Most modern digital cameras aren’t capable of capturing a full range of tones from black to white in a scene that has a lot of dynamic range, so what happens is you’ll get blown-out or bright white highlights and shadows that fall off into that impenetrable black we were talking about. Unfortunately, when your black pet is one of those shadows, that means that you won’t get any detail in his fur at all, just that inky black blob with eyes.
Fortunately the answer to this problem is usually pretty simple—just don’t take pictures during those very bright times of the day. Instead, save your pet shots for “the golden hour,” or that time of day just after sunrise or just before sunset when the light is soft, diffused and even. You can also choose open shade or you can wait for an overcast day—the clouds act as a natural diffuser, so while you may end up with an image that’s a little on the flat side, you’ll definitely get that nice detail in your black pet’s fur that you’ve been missing on bright, sunny days.
Now let’s say you’ve got a black cat who lives strictly indoors—then your job is a lot simpler. In the past you may have been tempted to photograph your indoor cat with your popup flash, but that’s the wrong solution to the problem. When you use flash you’re adding extra problems—you’ll get the feline version of red eye, which is essentially a bright white spot where his eye is supposed to be. And you’ll have other problems too, like washed out highlights (or blacks that look muddy gray) and ugly black shadows around objects.
Instead of just popping up the flash, you’ve got a few superior choices. During the day, the existing light in a room is actually ideal for photographing black animals because it tends to be very even, especially if it’s all natural light that’s filtering through the windows. Don’t be afraid to turn up your ISO in lieu of using your flash—most modern digital cameras can take very good photos even at higher ISOs, and even if you do get some noise that’s almost always going to be better than living with the drawbacks of using your flash. But you may not even need to turn up your ISO—if your cat likes to sit in the window, just wait until that moment to take your picture. Light that filters through a window is naturally soft and diffuse, and if your cat is pretty close to it not only should it be bright enough to act as your sole light source (without the need to turn up your ISO by much) but it will also help give your photo a three-dimensional look—window light will create nice highlights on the window side of your subject and soft shadows on the other.
If it’s not daytime, you can still get a nice photo of your pet by bouncing your flash. This is tricky if your only flash is a pop-up (although you can get creative and bounce your flash with a white business card) but if you have an external flash simply point it up at the ceiling (or sideways at a wall) and that big, white surface will scatter the light, softening it and bringing out the detail in your pet’s black fur. Now remember that bounced flash really works best when you have a large, white surface—if your ceiling is tinted you will get a tint in your photo, too.
What if you absolutely must take a photo of your pet in that bright, overhead light on a sunny day? After all, we can’t control when and where our pet is going to do something cute, and it’s not like I can reasonably expect you to just not take a photo of that cute thing because the light isn’t exactly right. In that case, try using your flash for fill light—sometimes it just takes a little extra light to prevent those shadows from falling off into impenetrable black.
Speedlite - Huh? by Flickr user 427
Use exposure compensation
Now here’s the other thing you need to remember before you start believing that the right light will solve all your black-pet photography problems—your meter doesn’t like scenes that have a lot of black in them. Well, maybe “doesn’t like” is too strong a sentiment, but all of those dark tones will actually confuse your camera and are likely to lead it to make the wrong exposure decisions.
Let’s backtrack a little so I can explain what I mean. Modern camera meters are designed to assume that everything in any given scene averages out to roughly middle gray in tone. This really is a good system, since most scenes do average out to roughly middle gray in tone—and it’s great if your subject is a Weimaraner, which just so happens to be exactly middle gray in color. But it’s not so great if your subject is a black lab or a Friesian horse. When your subject is not middle gray, your camera likes to pretend it is—so if you trust your meter reading you may end up with a photo of a muddy gray black lab or Friesian instead of an animal that’s a nice, rich black. The problem becomes more pronounced as you fill the frame with your subject—if you’re taking a photo of your pet’s face, for example, you’ll probably end up with an overexposed image unless you take steps to prevent it.
Fortunately the fix is actually pretty simple—just use negative exposure compensation. If you’re not familiar with this setting it’s usually marked on your camera body with a little +/- symbol—select “+” for positive exposure compensation and “-“ for negative exposure compensation. For black pets, start with negative exposure compensation of around a stop, and then check your LCD to see what kind of results you’re getting. If your photo still looks too washed out, add another stop of negative exposure compensation (hint: sometimes it’s hard to tell how well you’re doing by looking at your LCD, so when in doubt take two or three bracketed shots to give yourself the best possible chance at getting a picture you like).
Finally, pay close attention to your background. Because you don’t want to increase the dynamic range in a scene that features a black pet, don’t place her in front of a very bright background or you’ll end up with that black blob silhouette that we’ve been trying to avoid. And don’t choose a very dark background, either, or you may lose some of your pet’s outline—in other words, she may look like she’s melting into the black object she’s standing in front of. Instead, choose a background that’s a middle tone—a green lawn is a perfect choice.
Cat silhouette by Flickr user olivierbxl
Just because your pet is black doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to a photo album full of pictures of a sinister looking black blob with bright eyes. It is actually pretty easy to get some nice photos of your black dog, cat or horse (or bunny, or pet rat, or whatever) where you can actually see her features and tell that she has actual fur. The key is to always pay attention to the quality of the light—remember that the softer it is, the more detail you’ll be able to capture. And don’t forget your exposure compensation, too—combine those two elements with a nice, middle-toned background and you’ll suddenly start taking photos of your adorable pet rather than an all black phantom with sinister, disembodied eyes.
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