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Children & Animals: Charity Event

Basset hounds

They told me never to work with children or animals. I frequently work with both and I love every minute of it! This weekend I was invited to a Charity Event by Donnachie and Townley Vets. They’d asked if I could set up in one of their consulting rooms and take some pet portraits. As I’m sure those of you with pets will know, veterinary consulting rooms aren’t particularly large spaces. This one was no exception – I can’t have had more than a 7 x 9 foot space to work in.

So, what do you do when space is limited?

To start with you can’t compromise on image quality when you’re selling prints. Paying customer aren’t going to understand the technical difficulties presented by the space. All they see is a good image or a bad image. We wanted to make sure every one received great photos. A great photo is the best advert I can possibly put out for my services. It’ll sit on the customer’s wall and will be seen by their friends. When their friends see it they’ll be inclined to ask questions like “who took that?”, “where can I get one” or most commonly “how on earth did he get Fido to stay still for so long!”.

So if image quality is a must, then how do we go about achieving it with so little room? I’m sure you’re expecting me to give you a very detailed and technical answer at this point and to some extent I will, but there is a step which comes before that. This is a stage a lot of people skip to save time, but it’s probably the most important thing you can do: planning and preparation. As the saying goes, “to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail”.

My first planning decision was to decide exactly what I would shoot. Thankfully the styling of the photos had been left entirely in my hands. The only thing they had suggested is that we should give the option of both pet portraits and family portraits (with pets). When space is tight I want to immediately eliminate anything unnecessary from the photograph, so in this case I opted to go for a head and shoulders portrait style. This meant that I could avoid the need for any floor coverings and I didn’t need to consider the transition between the backdrop and the floor. I chose to use a Lastolite pop-up backdrop in black. Pop-up backdrops are like enormous reflectors – they have a sprung frame and literally pop up once they’re taken out of the bag. The sprung frame also serves the purpose of keeping the fabric taut – creases in backdrops aren’t visually pleasing! The reason I didn’t use a more traditional muslin backdrop comes down to space – the support system for these involves two tripods, and tripod legs would have brought the backdrop out from the wall. Using the popup backdrop I could lean it against the wall and only lose an inch or two at the most.

With the backdrop planned I started to think about lighting. When working against a black background, ideally you want to avoid putting too much light onto it, otherwise it will record as grey. We call this a low-key style of lighting. As photographers we have a good number of light modifiers available to us which help to control the light. On this occasion I settled on a beauty dish (or parabolic reflector, to give it it’s proper name) and a strip softbox. These modifiers both give a soft quality to the light, while providing control over how it falls off at the edges.

So what are these lights for? Well, lets start with the strip softbox. This will be the key light (the main light in the scene). I’ve positioned this around 30 degrees to camera right in a vertical orientation, and feathered it round so that the light from the back edge of the softbox isn’t hitting the backdrop. I’ve chosen to position the softbox very close to where my subject will be as this allows me to restrict the amount of light hitting the background yet further thanks to the inverse square law. The basic premise of the inverse square law is that things closer the the light will be brighter than things further away from it, with the ratio between the light to subject and light to background distances being the deciding factor in how bright they are relative to one another. I won’t go into the detailed physics of it all right now!

The second light, my beauty dish, I’ve chosen to position above camera position. To do this I’ve used an incline boom arm which allows me to have the base of the tripod off to one side, leaving me with somewhere to stand. I’ve deliberately metered this light so it would be a little under exposed if used on it’s own. This allows the light to fill in some of the shadows where the key light doesn’t land, but without losing the shapes of the shadows which allow us to appreciate the subject as being three dimensional. When a light is used in this way it is known as a fill light (or occasionally as a “contrast control”). I chose a beauty dish here for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s relatively compact so it isn’t going to get in my way. The second is that it give s a lovely soft quality of light, but has a harder falloff at the edges than a softbox, meaning I could keep it away from my black background, which needs to be kept black.

So, I’ve worked out the lighting and background, the next step was to test it. To create realistic conditions I set up in my kitchen, which is a similar sized small space. I rigged the lights and the backdrop and got my dogs in on the act. Aside from a few minor tweaks the the light positions I was very pleased with the results.

Head shot of a cocker spaniel x rottweiler
This is Cleo – my four year old Cocker Spaniel x Rottweiler (yes, really!). She’s a great test subject as her face is mostly black so can be tricky to photograph. Here I’ve tried to add in just enough light to keep her looking black, while bringing out her features.
Australian shepherd head shot
Skip is my two year old Australian Shepherd. He’s always very smiley and photogenic.

Happy with my tests I packed up and waited for the day of the event to arrive. We arrived an hour before and got everything set up as planned. This process is a lot smoother if the experimentation has taken place in advance! Once our little studio was set up, we got to work setting up our laptop and a mobile dry lab printer (kindly lent to us by fellow Illuminate tutor David). We were ready to go with 10 minutes to spare owing to a small hiccup where the laptop decided not to play ball. This gave us time to get hold of a dog and make sure everything was working.

The final setup looked like this (please excuse the quality of the photo – I forgot to take a proper shot and only had this on my phone!):

Studio set up diagram and photo
Our set up, which we managed to squeeze into our tiny space.

We tested the set up using Kit, an exceptionally cute little Sheltie puppy.

Sheltie puppy against a black background
Kit the Sheltie puppy – our lighting tester.
Sheltie puppy looking at the camera.
Another shot of Kit, this time looking at the camera. Notice how the catchlights in the eyes give away the shapes of the lights used – one long and thin and the other circular. Depending on how it looks i will sometimes edit out the catchlight from the fill light as this can sometimes detract from an image.

Happy with the lighting it was time to get stuck in. By the time the event was due to start we already had a queue, and it stayed steady all the way through. I was exhausted afterwards, but very happy with the results we achieved. Here’s a selection of photographs from the day:

Dog headshot
Some dogs are great in front of the camera and give you a big grin. Others will turn and run as soon as the first flash goes off.
Sniffer dog and handler
I loved the relationship between this police sniffer dog and his handler. Thankfully I didn’t bring any drugs or explosives with me so he didn’t find anything (before my house gets searched I should point out that this is a joke!)
Girl with her dog
It doesn’t come much cuter than this. I love the way the girl’s hair and the spaniel’s ear are hanging the same way.
Handsome dog
This handsome boy belongs to Deb who we’ve met before on a few of our courses. I came close to passing her the camera and leaving her to it!
Pomeranian giving a smile
Sometimes you get a dog who will come in, sit in the right spot and strike a few poses. I think we were done with this little Pomeranian in just a couple of minutes.
Bull dog puppy
Cute and wrinkly!
Teenage boy and his dog.
This is one of my favourite photos from the day. I like shots of gun dogs and working dogs with people as that’s traditionally been their place.
Four dogs sat together.
This one was a challenge. Getting two adult dogs and two puppies to sit together isn’t an easy job. The trick is to be ready on the shutter button so when that fleeting moment arrives you can grab that shot. I was so sure I had missed this one that I didn’t stop to check it so we went on to shoot for a few more minutes not realising that I already had the shot!
Basset hounds
I love Basset Hounds. They just look like they need a cuddle. They’re actually quite an active and cheerful breed, despite the droopy faces.

At the end of the day we did our sums and were pleased to have been able to contribute £115 to Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. We’re hoping they’ll invite us back for their next charity event as we had a great time!

If you’d like to start exploring studio lighting then we’re running a course on 27th June – for full details click here.