Guest blog by Alice Loder
Black dogs come in different colours! Varying amounts of hair, size and physical characteristics, environment, light conditions and the dog’s nature all contribute to making black dogs a photographer’s nightmare.
This doesn’t have to be the case. Go out armed with these tools and have fun!
1. Avoid direct sun
Don’t assume that because a black dog is dark, more light will show up all those gorgeous tiny details. In bright direct sunlight your camera will be unable to expose both the highlights and the lowlights. You’ll end up with a high contrast, blocky image that shows little more than a black dog with no eyes or tone, against a garish overblown background.
Tackle this by bringing your black dog into a large shaded area i.e. under a big tree, under softer light, which will evenly light your dog allowing all of the tonal detail and coat shine to appear. Indoors, use a window with netting that will diffuse the light creating gorgeous soft highlights.
Top tip: find an area where the light changes in the background, with ‘light rays’. Put your dog a few metres in front of them, to create a lovely sense of depth and shape in the background, drawing the attention to the dog.
2. Choose your moment
In the summer most photographers favour early morning and late evening. The 20 to 30 minutes after sunrise and before sunset (depending on the season and latitude) are referred to as ‘the golden hour’ (or ‘civil twilight’), when the sun is lower and therefore illuminates the atmosphere creating stunning colours. Just after sunset, the colours of the sky change most rapidly. Clouds in the West are illuminated by orange-red sunlight, while the ones in the East remain blue and indigo.
Aside from the obvious gorgeous colours in the sky, the light becomes diffused and soft. During the summer months when you’re already battling hard light and it’s too hot for your black canine friend, photographing during just before sunset or sunrise means you are not restricted to shady areas. Your dog won’t overheat so less wagging tongues and more action shots!
Top tip: Take advantage of the colours that the sun can create. If a gorgeous red appears, find colours in the background to compliment or even contrast against this. Fern, sand and tree bark are brilliant backgrounds to use during a warm golden summer sunset as they bring out all tones and textures around the dog.
3. Add water
We have covered how to manipulate light from above and to the side. But you might still end up with a nicely lit face resting on a big black blob and no definition in the chest or body. Interesting but subtle ‘bibs’ or other white markings can easily be lost.
The choice of background can have a huge effect on the overall success of an image. Nature gives us many tools and one of them is water. A nice reflective puddle can be your best friend. Water not only creates gorgeous reflections, which can be artistic, quirky and unusual but is a natural reflector.
Top tip: use a small puddle to one side of the dog and crop the legs out to create a nicely lit portrait where you can’t see the light source. Or go to town and take advantage of the atmosphere, shape and colours that water can produce. Not to the mention the lovely shine that a wet coat can create on sleeker breeds.
4. A great pair of eyes
An owner of a black (or dark) dog will know just how much those eyes can tell you, the simplicity of black and gold when put together is a colour combination that gets everybody excited. Many of the most emotive portraits of dogs are done using a simple background and a black dogs because when you take out all of the ‘clutter’ and distraction of colour and setting and you just focus on the expression and charisma that a dogs eyes can give you, you can create simple, beautiful art that gets every owner feeling goose bumps.
So how do we go about getting those eyes bright and twinkly? We have covered light from above, from one side and from below. For a dog with a lot of hair or much smaller eyes, when light still can’t quite get to the dog, use extra light. Wear white, use flash or add a light from a torch, iPhone etc, to create a reflection and get that ‘twinkly’ look.
Fun fact: a study, by Miho Nagasawa of Azabu University in Japan, 2009, found owners and dogs sharing a long mutual gaze had higher levels of oxytocin (the ‘cuddle drug’) than owners of dogs giving a shorter gaze.
5. Consider stereotypes and breed specific characteristics
‘Black dog syndrome’ is about black dogs believed to be the ones less likely to be adopted from shelters and rescue charities. Studies conducted haven’t confirmed, but haven’t disproved the theory either. They showed however that location and surrounding areas have a lot of influence on the success rate of black dogs. Why?
Films, stories and songs hugely influenced the creation of stereotypes and superstitions around dark faces. Many films use dark-faced dogs with pointy ears and wolf-like features for negative effect. In animations, certain dark-faced breeds portray the ‘baddies’, while the softer faced, floppy eared breeds are the ‘good guys’. Some cultures believe dogs to be evil, and there is reason to believe that the inability to distinguish the eyes can create negativity around facial expression, body language and general subconscious assumptions.
To draw attention to the positive qualities of darker faces, remove negative characteristics as much as possible. Panting and showing teeth, ears back tightening the forehead and causing eyes to look sharper or low head poses with a strong eye contact can all create a dominant or imposing impression. Looking up at the camera, lying down, heads tilting, or looking past the camera can draw attention to more subtle characteristics of stereotyped breeds.
6. Take perspective
This involves doing anything other than what you would usually do.
Extreme angles are more aesthetically pleasing than ‘in between’ angles or those we are used to seeing with our own eyes. Lie on the ground and look up at the dog, to create a fun artistic silhouette and use the dark canvas to your advantage. Look directly down at the dog to create a different perspective and add a nice reflection of the sky in the eyes.
7. No tongues!
Tongues mean kisses when it comes to your pet, but in a photograph only lead to big blobs of pink and maybe slobber and drool. With a black canvas any vibrant colour stands out, so dogs will look extremely ‘mouthy’. Drooling black dogs are even less appealing, dribble and slobber reflect light creating a sparkle where it’s not wanted.
Keep your dog hydrated and have a hand tissue when out and about to rectify this.
8. Brown or blue?
Using the colours around the dog carefully can either compliment or distract from the natural colours of that individual dog.
When it comes to complimentary lighting and backgrounds, dogs with more of a brown hue can have less shine to their coat and can benefit from contrasting colours such as green or blue. Dogs with a silvery blue tinge to their coat can really compliment golden and red colours around them. If a black dog with a slightly browner coat is put around warmer colours it accentuates the brownish red tones in their coat and can make them look almost liver coloured.
9. Position your dog
This will help you create more perspective and detail.
Getting a dog to lie down can cause the body to become one big shape, while a sit or down with paws on something helps to break up the overall shape and allow light to show up the different curves and lines of the dog’s body. Instead of looking head-on at a dog with a white chest try sitting the dog at an angle with its chest facing diagonally towards you and the white area creating a break.
You can make a difference without expensive equipment or a whole team of lighting technicians around you.
Wear white or light clothing. A simple white top can help to reflect enough light to get a twinkle in the eye on a nice day, just make sure you wash out the muddy paw prints afterwards!
A piece of cardboard covered in foil will also act as a good reflector to pop under the dog to reflect light under the chin and onto the chest, or to prop against something to reflect onto the dog.
Make sure your dog is clean, dirty dogs don’t shine. No need to bathe your dog every time you take them out, but a simple brush over will push the oils down the hair and make the ends a little shinier. For dogs with longer hair that can naturally be quite dull you can buy simple products for creating shine and sparkle. Make sure these are dog friendly and brush them out afterwards as they can be quite oily.
Black dog photography is just like all photography: reduce the unwanted factors and increase your chances of success.
Alice Loder is an international multi-award winning photographer specialising in canine and equine portraiture. Her passion is creating natural portraits capturing the essence of an animal’s character, challenging stereotypes and exploring the unknown. Alice is based in the UK travelling worldwide offering both corporate and private photo shoots, workshops, one-to-one tuition, branding and one-off original prints.
One of her awards is Kennel Club Dog Photographer Of The Year 2014.
Look up Alice’s photography workshop at Enjoy Your Dog on our Events page.