I was photographing my dog on a hiking trail one morning and a woman walked by with her black Labrador retriever. She stopped to chat and lamented how she can’t get good photos of her dog because he’s so dark. It's a comment I hear all the time from people who have black companion animals — they want great photos but their pet turns out looking like a dark blob or is washed out from the camera’s flash. As someone who had a black Labrador for 10 years, I promise that there are a handful of simple strategies and tricks you can easily learn that will let you get amazing photos of your black pet.
Natalia Martinez photographs her dog Willow on the beach one morning. Having four black pets has given her and her husband lots of experience in the ins and outs of getting perfect portraits of darkly colored companion animals. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
To put the list together, I turned to Natalia Martinez. She and her husband are the professional pet photographers behind Photo Lab Pet Photography. They have two dogs and two cats — three of which are solid black and one cat is a dark calico. If there’s anyone who has mastered the art of photographing black pets, it’s them. Some of what's in this list relies on using a camera with manual settings so you have full control over your exposure. If you’ve been looking for a chance to branch out with your camera and learn more than the point-and-shoot auto settings, this is a great opportunity. And your photographs will certainly benefit!
Think about the background
For most photographs, your background plays a big role in making or breaking the image. But for portraits of black pets, it is especially important to consider how your background is affecting your subject in the photo.
Because you have a subject that already easily loses detail due to its color, you want to have a background that doesn't detract further. Backgrounds that are particularly busy will distract from your subject, so try to find a soft, minimal background to help your subject out stand out.
"You are already working with a strong color," says Martinez, "so it would be best suited if the background were lighter, less busy. I usually think, 'If this photograph were in black and white, would my subject stand out?' If it wouldn’t stand out well in black and white, it will likely not stand out in color either."
If you can't avoid a busy background, you can minimize the effect it has by using a wide-open aperture so that it will blur out. All the noise of the background can then become a nice soft bokeh instead, and your subject will stand apart from it.
"Another good trick to help separate your subject from the background, especially in a studio situation, is to create a rim light. This is a light source that helps highlight the edges of your subject, placed slightly behind him," says Martinez.
You can get the effect of rim light outside the studio by having the light source (the sun, window, or whatever it may be) behind and just off to the side of your pet. The light will catch the edges of the fur creating a glowing outline around your pet.
Something else to experiment with when you have a black pet is using a black background. "Contrary to popular belief, black on black can be a really fun way to play with light and composition," says Martinez. "Take advantage of you subject’s dark coat and brightly colored eyes. In this case, I would expose for the mid tones or highlights, the results can be very cool and beautiful."
Focus on the eyes
Eyes are important in any photograph, but especially so in portraits of black animals because they may be the only other color the animal can offer. The contrast between a black face and brown, gold, green and blue eyes can be absolutely striking. So take the extra effort to make sure you’re capturing them at their best — in focus, expressive and properly exposed.
Of course, there may be pets where the eyes are not something you’re going to easily capture, such as dogs with longer coats like in the photograph below. If that’s the case, think about the next most compelling part of the pet -- the texture of the coat, or maybe their personality as they play fetch or run around. Think about how to best highlight this feature and pursue a portrait with that in mind.
Get enough light
The important part of showing off the details of a black pet is getting a balance between shadow and highlight, and not letting the pet be too dark in the photo. It is really easy when shooting in auto-modes to underexpose your image.Your camera will look at the scene to figure out the right settings and think that your pet isn't much more than a dark shadow. This means your photo will be too dark, with little detail of your pet standing out (and exactly why owners of black pets think it's so hard to get good portraits).
This is where shooting using manual exposure is invaluable. Be sure that you're exposing for your pet as the primary subject. You'll be able to adjust your settings so that your pet is perfectly exposed.
"I tend to expose for the shadow when I shoot," says Martinez. "Depending on your scene, that may cause your highlights to blow out. [F]ind a happy medium where you'll be able to recover the highlights [in post-processing] and still bring a little light into the shadows."
If you want to get the exposure perfect in camera and not worry about post-processing, you can fill in the shadows by using a reflector (this can even be a piece of white cardboard) to bounce light toward your subject and fill in the shadows. This is a way to bring in just a touch of soft light to break up the contrast and let the details stand out.
You can also experiment with flash. However, Martinez warns, “Flash will change the texture of your subject’s coat depending on how specular or diffused your light source is, it will catch the shiny highlights of the coat, the wet nose and create catchlights on the eyes.”
Enjoy the shade
Beware of too much contrast in your photos. Harsh sunlight will give your pet a bright glare on some parts of their coat and solid black shadows in other parts, and there will be very little detail that can stand out between the two extremes. Moving your pet into the shade to soften the light and provide a more even exposure will help quite a bit.
When in the shade, though, avoid brightly dappled light, which will be as distracting on and around your pet as being in the bright sunlight.
Another great option to get nice even light on your pet is how you angle them toward the light source. "If you are shooting by a window or similar situation (which provides gorgeous light by the way), try and angle your subject towards the window," says Martinez. "Even if they are looking at you, that slight angle will help highlight their features."
Don't be afraid of shadows and silhouettes
While you may be trying to learn tricks that will allow you to capture the most detail and dimension in your black pet, don't be afraid to have fun with what comes easiest: shadows and silhouettes.
Martinez notes, "When photographing black dogs or cats, remember you have a walking silhouette, so play with that! Have fun setting them against windows or sunrises and sunsets, they will stand out beautifully."
Take advantage of moments like the silhouette of your cat walking along a fence against a gorgeous sky, or silhouetted against the front window of your living room where they love looking out at the birds in the yard. Capture the silhouette of your dog running along the beach at sunrise, or sitting next to a pond at sunset. Have fun with shadows where only your pet's eyes and maybe a little detail from their ear stand out from the dark. These all can make amazing portraits.