Photographing Black Dogs

By Christopher Butler, cjb@adobe.com

  1. Use low contrast film such as that used for weddings. It's designed for grooms in dark suits and brides in white dresses, similar to the problem you state. Fuji NPH (ASA 400), Fuji NPS (ASA 160), Kodak PRN (ASA 100, discontinued), Kodak Portra (160 or 400), Kodak VPS (ASA 160) are all good choices. All of these are professional films. Consumer films such as Kodak Gold (or Royal Gold), or Fuji Superia or Reala, while excellent for taking general purpose pictures of people and landscapes, tend to be too high contrast for bringing out detail in black dogs. They will work, but it just makes everything harder.
  2. Print to matching paper. Hard to do in consumer photo labs. Most drugstore and consumer labs use paper that matches consumer film (i.e Royal Gold paper or Fuji Crystal Archive paper) that most people use. Kodak Portra paper (for Portra film), Kodak Professional, or Agfa Portrait paper will product very nice results. This usually requires a professional lab and can be expensive, so pick only your best work for this treatment.
  3. Do use a fill flash. If you have exposure compensation, use about -2/3 to -1/3 fill flash. Unfortunately, many point and shoots will NOT offer you this level of control. If you can experiment with the compensation so that it *does* look natural but also brings out coat details.
  4. Photograph on a cloudy day. Sunny days increase contrast. Working in a shady area on a sunny day may also work, but watch out for bright spots.
  5. Consider using a reflector to fill in the shadows; note that this may require an assistant when you take the picture. A good fold-up reflector (e.g. PhotoFlex) costs about $50 - I count it as one of the best photo accessories I ever bought. White cardboard or foamcore can do the same thing in a pinch.

I should note that some of my best portraits of flat coats have been taken on a sunny day with the use of a reflector. If you have a sunny day to deal with, try this technique: Try to take the picture in the afternoon about 2 hours before sunset or in the morning about 2 hours after sunrise so that you have oblique light striking the dog. Light from straight overhead is almost unbearable. Position yourself and the dog as follows:

  • Sun at 12 o'clock
  • Dog facing 9 o'clock. This positions the dog so that it is not looking into the sun and squinting and you get nice side-lighting and rim lighting.
  • Camera at 7 or 8 o'clock. Meter off the shadowed side of the dog.
  • reflector at 6 o'clock filling in the shadows
  • watch your background. Try to pick a nice expanse of green lawn behind the dog. A wide aperture will blur it out beautifully.
  • ALWAYS focus on the eyes.
  • A touch of fill flash (approximately -1 to -2/3 of a stop) will give a nice sparkle to the eye and a gleam to the coat and yet will look very natural.

Note that this is NOT camera specific. Virtually any camera can be used with these techniques and will take a great picture.

Start with this and experiment from there. Good luck!