The holiday season is upon us. You can run, but you can’t hide, so why not embrace it fully and take some holiday pet portraits? Whether you want to make your own holiday cards featuring your furry family members or run holiday mini-sessions for clients, holiday pet portraits can be a fun twist on a tradition. Here we will share a reasonably minimalist set-up that is easy to work with for lighting novices and experienced strobists alike.
- Canon 5D Mark II / Canon 6D Mark II (Less costly alternative)
- Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II (Currently $200 off as of this writing)
- Savage Seamless Paper in ‘Evergreen’
- Savage 65″ Deep Soft White Umbrella
- Profoto D1
- Profoto Air Remote
- Westcott 5-in-1 Reflector
- White Foam Core
- Impact C-Stand
- Manfrotto 2983 Adjustable Background Holder Crossbar (108″)
- Profoto Light Stands x2 (holding the backdrop)
- Capture One Pro
- Adobe Photoshop
- Semi-willing subject
- Holiday Props
A subject is positioned about four feet in front of a seamless backdrop. I didn’t roll the seamless out into a floor, also called a ‘sweep,’ but if you do you will want to make sure there’s a hard surface underneath, or it will quickly be trampled and torn.
A Westcott 5-in-1 Reflector is positioned to the subject’s camera-right side with the white surface facing the pet. A piece of white foam core is laid on the floor in front of the animal to fill shadows.
ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/125. I shot at base ISO for clean images since, when using powerful strobes, there’s no need to crank it up.
The aperture was set to f/6.3 to keep more of the subject’s face in focus while still offering a little background blur to help with a few wrinkles in the seamless.
**For pets, you will often need a narrower aperture for greater depth of field than you do with humans since their noses can be much further from their eyes.
The shutter speed of 1/125 was used somewhat habitually – it’s how I was taught years ago and used to be a common flash sync speed for cameras. To choose your shutter speed remember the following:
- It needs to be slower than or equal to the your camera’s flash sync speed (usually 1/200 or 1/250) unless you are using high-speed sync. If you go too slow and have ambient light in your space, you will start getting motion blur and potentially color contamination if the ambient light is a different color than your flash.
Patience and bribery are the keys here. A good assistant/pet wrangler will make your life easier. Some pets will be more cooperative than others, and while we can convince them to do things sometimes, in the end, you get what they give and what you’re able to grab.
The pet’s comfort is essential, and while some things that produce cute pet photos may be mildly degrading, pets can often be distracted with enough nibble-sized treats and toys that they don’t mind. If an animal really doesn’t want to do something, it must be respected – we may embarrass a little, but we don’t torment.
This subject, Molly, is highly food-motivated. She was instructed to sit and was given a treat, and then another treat was held near the camera while I talked to her and made noises to get her attention. When using food, it’s good to use small bits so that you aren’t overfeeding them as you give rewards throughout the session. Some food can be too exciting for some dogs – think bacon or other human goodies – and may cause excessive drooling and deliver a distracted pet rather than a focused one
Not all pets are food motivated – some will respond better to toys or human affection. It’s important to decode the pet’s strongest motivators to persuade them into poses. Occasionally you will get to work with an impeccably trained animal, but most will need your expertise to get their best performance. Sometimes, a pet just isn’t on board with whatever you’ve planned, and then you must be flexible and creative to come up with a workable ‘plan b.’
GEAR CHOICES, EXPLAINED
Camera – Most cameras with a hot shoe mount will do just fine in a studio setting with strobes. It’s not taxing on ISO capabilities, which is one of the more significant concerns with some of the entry-level bodies.
Any time you’re working with animals, you will benefit from the use of a camera with a high-performance autofocus system, but as evinced by these photographs captured with a 5D Mark II, you can also get by with basic autofocus. The camera used for these photos happened to be full-frame, but APS-C is non-problematic as well.
In short, you just need a camera that you can control manually and that can fire an off-camera-flash. Older, cheaper cameras will still be ok, though advanced autofocus will help.
Lens – The particular lens used, the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II, is very sharp and focuses quickly, and the focal range is versatile for working with pets who can sometimes change their position in the frame swiftly and unpredictably. For shooting on a seamless, you wouldn’t be using the wide end. Typically the range used with this lens in this scenario is 50-70mm.
Lenses are another area where the studio can be forgiving. Flash can coax out a lens’s sharpest performance, and fast apertures aren’t needed, so even kit lenses can shine.
As with the camera body, you want something that can focus fast. For example, the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro can double as a sharp portrait lens with beautiful results, but it isn’t known for its autofocus speed and can make capturing in-focus pet portraits unnecessarily challenging. For best results, choose a lens you know has reliable autofocus.
Strobe – The Profoto D1 used for this shoot was selected for its fast recycle time which is very useful for working with pets as you want to grab moments that can be incredibly fleeting. However, most any strobe can be used in its place. Alternatives include Elinchrom D-Lite 400W/s RX 4, Interfit Honey Badger, and Phottix Indra500.
The Profoto Air Remote is used because it’s part of the integrated Profoto Air system, but you can use Pocket Wizards or other third-party radio trigger system, or even an old-fashioned flash sync cable if your camera has a flash sync port.
A note on strobe use – some pets don’t enjoy flashes and will work better with continuous or natural light, so it’s good to have a backup plan in mind if you’re using strobes. Also, certain animals, like cats and horses, are sensitive to TTL pre-flash so manual mode will give you fewer squinting shots.
Modifier – The Savage 65″ Deep Soft White Umbrella is a huge modifier that produces a beautiful, soft light that can still look a little ‘punchy.’ For beginners, it’s a natural choice that’s very forgiving, and its broad light spread is useful for working with animals as they move around your set. It’s an inexpensive solution for a one-light shoot – it can light a background behind a subject and the soft shadows produced are unlikely to be obtrusive on the seamless. A potential downside is that you will need a fair bit of room to use this modifier indoors.