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Challenge: Learn Your Camera’s Capabilities

Whether you’re new to photography or more advanced, or maybe you recently updated your camera, this lesson will be useful to you.

Many of my students say: “I don’t want to shoot in low light because of the noise” or “whenever I under-expose, I get a lot of noise”, or they wonder why I shoot at a reasonably high shutter speed for a still subject. 

So in this challenge, I’m going to encourage you to explore the limits of your camera. Because if we know what the camera can handle, we’ll know how far we can push it on a shoot. You will find the appropriate challenge for your stage in the Learning jJourney below, so I recommend that as you gain skill and confidence, you return to this challenge and have a go at the next level.

 

Storytime:

I was booked to do a photoshoot of a senior dog. He was very unwell and we weren’t sure how much longer he had left. We took photos for an hour and a half of him, and he did so amazingly, but then got a bit tired. At that time, I switched to taking photos of the owner and her other dogs, while Dusty lay down and had a break.

We shot until the sun was down and we were left with the very last light from a clear sky, with a large field area at our backs providing just enough ambient light for these last photos. 

As I was wrapping up with the owner and her other dogs, I looked over and saw Dusty lying like this, watching us, just quiet and relaxed. I dialed in my settings. I knew that at such a high ISO, it would be a bad idea to underexpose at all, as lightening up in editing would cause way more noise than if I’d just increased the ISO a bit more. Even then, I still took them slightly darker than is perfect.

I knew the photo would have some loss of detail, but the way Dusty was looking, and knowing these would be the last photos I would take, I fired off about 30, changing my angle slightly. I knew my camera could handle ISO8000 reasonably well. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be perfectly fine. I could add a bit of denoise in Lightroom or Topaz Denoise AI, and having this photo would be better than not having it at all. 

We walked back in the pitch dark. Dusty passed away 4 days later, and these were the last photos of him. 

The point of the story is: I knew how my camera would handle ISO8000 as long as I didn’t underexpose too much or at all. I knew that 1/320 for shutter speed would be enough if I was careful with my hands. I knew that Lightroom or Topaz could fix whatever noise showed up. So I got the photo. By knowing what my camera is capable of, I captured this last image of Dusty.

 

Below: SOOC. Settings: 1/320, f/1.8, ISO 8000. — After/edited version.

Table of Contents

The Challenge

I want to make it clear that this isn’t a “how high can your ISO go” challenge. 

This is a challenge for you to be prepared to take some photos that you’ll never use, that will never see the light of day, that might be a complete disaster… so that you can learn under what conditions your camera still retains data and detail, and under what conditions it doesn’t. 

This challenge is also not about who has the fanciest best camera for low light conditions. It’s about you discovering what your camera is capable of and then confidently working within those limits. 

Stage 1: Beginning

Shutter Speed Challenge

During a private lesson with a student of mine the other day, she asked why I have my shutter speed so fast even if the dog is lying down.

My answer was, that by observing the tens of thousands of photos that I’ve taken, I notice a significant increase in motion blur or slightly blurry dogs when my shutter speed is 1/320 or slower. At 1/500 I don’t notice these issues at all, unless the dog is moving in some way.

I don’t know if this is because I am constantly in motion, if my hands move, or what, but I do know that photographers of people often recommend a shutter speed of 1/125 for still portraits, and 1/500 only when the person is moving! 

If I listened to this advice, I suspect I would lose 80% of my photos to motion blur, based on my observations. 

So your next challenge is to:

  • take your dog, or a practise dog, out on a mini photoshoot with reasonable lighting conditions (nothing too bright!).
  • Use your favourite/normal/go-to lens as focal length CAN make a difference to camera shake/motion blur.
  • Start by taking some photos at 1/500 sec, then drop it down. 1/400, 1/320, 1/200, 1/125.
    • Remember to adjust your other settings as necessary. If your ISO hits 100, then you may need to make your aperture more narrow. Don’t worry, this is just an experiment. 
  • Take a few photos in a couple of locations, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy or overly involved. Just so you get into the “flow” of a shoot, and you’re moving how you normally move. Each time go through the different shutter speeds. 
  • Go home, import the photos, and make some observations on the focus/blur. What percentage of your photos are affected by some kind of motion blur at each speed? Is there a noticeable difference between one speed and another? What percentage of blurry shots vs. focused shots is acceptable to you?

Note: If you’re not sure what motion blur looks like, I usually check the eyes first. Depending how extreme the blur is, you might see a slight “drag”. 

As well, the eyes or photo might feel soft, as if it’s out of focus, but there will be no clear area that is IN focus. With normal focus issues, some part of the nose, snout, or fur on the head will be very detailed, showing that something was focused on, just not the thing you wanted. Motion blur/camera shake etc will show everything slightly blurry.

Left: Motion blur. Right: Slightly missed focus.

Both were taken at 1/400 sec, f/1.8, ISO 500. Even at 1/400 sec on this day I experienced an unexpectedly high amount of photos with some motion blur, and he wasn’t the fastest-moving dog around!

Stage 2: Creating

ISO Challenge

So far, we’ve tested the dynamic range of your camera, as well as how steady you can hold your hands to get a good hit-rate!

Lastly, we want to check what your camera can handle in terms of ISO. 

  • Get your dog or a practise dog. Find a location that isn’t too bright. 
  • Set your aperture wide open, and your shutter speed as normal. Ideally you want to start with your ISO around 200-400, so find a location where your aperture + shutter speed + ISO are creating a correctly exposed photo. Eg., NOT underexposing. 
  • Take a photo.
  • Raise the ISO to ~500. You may want to adjust your shutter speed to compensate for the extra light (eg., make it faster!) Take a photo.
  • Raise the ISO to ~800. Adjust shutter speed as necessary.
  • Keep going. Go all the way until you have no more ISO if you want. If you have a look at the top banner for this lesson you’ll see I did exactly this experiment recently. I knew how my photos looked at ISO20,000 but I’d never pushed it further. I wanted to see how much of a dumpster fire they would be at ISO 204,800
    • No, I would never go this high for clients or even myself (it was literally dark for these photos!) but at least I know.
  • Go home, import the photos, play with denoise in Lightroom if needed. Make note of your observations. How much noise is there? When does it become “unacceptable”? (eg., for me, 20,000 is looking pretty yuck unless it’s something really special and only for Instagram!). What happens if you lighten that photo up at all? 

Stage 3: Exploring

Under-expose challenge

The first challenge is to see how your camera retains detail in the shadows and blacks. 

  • Find a situation where you would need to underexpose the image and where you would have a relatively low ISO. Check this lesson if you’re not sure about when to underexpose. An open space with lots of ambient light, and some very soft filtered backlight would work well in this case.
  • Take at least 3 photos. 1 where your exposure would normally be if you were just shooting, 1 photo darker, and one photo darker still.
    • To do this, you may need to lower your ISO bit by bit, or if it’s already on 100, try raising the shutter speed bit by bit instead.
    • You can take more photos! If you want to really see what your camera can do. 
    • As an alternative, you can also take one photo a bit brighter, to see how your camera handles the highlights as well!
    • go home and do very rough, fast edits on each of them, attempting to bring out detail on the dog. How much detail is there still? How much noise? Are there areas of “clipped blacks”? (Don’t trust Lightroom’s clipping tool! Just because you’ve made something turn grey doesn’t mean your camera has captured the detail and data in that area!)

SOOC vs when I pulled exposure right up. Note the area I circled in blue has no data. The black there got too black and is now just black pixels. Even if I kept lightening it up, I wouldn’t get any more detail out of that area, it would just get more and more pixelated. 

Settings: 1/320, f/1.8, ISO 3200. This shot wasn’t planned, or I definitely would not have underexposed so much!

Under-expose challenge part 2

Now let’s see how your camera handles under-exposing at a higher ISO.

  • As above, find somewhere that would require you to under-expose the image to preserve the highlights but which requires a higher ISO – for your camera! For mine, this is ISO 4000. For yours, it might be ISO 500. If you’re not sure, take a guess! This is what we’re here to learn! Somewhere with less ambient light (eg., in the woods with backlight) would work in this situation.
  •  Choose your settings for how you would “normally” expose the photo. Then change them so it’s darker, then darker again. Take at least 3 photos.
    • Again, you can take more if you want! Or try one that’s lighter than you would normally go and see how it handles the highlights!
  • Do a quick, rough edit. How is the noise now? Did you lose any detail? Could you even try again with a higher ISO, or is it completely destroyed?
The goal here is to find the intersecting point between ISO, Underexposing, and having to brighten the image in editing. You can perform these experiments as many times as you want, with different ISOs, different amounts of editing, different amounts of underexposing needed and so on. I would personally be making notes on my subjective observations!

End Note

Hopefully by the end of this challenge you’ll have a much better understanding of your camera and what it is capable of!

If it didn’t “perform well” in any of the experiments, don’t be discouraged or feel like you need to go buy a new camera. That isn’t the point here. It means you need to be extra aware of the setting you’re using, and the lighting conditions you’re taking photos in. It may mean you need to be extra careful when under-exposing, or that you may need to stick to more open areas with lots of ambient light. Knowing these things will give you more confidence in how, when and where you shoot, what settings you use, and when you need to stop for the evening!

Challenge 7: All about the dog

This month, instead of doing a formal challenge, I have created a series of mini-challenges, one per week.

These challenges are designed to spark your creativity, get you to step out of your comfort zone, or to give you something to focus on if you’re feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed.

There’s absolutely no pressure to participate in the challenges, you can just file away the information and ideas for later if you want. 

Light Challenge!

As photographers, our job is all about light

Without understanding how light works, we are severely limited in the kinds of photos we can create, both behind the camera, and in editing. So, this month’s challenge and mini-challenges are going to be all about light. 

There are of course all the lessons on light in both the “Improve” course if you’re new to photography, or the “Next Level” course if you want to take your understanding a bit further. 

In this lesson, to help you with the challenge, I’m going to also cover some smaller topics relating to light and how we use it. 

The challenge this month will be to Step outside your comfort zone when using light.

This could be taken in so many directions! For example:

  • you’ve just recently joined, had a look through the light lessons, and realised that full sun isn’t the best lighting for our work… but aren’t sure about shooting in overcast conditions. That could be your challenge!
  • you’ve been here a while but haven’t been brave enough to try backlight. Now’s your chance!
  • you’ve got the basics down but want to start getting more creative. Why not try using side light in a creative way?
  • you’re pretty comfortable with lighting quality, direction, and temperature. How about playing with some lens flare? Or off-camera lighting? Or creative shapes and shadows?
  • you could play with the idea of the absence of light…
  • or how light in small areas can make really interesting effects, when there’s a lack of light elsewhere.
  • you could even really focus on the editing side of things, considering the shape of light, the direction, the perception of light. What do you have to do to edit your photo so the light looks believable (or not…? If that’s what you’re going for)

The important thing to remember with this work is that we still want to create a photo that showcases our subject/tells a story/shows something about their personality. Don’t go just taking a super dark, underexposed photo to showcase the absence of light… for no reason. 😂

These challenges are to give you a way to have a focus for the month, to step out of your comfort zone, and to try new things.

Important Things to Consider

  1. Get enough light on the dog's face

Whether you’re working with shade, overcast conditions, or (especially!) backlight, you need to make sure there is a good amount of ambient light on the dog’s face.

While it is possible to edit photos where the face was shadowed, this becomes much more difficult if:

  • There was a lot of light behind and you had to underexpose a lot, especially if your camera’s dynamic range isn’t that good
  • You’re photographing black dogs
  • There is a bright area behind the dog

Just in general, you will find it more of a challenge to work on a face/subject where the light is dull or lacking, and in my opinion, the results are never quite as nice as when there was some ambient light from the open sky or a gap between the trees, as when it’s covered-over canopy. To me, there’s always something a bit “off” about the colours and details in an edit where the face just wasn’t getting enough ambient light to begin with. I find them much more difficult to edit as well.

 

2. Be careful of unintentional side light

Some side light is easy. You’re standing there, the sun is hitting the dog from the side, and you’re asking yourself: why am I taking photos in the sun? and also, how can I make half my dog’s face less shadowed?

Now, not all side light is bad. In fact it can make some really interesting effects if used properly, or if you’re aware of it and making sure to point the dog’s face toward the light… but one of the trickiest things is when you’re unaware that the light direction is side light. 

You can see some examples of this in the side light lessons (here and here) where the ambient light was very soft – not strong enough to even cast a shadow – but because of where the dog was positioned, there was no light at all on one side of them.

Here are two photos with the dog looking in a slightly different direction. I have edited them very slightly in Lightroom, not favouring one or the other.

While both have a “dark side of the face” there is one where the light falloff is quite pretty, as it brushes the top of the face and the eye, before the fall-off, where are the other one has the whole half side completely in shadow. 

One of these photos would be significantly easier to edit, because you could use the natural shape, direction and light that already exists, to “shape the light” further and really give a spotlight impression. The other would require a lot of work to “even up” the light on the face in order for it to feel balanced and make sense.

Here, I’ve added some lines to show the light falloff (from where the light is touching, to where it fades to shadow). Can you spot the light falloff in the original images?

Where would you want to position yourself (or the dog) if you’d wanted to use this location but have the dog looking directly at the camera?

Why was one side of the face dark?

Being aware of even these very subtle variations in light on location can help you create better photos and save you some headache in editing, can help you shape the light more naturally, and tell more dynamic stories.

Sometimes, it’s a really good idea to counteract some side light with a reflector if you have one. Here are two photos, straight out of camera. The photo on the left has a reflector to camera right, bouncing light onto the side of Loki’s face closest to the ground.

The photo on the left has no reflector. Even that tiny tiny bit of extra light made this photo much easier to work with, saved some detail in the very dark areas of his coat, and got a tiny bit of light in his eye – enough for a small catchlight! 

3. Understand how light works to edit more naturally

Developing a solid understanding of the way light works is really important when it comes to editing naturally. 

When should something be lightened up? When should it be shadowed?

This depends on a few things: the location, the natural light in the situation, and how good at editing you are 😉

This concept is one of the main issues I have when I see people putting fake sun haze or fake backlight in their images… especially when the original light direction was very obvious (I’ve seen photos with shadows cast from the midday sun to the left… and a fake sun behind the dog), or they don’t consider how light works.

When you’re editing your images and you want to manipulate the perception of light in some way (and I do this very often, particularly when the dog is looking to one side), ask yourself:

  • where was the light source? (this could be everywhere, or it could be directional) 
  • was there a secondary light source (eg., in backlit images there are clearly going to be 2 light sources – the sun, and the ambient light)
  • where do I want to show the light is coming from?
  • does this make sense with the rest of the image? (eg., is the dog going to be looking into light? Does it mean giving my viewer a path out of my image?)
  • what will be getting touched by the light if it’s coming from there? What will be in shadow? Consider elements in your scene like tree-trunks, roots, stumps, leaves, grasses, etc.

Consider this before and after. In the bfore image, there was no real lighting direction, at all. 

This is a rather extreme edit for me, and I wanted to give the impression of him standing in a shaft of soft daylight that had broken through a gap in the trees.

So, I needed to consider:

  • His standing direction (it works! His face is already 1/2 lit by ambient light from above)
  • what elements in the scene would be getting hit by that shaft of light or any “light leakage” from where the light was fading out, eg.,
    • how much of his stomach would be shadowed?
    • how about his shoulder camera-right? 
    • logs on the ground?
    • tree trunk in the background?
    • where would the light stop on the ground in front of him?
    • how would he cast a shadow, and where would the light his again behind him, if at all?

Here’s another very extreme example. But in this image I had to consider:

  • what would those bokeh spots really look like if it was golden hour? 
    • colour?
    • strength of light actually shining
  • if this was backlit, what parts of him would be receiving that light? 
    • chest fur
    • face
    • sides of the legs camera right
    • side of the log
  • which parts should be in shadow? (the white neck is still bothering me, it’s too bright)
  • how to show the light shimmering through those leaves?
  • how bright would the rest of the background or scene be? (probably a bit brighter than this, with those seedy grasses sparkling in the light, but I was going for drama. So that was a conscious decision to really darken the rest of it)
  • how can I add rim-light to his fur to make him glow?

I run through a checklist like this with basically every photo I create. 

Light will always fall-off, or fade, from where it is hitting. The rate and strength at which it does this depends on a lot of scientific principles that we’re not going to go into here, but it comes down to: the strength of the light, and the distance of the light source. 

This is why, often when you start editing to “shape the light more” I may tell you to soften or blend the edges of your “light tunnel” – because light scatters as it gets further from its source. It doesn’t travel in a direct beam (unless its a laser). It hits things as it journeys to its destination so gets dispersed. In the dark photo of Journey above, there is a very clear “light tunnel” because I wanted it to be a shaft of light. Even then, I’ve interrupted the journey of the light here and there to make it more natural. The edges of those effects that I’ve edited in are usually broken up, or removed, or added elsewhere, as needed.

4. Telling your stories with light

There is so much that can change in an image based on how much or how little visible light is in the scene. More light tends to be brighter, airier, happier photos. Photos without visible light? Darker, more pensive, more mysterious, more secretive. 

 

4. Getting creative with light

If you are somebody at the very beginning of your photography journey, it is enough for you to focus right now on getting soft, ambient light on your dog, and paying close attention to the light direction, quality and temperature.

If you’ve been doing this a while, then I challenge you to see how you can creatively use light.

As pet photographers, I feel like the majority of images I see are either: lit with ambient light, and some effects added… or lit with backlight, and some effects added. We are not, in general, an overly experimental group.

Now, this does not mean that you should rush out and try and take experimental photos in the full sun. But I do think that there is a lot more we could be doing with light. I’ve listed a few things you could consider at the very beginning of this lesson. I also had great fun recently experimenting by using found objects – bits of plastic, crystals and so on, and using them in the photos. The way the light is bent, changed, moved, or altered by them was so fun to play with – even if they aren’t received as well as my “normal” stuff on social media (hence keeping them mostly to myself. 

Some examples below – a lot of them are totally unedited, or were exepriments in using different materials in my photos. 🙂

Challenge: Perfect Personality

 

This challenge is about showing your subject’s personality. Our job as photographers is not only about capturing beautiful images that captivate our audience, but about telling a story, or showing our audience something about the subject. I see so many photos of dogs sitting nicely, looking at the camera but I always feel like I want to know more about them. This challenge aims to push you to think deeper about ways you can show who your subject is, whether its your own dog, or a client’s dog. 

The challenge is:

Capture ONE photo that shows us who your subject is.

You can upload it to the “Challenge” topic of Inspawration Connect

The photo should follow the general principles of a photo entered in a competition:

  • it should be impactful, creative, have a mood
  • technically correct (white balance, lighting, composition, focus, etc)
  • be edited in a way that complements the photo and enhances it

Now, obviously no photo is going to show the entire spectrum of your dog’s personality – if they’re anything like my boys, they can be polar opposites, from sweet and cuddly, to intense and crazed, to silly and goofy. Whichever side of your personality you choose to show is up to you – it might be what you see most often of your dog and is therefore clearly, and fundamentally “them”…

or it might be a moment you captured where they showed the silly side, or the serious side, and it was unexpected and delightful. There’s no “right or wrong” answer, but you should aim to use a few elements in order to paint a more dynamic picture of who your subject is. I would say the most important elements in this photo will be:

  • light
  • location
  • expression
  • pose
  • editing
Have a read of the guide below for some tips and ideas. Most of this information is also in the “Next Level” course.

Light

The amount of “visible light” in your photo can affect the mood. The serious intensity of a border collie will show through in a photo without a lot of visible light… whereas a happy goofy puppy will show that happy side in an image that is lighter and brighter.  This doesn’t mean you need to take photos in full sun in order to show that your dog is happy and funny, but thinking about the direction and quality of the light, or how much light is showing in the background can really change the feeling of the photo. Have a look below for some examples of different moods created using more or less light. The more “serious” images are on the left, while the brighter or more wistful or hopeful images are on the right.

Location/Scene

Closely tied in with light in a lot of ways, the location you choose for the photos can have a big impact on their mood and what you show/say about your subject.

Fields of wild-flowers, or warm golden barley is going to have a different impact than deep green mossy woods. You can see this very clearly in the above examples as well. Of course you could have a sweet carefree dog in the mossy woods but you’re going to have to work with the other elements in your photo to make sure everything is cohesive and you’re saying what you want to say about your subject. Something as simple as the location being more open ( a field) or closed (the woods) can really add a mood to the image.

The way you use your location too, can have an impact on the feeling of the image. Close up photos – either head and shoulders shots, or photos with the chin down, tend to be more intimate and confined. Using frames, or peeking through some blurry foreground can also add to the effect of “spying” on your subject. Is your dog aloof and independent? If so, positioning him further from the camera, and shooting through some foreground layer may product the effect of him being “watched” by the photographer as he goes about his business, rather than him “being a very good boy” and looking at the camera for photos. 

If he is posed standing or lying on a log, consider how this feels in terms of the story you’re telling. Most dogs “in the wild” wouldn’t naturally pose like this – so it may not suit the personality you’re trying to convey. A Very Good Boi who does what he’s told and loves to work and do tricks, on the other hand, may suit this kind of more “posed” feeling in his environment. For example, when I ask Loki to hold a leaf or some flowers in his mouth, or wear a flower crown or something, you can see he’s trying extremely hard to be the goodest boy. And this is a big part of his personality, and tends to show him as very eager and very endearing. Journey on the other hand looks like he’s being forced against his will to “perform”, so we don’t have many photos like that as it doesn’t show his true personality (which is to be the goodest boy! Just not in this situation). 

Expression

Expression can have a huge impact on how we perceive your subject in the photo.

In simple terms, closed mouths tend to be more serious and intense, open mouths tend to be relaxed. But even the direction the dog is looking (whether at the camera, extremely to one side, or at a 45 degree angle) can all change the mood of the photo. I’m sure you can take note of Loki’s expressions above and what we learn about him, as well as from the photos in the first gallery.

Have a look at the lessons on expression as well for more information.

Pose

Pose is another big factor in how we perceive your dog. 

Sitting poses are safe and simple. Good dogs sit very nicely and properly (see Loki in the gallery above). Relaxed easy-going dogs might lie down, or dogs with an “old soul” or who are just a bit bored of the photoshoot might lie down with their chin down. Dogs who are interested in the world or who are on the go might stand up and be ready for action. How much tension is in their pose also really changes the story and what you’re saying about the dog. Take the photo of Loki sitting on the beach in the gallery below, compared to the snowy sitting photo of Loki above. One is full of tension, the other is much more relaxed. Both show different elements of his personality.

Making conscious choices about the poses you choose for your subject will help to show more of their story and their personality. 

One other big thing to consider is how posed you want to make your photo. Candid photos can be amazing at capturing a moment in a dog’s personality. Whether they’re being unexpectedly naughty, or if there is a moment of stillness in their chaos. Look out for and be prepared for candid moments, especially if you have a dog who either doesn’t like posing, or maybe likes it too much, so just becomes ” a model” rather than the more genuine version of themselves. This isn’t to say you need photos of them racing about. But sometimes sniffing the wind or a flower, watching a bee, looking at some birds, or pulling up some moss can create a more complete picture and tell a stronger story than a posed head-and-shoulders photo of your dog in some flowers, looking directly at the camera.

The photos above had begun mostly as posed photos of some kind, but then the dog did something  in that moment that make it something else, or showed something else. For example, Loki dragging a stick out of the snow, his face devilish and naughty, was an unexpected moment of naughtiness from him.

Norman in the sun, just closing his eyes for a second, looks like he is really enjoying this evening sunshine streaming in from behind.

Loki on the beach, although sitting there, is leaning forward, ready to fetch his toy, everything alert and intense and focused. He isn’t just sitting, there’s something else going on, another story being told. 

Editing

Lastly, we need to edit our photo so all these elements come together to tell the story we’re trying to tell. There’s no point taking a photo with a lot of light and brightness, in a field of wildflowers, with a happy expression on the dog, to then try and edit it to be dark and moody. Similarly, if we’ve taken a photo of a pensive dog in the mossy woods, it will be difficult to edit it to be bright and light and airy.

Editing decisions like how warm or cool to make the photo can be based both on the ambient temperature of the light, but also on the mood you’re creating. Moodier photos of serious, pensive dogs might be cooler than more hopeful, light-hearted photos. The richness, saturation and tones of the colours in your image can also help contribute to the mood. Less saturated photos will usually be a bit moodier/gloomier than photos with stronger/richer colours. 

The main thing to remember is to use your editing to tie all the other elements of your photo together, to make it cohesive. Personally I try and keep most of the elements of my photos quite natural, for example light haze is added when there was naturally light behind the dog, darkness is added where it makes sense for parts of the image to be dark, and so on.