I will admit, up front, that indoor photos do not form a large part of my photography. They’re not my style, and I would rather be out in the woods.

That being said, for those of you with cats, or who might want to get into commercial work (which is when I do my indoor photos) this lesson might be interesting for you. Just keep in mind I am definitely no studio lighting expert. 

Lighting types

Indoors, you have a few options

  • window light
  • constant light
  • flash/strobes

Since I don’t even own a flash, we’re going to leave that for another day.

The photo to the left was taken with Journey facing a really large floor set of windows.

Window light

Inside, most of your light is going to either come from lights on the ceiling, or windows. Windows could also be sliding doors or skylights.

Because of the nature of a window (being a square or rectangular space to allow light in), the light can be very directional. 

Consider if you had a window on one side of your pet’s face, and a wall on the other side. There would be a HUGE contrast between the light side and dark side, unless the wall was bright and reflecting a lot of that light.

The sun can also shine in through the window, leading us to experience many of the issues faced in the “full sun” lesson, or even the “patchy shade” lesson, since it could be shining in a sharp beam somewhere on, or near the subject. If you really have no option but to shoot while the sun is coming in through the window, try using a diffuser or even a sheer curtain or white sheet hung in the window, to soften the light. 

Because larger light sources make the light softer (the reason why an overcast sky will provide softer light than the sun, for example), having the pet quite close to the window itself should make the light softer.

Then, you want to consider light direction. Facing them into the light/window will mean they get that light evenly on their face, as well as nice bright catchlights in their eyes. 

If you are in any typical European or UK house, you may not have an abundance of window light!

Unfortunately, without an external light source, there’s really no way around this. 

In terms of camera settings, you need to figure out what the slowest shutter speed you’re happy with is. For me, this tends to be no slower than 1/320 second, or I just notice too much blur. 

You probably want your aperture wide open, unless you’re doing a product shoot where you need to show the full product or label.

Your ISO is likely to be very high if you’re relying solely on window light.  There’s no secrets to get around this.

Continuous Light

A photo taken recently for a dog bed company using my two continuous lights

Another option is continuous light.

Without a specialised light set up (which could just be a set of two studio lights with soft boxes from Amazon), this is probably going to mean turning on all the lights in your house.

Unfortunately, this might not have the best result.

With all these lights can come crazy and unexpected areas of contrasts, shadows and highlights, that make editing annoying and complicated.

Different globes can throw different colour casts, and colour casts can also be thrown from walls, soft furnishings, and other coloured objects in your house. 

Of course, this might be the only option if you’re taking a quick snap of your sleeping pet, but if you’re wanting to consistently take photos of your indoor cat, I would recommend investing in a simple 2-light set up.

These usually come with soft boxes, and you honestly don’t need to spend a fortune to get decently bright light with different colour and intensity settings.

By being able to select the light temperature, and turning off other lights in the vicinity, you can reduce or eliminate colour casts, which will make editing a lot faster and easier. 

So that your photos don’t look flat and one dimensional, you probably don’t want to have the light shining directly onto the subject, but having them staggered, or even having one at a slightly less intensity can create gentle, soft shadows and therefore provide a bit more depth to the photos. 

Using my two continuous lights, even at night in my lounge with all other lights off, means I can be shooting at 1/320, f/2.5, ISO 640. Without the lights, the ISO would likely be ~ 2000.

It’s possible that if you have only a single window or lack of natural light from outside, that even a simple ring light would be better than nothing!


Taken in my lounge with my two lights. You can see there’s quite harsh shadows, but the soft boxes aren’t that big, and I need them at full strength to output enough light, so it ends up more harsh than I would like.

This photo was taken before my two-light set up, by turning on all the lights of the house, and trying to make use of the window camera right. I turned on the salt lamp in the background as an “ambient light” (you’ll notice they do this in movies all the time). But you can see how yellow everything is, there were colour casts everywhere and if you look at the quality of the photo it’s obvious the ISO was much higher (1250 vs 640)

Light fall-off

Keep in mind that depending on the room (size, number of windows, etc), the rest of the room could appear quite dark, as the light won’t reach all the way. 

In this case, in order to balance your exposure, you may want to move the subject a bit further into the room….

Or, embrace the dark, and try making a classic “black background” portrait, often seen with horses in stables, where the horse is standing on the threshold of stable and out in the soft ambient light, so the background appears very dark compared to the lighter foreground area.  

Golden Hour

Table of Contents

You may have heard the term “golden hour” thrown around by photographers as being the ideal time for photography.

While it’s not without its challenges, and generally requires you to have an understanding of how to utilise backlight, it can create some really beautiful portraits, with creamy, warm, soft light.

Quick Profile

Golden hour is the hour or two after dawn, or before the sun sets. There has to be some amount of sunlight for golden hour to occur. If there is nothing but thick clouds that the sun can’t break though, there won’t be a golden hour.

If the sun can break through the clouds though, you could have golden hour with dramatic cloud formations.

The light temperature is noticeably warmer, sometimes insanely orange or yellow, or sometimes a more gentle cream, depending on other atmospheric conditions.

The light of the sun is much softer than midday sun, and because it is low, there are likely to be long shadows.


  • Softer light than midday/afternoon sun, but not as soft as overcast
  • Warm glowing light
  • Sun can be blocked by things like tree trunks, people, the dog, etc. 
  • Perfect for backlight
An adorable black and white dog peacefully sitting in the woods lit by intense golden light, captured beautifully through pet photography techniques and editing
This evening had the most INCREDIBLY orange light, it really was like fire. It worked absolutely perfectly as backlight behind Amie.


  • Dogs can still be shiny and highly contrasty if being directly lit by golden hour sun
  • The golden tones can make the fur colour of the dog go crazy, and setting the white balance will be a big challenge as the light was naturally warmer, and the dog might look “wrong” when edited to its correct temperature
  • Backlight is challenging to master (but worth it!)
  • It can be difficult to balance the light or expose for highlights when shooting into the sun for backlight, sunset photos, etc.
  • Planning for golden hour doesn’t always work out when you’re booking in client shoots, leaving you with really low-light situations if the sun just doesn’t show up but you’re shooting in the last 2 hours of the day!
  • Lens flare can be an issue

Now look, I know there’s a lot of challenges listed, but mastering golden hour and how to use it can really create some beautiful photos!

This photo has golden hour light shining directly on Journey's face. See how he's still shiny and kind of a weird colour?

How to Use It

Because the light is still coming from the sun, you need to treat it as directional.

That means:

  • pointing your dog’s face into the light, whether they are side-lit and therefore looking to the side, or the light is shining directly onto their face (from behind you)
  • or using backlight, so having the sun behind the dog. There is a lot more on backlight in the Backlight lesson.
Personally, I tend to almost exclusively use golden hour for backlight, or MAYBE sidelight for a dramatic effect. I’m not a fan of how shiny the fur gets when directly lit, or just how the face looks when being hit by the sun. 
That being said, if you’re at the beginning of your photography journey, you may wish to start with direct lighting, and move into backlight and side light as you progress.

It’s important to be aware of your shadow when shooting at golden hour, if you’re using it as direct/front lighting. Shadows are much longer at this time of day so you may need to try and get yourself extra low to the ground, zoom your lens in more, or adjust your angle to hide the shadow.

Photoshop CAN remove some shadows, depending what else is on the ground/in the scene.


Otherwise, you will want to follow either the principals of backlight, OR, of getting that light nice and even on the face.

Shooting at golden hour is the MAIN WAY that I achieve the beautiful warm orange tones in my images, because this is the natural temperature of the light.

Backlit Golden Hour

Side Light & Direct Light Golden Hour

It was really difficult finding photos that showed golden hour from this direction. It’s not something I do, ever!

How to Tell if Your Focus is Off

One issue some of my students have had in the past is actually being able to see when the focus isn’t on the eyes! It’s all well and good to say: “Make sure the eyes are in focus” but what does that actually look like?

There are times when it will be easier or harder to see if the eyes are in focus. For example:

  • if your lens is generally soft, it may be difficult to see if the eyes are in focus. Check out the lesson on “Why isn’t my photo sharp?” for more info on this.
  • the dog is far away (meaning a wider depth of field (more of the image in focus) and/or softness because of the distance
  • sun haze

But for the most part, here is how I determine if the eyes are in focus – and don’t worry, you’ll get better at this the more you practise!


Here is a photo with the focus on the nose. I’ve cropped it in very tightly to help you see better. Do zoom in on your photos to make sure they’re sharp but don’t go overboard. 100-200% zoom should be enough!

The main thing I look for is detail. You can see the nose here is very detailed – we can see all the little bumps and patterns, the little hairs just above the black snout are super sharp.

The eyes on the other hand are very soft. There’s no detail in the iris, the skin around the eyes, or even the fur around the eyes. All the detail is concentrated on the snout.

In front of the eyes

This one is a bit tricker, and if it was the only image you had, it would be really ok! But if you want it to be absolutely perfect, you could probably do a bit better than this one. 

Again, it’s all about detail. You can see LOTS of detail in the little hairs on the bridge of his nose… but if we look around his eyes and at the eyes themselves, there isn’t as much detail there. Certainly more than the nose photo! 

This one is better. We can see little flecks of colour and light in his iris, and if we zoomed in even closer, we would be able to see the fine details of the skin around his eyes. There are some examples of this below. When you have a nice close-up head and shoulders shot  like this, using the iris and the skin around the eyes as a bit of a guide as to whether the eyes are in focus, is usually a good way to start. Is there detail there? Is there more detail somewhere else?

Here are two more example photos. The top two are already cropped in close, and then closer again for the lower two.

The photos on the left are in focus.

The photos on the right are focused slightly forward on the bridge of his snoot.

 These photos are unedited. In editing, I would be bringing even more clarity and detail to the eyes.

A note...

All this being said, if you have an image that you LOVE, and want to post on your social media channels (and not print out for a client etc), and the focus is only SLIGHTLY off… post it. 

Instagram especially compresses images so much that it’s usually really difficult to see these fine details. Facebook has more quality, but I’ve seen many photos of dogs (by people who are being paid by clients) whose eyes are out of focus. Don’t let slightly out of focus photos discourage you.

Do your best, keep working to get them in focus (we’ll get to the how in the following lessons) and you’ll be well on your way to drawing the viewer’s attention to the eyes.


Table of Contents

Taking photos in the shade can either be a blessing, or a curse.

On one hand, open shade (solid, non-dappled shade) can provide nice, soft, even light.

On the other hand, dappled or patchy shade with strong sun coming through is a nightmare. There will be hotspots, and strong shadows. 

This lesson aims to look at shade in terms of a lighting condition where the canopy of the trees (or a wall, roof, or other structure) shields the main light source. In my experience, going into the woods on an overcast day is exactly like shooting out in the open on an overcast day, just darker.

Shade Profile

Here are some of the features and things we will likely notice when taking photos in shade.

  • Blue tones if in “open shade’, eg., beside a wall or building on a clear day. This is due to the light source being the open (blue) sky. You will also get blue tones in the shade in the woods if the sky is clear (again, shooting in the woods on an overcast day is just shooting like on a darker overcast day) as the light source is the blue sky. 
  • Possibly lots of colour-casts/bouncing colours from other areas of the image (forest floor, trees, branches, leaves, etc).
  • On a “normal” (non-overcast day) there should be plenty of light in any kind of shady location but then you may need to deal with patchy/dappled shade
  • Be very careful of patchy/dappled shade as it can cause weird hotspots which are extremely difficult to edit if they’re on your subject
  •  Be very careful of open shade caused by a roof/tree/wall, with a large bright zone in the background

What is "Open Shade"

Open shade is a shaded area with ambient light all around. For example, when the dog is shaded by a wall, a roof of some kind, even the solid shade caused by a very thick tree trunk.

If you were to look at the ground in this scene, you would see the patch of shade that Loki would be standing in. He would be getting plenty of soft, even light on his face from all the ambient light around, and that is bouncing off the ground.

You want the subject pointing out toward the light. Unfortunately this often means there is a wall or large object behind them. Failing that, there is likely to be a very bright area where the sun is hitting. Writing this, I’m not sure which I like less – full sun, or shade on sunny days.

In any case, when using open shade, check:

  • Does the dog have enough light on the face? If not, try moving them closer to, but not into, the line of the sunlight. 
  • Are there hotspots behind?
  • Is the exposure difference from the shaded area to the sunny area too great?
    • This will usually be the case if the shade is very “closed” and the light behind is very bright (eg., shining off snow/a white building, etc). As you will be exposing for highlights (I hope?) this big difference in exposure could lead to you needing to seriously underexpose your dog…. and then have to do a lot of crazy editing to fix the disparity. Not great.
Theoretically you can face your subject toward the bright area outside of the shade (so they will face the wall) and achieve some backlight effects this way. I haven’t tried this myself (might be a challenge next time I’m out in the sun and happen upon some shade!) but I’m skeptical it would work well with such a bright background and getting no ambient light on the face. A reflector would definitely be a good idea in this case.

Or, according to people portrait photographers you can… simply … overexpose the background. 😳
And look, this could be a stylistic decision. You could produce “bright and airy” photos with very light backgrounds and perfectly exposed dogs.
It’s just definitely not my style!

How to Work with Shade

The main thing I suggest that you really try to avoid are dappled shade, and areas where you need to severely underexpose the image because of large bright areas behind the dog.

What you’ll want to look for therefore are: 

  • Areas of solid shade, with more shade, a wall or so on behind
  • Forest shade, without a lot of highlights
    • or, if there are a lot of highlights, using tree-trunks, a reflector or other things to try and “block” the amount of hotspots on the dog
The main thing to be conscious and aware of is avoiding extreme contrasts as much as possible. So, if we’re talking about shade specifically on sunny days, it’s best to follow many of the principles in the “Sun” lesson: wait till later/start earlier, and so on.
If you are shooting in the forest/under trees and it is slightly dappled, this can probably be fixed with some clever editing. It’s best to avoid any hotspots on the dog itself, as this will be much more difficult to edit than hotspots in the background.
Try and use trees to block this patchy light, a diffuser, or even a person to block and minimise as many of those highlights as possible. Be prepared to edit for colour-casts as well.


What's Wrong with Dappled Shade? It's so pretty

Dappled sunlight is beautiful in person. To see the sun filtering through the leaves from above, making everything all speckled and sunny… reminds me of summer days, wandering in the woods.

Unfortunately for our camera and photography, this kind of lighting is a real nightmare. Because while our eyes see the lovely sunny patches as pretty and nice, the camera sees ALL THE HIGHLIGHTS! So, you try and tone the highlights down, but then everything is really underexposed, and the highlights are still there as hotspots and basically it’s the worst.

Your camera may also struggle to focus on the eyes if there’s dappled shade on the face, as those crazy contrasts of light and dark are much easier for the camera to pick up on compared to the tiny contrast of catchlight & pupil.

See below.

Patchy/Dappled &Problematic Shade Examples


Patchy shade here, with the dog in one area of bright sunlight, which maybe wouldn't be a problem if half their face wasn't shadowed. From


Super dappled shade on the dog creating distracting hotspots that are pretty impossible to edit out (especially if they're blown out). Avoid hotspots like this on the dog! From


Another image with some hotspots in the background. Not ideal as our eye is drawn to the brightest part of the image. Also the dog is tinted blue due to the shade. From


Some more dappled shade, creating areas of dark and light in the background.From


A couple of hotspots in the background and on the dog's head from the sun coming through the leaves. Just a slight shift in where the dog and/or photographer was could have hidden this hotspot and avoided the bright light on the head. From


More hotspots and dappled shade. From


Some dappled shade and hotspots, although Journey is evenly lit, the top left corner is a problem.


Dappled shade in the background and hotspots on the dog.


Big bright area in the background and blue tint to the dog. From


Another very bright area behind the puppy. From


Nice even light on the dog but the bright square in the top corner is very distracting. Our eyes are drawn to the brightest part of the image. From


Big bright area in the background.

The main thing I suggest that you really try to avoid are dappled shade, and areas where you need to severely underexpose the image because of large bright areas behind the dog.

What you’ll want to look for therefore are: 

  • Areas of solid shade, with more shade, a wall or so on behind
  • Forest shade, without a lot of highlights
The main thing to be conscious and aware of is avoiding extreme contrasts as much as possible. So, if we’re talking about shade specifically on sunny days, it’s best to follow many of the principles in the “Sun” lesson: wait till later/start earlier, and so on.
If you are shooting in the forest/under trees and it is slightly dappled, this can probably be fixed with some clever editing. It’s best to avoid any hotspots on the dog itself, as this will be much more difficult to edit than hotspots in the background.
Try and use trees to block this patchy light, a diffuser, or even a person to block and minimise as many of those highlights as possible. Be prepared to edit for colour-casts as well.

Dappled Shade BTS

I recently took my camera out into the woods at the beginning of spring, when the canopy overhead wasn’t quite so thick as it is in the middle of summer. I wanted to use one small location where we were experiencing quite a lot of dappled shade, and show you what would happen if the dog was placed IN these patches of sun, vs. when I blocked the sun with a tree trunk or similar. One thing I did here was to position him, then move in a 360 degree circle, taking 4-6 photos at each 90 degree point.

Now, there are going to be some of you who look at the photo taken with the dappled shade on Loki and think: “Well I prefer that one”. 

Try to look past the expression or location, and more to whether the light is even and flattering, as well as considering the increased time and skill level required to edit and fix up this uneven lighting when it’s falling on the dog. 

With all of these, I have only done VERY QUICK lightroom edits.

Example 1
DSC06668-2 DSC06668

In this example, Loki has sun shining all over the side of his body, but his face is evenly lit. While it’s nice soft light for his face, I’m now having to deal with this super shiny black fur. Since he had no hotspots on his face and I know how to expose without blowing out the highlights, this didn’t end up a complete disaster.

Click to enlarge.

Example 2

In this example, Loki has patches of sun shining on the top of his head and side of his chest. Actually in this example, I’d put him behind this large tree trunk to try and block the sun but he crept forward and got patches on his face anyway! In the next example you’ll see the difference when the light is totally blocked and even. 

Again, it was possible for me to “soften” these contrasts because I had made sure to not blow out those highlights, and the sun was still filtered a bit through the trees so definitely not as strong as it could have been!

Click to enlarge.

DSC06676 copy DSC06676-2
Example 3

Here, Loki is properly behind that tree, or I’d moved myself around just slightly. The light on his face is even, and while he’s a little dark, this is a quick fix in Lightroom.

This photo, with the more solid background and even light, was far fewer steps to edit than the ones above.

DSC06694-2 DSC06694
Example 4

Here, Loki is in some dappled shade again. It’s making weird bright patches on his head, front leg, chest, and the tree stump

DSC06718-2 DSC06718
Example 5

Here is the same location, but when the sun has gone away behind some clouds a little. Notice how much more even and less “loud” the light is in the surrounding scene, as well as on Loki.

DSC06726-2 DSC06726
Example 6

One final example that I’m not going to edit.

This is a good example of when these hotspots can really be a bit more of a disaster.

Because of the bright highlights, I had to underexpose the image a bit more, resulting in his face being extremely dark, while the side of his snout and chest is still almost so bright that it’s close to being blown out.


Old Video

You know the drill by now. This video is old, but could still have some useful bits and pieces!

Full Sun

Table of Contents

Most of us, when we first start taking photos, are under the impression that more light = better photos.

In some ways, this is true. We need light, and a good amount of it, to take photos.

What doesn’t usually work for us, especially in pet photography, is full, harsh sunlight.

Quick Profile

The sun as a source of light can be both our best friend, and worst enemy in our photos. 

  • Sunlight can be neutral white (most of the day) or warm (~1-2 hours of the day, and end of the day). 
  • In harsh sunlight, there is plenty of contrast (lights are light, darks are usually very dark) and dogs are very shiny (very shiny. Too shiny)
  • There is plenty of light for super fast shutter-speeds so sun + action photography go together very well.
  • Sun can be used for direct light (shining onto the face of the dog) or backlight (behind the dog) but you should be very careful with side-light and sun.
  • Sun in the middle of the day is harsh, and rarely flattering as it’s coming from overhead. 
  •  Take photos when the sun is lower in the sky. If it’s not golden hour, then direct light shining on the front/face of the dog is probably going to work best.
For most of this lesson, I will be focusing on full sun, during any part of the day except golden hour (as we have a separate lesson for that!). 
This photo is side lit - the sun is off to the left. But since we can't see Journey's face, and it's shining on the inside of his body creating some rim light and lighting up his face, it works. If he had been facing toward me...
Crazy contrast from the side-light. Not pretty or flattering at all!

How to Use It

First of all, I recommend that you avoid taking photos when the sun is harsh. If the sun is out, these are your options. Please note, I don’t have any kind of “magic” solution to deal with sun. It is what it is, and you have to make decisions about what you want to do.

Many of my students ask me: “But what if I have a client and we HAVE to do the shoot at midday in the sun?”. Personally, I let my clients know that if they’re booking me, it’s because they want my style of photos, and those photos require very specific lighting conditions. If they absolutely cannot book any alternative time or day in the foreseeable future, then you’ll either need to use some of the advice below, or find a photographer who is happy to take this kind of photo.

Personally, I know that harsh sun is incredibly unflattering, difficult to edit, and never truly represents my work. 

If I absolutely had to take photos on a day when the sun was forecast to be out, my options would be:

  • Taking photos earlier or later in the day, either as direct light or backlight. The light will be warm, soft, and can be blocked by trees, the dog or a diffuser, etc because it’s much lower in the sky. If you can’t wait for golden hour, wait till or start when light is not directly overhead.
  • Turning the dog’s face directly into the sun, with it over one of your shoulders, to avoid harsh shadows. Getting that light evenly on the face is paramount.
  • Finding some shade, either open shade, or in the woods, being careful of patchy shade. Check the Shade lesson for more.
  • Use an off-camera lighting source like a flash or strobe, to counteract the sun. There are a few photographers who do this very well and it’s their style. Big skies, sun-star in a corner, they are using harsh sunlight but overpowering it with flash. 
  • Wait for another day when it’s less sunny. 
Full sun can be great for action photos, so if you want to get photos of the dog running around, now’s your chance! 
That being said, directionality is still SUPER important. Get that light shining DIRECTLY on the dog. Avoid light from overhead (eg., at midday) or from the side. 


I’m not going to lie, I don’t see many benefits to shooting in full midday sun. 

If you’re shooting later in the day when it’s coming directly onto the dog rather than from overhead, then some benefits can be:

  • More light, allowing you faster shutter speeds for action
  • More contrasts, making action photography easier.


You’ve probably already guessed that there’s a lot of challenges to be had here!

  • Crazy contrasts and areas of deep, black, sharp shadows, compared to bright, overpowering highlights
  • Limited direction flexibility. If you’re at a beautiful landmark or landscape, and the sun is coming from the wrong direction, you have very limited options to get the photos at that time, if you want the sun to be directly lighting the dog
  • Golden hour sun can do crazy things to white balance if shining on the dog directly
  • Small catchlights (the sun is far away) and squinting dogs
  • Black dogs can look silver/grey due to their fur reflecting and shining so much light.
  • White dogs can get blown out


Difficult Sun

Some better examples

Keeping in mind I don’t take photos in these conditions any more unless travelling!


Very late afternoon sun, in the last 20 minutes of sunlight.


I don't think I edited this one at all as I wanted to leave in the bright highlights and dark shadows. It's an example of "side light", where the light is coming in from the side, rather than behind me (for direct light) or behind the dog (for backlight, which we'll cover in another lesson)


A plain photo with my old camera, basically edited.


"Side light" - with a beam of sunlight cutting between the trees, and lighting Norman from the side (this is a VERY difficult effect to do right, and without quite some editing)


HOURS of work went into fixing the crazy highlights of this image, which was taken at about 10am. Another example of "side light" with the light coming in from the side, rather than behind me, or behind the dog.


Very late afternoon, standing in a shaft of direct sunlight. Image was SUPER warm.


Facing direct into afternoon sun.


Lucky for me she turned her face toward the light!


From - I'm not sure about this one. The face is actually surprisingly evenly lit without really harsh shadows, but the catchlights in the eyes are a bit strange and the top of the head looks like it's been blown out (too bright)


From - face evenly lit... there was possibly some flash involved here though

Sun-flares, Sun-Stars & Aperture

One thing to note is how the aperture you choose can affect the kind of effect you can create with the sun. 

A wide aperture will give you a hazy sun – a glowing ball or blob, as seen in most of my photos where the sun is present.

A narrower aperture will give you a “sun star” if you capture the sun itself in the photo.

This is as close as I’ve come to a sun star at f/5.6. Given that I never shoot at such a narrow aperture it’s a wonder I have anything close! The photo on the right is from and was taken at f/22.

Keep in mind that in order to shoot into the sun, you need to expose the photo appropriately.  This is likely to be quite difficult without an artificial light source as underexposing for the bright sky and sun will make your subject pure black. 

Using the Sun for Drama

I do think there is potential for dramatic, interesting shots which make use of stronger sunlight and even don’t worry so much about blown out highlights, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Sometimes a dramatic shot that tells a story or makes an impact can be more important than some other aspects (depending on the purpose for the photo. Obviously not if you’re going to be entering it in a competition).

Therefore, as I’ve been saying all along, if you want to use the sun in a purposeful, intentional way, then do that. By making purposeful, intentional choices about the direction of the sun and how that will illuminate (or not!) our dog, what kind of story that tells, how it can isolate just the shape of the dog (as shown below) or how it can turn structures in nature or in urban settings into interesting shade patterns, we can create interesting photos that may set us on the way to finding our style.

Old Video

This video has been replaced by the one above, but there could be some other interesting bits and pieces in here.

Why Isn’t My Photo Sharp?

Table of Contents

As you read through this course, you’ll (hopefully) be trying different settings and answering the question above. However! If you think your settings are all perfect and your images are STILL soft, check back here for potential answers. 

There can be quite a few reasons why your photo isn’t sharp, and there is a BIG difference between out of focus (or missed focus) and general softness, and different factors which can cause all of these. 

Not Focused On the Eyes

Focusing all over the place - nose, neck, bushes, etc

This could be a “focus area” issue. Are you letting the camera make decisions about where to focus? Have you moved the single-point over the dog’s eye? Remember, the more control you give the camera, the more possibility it has to make the wrong decisions. 

If you have the camera on single point and it was over the eye, if you are in an area of low contrast (eg., dark woods with a dark dog) who doesn’t have catchlights in the eyes due to all the shade, there is no area of contrast there for the camera to “grab onto”. Try getting some catchlights in the eyes, or a bit more contrast between the dog and the background to help the camera “find” what it is supposed to focus on.

Always focusing on the nose (or neck, etc, but consistently either forward or back)

This is likely a calibration issue. You will want to search for your camera and/or lens to find out how to do it, but having done a quick google search just now, it seems there ARE some DIY methods, but they can be a bit tricky, and there are also some calibration tools you can buy. Otherwise you can take your gear into a camera store for them to do it for you. 

This website has a lot of information about the process. I don’t want to go into it in this course as it may only be useful for a small number of you.

The Dog Looks Soft, but Everything Kind of Looks Soft

Shutter Speed

Is your shutter speed fast enough? Depending on your lens, anything slower than 1/400 sec may be too slow, and even slight movements as the dog breathes will be enough to just make the dog appear ever so slightly out of focus. Try going up to 1/400 or 1/500 of a second. 

Motion blur compared to slightly missed focus

High ISO

High ISO which results in grain can give the appearance of softness. Some cameras also have inbuilt noise-reduction, but this usually sacrifices details and so the images can look slightly soft. Similarly, adding denoise or reducing noise in editing will also reduce details.

Wide Aperture

Unfortunately some lenses (notably the Canon “nifty 50” – a 50mm f/1.8 lens) can be a little bit soft when shooting at the widest aperture. If you’ve worked through this course and you’re using your camera in manual, your aperture is at f/1.8, and you’re looking at your photos and they are consistently soft, this may be the reason why. 

One way to check is to take a series of photos in good light. Have your shutter at 1/500 to eliminate any possibility of motion blur, and a nice patient subject. Take a photo at f/1.8, then one at f/2.0, one at f/2.2 etc, all the way up to f/4.

Have a look, zoom in on your computer. When do your photos begin to feel sharp? There’s no magic number here. Some lenses will feel sharp at f/2.2, others at f/2.8, and others at f/4! Find the point at which you feel the sharpness is acceptable, and use that as your “widest aperture”. 

Remember you can also add some sharpening in editing too, but we do want to capture the details in camera. 

The Dog is Far Away

We really expect a lot from our gear. Why isn’t your dog sharp when he’s very small in the frame because he’s far away from you? Because the lenses don’t have telescopes in them (and yes, there are zoom lenses, but then we’re zoomed in, and it’s no longer the same “wide” perspective, or dog being far away from you!) and our cameras can only capture so many megapixels. 

If you have a 24 megapixel camera, then your camera can capture a certain number of pixels per inch. So, if your dog is close to the camera, then per inch, many many more pixels are dedicated to the very small details of your dog. As your dog gets further away, there are less megapixels per inch that are for him, and more for the surroundings. If you zoom in and in and in on your dog, then of course he’s going to look soft! Because there simply aren’t enough pixels on the sensor to record the very small details of every strand of fur and every detail of his eyes.


Frenchie photo courtesy of @zelmathefrenchie

Exposure Triangle

Throughout your learning journey, you may encounter the term “Exposure triangle”. Rather than complicate the issue (while researching this lesson I found one website that created some fairly complex mathematical equasions to explain it), I will try and lay it out simply:

Know that each of the different elements which contribute to how light or dark our image will be, are linked together. Therefore, any change you make to one element will either lighten or darken your image, but that light can be fixed by changing a setting on one other side of the triangle.

In fact, these are all so linked that there are mathematical ways to discuss it, and how changing shutter speed by one setting will change the exposure by a stop, and so on.

However, in my opinion, it’s more important to know this:

If I change a setting, the exposure will change…


I may have to change another setting to balance or fix the exposure because of this.

Quiz Time!

You are doing still portraits of your dog. Your settings are: 1/500 second, f/1.8, ISO 100.

You then decide to do some action photos. You change the shutter speed because you now need to freeze the action.

So your settings are: 1/1250 second, f/1.8, ISO 100.

How will the image look?

Why? Because by increasing the shutter speed, you let less light in, and you haven’t done anything to compensate for that amount of less light.

So, what can you do?!

In this case, your aperture is already as wide as it goes (letting in as much light as possible), and you need the shutter speed fast enough to speed the action, so changing the aperture or shutter speed won’t help.
Which only leaves ISO.

You may need to increase ISO to ISO800 in this situation (this is probably where the mathematical formula would come in. It could tell me exactly what ISO I would need!). But, once you’ve increased ISO, the image is correctly exposed again.

Let’s try another example. 

You’re taking a photo in the woods. 

Your settings are 1/500, f/1.8, ISO 1000, it’s reasonably dark in there under all that foliage.

You step out of the woods and into an open field. There is a light haze of clouds though the sun isn’t directly shining. 

How do your photos look, if you don’t change the settings?

Crazy Bright!.


Because your settings had been for the shade under the canopy of trees and suddenly there’s a lot more light getting to the camera.

So, what do you do?!

Here, you have quite a few options! Can you think of them? Which one would be best?
  • You could make the aperture narrower, letting in less light, but getting more detail in the background. This will mean less soft/blurry backgrounds.
  • You could increase the shutter speed. but this isn’t really necessary if you’re just doing portraits.
  • You could lower the ISO, making the camera less sensitive to light, and reducing the noise and grain.

I would, obviously, lower the ISO!

Here’s another scenario!

You’re taking some portrait photos out in a large open area, with clouds rolling overhead. Your settings are 1/500 second, f/1.8, ISO 250.

Suddenly, the sun comes out and your photos are extremely bright.

You lower the ISO to ISO 100 but they’re still too bright! What do you do?

  • Make the aperture narrower? Increasing detail in the background and having it less soft and blurry?
  • Increase the shutter speed to allow less light in?
  • Move somewhere else?

Honestly, I would probably move 😉 But if this isn’t an option, you can just raise the shutter speed!

There is no harm in raising the shutter speed in this situation! I won’t affect the photo at all, won’t make it a lower quality or do anything noticeable to the image.

One more scenario.

You’re taking photos in the woods. Your settings are at 1/400, f/1.8, ISO 800. You know your camera struggles with ISO once it goes over 640 but there’s moss and it’s so pretty.

Suddenly, a heavy bank of clouds darkens the sky, and your photos are turning out darker and darker.

What do you do?

  • Lower the shutter speed, resulting in very subtle motion blur and potentially soft images
  • Raise the ISO
  • Find somewhere lighter.

If I knew I was already at my camera’s upper limit when it comes to ISO, and I was beginning to get especially worried about it… I would find somewhere lighter. Get out of the woods, get to the edge of the woods, find a clearing.


So, to reiterate… by changing one exposure setting, we change the light that the camera receives, but we can fix this if needed by changing one of the other settings. The more you shoot on manual mode, the more comfortable and familiar you’ll become with changing settings as needed, checking and adjusting based on the available light, and making decisions about the settings that you need.

There are a TON of resources out there to look into this all further. Just do a quick google and you’ll find them. 

If you’re interested, my go-to settings are usually:

1/500 sec shutter for portraits

1250-2000 sec for action



Aperture as “wide open” (lowest number) as my lens will allow, though sometimes with my f/1.8 lens I’ll shoot at f/2.0 or f/2.2 to get a little more detail in the background or for action.


ISO is the last thing I set, and is relative to the other settings and the lighting conditions, but as low as I can make it in order to balance the light as much as I can. 

Of course this would change on a SUPER sunny day, for example, where I might need to restrict the amount of light coming in, so would make my shutter speed faster even if I’m only doing portraits.

But… well… I don’t usually shoot in those conditions 😅

Think about the settings you’ve been using, OR, if you’ve been using auto, bring your images up in Lightroom and press “i” until you have the information on the image showing in the top left corner. What settings has the camera chosen for you? Was that a good choice based on the situation? What would you do differently with the knowledge you have now?

Here are some more images with before & after versions. The EXIF data (shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings)for each is included. Have a look at these and the ones above, and think why I may have chosen the settings I used, relative to the conditions of each shot. 

What do you notice?



The kind of pose we choose for our dog will depend on a few things:

  • What the dog can physically do
  • What the dog is trained to do
  • The scene the dog is in
  • The kind of mood we want to create

Obviously, some older dogs may be hesitant to stand up for a long time while you take photos. Some dogs won’t lie down on wet grass. If there are tall bushes, then a lying down pose might not be the best option.

Table of Contents


Sit is one of the most simple poses as most dogs learn this as a puppy, can stay in a sit for a relatively long time without stress, and can do it whether they’re young or old. It means they are slightly taller in the frame than a standing pose, so be careful not to make the frame too close to the dog’s head or feet – you may need to move backwards to fit them in.

Sitting poses can show the power of a dog (think of a malinois sitting square and staring down the camera), but they can be unflattering for some dogs (overweight dogs, some male dogs who get a bit excited about posing (Journey is one of these), or dogs for whom a sit just looks a bit awkward and uncomfortable (Journey!)). Sitting poses are safe starting points, but aren’t usually very exciting. 

They can show the personality of the dog, for example, Loki always looks so prim and proper in a sit, the perfect eager model. Some dogs might roll out on a hip and look happy and goofy.

But don’t get stuck with sits! Make sure you try some other poses too.


Standing poses can be difficult for some dogs if they aren’t trained to stand and hold their position. In this case, you may need to either tie them to a tree if you’re by yourself, or keep them on a leash with it held out or up, away from the dog, and edited in Photoshop (see the Bonus lesson!). 

Some dogs, who aren’t used to holding a stand can look a little awkward. If their back legs get tucked underneath them, or a little wide, it can look like they’re pooping, so try and reposition them so they’re more comfortable.

Puppies may not have a stand-stay for a long time, but may just stand around if tied up. Older dogs may find standing for a long time tiring or uncomfortable. Just remember not to ask for more than a dog is capable of giving.

A standing pose can be great to show the form of a dog, whether he is tall, athletic, or long and short. We can get a real sense of the shape of the dog with standing poses. Try not to angle the dog down a hill, or they can look quite awkward, where as sloping slightly upward can make them more majestic. Try different angles with the stand, and how the dog is standing, if the dog is trained.

Lying Down

Lying down is also not a very difficult pose for most dogs, although it may be difficult to keep a puppy lying down for very long, as they are eager to be off and exploring. Older dogs may feel (and look) most comfortable in a down.

Some dogs won’t lie down on wet ground. Don’t try and force them to lie down or they will look uncomfortable and awkward. 

Lying down can be problematic in long/tall grass or with tall foreground as the dog may get lost behind it. We also don’t usually have a good sense of the dog’s shape or body, and sometimes they may look more like a potato (if their legs are hidden, or if their chin is down on top of their legs and paws).

Lying down poses usually (but not always) feel a bit more relaxed. There isn’t as much movement, or potential for movement. The scene is more still. 

Other Options

You can of course find other creative ways to use your environment, and adapt the pose around it. For example, using tree-stumps or logs to sit, stand, lie on, peek through or drape themselves over…

He was standing up behind this tree, and kind of draped himself over it.

Just always keep in mind:

  • What the dog is physically capable of in that space (and what it can perform safely. Don’t ask a dog to jump onto a slippery log and risk it injuring itself). 
  • What actually suits the space and whether it’s helping your image or not (a log in a very busy location with lots of detailed, bare sticks, isn’t a good place to pose your dog, just because it’s a log). 
  • If the dog looks comfortable and natural in that pose/position/on that log/stump/whatever

Head & Shoulders

You may not want to have the whole body of the dog in the photo, and of course that’s fine too! If you have a look in the Perspective lesson, you’ll see some examples of head & shoulder photos. These can usually be taken in a sit or a stand. I recommend not showing parts of the legs, so cropping the photo at about the widest part of the photo, right up to the neck.

 You can of course achieve a head & shoulders look in a down as well, just be careful the background isn’t just the blurred body of the dog. 

Also found in the Perspective lesson are some examples of an “overhead” shot, which I recommend taking in a sit. It can be done in a stand too but you risk chopping the body in half as it extends away from the camera, unless the dog is going down a hill. 


The ISO of your camera controls how sensitive the sensor is to light.

It goes back to the old film days – at university, one assignment I had was to take a series of photos with a film camera. We had to go buy the film and choose one with an ISO that would be suitable based on the kind of photography we were going to be doing. Normal, every-day outdoor photography would use a low ISO film… evening photography would need much higher ISO film and it would come out noisy without as much detail as the low version.

Shot at 1/1000 sec, f/2.8, ISO 12,800 😱

Shot at 1/1250 sec, f/4.5, ISO 6400

Shot at 1/1250 sec, f/3.2, ISO 100

In very short terms:

The lower the ISO = the less sensitive to light = the better the image quality. 

A photo with ISO 100 will have no noise/grain, and you will be able to lighten it up in editing quite a bit without noticing a loss of quality.

The higher the ISO = the darker the surroundings can be = the worse the image quality.

Does that mean you should take all your photos on ISO 100!?

No! Because you would have to compromise somewhere else – with a very slow shutter speed, for example – in order to let enough light in to properly expose the image. What you want is to use the lowest ISO for the given light conditions, based on the other settings you’ve chosen.

So, a low-light portrait with f/1.8 and a shutter speed of 1/500 is going to have a much lower ISO than you would need for an action shot in the same location, with a shutter speed of 1/1250. You can’t compromise on shutter speed, Aperture is already at its widest, so the only thing to allow more light onto the sensor is ISO.

That same action shot taken on a brighter day, would require a lower ISO! It all depends on the lighting conditions.

This is why I recommend, if you’re just learning and you’re finding this all very difficult, to begin by setting your shutter speed and aperture yourself, and use Auto-ISO if you need to. Have a look at what ISO the camera is choosing, and gradually begin to set it yourself, until you can do it without thinking about it!


1/1250 sec, f/1.8, ISO 4000
1/1250 sec, f/1.8, ISO 640

Some cameras are amazing at dealing with low light conditions! My Sony is one of them, easily able to get to ISO 10,000 without too much trouble as long as I don’t then try and lighten the image in editing! 

Other cameras will start showing a lot of noise at about ISO 800. You need to learn YOUR camera!

It’s best to get your exposure as close to correct as possible in camera (without making the light areas TOO light) to avoid having to do any CRAZY lightening in editing, which produces a lot more noise than using a higher ISO in the first place.

There is also a balance (and this varies from camera to camera) or a tipping point as to how high your ISO can be before you can’t really lighten the image in editing without SEVERE loss of quality.

1/500, f/1.8, ISO 200
1/400 sec, f/1.8, ISO 20,000 (taken as an experiment to see how such a ridiculously high ISO would look. I would never shoot this high in reality)

Please excuse my terrible graph (you can click to enlarge it). I’m an artist not a mathematician.  

Along the lower axis is the ISO, from 100 to 12800. I’ve assigned an approximate value of how much you can lighten in editing (blue line, from 100-0%). So if I severely underexpose an image with ISO 100, I have a lot of flexibility to lighten it (the noise is at 0, ability to lighten is at 100) 

If I underexpose an image at ISO3200, I have much LESS flexibility to lighten it, due to the noise/image degradation.

So if I’m shooting at ISO 1000 or higher, I need my exposure to be much more correct, than if I’m shooting at 800 or lower.

The Difference in ISO

Below are two images taken with relatively similar settings, except for one glaring difference – the ISO. One was taken at twilight, an action shot and wanting to preserve some detail in the landscape. It needed to be lightened up to get detail on the dog.

The other was taken in shade at the middle of a sunny day, but still needed to be lightened up. 

I included the straight out of camera version of each, the final edits, and a close crop of the face so you can see the difference in image quality.


Aperture = the pupil/eyeball of your lens.

You know how when it’s dark, your pupil gets bigger to let in more light? And when it’s light, it gets really small? Aperture is controlling how big or small the hole of our shutter is. 

Unlike our eye, however, aperture also affects how soft or sharp the out of focus parts of our image are, eg., how much detail we’ll see either side of our focus area. There is more information on this in the “depth of field/plane of focus” lesson.

Represented as an “f-number” – f/2.8, f/3.5 and so on. You can usually find this number written on the lens. Some zoom lenses will have a variable number (eg., f/3.5-f/5.6) meaning when they are zoomed all the way in, the widest aperture they can use is f/5.6


Shot at 1/500 sec, f/1.8, ISO 320


  • A small f-stop number = large hole = more light getting in = soft background & foreground.
  • A large f-stop number = smaller hole = less light getting in = more in focus.
  • Therefore: A small f-stop number (f/1.2 up to f/2.8) are perfect for portraits with soft, dreamy backgrounds and less distractions to draw our eye away from the dog. A wide aperture is also very useful to us as it allows us to take photos in the woods, at twilight, or in lower-light conditions, as it allows more light to get into the camera. 
  • My camera is rarely set to anything other than the widest aperture, which on my favourite lenses, is f/1.8
  • A larger f-stop number (f/4.5 to f/22) are for landscapes, or when you want the background to have as much attention as the dog.
  • Some lenses may perform poorly at the widest aperture! More on that in this lesson

One thing to note is that the blurriness of the background CAN be altered by a lot of other factors, not just aperture – make sure you check out the “Depth of Field” lesson for more on this.

1/500 sec, f/7.1 (landscape!), ISO 200

Having the Nose in Focus

This may be something for the “Depth of Field” lesson but it’s worth mentioning here.

I often see questions in dog photography facebook groups about why the dog’s nose isn’t in focus, or how someone can get the dog’s nose in focus but have the background soft. 

The answer to the first question is: use a narrower aperture.

The answer to the second question is: you probably can’t.

In my opinion, I don’t want the dog’s nose in focus. I want the viewer’s attention to be on the eyes, and only the eyes. This may be personal preference, but I would argue that most big-name/artistic-style pet photographers (not studio photographers!) take photos at the widest aperture, and don’t care if the nose is out of focus. 

This may be a decision you want to make yourself. I don’t want to compromise my image, and distract my viewers by having plants in the foreground and background in focus just so that the dog’s nose is in focus. Because if you narrow the aperture to get the nose in focus (and the nose can then be a distraction, too), then you allow a lot more detail in the rest of the image too, and this may take our attention away from the subject.

Shot at 1/400 second, f/1.8

Is the nose in focus? No.

Does it detract from the image? I doubt it. 

Group Photos

This may be a little advanced but I’ll add it here for future reference.

One time you MAY wish to narrow the aperture is when taking group photos, IF you aren’t skilled in Photoshop.

By having a wide aperture and therefore a narrow Depth of Field, photographing more than one dog would require them to be perfectly lined up, so that the eyes of each/every dog is in focus. This is almost impossible. Personally, I still shoot at f/1.8, and I photoshop the images together so each subject is in focus…. however, if that isn’t possible (or maybe you’re just feeling lazy and think they’re lined up close to perfect) then you could just make the aperture narrower, to get a larger depth of field, so hopefully they would both be in focus that way. More than 2 dogs? I think it would be impossible unless you had a VERY narrow aperture. 

Shot at 1/500 sec, f/4.5, ISO 1000 – I intentionally used a wider depth of field than normal (higher number) as I wanted to make sure myself and BOTH dogs were in focus, even if one of us was slightly closer to or further from the camera.

These two images were taken at f/1.8. I took several photos where Loki was in focus, and several where Journey was in focus, and then combined the two in Photoshop so both dogs were in focus.