Exposure, Brightness & Other Options


A very simple tool that does what it says on the jar: adjust the brightness, adjust the contrast.

This tool is pure simplicity. You have no control over what part of the histogram or tonal range is being affected by it. It just brightens, and adds or removes contrast.

It could be a good tool to use at the very end of your workflow to add a final “pop” of brightness, and add a little contrast if the image needs it.


Allows you to choose from 3 points along the histogram: blacks, midtones, and whites.

Essentially, you are changing where the blackpoint or whitepoint is, or you’re extending the range of highlights or shadows. 

So for example if you pull the right-hand side arrow toward the left, you are saying these highlights should be white. 

Similarly if you dragged the left-most arrow (blacks) toward the right, you’re saying: “these shadows should be black”. 

It is essentially a less flexible version of the curves tool, giving you 3 areas that you can adjust, rather than many (given that you can add as many points along the curve as you want).


Another quite simple tool which simply makes a global adjustment to either increase or lower exposure.

There are other options, eg., “offset” and “gamma corrections” but I’ve never had a need to use them for any of my pet photos.

In most of my photos, I tend to add +.20 or +.30 exposure at the end of many of my photos, so you could use this tool for that too.


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.

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

It’s worth mentioning this again.

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… unless you move further away.

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.

Getting full body images, or photos of a dog side-on to the camera, will mean the nose is likely to be in focus, due to the width of the depth of field (amount of the photo in focus.). If you’re wanting to enter photos into print competitions, having the nose in focus MAY be important for you! 

So your options are: move back/further away from your dog, make your aperture narrower (bigger number), have the dog side-on to the camera. 

There’s a reason we see a lot of photos for print/photography competitions that are stricter with noses in focus, where they’re full-body shots and the background has been heavily hazed out. Because otherwise? There would be a lot more detail in that background and they would lose points for that in judging too.

A head and shoulders fine art portrait of a border collie dog in the backlit forest as an example of how to take beautiful pet photos

Shot at 1/400 second, f/1.8

Is the nose in focus? No.

Does it detract from the image? I doubt it. 

1/400 sec, f/1.8, ISO 400.

Here, despite being shot at f/1.8, here, the nose is quite in focus! Why? Becase I was far enough away that the depth o field was wide enough for her whole head to be in focus. I wasn’t even that far away! But, because she’s a larger dog, I have to be much further from her to fit her in the photo compared to a sheltie, or even a border collie. To have a small dog like a sheltie taking up this much of the photo would require me to be much closer to them – resulting in a narrower depth of field!

Here’s a photo of a teeny-tiny sheltie puppy to illustrate the concept. She probably fills up slightly LESS of the photo (meaning I’m further away than I could have been) and yet her nose is definitely soft. Her relative size and therefore my relative distance to her, affect the depth of field.

1/1600 sec (we’d been doing action photos), f/1.8, ISO 400. 

Now you can see, we’re VERY close to this dog, and her back ear is definitely blurry…. but because everything is on the same plane as her eye, the whole side of her face is in focus.

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 or the photo is more candid and taking multiple photos to merge in Photoshop wouldn’t be possible, like the photo of me and the boys below.

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. 

The further away you are from your subjects, the wider your depth of field will also be, so you can use a combination of distance and aperture to make sure your group is in focus. 

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. Since we were playing around, cuddling, and interacting, doing a head-swap later would probably not be possible. Therefore it would be better to get all of us in focus in one shot.

That being said – this is an older photo now, and generally if I’m doing group photos or self portraits, I’ll only go to f/2.8. You really need to judge for yourself what aperture you need based on:

  • are they posing, or are they more candid/interacting? How likely is it you can do a head-swap?
  • how close/how much in line are they to each other?
  • how far away are you from them?

For some answers, f/1.8 or f/2.8 might be fine. For others, f/4 might be your safest option! Judge situation by situation.

Product Photos

Another time you MAY wish to narrow your aperture, in order to have more of the photo in focus, is if you’re doing product photography.

In this case, showcasing the product is generally more important than a super blurry background and everything else being all pretty and blurry. 

There’s no point in showing a super soft, plush and cosy bed…. if 90% of it is just blur. Trust me when I say you’ll be getting companies asking you to “remove the blur effect” from the photos. 

Again, as I’ve been saying, how much blur you get depends not only on your aperture, but how close you are to the subject too! If I’m doing a close up of my dog sleeping on a cosy bed… the only way to get a lot of the bed in focus would be to use f/7 or f/11… and considering I’m shooting indoors with two constant lights and am usually already at ISO 800 even when using f/2.8… it’s just not possible. In those cases, I often take a photo of the dog on the bed, then focus on the label/brand of the bed, and merge them together in Photoshop, much like I would for a group photo. Depending on how much of a difference there is in focal plane. It would be stupid if the dog was in focus, then the bed is out of focus, then the label is in focus… then the bed is out of focus again. This will look clearly Photoshopped and not good at all. 

In this case, choosing your angle to try and make sure there’s not a long distance between the front and back of the product will help more of it be in focus.

Same as photos of dog coats and clothing. There’s no point taking photos of dog jackets… if 90% of the jacket is nothing but blur.

Again… how close or far you are from the dog will play a huge role in how narrow the depth of field is and therefore how blurry everything is, and you CAN mix it up by giving your client (for example) some closer detail shots at f/2.8, and some further away full body shots with everything in focus at f/3.2. 

Just remember that in these circumstances: the product is usually more important than the blurry background.

As you can see from the photos above, I used a VARIETY of aperture settings for product photography. Generally, it depends on:

  • the location and available light (I’m much more limited inside)
  • how far away I am from the dog (further away = I can use a wider aperture)
  • what angle the dog/product is to me (side on like Loki with the water-bottle or Journey in the jacket means a wider aperture would probably be ok)

1/400 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600

This was part of a series of photos I took for a client, of a custom engraved keyring.

The keyring itself is VERY SMALL, as you can see on Teresa’s hand. 

The company wanted to show the dog that featured on the keyring.

They also wanted an outdoors, “golden light” kind of photo. 

If I got too far away from them, you couldn’t see the keyring or the details of it.

If I got very close to the keyring, then Journey was quickly out of focus, because getting him lined up with the hand was very difficult. 

I could go closer and do a head-swap: take a photo of the hand, and one of Journey, but then the depth of field discrepancies would be pretty obvious as the arm got blurry, then sharp, then blurry again.

I could make my aperture narrower than f/2.8 so the depth of field (amount of the photo in focus) was wider… but I was already at ISO 1600 due to the forest and backlight, I was already under-exposing, and if the photo got too noisy, there would be no detail on the product! While I normally don’t care that much about noise, there’s no point advertising the beautiful engraving of the key-ring… if it’s nothing but grainy noise!

1/320 sec, f/2.8, ISO 2500

In the end, I opted for Journey being slightly less than perfectly in focus, and took some other photos with him and Teresa deliberately out of focus.

I also, in a few cases, Photoshopped just the keyring – even from another photo – over the top of the original, because I had a better version that was sharper. Potentially this made the keyring too sharp for the hand holding it, but it’s such a small thing that only people looking for it would notice. 

1/400 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600. Top is original, lower is with a better/sharper keychain Photoshopped in.


What COULD I have done better?

There’s only really a couple of options here.

  1. Go to a different location. Find a spot with much more overhead light, come back on a day without backlight, get on the edge of the woods, etc. This would allow me to either drop my ISO, OR narrow my aperture to have more of the photo in focus.
  2. Use a flash. By introducing a flash, I could easily have used a much narrower aperture without needing to push my ISO up, as I could drop my shutter speed dramatically. But I’m not (at the time of writing) confident enough to use it for client shoots when we only had 30 minutes of daylight left!

Aperture Examples

In the examples below, I was using my 135mm. I wanted to change only the aperture, to see how narrow I would need to go before the nose was in focus, and how this affected the background detail. Since it was the 135mm it retained pretty good compression throughout.

Keep in mind that I was quite close to Journey with this lens (eg., he is filling a lot of the frame). 

Keep in mind as well that as I narrow up the aperture, I had to adjust other settings – we cover this more in the Exposure lessons… but by the time I was at f/8 I needed ISO 5000 despite it being quite a light and bright day! So I was starting to see a lot of noise, simply because I wanted the nose in focus.

Hover to see the camera settings, click to enlarge.

Examples from the Video

Group Photos at f/1.8

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.

Shutter Speed

Shot at 1/500 sec, f/1.8, ISO 160.

Shutter speed = how quickly the “eye” of the camera closes to freeze the action. The faster the shutter = the better it freezes moving objects, but, the less light that gets in. 

As a general rule, my shutter speed is never slower than 1/400 second. This is something I will rarely compromise, in order to get more light. It just isn’t worth it to end up with a blurry/soft photo.

For action, it is at least 1/1250 – faster if I have enough light! Ideally 1250 or 1600!

I usually keep my shutter speed at 1/400 because even Loki, my perfect model, is a living, breathing, moving creature. 1/400 freezes his slight movements, while still letting in as much light as possible. 

What are all these numbers?

Shutter speeds are represented as an amount of time – the time that the shutter is open, gathering light and data from the scene. 

Pick up your camera! Let’s have a look.

How you adjust the shutter speed will depend on your camera, and the setup you’ve chosen. I consistently forget which of the top dials changes my aperture, and which changes the shutter speed! Good thing I rarely need to touch either of them!

Change the shutter speed. See the numbers on the screen changing? 

Let’s make it as slow as it can go. You might end up with it saying: “Bulb”. This is a setting where you trigger the shutter and it stays open until you trigger it again – great for if you need exposures of longer than 30 seconds! Definitely not useful for us as pet photographers!

What shutter speed range your camera has, really depends on your camera.

Eventually, you’ll see something like 1, or 1″. This is a 1 second exposure. The shutter is open and gathering light and information for a whole second.

As you get faster, you’ll begin to see fractions of a second. This may be represented as a decimal at first, and you’ll see this on my Sony as I move up from 1″. For example, you might see 0.8″ (this is 4/5ths of a second) 0.5″ (1/2 a second), and so on.

As you get faster still, those fractions of a second get smaller and smaller – aka, faster and faster. Imagine you have a whole second – that already seems pretty fast! Now break it in half, you have 1/2 a second (0.5″). Seems even faster, right? If, during that 1/2 a second, anything moves – even a little bit – that movement gets captured and results in blur.

Make your shutter speed faster.. Now you’re breaking that one second, into 125 equal pieces, and take a photo in just ONE of those pieces. 

Break it into 500 equal pieces, and take a photo in one of those teeny, tiny moments of time. Now we’re talking about 1/500 of a second. This means there’s much less time for anything to move. 

Perhaps it’s better not to think about shutter speed “freezing motion” so much as it is about having a chance to CAPTURE motion in the first place.

Shutter Speed: Fast and Slow, Light and Dark

With your camera (hopefully) in hand, take off the lens cap. Let’s do some experimenting.

Make your shutter speed very slow again. What happens? If you have a mirrorless camera, you’ll be able to see the exposure already on your screen. If you have a DSLR you may need to take a photo, or turn on Live View. 

The photo should be quite bright. Why? Because it has a lot of time to let light in to the sensor. 

Are there ever times we might want to use a very slow shutter speed? 

Yes, and no.

One of our amazing LJ members does a lot of Astro photography, and for that, one needs extremely slow shutter speeds. Why? Because the camera needs as much time as possible to capture the faint light of the stars! They seem bright to us, but in reality that light is a long, long, LONG way away, and the camera needs time to capture it. Your camera may need between 10-30 seconds for astrophotography. Similarly, any situations where you’re capturing faint light, will be improved by a longer shutter time, as it allows that light to embed itself into the image. 

Another time you MAY want to slow your shutter speed, is if you’re doing “long exposures” – for example, at waterfalls! If you want those magical flowing white waterfalls, this can only be captured with a slow shutter speed, as it’s the constant motion of the white water that creates this effect. 

Taken at 1/10 sec, f/4, ISO 100. Not a composite! My dogs stood perfectly still for the 1/10 sec, which doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but try it for yourself and see how difficult it is!

While the answer MAY have been “to get more detail in the waterfall”, this isn’t the case at all. 

In fact, it would have been because I was already at ISO 100, and because of the very slow shutter speed, my photo would have been EXTREMELY bright, due to all the light coming in for the 1/10th of a second. Since I couldn’t let less light in with my ISO, the only other option I had to get to the correct exposure was to make my aperture narrower, limiting the light that way!

Let’s continue with our experiment!

Now start to make your shutter speed faster – don’t change any other settings! Again, with a mirrorless camera, you can see what’s happening to the exposure. It’s going to be getting darker and darker.


Because there will be less time for light to get to the sensor, as we chop that fraction of time into smaller and smaller teeny tiny pieces!

Is there a time to use VERY FAST shutter speeds?!

Of course! But only when necessary!

You will want to use faster shutter speeds for action photos. Anything over 1/1250 is great. If you’re photographing a dog sport on a very sunny, bright day, and your shutter speed is 1/2000, your ISO is already at 100, and you’re happy with your aperture where it is, but the image is still to bright…. then by all means, put the shutter speed faster! 

Shot at 1/1250 sec, f/1.8, ISO 1600. This could (and probably should) have had a faster shutter speed in order to really freeze the water-drops! 1/1250 is generally enough to capture most of a dog’s motion, unless they’re very close to the camera…. but not water droplets. They need 1/2000 or so to make them sharp and defined. If you click to enlarge this image, you’ll see the motion blur on all the small droplets especially in the front splash.

Also, if I’m doing portrait photos on a very bright day. Let’s say my aperture is at f/1.8 because I want a nice, soft blurry background. That’s letting in a lot of light. My ISO is at 100 – that means, it’s as low as it can go, which means it’s as “dark” as it can be. I COULD change my aperture to let in less light… but that will change the look of my photo too. So, the most logical option for me would be to make the shutter speed faster, to let in less light!

This photo is a great example of the above. It was quite bright out (though not harsh sun). Usually I would take this kind of portrait on 1/500 second, f/1.8 and ISO whatever was needed. 

However on this day, because of all the extra light, I was already on f/1.8 and ISO 100 (as low as it can go, so letting in the least amount of light), and it was still EXTREMELY bright. My options would have been to narrow the aperture – meaning there would have been a lot more detail in the foreground, and in that soft creamy background…. or to increase the shutter speed, which would just freeze any small motions Journey made even better.

As a result, the settings were: 1/1250 sec, f/1.8, ISO 100. 

IF, on the other hand, I was in a location, and I turned on my camera to find that my settings were: 1/500 sec, f/1.8, ISO 800 and it was still too bright… my first step would NOT be to make my shutter speed faster! FIRST, I would drop my ISO. If it got as low as it could go and it was still too bright… THEN I would make my shutter speed faster.

Common Shutter Speed Mistakes

A too-slow shutter speed, of about 1/125 second, is the MAIN mistake I see beginners making when they’re wondering why their images aren’t very sharp. 

This photo (click to enlarge), as well as having a lot else wrong with it, was probably taken at 1/125 second. Everything is slightly soft and blurry because of this slow shutter speed. 

Here you can se what motion blur looks like! It looks like everything is a bit “shaken”. Everything is a bit out of focus. It seems like the eyes SHOULD be in focus, but they’re not really. Nothing is! This is one way we can tell it’s motion blur.

Below: the motion blur vs. a faster shutter speed without blur.

Below are 3 very similar pictures.

One shows motion blur, one has missed focus, and one is perfect. Check them out and see if you can tell which is which. I’ll give you a cropped-in version too

The other common mistake I see in critiques, are overly fast shutter speeds for situations that don’t need it.

Often I’ll see shutter speeds of 1/6400, for a dog lying in some grass.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with 1/6400!! Except that in these photos, the ISO has been pushed WAY up: ISO 800, or ISO 2000 or ISO 4000…. which results in a lot of noise, an a lack of image quality that is totally unnecessary! If the shutter speed had been set at its slowest for the situation, then the ISO could have been brought down as low as possible. 

Quick Guide

  • Normal portraits: no slower than 1/400 sec
  • Trundling around/some slight movement: 1/800 sec
  • Action/running: 1/1250 sec or faster
  • If already at ISO 100, but still too bright? Make the shutter speed faster.
  • If at a high ISO and shutter speed already at 1/400? YOU need to determine if it’s worth risking motion blur by going slower, OR better to get more noise by increasing ISO