Everyone has done it. It’s the middle of the afternoon, you grab your camera and your pet and take them on a nice long photo walk. The sun is high in the sky, it’s a clear cloudless day, maybe you’re out exploring a new trail or at a dog park downtown. It’s a beautiful day so you fire off a few photos of your furry friend and… they’re too dark and too bright all at the same time. Shoot!
When taking photos outdoors using natural light, it is critical to take into account the time of day. One of the more common assumptions new photographers have is ‘mid-day lighting is the brightest and best for photography,’ and at face value that makes sense. Photography is about capturing light, so the time of day with the most light should be the best time for photos, right? Unfortunately no. Mid-afternoon, while bright and lively, is one of the worst times to be taking photos for two reasons
1. Bright sunlight causes extreme shadows and highlights, meaning you lose details in the darkest and brightest parts of your image.
2. Direct downward sunlight is very harsh, unflattering for pets and people alike.
Both of these problems are difficult for your camera’s sensor to read because, generally speaking, most camera sensors (especially cell phone camera sensors) have a hard time reading dark shadows and bright highlights, and it’s even more difficult for your sensor when extreme highlights and shadows occur at the same time. Also extreme shadows and highlights in portraiture can make your pets facial features seem dark and cavernous especially in breeds like bulldogs who have a lot of loose skin around their eyes.
The problem is the wide range of light available midday can be too wide for your camera to expose for effectively, especially in auto mode, so what you’re left with is a photo that has extremely bright highlights and extremely dark shadows and everything in the middle seems thin and characterless. This leaves you with a poorly balanced image with less retainable detail in its darkest or lightest parts. Meaning you’re not getting the most out of your sensors colour or detail rendering capabilities. So why not schedule your shoot at a more flattering hour and get better results from the time you spend behind the camera?
You can greatly improve your pet photos by only taking pictures at specific times of the day, ideally when the sun is nice and low in the sky. Mornings and evenings are the best times for pet photography because the low angled light from the rising or setting sun creates a soft flattering glow that reduces the severity of shadows and highlights; allowing for brighter colours and more mid-range detail. This ideal lighting creates the perfect atmosphere for any keen photographer hoping to get some shots of their pets in the best possible light.
The key difference between the sunlight available during the afternoon versus the light available in the morning or evening isn’t necessarily the amount of light available but the severity of that light. While sunrise and sunset both offer their own brand of shadows and highlights they are experienced in much less severe extremes. For example, the shadows and highlights of sunrise and sunset are dimmer and more colourful than the shadows and highlights of midday, yet still offer more than enough light to illuminate your pet. This allows your cameras sensor to pick up more detail in both the darkest and lightest parts of the image, creating a more desirable and balanced image of your furry friend.
Balanced lighting can make or break your photoshoot and when you have the sun, or any source of light, directly above your subject you’re going to have a very intense, very unbalanced image that is even difficult to correct using editing software. So why depend on your editing software to fix a photo that should have been taken properly in the first place?
Scheduling your photoshoots with your pets in the morning or evening allows you to fully utilize a softer, less direct, light source which gives your images more character and detail and less contrast. Now, don’t get me wrong, contrast is a very useful tool in photography, but too stark a contrast can be very off putting and can even ruin an image completely. So it is best to use it sparingly, especially when taking photos on your phone.
By choosing to shoot in the morning or evening you’re opening up many new possibilities for your photography and you’re making better use of your cameras sensor because you’re focusing on capturing a more specific range of light, rather than the full spectrum of light and dark. This will allow you to take a more balanced photo, and capture your pet in the best possible lighting.
So next time you’re out taking photos of your pet remember the importance of timing so you can get the most out of your photo shoot, and have photos you’re proud to share.