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019. Photographing Black Dogs


This article is from the rec.pets.dogs: Assorted Topics, posted to rec.pets.dogs newsgroup. Maintained by Cindy Tittle Moore with numerous contributions by others.

019. Photographing Black Dogs

Information compiled by Ruth Ginzberg, lightly edited by moi.

Many people with black dogs have trouble getting a good photo of the dog. Some of the characterizations of how the photos turn out: "large black blob", "no, large black blob with pink tongue sticking out of it", "large black blob with eyes" (you get the idea).

If you want a few QUICK HINTS on how to address this problem, here they are, as summarized well by Dennis Swanson:

1. set the camera to underexpose by two stops from what it recommends, if possible

2. whether this is possible or not, tell the photofinisher to forget the background and print your dog black but with detail in the fur

3. for photos to be scrutinized by possible clients, have them done by a professional

If you want more detailed information, keep reading. :-)

Andy Kane has some advice about selecting a photo finisher:

With 10 years of experience there is one answer to your question about black dogs being too dark and magenta(pink). Take your negatives to a local film processor, one that prints in lab, and wait for the results. If you get the same result ask them to please reprint your negative at -1 magenta and -2 denisty from where they have it right now. I do this work for a living. What normally happens is with the new scanners in print processors the total area of the negative is scanned and averaged for color and denisty. Therefore a black dog will print a little dark and if the background is grass (green) the the scanner will tend to over compensate and give you an dog with a little magenta tink(pink). The same holds true for the other problem print of a portrait of a person wearing a red shirt, in this case the flesh tones result a little cyan (blue,geen) the opposite of the red shirt. I see this black dog case everyday and I hope that I correct for it everytime but even good processors can miss and will be more than happy to redo your print at no charge to you. You can not get this kind of service from drug store or mail service processing labs. Good luck

Ty Monson sympathizes with our difficulties, noting that photographing black animals is not a problem only for we amateurs:

Seriously, photographing black dogs, cats, cattle, llamas, etc. is difficult. The difficulty is compounded by shooting color negatives and relying on Qualex (or other popularly-priced photo finisher) to produce the prints.[see above for advice] Assuming that a person is taking snapshots for the family album, I can recommend setting your pet against a dark background as a starting point. When the main subject and background are both dark, the printer will lighten the print.

You will get more detailed features on the dog in the photo this way, but your dog will look lighter colored than s/he actually is. Jimmy Tung explained why this happens:

First assuming that you're using negative film, and just some basics for everybody: The camera doesn't see a black dog. It sees an average object which must be kinda average grey (18% if you like) in color. So the meter will tell you something which will overexpose the pic, giving you a grey dog, as well as washing out the background. In the original post, the dogs were described as big black blobs with pink tongues, etc. If the photofinisher looks at the negative described above, he'll say "gee, these people would rather have a good looking background", so they start tweaking the density and color balance until you end up with all of the other colors OK, and a black dog, except now your black dog is too black, and it looks featureless.

Marc Clarke expanded on this, explaining that:

The problem probably comes from the fact that Through The Lense (TTL) camera meters try to render whatever reflective surface they are pointed at as an 18% gray. If you point a TTL camera's meter at a white house (or dog), the meter will indicate the amount of exposure you need to make the side of the white house appear as 18% gray. If you point the TTL camera's meter at a black dog, the meter will indicate the exposure you need to make the black dog appear as an 18% gray dog. TTL meters are really good at telling you what exposure to use for 18% gray things. TTL meters are lousy at directly telling you what exposure to use for black or white things.

Ty suggests some ways you can try to get around this problem:

Oh, but you DID want the dog to look BLACK? Black is the (relative) absence of light. The trick is to get enough gloss (luster, glare) off the animal's fur to define shape, without washing-out the blackness. Two things a snapshooter can do is photograph your pet 1/4 side lighted from a window (overcast day) or set a piece of white poster board next to the animal (out of the camera's field of view.) A white wall may work, too. ... Be inventive. Look! The camera lens sees what your eye sees. If the lighting doesn't model your pet's form, the film won't record it.

Oh, yes. Your black-petted friends will probably need to abandon the camera's built-in flash. A flash with a head that can be rotated for bounce flash can be made to work. It will take some experimenting, though.

...and Tom Wagner added:

If you are taking flash photos, that is another problem for automatics. My personal advice is do not take flash photos of pets. Use a high speed film and whatever available light you have. Because pets have better night vision you will get a lot of "Red Eyed Shots."

Jimmy also mentions the importance of lighting:

Check your lighting, and make sure that details of the dog's coat, eyes, etc. are large and visible. That is, assuming you don't have off-camera flash equipment, position lamps and camera so that light is reflected off the glossy coat. That way, the dog doesn't look flat without the other visual cues our mind supplies, but the camera doesn't.

Ellen McSorley's husband, Jonathan, who has experience photographing dogs, evidently with better equipment than many of us have, notes that even different breeds of black dogs offer different problems:

... Labs have glossier fur than Newfs. You've still got to have lots of light, so flash or spot metering is a must. I think ideally I'd go for off-axis flash, or a diffuser, or maybe a flash umbrella, something to give lots of light but not from a bright point source which is going to reflect straight back into the camera. That might make it look like the dog has Mylar (reflective plastic) bits in its coat (although that would be an interesting effect, and direct flash works on the Newfs because their coats aren't so glossy).

Jimmy also mentions that:

Some films are specifically color balanced for skin tones or bright colors or deep rich blacks and browns. I don't have a recommendation off the top of my head which would be appropriate. You might find that Fuji Reala might be well suited, but then again, Kodak Gold II might be just as good at a fraction of the cost. Ask your local photo supply store.

and Stephen Samuel reminds us that:

... if you have a black dog and a white human in a picture with the same lighting, AT LEAST ONE OF THEM is going to end up looking poorly lit. Creative lighting is required. [A classic suggestion is to put the human in the shade and the dog in the sun.]

BUT, no matter what you do with the lighting or the processing, it seems from what many people say that eventually you are going to have to deal with the fact that the automatic grey scale metering is thrown off by a black (or white) dog who makes up the largest part of the photo.

Tom Davis (who says his dogs are Golden, to match his carpet) offers a suggestion for those with very automatic cameras:

I'd guess that if a black dog fills a significant amount of the frame, it will wind up over-exposed by quite a bit, so if your camera has exposure compensation, you can set it to under-expose to compensate. Some cameras are totally automatic, so you're just out of luck. If you don't have exposure compensation, you can sometimes lie to the camera about the film speed. To make it under-expose, tell it you've got faster film.

For samoyeds and great pyrenees, do the opposite. Well, at least for clean ones.

But for those ready to grapple with light metering, Marc Clarke suggests:

There are several different ways to get around this. First, meter something that is actually 18% gray in the same light that falls on the black dog. This gray card gives your meter something that actually is 18% gray. The black dog will show up as black (not gray). These gray cards are available in any photography store, usually in the book rack. Second, use an incident light meter. These meters read the light that is falling onto the subject rather than the light reflecting off the subject. They indicate the same exposure as a TTL camera's reflectance meter reading the light reflected off an 18% gray card. You can fake a gray card by using your TTL cameras meter and metering the light falling onto your open hand, then opening up one more stop. A hand (in fact, nearly all Caucasian skin) is about 1 stop brighter than an 18% gray card.

But Brian Segal points out that:

Your reflective meter will indeed want to show the dog as 18% grey if you simply rely on that reading. If you want about 5 stops of exposure latitude, then meter the dog's fur and stop down 1.5 to 2.0 stops. If you stop right down to dense black there will be no detail of the fur.

An incident reading will work more or less, but you really want a precise reading of the fur itself as it has its own reflective properties.

Dave Miller kind of summed it all up with:

UNDEREXPOSE BY TWO STOPS. That's it. Doesn't matter what camera you use. All a camera is is a light tight box to hold film. [...] The meters (for the most part) all work the same way and try to give you an 18% grey which is about 2 stops brighter than most black dogs. If the dog is brightly lit, then it might be only 1 to 1.5 stops darker...

Well, there you have it.

Finally, Ty Monson gives the following (blunt, but probably correct) advice in response to a question about stud services or breeders who are photographing their dogs for the benefit of prospective clients:

Breeders ought to have a skilled photographer produce the photos for showing prospective clients. No business is represented well with amateurish snapshots.

Many thanks to the nice folks from rec.photo who offered their expertise to us sentimental dog lovers, who never can seem to have too many photos of our pets -- even when they do just look like large black blobs with tongues!


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