This week we covered how to set up a dog photography studio in a small space. The small space was my teeny tiny living room and we had a floor area of 2.2×2.1m to work with. Yes, small. In this post we’re going to cover off the core points of what is essentially an in-home photography studio setup, but it’s harder to explain this in text than it is in a video. Don’t get me wrong, there’s value in both, but the video and this post cover similar but slightly different things.

If you’d rather watch than read, no problem. However, please do subscribe to the YouTube channel because it genuinely means the world to me!

Let’s get to the good stuff:

1.0 Kit for an in-home photography studio

1.1 Backgrounds for in-home studio photography

This will depend a little on the space you have available, but as a general rule, if you have less than 4.5m to work with front to back, black and white backgrounds will be very difficult to do well, lighting it all true to form in-camera rather than “fixing” it in post-production.

However, you can shoot on coloured seamless paper backgrounds in almost any sized space, so for this, we’re using my fave make, Colorama, which I personally purchase from The Flash Centre. TFC have never let me down in over 5 years of dealings and I never have out-of-the-box rippling/creasing. This is the backdrop used in the video, though in the video it is the 1.35m version; It’s Buttercup from the chart below. I used to shoot with Dandelion for my yellows, and I did like that one too!

in home dog photography studio

To store your paper backdrops, keep them tightly rolled, away from any source of heat, and stood vertical. Never lie your backdrop rolls on their side. This will cause rippling and it’s a pain in the bum to get rid of. In most situation, rippling on the roll means the roll needs to go to paper heaven. Aka, the recycling plant.

You may want to use vinyl, fabric or wooden backgrounds, that’s fine, but we’re not covering how to light those today.

1.2 Lighting for studio photography in a small space

You’ll also need a light source, obviously! In the video attached to this post, I cover 1 light and 2 light set-ups. In such a small space, you’re probably best sticking with 1-2 lights for now and getting really good with just those, before you add more (and only if you want to).

You can use either strobes or speedlights. For strobes, I would recommend either iLux Summits if you are in the UK, or AlienBees if you are overseas. For speedlights, I would recommend Yongnuo regardless of your geographic location. We’re using these light sources on manual, so you don’t need to worry about TTL capability.

For whatever lights you get, you’ll need wireless triggers/transceivers/receivers. One part goes on your hotshoe and, in the case of speedlights, the other one goes on the bottom of that, on a light stand. Look at whatever light you get as to what the manufacturer recommends, sometimes they come with it, sometimes they don’t!

For your lights, you’ll also absolutely need modifiers. Personally I like octaboxes and softboxes. I don’t really love umbrellas, beauty dishes and other modifiers, but that’s just me.

For small spaces where you’ll have to drop these things down all the time, look for “pop-up” or “easy” modifiers. That way you just ping them up instead of grappling with poles like you’re pitching a tent in a hurricane. Trust me, it’s not worth the hassle!

Stands are important for both your lights and your background support. Safety is important to me so personally I will always go with heavy-duty air-cushioned stands all round if I’m working with clients, but if it’s just for me at home, I tend to use cheap stands for my background because my dogs know not to go near the back of the set. Safety first though. As you all know, I rave about these stands here.

1.3 Lenses for studio photography in small spaces

This is a little personal preference, a little practicality. You can’t go far wrong with a 24-70 2.8 zoom lens. I’ve used a third-party lens (this one) for years and years and it has never ever let me down in the studio.

1.4 Extra equipment for the in-home studio

A few other things I find very useful:

  • White balance card (this one is the one I use, and have used for years)
  • Reflector (this is by far the best reflector I’ve ever owned)
  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • Attention items (ball, treats, toys, noises)

Now that you have all your kit ready, it’s time to sort your settings out.

2.0 Settings for dog studio photography

For the best results, you have to be shooting. in fully manual mode. It helps to understand the exposure triangle before we go into this so if you’re not 100% confident about what does what, you need to go any check that out first. 

 2.1 Set your triangle points for studio photography

Theory for a second…

Starting with shutter speed, you have limited working with flash photography that you don’t have elsewhere. We’re not discussing high-speed sync here because, to be honest, if you pick the right lights you don’t need it. You can freeze action with strobes that have a short enough flash duration and no ambient light, but we’re not going into that today.

So, every camera has a maximum flash sync speed. This is the speed at which the camera can match the flash in terms of timing. Most entry-level cameras have a max flash sync of 1/160s. So you would set your shutter speed to that. Other cameras vary, for example, I’m pretty sure a Nikon D800 has a flash sync speed of 1/250s. Whatever your cameras is, set your SS to that.

Ok, one down on the triangle.

Aperture in studio is set at a higher f-number than outdoor portraits. A good starting point is f8.

ISO should be used on either 100 or 200, never really higher than that.

If your photographs in studio are coming out too bright, either reduce the power of your lights or increase the f-number. If your photographs are too dark, increase the power of the lights or decrease the f-number. Don’t touch ISO or SS, ok?

 2.2 Other bits

You guys will know if you’ve studied the exposure triangle video that the general rule is to set your shutter speed a minimum of 2x the focal length of the lens to remove hand-held camera shake.

However, we’re also shooting dogs, so add a little cushion room for any movements they may make. 

 2.3 Drive mode – single shot

You don’t need to be reeling off 10 frames a second so set the drive mode to to single shot. If you shoot in a high drive mode you will get lots of black pictures because the flash needs to “recycle”. This is the time it takes for the flash to recharge ready to discharge the next flash.

 2.4 Single point focus

It’s very rare for me to ever shoot not on single point focus, so if I ever don’t mention focus area’s, just assume it’s a single point. We went through how to set up single point area modes in our Action Photography how-to, so head there and find that part for a recap. 

 2.5 White balance 

If you’re shooting in RAW (which you should be) then this isn’t absolutely crucial, but it’s never a bad idea to have a white balance card like this with you at all times. That way, you can take a photo of it at the start of your shoot and then you’ll be able to drop that little eyedropper in Lightroom onto the card in the photo and bam, that’s perfect white balance to sync over the shoot’s photos! 

 2.6 Composition 

It’s not a setting, but it’s crucial. If you aren’t a composition wizard, go here and brush up before you shoot. Of course, you may need to shoot to edit if you’re in a teeny space needing to expand backdrops, so just keep that in mind.

2.7 Start with NO light

It might be easier to watch that part of this video to understand this. Essentially you need to achieve a complete black image with no flashes on when you take your first photo. If it isn’t completely black at the settings we mentioned earlier, increase your f-number and try again.

2.8 Add your lights

Turn the lights on and get to an exposure you are happy with (aperture changes only though!).

3.0 The Shoot: 

I guess it’s kind of just like any other kind of shoot, only this time you have about 4000 things that can terrify a dog. So, yeah, just keep that in mind.

I have worked with extremely damaged dogs over years photography for shelters and rescues, the kind of dog where if you look at them they scream in anticipation of pain. For scared dogs, nervous dogs or just very sensitive dogs, you need to be very very quiet, very very calm and you need to help the owner/handler desensitise the dog to the situation. We did cover this in the first studio shoot we recorded, with a puppy and older dogs, so you can see how that process works there. Notice in that video that I remain on the floor in the same place and don’t move until the dog is happy? Be small, be quiet.

I would introduce any new dog to a studio environment in the same way. Never just put them in and fire away shots. That’s not fair and it’s not kind.

There has been Chinese whispers over the community for decades that flash damages dogs eyes. As far as I am aware, and I have looked far and wide over the years, there is no evidence suggesting this is true. However, as I proved myself when I stood right next to a strobe for an entire afternoon, you can burn your cornea with strobes on full power if you’re there for ages. This is also called Welders Flash. It’s fricking horrendous. Don’t be like me and put yourself or a dog in that position. Other than me, being me, I’ve never experienced any adverse effects and I have consulted vets on this too. Thankfully, unless the individual has a light sensitivity (double merles may, for example), then you should be fine!

With that out of the way all that’s left to do is shoot!

You can shoot. with two lights like I do, angled pretty much at each other with one on a higher power than the other, to get images like this:

studio dog photography
2 Lights: angled tightly to each side.

You could shoot with lights more to the front, which gives flatter light like this:

studio dog photography
2 Lights, angled more towards the front of each side.

You can shoot with one light and a reflector as shown in the video which ends up like this:

studio dog photography
1 Light camera left and a reflector camera right providing fill.

Or you can do whatever you want to do! Remember, these images aren’t properly edited, just the background expansion which is usually essential in a tiny space and basic adjustments.

Some other useful bits:

  • Always focus on the closest eye
  • Always get attention from the dog OR frame for their distraction – a bored dog creates a boring photo – reward for attention from the dog!
  • Always try to not clip highlights in either the sky or on the subject
  • Always take the time to get “the shot” don’t just snap and hope
  • Practice! (x 300000 times)

At the end of the whole process, if you’ve done it all perfecto, your end result will be awesome.

Have you completed this tutorial? Show us in the Facebook Group, remember to specifically ask to have no critique if you’d rather the community not offer pointers or advice!

Some studio shots for inspiration, either by me or my some of my past students: