Photographing dogs and using flash outdoors.  

When my friend Jo McAvany told me she wanted to do something the combined her love of photography and love of large breed dogs I was intrigued. She said she was planning to make a photograph book of big dogs that live in the Kamloops area.

Jo intends to spend the next year photographing the dogs in all seasons and at different locations throughout the year.

For the past two years that I have known her I’ve been pushing her to use lighting when photographing people indoors and out. She began by attending my lighting workshops and eventually became my ever-helpful teaching partner.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when she said. “Will you help me with the lighting on my project”. I readily said I would.

Flash technology made quite a leap from the manual settings we once used to when Nikon added TTL in the early 1980s. That was when I sold all my Pentax and Canon equipment and “jumped” to Nikon. (I am pretty sure all modern cameras have TTL flash capability)

Flash took another large step when digital cameras became the norm. TTL was already almost foolproof and digital technology offered added control. Then it again matured and “High-speed Sync” was introduced and mastery over light in any environment and condition became easy.

Manufacturers began offering portable wireless units that, unlike the dedicated speedlights a photographer usually purchases with their camera, are much like those powerful units used in serious studios.

For readers that aren’t familiar with flash, High-speed sync means a photographer is no longer limited to the normal 1/200th or 1/250th second flash sync most speedlights use. HSS allows a sync speed up to 1/8000 of a second.

When I teach workshops on Flash I tell participants that the Shutter controls the ambient light and the Aperture controls the flash power. And remind them that increasing the shutterspeed allows us to widen the aperture.

When Jo walked out in the white, painfully reflective snow on a bright cloudless day to photograph those dogs this past week the contrast between the shadows and highlights were enough to ruin the pictures. However, I added flash and moved around to change the direction of the light fell on her subject. All she had to do was reduce the ambient light by increasing her shutterspeed and change the flash brightness by stopping down or opening up her aperture. Our goal was to balance the light on the dogs as evenly as possible without Jo’s final image showing that a flash was even employed.

Jo worked with the owners to pose the dogs. She’s very precise when it comes to how she wants them to be for the photograph. My job was to pay attention to the flash-to-subject distance and keep checking to make sure the light wasn’t to bright or to dark.

Confining oneself to only natural light means there will be elements beyond control. Natural light limits when and where one can shoot during the day. With the sun high in the sky at noon, there will either be a backlit silhouette, or the bright light will blind the subject and create black shadows. And if it starts snowing or raining, there usually won’t be enough light to shoot indoors.

Flash gives a photographer 100% control over the lighting. Whether completely doing away with the ambient light in the studio or adding flash with natural light outdoors, the photographer is in charge and can get the light to look exactly the way he or she wants it at any time of day.

Outdoors flash photographer’s workshop        

Last August I wrote about setting up an outdoors studio in the meadow on the south side of my home for my friend Joleen McAvany. Readers will remember that Jo wanted to do a “Disney Princess” session with some of her friends.

Jo posted her studio-like photographs from that day online. Her photos were so successful that I decided to offer another how-to workshop.

I limited participation to four interested photographers and Jo easily talked two of her friends into braving the cool October day to be our models.

I like flash and never pass by an opportunity to introduce photographers that normally would only use flash in dimly lighted rooms, to the advantage of employing flash in the daylight.

Jo and I set up both a white canvas backdrop and a painted blue/grey canvas backdrop. I had purchased the painted canvas, but the white canvas was formally a large painters ground cloth spattered with paint that I got for free.

I attached several older 1970 vintage flashes on light stands with umbrellas. All were connected to wireless receivers and I gave a trigger to each photographer.

My lecture was about balancing the light from the flash with the ambient light. The key light (main light) that modeled the features of our ever-patient subjects, Morgan and Cora came from the flashes, not the sun.

Jo gave a posing demo using a 60mm, then a 70-180mm and finally a 400mm lens as she positioned each model in turn. Then after showing everyone how effective the long lenses were, and how easily it is to control the flashes, I positioned each depending on the light.

I then let the attending photographers experiment and learn as I showed them how great their photos could be using flash in the daylight.

Most had seen some of Jo’s “Princess” photos and I reminded them that she had originally asked me, “can I do this out-of-doors and still create flattering studio kind of light portraits?”

Now I have introduced four more photographers to using flash as a creative tool instead of just something that brightens a dimly lighted room or gives a flat light on some subject’s face that is standing in the shade.

I am left wondering if they will start using flash. It is so easy to be lazy and leave the flash at home on a sunny day. However, the resulting photographs where one controls the light and is able to place it to flatter and model a subjects face should be enough to convince any serious photographer.

I would like to think I was successful in convincing those four photographers that adding the light from a flash will make their photographs stand out among photographers that depend on the inconsistent light from the sun.

Note: Photos by Joleen McAvany