Use Off-Camera Lighting for Vibrant Outdoor Pet Portraits

springer spaniel sitting in long grass

A key factor in the success of any photography business is the ability to produce technically sound images that stand out and differentiate your style from that of other photographers. As a pet photographer, one way to generate bold and professional-looking images from your outdoor sessions is to light your subjects with off-camera flash.

A simple off-camera lighting setup typically consists of either a speedlight or strobe that is wirelessly triggered by the camera, and often modified by a softbox or shoot-through umbrella. This allows you to create a greater sense of depth and more realistic shadows on your subject than when the flash is mounted on your camera. Depending on the flash power, off-camera lighting can be implemented to either complement or overpower ambient light.

border terrier on rock

Using flash to overpower ambient light can bring out the detail in the sky.

There are a few reasons why I think that off-camera lighting should be incorporated into every pet photography session:

  1. It will add life to the eyes. The specular highlights or "catchlights" created in the animal’s eyes will give them depth and dimension, making it easier for the viewer to make a connection with the subject.
  2. You won’t be at the mercy of the weatherman. Maybe you’re at a beach on a clear day and the sun is blazing, throwing harsh light all over the place. Lighting your subject using a flash coupled with a modifier will allow you to create high quality and soft light no matter where you decide to position your subject.
  3. Using off-camera lighting looks professional. Nothing screams "professional photographer" like confidently wielding a lighting setup at your outdoor pet photography sessions. You’ll definitely draw attention from nearby onlookers, and I’ve gotten requests for business cards while I’m at a session with my lighting setup, even before anyone has seen my photos. Your client will feel looked after and have more trust in your abilities when they see you operating technology that is unfamiliar to them.

springer spaniel in grass

Off-camera lighting allows you photograph subjects that are backlit by the sun

My typical off-camera lighting setup consists of a speedlight or two behind a shoot-through umbrella. Having an assistant hold the light will make life a lot easier for you, especially in windy conditions. If you are flying solo, you can position the flash on a light stand weighed down by a sandbag. I always shoot in full manual mode to keep the look consistent from shot to shot. Creating these types of portraits takes a little more time to plan and execute, but I think that the finished product is justified by the added effort. 

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22 Comments

Mark Bowers's picture

Great article Jordan. Just curious, what is your light and modifier of choice for these types of photos?

Jordan Pinder's picture

Thanks Mark. Right now I'm using a flash gun or two (Metz brand) and a shoot-through umbrella, though I'm currently looking to upgrade to a Godox ad600 for a little more power. I think shoot through umbrellas are highly underrated.

Mark Bowers's picture

Completely agree. Sometimes tough if it's windy out but very good for the price and size. I'm I'm the same boat trying to figure out if I want to upgrade my speedlights or get a godox. Really about same price depending on model just need to determine what suits my needs best

Jordan Pinder's picture

I'm curious to know what you decide. Can't beat the sheer power of a strobe, but they are a little bulky. On the other hand, charging 4-8 AA batteries for speedlights every night can be kind of a pain.

Mark Harris's picture

Which is why I love the Godox AD360, which is a great compromise - almost the power of studio flash, almost the size of a speedlight, powered by a battery about the size of a camera body.
It has a mini softbox that works in the wind too, and the whole kit fits in my camera bag with my camera gear. With a small stand strapped to the side, I can carry it anywhere, and use it in pretty much any conditions, as seen in the accidental, almost-BTS attached.

Dave Gaustad's picture

Which softbox are you using for your 360 setup? I picked up a couple AD600 ttl's and AD360 ttl's when Adorama was having their sale last month. I've had no time to use them yet just starting to move into OCF after being a natural light (aka afraid of OCF) photographer for years. So it's a combination of no time and not making time to get out of my comfort zone. I can't let those lithium batteries go to waste.

Travis Pacheco's picture

I'm a long time speedlite user and bought the Flashpoint XPLOR600 last year. I love that thing for the power and HSS. It's definitely heavier, but I can still manage to prop it up with one arm and shoot with the other if I have to. An assistant is optimal, though. I buy the Photix double folding umbrella for $16 knowing they'll be destroyed from the wind after several shoots. They're super effective, light, and compact.

I like these articles a lot. however, would really love to see a photo of the setup. Even a diagram would help.

Jordan Pinder's picture

I can do this for a future article Tyler. I think the reason I didn't include it was because I use just a simple, one-light setup, so a single umbrella just above and just to the right of the subject.

Justin Haugen's picture

My dog is terrified of speedlights/strobes. He is scared of lightning/thunder and the flashes remind him of lightning lol

Jordan Pinder's picture

That can be a tough problem to have as a photographer! My hope is always that the allure of a really delicious treat will help them overcome their fear of the bright light.

Anonymous's picture

I photograph shelter animals. I run into this quite a bit. One suggestion is to use a reflector and bounce the natural light back at your pet in order to light the eyes. That way, you won't have the flashing that mimics lightning for those who are scared of storms (and consequently flashes).

Jordan Pinder's picture

Great tip Donna. The only thing I have found with reflectors is that they can often cause the pets to squint. I guess sometimes it's about choosing the lesser of two evils.

Anonymous's picture

When I am able to, I love using speed lights off camera for pet portraits. Good points and adorable images. I really love the second one with the storm sky. :)

Jordan Pinder's picture

Thanks Donna! Glad you share the love for speedlights.

Chad D's picture

fun to see pet articles :)

love and use both the godox 600 and 360 and now use the 600 more ? its a bit heavier but find its worth shooting same power as the 360 means faster recycle time
I want to get the separate head though !
also prefer the 600 when in studio model light and a bit extra power if needed

Jordan Pinder's picture

Love both of these images Chad - especially #2. Thanks for the info about the Godox strobes!

Chad D's picture

thanks :)

Dave Gaustad's picture

Chad these are great! I recently picked up the same lights and as well as the R2 speedlights Adorama branded ones. Wonder if you could recommend any soft boxes etc that you think work great. I just picked up a couple soft boxes ranging from 28"-60" by Glow, Westcott and Fotodiox however I don't yet have any umbrellas. Appreciate any assistance.

Chad D's picture

congrats great lights :)
love some of those locations on your site and nice work :)
I love stuff like that header shot in the row boat etc..

first to say everyone seems to have fav modifiers ? and some say they are all the same IMHO they can be close but each one has its character I have never used the glow before so will just go off what I used but I reckon just get out play like mad with em :)
I mostly do family outside etc... and getting into pets with some headshots I quit doing weddings :)

my most used modifier is a elinchrom deep octa small (27.5 inches) I love the eli and at 27.5 the wind does not catch it to bad :) the mom and daughter shot I attached is with the 27.5 but does not feel like a small flash and fills in really nice

the two shots above were with the elinchrom 27.5 deep and the one pet shot I am attaching was with a cheetah RiceBowl 120 ( google up Cheetah RiceBowl you will see it) big modifer 48 inch super deep 16 rod thing :) they are awesome but big and heavy so you need serious stands to boom them or a solid one just to use it normal and I do not think I will ever use it outside to big and heavy :)
but I am liking it with the grid on it (shot below has grid) for the pets :)

%75 or more of my work is with my small eli cause I shoot outdoors a ton which looks like you do also :) so the smaller might end up being more friendly !

i do think I would like to get a regular octa in the 48 inch for outside work ! not the RiceBowl I have now again way to deep heavy (16 rods) just a regular old octa :) for non wind days
IMHO ski umbrellas until you know why you want one ? nothing against them I have a few but never used them in the last 15 years :)

hope that helps
and have to load up this profile with some photos :)

Dave Gaustad's picture

Thanks and I appreciate the recommendations. Yup I shoot pretty much outdoors too. My other problem is I picked up too many lenses in a short period of time to really get to know them. I will have to get some photos posted if I ever get as good as you and others posting on here. :)

Jay Sullivan's picture

I also shoot shelter dogs. Depending on how crowded they are, sometimes I have to work in the dog runs which are only 3x6' so an umbrella stand is out of the question. Even when I have access to a spare room, it's only about 8x10'. I rigged up a system where I use a flash bracket with an extension on it to get the light as far away from the lens as possible. At the opposite side of the bracket I have a 12" reflector I bounce the speedlite at. It certainly has it's limits. It's not the most interesting light but in tight quarters it works and I get a nice catch light from the reflector. And the pictures are much better than what anyone else at the shelter was shooting.

Jay