I have a dog that is notoriously difficult to get good photographs of. This is because he has a dark facial mask, some lighter tones on his face and particularly sides, and nearly white legs. So essentially regardless of how I meter, some part of him in the picture ends up either over- or under-exposed. The camera is a Canon EOS 50D.

I know that I can use the flash on low power (either using the external flash with the main reflector pointed in some oddball direction, and the secondary reflector set to low power; or the built-in flash setting the flash exposure compensation negative), but short of that, does anyone have any advice for this type of photography? I'm shooting exclusively in raw format and most often handheld in outdoor settings with little or no time to prepare a shot.

What I do is try to expose towards the high end of the histogram, and then later on adjust the exposure and curves to try to bring out some detail in the darker areas during postprocessing. However, this is notoriously difficult to get right, particularly while preserving natural colors, and still depends on a decent original shot. I am aware that high-contrast photography puts most cameras to the test, but what can I do to at least increase my chances of success in such situations?

For some examples, see the last picture here (this particular one was taken with another camera - a Canon PowerShot S50 - but still illustrates the general problem fairly well), or the third picture from the top here. The ultimate goal would be to have at least some definition throughout the subject, in both low-key and high-key areas.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't see how incorporation of a flash can reduce the dynamic range of the subject itself - unless you have an array of narrow beam sources pointed specifically at the dark areas of the dog. \$\endgroup\$
    – ysap
    Jul 27, 2011 at 12:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ It doesn't affect the dynamic range of the subject itself, obviously, but illuminating the subject does have an effect on the apparent dynamic range of the shot in many (though not all) lighting conditions. \$\endgroup\$
    – user
    Jul 27, 2011 at 12:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Michael - you described the problem as the subject being a black/white object. It does not matter how much (uniform) light you shed on it, its dynamic range will be the same. If it is greater that the camera's capture ability, then you have a problem no matter what. \$\endgroup\$
    – ysap
    Jul 27, 2011 at 14:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ We had a discussion about the subject in the comments to this question: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/13878/… \$\endgroup\$
    – ysap
    Jul 27, 2011 at 14:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ That "third picture from top" is actually a good example of what not to do - you seem to capture the dog exactly when there is a spot of light on his white patch, while the rest is in the shadow... \$\endgroup\$
    – ysap
    Jul 27, 2011 at 14:37

2 Answers 2


If you don't have time to take readings and set manual exposure maybe you can do something with exposure compensation.

Take multiple pictures of the dog with the settings (practically metering mode) you normally use but with different exposure compensation values (+1/3,-1/3,+2/3,-2/3 ...) - the composition is not important but it should be similar enough to the pictures you usually take so the camera metering is the same.

Load all those pictures into your computer and see what EC value gives you the best result, always use this when taking pictures of the dog

I don't believe this will give you the optimal results - but it should be close and it's fast and doesn't require taking readings and thinking about camera settings.


Personally, I'd take separate readings from both the light and dark patches of his coat, and normalise them so they are equally distant from the middle of your exposure meter. For example, if the camera says his white patches are 4 stops lighter than his dark ones, then meter so that the white patches show overexposure by 2 stops, and and the dark ones under by 2 stops. The closer the areas are to the middle of the scale, the more detail will be recorded.

Use spot metering on your camera and take readings from the part of your dog that are lit by your primary light source. That way, if you're shooting in manual mode, once you've set the exposure it will continue to work as long as the lighting remains consistent.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This assumes two things. One, it seems to me, that I don't shoot much else during a session (true at times, utterly wrong at others). Two, and more importantly, that I have the time to take detailed measurements, which "most often ... with little or no time to prepare a shot" I rarely do. \$\endgroup\$
    – user
    Jul 27, 2011 at 12:12
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ If your priority is to get a good shot of your dog it may be worth taking time to prepare; I don't think a couple of spot meter readings would take that long. However if you are desperately short on time, using grass as a reference point to set your exposure (grass usually equates to 18% grey. i.e. the middle of your meter) will help to keep the range of shades on his coat to a manageable range. \$\endgroup\$
    – user456
    Jul 27, 2011 at 12:22
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Michael - It also assumes a third thing, that the subject's own dynamic range is within the available range of the camera. This may not be true for black/white subjects. \$\endgroup\$
    – ysap
    Jul 27, 2011 at 12:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Excellent point, ysap. Michael - what model of camera do you use? May help if we understand the dynamic range it can cope with. \$\endgroup\$
    – user456
    Jul 27, 2011 at 12:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nick, ysap: Canon EOS 50D. Edited the question to incorporate that. \$\endgroup\$
    – user
    Jul 27, 2011 at 12:53

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