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I belong to a volunteer organization that occasionally takes portraits of dogs. All of the photographers are amateurs and none of us have any prior experience with indoor portraits or lighting. Since our portrait work is sporadic and the volunteers provide the equipment, we need to keep the expenses down and the equipment does not need to be heavy duty.

In doing research on portrait lighting, most of the discussion revolves around flash photography, which usually is discouraged when we photograph the dogs.

The locations we shoot usually have high ceilings with poor lighting, often of mixed types. We need a setup that will help to improve the lighting in these situations.

Due to the lower cost and more forgiving nature of the lighted umbrella stands, it seems as though these may be the best option for our group (as opposed to soft boxes). However, I am hoping some users might be willing to chime in and confirm this conclusion is correct. I have some concern that the continuous lighting provided through the lighted umbrellas may not be sufficient to affect the lighting quality much in our shooting situations. I should also note that our group is realistic enough to know that all we're looking for is visible improvement over our current situation, not perfection.

  • You say flash is discouraged, but I suspect this really means on-camera flash right into the poor critters eyes... I've taken LOTS of dog/cat/etc portraits with a hand-held 24" shoot-thru umbrella, and never once had any kind of negative reaction, for whatever that's worth... – junkyardsparkle Sep 26 '15 at 18:30
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I would say rethink using flash. If the reason it's discouraged is green-eye and that deer-in-the-headlights look, it's simply a matter of learning to use flash correctly, whether that's bouncing an on-camera flash, or taking the flash off-camera.

Just my opinion, but I think your concerns about the power/light output from low cost continuous lights is a good one. Generally, lighting effects are achieved by creating different levels of lighting and the more light output a light gives you, the greater the differences you can make and the more flexibility you have in the image you want to create. Continuous lights that allow you to do large levels of difference are liable to either be expensive or very hot, and it's if you're primarily doing video that you really need to consider them.

Flashes actually are the low-cost way to get a lot of light. It is more difficult to visualize than a continuous light, which will be WYISYG :), but it's also a skill that can be learned. The most commonly recommended website that can walk you through learning about studio lighting is the Strobist. The Strobist began as a blog in 2006 by the then-photojournalist, David Hobby. He had had great success using hotshoe flashes in off-camera studio lighting setups that were small, low-cost, and portable, to shoot editorial assignments, and he began the blog to teach other photojournalists how to do this. And he ended up teaching, well, basically, a lot of digital photographers on the internet, too. They use a Flickr group to share ideas and photos, and you can see the dog shots from the Strobist Flickr group to get an idea of what and how it can be done (the group requires that you include lighting information in your descriptive text of the photo).

Umbrellas and softboxes are merely modifiers you add to a light. They should not be an integrated part of the light. They have different characteristics, but both soften the light. An umbrella is typically cheaper, but makes it more difficult to control the spill of the light (i.e., where the light doesn't go). A softbox gives you more control over the spill and can help you shape an edge/falloff to the light. Which one you want depends on the image and mood you're trying to create.

If you're using a hotshoe flash, an umbrella swivel attaches the flash to the stand, as well as giving an attachment point for an umbrella. A studio strobe will connect directly on the stand, and may provide the umbrella attachment point. Studio strobes are bigger and more powerful (i.e., even more flexibility than a hotshoe flash), but typically need to be plugged into an outlet, rather than using batteries. They're bigger and heavier, and can be more expensive than a speedlight (hotshoe flash).

I will also add that the Strobist way of shooting with hotshoe flashes became highly popular because the gear is inexpensive. You don't need to use OEM (i.e., Canon/Nikon) flashes. There are some very cheap low-cost manual-only flashes that can be used this way, and as long as you only need them for occasional hobbyist usage, rather than hard constant professional usage, they might suffice. For example, a Yongnuo YN-560III (which has a radio receiver built in) can be purchased on B&H at the time of this writing for US$66.

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  • Another point is that sticking animals in front of harsh hot lights will also result in photos with contracted pupils and possibly other responses to the light, which can actually affect what type of pictures you'll get. – junkyardsparkle Sep 27 '15 at 3:06
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Modest lighting – inexpensive pin-up lamps from the hardware store. These are clamp-on fixtures with an aluminum reflector. These fixtures are under $10 and the clamp mount allows you to place the fixture on a door or mental or even on a pole held by an assistant. Use 100 watt or stronger LED bubs. The most modest will be a two light set-up.

One is mounted high to simulate afternoon sun. The other is a fill. You fill from the camera’s viewpoint. Thus the best place for the fill is at lens height adjacent to the camera. Best if the two fixtures are the same wattage. That being said, the best outcome will be, the high lamp is the main light and the fill is subordinate by 50%.

This ratio of main to fill is accomplished by measuring the distance main to subject. Multiply this distance by 1.4 (assumes both lamps are equal in wattage). The math reveals the distance fill to subject to establish the fill at 50% as compared to the main. Example the main at 1.5 meters (60 inches), the fill at 1.5 x 1.4 = 2.1 meters (84 inches). This establishes with is called a “bread and butter” lighting ratio. This is also called 3:1 lighting. If you want more contrast, use a multiple of 2. This is 5:1 lighting with a little more zip. Use a multiplier of 2.8 to get 9:1 lighting (very contrasty). The key is, the scene appears to be lit by just one lamp set high and usually off to the side. The fill is subordinate and servers only to soften shadows. This is tried and true advice. As to diffusers, not needed but you can mount translucent material over the front of the pin-up reflector. White cloth will do. Best is fiberglass curtain material as this is fireproof if hot lamps are used.

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