This little Piggy… Manipulating the light to flatter a STAR bulldog

Piggy, a star English Bulldog model, gets paid to “make it look easy” in this ad for a variety of national magazines including Martha Stewart Living, Oprah, Readers Digest – maybe even Cat Fancy… Canon 5D Mark II w Canon EF50mm f/1.2L USM

Piggy, an English Bulldog, is a very tough dog not to love… One of my very favorite doggie models, Piggy is so cool looking and easy going I kid around to the effect, “Piggy’s so ugly she’s stunningly beautiful!” (part of beauty is attitude…) Lying upside down on this deck was beautiful enough for the final image to be published in dozens of magazine ads pet insurance. Piggy even made Martha Stewart Living AND Oprah magazines! Piggy’s clearly a class act…

Much of my pet photography of dogs and cats is extra reactive, based on what the animal actually does at the shoot rather than something planned at the office. Reacting to animals rather than trying to get them to do as you wish, is KEY to making winning animal photographs. It would be tough to shoot action cats – that is, cats doing what cats really do in their homes – without years of training in Photojournalism where the task is always to capture real moments. I call my adapted method of shooting Advertising Photojournalism or Photojournalism Enhanced. (I’ll refer to photojournalism as PJ)

PROOF Piggy is the real deal! Though I rarely see the actual ads I create photographs to illustrate, I noticed this in Better Homes & Gardens

Having spent the bulk of my formative photographic years in PJ, my real bag is in eliciting a response from a human or animal then nailing it as a magazine or newspaper PJ might “nail” a political figure as he slips on ice or a quarterback as he dives into the end zone. In advertising we often do cat and dog shoots to drawings – “comps” showing us what the client would like the shot to be – yet my favorite method of creating what I feel are coolest photographs of cats and dogs remains shooting spontaneously, reactively, exactly like a PJ covering an assignment.

When called upon to do a “real moments” shoot it’s tough to have a plan since truly spontaneous, photojournalistic moments are almost never planned…. OR when events are roughly planned, it’s that unexpected cool moment which “just happens” that most often makes the most effective photograph, as is the case here with Piggy. This photograph is just one from a 3-day “stock photo library” shoot for an advertising agency who wanted “real moments” of cats and dogs in various scenarios yet I was given freedom to shoot what seemed best within those scenarios.

This “moment” of Piggy is pretty much true Photojournalism. Yes, she was placed within this scenario yet no specific image was required other than a model in the background had to be back there somewhere, in some shots. From this scenario I had to capture a fun but real-life looking photograph, cool enough to be published for 18 months in a dozen or so national magazines – honestly, very easy with a world class model like Piggy!

With one of two 20×20’silks already in place, A-assistant Forest Parker puts up an 8×8′ silk through which the main light for Piggy was delivered. Later a 2nd 20×20″ silk was placed closer to the house, over the deck where Piggy was photographed.

In the case of Piggy, we were shooting in a backyard with a nice deck and lawn furniture but the light was my least favorite for photography – it was a gorgeous bright sunny day – YUCK!!! Beautiful sunny days are great for tanning or outdoor activities but direct sunshine is SO harsh for photography, I literally avoid it like the plague.

Knowing we were cursed with harsh sunshine, we erected two 20×20′ silks in this backyard. As you can see in this image, one silk was erected over a grassy area then, afterwards, a 2nd 20×20′ silk diffuser was strapped firmly in place over the deck where Piggy was photographed. Once the 2nd overhead silk was up the shoot immediately began so we did not photograph the set with both silks in place. Imagine an identical silk mounted over the deck in the background. When mounting silks to soften light, it’s mandatory to secure them with heavy duty rigging since these things are like kites – they fly away if not secured well.

Once Piggy and human model were in place, we had nice soft lighting from overhead yet this left shadows in the subjects’ eyes. Since I was using diffused natural light overhead, it made sense to match that light quality with any other lights introduced so, as you can see in the set photography, my of my 3 assistants is setting a 8×8′ silk to use in front of Piggy and the model – mounted vertically as you see in the setup shot. We then used two 500 watt Lowell hot lights aimed through the 8×8′ silk to add just a tiny bit of “fill light” to Piggy and the model to fill any shadows created by the intensely bright, though diffused, overhead silk. The two 500-watt continuous lights provided “main” light through the 8×8 silk, adding just a wee tad of fill – perfect for this shoot.

In this case we used a combination of natural (sunshine) for overall set illumination and tungsten fill lights to complete the lighting on the subjects. Tungsten lighting is a bit warmer than daylight yet I love warmth in photographs, in general, so I was fine with it. If it ended up too warm I could always adjust it in Photoshop. Using continuous lighting allowed me to shoot freely and at 10 frames per second (fps), at times, with my Canon 1D Mark IV, an incredibly high speed camera.

I have often lit outdoor scenarios with lots of strobe lights yet, with dogs and cats, recycle time with strobes can cost you a great frame now & then. Plus, with pets, I often shoot so fast in trying to capture that ONE winning “look” or expression – that I have to assign an assistant to tell me to “slow down” so the quickly recycling strobes don’t kick power breakers when I’m shooting quickly. Kicking power breakers due to shooting too fast can be a drag on animal shoots since, while you are fussing with resetting the tripped circuit breakers, your cat or dog may well decide this shoot is a done deal.

Power failures on major cat and dog shoots can be disastrous since, when a star like Piggy decides she’s done, she may well disappear to her trailer, cop an attitude and refuse to perform. One absolute TRUTH on cat and dog shoots is pets are bit like babies. When pets grow weary of this camera/lights/too-much-eye-contact thing, it’s common for them to decide “this is boring… I’m done…” To put it simply, animals often decide they are “done” so we tend to hire “sets” of 3 cats or dogs – when possible – which each look similar, often litter mates. Except there’s only one Piggy.

Piggy returned to the set – rested from sleeping on the shoot – to entertain us with an awesome tune… Canon 5D Mark II w Canon EF50mm f/1.2L USM