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Pet Portrait Tips - Eyes

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

Todays Subject - DOG EYES!!

Dogs’ eyes are different from peoples’ eyes in a few significant ways that can effect how we photograph them.

These challenges can be managed if we are aware of them. Here’s a good checklist to keep in the back of your mind while you’re shooting, and once you’ve navigated these hurdles enough, it’ll become second nature.

The first difference is that dogs have a third eyelid (nicitating membrane) that pulls across the eye laterally to protect it. If you ever opened a dog’s eye while it’s sleeping (c’mon, we’ve all done it 😝), you may have seen this membrane covering the eye. They can be slow to close upon waking up also, and you’ll see it creep slowly back if the dog is woken suddenly. But they don’t always go away completely. This is usually not much of an issue, but if you’re shooting at an angle that makes the dog have to look strongly to either direction, it will pull the eye that way and more of this eyelid area will remain visible. Since we’re typically trying to have our focus land right in the eyeball, this puts us at risk of showing a lot of detail of something that, by human standards, isn’t that visually appealing, which then distracts interest from the rest of the image you worked so hard to create. A little side-eye can certainly add some attitude to a portrait, just remember to check and see if the third eyelid is pulling back into your subject’s eye and potentially impacting your photograph. If you find that it is, either adjust your angle to be more head-on, or don’t make the dog look so far to the side and let them train their gaze ahead of them. That should give a more pleasing look.

The second difference effects the way we light our subject. Dogs have a reflective lining behind the retina (tapetum lucidum) that contributes to that weird green glow when a light source is close to the angle of the camera. This means we need to be even more conscious of the direction the light is hitting their eye in relation to the camera lens. Essentially, an on-camera flash becomes useless for dogs, unless you want that toxic zombie look 😵‍💫

One thing you can do if your only option is the flash on top of your camera - try to bounce that light off a wall or ceiling. Some flashes can be angled. If your flash unit doesn’t have any adjustability, you can take a credit card sized piece of foil and use it as a reflector to angle the flash where you want. Play around with that if it’s your main option, otherwise, either eliminate the flash or get the light off to an angle to not have to deal with this issue. It can be helped imoroved in post, but it’s a bit of work and better to not have to mess with later if you can get it right the first time.

Third, and this is pretty breed specific, is the droopy lower eyelids. Yes! They do their part to help make hound dogs and mastiffs adorable! But, they don’t always look great in a photograph. It can just be too much pink fleshiness for comfort in an otherwise hairy dog portrait. Same can be said for the tongue - it’s cute, and often a big part of a dog’s personality, but if there’s too much of that bright pink muscle showing, it really begins to detract from an image and in many cases can totally ruin an otherwise great photo.

This one will need more individual attention, but similar to the third eyelid issue, typically if the dog isn’t straining to look up at the camera, this droop won’t be so pronounced. Let the dog relax and look at you head on, or even slightly down towards the camera to release the tension on the lower eyelid. It may still have a lot of skin there, but if it isn’t stretched, it won’t look so pink and fleshy.

The fourth is the easiest one to eliminate, and can usually be done before the shot or in post quite effectively. Eye boogers. Some dogs have them a lot (my dog Rhodie has them aaaalllll the time) and carrying some tissues and giving the dog a quick wipe down before shooting will usually take care of the problem. If you forget, or aren’t comfortable touching the dogs face like that, or they develop some while you’re shooting, the healing tool is absolute magic for making it look like they were never there. This is pretty much the only “airbrushing” I’ll do in my pet portraits.

Those are the 4 things to keep an… eye on! 😂😏

The next post will continue on the eye topic, and we will explore lighting and modifiers and how they contribute to creating a look in your pet subject’s portrait.

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