Your pet photography lighting setup is one of the most important details to get right. This is especially true if you’ve only started to take pet photos. Using a single light is often the best way to go, especially if you’re shooting indoors.
7 Best Pet Photography Lighting Setups With One Light
We go through seven one-light lighting setups you can use with pets. We show you how to use softboxes, LED strip lights, and ring lights in various positions. We also discuss using gel filters and LED panels.
Softbox Lighting Setup for Pets
For the arrangements mentioned below, you can use any shape softbox. My preferences have always been mid-sized octagonal or rectangular lights. But softboxes come in all shapes and sizes.
1. Overhead Softbox Lighting
Quite a few octagonal softboxes have an adjustable head that lets you tilt the light downwards. When paired with a tall light stand, like the Flashpoint Light Stand, this creates an overhead lighting arrangement.
This look doesn’t work for all types of animals, though. It does depend on their facial structure. But this look creates a dynamic, dramatic, and expressive pet image.
You can use this lighting position for any colored animal. It creates a lovely rim that separates your subject from the background. Try to play around with different heights, as the distance from your pet affects the intensity.
2. Frontal Softbox Lighting
This is the most standard portrait lighting arrangement for pets. Front lighting is the one light setup almost everyone goes to immediately. It can be very flattering when done right. But there are several things to keep in mind about front lighting:
- Lighter-colored dogs can easily have their highlights and whites blown out, so be mindful of your exposure settings.
- Dark-colored dogs can look very grey, so be mindful of your white balance.
- There is little separation between your subject and the background. Ensure your background isn’t too cluttered. If you have little control of your backdrop, try using a fast lens and dropping it to a very low aperture number! I love f/1.8 for this type of lighting.
- When setting up the front light, keep it at eye level with the pet you photograph. The lighting may be a bit bright. So, I suggest dimming it and raising your exposure a notch or two (ISO and shutter speed combination).
3. Softbox Lighting From Below
This can be a tricky setup. It depends on your tripod’s height and your pet’s size. My dog is quite small, so I must raise her onto something to achieve the “from below” lighting effect pictured below.
This one-light arrangement produces a very ominous and cabin-in-the-woods feel to the shots. Animals with long hair or fur look especially dramatic when the light comes from below.
Try positioning your light from below and centering it on the pet’s body and head. Otherwise, your subject won’t be lit properly, and its shape will be lost.
The dog portrait below is likely the best-known setup for dramatic portraits. This one-light look is famous for both human and animal portraits. Depending on the direction the pet is facing, the look can differ immensely.
All you have to do is set up the light directly to the side of your subject at approximately their eye level. The rest depends on what direction your model looks. If your subject looks at the light directly, the rim of their face will be lit. The rest of the pet disappears into the dark.
If the pet is staring at you rather than the light, one side of its face will be dark, while the other will be bright. This creates a more classic dramatic portrait.
If your pet looks away from the light, the effect may be more difficult to achieve. It depends on how powerful your camera’s sensor is. Shoot in RAW and bring out some details in the darkness via post-processing.
Pet Photography Lighting Setup With LED Strips
You can use any LED light for these arrangements. The specific ones I am utilizing are LED strip lights. These strip lights can be arranged in various shapes, but I kept them as strips for this article (except the ring light section).
4. Frontal LED Lighting
Most photographers’ default method is setting up lights directly in front of their pets. This always seems like the obvious choice!
For the most part, it is. But you have to remember that LED lights are very bright and tend not to have a diffuser. And depending on your brand, the lights can also run rather warm.
The best way to set up the in-front lighting arrangement is to place your LED light far from your pet. The further back you go with it, the softer the light becomes. It will be significantly less like a harsh spotlight.
And remember that your body can block the light. So, try to position yourself below or above the light!
Also, remember that light-colored pets are harder to photograph with lights. To avoid blown-out highlights, try to underexpose by a few notches.
5. LED Lighting Off to the Side
Setting the light to the side is an excellent one-light pet photography trick. It creates drama-filled storytelling arrangements. Many pet owners love these moody portraits of their canines, felines, and horses.
Remember that LEDs do not have a diffuser. To avoid an overly harsh lighting setup, you must position your light further away.
Ring Light Pet Photography Lighting Setup
Ring lights are a very special kind of one-light arrangement. They can be solid lights. But for this tutorial, I have arranged my strip lights to mimic the effect of a ring light.
Ring lights expose every part of our pets while separating them from the background. The pet’s eyes will have a ring catchlight, which has become immensely popular recently.
Though ring lights are most often used on human portraits, they’ve begun rising in popularity for animal photography. There are two key ways to set up ring lights.
6. Frontal Ring Lighting
Place the ring light directly in front of your pet and shoot through the light’s center. The pet’s head should be nicely centered with the space in the middle of the ring light.
How the eyes show the catchlight depends on the distance of the ring light from the eyes. Remember that ring lights are very bright and can be harsh and uncomfortable for some animals, so ensuring their comfort is a top priority.
7. Ring Lighting From the Back
A fun arrangement is to place the ring light behind the pet. When done properly, this creates a wonderful halo or ethereal effect. Although this works best on long-furred animals of a decent size, experiment on all kinds!
Essentially, you want the animal’s head to be centered with the space of the ring light. This is like the front lighting arrangement.
The benefit of this setup is that you don’t have to worry about your pet’s sensitive eyes. But some LEDs can run hot, so ensure the light isn’t too close to your furry friend.
Add Gels to Lighting
Buying and using gel filters can make your one-light setup more interesting. Gels are light modifiers that go on your light to change the output color. They are usually sold at photography stores and clamped onto lights.
But you can also make a gel using cellophane and tape. Get some very saturated cellophane from a local party or art store. Then, wrap it around your softbox or LED light and fasten it with tape. But make sure the LED runs cold and won’t melt the plastic paper!
Use Panel LED Lights
You don’t always need expensive studio lights for cool one-light pet portraits. Any light you have available will do the trick!
When keeping my kit small and candid, I love the small, inexpensive, portable panel LED lights you can buy. They burn cold, so there is no risk of the animal getting hurt, and they can be powerful little tools.
You can tape or mount these lights almost anywhere. Many LED panel lights come with either tripod mounts, hot shoe mounts, or magnetic mounts. Sometimes, they have a combination of all three.
Conclusion: The Best Pet Photography Lighting Setups
Mastering a pet photography lighting setup with one light source requires careful consideration. To capture the perfect shot, consider angles, diffusion, and positioning.
These lighting setup tips will elevate your pet photography skills to new heights. They will help you create captivating images that beautifully illuminate your furry subjects. Experiment with these creative pet portrait lighting ideas!
For more excellent tips, check out our article about starting a pet photography business or our handy pet photo cheat sheet.