Using Natural Light to Beautiful Effect in Dog Photography

My inspiration and tips for stunning effects working in natural light – Backlighting, Window Light, Bokeh and Starbursts.

Puppy Tales Photography: Natural Light Dog Photography

Backlit Beauty

What is Backlighting?

You know that tense moment in a horror movie when a monstrous shadowy shape emerges out of the sun….Well, this is backlighting used for dramatic effect. It hinges on the subject of the photograph being in the foreground with the light (usually the sun) behind them. This places their face in shade as they look toward you.

Japanese Spitz dog with golden backlighting

How to Take Backlit Photos

The basic idea is to place the subject (aka your dog) with the light behind them. Focus in on your dog’s eyes as the area you want to be sharpest.

Now, if you were photographing people, you have the advantage of being able to utilize metering mode set to a spot on their face. However, this doesn’t work so well with dogs, unless they are the equivalent of 18% grey, which is what the camera evaluates the scene on.

With dogs, in my experience either photograph in manual or with aperture priority and then adjust the exposure to compensate. This is largely a matter of practice, and after a while, you’ll get the hang of the necessary exposure adjustments to make.

Border Collie dog with backlighting through water

Tips & Suggestions

Time of Day

The full midday sun is harsher than that of early morning or late evening. Whereas the former is extremely bright in relation to your subject, the latter is more forgiving. This makes the settings less challenging for you to retain some of the background detail when photographing closer to sunrise and sunset.

Extreme Contrast

If the photo is too bright or too dark overall then you either need to use manual exposure or use the exposure compensation setting to adjust the brightness to get the desired effect.

Everything’s Relative

Play around with the position of your pooch relative to the sun; such as directly in front, to left or right, above or below. This gives different results and can introduce interesting effects such as light rays, haze, or flare. Again, have fun and play around to see what you like most.

Flash and Filters

Don’t be afraid to filter strong light through features such as trees or tall grass. This helps to diffuse the light, which in turn reduces the harsh directness of the effect.

As you gain confidence try combing a back filter with a flash or external light source to even out the contrast in brightness between the dog and the background.

Border Collie stunning sunset photo on the beach

Window Light

What is Window Light?

Window light is the term used in general for light that’s entering a space.  So naturally, we first think of windows that allow light into a room. It can also be the light that enters through a doorway or skylight.  The term can also be loosely used to include light that enters an undercover area – even though it hasn’t strictly come through any window!

Window light is soft and subdued, and ideal for dog portraits. And the great thing about window light is you can see exactly the impact it is going to have in your photo just by looking.  You can see if what will happen if you change your dog’s position relative to the light entering through the window – whether that be by moving them closer or changing the direction that they are facing.

Border Collie posing on the couch

How to Take Photos Using Window Light

Face your model toward the light or at a gentle angle to the light. Often when using window light you’re looking for it to create a gentle and soft look and feel.  But you can also use it to create more striking contrast, or even a silhouette, by changing where your dog is relative to the light.

White Japanese Spitz dog posing on the bed

Tips and Suggestions

Look for the Light

Photographing indoors or undercover can often be in quiet dark spaces.  Look for rooms with large windows that allow lots of natural light into the room.  Raise any curtains or drapes to allow more light in.  Also aim to find windows with a northern or southern exposure, as this will provide a very soft, indirect light all day long.

Distance to the Window

The closer you place your dog to the window the more contrast you’ll see on them.  If you want softer light and less shadows, then try moving your dog further away from the window.  

Border Collie dog posing on the bed


What is Bokeh?

This term comes from the Japanese word ‘Boke’, meaning a haze or blur. This refers to an aesthetic quality, where the light renders areas of the photograph out of focus.

In practical terms, it can be a fun way to pose your dog, with the hound sharp against a hazy background, which makes the subject more impactful.

White Japanese Spitz dog sitting on snow-covered field with hazy background

How to Take Bokelicious Photos

Start out by looking for a background where some of the light is filtered, such as falling through trees. Alternatively, use lots of small lights in the distance such as found in a cityscape, Christmas tree lights, or city decorative lights.  They will create small pinpoints of light that becomes blurred in the distance.

But, there’s more to taking these pictures than meets the eye because the full bokeh effect depends on a combination of the following:

  • Your lens length
  • The aperture you set
  • The distance between you and your dog
  • The distance between your dog and the background it’s in front of
  • The light – it’s direction & strength

I suggest you choose a lens where you can open the aperture right out to f/2.8 or larger. Also, know that a telephoto lens gives your larger bokeh than a wide angle lens. In addition, the closer the subject is to the camera and the further away the background is, the larger the bokeh effect. Put don’t take my word for it, play around and see what you get.

Border Collie dog sitting on grass with stunning bokeh background

Tips and Suggestions

Too Much of a Good Thing?

There’s good bokeh, but there’s also bad bokeh when the blur is so distracting or harsh that it steals the focus away from the subject. Be mindful that sometimes less is more…

Star Quality

If you’re really getting into bokeh there are special filters you can add to the lens, to create heart or star-shaped bokeh.

Japanese Spitz dog portrait with purple bokeh background


What is Starburst?

As the name suggests, a starburst is literally a burst of light, which can add an interesting element to a photograph. For example in a daytime scene a starburst can add extra drama whilst in a dark, moody scene it can add a peaceful twinkle.

Border Collie dog head tilt sitting on the field with burst of light on the background

The starburst effect is caused by light diffraction or slight bending as it passes around obstacles or through a small opening. As light passes into your camera through a small opening (i.e. a small aperture at a low focal length) it bends around the edges of the blades and creates the “star” look.

Japanese Spitz dog on red rock mountain landscape with star-shaped sunburst

How to Take Photos Featuring a Starburst

There’s a bit of technical wizardry involved with capturing a starburst. Here goes…

  • You need a small aperture of f/11 or smaller, typically I use F16 or F22. The smaller the aperture, the more diffraction you get and the more “starburst” is present in the image.
  • The lower your focal length, the smaller the aperture, so the more you zoom out, the more “starburst” is present in your image.
  • In low light conditions where a large aperture is needed, you need a higher iso and therefore something to hold the camera steady while the shutter is open.  Of course, with a long shutter speed, the dog must sit still for the duration of the exposure as movement will create blurry images.  Therefore, with dogs, a bright midday sun can be the most fun and easiest lighting condition.

Tips & Suggestions

Did you know that the number of aperture blades in your lens will determine the number of rays from each starburst? Play around with different lenses, as well as different apertures, to get a variety effects… not forgetting that the focal length also affects the aperture size.

On a sunny day, it may be the sun is much brighter than your subject. In which case you’ll need to balance the exposure so that the subject is also lit. This can mean having to introduce another light source to fill in the dog’s details. More of this on my next article on lighting effects…

Border Collie dog sitting on a bumpy terrain with star-shaped sunburst above


Want to look at ways to incorporate flash or external lighting in your dog photography? Be sure to now race on over to our article on just that!

Pin this
for later

Kerry Martin

Kerry is 'Top Dog' here at Puppy Tales. With her own adored dogs, she completely gets that your four legged furry buddy is absolutely part of the family. That they sleep on the bed, that you want to take them everywhere, that you plan holidays so they’re included & that their presence makes your life incredible.

Join the Puppy Tales Pack!

Join now for:

All to help you live the best life with your dog!
We promise not to use your email for spam!

Join the Puppy Tales Pack for your
FREE Downloadable template to create your Dog's Bucket List

We hate SPAM & promise to keep your email address safe.

Get The

'Halloween Dog Treat'

Recipes emailed to straight to you :)

We hate SPAM & promise to keep your email address safe.