Bird-hemian rhapsody! Try a mobile studio for creative shots of animals

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Watch Video: Use a Mobile Studio for On-Site Animal Shots

A portable studio lets you capture subjects in all kinds of locations, and with a clarity that only comes from flash lighting. We visited a rare breed farm to photograph an array of characterful chickens, goats and sheep, including the beautiful Guernsey Golden Goat.

The portable studio approach is particularly suited to animals like this, which are likely to be less temperamental in familiar surroundings. So, rather than bringing barnyard animals into the workshop, we took the workshop to the farm.

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Whether you want to capture animals, people, or any other type of subject, a mobile studio can yield wonderful results. This may seem complicated at first, but in a way it’s a great simplification. By using plain backgrounds and sculpting the light to suit our needs, we eliminate context, allowing us instead to create bold, simple portraits that celebrate the subject without the distraction of their surroundings.

Our setup involved three lights, but for several shots we only used one – the light to the right of the subject. As such, you don’t necessarily need an expensive kit for this; a speed light (opens in a new tab), a light stand and a modifier like a softbox or an umbrella are enough to get started. We’ll show you how, then we’ll see how to combine multiple shots into a creative group pet portrait in Photoshop.

1. Positioning of animals

(Image credit: James Paterson)

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It helps to have another person to position the animal and keep it calm, so you can concentrate on focusing and composing the shot. Many animals are suitable for a side angle or three-quarters of the face, as the profiles are often more striking than straight.

2. Calm on the farm

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Spend time relaxing animals before taking pictures and turn off flash or camera beeps. Keep food and treats handy to lure animals into position and reward them afterwards. We scattered some chicken feed on the studio floor and then deleted it in Photoshop.

3. Use reflectors as barriers

(Image credit: James Paterson)

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A large pop-up reflector placed on the left here bounces some of the light into the shadows on this side, which helps balance out the contrast. It also served as a blocker to keep the chickens from scampering off to the side once settled into the space.

4. Main Modifiers

(Image credit: James Paterson)

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Flash modifiers such as umbrellas are essential for studio work because they transform harsh flash light into soft, even illumination. The larger the light source, the softer it becomes. Remember that with small animals, the source is larger relative to their size.

5. Prepare the images

(Image credit: James Paterson)

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Open the images in Photoshop. Before combining them, it helps if everything outside the face is completely black. Take the Burn tool. In the options at the top, set Range to Shadows, strength 40%, then paint to darken the areas to full black. If necessary, also paint in black with the brush.

6. Blend the layers

(Image credit: James Paterson)

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Choose one of the images. Create a new layer and fill it with black, then drag it down. Copy and paste all other photos into this single document, then Cmd/Ctrl + click to highlight all layers in the Layers panel except black. Set the layer blending mode to Lighten.

07 Stance and Tone

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Use the Move Tool to carefully position each face in a row. Grab the brush tool, set the color to black, and paint to darken any areas on one layer that overlap detail on another. Once done, make any tonal changes you want to finish – we’ve converted to black and white.

Read more:

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Top tips for portrait photography (opens in a new tab)
Best photo editing software (opens in a new tab)
Best Photo Editing Laptops (opens in a new tab)


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