Kaley writes... "I love taking pictures and I'm good with animals so I thought I would start taking pictures of pets for people, so they could have nice pictures on their computers or even get prints made. My camera has a popup flash but it always gives red eyes and the pictures don't look nice. I saw on YouTube that professionals use studio lights. I didn't get what the guy was saying and I don't have a lot of money to spend because I am starting out. The guy at "local store" told me to get a flash setup, but by the time he was done it was like a thousand dollars and really heavy. I left and went back a couple of days later and a different person told me just to use LED video lights because they won't scare the pets. That made sense but when he showed me some, the shadows were really deep and I don't think the pictures would look good. They were really expensive too. I want to see if I can make money at this, not spend a lot of money. What do you think?"
This is a really good question that Kaley is asking, and very timely because continuous lighting has come a very long way.
To start, we are really talking about the difference between flash and continuous light. Flash brings lots of power and you can add modifiers pretty easily to soften the light. While a flash meter is ideal, with digital you can bang away for a few shots until you get the exposure you like. Continuous light has less power, usually a lot less power, but has the wonderful advantage that you can see what the light looks like right through the viewfinder or on the LCD and your reflected light meter in your camera is going to get the exposure pretty close to ideal without any guesswork.
I want to stick to low cost options since that is a key deliverable for Kaley. Pets can be, and often are, startled by the big pop of a flash unit. Cats in particular have very sensitive eyes, and since most cats keep people around as a source for food only, they are just like super models and tend to disappear when annoyed. Dogs are better with flash in general, and that's about where my experience photographing pets ends.
In the flash world, you need a couple of hot shoe flash units of decent but not blinding power, a couple of modifiers, stands and clamps. If your camera can control the external flashes using the popup (many Nikons support the Creative Lighting System and many Canons support Canon's flash control system) then you can control the two flashes from the camera and use the vendor's TTL for through the lens flash metering. Consumer level DSLRs and many Compact System Cameras cannot do this, so then you need to experiment with the flashes on manual and using slaves and triggers to get the flashes to fire. If this sounds complicated, it actually is until you've practiced a bit.
For Kaley's purpose and in many cases for people as well, I am really liking using continuous lighting systems. They're easy to set up and the entry kits come very complete. Something like the Erin Manning kit sold widely has two softboxes, two stands, two lamp holders and two big 5500K daylight compact fluorescents. They run cool and last a really long time. Setting up is no harder than flash but you get to good exposures very quickly if you are not a flash expert. No worries about sync speeds and cabling and radio triggers and...ok I'm getting a headache. Westcott just released the Skylite which is a continuous LED light that takes Bowens modifiers and is pretty soft out of the box. It has power control and is really nice but it's price is about four times what it should be. For pets and a couple of people, the Erin Manning kit is ideal. The only downside is that despite being like 500w lamps in brightness, the bulbs don't put out anywhere near the power that a big flash will. Move the lights in as close as you can without being in frame and use a mid ISO like ISO 400. This will give you enough depth of field and decent shutter speeds. Today's continuous lights do not get very hot and they last a long time. You can get started for around $400 for a kit such as I describe.
It is possible to use the sort of multi-LED portable video lights that are on the market but they tend to be small and don't have diffusers so the light tends to be harsh. Some people put a plain white shower curtain in front of them to soften and spread the light. It works surprisingly well, but the shower curtain can be awkward. Direct video lights are not that good for portraits and may annoy animals.
Kaley did not mention it but she will need some kind of a background for the shots. There are all kinds of background stand kits you can get that work well. Animals are one of those situations where you will need the background to flow from behind onto the floor. There are painted and dyed muslins that you can get pretty cheap, but the dyes tend to run and the material is a wrinkle fest. Paper rolls tend to work better, since you can just tear off anything that gets wrecked. And it will get wrecked. Covered in hair, scratches, "accidents", paper is cheap. Go with a neutral background so as not to take attention away from the subject and fill the frame. Savage has recently released some very neat "floor" backgrounds that could work since the pet tends to be lying or sitting down on something. Cats may sit on stools, dogs may not.
That's about it. If you are looking for quick and relatively inexpensive, it's pretty hard to beat simple continuous lighting systems. Thanks for reading.
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