how to photograph a black dog at night

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by bikealps, Jun 6, 2011.

  1. Friday night we had a family B-day party for my 13-yo niece. Everybody was leaving. My niece hopped in her mom's car on the passenger side and opened the driver door for her mom to get in. Our dog Annie jumped in the car and sat upright in the driver's seat.
    I was standing there with my D90+24-70 in hand. My niece yelled "Annie's driving the car!" I ran into the house to get my SB-600 with Rogue Flashbender and put it on the hood of the car. I was already set up for commander mode so I was good to go. Annie sat patiently posing like a good dog. She is never this patient!
    I had the PERFECT shot composed, but the camera WOULD NOT FOCUS!!! It was too dark! I switched to manual and shot several. Even at f8 the shots were horribly out of focus. The lighting was outstanding but apparently I can't focus in the dark either.
    How could I have handled this better? Could I have gotten the shot? Maybe I would have had better luck with a point-and-shoot, eh?
  2. Was the AF assist light on? Does the SB-600 have a separate AF assist light?
    Assuming the subject was staying still you should be able to manually focus so that it's in focus at f8 and even wider. I suggest practicing manual focus in low light until you get good at it.
  3. Camera on AF-S and than your SB600 gives a IR grid that works till certain distance for focusing.
  4. Turning on the body's built-in AF assist feature would have helped for sure ... and if not that, I'll sometimes use an SB-800 or SB-900 on the camera as CLS commander, but set NOT to light the scene (having it remotely trigger a slave, positioned perhaps like you describe), but letting the shoe-mounted speedlight's IR-grid AF assist really help out with in-the-dark focus.

    Other than that, use spot focusing, single-servo mode, with the center sensor selected (so you can be sure it's the cross-type sensor). Then focus on something higher-contrast (like the edge of the car window or some other detail in the car that happens to provide the camera's AF system with more to chew on), then re-compose before you actually shoot.
  5. That's why I like the AF assist lamp on the SC-29 cord. Gets the flash off camera, doesn't rely on critical line of sight positioning, and helps in situations when even the D2H's excellent AF can't lock on. And the SC-29 AF assist lamp ensures the projected red cross hatches are where the camera can actually see them. That's the problem with other techniques for getting the flash off camera - even if the AF assist lamp on the flash can be triggered, it's usually at the wrong angle to help the camera AF.
    That Rogue Flashbender looks interesting. But in proper "strobist" fashion (as opposed to the Strobist - capital "S" - marketing hype it's become), I think I'll make my own. I just happened to have some Velcro tape and some black vinyl that would make a handy snoot, portable enough to stuff into the bag and costs nothing but a little time to homebrew.
  6. All these technological solutions... When pointing the camera at dark animals (one of my cats is black) I find the trick is to find a high-contrast edge. The edge of the eye is often good enough, if you can place a focus sensor right on it. Failing that, collars, nose and teeth can all help, or just aim at the edge of the head - although you probably need some depth of field to get those approaches to work, because they're probably not quite where you want to focus. Live view might be worth a try, too - and manual focus, watching a confirmation light, can do better than genuine autofocus. I'd be wary of shining an autofocus assist light in the face of an animal that you want to keep still. If it's too dark for the autofocus to cope at all, you'll have to add lightness (as they say at Lotus - what kind of car was it?), but I'd have thought the interior light might have sufficed.

    Or, of course, just use f/22 and give Annie sunburn with the flash...
  7. "All these technological solutions... When pointing the camera at dark animals (one of my cats is black) I find the trick is to find a high-contrast edge."​
    That works fine when there actually is a high contrast edge. There sometimes isn't. And the trick of composing, focusing and recomposing can result in focus errors at close range with wide apertures. Some technological solutions work very well.
  8. Looking at the distance scale on your lens may have helped to get you in the ballpark for correct focusing distance.
  9. Make sure it's on AF-S, lock focus, ie half press shutter on ANYTHING you judge is a similar distance, could be the wing mirror....could be an adjacent bit of chrome trim..... swing back to compose and fully depress the shutter.
    However, I agree with Lex, it's an acquired ie RISKY! skill at either close range or longer focal lengths even at f8. I personally use an SC-29 cord with my SB-800 on a bracket.
    There's also the case that the AF module isn't that great on a D90 in low light...The upcoming D3's much better!! ;-)
  10. Lex - I don't disagree, I'm just suggesting that I've had luck finding high (enough) contrast edges on dark animals in dim conditions some of the time. No doubt the AF-assist would solve the problem, but might also scare the animal (or at least, in the case of my cats being cute, wake them up and make them glare at me).

    One thought: Dogs (and, especially, cats) have a tapetum lucidum (reflective layer behind the retina). If you have a small pocket torch that you could hold very near the lens, you might cause "green eye" that would give the camera something to focus on, without the light needing to be bright enough to scare the dog. But it might just make her look away from you. (In that case, does Annie have a retroreflective collar?)
  11. This is why I want the camera to do what I want to do, not what it thinks is "smart."
    Try manual and figure the flash by GN.
    The short answer is to get a f/1.2 or faster lens. :)
    In my personal case, it was a black cat in a dark closet, but it's basically the same domestic crisis.
  12. You could have put the focus mark on the steering wheel for the camera to focus on, then turn off auto-focus, and take the photo. Chances are good you would have had the dog in focus -- at the steering wheel. A black subject has little (or no...) contrast for the auto-focus system to work with....
  13. Ooh, wait. Paint Annie with phosphor. Elementary; if it was good enough for Arthur Conan Doyle, it's good enough for me. I'm off to set fire to my cat. :)
  14. Andrew G.... Which Phosphorus are you using? The glowy kind isn't the firey kind!
    Anyway I'd use a CAT lens......
    Nikon's made the odd DOG of a lens, but not for dedicated use!
  15. What I've had to do to auto focus visiting night time critters is to first illuminate them with a flashlgiht.
  16. "How could I have handled this better? Could I have gotten the shot? Maybe I would have had better luck with a point-and-shoot, eh?"
    The only cameras I know of that will focus perfectly every time under pitch-black conditions on a blank white wall are the older Sony cameras with laser-assist - DSC-F828, DSC-V3.
    With experience and knowing the camera's focus limitations, quickly changing the camera/lens to manual focus and guessing at its approximate distance would likely have gotten the shot.
  17. and put it on the hood of the car
    Camera on AF-S and than your SB600 gives a IR grid
    speedlight's IR-grid AF assist really help out with in-the-dark focus
    The "redcross form the SB-600 seems not to work through glass, as I've xperienced in the past, and since the flash was on the hood, it was shining through the car's windshield i guiess..
    I've got a small but powerfull ( led) torch in my camerabag , to help me focus in dark difficult situatons, this does the trick regularly...
  18. I have been photographing a black Pug this weekend, greedy breed driven by food, he was sitting on a white sofa. I tried the flash option but didn't like the look, his (Brutus) looked too glossy so I waited for daylight to bribe the little bugger with treats to perform again.
    Only thing I am not happy about is a small halo where the black fur meets the white sofa, looks a little strange. I focused on the dogs eyes which had some light detail in them. In your situation as others have said it has to be manual focus unless as I said there is any light in the eyes to lock onto.
  19. Answer: ..... Very carefully.
  20. cover up the front-seat in white seat-covers :)
  21. Then you would blow out the seat covers zlight ;-)
  22. I think the autofocus assist only works when the flash is on the camera not in wireless mode. if the assist light is on the flash like my Canon 580EX and the commander does not have an assist light the flash would have no idea how far the camera is from the subject. I think in this situatio your best bet would have been to simply put the flash in the hot shoe and let Nikon do the rest. Contrary to many I get pretty good results at night with the flash on a bracket above camera facing directly at subject.
  23. You don't need focus assist if there is enough light for the metering to work. That's about 0EV.
    What you need to do is to select single point af and only use the center af point.
    If it's real tricky you need place the center point carefully. Any kind of contrast will work. On vertical or horizontal subjects you might have to rotate the camera a little for it to lock focus. If you use af-s you need to press the shutter halfway repeatedly so you know it's looking onto the right thing. If you use af-c you can just keep the button in. I prefer to use af-on button and af-c. In that mode you can often hear the af-s ticking as you scan the subject with the af-on button pressed and the focus working to lock.
    If it wont work you just need to find something else close by at the same distance. If the distance is a little bit closer or further away you lean forward or back while focusing to get the focus right. It's good if you have enough experience to know what kind of DOF you have at different subject size or focal length/distance and apertures.
    If it's too dark for AF it's best if you have fitted a focusing screen suitable for manual focus in your camera. If it's to dark to see much through the viewfinder try to find a point source of light to focus on. For instance a reflection on a glass or a candle light. When the light is as small as possible the focus is correct.
    If it's too dark for that as well you need to abandon focusing through the viewfinder. In that case your best bet is a manual focus lens with good distance marking. You estimate the distance to your subject and dial it in on your lens, frame and shoot. Distance estimation takes lots of practice to perfect. If you haven't practiced you'll probably miss by several feet.
    You can also bracket the focus by dialing in what you think is perfect and then moving forward or backwards while shooting and glancing at the LCD to find out where you get the best focus. This could be done also by changing the focus on the lens ever so slightly while shooting. Live view would probably be of very little use when it this dark.
    Last option is when it's too dark to see anything in the viewfinder at all. You still focus by distance but since you can't see anything through the viewfinder you also need to know what you lens coverage is at different focal lengths. This is related to the distance as well. For instance if you shoot a horizontal shot and you want to frame the shot so that the longer side of the frame is 6ft you could dial in the focal length to 50mm, the distance to 12ft and shoot from 12 ft. Since aiming can be hard without looking I suggest using a medium wide focal length such as 24mm on DX. That gives you a 1:1 relationship between distance to your subject and frame size on the long side of the frame. So if you for instance want to shoot the entire car in profile and the car is 17ft and you need some space around it you set the distance to 20ft, the focal length to 24mm and place yourself 20ft from the car. This requires some practice as well to perfect.
    If it's even darker than that you will probably need to have a flash light to see where you are putting your feet. In that case, go back to AF and center point only. Use the flash light on the subject and lock focus. If you don't want ambient light just dial in a fast shutter speed, for instance 1/200s. Now only flash will illuminate the subject.
    Hope you get the shot next time!
  24. Pete, I hate to tell you ... you sort of refuted yourself in your first couple sentences. If your scene is 0EV your meter might work, but you probably won't have enough contrast for the AF points to lock into something. If you're using an f/2.8 lens on a cross-type AF point you might be okay, but you're pretty much out of luck otherwise.
    If we were using the Zone System, 'black dog in black car' would probably all fall into zones 0-III. Your eyes (which are brighter than a 2.8 lens, even if you're an older photographer) would have difficulty getting the right focus point, let alone the darker lens.
    You did hit the nail on the head with the MF and bracketing though. In this situation - an animal that probably won't hold a pose - I would probably be to turn the off-camera flash up high enough to support an aperture of f/8 for f/11 or so, and just hope that my DOF is enough to get the subject in focus. A smaller aperture will give you more wiggle room, so your focus doesn't need to be perfect. If you're using a 200 f/2 wide open for instance, there's slightly more than zero chance of you nailing focus for a scene that dark.
    And as mentioned before, focusing on bright eyes or a shiny name tag also works well, assuming that is an option.
  25. Mike: Oops. I thought she looked cross. :)
  26. Pete, I hate to tell you ... you sort of refuted yourself in your first couple sentences. If your scene is 0EV your meter might work, but you probably won't have enough contrast for the AF points to lock into something. If you're using an f/2.8 lens on a cross-type AF point you might be okay, but you're pretty much out of luck otherwise.​
    Zack, I'm not sure exactly what you are referring to.
    The OP was using a f/2.8 lens and if he would have switched to single point af and select the center one on the D90 he would have been using a cross type AF point. But I agree that anything slower than would have been problematic in any kind of low light.
    I mentioned the metering just because I assumed the OP didn't have a light meter or could estimate light levels. The meter starts flashing if it's below 0EV. Nikon says the AF will work down to -1EV though. Exactly how much contrast or subject reflectivity is required for that I don't know. But I know from experience that you can get the AF to lock on a black subject even when the metering is flashing. But it requires a little more than point and shoot. As I mentioned above I prefer to "scan" the scene with af-on and af-c (in release priority). When I see that the AF finds something I stop focusing, compose the scene and shoot.
    For those not familiar with EV, if you would shoot a scene at 0 EV, handheld with a f/1.4 lens using ambient light only you would get an exposure like f/1.4, ISO6400, 1/30s. My guess is that the light levels the OP experienced was a little higher than that.
  27. (1) focus on something same distance away that has a well defined edge such as the windshield frame, then press the focus lock button and hold, then recompose, then take shot.
    (2) flip the switch to manual and manually focus the lens.
    The flash hitting the windshield directly like that didn't just make a big flash ball?
    Kent in SD
  28. Were you by any chance taking the pic from the front through the windshield? That piece of glued safety glass might have disabled all AF sensor stuff due to its polarizing action on light. Just a thought.
    So, please try this again without dog and practice until you figure out how to do this with your gear.
  29. Try dynamic autofocus mode. The camrea will find an autofocus point for you, hopefully somewhere within the DOF you need. I use it for self portraits and its reletively fast as long as there is SOMETHING the AF system can lock onto.
  30. In the immortal words of Khan in Star Trek 2: "The override. Where's the override?"
    When it all falls apart and I can't lock into anything, I'll switch to manual and get the job done. Maybe try to find a sharp edge in the same plane of focus as my item of interest. And then, when I get home, I learn how to deal with that so the next time it happens, I'm ready.
  31. And as a last resort... "Paint it white !!!" :)
    Sorry, couldn't help myself ... :)
  32. Pete: What I meant was that under the situations he described he might be able to get AF to lock in on the centre point(emphasis on 'might'), but that if he was using another point he was pretty much boned. Or - and this was meant for the rest of the readers that may not have a 24-70 f/2.8 - that if you tried doing the same thing with a darker lens, you would also be boned.
    As far as f/1.4 lenses go ... someone may be able to correct me here, but I believe that there is a limit to the amount of information an AF sensor can use. I seem to recall reading that a cross-type sensor gets all the information it can get at f/2.8, while a non-cross sensor is around two stops darker; it would function as well at 2.8 as a cross-type would with a 5.6 lens. If this is true, that means that using an f/1.4 lens would make your AF points catch focus better, but you'd still be limited to the same level of performance as a cross-type at 2.8.
    The reason I mentioned the meter is relation to AF is that light is required for AF operation. If the dog had on a shiny (or bright) collar, awesome. But if not, the camera is literally guessing. And if may guess correctly, but it's guessing. During the day, a black dog on a black background will still have some shading and depth; at night, it has neither. It's true that the D90s uses phase detection and not contrast detection, but without some amount of shading and depth the camera will have difficulty making out edges, and may not know where the dog ends and the car seat begins. Phase detection still works in extremely low light - unlike contrast detection - but it works poorly.
    Again, this doesn't mean that the camera isn't able get focus properly. It DOES mean that it will likely require several attempts, and the dog will probably get bored and go away long before the camera does it correctly. So even though I agree that the possibility is there to do it, it's basically not going to happen unless you're very lucky.
  33. Thanks for clarifying Zack and I agree with you 100% on focus points and f/2.8 lenses.
    However when you shoot black on black it is not the shadows that creates depth because a shadow on something black will just What creates depth and form on black is specular reflection, shine if you like. And black dogs are shiny (at least healthy ones) and black cars are very shiny. So they will reflect any light that hits them. And that's what you can focus on (literally).
    If there is NO light well then you can't focus but then you wouldn't know the dog was in the car either. And you wouldn't be able to walk there because you can't see where you were going :)

Share This Page