photo-session with Sundae – white on white

pet photography

I had the pleasure challenge recently of photographing this super-cute Jack Russell terrier of clients of mine.  Sundae just loves snow!  So after one of the heavy snowstorms, we went to a park where I could photograph her acrobatically snatching at bits of snow hurled at her.  She was very fast!  Even with the Nikon D3 set to maximum burst rate of 9 frames-per-second, I could barely get 2 frames before she was back on the ground.

So there were a few challenges.

– I needed a responsive camera, and a lens that focuses fast.  The Nikon D3 and the brand-new Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S VR II (B&H) took care of that.  This lens is surprisingly fast to focus for such a large optic.

– I needed a very fast shutter speed, and enough depth-of-field.  A few initial images showed that I was getting movement blur even at 1/2000th of a second.  I therefore pushed up my ISO to 800, and settled on 1/8000 @ f5 for the majority of the photo session.

– focusing modes.  With the D3 set to AF-C (continuous focus mode), and 51 AF points, I let the camera control most of the focusing for the session.  For a few more static images, I did flip to AF-S mode to be sure of exact focus on her eyes.

– I was again surprised by my success rate.  To compensate for how difficult it was to get a neatly composed shot of Sundae, I completely over-shot and had to wade through more than a thousand images to pick the best for my clients.  Of those, about 250 were solid keepers, so it was tough to pare the selection down further to just give the best and most representative shots.

exposure metering.  The metering was actually the easiest part of the photo session …

This is a white dog on white snow.  Fortunately, it was overcast, so the light was very even / flat.  (One man’s meat / even light, is another man’s poison / flat light.)

With the tonal values mostly white, I used my camera’s built-in meter to get to my initial settings. I couldn’t just zero my camera’s meter since the snow is white, and any camera wants to take the scene it is metering, towards middle grey.

I therefore had to push the meter up so that white would appear as white in the final image, and not grey.  For most cameras this would be around 1.7 stops (5 clicks) up from zero.  For the Nikon D3, I know it is around 1 stop up. (3 clicks)  You have to figure out for yourself how your own camera responds, and where the brightest area is, in relation to what the camera meters .. and what the sensor can record without clipping.

I double checked my histogram to be sure I had correct exposure.  Using the histogram is actually the most important step for me in determining correct exposure in this situation.  The usefulness of the histogram will of course vary, depending on the situation you find yourself in.

Then I also used the blinking highlights feature as even more assurance that I wasn’t blowing the important highlights of the scene.

Oh, essential to all of this, I have to shoot in manual exposure mode on my camera.  For images where I got more of the background of the park, I didn’t want my camera to change exposure on me. I wanted all the images to be exactly the same.  This speeds up post-production if I don’t have to adjust individual images.

My white balance was set to Cloudy for the photo session, but I changed it slightly in post-processing of the RAW files.  I wanted the snow to be neutral white.

I also bumped up the contrast and local contrast and black point as part of processing the RAW files.

19 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Mohanpreet Singh (MP) says

    Great article.Thanks again for explaining yet another challenging topic – shooting white on white. the tips are great.
    You also touched upon focusing modes.Which combination of focus mode and focus points you use to quickly grab some wedding candids where you do not have time to think and focus. May be a separate article for this blog ?
    Thanks again.

  2. 2Darren says

    Neil, great images there, I own a jack russell, and know just how fast they are. That 2nd image is the best dog image I’ve ever seen bar none! Fantastic, Thanks!

  3. 5Chua AL says

    Great post Neil! It’s from your advice (both online and in the book) that I learned to shoot more in Manual mode (easier for batch processing RAWs for Levels&Curves).
    However, there’s one thing I wanted to ask, and it is not related to this post though, sorry. Can you teach us how to make the watermark you use? Mine looks a bit similar but some letters always fade too much into the image and barely visible. Thanks!

  4. 6Neil vN says

    Chua … it’s simple really. The watermark is on a layer that I set to Screen blending mode, and I add a drop shadow to help it stand out.

    Neil vN

  5. 7 says

    Love the second one … looks like a scene out of an action/adventure movie where the main character is jumping sideways through the air firing their gun … of course, this one is much less violent lol … great shots and thanks for the site! one of my regular sites that I always read! :)

  6. 8Neil vN says

    Jesse .. she does look like she is effortlessly sailing through the air like a superhero. She just needs the cape.

    Neil vN

  7. 9Jan says

    Love the shots. Your in-depth explanation is second to none. You give us all the details we need. Love your work. I used a friends 70-200vr2 for a model shoot. Fab lens must get saving. Looking forward to the second book. Keep up the good work. Thank you for the time you put in to help us all much appreciated. x

  8. 10Sinuhe says

    Hi Neil,
    very helpful post – photographing such a small bundle of energy is a challenge. Question – when in AF-S mode, did you use the 51 AF points, or single point focus…?
    Groete, S.

  9. 11Tad says

    You wrote that you “set to AF-C (continuous focus mode), and 51 AF points, I let the camera control most of the focusing for the session. For a few more static images, I did flip to AF-S mode to be sure of exact focus on her eyes”

    I wonder what kind of autofocus do you use in wedding photography, specialy when shots in churches or venues when persons are moving? Do uou also use AF-C and 51 points, or 3D mostly?

    I don’t think there is enough time to set it manualy, but how to do it fast and accurate? Could you let us know what is your practical way to use autofocus during fast moving scenes during ceremony?

  10. 12Neil vN says

    MP and Sinuhe .. during a wedding I mostly use Single Focus mode (AF-S), and the center point. I keep it simple then.

    Neil vN

  11. 13olympus_fotograph says

    which RGB tonalvalue you give snow?

    because 255/255/255 would complete blown out.
    is it between 230/230/230 – 240/240/240?

  12. 15Adi says

    Neil, on comment 12 you said that “during a wedding I mostly use Single Focus mode (AF-S), and the center point. I keep it simple then”. Is that mean that you mostly do focus and recompose? How do you recompose to keep the subject in focus when you recompose especially is you use aperture 2.8 or larger?

  13. 16 says

    Adi .. by using a camera that has lightning fast AF acquisition -the Nikon D3. Therefore the subject hasn’t had much time to move yet.

    Also, by not wildly re-composing off to the side, I run less risk of focus errors due to curvature in the plane of focus.

    I do change my composition by slight crops in post-processing of the RAW file if my composition needs tightening up.

    Also, I do favor more central compositions, if you look at my work.

    Neil vN

  14. 17 says


    Thank you for your kind mention of B&H Photo. First and foremost, on behalf of all of us at B&H Photo, I’d like to take this opportunity to extend our warm thanks and deep gratitude for your patronage. We look forward to earning your trust and continued business for many years to come. Please accept my invitation to check out our new blog at

    Hershel K. Waldner
    B&H Photo, Video, Pro Audio

  15. 18Curtis Copeland says

    Great post. I have had a similar problem with beach portraits where the family was wearing white shirts on a really bright day.
    Thanks for the insight!


  16. 19Gary Jacobs says

    Hi Neil, I really enjoy and find your web site extremely informative. I am new to photography so I’m sorry if this question illustrates my ignorance. Would you have used a flash for Sundae’s shoot if there were no snow on the ground? If so what would be your basic settings for the camera and flash? Also if it were a sunny day with snow would you have used a flash? Same question two different scenario’s. How would you go about using fill flash on subjects that don’t stand still for very long.

    Thank you

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