Q:I love taking pics of my dog, but his eyes look weird in some photos. Kind of like their eyes are glowing or shiny. Is that normal?
A: Yes, it’s probably a combination of the light source and the structure of his eyeball.
Admit it, you’re one of those pet parents, the ones who take thousands of pictures of their dogs every day. No judgement here. It’s hard not to snap a few (hundred) pix when your dog is this adorable. When scrolling through your camera roll, you may have noticed that not every photo is IG-worthy, mainly because your dog’s eyes sometimes look shiny and weird in them. You’re not trying to be an Instagram influencer, but you also don’t want to post the pics where his glowing eyes make him look like a four-legged alien.
So what gives? Why do dogs’ eyes look weird in photos? The most likely explanation is that it’s just the way a dog’s eyeball is designed.
“Many animals have a particular structure in the back of their eyes called the tapetum lucidum,” says Dr. Arun Subramanian, OD, FAAO, president and owner of Kernersville Eye Associates in Clemmons, North Carolina. “It’s a reflective surface behind the retina, and it’s something that dogs and cats both have. Squirrels don’t have one, and neither do kangaroos, but they’re probably not running around in our houses where we’d notice.”
The tapetum lucidum, Dr. Subramanian explains, is located behind the retina, and its reflective properties help animals see better in the dark, or in low-light situations.
“For an animal, especially a wild one, that’s a big advantage,” he adds. Dogs and cats can both display glowing “eyeshine” in photographs when a bright light (or a camera flash) hits their eyes. “You may see varying colors in dogs, cats, and different animals, due to the shape of their eyes,” Subramanian says. “The different colors are caused by the amount of pigment in the retina, the angle of the light, and the composition of this tapetum lucidum.”
Is this the same thing that causes humans to get “red eye” in pictures?
Not exactly. Humans don’t have a tapetum lucidum. Subramanian says the the light is being reflected off the back of our eyeballs, and it looks red because of something called the choroid. “This is the layer in front of the retina, and it nourishes the retina, so you’re basically seeing a reflection of the blood and blood vessels.”
“Back in the day, you probably had a digital camera with an anti-red eye button to prevent that from happening,” he says. “Hitting that button would trigger a little light, like a first flash, to trick your pupil into getting a little smaller.” (A smaller pupil means that there’s less light bouncing off the back of the eye.)
Gotcha. Is there any way to keep my dog’s eyes from looking weird in every photo?
To prevent your dog’s eyes from looking weird or shiny in photos, Nina Parker, an Atlanta pet photographer, recommends you:
- Avoid having a light source directly in front of your pet
- Do not use a flash
“If you enable the flash on your phone and point it straight at the animal, that’s what’s going to make those scary eyes happen,” she says.
While she does use a flash when she photographs dogs in er studio, hers have what’s called a modifier on them. “That’s just a big soft box or a big umbrella—there’s a flash inside them, but they’re positioned at an angle,” she explains. “Most of the time, they’re not pointed directly at the dog’s face.”
So how do I light my dog’s sweet little face if I don’t have a studio and can’t use a flash?
“Window light is a great light source,” North Carolina-based photographer Lindsay Aikman Catherman says. “When in doubt, position them so that the window is to the side of them a little bit. If you’re getting some of that reflection in their eyes, you can angle them so the window is slightly to the left or right. You’ll get some shadow across their faces or across their muzzles, but that can look dramatic.”
Parker also recommends getting down on your dog’s level when you’re taking pics, as opposed to just pointing the camera (or your phone’s camera) down at them. She also advises getting closer to your pet. “Sometimes if you’re five feet away, it looks like a picture of the room with the dog in the middle of it, as opposed to a picture of the dog,” she says.
Get more picture-taking pointers from experts here, and read our interview with viral dog photographer Christian Vieler for even more advice. And maybe don’t give up on that Instagram Influencer thing just yet…