You wouldn't think that a kitty sitting in a pool of light on a sunny porch could result in such a dramatic bit of lighting, but it's all in how you compose and expose the shot. I took this photo while sitting with my cats on a screened porch and though she was surrounded by shadows, they weren't really as dark as they look here. But by taking my exposure reading exclusively from her (and excluding most of the shadow areas during metering), the camera underexposed the shadows. (I also used -.3 stops of exposure compensation, just to tone things down a tad further). The real drama came from two other things: for one I was using my Olympus SP80 that has a 36x optical zoom and so I zoomed to the 35mm equivalent of a 210mm lens--and that was from just a few feet away. By zooming in so tightly on her, I cropped away anything (including several white chairs nearby) that might have broken that nice dark area surrounding the cat--so the composition consists of just two things: the cat and the shadows.
I also adjusted the exposure a bit in Photoshop, using the curves tool. I pulled the heel of the curve down a bit so that the shadows went from dark gray to black and then I raised up the toe (top) of the curve a bit to lighten the what areas of fur. I also did a tiny bit of dodging with the dodge tool to bring up some highlights in the golden areas of her fur and to lighten up that front paw (not the one she's washing, the other one). The image was sharpened a tiny bit using the unsharp masking tool. I shot this image with jpeg (normally I shoot in RAW) because the Olympus doesn't have a RAW mode.
I really was just playing with the cats and hoping to get a few snapshots--but that's usually when the most dramatic photos happen. I've learned from a lot of experience that if you're sitting around with pets, it pays to have the camera nearby.
My new book: My newest book Digital Photography FAQs (Wiley Publishing) is due out in July and I hope you'll buy it. In the book I answer more than 365 questions about digital photography--a lot of them that came to me from questions post as comments on this blog. And by the way, the cover has been changed, so the one you're seeing on Amazon is not the cover that will be on the book--thankfully the publisher is adding photos!