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Archive for August, 2010

This is the first of three parts in the next segment in a series of interviews with accomplished Schutzhund photographers. This segment features Dee Clark. The second and third parts follow.

Dee Clark has been active in Schutzhund for seven years and a member of Southern NH Working Dog Club for six years. She trained and titled her first dog from a BH to SchH 3. Dee is presently training three of her German Shepherds for Schutzhund and combines several of her passions at once: her dogs, Schutzhund and photography. Dee takes more than 1,000 photographs a week of just her dogs, while honing her skills for Schutzhund photography. She has done some wedding photography and other customer-based photography; however, her joy comes from photographing Schutzhund dogs and their handlers.

How did you get started in Schutzhund photography?  What was your inspiration? Ever since my 16th birthday, when I received a disc camera, I almost always have had a camera in my hand. My love of photography started with just capturing candid images of my friends, my dog and then nature shots. Moving into Schutzhund photography was a natural progression, because I always have a camera with me.

Nearly nine years ago, I found myself at a Schutzhund trial with some other German Shepherd dog friends. Even though we had dogs with Schutzhund titles for several years, I did not really have an interest in how they became titled. At the trial, I noticed no one had a camera! No one was taking pictures! I asked a competitor if it was okay if I grabbed my camera and took some pictures. By the end of that trial, I had numerous e-mail addresses and several new acquaintances, who have since become friends. I also shot some of the worse pictures I had ever taken.

That one event, however, became my inspiration for two passions that consume nearly every moment of my life: Schutzhund and photography.

How long have you been taking pictures? I can honestly say that although I have been taking pictures for 30 years, it has only been the last six years that I really have had a clue as to what I am doing. Years spent with 35 mm cameras did not teach me anything about the art of photography. It was the invention of the digital camera that allowed me to explore my camera and my capabilities.

When I became a member of Southern NH Working Dog Club, I began constantly taking pictures at club. These pictures ended up being formatted into digital movies that I would give to the club to chronicle our dogs’ progress. I also found that by being out on the field in the middle of training I gained training knowledge tenfold, as I was able to hear discussions between the handler and the helpers. This actually pushed me to be out there more, as I was so thirsty for the information I would miss if I were sitting on the sidelines.

Parts 2 and 3 of the interview with Dee Clark follow.

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This is the second of three parts in the next segment in a series of interviews with accomplished Schutzhund photographers. This segment features Dee Clark. The third part follows.

What events have you taken past and future? At every event I attend, I have my camera in hand. I enjoy viewing an event from behind a camera lens. Often, I am at an event to support friends and take pictures of their dogs. This has led to some instances where I was the only photographer and was asked to photograph the event. Many of these events were both working dog trials and conformation shows/breed surveys.

What is your philosophy about photographing Schutzhund dogs? My philosophy is about capturing the extreme control the dogs exhibit and showing these working dogs and their handlers as a team. As much as I like seeing the all out fight in the dogs, I think it is also important to show that the majority of these dogs are also their handlers’ companions. The adoration the dogs and handlers show each other during the critique is just as important as the intensity the dogs demonstrate in the track, the joy they exhibit in the obedience and the power they bring to the protection work.

Capturing the “perfect’ moment in Schutzhund is not always about the wide open mouth before the dog fully grips the sleeve or the acrobatics of the helper safely catching a fast launching dog. It is in the emotion on the face of the helper, handler and the eyes of the dog. A lot of photographers capture these moments in the shots they discard at time of editing.

What equipment do you use? I shoot with a Nikon D80 most of the time, with a AF-S VR Nikkor 70-200 mm 1.2 8G lens. I find this lens to be very versatile for what I need. However, some of the best action shots I have taken were with a 10.5 megapixel Olympus point and shoot. Although it is nice to have all the equipment with all the bells and whistles, I have found that if a photographer takes the time to really learn everything their point and shoot cameras are capable of, they can create some outstanding works of art.

What is your favorite piece of equipment that you use for Schutzhund photography? For me, it is not so much that I have a favorite piece of equipment. What really helps me is my own lack of inhibition and self-preservation. I tend to find myself in the midst of the action. Of course, this is only during training when I can be right on the field in the middle of all the action. I often plant myself on the ground to get more interesting vantage points and camera angles. Having my lens below the action pointed up at what is going on has given me some of my best shots.

What are “must haves” for any serious or aspiring Schutzhund photographer? I love this question!! For me, the “must haves” are knowledge and a willingness to learn from what worked and what did not! Knowing my subject, the environment, the people directly in the action and knowing that I can wait all day long with my finger on the shutter, but I can still miss so many wonderful shots.

The other answer to this ties in with knowledge. No matter what kind of camera or level of camera you have, KNOW your equipment. Learn all the features. Get out there and just shoot! Just taking action shots of your dogs or friends’ dogs at play and running really helps you learn how to use your camera settings. Do not be discouraged if you do not get that perfect shot. The more pictures you take, the more you learn. Take the camera to a little league game, a parade or soccer game; any place where you can shoot randomly. Do NOT delete off your camera, wait until you get home and see what you shot when you edit.

For more with Dee Clark, see part 3 below.

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This is the third of three parts in the next segment in a series of interviews with accomplished Schutzhund photographers.  Thank you, Dee, for sharing your insights and experiences.

What is your favorite type of picture to take? I like the shots where the look on the helper’s face shows the level of impact their body had to absorb when they caught the dog. These are not always long bites; they are often in the back transport.

How do you go about taking the picture? These are difficult shots to capture. You have to know which way the helper will turn. Will the dog come stick side or sleeve side? Then you have to know the field set up well enough to know if you can be in an area to set up for the shot behind the dog and handler or to the side when the helper attacks. These types of shots are much easier to capture if you have a good knowledge of the helper and the dog you are photographing.

What is the most challenging picture to take? For me the challenge is not in the action shots during protection, but the jumps during the retrieves. The challenge usually has to do with the set up of the field, the location of the sunlight and what area I can photograph from. If I have to photograph head on, then I cannot focus on the dog as it approaches the jumps after retrieving the dumbbell.

How do you tackle it? Sometimes, you cannot tackle it, you have to hope and pray that the focus you get on the jump is wide enough for the dog to enter. Other times, it takes just knowing the field, location of light flood and where else on the field you can be to capture it. I have shot jumps through a chain link fence, because there was not a good vantage point on the field or in the photographer zone.

Other tips for new and/or experienced photographers? From my personal experience as a photographer and as someone who enjoys looking at the photographs taken by others, the photographers that take their camera everywhere and photograph everything take the best photographs. The more you use your camera outside of Schutzhund, the more you can experiment with angles, settings, lighting and focus. By doing this, you also learn to look at the environment with a more critical eye. Often, people look at the subject and do not even notice the background or foreground. Sometimes, the best shots are ruined because of what is in the background, and you cannot always edit out what is behind the subject. The more you handle your camera the more you improve your skill.

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If you Google “Rule of Thirds”, you will find numerous blog entries and tutorials about the most well known principle of photographic composition: The Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds has been around for centuries, appearing as early as 1797 as a rule for establishing proportions for scenic paintings. Admittedly, I have not made a study of the Rule of Thirds until recently, as I am very much a self-taught photographer. While I agree that it is a helpful tool, I also agree with many photographers that all rules are made to be broken or at least stretched somewhat, and there are times where stretching or breaking the Rule’s rule may produce a more interesting photograph than following the Rule to the letter.

To review: The Rule of Thirds breaks the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. This gives the photographer four lines and four points where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect as a guide for positioning the most important elements of the pictures. The idea is to place the points of interest in the photograph at one or more intersections of the four lines or along the lines. The photo will then be more balanced and enable to viewer to interact with the image more naturally. Research has shown that a person’s eye is drawn more often to one of the intersection points rather than to the center of the photograph.

The photo above shows how the main action elements fall where the lines intersect – the dog biting the sleeve (lower left intersection) and the helper’s back (upper right intersection). Also, the dog follows the left vertical line and the helper’s upper body follow’s the upper horizontal line. The primary elements in the photo have the appearance of being centered, but actually are slightly off center.

The photograph above and the one below illustrate how to crop a photo with one following the Rule of Thirds more closely (picture below) and other with the dog centered (picture above). This is an example of how following the Rule of Thirds to the letter may not be the best choice, as it gives more prominence to the blind than is likely needed or desired. Personally, I see both points of view here, as these photos are showing the blind search, so the blind is a main character.

One instance where stretching or breaking the Rule of Thirds is a good idea is portraits (whether person or dog), especially portraits that fill the frame. Notice in the image below how the fellow’s eyes are close to the intersection of the upper left lines and draw the viewer’s eyes across the rest of the image. Also, this fellow’s amazing smile, a major feature of the picture, is at the lower right intersection. So, even though the fellow fills the entire frame, key elements are still positioned at the intersections of the right vertical and horizontal lines.

The next two images show the dog’s face in the center of photograph, yet their eyes fall along the upper horizontal line. The second photo also has built-in guide lines the form of the crate and the pick-up truck’s back gate.

The next two images again show the same image cropped with one closely following the Rule of Thirds and the other stretching the Rule a bit. The first image has the primary action of the dog picking up the dumbbell at the lower left intersection, yet it does not include any place for the dog to go. In other words, the frame ends too close to the action. Placing the dog front and center does have its appeal, as it is a dramatic shot of the dog retrieving the dumbbell. The second image is not cropped as closely and provides more grassy area around the dog. Personally, I like this photo better, as the dog has some place to go and the green grass offers a nice frame around the dog. Alternatively, the photo could be cropped such that the primary action of the dog retrieving the dumbbell could be aligned with the left vertical line and the right side of the photograph filled in with more grass.

The final example shows the dog taking up pretty much the entire center of the photograph, but notice that the primary action of the dog getting ready to bite the sleeve is at the upper right intersection. This photo, to me, has the best of both worlds. The dog is centered, and the the most exciting part of the photo is near an intersection of two lines. Also, notice that in this instance, the action is the chase, so instead of giving the dog and helper some place to go, the image emphasizes the direction from which the dog initiated the chase. This also is a good example of the importance of knowing the Schutzhund protection routine, having a clear understanding of what each exercise is all about, and using on-site composition aided by some careful cropping to create a dramatic photograph that really tells the story of the particular exercise – in this case, the escape bite.

The good news is many digital cameras have the option of turning on the Rule of Thirds guide, which is then visible in the view finder. Try using it, and see if it helps with composing photographs. Of course, in the heat of Schutzhund action, especially in protection, it’s not always possible to pay attention to the Rule of Thirds guide. Sometimes it’s all we can do to capture the dogs in focus as they zip buy on their way to a bite. First things first after all. Thank goodness for Photoshop and other photo processing programs with good cropping tools! I know, the purist photographers among us may scoff at the idea, but – for me – if the tools exist, I’m going to use them.

In closing, I’d like to extend a shout out to Darren Rowse of the Digital Photography School. His blog entry on the Rule of Thirds was very helpful in creating this post. Thanks, Darren.

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Among the most photographed Schutzhund obedience exercises are the out of motion exercises – the sit, down and stand. Interestingly, these also are among the most frequently missed exercises in the entire routine, especially the sit. If a handler and dog team can get through the out of motion exercises, without the dog deciding to do stand when asked to sit or sit when asked to down or decide to take a few steps or a stroll rather than locking up tight on the stand, a collective sigh of relief fills the stadium, as the competitor, dog and spectators seem to say: “Whew! Got through the worst of it!”

For photographers, the challenge is to catch the moment the dog responds to the command: Sit, down or stand (in what ever language the handler uses). I’m using English here for clarity. This is where following the dog and handler is crucial, along with keeping the button on the auto focus pressed half way (if you have it), and be ready to snap at a moment’s notice. This is also where knowing the routine is very important. Photographers stand a better chance at capturing just the right moment if they know when the command is likely to come.

Another point to remember is to be sure to give the handler some place to go. In other words, frame the photo such that the handler is not running off the picture. Notice in the picture above: the handler has some grass to run across before the picture ends.

Finding a unique perspective is another challenge for making the photograph unique and interesting. Many photographs are taken from the side. While photographing T. Floyd’s Youth Schutzhund Camp, I experimented with different perspectives for photographing these exercises. Of course, it helped that I was on the field and could move around at will. This isn’t always possible at trials – hence the over abundance of side perspectives. But if you get the chance, try standing behind the dog, and focus on the dog with the handler in the background. It shows the dog’s perspective looking down the field at the handler. Or, stand behind the handler and shoot the dog down the field. I also have been experimenting with shooting the recall with the dog running straight at me as if I were the handler – not great success yet – but I am working on it.

What kind of photos have you taken of the out of motion exercises? Please share anything unique or different that might be fun for others to try.

Next post will discuss how to use the Rule of Thirds in composing your shots and in cropping. I am not so sure I agree with all the Rule’s rules. So, check back in a week or two to find out why. Thanks for visiting and for your patience and understanding while I have been working through a very hectic work schedule.

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