Archive for December, 2010

Guest blogger Dee Clark shares her tips and tricks for taking gorgeous holiday photos of Schutzhund dogs. In earlier posts, she also shared her experiences and insights about Schutzhund photography. See the “In Their Own Words” category to view those posts.  Thanks, Dee!

It’s that time of the year when those of us who are dog obsessed take time to humiliate our Schutzhund dogs in an effort to spread good cheer to family and friends. We bestow upon our faithful companions the obligatory Santa hat, reindeer antlers and elf costume, and hope we get one photograph that we can use on the family holiday card. After all, with the well-trained dogs we have, it is often easier to work with them than it is to get the whole family together for that shot that says Happy Holidays From All of Us!

So, how do you go about getting that perfect holiday photograph that makes friends and family go, “Awwww” without taking away all of your dog’s dignity? The following are the steps I follow and what I think about in setting up and taking what I hope will be the perfect holiday photograph:

First, decide if want a photograph with all of your dogs or just single one out.

Second, set the scene. The scene and the lighting are the hardest part of any holiday shoot. If you want to dress up that special dog in a holiday outfit, and you want to use the outside as a scene, natural light can be your hero or your nemesis. If you are dressing your dog in something red, morning light is better to make the red more vibrant. Should you choose green then afternoon light will cast the golden hues that will make the green pop out of the photograph. Royal blue works best in midday natural light, as it will actually tone the blue down somewhat. Pictures with Santa and his helpers are always nice; however, indoor light without the proper lighting equipment is very difficult, and the environment can be too hectic.

Third, set the environment. I do not even begin to bring the dog(s) into the scene until I have figured out exactly how I want the scene to appear. Evaluate the background. Is it a fence? woods? the house? snow? The background can make or break the shot, depending on the light or what props you use. If you are taking pictures outside, first take shots from several angles at a specific time of day. Mark each angle you shoot from on the ground so you know which angle gives you the desired affect. Then place the props into the scene and evaluate how the light and shadows will cast on the background.

If you want your holiday photograph to be inside with a Christmas tree, you still should play around with shooting the tree and surrounding area at different times of the day, different angles and with different lights. Sit on the floor and take shots from that level, and try different camera heights to get various effects. It may help to put some low-level watt lighting behind the tree to give it a glow.  If you want a plain background, it usually helps to stay away from white, as it can be too stark or become blue in hue. You will then have to use photo-editing software to change the background back to white.

Gold is one of the best backdrop colors to use, because it works well with the coat color of most dogs. A gold tablecloth or bed linen works great, as long as it is without wrinkles. Tack the sheet up on a wall, leaving enough to act as a stage on the floor. You can then decorate the backdrop in festive lights, stockings, saved Christmas cards or recent family photographs.

Fourth, consider how to dress your dog(s) for the shoot – but don’t dress them ahead of time. With holiday photos, often simple is best. If you want to dress your dog(s) in an elf costume, then consider a simple background. If you want to use your beautifully decorated tree as the background, then think about a simple bow on the dog(s). Are you planning to use a Santa hat or antlers? Duct tape is your friend. Fold over the duct tape and place it on the inside rim of the Santa hat, one piece on each side. This will help keep the hat in place and not slide when the dog moves its head. If Santa hat does not fit right or does not hold its form correctly, stuff the hat with some paper towels. That will help mold it into the set you want. Using antlers? Again, duct tape under the plastic band that goes on the dog’s head will help stabilize the antlers. Once you decide how to dress your dog(s), wait until you’ve placed them into the scene (see step six).

Fifth, mark where you want to place your dog(s) for the shoot and find an assistant. Consider whether you want the dog sitting, standing or lying down. If you are using multiple dogs, think about how large the shot will have to be and whether some should sit, down or stand. Setting your environment and the marking the places for the dog(s) before you bring them into the scene is less stressful for you and for them. This way, when you do bring them in, you can concentrate on getting that perfect shot.

It really helps to have a friend or family member who can handle the dog(s) while you take the picture. You may need a squeak toy, ball or treats to get that special expression from the dog(s), and your assistant can manage these accessories for you.

Sixth, putting it all together. Before you bring the dog(s) into the picture, have the camera positioned and ready to go. Place the dog(s) and then add the costume or props. A lot of really good yummy food treats will go a long way in getting your dog(s) to cooperate.

Take several shots, and ask your assistant to give the dog(s) treats after each shot. Remember to look at how the ears are set, and use reinforcements to get the ears up and in correct position. The squeaky toy comes in handy for this part of the shoot, as well as having your assistant hold the ball on a rope behind you to get the dog’s attention. If you want the dog(s) to be looking in a different direction than at the camera, have your assistant move to another location to draw the dog’s attention to h/her position.

Seventh, finish in a photo-editing program. Once you have the photo you want, use a photo- editing program to frame the picture and bring the colors up a notch.  See below for two sets of before and after pictures.

Before Polishing and Framing

After Polishing and Framing

Before Polishing and Framing

After Polishing and Framing

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One of the hardest concepts for me to understand is aperture and how to use these settings creatively in Schutzhund photography. Aperture settings allow more or less light in through the lens to the digital sensor. That is straight forward enough. But the challenge for me is the settings themselves are not intuitive.

Unlike ISO and shutter speed, aperture settings (or f-stops) are not linear, but fractional. With each full stop, the amount of light entering the camera either doubles or is reduced by 50 percent. Many cameras offer one-third stop intervals in addition to full-stop intervals.  The smallest aperture settings (1.4, 2, 2.8 or 4, depending on the lens) let in the greatest amount of light. Conversely, the largest settings (16, 22 or 32) let in the least amount of light.

What I have discovered is balancing aperture, ISO and shutter speed is a lot like Schutzhund; there is no one rule or method to achieve a desired goal. For each correct exposure, there are at least six different aperture settings, each of which will change how the image appears. This is because different aperture settings have a direct impact on the image’s depth of field; that is, what and how much of the image is in focus.

With smaller or wide open aperture settings (2.8, 4 or 5.6), only the light that falls on the focused subject will be rendered as sharp (shallow depth of field). The rest of the scene will be unfocused or “splattered” across the sensor, so the background appears as blobs, blurs and blips. At the other end of the spectrum (larger aperture settings), the light entering the lens is much less, which results is a greater area of sharpness and detail (greater depth of field).

In his books, Understanding Exposure and Learning to See Creatively, Bryan Peterson offers a great explanation of how all this work, along with how to use exposure creatively. The following is a very brief summary of seven creative exposure options he describes in his books:

  • Small apertures (16, 22 and 32) are the creative force behind storytelling exposures – images that have a beginning (the foreground), the middle (where the main subject is) and an end (or a backdrop, such as a sky). The middle is the area of sharpest focus. Using this option also requires careful composition.
  • Large apertures (2.8, 4 or 5.6) are the creative force behind singular theme or isolation exposures – images where focus is limited to a specific area of the image, leaving the rest blurry (a shallow depth of field).
  • Middle apertures (8 and 11) are what Bryan calls the “Who cares?” exposures – those in which of the depth of field is of no concern.
  • Fast shutters speeds (1/250, 1/500, 1/1000 sec) stop the action cold.
  • Slow shutter speeds (1/30, 1/15) are the creative force behind panning – images where the subject is in focus but the background gives the impression of fast movement.
  • Super slow shutter speeds (1/4, ½ and 1) imply motion.
  • Super close up or macro – images with extremely shallow depth of field.

This past Saturday at the GASA club, I took up the challenge and experimented with combining different aperture and shutter speed settings to create some really neat effects. I kept the ISO between 100 and 400, depending on whether the sun was shining or behind clouds.  I varied the aperture and shutter speed settings, and I switched back and forth between aperture and shutter priority modes. The slowest shutter speed I used was 1/250. The very slow shutter speeds really are not practical for fast moving dogs, unless you are going for a impressionist painting effect. I will have to try that sometime when I have a tripod handy. I end this post with a slide show of some of my favorites.

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