Archive for May, 2011

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This next segment in a series of interviews with accomplished Schutzhund photographers features Lesya Zaichenko. Lesya is among the youngest of the Schutzhund photographers in the US at only 24 years old. She was born in Kiev, Ukraine, but has called Upstate New York her home for most of her life. She grew up with bull-breeds (English Bulldogs, Bull Terriers, American Bulldogs). She has a BS in Biology and an AAS in Biotechnology and works full-time in a HIV Research Lab. Presently, Lesya owns a young German Shepherd Dog bitch (Dezzy vom Rebel Yelle) that she is training for Schutzhund and a rescued APBT mix (“foster failure”). She and her dogs also share their house with two cats and a python. In addition to the photos above, you can view her work on her website.

How did you get started in Schutzhund photography? What was your inspiration?

I started training in Schutzhund with my American Bulldog in February 2004 when I was 17 years old. Nobody in the club was taking photos of the dogs, so I began bringing my Canon S1IS prosumer camera with me. I remember Saturdays well. I would spend the days at the training field and then the nights editing and uploading the photos. I managed to take some very nice photos with that little camera. I believe that much like with dogs, starting out “low-tech” (aka not easy) helped to teach me the fundamentals and skills necessary for composing and capturing the kind of photos I love. Try catching a dog doing high-speed actions like the courage test, retrieves over a wall or escape bites with a camera with a two second shutter delay! I don’t know that I had a single moment that inspired me, I was just instantly addicted to the sport and photography simultaneously.

How long have you been taking pictures? What events have you taken past and future?

I have technically been taking photos my whole life, starting with the typical un-imaginative photos of friends and field trips in elementary and middle school. My uncle’s wife is a graduate of the Hallmark Institute of Photography, and as a teen I would assist her in photo shoots, but I didn’t catch the “bug” until I got my first dog (excluding family dogs). That was in February 2003, and I quickly became involved in dog sports (AKC Obedience, Agility, then a year later Schutzhund). I always photographed the club trials I attended. Most notably, I was the photographer for the 2010 New England Regional Championship and 2010 New England Regional Conformation Show. I also photographed a charity gala for a pit bull rescue that I serve as a volunteer.

What is your philosophy about photographing Schutzhund dogs?

I try to enjoy the photos I take and to capture both unique photos as well as those that I would personally cherish. I strive to take photos that show the dog’s power and drive in the exercises. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to preserve and share memories of the dogs that are with us for much too short a time. With the time we spend with them, our working companions forge a deeper bond with us, their handlers, than a regular pet would, and their memories are so precious.

What equipment do you use? What is your favorite piece of equipment that you use for Schutzhund photography? What are “must haves” for any serious Schutzhund photographer – aspiring?

I shoot with Canon equipment. I have two bodies, the Canon 450D and EOS 7D. My camera bag contents are pretty “low tech”, because I am a recent college graduate, and I haven’t been able to invest the capital in the hobby that I would like. The lenses I carry are: the Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS, Canon 55-250 f/4.0-5.6 IS, Canon 50mm f/1.8. I also have the Speedlite 480EXII flash. Since I shoot in RAW, I use 8G and 16G Compact Flash memory cards.

When shooting the 2010 New England Regional Championship, I rented a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS zoom (the big white beast). This lens is my favorite piece of equipment for Schutzhund photography. The f/2.8 aperture of the lens is a God-send when shooting in poor lighting conditions! I also adore my 7D body and its high frame per second (fps) shooting capabilities. For the 2010 New England Regional Conformation show and when I photograph portraits, I rent the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L series lens. These are the two lenses that I plan on buying sometime in the future. I’d also like to buy a wide-angle lens.

I believe the “must-haves” are a DSLR camera body, a telephoto lens and a standard lens. If you are willing to invest serious money in your glass, I would strongly recommend the two lenses that I rent, as noted above. The large aperture lenses are essential for capturing the action in Schutzhund in variable lighting conditions.

For aspiring photographers I would recommend a camera that allows you to shoot in aperture priority and shutter priority. Many of the point-and-shoot cameras available today are very capable of taking great photos! Then, get out there and just practice taking photos. Play around with composition, settings, etc. I would also strongly recommend either reading some books on photography techniques or taking a digital photography class at your local community college.

What is your favorite type of picture to take? How do you go about taking the picture? What is the most challenging picture to take? How do you tackle it?

My favorite photo to take is the one that shows the relationship between the dog and handler. They show the dog working willfully for its handler, and its handler relishing in the relationship with their dog. Much of the time, this is either a candid shot or a shot during the heeling exercises. Another photo that I love, but believe is often overlooked, is the dog running the blinds. I like to compose these photos at the moments where the dog is rounding the blind. Sometimes you get lucky and capture the moment when the dog enters the “hot” or “find” blind with good aggression and intensity.

The most challenging photos for me are of the dogs going over the jump/wall, especially when I am positioned at an angle where I cannot track the dog approaching the jump with my camera. Also, the long bite presents a challenge when trying to capture the dog the moment it is about to strike the sleeve but also in focus! Most dogs are moving at such a high speed that even when shooting in AI SERVO (a Canon camera setting), the camera has difficulty tracking the focus.

For the long bite, I make sure that my camera is set to shoot in high-speed bursts (the 7D shoots at 8 fps), and I track the dog running down the field. My focus is set to a single spot. I shoot continuously from the moment the dog is about to gather itself, through the completion of the catch and on to when the helper begins to drive the dog.

For the jumps, I set my focus point on a solid object; such as, set the focus spot(s) to the bottom half of the viewfinder, so it is focusing on the jump . Then I set my aperture small enough to allow some wiggle room in the depth of field of the shot, while also allowing some background blur to enhance focus on the dog. This is not always possible with overcast days when I must open up the aperture to stop action in the dim lighting.

 Other tips for new and/or experienced photographers?

My strongest suggestion for old and new photographers is to not be shy (I struggle with this!). I recommend aspiring photographers invest in lenses more so than in the camera body. Lenses will grow with you; a body may become obsolete. Do not get caught up in the megapixel (MP) race. More doesn’t literally mean better. After a certain point, if you aren’t planning on printing large posters or billboards, the high MP cameras are just over kill. The only place a high MP photo is beneficial is when you plan on doing a lot of cropping.

When buying a camera body, pay attention to the speed of the camera. How many frames per second is it capable of shooting? What are the ISO settings on the camera? Those capable of shooting at very high ISO often do better shooting in lower lighting conditions. Beware! High ISO will cause more noise in your photo.

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Master Photographer Peter Lik takes his best pictures just after sunrise and just before sunset when the suns rays are barely visible and the lighting is very soft and full of color. He also bemoans shooting midday as the light is harsh, colors wash out and it is difficult to capture detail. While Peter will get no argument from me about shooting in the midday sun, we Schutzhund photographers do not often have the luxury of photographing our subjects in ideal lighting conditions or standing still.

A challenging scenario is bright midday sun and dark sable or black dogs, especially at trials. It is enough to make even the most stable photographer go barking mad! The following offers some tips that I hope will be helpful and keep you from howling in frustration.

My thanks to Betty Lindblom of 5 Dogs Photography for her advice, which is reflected in this post. By the way, if you’re not familiar with Peter’s work, I recommend checking out his website or better yet stop in at one of his galleries to view some amazing landscape photography. We have visited a couple of them in our travels; truly inspiring.

Always be aware of the sun’s angle and the background.  More so than any other time of the year, your position relative to the sun and the background are critical considerations for getting great shots. The sun’s rays are stronger, vertical during midday hours, more intense in the summer and reflect off of everything! See the photos below. Notice how the detail of the dog is lost among the brightness of the wood background in the first photo and how the grass and sky serve as massive reflectors in the second photo to wash out the helper and the dog. In addition, the very bright sky throws off the camera’s ability to produce a balanced exposure. I often use a circle polarizer filter  or neutral density filters to minimize the glare and enhance colors. Also, try to shoot at a slight angle to the subject. Take a lot of photos and be patient. Between the hours of 11 am and 3 pm, there really is not much you can do about the harsh lighting. Resign yourself to taking a lot of photos, with slightly different settings, and realize that more photos than not may turn out over exposed, with focus problems or the dog will be a black blob.

Focus in tight. The next photo shows how going for a tighter shot takes away the problems produced by the sky and large reflective backgrounds, such as grass, buildings or wood platforms, leaving a much better exposure with good detail, color and contrast. A little touch up with the dodge and burn tools in Photoshop was all that was needed to give this photo a little extra punch. The dodge tool allows for selective lightening, while the burn tool allows for selective darkening. Very useful for toning down bright spots or adding in some color depth, without having to do a lot of detailed selections and time-consuming layer adjustments.

More About Angles. Shadows produced by the blind itself are a major challenge especially during the summer months. The first photo below has many of the same problems already discussed, but by shooting from a position where the lighting is fairly even in the blind – more from the side – the shadows are minimized. With cropping and some adjustments with the dodge and burn tools, the second photo is much better. Another reason why I like the dodge and burn tools is overall adjustments do not work well when part of the image is very bright and part is very dark. To me, the results seem to mute the color and vibrance of the photo.

Contrasting handler’s clothes with the dog’s coat color. Many handlers think it’s cool to wear black slacks when training or showing their dog in trial. This is not necessarily the best costume for garnishing great photos, especially in the summer. Think about it! Dark or black dog against black pants, how is the camera to distinguish one from another? Encourage handlers to wear slacks that contrast with their dog’s coloring. Blue jeans and tan khakis work very well for dark sable or black dogs. See the photo below.

Portraits in the sun – well maybe not.  This time of year is ideal for taking portraits. Look for even lighting conditions, such as shade with maybe a little bit of sun coming through the trees for a dappling effect. Again, be aware of the sun’s angle and shoot at a slight angle to the dog with the sun over your shoulder. If you are shooting in bright light, again shoot at an angle. Try not to have the sun directly front light the dog as you may lose color and detail. Dogs, especially dark sable or black dogs, look great in green grass, but watch out for color reflections on their fur. If at all possible, take portrait shots early or late in the day. See below for several examples.

Do you have any tips you can offer? Share them here or let me know for a future post. Thank you for visiting!

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At last we come to the final exercise in the protection phase, the Courage Test, also know as the Long Bite. The dogs’ courage and soundness are truly tested during this exercise, as they must come through the threat of the helper (decoy) raising the stick and attack the sleeve with all the courage of their convictions. Some dogs barrel full speed ahead, launching themselves spectacularly at the sleeve with all the force they can muster. Others tend to gather a bit and carefully target their strike. The helper then deflects the dogs’ energy by spinning the dogs around and as quickly as possible and putting them on the ground in preparation for the drive. It is thrilling to watch and often terrifying to photograph!

While there is a strong element of luck to capturing high quality dramatic shots of the Courage Test, you can increase the chances of getting a great shot by paying close attention to tips of composing the shot covered in previous posts. This is one exercise where it really helps to watch the helper and see how he moves in order to position yourself to get the shots you want. Consider, do you want to focus on the moment the handler releases the dog, the race towards the helper, the moment before the strike, the strike itself, the spin or placing the dog on the ground? In my experience, you can’t shoot the entire exercise of a single dogs well, so targeting one aspect increases the chances of getting the shot.

In trials, photographers often are relegated to the side lines, but sometimes you can shoot from the top or bottom of the field. As long as you are far enough away so as not to distract the dogs, this position can yield fascinating photos, particularly if you focus on the dogs face and capture the concentration and determination in the dogs’ eyes. What also may be interesting is to focus in on the helper’s face. It takes a lot of courage on the part of the helper to catch a dog headed straight for him at top speed, with only one thing on its mind – striking the sleeve and taking the helper down. It takes a great deal of skill and finesse to safely catch dogs and drive them. The interplay between the dog and helper is intriguing.

With the courage test, there are great opportunities to create a series of photos, showing the catch, spin and putting the dog on the ground. Be sure, you are not zoomed in so far that you cannot capture the entire sequence, yet not so far back that the action becomes a small part of the image frame. If you start with the dog and helper being a small element in the frame, you will not end up with a sharp image when you crop in, but if you are zoomed in too close, key elements may be cut off or missed completely. It is a balancing act that can only be mastered with a lot of patience and practice. The slide show above starts with a sequence of images.

Also, be very mindful of the power of your zoom lens, backgrounds and the position of the sun. A powerful zoom lens is very helpful for capturing crisp images, but there’s danger there as well. Can’t tell you how many misses I’ve had because the lens decided it was more interesting to focus on the bleachers, a fence, grass, a bush or a goal stand (brighter elements than the dogs) even though I thought I was aimed directly at the dogs, with Auto Focus locked in and my trigger finger poised to get off a burst of shots. In my experience, the best shots are those with the sun behind me or at a slight angle, front lighting the dog. Also, my best shots are taken early in the morning or late in the day.

Midday for these photos is really tough, especially in the summer. The sun reflects off of everything, and dark dogs tend turn into black blobs, with not enough definition of detail or contrast for photo imaging programs to work with. On the other hand, it’s an opportunity to shoot with slower shutter speeds and try for more abstract images. Of course, cloudy, dark days present their own set of problems. Flat lighting tends to translate into flat photographs, with soft focus. And, again zoom lenses may wander off the mark and focus on the brighter elements in the photo, rather than on the dogs and helper. Might be a time to try shooting with the goal of creating black and white images.

Please let me know if you have any questions and if this series of posts on Composing the Shot have been helpful to you. Upcoming posts with look at coping with lighting, including how lighting changes from season to season. Another post will offer specific tips for how to photograph dark or black dogs, a challenge for all Schutzhund photographers. And, more in the series “In Their Own Words”! Thanks for visiting!

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