Archive for July, 2012

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Taking photos that are tack sharp is one of the most difficult challenges in Schutzhund photography. Consider, however, that there may be times when too much sharpness is not necessarily a good thing. More is not always better. Focus is as much an artistic choice as it is a camera setting. This post will look briefly at autofocus settings that enhance focus and artistic choices that enhance the image.

According to Robert Hirsch in his book, Light and Lens: Photography in the Digital Age:

The majority of DSLRs have two focusing modes: Manual and Autofocus. Most DSLRs either have an active (infrared) autofocus (AF) or passive autofocus systems, which automatically focuses on objects at a certain distance to the lens. Active autofocus sends out a beam of red light that the camera uses to measure and set the distance of the subject. In passive autofocus, light that is naturally reflected by the subject is used to read the contrast of a scene and set the focus.

DSLRs also offer autofocus zones, including single-area focus, area focus and closest-subject focus. Within these zones, your camera may allow you to set priority points or zonal areas. In addition, many cameras offer single-servo or continuous-servo focus settings. Single-servo locks the focus at the time of exposure. Continuous-servo focuses constantly while the shutter button is pressed halfway. This is particularly useful for photographing dogs (or any subject) in motion. Professional photographer Nasim Mansurov offers an excellent detailed explanation of DSLR autofocus modes on this blog. I recommend it to you rather than going into a lot of detail here.

Note: Nasim explains autofocus from the perspective of a Nikon shooter, while my perspective is Canon. There are many strong opinions on either side as to which is better. I have no opinion as I think both are excellent, and which you choose to use is a matter of personal preference. At one time, there may have been significant differences as Nasim mentions, but he also acknowledges that the gap is pretty much closed when it comes to autofocus systems.

With respect to autofocus, my preference is to use all focus points with priority set to the center area. I find this works best for tracking fast moving dogs. If your camera model offers it, suggest setting the tracking to be just a bit slower than mid-point. This setting is on a sliding scale in Canon cameras; slower to the left, faster to the right. I also press the shutter halfway when tracking a dog and then press fully when I’m ready to get the shot.

As the dog runs down or across the Schutzhund field, the light changes, which affects the focus, especially when shooting in burst mode. The result is some images in the sequence may be out of focus. How fast your camera writes images to the card also may effect burst mode shooting. Try waiting until you get closer to the exact moment you are trying to photograph and start the burst mode within a few frames. For example, rather than shooting the dog continuously running down the field for the long bite, track the dog with the shutter pressed halfway for continuous focusing. A few moments before dog engages the helper, start the burst mode. I have had good experience with this method.

Artistically, focus or the lack of it can add drama, texture and guide the viewer to key focal points. For example, by playing with the depth of field, the primary subject is in focus, with the foreground and/or background out of focus. The blurriness is called bokeh. It is derived from the Japanese word, boke, which means blur or haze, or boke-aji, which means blur quality.

Another technique that adds texture is to use a softer focus, which can make the photo look like a painting. This can be achieved with the wider aperture, such as f/2.8 to f/5.6, paired with a slower shutter speed. There is no one magical setting and some dogs seem more akin to this technique than others. The images in the slide show that have this “painterly” look were taken at f/5.6. I really like this technique, and am just learning how to use it effectively myself. So stay tuned…I’ll have more to say about it in a future post.

Of course, you can go the opposite direction for amazing clarity and tack sharp focus. This is achieved with tighter apertures, such as f/8.0 to f/11. Using Photoshop or some other editing software, bokeh can be added to bring out the primary subject by blurring other areas of the image or try increasing the clarity and/or contrast. This will help sharpen the image as well.

One more technique that I am still learning is to slow the shutter speed way down to create motion blur. The trick is to get a key part of the image in focus, such as the dog’s head as it launches towards the helper. Panning is a cool technique that is achieved by tracking the dog while in motion and keeping the camera moving while releasing the shutter. Ideally, the result is the dog is in focus, while the rest of the image is not. Think racecars zipping around a racetrack.

The images in the above slide show were taken at a recent seminar on out of motion exercises, offered by Frans Slaman. They show examples of these techniques and how to use focus to create dramatic images. Enjoy and happy shooting!

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