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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Hirsch’

This past week I had an opportunity to photograph dogs, cats and other critters at a friend’s farm. She also owns the kennel where our dogs stay when we’re traveling to places dogs cannot go. The purpose of the photo shoot was to grab some great shots for my BJ Spanos Ink Photography portfolio. The added benefit, though, is I was reminded of how paying attention to depth of field can add an artsy look to photos as well as remove distractions.

How many times have you taken a photo of a Schutzhund (IPO) dog at work and realized that not only is the dog in focus, but so is everything else in the field of view (see image below). I’ve taken plenty – more than I care to remember! Tends to be rather distracting, doesn’t it? The viewer’s focus is diffused over the entire image rather than drawn into the focal point, which in this case is the dog going over the one-meter hurdle.

Depth of Field-11

There’s a reason I used the word “diffused” to describe the viewer’s experience, as it directly relates to depth of field. Consider the image below.

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The background is diffused, and the dog and helper are in focus as is a bit of the foreground. The viewer’s eye is drawn right to the action, even though there’s a bit of interest in the upper right with the horses grazing. It adds a bit of symmetry to the image.

As a review, depth of field is the area of acceptable focus or sharpness. It extends from the nearest to the farthest part of the subject area in focus. Depth of field is controlled via the aperture and focal length of the lens. As you know, changing the aperture size directly affects the overall sharpness of the image. A small aperture, say f/11 or f/16, results in a deeper depth of field than a large aperture, say f/2.8 or f/5. The wider open the aperture, the shallower the depth of field; that is, the less area is within the zone of focus. What this means is at wider apertures, the subject will be in focus, but the area in front and behind the subject may be softly focused and/or even have a nice blur effect, called bokeh.

For a detailed explanation of depth of field and lens focal length, I refer you to Robert Hirsch’s book Light and Lens: Photography for a Digital Age. An earlier post from December 2010, entitled Using Aperture and Shutter Speed Creatively, also offers a good review and discusses how to balance ISO, aperture and shutter speed to get creative images. This post relies heavily on Bryan Peterson’s expertise. Worth re-reading in conjunction with this post.

Back to this week’s photo shoot. Much of the photo shoot took place in a hay field with very tall grass and just letting our two dogs, Kira and Brio, be dogs. They did not disappoint.

Depth of Field-1

This image of Brio showed me how cool “hay on the hoof” looks with a soft focus. It has a neat texture. Yet, Brio is kind of lost in the brush. So, with a bit of cropping, he becomes much more the focal point.

Depth of Field-3

The next image is Kira in the hay and shows the textured look of the blurred out background even better. Also, notice the foreground is blurred too, so that only the area around Kira is totally in focus, especially her face and the ball.

Depth of Field-5

To close out this post are a few additional examples from the photo shoot of how using depth of field can add drama to images, while minimizing distracting backgrounds. They feature two of our friend’s five dogs, one of her 11 cats and one of her three horses, plus a neighbor’s horse. I particularly like the image of the pit bull mix coming into the field of focus, like he’s jumping right out of the picture. So, the next time  you’re out shooting, remember depth of field is more than just getting the subject into focus. It can add interest and drama to your images and help focus the viewer (yea – I know – a pun!). Until next time, Happy Shooting!

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In an earlier post about perspective, the question was asked, “How low can you go?” In Schutzhund (IPO) photography, it’s a lot easier to go low than go high or wide, mostly because that is what is available as Schutzhund fields do not offer a wide variety of opportunities to stand on ladders and peer down on the dogs. Also, shooting wide often yields more field than anything else.

On the other hand, higher angles allow for the “surrounding environment to take on more prominence,” as described in Robert Hirsch’s book, Light and Lens: Photography in the Digital Age. The higher you go, the less important the subject in the overall image. Higher angles suggest “vulnerability, weakness or the harmlessness and/or openness of the subject.” Obviously, in Schutzhund or IPO, photographers do not want to show dogs as vulnerable, weak or harmless. On the other hand, it’s an interesting perspective in the protection work to see how much of the field the dog is asked to cover in the various attack exercises or the long bite.

Bird’s eye views are rarely available to Schutzhund photographers and are not the best choice as they can be “perplexing an disorienting to viewers…A bird’s eye view enables viewers to hover over the subject from a Divine perspective. A subject appears inconsequential, reinforcing the idea of fate or destiny – that something beyond the subject’s control is going to happen.”  The higher up, the less the action is apparent and the less impressive it becomes.

The same can be said for oblique angles, where the horizontal line is at a very odd angle or tilted to one side. As Robert Hirsch explains, “This may suggest angst, imbalance, impending movement, tension or transition, indicating a precarious situation of the verge of change.” An oblique angle may be a creative choice during those brief moments of transition in the hold and barks, right before the escape bite, and as the handler approaches the dog and helper. Yet, so much of Schutzhund is about precision that I am not sure oblique angles really show the sport or the dogs to their best advantage.

On the other hand, at home, photographers can have a lot of fun photographing dogs from various angles. The slide show above shows one of my favorite pictures of our dog, Kira. She was sitting in the backyard and I was on our porch. I aimed the camera from my perch dead center on her. The result is a photo that looks a bit like a fish eye. Another image taken in our pasture, shows Kira and Eli (Leroy v. Rietnisse) chewing on sticks. I like this photo as it over dramatizes the difference in sizes between Kira and Eli and between the sizes of the sticks each choose. Also included is a picture of Kira taken in my office, very much up close and personal as a counter point. Other images in the slide show were taken at higher angles than at field levels. Photos like this are only possible when taken at a stadium, unless you are able to stage a shot on a club field. Now, that would be a fascinating experiment!

So, from this photographer’s perspective, shooting at angles that best show the action up close and personal is preferable as what I am really after is to show the power and impressive nature of these magnificent animals, as well as their skill and tremendous training.

On a personal note: My husband and I are in the process of moving to a new home and shortly thereafter embarking on a trip to Antarctica over Christmas! If you would like to follow our travels, visit the Lindblad / National Geographic website, where daily expedition reports are posted. We are traveling on the National Geographic Explorer. The expedition leaves on December 19 from Ushuaia, Argentina!

Please understand if I am not able to get another post in until just after the New Year! I will try, but my time right now is very much not my own. Yes, I am taking my camera and will share a lot of photos from Antarctica! Until then, best wishes for a joyous holiday season and a happy, healthy New Year!  Thank you for visiting and Happy Shooting!

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While there is never a dull moment in Schutzhund or one picture that is ever the same as another, Schutzhund photographs can begin to look alike after a while. That is because most Schutzhund photos are taken at eye level; that is, the photographer is standing and shooting parallel to the ground and directly at the dog and/or handler. The advantage to this shooting angle is it puts the subject on equal footing with the viewer. The disadvantage is the images can look like snapshots as well as a thousand other Schutzhund photos.

A great way to add a new dimension to your photography is to change your shooting angle. This next set of posts will explore shooting from different angles.

First up, ask yourself this simple question: How low can you go? By shooting from a low angle, you can enhance the impression of power and motion. As Robert Hirsch in is book, Light and Lens: Photography in the Digital Age, describes, “An individual figure becomes more heroic and larger than life.” What better impression to convey of a Schutzhund dog?

Also, consider that power is an important concept in Schutzhund training and trials, especially during the protection phase. Try zooming in to give the dog more prominence and the appearance of dominance. Be careful, though, not to have the dog and/or handler appear to be looming, which can take away from the awe and reverence your viewers might feel when studying the image.

The images in the slide show above offer a few examples. Several are of puppies. Photographing them at a low angle helps to make them appear larger than life and really shows off their personalities. The viewer also can see the dog’s potential! The image of the ball pick up puts the viewer right into the action, which can be very exciting, as does the image of the recall. The blind running pictures again put the viewer right into the action, and in one of the images, the dog is looking right down the barrel of the lens. Now that’s a bit intimidating! The other images are more portrait style and just show a different perspective.

The following offers a few tips for achieving good success with low angle shooting:

  • Don’t be afraid to get in close to the action and either kneel or lay down, if you can do so safely and not interfere with the dog and/or handler.
  • Use a beach chair to save the knees.
  • If the Schutzhund field has a hill or sets on top of a rise, position yourself just below the field, and then shoot at eye level. This is how the images of the gray sable puppy were taken. The puppy was actually looking me right in the lens.
  • Consider the background carefully, as well as the sky, as they can provide a dramatic backdrop.
  • If the opportunity presents itself, get creative and try staging a planned shot.

Let me know what you come up with, and as always, happy shooting!

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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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Light can be both friend and foe to photographers, especially to those of us who like to photograph dogs in action. Regardless of the light conditions, it is always a challenge. As Robert Hirsch notes in his book Light and Lens: Photography in the Digital Age: “There is no time of the day or year when the sunlight is photographically better than another. However, it may be more suitable for a particular subject. At various times of day and in different seasons, light takes on a range of unique physical attributes, each with its own emotional and tactile qualities.”

With this in mind, this post turns from an earlier discussion of quantifying light as tool for determining camera settings for optimal exposure to using the quality of light as a tool for optimal artistic expression. Yes, Schutzhund (IPO) photography is an art, so artistic expression is applicable and encouraged. It also separates the snap shots from the really great dramatic shots we all love so much and strive to emulate. And, I sincerely believe that the artful expression of Schutzhund through photography helps to promote the sport and make it more accessible to those who are not familiar with it, its purpose, and the marvelous dogs and people who dedicate many hours to it.

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While you continue reading, take a look at the slide show above and consider how the quality of the light changes the mood of the images. Consider how they might look under different lighting. They illustrate what Robert Hirsch calls “The Circle of Light”; that is, how the quality of light changes throughout the day and year, as follows:

  • Before sunrise: The outdoor environment can be seen as black and white, with light showing as cool and shadowy, and with muted, flat and opalescent colors. Colors become more intense as the sun rises.
  • Morning: Early in the morning, the sun’s rays are low. Warmer colors show through. Shadows look blue. By mid-morning, the light begins to lose its warm quality and starts to appear clear and white. This is because the full spectrum of light is able to penetrate the atmosphere, and entire spectrum of light together is white. For a more technical description of light rays, see an earlier post on understanding white balance and color temperature.
  • Midday: The higher the sun rises, the greater the contrast between colors. At noon, the light is white, so colors stand out strongly. Shadows are black and deep, and contrast is at its peak. Subjects can look like three-dimensional cuts outs against the background. Also, at this time of day, the light may be too harsh for many subjects. We all can relate to this when we try to photograph black, white or dark sable dogs.
  • Afternoon: As the sun begins to set, the light warms up again. On clear evenings, subjects can take on a warm, surreal glow. Reds get stronger, and shadows lengthen and become bluer. Also, greater detail can be shown.
  • Twilight / Evening: There is still a lot of light after sunset, although it may be not enough to capture dogs in action without artificial light sources. Light at this time of day is very soft, and contrast and shadow is at a minimum. Again, this is not ideal for photographing dogs, but it is a great time of the day for landscapes. Check out Peter Lik’s work some time.
  • Night: Unless you are under stadium lights, photographing Schutzhund dogs working at night is a feat of extreme courage. The light is harsh and contrast extreme. Long exposures and high ISO settings are needed, which is not conducive to capturing action. Still, it may produce a unique, more abstract image.
The seasons also express different qualities of light. Winter features more muted and subtle colors. Spring brings more daylight and more colors as the sun rises higher in the sky. Summer has the harshest light, and it can be really difficult to get great photos, especially midday. Schutzhund fields are also notoriously reflective. Fall once again is a time of transition with less light, but more color in the foliage as fall leaves display their colors.
The weather also affects the quality of light. Fog and rain diffuses the light, creates a monochromatic look and tends to be cooler or blue. Light is scattered, so colors and contrasts are soft and subtle. Rain also mutes and softens color and contrast. Snow reflects any predominant color, according to Mr. Hirsch. Blue casts and shadows are common. It also can fool your camera’s meter as snow reflects a lot of light. Taking pictures later in the day may be better choice to bring out the rich texture in the snow. Mr. Hirsch has much more to say about light in his book, which as noted in previous posts, I strongly recommend. It has really helped me become a better, more artistic photographer.
Until next time, thanks for visiting!!


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Rectangles, triangles and squares play a big part in Schutzhund. Next time you’re on a Schutzhund field, look around you. The field itself is a rectangle, bordered by six triangular shaped blinds. The scaling wall is made up of two rectangles to form a A-frame (triangle). The inside of the find blind, as discussed in the previous post, is triangular in shape with rectangles forming the sides of the blind. The one-meter hurdle is a square, as is the Group formation in most trials. The tracking, obedience and protection routine patterns also are filled with these shapes. These patterns may be a little hard to show in a photograph, but they can be shown in video.

So, what does this have to do with Schutzhund photography?

Robert Hirsch in his book, Light and Lens: Photography in the Digital Age, explains: “Shape is often the chief structural compositional element, as it enables a viewer to immediately recognize a face, a structure or an object in a picture…A combination of different shapes can provide variety. For example, an outdoor scene can be made more attention-grabbing by contrasting the sharp, jagged shape of a fence with a soft, smooth curves of clouds and hills.”   According to Hirsch, there are four basic shapes:

  • Geometric shapes, such as circles, rectangles, squares and triangles
  • Natural shapes, such as plants, rocks, humans and animals
  • Abstract shapes are altered to their fundamental essence.
  • Non-objective shapes do not correspond to anything in the natural world but often are whimsical and delightful to view

As visual images, geometric shapes also have symbolic meanings, as follows:

  • Triangle: Three forces in equilibrium, the number three, aspiration, movement upward, a return to origins, sight and light
  • Rectangle: Rational and secure, grounds objects
  • Square: Firmness, stability, the number four

These meanings have direct relevance to Schutzhund, which is all about demonstrating stability of a dog’s temperament and balancing the dog’s performance in three phases, all of which are tied together by firm and happy obedience. And, while dogs are in constant motion, many of the elements that make up the Schutzhund field are very well grounded, which creates drama and “attention-grabbing contrast” as Hirsch points out.

Shapes also can define images by providing a frame. The picture below serves as a useful example.

The picture frame is a rectangle, which accentuates the effect of looking down at the dog and into her eyes. The dog’s face is triangular in shape as are her ears. Yet, the rocks are natural and of varying shapes, which offers a nice contrast with the geometric shapes. The image is both whimsical and soul searching, as any dog lover will tell you, looking into a dog’s eyes is to see h/her soul.

As with lines and space, being aware of shapes and their symbolic meanings, and purposely using them can significantly enhance your photographic compositions. They also can help your viewers understand what you are trying to communicate to them in your images.

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Lines are a powerful tool in creating dramatic and artistic photos. Although lines do not exist in nature, we humans create psychic lines to help us organize what we see. Photographers can use lines to guide viewers through their images. Photographers can also use lines to enhance action and energy, and add texture to a photo, which invites the viewer to touch the image with their eyes. Robert Hirsch in his book, Light and Lens: Photography in the Digital Age, explains:

“Psychic lines occur when we forge a mental connection between two points; usually when an object looks or points in a particular direction, our eyes will follow and draw an invisible line. Digital software allows image-makers to alter the quality of lines, rough and smooth, thick and thin to reinforce emotional and/or expressive qualities in the final composition…Lines can be flowing, majestic, or undulating. Lines can convey abstract or symbolic concepts. They can show you contour, emphasis, form, pattern, texture, and directional movement. Horizontal lines can express calmness, dignity, and magnificence, implying repose and stability. Vertical lines indicate an up and down flow that implies a smooth and continuous motion…Diagonal lines, being neither horizontal or vertical, are placed at angles within a composition. They are dynamic and indicate action, energy, and movement. “

Consider the image below. Notice how the boards frame the dog and helper. Also notice the helper’s eyes locked in on the dog’s eyes, which draws the viewer to the primary focal point – the interaction between the dog and the helper. This vertical line continues down the dog’s back. The vertical wood boards, which make up the blind, accentuate the motion of the viewer’s eyes up and down the image. The wood grain, with the photo effect added in post-processing, provides texture and gives the image a gritty look. Protection work can be gritty, especially in the blind with dog kicking up dust and spraying spit.

This second image of the hold and bark shows similar vertical lines, but notice how the helper is standing. His legs are placed diagonally to his body and thereby create a triangular A-frame shape, which mimics the shape of the blind. The post running up the middle of blind, to me, reinforces the sense of the helper backed into a corner with his back against the wall. More power to the dog!

The image below combines both the power of shapes and lines. More about shapes in an up-coming post. But for now, look at how the edge of the field at the drop-off down the hill creates a visual separation between the background and the primary subject area. Also notice the handlers’ position with legs spread wide (another A-frame), which frames the dog. What is most powerful to me in this image is the vertical line from the handler’s head to the dog’s head and the parallel lines created by both the handler and dog looking in the same direction with the same intensity.

Photography teachers and masters encourage their students to visualize an image before taking it. That is great advice, but it is easier said than done when the scene is far from static. Even so, be aware of possible lines as your survey the field and position yourself. Think about how the handler or the helper stands and use it to frame the action. In post-processing, look for lines and consider how to use them to enhance your images. Also remember, the Rule of Thirds, which divides an image into nine quadrants. Recall that the intersections of these quadrants are key visual areas; where the viewer’s eyes will tend to go first. The lines in the Rule of Thirds also are key visual guides, as explained in an earlier post.

Next up – More about Shapes. Thanks for visiting. As always, I would enjoy hearing from you! Until next time….

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