Monday, January 19, 2009

A 12 Step Program for Photographing Dogs

My New Year's Resolution last year was to take a good photo of my dog if it killed me (what can I say I'm a woman of modest ambitions). Fortunately it did not kill me. It did not even kill my wallet. It did not even drive me to drink although it may require me to join a Step 12 program for people addicted to photographing dogs.  I am not saying I'm the Man Ray of dog photography but I do feel like I've made some progress in the portrait realm. Previously there was something wrong with every shot I shot and often more than one.  Now at least 1 shot from every session comes out fairly useable and sometimes many more.  A few like my black corded puli are best sellers on iStockphoto and  those people are beyond picky. So here are a few tips if you would like to take better than average pictures of your bundle of fluffy joy. 

#1. Shut up and train your dog to stay...The longer Spanky or (insert your dog's name here) will sit or lay still the better your prospects for a nice sharp shot. More shall be revealed about training the all important "stay" in future editions. Yes I know it sucks to have that as the #1 thing I write and then for me to say "stay tuned". But unfortunately the stay is a whole other lesson. Hopefully you can paw through this other stuff while you work on the stay and then put everything  together at the end, Ok? 

#2. Shoot where there's lots of light. Dogs move fast even when they're sitting still. You will need BOTH a high shutter speed and an aperture of 5.6 or so to get the dog's face in focus from nose to eyes and get a sharp shot. Lots of light means at least a bright overcast day, at best early morning or late afternoon light casting its Hollywood glow across the countenance of Spanky. Lots of light does not mean direct sunlight at noon unless you can move into the shade. The more direct the sun, the more shadows to contend with and in photography unlike say watercolor, shadow=not good.  You can use flash if you must but please consult someone like Strobist about getting the flash off the camera so you won't have scary dog eyes. Nothing ruins a dog portrait faster than green eyes of the hellhound.  And remember how much you don't like flash. Dogs don't either. If you must shoot indoors light from a window and some reflectors or cool lights are probably a better bet than flash with your dog. 

#3. Use an SLR which won't suffer shutter delay. It is almost impossible to get the shot you want of a dog if there's shutter delay; they are just too fast.

#4. If you're going to hand hold the camera try a 50mm prime lens. That might sound scary and expensive but its not. They used to call the 50mm the "normal" lens because its so basic and for alot of other reasons that are too techy for this blog.  The beauty of this is real inexpensive lens that's really nice, really easy to use and really sharp. And did I mention CHEAP!  And its so tiny not even a chihuahua would be intimidated by it.  Also its very light weight so your hands will shake far less and your pics will be far sharper than with some zoom that has to work hard to focus and is stuffed with heavy machinery. At a 50 mm distance with the dog filling most of the frame you will be close enough to the dog to praise, reward or chastise him/her as needed.  A tripod is almost always better but tricky because as soon as you have it set it up and focused the dog will likely move. Even a dog with a good stay needs breaks even if its to catch a cookie or two before resuming posing. With dogs even with autofocus you just don't have time to futz around. 
#5. Get at Spanky's level. Again step #1 comes in handy here because if Spanky doesn't have a stay he will most likely saunter up and lick your lens if you're on his level. This is cute but not so good for getting a good shot. Placing Spanky on some sort of platform can help with this but make sure s/he's trained for a table. A happy dog makes much better pics than a dog needing Xanax and dogs can be afraid of heights. Also dog's can be full of daring-do and can jump off tables and break or tear things like legs and anterior cruciate ligaments.   So teach the stay first. Then teach the stay around the camera. Then teach the stay on the platform and then teach the stay with the dog on the platform and the camera nearby. Did I mention that if you hide your eyes behind the camera Spanky will think you can't see him/her and will break the stay (Spanky may be a dog but he has social skills and he thinks he knows when you aren't looking).  Either try to shoot using a remote release so your eyes aren't hidden or train the stay with your face covered by the camera. 

#6. If you shoot in aperture mode remember the higher the f stop number (eg the smaller the number) the shallower the depth of field (ie., fewer inches of the field of view that will be in focus). It can be really challenging  to get a nose, eyes, and the back of Spanky's  head in focus if you shoot at a small f stop especially if you follow the conventional wisdom of focusing about 1/3 of the way into your shot. Really where is 1/3 of the way into a dog's face if you are looking right at him? Its somewhere behind the nose but in front of the eyes and most likely covered up by the muzzle and impossible to focus on. With dogs with long muzzles,  I just waste the depth of field, bite the bullet and focus on Spanky's nose or the hair right behind it.  This also means using an f stop of more like 5.6 rather than the lovely 2.0 you could use with a flat faced person and which would really blur your background. 

#7. Try to find a neutral background. Ideally the dog should be the focus of the shot and everything else should blur nicely. You've already given up some of that potential by wasting depth of field focusing on/near the nose. Don't make things harder on yourself by having  a busy background too.  If you can find a solid colored background that contrasts with the dog you are barking up the right tree.  You can make a light background appear darker in your photo by moving the subject further away from the background. Just beware it might have to be a pretty tall wall if you want it to place Spanky far enough away from the wall to make it appear black while still having it fully surround him. 

#8. Start with a clean dog. Few things are more frustrating than a fabulous shot ruined or made into a photoshop day of hell because the Spankster has a dirty face, eyegrime, tear stains, seeds in his/her beard or grass on his/her tongue etc...

#9. Try to get Spanky to look at you. Portraits need to be focused nose to eyes AND they need catchlights in the dogs eyes. This is where shooting with a remote and tripod can come in handy because you can stand a bit above the camera which is at dog level and direct the dog's eye contact upwards hopefully resulting in the all important lively catchlight sparkling in Spanky's eyes. Remember no catchlight and Spanky will look like Taxidermy.  As you focus, fill your frame with Spanky. The more you fill, the more tail wagging good detail you'll end up with in your shot. 

10.  Bracket your exposures. This is very important with white dogs and black dogs. Trust me. Take several exposures around what you think the correct exposure is. You won't have time to check your exposure as you go (Spanky's not known for his patience) so bracket! I can't explain bracketing here but read your manual, figure it out and do it. You'll thank me later. If you don't bracket you can rest assured you'll end up with your camera metering off your pale dog and making everything too dark or your dark dog and making everything too bright.  Please bracket. 

#11. Press that button quickly and often. You almost can't take too many frames per second.  If you've gone to the trouble to scout a spot with a good background, teach Spanky to stay, AND given him a bath you might as well make use of every scrap of time you have for this little project by shooting as many frames as you can. It took me over 333 frames to get one useable pic of 2 terriers in a chair.  Shoot as if your life depends on it.  

#12. Keep the sessions short. Spanky will be alot more willing to participate next time (and practice makes perfect) if you finish before Spanky's attention wanes. Maintaining Spanky's attention may also be mitigated by the liberal use of treats. Cookies tossed near but not at Spanky (unless he can catch in which case fire away) will keep Spanking inclined to remain firmly reclined where you plop him.  Starting with a hungry Spanky and using Chateaubriand can be helpful. Whatever you do, don't make him come to you for his cookies! He is supposed to be staying (remember rule #1) so take the vittles to the model! 

Lest you think this is an insanely long list you can always take Spanky to a professional photographer if you want to preserve his likeness for posterity. Or you could always bring him to see me; I've got this portrait thing semi-licked AND I charge amateur prices. But should you give this a go remember its a two-fold project. Not only will you have the fun of mastering your camera and portrait photography and possibly end up with some cheap really nice pictures of your BFF, Mr Spankenstien, but you will also give Spanky lots of short sessions on his Stay. And that as they say in the world of credit, is Priceless!   


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