What I’m hearing from readers is this: In your dog blog, don’t tell us how to take professional pet portraits; rather, tell us how to take pictures of family pets doing what they do day-in and day-out. Give us real, practical advice on how to use what equipment we have to capture the fun, energetic, and loving things our dogs do.
That’s precisely what this week’s column is about. It’s a lesson from an impromptu five-minute photo session of our ten week-old puppy, Rowan, just after a hike in a local state park. The resulting image (above) captures a fun expression, but it is not the perfect pic.
Last Wednesday, our oldest daughter, Sarah, and I hiked a short trail at Malabar Farm State Park to a sandstone cave. After hiking the trail—where we could run a bit of energy out of our ten week-old puppy!—I grabbed my camera and one lens to take some informal shots. I asked Sarah to climb up on a large sandstone boulder, taking Rowan with her.
Without anything but my on-camera flash and a fixed 35mm lens, I tried to depict our pooch perched atop the rock. I dialed the ISO up and opened up the aperture to get Rowan in focus and throw Sarah pleasingly out of focus. The problem was that Rowan was not exactly worn out. Not even close! Indeed, Rowan was just getting going. As you pet owners know, it takes a whole lot more than a half-mile hike to tire a dog.
While Sarah held her pose nicely, li’l Rowan was going everywhere and doing it a high speed. Getting our fur ball in focus—even with a quick AF camera and lens—was nearly impossible. I started shooting stopped down a bit and then realized that I would need to set the aperture wide open and use the highest shutter speed possible.
Just after my second exposure, Rowan came toward the camera and stopped for a brief moment, curious about what I was doing. She wondered, “What’s that big black box pointed at her face?” (Get ready, Rowan, you’ll see plenty more lenses pointed at you!)
I snapped the shutter and then looked at the back. Hey! I had a pretty good shot: dog in the foreground, daughter softly out of focus in the background, and two parts of the leash and Sarah’s left leg providing leading lines to the dog. Hoping to get more, I continued shooting.
Suffice it to say that the photo session went downhill from there, literally as she descended the rock over and over and metaphorically as I became more exasperated. In total I only fired off eleven shots. After Rowan’s very brief pause, she never stood still again. Soon I put the camera down so that picture-taking frustration would not put a damper on a beautiful evening stroll with Sarah and Rowan.
Back in the studio, I uploaded the photos. Woo-hoo! Despite the puppy’s frenetic movement, I’d done pretty well on that third frame. I’d captured a cute, inquisitive look. That’s one of our goals in dog photography, isn’t it? To show the many-splendored ways our dogs emote. The shot depicted an inquisitive expression as she confronted my camera. Soon enough this encounter will be old hat, but I had recorded the look while things were new to her.
Yes! There were three nice leading lines bringing viewers’ eyes to the main subject, Rowan. The draped leash and Sarah’s leg also directed attention to our pup. Of course, these kind of shots happen so fast that it’s hard to plan the placement of all such lines, but, with practice, framing them becomes second nature. The more you practice, the more you automatically gravitate to good camera positions.
Finally, my plan to use a wide aperture resulted in Sarah being nicely out of focus behind Rowan. The fine bokeh of the 35mm lens (“bokeh” is how pleasingly a lens produces out-of-focus elements) allowed our silky-soft pup to emerge from a beautifully-blurred background.
Then I saw a problem: When I enlarged the image on my studio display, instead of Rowan’s eyes being in focus, her nose was in focus. Rule number one of portraiture is “The eyes must be in focus.” Oh, well! So much for that image. Three out of four things done right isn’t bad. I decided to move on.
But then I stopped myself: I paused to ponder, “What are my photographic goals?” Is the goal to achieve technical perfection? Certainly there are more important ends, I decided, such as producing emotion in viewers, making people smile or laugh. To be sure, the cute expression on Rowan is arresting and evocative. She looks so puppyish, so cute with curiosity. I decided that this picture could produce positive responses despite one imperfection.
I loaded the file into Photoshop to see just how much I could improve this less-than-perfect image. My exercise was rewarded. In Photoshop I applied the Nik Sharpener Pro plug-in selectively to the area around Rowan’s eyes, and—voila!—the eyes now appear reasonably in focus.
This picture, though not perfect, makes viewers happy. What more can you ask of a puppy picture?
Want to read more? Check out David’s other dog blogs: