Wally

When Wally stopped growing, I think it took a little while for his ears to get the memo.:-)But of course his ears only add to his charm, and what this awesome dude lacks in size he more than makes up in personality and spirit.

I had the pleasure of meeting this speckled fellow and his people recently for a shoot in the beautiful Presidio in San Francisco. “He can be shy around new people,” I’d been warned ahead of time — and at first Wally lived up to his end of the bargain. But shyness is nothing next to a little patience, a little love, and a healthy helping of treats, and in no time at all Wally and I were fast friends.

Rescued by his people through the San Francisco SPCA last year, Wally has found himself a loving home. He gets to spend time outdoors exploring the sights and sounds of the city, and is a big fan of the beach (which unfortunately fogged over before we could get there that day!). He loves to run, play with other dogs, and can lay claim to an impressive vertical leap. He is an absolute joy to be around, and the time I got to spend with him is something that I will always cherish. The hardest part of getting to meet amazing dogs and people can be as simple as having to say goodbye after just a short time.

Thoughts on Composite Photos

The above shot of my Chocolate Lab, Samantha, is one of my favorite photos. Unfortunately, it isn’t real. At least, not completely real — it’s a composite of about thirty photos blended together, and an example of using software and low-cost workarounds to achieve a creative vision that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive or just plain impossible.

This particular shot started with an idea: what would my sweet Brown Dog do if she were ever caught up in a spontaneous downpour of tennis balls? What would it look like? Now as much as I’d love to say that one day Sam and I were out for a walk and the blue skies just decided to open up and pelt us with thousands of tennis balls, or that I rented a hot air balloon and had someone dump balls by the bucket over the side while I waited for just the right moment, neither of those things would be true (though they would make for great stories)! But by using composite techniques you could make them seem true, and on a shoestring budget.

Using a Tripod and Remote Shutter Release

Here’s what was used for the tennis ball shot:

  • One Chocolate Lab:-)
  • Six tennis balls
  • A tripod
  • A remote shutter release

That’s it! No hot air balloons, no crazy weather. But despite this kind of shot’s simplicity, there are still a few considerations to be made.

First: How much time do you want to invest in the composite process? If you want to make the job easier, you can frame your shot against a static background. This will give you some leeway when masking individual photos and will allow you to avoid painstaking blending on an almost pixel-by-pixel basis. The same is also true for lighting! Shadows that move across your background, or even just the luminance of the sky deepening or lightening as the sun changes position can make your job more difficult.

Second: Frame your shot around your subject and set the desired focus. As soon as you set your focus, you should change your focusing mode to manual and ensure that you keep your focus consistent for the rest of the shot. This will ensure that your focal plane will stay consistent throughout the series of photos that you’re going to blend together, which is key for achieving a realistic look. For example, it would look odd if objects, based on their depth within the shot, were to appear in focus when they should appear blurred because your focus had changed.

After you have your subject framed and your focus set, you can just have fun with it.  For this shot, I was throwing the tennis balls, 4-6 at a time, in the air over and over while using the remote shutter release (I imagine that anyone watching must have been very amused; I’m pretty sure Sam thought I had lost my marbles). I then used Adobe Lightroom to make uniform adjustments to the photos, imported each photo into Photoshop and began the process of blending them together using layer masks.

So in the end, the tennis balls did rain down from the sky — just not all at once.  :-)

Stitching Photos that Overlap

Photos for a composite don’t all have to be taken with your camera mounted to a tripod, however. Take, for instance, the below shot of Bullitt the Border Collie. One of the aims of my shoot with Bullitt was to capture both his athleticism and his love for catching his cute watermelon frisbee. As I was looking through the photos from his (super fun) shoot, I saw a string of shots where Bullitt tracked and spectacularly caught his frisbee in mid-air. When I noticed that the focal plane stayed consistent in each shot and that the backgrounds overlapped, I saw the potential for a truly unique photo of Bullitt completely in his element.

Unlike the tennis ball photo, my camera wasn’t mounted on a tripod. Instead, I was panning horizontally as Bullitt ran through the grass. But just as with the first photo, the focal plane stayed consistent in each photo, and the backgrounds overlapped enough that I could blend the photos together. The final composite pulls material together from five vertical crops.

One thing to note with this technique is that lens constraints, like light fall-off or loss of sharpness in edges and corners, can make the seams between the shots more noticeable. Keeping the blended portions in the middle of the frame will help alleviate these imperfections, as will the use of corrective lens profiles in software or the use of careful touch-up.

Using Composite to Extend Dynamic Range

Another method of composite work can involve separate copies of the same shot adjusted to different exposure levels, color temperatures, etc. In this shot of Peaches, for example, the difference in illumination between the foreground and the background was so great that I was forced to choose between exposing for one or the other. So of course I exposed for the cute Corgi! I was then able to take a different copy of the same photo and make some exposure adjustments before blending the two together. The result is a composite photo that, ironically, more accurately depicted what my eyes saw than what any one individual shot would have.

Saving the Day with Leash Removal

Creating a composite for the purposes of leash removal can be an incredible time-saver when compared to another method, such as cloning. For the below shot, I switched my focus to manual after capturing the frame and took a blank frame of just the background. While I did not use a tripod (and tried to remain as still as possible, though I failed!), I recommend one for best results. Afterward it was as simple as matching up and masking in the blank background to remove the leash and shadow.

The ability to work with and assemble composite photographs can be an incredibly useful skill to have at your disposal. Not only does it allow you virtually limitless creative possibilities, it can save also you time in the editing process and help you salvage photos that otherwise might not be up to your usual standard.

As with just about everything in photography, there is certainly more than one way to do the things that assembling a composite allows you to accomplish, and composite may not always be the best tool for the job. After all, many photographers (and rightfully so) will talk about “getting it right” in camera. But if you happen to make a mistake, or if you’d like to add a surreal special effect to a photo without breaking the bank, it’s always nice to have an alternative in post!

 

Thoughts on Capturing Action

Every pet photographer has likely experienced the feeling of controlled chaos that sometimes comes along with photographing animals. When you bring an excited dog into a new place with new people and then proceed to throw some toys, some running, and some treats into the mix, sometimes you have to just roll with the inevitable exuberance that follows. And why have it any other way? After all, boundless energy is often a large part of what makes our companions who they are. Capturing that energy, whether it’s expressed as a running dog or a boxing cat, can be a great way to convey an animal’s character and give your images a dynamic feel.

Shooting action is not without its challenges, however, and can require an investment in learning new techniques and acquiring specialized gear. Fortunately for us, the learning curve is short and the payoff rewarding. Below are some of my (somewhat rambling) thoughts on the subject of getting started with action photography:

 

It’s All About the Settings

There are several important camera setting adjustments required for capturing fast-moving action: focusing mode, drive mode, focus point selection, and shutter speed.

The two largest SLR manufacturers by market share, Canon and Nikon, both offer continuous focusing modes on their camera bodies. On Canon cameras, the mode is called “AI Servo”; on Nikon cameras the mode is called “AF-C”. Since I work with Canon equipment I’ll stick to Canon terminology for simplicity’s sake, but both systems offer the same functionality.

AI Servo differs from the other main focusing mode, “One Shot” (or “AF-S” for Nikon), in that, in AI Servo mode, the camera’s focusing system constantly works to maintain focus. In One Shot mode, the AF system will no longer attempt to focus once focus lock has been achieved. This makes One Shot a very poor focusing mode for action. For example, if you were to use One Shot to attempt to photograph a dog running straight at you, your fast-moving subject will have already moved through the focus plane by the time the AF system achieves focus and you release the shutter. In AI Servo mode, however, the AF system will never lock, but will continuously work to keep in focus the portion of the image that is covered by the active focus point.

At the same time, you’ll also want to make sure that the drive mode — the setting which controls shutter release frequency — on your camera is set to continuous. If your camera’s drive mode is set to single, the shutter will only release once per button depress! In continuous drive mode, the shutter will release continuously for as long as the shutter button is depressed (until you fill your camera’s write buffer). It’s important to have as many shots as possible when capturing fast-moving action, since not every shot will be a keeper (as seen below).

Focus point selection is another important component to capturing action. Since I (and many other pet photographers) use a style of photography referred to as “selective focus”, where a very specific portion of the image is in the focal plane, I prefer not to let the camera body’s focusing system try to automatically determine which portion of the image should be in focus for me. Instead I use a single focus point, which I can quickly change as needed. I carry this style of focus point selection over to my action shots. I simply choose the focus point myself and make sure that the portion of the image I want to keep in focus falls — and stays — under the chosen focus point, allowing the AF system to work while I snap away.

The last camera setting of major importance to capturing fast-moving action is shutter speed. If you want to completely freeze action you’ll have to use a very fast shutter speed. Depending on lighting conditions and how quickly my subject is moving, I typically like to shoot with a shutter speed of somewhere between 1/1000 and 1/2000 to achieve this effect. Anything faster than 1/2000 is typically unnecessary and will only make me adjust for the lower exposure by raising ISO, thereby degrading image quality. You can lower shutter speed to below 1/1000 if you’d like to give some fast-moving portions of the image, like paws, a slight motion blur, but you may end up with motion blur in other parts of the image as well. As always when changing any setting that will affect exposure, I make sure to adjust other exposure settings — ISO and aperture — accordingly.

Before I move on, I also wanted to touch on the subject of aperture and depth of field. If you’re having trouble keeping your subject in focus you can always stop down the aperture of your lens and give yourself a wider focal plane. At larger apertures, even the best equipment can sometimes struggle to maintain focus on fast moving subjects.

Positioning: Subtle Differences Add Up

Great! So we’ve got our settings down and we’re freezing action like pros. How else can we differentiate our shots? Positioning! Oftentimes for me positioning is a balancing act in which I try to maintain optimal lighting, compositional, and background conditions that result in well-lit photos and yet contain no unwanted distracting background elements.

Unless I’m going for a specific shot that dictates otherwise, I always like to get down on the same level as my subject. The same is true for action shots. Usually I’ll either be lying flat on my stomach or hunkered down as low as I can go in a squatting position. Photos taken from this angle typically create a better connection with the subject than photos taken from standing level.

At the same time I’m also of course paying attention to the background and trying to keep it as uncluttered as possible. Having a lens with a long focal length, which can compress the background, and a wide maximum aperture, which can reduce the depth of field, is very helpful in reducing any unavoidable distractions.

Getting a Leg Up with Equipment

As is often the case in photography, equipment — from the camera itself to memory cards — does play a role in one’s ability to effectively capture action on a consistent basis. That’s not to say that the best, most specialized gear is required — much can often be done with quite little — but there are key specifications to watch out for in equipment that will make your life easier when trying to photograph, for instance, a 100+ lb. Saint Bernard running full speed right at you.

Camera: There are three components to a camera that can make it a more effective tool for capturing action: the number of focus points and their accuracy, the amount of frames the camera can capture per second (FPS), and the number of images the camera can write (or buffer) to the memory card at a time.

  1. Focus points: Auto focus, specifically continuous auto focus, is a fantastic tool for capturing fast-moving action. Rather than pre-focusing on a specific point in space and timing the shutter release — thus being held helpless to capture whatever your subject is doing at that moment — you can simply focus on your subject as it moves and snap all along the way. To achieve this goal, however, we are completely reliant on the efficacy — for not all focus points are created equally — and placement of our cameras’ auto focus points.  Cross-type focus points, or dual cross-type points, offer much improved focus tracking (due to their greater sensitivity) over simpler vertical line focus points and are highly desirable for action. Furthermore, a focus system that has cross-type focus points spread across the viewfinder will offer you greater flexibility when composing a shot, rather than having to rely on a center point and recomposing in post. Note that some focus points will only act as cross-type or dual cross-type points when using certain lenses with maximum apertures equal to or less than a specific f-number, typically 2.8 or 4.0. The focus points that act in this manner will vary by camera.
  2. Frames per Second (FPS): The best moments in action photos are fleeting, and having a camera body that can capture a higher number of frames per second gives you a better opportunity to catch that perfect shot on the first or second try, rather than the third, fourth, or even fifth.
  3. Write Speed/Buffer Size: All the FPS in the world would be useless without the ability to quickly write image files to your memory card. And even then, the camera’s write speed is only half the equation: make sure your memory cards are capable of being written to quickly as well.

Lens: In order for a lens to be a more effective tool for capturing action it should have a: 1) long focal length; 2) quick and accurate focusing motor; and 3) while not required, a wide aperture is a nice bonus.

  1. Long focal length: A long focal length (generally 70mm and up) on a lens is useful for capturing action for several reasons: it allows the subject to move around unimpeded by your presence, allowing he or she to act more naturally while keeping you both safe from injury. At the same time, a long focal length also helps to compress the image background, helping to isolate your subject and assist in blurring out any unwanted distractions.
  2. Fast and accurate focusing: Lenses with fast and accurate focusing mechanisms — on Canon these are denoted as “USM” (or Ultrasonic) lenses — are one of the most important components of a pet photography equipment stable in general, but they are especially valuable when shooting any fast-paced action.
  3. Wide Aperture (bonus!): A wide aperture will not only assist in subject isolation, but will also allow more light into the lens, thereby allowing you to keep shutter speeds higher before having to increase exposure by raising ISO.

Again, equipment meeting the above specifications isn’t required for capturing action, but it will certainly help you achieve consistent results. I’m consistently amazed by the ingenuity and talent of photographers all over the world who do more with less, and those working in action photography are no exception.

If you’re unfamiliar with shooting action or have found yourself frustrated by out-of-focus or motion-blurred photos, it’s my hope that my rambling here has at least somewhat helped you! Action shots are a great way to capture a different side of your dog or cat, and I’ve often found that the photos, like our companions themselves, while sometimes goofy, are almost always joyful.

Charm and Roxy

Charm and Roxy are an amazingly fun pair of dogs, different in as many ways as they are alike! Roxy is a Chihuahua — with possibly some Miniature Pinscher in the mix somewhere — practically bursting with the energy and vibrancy of her youth. She doesn’t just run, she flies across the ground at a speed that defies expectations! Charm the Pug lives up to his name in the biggest way possible, and at 13 years young, mostly deaf and blind, I can happily say that age has not blunted his love of life (or food) whatsoever. His runs may be more deliberate but no less enthusiastic than Roxy’s, and he lays down some of the best high fives I’ve ever seen from a dog.

These two are still settling into their forever home (and what a great home it is — the dedication and love from their handlers is amazing) but they get along as if they’ve spent their entire lives with one another.

Rocco

The first thing that struck me about Rocco was his size — when you’ve grown used to having a 45 pound “mini” Lab around the house it’s easy to forget just how big Labs can be. And Rocco’s not just big, he’s 90+ pounds of gregarious goofiness bundled into a shiny black coat of fur, all smiles and floppy ears. He is also a stick-destroying retrieving machine. So, naturally, he got to celebrate his 8th birthday in part by doing what he does (and loves) best: running, dock jumping, hanging with his peeps, and showing sticks who’s boss (or trying to — he ran across a pretty formidable opponent that managed to survive).

Rocco is a not-so-subtle reminder of what I love about not just Labs, but all dogs: their seemingly boundless enthusiasm for the simple joys in life. After all, it’s not the size of the stick that matters, but who you get to bring it back to at the end of a retrieve.

F a c e b o o k