Dog Photos in Alberta Canola fields – How I shot it

Two weeks ago I was invited last minute to attend the Shape Up Agility Summer Camp at the RexPlex dog training and agility centre. Usually I show up to events like this, take a bunch of agility shots, post them on my SmugMug site, then hope to make some sales. I have been increasingly aware of return on investment and my goals for this year are to improve my art while increasing profitability. I decided to approach the event a little differently than in the past so I posted on the Facebook page for the event and offered mini portrait sessions. I was very surprised at the almost immediate response. Within 1 hour  35 people commented they would be interested. I had only been to the location once in the middle of winter so I was a little unsure as to what the location would offer but I am confident I’m my environmental pet portraiture skills.

Saturday morning came and I did my usual packing OCD and ensured I had all of my equipment ready, including my trusty StrobePro battery powered strobe,  octabox, and heavy duty roller stand. I pulled up to the location and I could not have asked for a more perfect Alberta scene. Amazing blue skies with puffy white clouds over top the most amazingly brilliant yellow canola fields in full bloom!! One of my goals for this year is to improve my skills combining off camera flash with daylight and I could not have asked for a better opportunity!

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I wanted the dogs to be above / in the flower parts of the canola which is about 4 feet tall. As I had not been expecting this venue, I did not have a table or platform for the models. I searched around and was able to borrow a table from one of the competitors that put them at just the right height.

I set my shutter at 1/200 to be within my strobe’s sync speed and my f-stop at f/11 to endure decent focus and depth of field. I used my Canon 24-105mm f/4 L at 24 mm to get that nice wide angle effect I was looking for. Lunch break came for the competitors and I had a line of customers waiting for their turn. They were all super patient as I was not prepared for the huge rush!
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I could not be more thrilled with the results!!!!! The final product did need some work in post processing to get the images you see here. I only shoot in RAW so I have as much information as possible to work with in my files. I imported all the images into Lightroom and created a preset to use as a starting point for each image. This preset included a mild sharpen, lens distortion correction, increase in blue saturation, decrease in blue luminance, a shadows adjustment and a moderate dehaze adjustment. Each image was then further adjusted individually.

The first is the RAW image and the second shows the final product:

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Border Collie in Canola

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I was so busy that I decided to rearrange my Sunday so I could go back and offer more people the chance to take advantage of my mini sessions in this amazing location. I was beyond excited to drive up to see this immensely dramatic storm cell moving over the canola field! This provided me a completely different feel for the portraits!!! I had to pack up my gear two different times to save it from rain but the results are worth every second! Shape Up Summer Camp-795-2 Shape Up Summer Camp-646-2

 

I have been lucky enough to have several more shoots with clients wanting this type of shot for their fur babies. Here are some more samples of my Canola series:

Sigma 120-300 f2.8 OS Sport Lens Test and Review

Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 Test and Review

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Today I was given the opportunity to try out the new Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 Sport lens. On first opening the bag that is included with purchase, first impression is WOW. This lens is put together incredibly well. Focus and zoom rings are very smooth and easy to access. This lens is HEAVY. Very heavy. After 2 hours of hand holding I was definitely feeling it. Most people will want a monopod or tripod with this lens.

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I shoot a lot of dog agility so very fast moving small objects. I currently use the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS ii and I find I am usually putting an extender on to get that extra reach. The trouble is losing that stop of light can result in a lot of soft images due to the speed of the subjects. I wanted to put this lens through its paces as I can not afford both lenses in my kit, so I would be deciding between the two lenses. Going “offbrand” does make me a little nervous, but Sigma’s new quality control and manufacturing processes are well documented all over the internet.

Overall I was fairly impressed. My “hit ratio” was a little lower than normal, but I think that was due to me having to get used to the extra weight and reach. By the second hour I think I was back up to my normal success rate. I shoot mostly in AI Servo mode with single focus point so I need the lens to focus quickly and accurately. This lens was provided by my local Sigma rep to try so I have no idea if any of the settings were changed or not. With my own copy of this lens I would do a calibration test. This is a series of images fired off – the first shot is a little soft, but then the lens targeted right in and the rest of the sequence is very sharp. Shot at 300mm from about 100 feet away.

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The optional USB dock from Sigma is very affordable and allows several customizable features in the lens. This would be invaluable for what I shoot. Being able to customize things like focal ranges and focus “styles” are wonderful inventions from Sigma. Well played folks!!!

Here are more shots from today, please scroll through to the bottom for a special surprise!

After I left the dog park and said goodbye to my friends, I was driving along the highway and to my great surprise a small family of deer!!! I pulled over and grabbed the Sigma!! They were about 500 feet away so this shot was at 300mm, cropped to 100% to show the image sharpness – pretty impressive!!!

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These next shots I threw on a Canon 2x extender so this is shot at a WHOPPING 600mm and again cropped to 100%

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Overall I am leaning towards selling my beloved 70-200 for this monster performer. I am very impressed. Now to go to the gym so I can lift this thing!!

 

10 Tips for Better Animal Rescue Shelter Photos

Good photos are instrumental in the animal rescue/shelter world. You only get one chance to have the animal make their first impression on a prospective adoptive pet parent. Poor photos can literally be the death of adoptable animals. In this article I will give my top 10 tips for for better animal rescue shelter photos, designed to melt the hearts of the potential adoptee. When at all possible, I highly recommend using a DSLR camera in order to produce the best results. In reality this is not always possible, so many of these tips can be used even if you are forced to use a cell phone or point and shoot camera.

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1. Ignore the Animal

As much as you want to love them and play with them, for the purpose of getting good photos, you do not want the animal connected to you just yet. When you first meet the animal, resist the urge to pet or play with them. Especially with dogs, you want to allow them to be themselves. You do not know the history or personality of the animal. You do not want to induce unwanted behaviours (aggression, fear, excessive puppy kisses, etc). There will be time to play with them after the shoot.

2. Isolate your Subject

A rescue animal is already in the middle a very stressful and sometimes even traumatic situation. Removing distractions and noise before taking their photo will help calm the animal. Find or ask for a quiet space to shoot. Remove the animal from its crate or cage when it is possible. Be sure that it is safe to do so for yourself and the animal. I would much rather have a leash in a photo than a cage. You will find it much easier to capture the animals attention when you are its primary connection.

3. De-clutter the Image

Along with Isolating your subject environmentally, the image should be of the animal, and nothing else whenever possible. Avoid shooting with a “busy” background. Fancy equipment is not necessary, a blank wall, or a patch of grass will do just fine. We want the animal to be the hero of the image. In the examples, the first image shows a typical shot we see all the time. All the household items distract the viewer. By simply moving down the stairs to be on the same level as the subject, and using the plain wall as a background, the dog becomes the hero of the image without even having to pick up after myself!!

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4. Be Level Headed

Angles are very important. 90% of my pet portraits are done from my knees or even laying down. Get on the same level as the animal and shoot straight whenever possible.   This draws the viewer into the photo. I see many images taken from the angle in the first image below, a slight shift can result in a far better portrait.

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5. Breathe

Yes you read that right. Animals are incredibly attuned to energy, mood, and temperament of those in their vicinity. Staying calm and projecting your positive energy will go a very long way to getting better images.

6. Windows to the Soul

The single most important part of any portrait are the eyes. Make sure you focus on the animal’s eyes. Take a quick moment to remove tear stains and eye gunk.  Eye contact in the images will draw the viewer in and make them instantly fall in love! If you are using a DSLR choose a single point for your auto focus system and compose so the point is directly on an eye. By default auto focus systems choose what is closer to the lens so you must override this for tack sharp eyes!

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7. Be Stupid

When I shoot, I must look like a crazed fool. I make all kinds of wacky sounds and movements to grab the attention of my subjects. Practice your growl, chirp, bark, whine, whatever you can think of to get that “look”! Just don’t forget to click that shutter at the right time too.

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The last three points are more on the technical side for those who have a DSLR and want to take your images up a notch. I will not get into very technical definitions (google it, or I give private lessons for those that might want more hands on learning).

8. Aperture and Depth of Field

One of the easiest ways to ensure the subject of the photograph is what the viewers’ eye goes to, is with proper use of depth of field. Depth of field refers to the parts of the image that are in focus. The setting on your camera that controls this is your aperture. You don’t have to be intimidated here. Your camera has a setting that allows you to tell the camera that you want a shallow depth of field, and the camera will figure out the shutter speed and ISO for you. You will want to switch your camera to Aperture Priority and then select the lowest number you can. Your lens will dictate this setting. The smaller the number the “shallower” the depth of field. See the example images below.

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9. Light!

Take a look around your environment. Try to find a well lit area to allow the subject to be well exposed. A window can be a great alternative to overhead fluorescents.  Don’t forget about going outside! It can be much easier to get great light outside. Find a shady spot to avoid the harsh shadows direct sunlight can produce.If you cannot find shade, try to put the sun behind your subjects and then blow out the surrounding background so the animal is the hero of the shot. Choose spot meter mode and focus on the eyes.

10. Tools and Gear

There are a few stand by items that I carry in my camera bag at all times:

  • Great sound makers to grab attention – empty water bottle, the squeaker out of a dog toy, and a small tupperware container of kibble to shake
  • Lens cleaning cloth for when puppy gives the camera a kiss
  • Paper towels and poop bags because sometimes “stuff” happen
  • One or two balls to reward toy driven dogs
  • Some treats to reward behaviour only given AFTER the shoot

A good portrait lens will make a huge difference in your images. A very affordable lens is a 50mm f/1.8. Nikon or Canon shooters can find this lens between $120-200 new at any camera store. The f/1.8 refers to the maximum aperture value of the lens. This will allow you to shoot in lower light conditions, and give the very shallow depth of field I mentioned earlier.

Taking these photos is so important. Adoption success can often be attributed directly to the images the adoptee saw. It is incredibly rewarding knowing that you are helping to save lives.

Above all please remember to have fun!!! Shooting animals requires patience but I have never had a shoot where I didn’t laugh.

I would love to hear your comments and see some images from you!

See more animal photos here!