Once your Lens is selected, Shutter speed, Aperture and ISO are set and seem appropriate for the type of action happening in front of you, it is time to get into position to take the shot.
The best time of day to get outdoor shots is generally considered to be early in the morning just after the sun rises and at the end of the day just before it sets. These times are both often referred to as the golden hour and it is worth checking out the times of sunrise/sunset on days you are shooting as the quality of light all year round is amazing at these times. If, however, you have an animal that is more active at certain times of day then that is the time of day you should shoot. With a good post production technique you will be able to work with most types of daylight with a little practice. The character and demeanour of your pet is more important to a good photograph then the setting. Your photographs are for your clients benefit and enjoyment - not your own personal art collection! Try to find a balance between the two and you will become very hire-able.
A good starting rule is that keeping the sun slightly behind and to the left or right of your pet will give an excellent separation of your animal from the background.
Having the sun directly behind the animal will give a beautiful fringe to their fur but making sure your exposure is correct can be a little trickier and is much more important.
Having the sun directly behind you is rarely a good idea. The animal may seem very well lit to you allowing you more freedom with your camera settings but the shadows and highlights in the eyes will be very flat and unappealing. The background will also be brightly lit so separation is more difficult to achieve. You will need to rely on very dark backgrounds if the sun is behind you.
I would never use a flash when photographing animals. Many animals can be easily unsettled by a camera's flash and they will be taken out of the moment they are indulging themselves in – catching a ball, chasing a stick running to their owner etc, and this will show in the pictures. An on camera flash will also created a very flat, washed out light which removes interest from your photographs. The reflections in an animals eyes from a flash are generally unappealing and remove the candid intimacy an animal photograph should have.
Your pictures should offer an insight into your animals behaviour and character in a very natural environment and a flash will spoil this aesthetic. Another reason to avoid flash photography is the available shutter speed and the amount of photographs you can take in a burst when an animal flies past you at full gallop. Waiting for a flash to recycle will almost always, be the time when a butterfly lands on your dogs nose and takes off!
Evaluative metering in Canon cameras will do a great job of determining the correct exposure of your scene but be prepared to adjust the exposure either manually or using exposure compensation (in Av and Tv Modes).
The first thing to consider is the colour of your dog in contrast to the background/foreground. Grey, light brown and ginger dogs are the easiest to deal with as your cameras automatic selection of exposure will usually be adequate. If your dog is very black or very white you may want to take control of this exposure metering yourself.
As well as selecting the focus of your dog you may need to select an area of the scene you want to meter to ensure the exposure range has a good distribution between important light and dark areas.
Even if you have an owner/handler with you you will not always be able to ensure the animal, background or light is in the ideal position for your shot so get used to changing your camera settings quickly depending on what you see.
A Black dog can cause the whole scene to be evaluated slightly low causing the background to become overexposed. You should either dial down a few stops of exposure compensation (in Av or Tv Mode) or allow the meter to drop back a notch or two in your viewfinder (in Manual Mode).
A White dog causes the opposite effect. Meaning the animal will be well exposed but the background can suffer by being evaluated as being too dark. Adding light through exposure compensation (Av or Tv mode) or being aware that a reports of a slight over exposure in the viewfinders meter (manual mode) is actually going to give you a good range to work with later.
Reading the background
The background should not be too busy. Photographing beside incredible gardens with ornate flower arrangements and every colour under the sun may look good while you are there but the point of your photograph is generally that the animal is the important thing. Unless you are using a narrow aperture (wide depth of field) and the actual setting is the important visual, your background should be full of large shapes or be very distant (10-100 meters away.)
If you want to highlight other things in the scene to add interest, try to position yourself so that the scene is interesting while imagining the animal in it! Large tree trunks, benches and boulders are all good objects.
Photographing dogs on the crests of small hills adds wonderful seperation from their background while still giving a great idea of the environment of the shot. An animal in a valley, at the bottom of a steep hill or very close to a building makes for a very flat shot and generally should be avoided. Look for a distance of 5-10 meters from the animal to anything at all in its background.
Add incidental depth wherever you can
Look for other elements of the scene to give an even greater impression of depth. Pollen floating in the air, mist, rain, snow falling, flies buzzing around, dry dirt or leaves on the ground which are likely to be kicked up if the animal runs through it. A fence stretching from you to the animal and beyond.
These are all great things to add depth and motion to your shot. These are things that you are aware of as you walk around but never really get to see frozen in time.
A photograph with a high shutter speed capturing any of these elements around your sprinting dog will look great. be aware that any of these things could try to steal focus from the animal. Check your focus constantly!
Although many professional animal photographers have enormous success positioning themselves above their animals and shooting down, I find that the very best shots are taken from at or ideally below the animals eye level. This does not mean crouching down. This almost always means lying down so get ready to spend a lot of time rolling around on the ground! Make sure your elbows and knees are well protected and wear clothing you don't mind sliding around in a puddle with!
While you are lying down very small changes in the position of the camera will make huge differences in the quality of the final image.
The first thing to consider is the horizon. A great shot will often have the horizon occupying no more than the bottom 1/3 of the image. Ideally the horizon should not cut through more than height of the top of your animals legs. I reject almost every shot if the horizon is above the animals head (or its back if it is lying down.)
When considering the horizon it is best to imagine it extending way past the scene. Where the ground meets a building a few meters behind your pet is not the horizon. The horizon happens miles away so bear that in mind when framing your shot.
The ground is rarely important in a photograph. If you feel the ground is an important part of the story you want the image to tell – find a distinguishing feature of it and try to position your pet beside it. A clump of flowers or a pile of rubble, some street markings or a curb. If the positioning of the camera to encompass one of these features requires compromises in the height required for your camera, then the ground is not important enough in the image. Either rethink the shot or ignore the ground and position yourself lower.
Very few people care what the river your dog is jumping into looks like. They just want to see the animal in action.
Vertical lines are very important
Any lines in the scene – fence posts, road signs, edges of buildings – anything which tells you the correct orientation of the scene, should be kept perfectly straight or as close as you can while moving your camera around trying to frame your subject.
Look around you. The lines of the walls around you are straight. No matter what angle you tilt your head at, the lines of the room are something you understand as going straight up and down. This interpretation is largely lost in a 2D image. Any angle of those lines introduced as a result of a camera angled incorrectly (or more precisely rolled on its view axis!) are difficult for the viewer to interpret as being up and down. This is more distracting to the viewer than you might initially imagine. In film making (moving image) this is called shooting at a dutch angle and is often used in horror films or scenes where uncertainty and discomfort are the directors aim. They are used to unsettle the viewer. That is generally not what we want as an animal stills photographer.
Very rarely in film making will a director of photography employ a technique where the vertical lines in a scene converge as a result of a camera being angled up or down in relation to the horizon. You may not initially realise it but you are more likely to identify a film or documentary as amateurish if you see convergence of lines in a scene! There are of course exceptions to this rule but until you know exactly why you might want to allow your lines to deviate from the vertical - you should avoid it.
Converging lines in any direction are likely to spoil your image a little at best and make them unsaleable to advertising agencies and design clients at worst. Your camera should be level with the ground or as close as you can get at all times. Vary the height of your camera to get the shot – not the angle. There will almost always be some cropping and realignment required in post production but keeping this to an absolute minimum will mean you end up with higher resolution images with less odd things happening to the perspective. These problems may not seem important to the client who just wants a nice shot of their dog but when presenting your work to companies these things are key.
The next thing to consider is the framing of your animal within the scene you have decide to photograph. The background is now a secondary consideration and the more of your animal you can frame in the camera the better the shot will be. The closer your pet is to the lens the more detail and character you can show. This will also increase the amount of Bokeh (the roughly circular blurring effect which happens when areas lose focus due to a wide aperture) around your scene which can look spectacular. The closer your area of focus is, the narrower the depth of field. This means you will have to work much harder to maintain good focus but the efforts will be worth it!
Use composition rules
Make good use of the "Rule of thirds." keeping things exactly central in a photograph can be boring. But do remember there are always exceptions and rules are there to be explored and broken!
Another useful rule to follow is the rule of one point perspective. Simply put this means that everything in the scene which indicates direction should run parallel to the camera.
Position yourself lying down in the absolute middle of a straight pathway (make sure not to get trampled on on run over by a cyclist - I have had a few close calls!)
Keep the lampposts and trees, edges of buildings and window frames pointing directly up in the frame. all other lines should run away from the camera to one point somewhere on the vertical centre of the frame.
look for good symmetry in the scene in front of you. Then any animal you put directly in your path will be isolated beautifully, forcing the concentration of the viewer to look at your subjects with absolutely no other distractions.
Next: Taking a shot
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