Sage Monkey

Sage Monkey

Friday, June 5, 2015

Hunting Dog Photography Tips - Part 1

5 month old Phoenix on point

Photographing hunting dogs whether they are training, trialing, testing or hunting is a passion of mine. There is something majestic and soul soothing about watching a gun dog work a field. I find solemn beauty in being outside, watching the hunter and the hunted and I appreciate and welcome the challenge of capturing it in a photograph. Lucky for me I get more opportunities than most through my hunting dog specific photography business Byrd Dog Photography. After seeing countless inquiries on hunting forums and Facebook as well as being asked quite often about how I take photographs I decided over the next few months during the hunting off season of Spring and Summer I would publish a series of blog posts making a few humble suggestions to help the average weekend warrior. By starting now your skills, like your dogs, will be honed by next autumn.

Before I cover the photography tips for this post I want to make two quick points. The first is hunting dog photography can offer some challenges not found in normal pet portrait or pet photography. For starters there are usually guns and live rounds getting fired when your in the field. Aside from having proper blaze orange clothing you need to make sure that the gunners know where you are at all times and that you are communicating with them if you decide to step in to get a shot (so you don't get shot numbnuts). Nothing ruins a good hunt like getting blasted with some buckshot. You also need to be cognisant of what the dog(s) are doing. Your there to shoot them in their element not get in their way. You need to be aware of accidentally flushing birds, ruining a good honor by standing directly in the way of a backing dog or putting to much pressure on a dog trying to get that infamous shot when running birds are in the equation. In addition if your the weekend warrior your probably trying to carry your own gun, flush your own birds, shoot AND take photos. This is incredibly difficult....I know I like to hunt over my dog too. If your one of these people take a look at some hands free camera straps they may make your life much easier if you have a DSLR and a decent size lens.

The second and final point I will bring up (then I will get off my soapbox I promise. This was starting to feel like a filibuster huh?) is any aspiring photographer should do their best to get familiar and comfortable with their camera, regardless if its a point and shoot or a DSLR. If your not comfortable shooting in manual and your camera has scene modes utilize some of the options. For instance if you want pics of your dogs in motion (retrieving a bird or coming out of the water) use the sports mode or if they are sitting in the blind try portrait mode. If you've never done it or are feeling hesitant don't be afraid, get out of Auto. You have nothing to lose by trying.

Puppies in low cover

This puppy was in higher cover. So I opted to shoot just his face with a touch of shoulder. 

Know your subject: Having a good understanding of the dog you are shooting and it's abilities will help you out immensely. Puppies and smaller dogs like Brittany Spaniels can be challenging if your shooting in high grass and thick cover. If you have the ability, try and keep these dogs in lower cover when getting photos of them on point or retrieving. If you can't don't be afraid to fill the frame. There is no rule saying that you have to try and cram the entire dog in the photo.  Having a clear, smaller sampling of the pup will have more impact.

Obviously the more finished a dog is the more time and opportunity you will have to shoot solid points and retrieves. When shooting puppies and unsteady dogs you need to have patience. Put yourself in situations that you know you will be successful. Control the things you can like where you position yourself and your shutter speed.

Getting the point: Everyone loves a striking picture of a hunting dog on point. In most instances what your aspiring for is to capture that intensity your dog has when he or she locks up. Their tail is up high, foot bent hard, eyes locked into position and sometimes their body is quivering. Fill the frame. Isolate your subject and eliminate the distractions in the background. Try to focus on the eyes....there's a reason why they are called the window to the soul. Also drop down to their level instead of shooting down on them. I am almost always shooting from my knee and have at times depending on the height of the dog sunk back to be sitting on my butt.

If your shooting a finished or steady dog on point you can choose to run them without a collar or you can remove the collar while they are on point. It really cleans up the photo. Take a look at Wyatt the white and liver shorthair shown above.

Keep in mind the cover you are hunting in or training could be high and may hide the feet. That's OK but if they are visible try not to crop them out. If a large portion of the dog is hidden crop the photograph at a natural body line like the knees, shoulder or chest area.

Lastly, don't run up behind a dog on point. Make sure you walk in at an angle or loop around so that the dog can see you moving in. If your moving in from the front be sure your not putting yourself in a situation where your going to flush a bird.

It's a bird, it's a plane it's Sizzle!

Action Shots: Hunting dogs are athletes and they spend most of their time in motion whether its working a hedgerow, launching themselves into a lake or retrieving that freshly shot pheasant. Some of these pictures end up being the most fun. Don't get sucked into waiting for the dog to get the exact place you want the photo to be taken. To be successful at this you have to be very precise. Instead try following the dog. Synchronize your speed of the camera with them and if your camera allows it set it to continuous so you are capable of taking more pictures.

Backing Dogs: When shooting one or more dogs backing each other I always refer to some basic composition rules. Now don't go rolling your eyes and slamming your laptops shut because I used that boring text book word composition. It's not as awful as you think. Look at it this way anyone can take pictures, what you want to do is tell a story. That is the difference between aimlessly snapping away and creating a photograph. Shooting honoring dogs is a great opportunity to use a spin off to leading lines. In other words use the objects your shooting i.e. the dogs to draw your viewers eye through the photograph. This creates depth and perspective.

Most of the time when I'm shooting dogs in the field I am using a 70-200mm lens BUT occasionally I like to use a wide angle zoom lens. One of my favorite times to do this is when photographing dogs that are honoring. When I do I push the lens all the way out and get as close as I can to my subject. Two things have to occur to get this shot and be successful you need to have dogs that are very steady because you are going to get extremely close to them while on point which equates to pressure. And you have to have a dog owner that is comfortable with you getting that close and getting the shots you want in the midst of a hunt. The dog above in the forefront wearing the blue collar is a NAVHDA versatile champion VC Rahway River's Prince of Darkness call name Ozzie who is owned by Geof Ferrer. Both of which who allowed me to sneak in and get this shot while on a hunt. 

Things to Remember: I'm going to refer to Malcom Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule in which he says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. Not all of you are gunning to be masters so you won't need a complete 10,000 hours or 10,000 photos to be content with your improved skills but the only way to get good at something is to practice. Take pics of your dog(s) all the time even when they are not hunting. Take photos of them in the backyard, lounging in there dog bed or on a typical run in the field. Be willing to try things, be willing to get out of auto, be willing to ask other dog owners if you can photograph their dogs. Don't take 1 photo in a situation take 10 purposeful photos. Think about leading lines, shoot from your knee, pay attention to where the dogs feet are and how high the cover is. Implementing these few tips on your next training session and each one after will start you on your way to taking better photos of your best dog friend.

Hunting Dog Photography Tips Part 2 will cover shooting the sequences of retrieves, water work, natural framing, including the handler in shots, puppies and more so check back in the next few weeks. In the meantime follow us on Facebook and show us some love at: Adventures of a German Shorthaired Pointer and Byrd Dog Photography.