Taking Pictures of Your Bouvier des Flandres
A few suggestions on taking pictures of dark colored dogs
Michael D. Jordan†††
Like many of you that have Bouviers, I like to take pictures of them as they play, work, compete or just about anytime a Bouvier is being a Bouvier.† Even with a background in photography (people photography), it didnít take me long to find that all I had learned about lighting and posing people just didnít work the same on a Bouvier.† With their long and in most cases, dark hair, they donít reflect light like normal subjects would.† The black hair absorbs light like a black hole in space.† The eyes, which are usually the center of focus, in most cases, canít even be seen or only one can be seen.†† And because of their intelligence, Bouvs figure out quickly just how many treats they should get per roll of film.† Or in the case of a couple of ours, who have been photographed so much they now feel they are ďProfessional Modeling BouviersĒ, it is a treat about every 3 or 4 snaps.
There are a number of things Iíve learned while working to improve the quality of my Bouvier pictures.† In this article Iíve outlined some of them in hopes that it will help others who have also been trying to take better pictures, not only those with Bouviers, but also anyone that has a dark colored dog of any breed.† In fact, most of these suggestions should work with just about any breed and any color.†
While some of my suggestions pertain to taking pictures inside with flash, many will work outdoors and without flash. So far, most of my work has been directed towards more formal portrait types of pictures but these suggestions will also help in a more relaxed style as well as outdoors in natural light.
1. Consider your background. †If you have your film developed and printed at a lab that uses the automated machines (one hour labs) and you use a white or light colored background, your Bouvier will probably come out as a black blob in the print.† I have found this to be true in a lot of my photos and also in photos Iíve seen that others have taken.† In most cases this is because the photo machine will try to make the background come out as close to 18% gray (a color and shade that most light meters and photo machines deal with) rather than white or a darker shade.† When the photo machine decreases the exposure of a light background so that it is the approximate shade of 18% gray, the dog is under exposed, causing the already dark Bouvier to go darker as well as shadows and the details to disappear.† If you use a dark colored background, the same photo machine will try to lighten it to the 18% gray, causing the dog to be overexposed to some degree, which will bring out detail in the shadows. You have to be careful though, because you might lose detail in any light colored object as over exposing will cause a washed out condition.† This is assuming that your lighting is close to normal to begin with.† In some of my pictures I used a black or dark blue background.† I have found that this fools the automatic photo machines so that it lightens the background, which also lightens out the Bouvier, giving more details in their coats.† In most cases the black background will look a dark gray rather than black, but this is ok as long as the dog looks good.† When I use a white or light colored background, I can almost always get a normal image if I convert the negative to a digital image (or have the lab create a photo CD of the images) and adjusting the appearance in PhotoShop or one of the other digital imaging software programs.† Some of the other backgrounds I like besides the black and dark blue are a dark and medium gray, royal blue, dark brown and though I have problems with it, I like white.† White works well if you are going to do close ups and fill your frame with the image of the dog.† But it doesnít always work because of the extreme contrast between the dog and it.
2. Outdoors.† If you are shooting outdoors, the background suggestion applies as well.† If you have a lot of open space (i.e. grass, water, field, etc.) behind the dog, this is going to look like a light colored background to the photo machine.† Get as close as you can and fill the frame as much as possible with the dog.† The more dog there is, the less chance the machine will use the background to auto adjust the print exposure.† As with the indoor photos, the problem is that the machine will try to change the light background to something like 18% gray. If your dog has a lot of silver/gray in the hair, you might be ok. If you have a fawn colored Bouvier or a black one, itís going to come out looking muddy.† If you can find a dark colored wall, dark trees, or other darker colored area, you can get the same results as using a dark background.† Watch out for those areas that are half shade and half sun though. If your camera adjusts for the shade part, the sun part is going to be way over exposed.† If your camera exposes for the sun part, the shady part is going to be way under exposed.† You want even lighting on and around the dog.
3. Camera position.† Get down low.† Most of the time people shoot down at their dogs.† How many pictures have you seen with the dog craning their neck to look up at you when you take the picture?†† Either get down low so the camera is just above eye level or raise the dog so their eyes are about camera level.† I have built a series of platforms that I use to raise the dogs up when I take indoor photos.† They are on the heavy side, but I wanted them to be strong enough to take a couple of Bouvs jumping up on them (which they do when ever they get the chance).† Other than building a platform, you can put your dog on their grooming table, on a bench, on a large rock, log, hill or just about anything that will get them up to camera level.† Just about anything will work as long as it will support the dog (or dogs) and is steady.† If the dog is worried about it moving under them, they wonít look natural and relaxed in the picture.†† Sometimes itís just better, and easier, to get down to their level.† Just watch out for nose prints on your camera lens.
4. Posing I.†† I donít have any magic answers to getting the dogs to pose the way you would like them too.† Some dogs are more obedient than others and those that know the basic commands (sit, down, stay) make it a lot easier.† Mostly it just takes patients, lots of treats and more patients.† In some cases, something a little different than the usual dry dog biscuit will help get their attention. Stick cheese is good, as is anything that can be cut up into little pieces (hot dogs, chicken, sandwich meat, etc.) to enticed or rewarded them in doing what you want. If Iím the one feeding the treats I do try to stay away from anything thatís going to make my fingers messy and get on the camera.† Also, if you are in an area where it is safe to have the dog off lease, take off the collar.† Most of the time you wonít realize how a collar stands out until you see it in their pictures or the tags hanging down from it.† If you are in an area that you need a leash and your dog will stay under control, you can slip the collar off but use a slip lead.† The lead will still be visible, but not as obvious as a collar and thicker leash.† But of course safety is the most important issue. If you need a leash and substantial collar on your dog, by all means leave it on.
5. Posing II.† If at all possible, have help.† Itís hard to place a dog where you want them and get back to your camera position, focus and shoot before they decided you took too long and move (about 15 seconds in Bouv time).† This is where having a dog that knows sit, down, wait, etc., comes in real handy.† Lacking that, having someone that can keep the dog where you want them really helps.† When I have Sue helping I can place the dog about where I want them and then get back in camera position while she keeps the dogs attention.† When you have a helper and they are using treats, watch where the dog is looking.† They are going to follow the person with the food, which may not be near the camera or in the direction you want them to look.† Let the person helping know where you want the dog to look and have them stand there, just out of the camera sight.† Another trick is if our dogs know I have cheese or something in my hand I can put my arm out and move it around and their heads will follow it.† This is how I get them to look to the sides or directly at the camera.† If I act like Iím going to toss it to them they get real attentive and stare at my hand right next to the camera.† Of course I only take a few shots before I give them the treat or they lose interest.
6. Posing III.† Donít feed them before a posing session.† I find that with posing, as with showing or training, if they are on the hungry side they will react better to bait.† If they have just eaten then they wonít be as interested. Of course, if you were trying to get pictures of them lying around resting after a meal, then that would be the time to do it.†
7. Posing IV.† Some dogs arenít motivated by food (although I know of very few Bouvs that arenít).† Either because they are concerned about what is going on, leery of strangers that might be with you, or just not interested in what you have to offer.† If they arenít food motivated, then noise might work.† I try to have a variety of noise makers with me in case I have to try different ones.† Some good choices are clickers, whistles (they donít need to be blown very loud) flutes and the noise makers out of different stuffed animals.† I have one sound maker that came out of a stuffed animal that does about 7 different animal sounds.† You need a number of noise makers because once you use a particular noise and the dog sees that itís not a threat or food, it will ignore it after itís been used a time or two.† If a noise maker is used, either by the person taking the picture or someone else with you, be ready to take the picture as soon as you use it.† If they react to the noise it will probably be for only a moment and itís possible that they will leave the position you have them in to go towards the noise to investigate. But you might have time to take a picture or two in the first few moments of surprise.
8. Posing V.† If food doesnít motivate them and sound isnít doing the trick, maybe they are will respond to objects.† Some dogs fixate on balls, stuffed animals, shoes, bones, other animals, etc.† Itís always a good idea to have different objects available in case you need to try something like this.† As the owner, you will know what motivates your dog, but if you are taking pictures of someone elseís dog, you might not know, so go prepared.
9. Lighting.† Most of you are only going to have the flash that comes on your camera.† This flash can do ok, but itís going to be hard to get really good pictures with just the on-camera flash.† It doesnít have a lot of power, which means they are good for only about 10 to15 feet in front of the camera.† Besides my on-camera flash (which I almost never use) I have another bigger flash that I used for years when I did serious photography work. It could light up a barn if I needed it too; and itís portable with itís own 8 C size cell battery pack. Itís size and weight and not being able to plug it into AC is some of its drawbacks. There are newer flashes that are a lot less clunky and while most wonít put out as much light as my big one, in most cases they will put out more power than the one that is built in to your camera. Because of the different types of cameras and flashes, you will want to check that any flash you buy will work with your camera.† Not all cameras will take an external flash.† A lot of the point and shoot types wonít take a external flash nor will some of the cheaper digital cameras.† The best bet is to take it with you to a camera store so you can test it out.† I used my big flash for a while with our dogs and it did make a difference over using the on-camera flash but for studio type work, it wasnít very convenient.† I then started getting what are called monolights.† A monolight (also called studio lights) is what you see at the photo studio with umbrellas or big black boxes on them.† These lights have a reflector (to use when an umbrella or softbox is not used), plug into the wall (some use both AC and battery power) and the light output can be adjusted.† I now have 3 of them, a powerful one (rated at 640 watt seconds for those that know what this means) a medium size one (320 watt seconds) and a small one (rated at 160 watt seconds). I also have a strobe flash (rated at 100 watt seconds, which is a little more powerful than my flash). For comparison, a camera flash is about 30 watt seconds to maybe 80 watt seconds for the bigger units, although flashes use Guide Numbers (GN) rather than watt seconds to describe their power rating.† I like the monolights because they can be used by themselves or together for even more light. They are relatively light and can be packed up and taken to another location (as long as AC power is available).† They are powerful enough that I can use umbrellas or other light modifiers with them to spread the light around.† They are also able to produce enough light to light up the blackest dog.† Price wise they run from just under a $100 to around $400 (and more for the really powerful monolights).† You donít have to buy a big monolight to get good pictures of your dog, but at least one bigger flash that can be used off the camera (if your camera will accept one) will greatly improve the quality.† Some cameras have a hot shoe attachment on top that allows a bigger flash to be connected to the camera.† Older cameras have a place to put a flash and connect to the camera with a cord.† If you have the little point and shoot cameras you may be stuck with the one camera flash (although even then there are options that can be used to add more light to some cameras).† The biggest problem of the little on camera flash, other than lack of power, is the potential for causing red-eye.† Most of you have probably seen animals and people with their eyes a bright red.† This is the light from the flash, hitting the back of the eye and bouncing back to the camera.† Unfortunately, this is caused when the flash is directly at eye level (which is also the best position to take the picture).† The way around this is to move the flash away from the camera so that the light is not reflecting back directly to the lens.† The flash doesnít have to be very far from the lens to prevent this, which is why a lot of cameras have the flash up high rather than right beside the lens or just above it.† But if you can move your flash off the camera by even a few inches, itís going to help.† If all else fails, there are a number of programs now that will correct red-eye. Even many one-hour labs can do it when they print the pictures.††
10. Film.† At first I used Kodak film. I tried the Gold and Royal Gold film and the results werenít bad.† Later on I switched to Fuji Reala film.† Reala is classified as a low contrast film, which, in my opinion, gives better results with our dogs.† The other factor that I noticed is that most of the one hour film places use Fuji equipment.† While the equipment is designed to work with most films out there today, it does seem to work a little better with Fuji film.† Also, if at all possible, go with a 100 speed film.† If you need a faster film because you donít have enough light to use 100 speed film then go with 200 or 400 speed film.† The faster the film (the higher the number) the less light you need to take the same picture. The down side to that is you lose some quality with the faster films.† It might not be enough to notice if you only get 4x6 prints, but if you want to blow them up to 8x10 or bigger, it will be apparent.† Sometimes you donít have a choice.† If Iím shooting in a barn, or under a covered arena, I need to use faster film. If Iím taking pictures with my lights or a bigger flash I can use the 100 speed film.†† If you have a camera where you are stuck with the small flash on it and you are shooting at a greater distance than normal, then sometimes using a faster film will let you get some pictures.†
11. Other Film.† Some other types of film to try besides color print film, is slide film and black and white.† Slide film is called honest film.† When the lab develops it, they donít make adjustments, or modify the color like they can with print film. What you get is how your camera took the picture.† If you are doing tests to see how well your flash, camera, background, etc., is working, slide film is a good choice to use. Itís hard to determine what is wrong with a shot when you donít know if it was you, the camera, the lab or a combination of all the above.† With slide film, you have pretty much eliminated the lab.† Make sure you get the E-6 process type slide film if you want to have it processed in a short time. E-6 is the type that most local labs process now.† When I shot some slide film (my first in a long time) I found that the Kodachrome I used was required to be sent to Kodak for development. That took almost 2 weeks.† Most local labs can have E-6 slide film done in a day or two (some in about 4 hours) but be sure and ask at the place you normally take your film.† I use slide film for testing, but if I want to get prints from them, I can do that as well.† If I want to use one or more of the images Iíll scan them to create a digital file of the image, which can be put on our web site or sent to someone through e-mail.† The other film to try is black and white.† Over the years, Iíve probably taken more black and white pictures than I have color. I like black and white and find it can produce more dramatic images than color can.†† Itís also not as forgiving under some lighting conditions as color print film is (although more forgiving than slide film), and will produce very high contrast (blacks and whites but very little gray) or very muddy looking pictures (almost all gray with no real blacks or whites).† My personal favorite in black and white film is Ilford Delta 100 or Delta 400.† Delta 100 is good for sunny areas or when you have a flash that is bigger than the normal on-camera flash.† Delta 400 is good for when you need a faster film (i.e. for cloudy days or with flash). I either develop it myself or send it to a lab for processing.† Kodak also has black and white film that can be processed at the one hour labs just like color film. If you are interested in film like this, be sure and ask for the C-41 process black and white film. It also comes in different speeds.† When you get prints made, color or black and white, you will have a choice between glossy and matt (some call it luster).† The image on glossy prints will look sharper than prints done on matt paper but will show fingerprints more than matt or semi-gloss does. So if you get glossy prints and plan to pass the pictures around, put them in protective clear plastic sheets.
12. †Photo Labs. †There are a number of different types and level of photography labs available.† On one end there are the one hour labs that you find at the department stores, warehouse stores, strip malls, drug stores, etc.† These usually have one or two people among the staff that are knowledgeable in running the equipment and an interest in photography.† One the other end, you have your custom labs where everything is done by hand or in machines under direct supervision of a lab technician.†† The people at custom labs are usually well trained in using the equipment as well as color, density, composition, etc. In most cases they have an active interest in photography.† Somewhere in between are the labs that still use the automated printing machines, but have technicians trained in their use and have an interest in photography.† Instead of a one hour turn around it might be 4 hour, the next day or even a couple of days.† The extra time is required so they can spend a little more time helping the machine produce the best prints it can.† They double check the machineís automatic settings and tweak them if necessary if the print doesnít look right.† This is not to say that the one hour labs are bad or that you are always going to get fantastic prints from the custom lab.† On occasion I will use a local one hour lab that I have used a number of times and can get good results from the majority of the time.† If you use the same place very often, get to know the lab people.† The ones I use know me by name when I walk in and know what kind of pictures I have and what Iím looking for.† And they really enjoy looking at my Bouvier pictures as well.† Once I got them trained (yes, even the kids at the one hour labs can be trained) Iíve had very good work from them.† I still experience the occasional bad prints where they print for the background rather than the subject and the occasional scratched negative (scratched negatives is my number one complaint at the one hour labs).† One reason I like using a good one hour lab is fast gratification.† I can take a roll or two of film, run it to the lab, wait an hour, and be able to see how I did.† If Iíve taken some pictures that are more important, either of our dogs or someone elseís or I have some prints I want to get enlarged, I take them to another lab that has a little more flexibility in the size and what they can do before printing. †The biggest size print the one hour lab I use can do in the store is 8x6 with only a little cropping.† Most of the time I want at least an 8x10 and I want the lab to crop to the subject.† The custom lab I use still uses a processing machine, but they have a lot more options on size, control of density and color. Their turn around time is usually about 4 days.† This is where spending a little more at a professional lab really pays off.† I can get a decent print from the one hour lab but I can have the same negative printed at the custom lab and it comes out fantastic (assuming I did my part and it was properly exposed).† They may be using the same machine as the one hour lab, but they have highly trained personnel where the one hour lab has less trained people.† Also, donít judge your negatives by the prints you receive from the lab.† As I said, your negatives may be perfect, but the print is dependent on what the machine thinks the print should look like.† Donít be shy about questioning the lab people and even asking for a re-print if the print didnít come out very good.† They should do a re-print with no hassles and for free.† Iíve not had to ask very often, but when I have they have done it while I wait so I can look at the new print.
I hope the above will be of benefit to those wanting to improve their Bouvier pictures.† Iím still learning and every time I think I have a good handle on lighting and posing, something new crops up and I have to step back and try again. If you have any questions or a particular situation that I might be able to help with, you can send me e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.† To take a look at some of the pictures I have taken of our dogs and others, you can visit my web site at: http://sitnprettyphoto.com/
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Copyright by Michael D. Jordan