The beauty . . . and challenge . . . of capturing kitty

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From their powerful eyes and beautiful fur to their graceful gestures, cats are amazing photography subjects.  But they can also be one of your more challenging.

Cat’s eyes are both part of their beauty and their challenge.  Cats’ eyes are much more sensitive to light than ours, requiring just 1/7th the light we do, which is what makes them such great night hunters.  Their slit-like iris gives them more control over how much light enters their eye.  Like a higher-end camera lens, cats’ irises give them better depth of field than us.  But I suspect the sensitivity of their eyes is also why so many cats especially dislike camera flashes. 

And those eyes are quick to convey displeasure.  When unhappy, cats’ pupils can dilate, shrinking the beautifully-colored iris and leaving a lot of black, conveying through the image that they’re not enjoying the experience.  Also, when their pupils dilate their eyes are even more sensitive to light, so the camera flashes become even more annoying.  

We want our models to be at their best.  So with cats I recommend using natural light as much as possible.

Windows make a perfect stage for your cats.  The light can be amazing.  And thanks to allowing the kitty to watch the world go by during the shoot, you’ll often see many different expressions.  You can even stage things for your cat to see.  A remote control car can shake a bush, or you can have it run along a path for your cat to “stalk” from his window perch.  Or you can just let the natural world entertain her. 

Another option is to shoot from outside, photographing your kitty through the window.  Of course you’ll want to make sure the glass is clean and turn off any inside lights to cut glare.  You’ll also want to watch for reflections in the window.  It’s best to find a spot where there are few or no reflections so the focus is just on your cat.  Keep in mind too though:  using reflections from the yard can add a another beautiful layer to the story — through color, texture, and also show your pretty kitty and what he is watching in one photo. 

It takes precise positioning to make a photo like that work.  You’ll most likely want to make sure your cat’s face is not obscured by reflections.  But, if you can get the reflections and cat to work together you’ll create a stunning photo.

Window light also works great when photographing inside.  Pick a time of day when you have nice light streaming in.  As you can see in the attached shot a table can make a nice stage.  It makes it easier for you to get shots that are at the same level as your cat, which gives you a more intimate portrait.  Being up higher can also give you nice options for backgrounds.  Lastly, a fun toy or even just a favorite bit of plastic can help give your cat something fun to engage with.  The more fun the experience is for you cat, the better your images will be.

We’d love to share your cat photos on the Spot Magazine website.  Send them to me at David@DavidChildsPhotography.com.  And I’d love to hear about how you created the photo — what worked and what you learned that you’ll use in future photos.  I’ll look forward to seeing and sharing them!

Before and After

Many of you have asked me about my photo editing process, so, this month I’d like to walk you through editing a photo from my session with our cover model Sally. 

Before

Before

I chose this image because there’s both a lot I like as well as things I wish were different.  Please keep in mind, there are few right or wrongs in photography.  So my changes represent just one of a great many equally valid approaches; take what fits your style and leave behind what doesn’t appeal to you.

My first step is to analyze what I do and do not like in the photo.  That’ll guide me in deciding how to edit the image and also inspire ideas for things to try or to avoid in future photo sessions. 

I love Sally’s joyful energy and expression, combined with the pastoral setting.  I like how the light is spotlighting the red horse, Sally and the wood, and how they are set off by the contrast of darker areas around them.  I also like how those three elements line up along a major diagonal, helping unify them and enhancing the feeling of movement. 

I also like how the warm orange/red hues play against the cooler greens of the trees and grass.  Warm colors tend to appear closer to us while cooler colors recede.  So, warmer-colored subjects pop against the cooler background elements, creating a 3-D feel. 

I started my editing by upping the color saturation to enhance the warmer/cooler effect and to give the image more pop.  I also increased the contrast (making dark areas darker and light areas lighter) to emphasize the spotlight effect of the sun.  I also made small changes to color to heighten the sun’s late afternoon warmth. These changes focus the viewer’s eye on our subjects, increase the image’s depth, and heighten the spring afternoon feeling.

After

After

I felt the background trees at left were too bright and distracting, so I darkened them.  Sally’s face was also too dark, so I brightened it to bring focus to her.  I also got rid of the second highlight in her left eye and brightened her right eye some. 

My biggest disappointment in the original image was the brightness of the lighter-colored horse, which kept pulling my eye to that big white area.  So I darkened (“burned”) the horse considerably.  Then I got rid of the distracting white strips in the fence.  My most dramatic change was to use Photoshop’s clone and healing tools to move the fence post that was crossing the horse’s face.  I don’t often make that degree of change — but I hope seeing me do it will give you the freedom to consider bold moves.

I added a “glow” effect to the image to add a slightly painterly feel.  And finally I cropped the image.

This month I’m teaching an intro to pet photography class at Stay Pet Hotel June 21 and 28.  Please visit http://staypethotel.com/  to register, or email me at (david@davidchildsphotography.com) for details. 

The Camera as Magical Treat Dispenser

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What do you do when the tool of your art, your camera, makes your subject nervous?  Unfortunately for us photographers some find our cameras pretty scary.  Some pets have discovered that looking at a camera rewards them with a painful bright flash of light.  Others have histories that cause them to fear humans holding objects that look like they could inflict pain.  And for others cameras . . . Just. Look. Suspicious.

The same techniques that help your pet discover the mailman is not a horseman of the apocalypse or that the vacuum cleaner is not a horror film star can help here.  Our goal is to replace negative associations with cameras with new positive ones.  This process does take time and patience as it’s critically important you let them set the pace and not rush the process. 

I start by setting my camera on the ground, letting them check it out if they’re inclined.  Some give it a good sniff and even a lick.  That’s enough for some to get comfortable with it.  Others though look warily from a distance.  In this situation I put treats on the camera and see if that entices them to explore.  If it doesn’t, I’ll make a trail of treats from the camera to them.  This will bring some closer, while others remain nervous and back up.  Again, let them set the pace; just keep a happy, friendly attitude, and reward every bit of progress.  Every step shows amazing trust in you — imagine what it would take for someone to convince you to eat a treat off something that scares you!  And imagine how much scarier it’d be if you felt pressured to do it.

Once they feel comfortable getting close to the camera, whether that takes minutes or hours, give them a big reward and let them get used to just being close to it before trying to pick it up — that motion can be especially scary and set you back.  So I do it very slowly and watch how they react.  Often I’ll just slowly bring the camera into my lap and then repeat the treat/reward process.

Once we get this far the next step is to encourage them to associate the sound of the camera with good things.  So I’ll give them a treat, and right as they are eating it, I’ll click the shutter.  I may do this many times until they don’t startle.  The goal is to have something good happening (tasting a yummy treat) every time they hear that noise.  Doing this long enough can replace their previous negative associations with that noise, to a happy new association of yummy treats.

Once they’re comfortable with the sound you can slowly transition to picking up the camera and eventually taking photos.  Keep a careful eye on your friend at every step so you can judge whether they’re comfortable with you continuing. 

Using this approach I’ve had dogs go from terrified of the camera to following their newfound friend the treat dispensing camera everywhere.  Remember, patience is key; if you get frustrated they’ll sense it and that can undo all the progress you’ve made up to that point.

If you’d like to learn more I recommend reading up on positive reinforcement training techniques.  A good book about our more cautious friends is The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell. 

Before long you may have your friends excited to see not just your camera but the mailman and the vacuum cleaner too. 

Our class’s new home on Spot’s new website is nearly complete.  There’s no assignment this month, but if you have ideas you’d like to send please do.  Then get ready to pick back up next month.

Savoring the Moment

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Orson Welles said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”  And cell phone cameras sure have their limitations.  But they can also enable us to capture moments we otherwise never could.  They can also help us to spend more time savoring the world with an artist’s eye and becoming better photographers.

“The best camera is the one you have with you.”  Photographer Chase Jarvis made this line famous a couple years ago with his book and app by the same name.  He and many other professional photographers have shown you can create amazing, award-winning work using cell phone cameras.

Last year when Annie Leibovitz was asked about what camera she recommends, she discussed the iphone.  Of course none of us are giving up our nice fancy cameras.  There’s a lot that nice gear can accomplish that a small cell phone camera just can’t.  But every tool you have comes with its own strengths and limitations.  The secret to being successful is knowing how to work around the limitations and play to the strengths of whatever gear you have and whatever situation you’re in.  

When you consider limitations not as roadblocks but interesting and even fun challenges to work around, you’re making the leap from taking quick snapshots to experiencing the world as an artist.  Some of my best photographs have come from situations where I wasn’t able to take the obvious photo and was forced by limitations to be creative.  Your cell phone camera won’t be able to freeze the motion of a running dog.  But it might capture an image where blur conveys a sense of energy and movement that may even be more powerful than a sharp photo.  And one of the great things about modern digital cameras is you can see what you’ve got instantly.  Then you can take the step that can set you and your work apart:  think how to make a more powerful photo and try again . . . and again, and again.

Cell phone cameras aren’t as forgiving of poor lighting conditions, but you can still create a stunning photo with great light.  So using your cell phone can help you learn about light.  And you can fit in little practice sessions whenever you’d like.  Waiting for friends at a restaurant?  Try experimenting with the candle light . . . or the light streaming in through the window . . . or the neon light in the window.

In a few minutes you may learn something new and find yourself more engaged and awed by the world we live in.  And you’ll have a great conversation starter for when your friends arrive.  Maybe you’ll even inspire them to see the world in a new light too.  Plus you might come away with a stunning new photo or ideas to try with your nicer gear.  Even if you don’t, the process will have enriched your life.

The key is to not get stuck focusing on the camera’s limitations but to revel in its strengths — one of which is its ability to help you, wherever you are, develop your eye.

Your assignment this month is to take more photographs.  Try to spend at least a moment every day looking for a photo to create.  It could be while standing in line at the coffee shop or grocery, or while making dinner, or as you walk in to work.  It doesn’t have to be a big investment of time — just a quick moment while you stop and soak in the world.  Make it easy enough that it can become a habit you keep.  And don’t focus too much on the results.  It’s the process that matters here.  We’d love to see some of your favorite photos and hear about your experience.  Send them to david@davidchildsphotography.com and we’ll share them on Spot’s new website.

We come in peace

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I’m always amazed by how well our four-legged friends adapt to us.  Over time they adjust to our quirky human ways, usually learning they needn’t fear some of the seemingly scary things we do.  And just like us, some things we enjoy or at least tolerate when done by a trusted friend seem threatening when done by a stranger. It’s easy to slip up and approach a new dog or cat as we would our own pets. 

As your photography skills grow you’ll likely be photographing pets you don’t know, so some knowledge of animal behavior and communication will help a lot.  It’ll also help you understand your pets better.  Books like The Other End of The Leash and For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, both by Patricia McConnell, and On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas, are great resources. 

Here’s a quick taste of a few things I’ve learned that I hope will inspire you to learn from the experts.

We humans typically greet each other face to face, look, smile, and maybe wave our hands.  This likely baffles the canine student of human behavior, who might think something like . . .

“Upon first meeting humans start by preparing for battle — they face off ready to charge right at each other, staring threateningly, and showing their weapons, sometimes even waving their claws aggressively.  Occasionally they do charge, wrap their claws around each other and even sometimes slam their teeth into each other.  These shows of aggression are perceived to be “friendly.”  They are truly a puzzling species.” 

We, like many primates, seem genetically predisposed to assume many of these signals are friendly.  So it can come as a surprise when some of our four-legged friends perceive them as threatening.  No wonder we sometimes completely misunderstand each other.

When well-mannered dogs approach each other for the first time it seems a top priority often is to convey that they mean no harm.  Rather than running head on at each other as dogs spoiling for a fight, they approach curving sideways, appearing as non-threatening as possible.  If there is tension they may add more “calming signals” to indicate they mean no harm, such as looking away (“La de da, see I’m just out for a nice stroll”); yawning (“I’m so not threatening that I’m thinking of a nap”); or licking their lips.

A cool thing about these signals is we can use them too.  If you’re meeting a new dog you’ll be photographing and sense he/she is cautious, try it.  Turn sideways casually, look around like other things are more interesting, let the dog come to you and maybe even yawn.  You can casually watch the dog out of the corner of your eye to judge whether you’re making headway or if unfortunately you should be planning a safe exit.

Most of us aren’t predators, but our four-legged friends don’t know that.  So I sometimes imagine I’m a bear with sharp pointy teeth and scary claws who’s trying to convey I mean no harm.  As a bear you might run into some people who have been attacked by bears before, so they’re understandably extra afraid of you.  Some people, who have met lots of friendly bears, may run right up to you being super friendly.  But you don’t know at first what somebody’s experience with bears has been, so when you encounter someone on the trail it’s nice to start by acting very casual, hide your claws, don’t make any scary noises, and generally try to exude that “I come in peace” vibe. 

If the someone is clearly terrified you might just need to move on; some people may never trust bears and you trying too hard might sadly give them a heart attack.  Don’t take it personally.  Others may take a little while to warm up — it may even take running into you on the trail many times — but eventually they might decide you’re super fun and want to hang out with you.  They may even eventually let you point a box at them that sometimes flashes an annoying bright light.  That same box that sadly at first sight, made them think about how much it would hurt to be hit by. 

The more you know the more sensitive you’ll be to the signals they’re giving, and the better chance you’ll be able to reply with signals that reduce fear and maybe even turn you into best friends.  You’ll get much better photos of your best friend than of someone terrified that you’re about to turn them into lunch.

This month’s assignment is to study behavior, whether it’s picking up a book, watching animals interacting, or anything else that helps you better communicate.  The next photo assignment will coincide with the release of Spot’s website, coming soon! 

Off with the Training Wheels!

Off with the Training Wheels!

Remember how exciting it was to get the training wheels off your first bike?  Free of them you could lean into turns, seemingly defy gravity, and enter a whole new world of exploration.  Of course it came at the price of possibly flying over your handlebars and landing on your face!

Modern cameras have such nice training wheels that many never take them off.  The camera calculates exposures that work fine in many situations and keep us from making flying over the handle bars mistakes.  But it also limits our creativity.

Simple can be challenging!

Simple can be challenging! 

And it takes confidence.  We talked some about that while discussing using cropping to focus our viewer’s attention.  It’s easy, as we think about how different elements in a photo may appeal to different people, to include a lot in the frame.  The trouble is, if we keep all those elements we may create an image that’s a bit like an orchestra that isn’t playing the same score.

Looking on the Bright Side

Looking on the Bright Side

In the Northwest we spend a lot of time photographing in cloudy conditions.  The clouds act like a giant lampshade, softening and spreading out the light.  With light coming from so much of the sky we can shoot from many different angles relative to the position of the sun and get decent lighting.  But shooting under full sun requires us to be very aware of the sun’s position and what shadows are being cast.

An important first step when you arrive on location on a sunny day is to look where the sun is.