Tips & Tricks For Pet Portrait Photography

General, Photographs

Happy New Year to everyone. Lets hope 2015 gives as many great opportunities and interesting images as last year!

If you’d like your gorgeous pet photographed like this or any other style, please get in touch!

Having shot some commercial images of animals for a pharmaceutical company I thought it would be interesting to photograph some portraits of a family pet. The thinking being that ‘snaps’ are fun to take in the garden or field but how would a more formal studio shoot go. I had learned a few ‘tricks’ from my previous experiences and the handlers I had worked with.

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The secrets are quite obvious but easily forgotten in the heat of battle. The idea behind the shots were to try to capture our Black Labrador “Smedley’s” personality but also his nobility and handsome good looks! He has a rich, deep, luxurious coat and that was something I wanted to highlight so a simple dark background, low key approach was what I decided on for these. It also gives the viewer a ‘feel’ for his wonderful character. Calm (for a puppy), strong and intelligent.

Tips for shooting animals such as dogs are:

  • Be very clear of the shots you want and the mood you are after BEFORE introducing your animal.
  • Try to time your session with the animal to its most ‘chilled’ time of the day. After a walk, early evening etc.
  • Be fully prepared before the subject arrives into the shooting area (ie. Don’t fiddle with you lighting when they’re on set!)
  • Keep the number of frames/time they’re actually ‘sitting’ to a very short timescale. You can repeat several times but keep each sitting short.
  • Check lighting and look between each short shooting spell to make adjustments
  • Have an assistant (owner?) close to hand to help and be clear with them as to what you’re after, again before you bring the animal on set.
  • Flash the studio lights a few times before setting to work so the animal isn’t too spooked during the proper shoot.
  • Turn off studio light recycle beeps
  • Have plenty of treats and favourite toys to hand to distract, cajole and encourage the animal.
  • Be patient – if the animal won’t settle or becomes agitated you won’t get the shot anyway. Take a break, relax the animal and take your time.
  • Be relaxed and encouraging to all parties at all times.

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Obviously different animals will require different strategies but this is a very rough guide and it helps to be mentally prepared before each session. Be clear on the type and style of shots you want prior to the session. Talk with the owner/handler thoroughly as to their role and how you will conduct the shoot.

As I say, it all seems pretty straightforward and simple but when you have an animal in your studio, things can quickly deteriorate and important clear thinking and easy details can be forgotten and lost.

Have a great year and keep coming back for more updates!

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Western Isles, Scotland

General

We had an extremely eventful and fascinating time during our recent week long stay on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland recently. The weather amazed with great light during the day and late afternoon. There was the usual perfect mixture of strong winds, heavy showers and bright interludes. Our first two days however were almost cloudless making for a surprising re-think regarding photograph making.

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Our experience of the place was mind blowing. A veritable photographers paradise if ever there was one. Wild, harsh, extreme, enchanting, historic, remote, moorland, rocky coastline, caribbean beaches, mountainous, peat-bogs galore, lunar-like and absolutely beautiful in every sense of the word. Then, by a total stroke of amazing fortune, one almost cloudless evening, the Northern Lights put on the best show over the UK for over 20 years!

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It would have been rude not to try to take full advantage and we hot-footed it over to the Callanish Stones in the dead of night to try to make some images whilst light painting the stones with a flash and torch. This is not an easy task when your hands are as cold as a seals flipper! However, at 1:30am (after a hard day in the field) we managed to grab some half decent images to add to our growing portfolio of Hebridean photographs.

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We were concerned we hadn’t managed to obtain enough information from our pre-trip research regarding the best places to go and visit. We shouldn’t have worried at all. Our hired 4X4 managed to get us all over the island and there is so much to photograph that you could spend 10 years on Lewis and Harris alone and still not exhaust the amazing opportunities there. Did I mention the diversity? The main issue I had was trying to get my head into the different scenarios required for each location. Landscape one minute, ruined Croft the next, Duned Beach the next and rugged harsh coastline the next. It simply didn’t stop! We had full day after full day and the lack of pubs and evening entertainment was in the end, welcome as we wouldn’t have been to enjoy it anyway. We crashed out barely managing to be bothered to cook for ourselves each night.

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Stornoway itself is perhaps the only thing that is disappointing about the whole islands. It’s friendly and welcoming enough but quite drab and frankly, a bit ugly. If you don’t believe me read what the ‘Rough Guide’ travel guide has to say about it!

If you ever are hoping to visit the Western Isles, do it. Whatever your passion. If its photography then I can think of few other places in the world offering such scope in such a relatively small area. Walking might be challenging as there are peat bogs everywhere making any short walk a testing hike and wet footed affair!

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Travelling there is quite straightforward in this era. We caught flights to Glasgow and then onto Stornoway. The return leg seeing us with a stop-over at Edinburgh. The main difficulty was getting our camera gear in the cabin as the lockers are woefully small. No way to be able to fit the ‘recommended’ sized baggage overhead. We didn’t really manage to get them under the seats in front either although a couple of friendly smiles at the extremely hospitable cabin crew meant we didn’t have to “chuck ’em in the hold”!

Travelling by Ferry is apparently quite straightforward too although the seas might be a bit rough. Flying was interesting in itself as the winds are a constant challenge. But hey, these pilots are used to it aren’t they?

We self catered in a gorgeous house on the East Coast of Lewis near the Callanish Stones and there are quite a few holiday Cottages available most of the year. Hotels and restaurants are a different matter and not so prevalent. Sundays see a mass inflow to the local Churches and absolutely no trading (save for one fuel station in Stornoway) so make sure you’re fully stocked up!

I think we were lucky with the weather, we did read other visitor comments about “no break in the rain” and “wild” climate etc but it is so windy that it must push weather systems through pretty quickly. Keep your eyes open however as it is easy to get caught out. A couple of times we had wandered a distance from the car in beautiful conditions to suddenly find ourselves in the teeth of a brief ‘shower’ (read “deluge”!) which makes keeping gear safe and clean a challenge.

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Would I return? In a heartbeat. Stunning scenery, friendly islanders and free of thousands of people like me spoiling a quite breathtaking set of islands. Book up and pack your bags, you will not regret it (but only two at a time eh?)!

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Weddings and Walls

General

Last weekend saw the passing of another great friend into the world of marriagedom and all that this brings!

We had done the Stag Doo and even made a big thing of it (see last post!). We had even decided that we ought to further celebrate during the week of the fateful day itself but the day could be put off no longer.

The Bride and Groom tied their knot on Saturday. There were a few interesting aspects to this great day. The first and most poignant was that the Groom’s Father, a very successful local Baptist Minister was to perform the Ceremony itself. The other interesting aspects were a mixture of the normal complicated family dynamics and nervous speakers and other participants.

As is my want, I wandered around the day with cameras in tow, snapping in a low key more journalistic fashion. Annoying other guests by them realising too late that a ruddy great big 70-200mm was being pointed rather rudely in their general direction! It also made me realise why I never hanker after being a Wedding Photographer myself. The job is way too stressful, technically difficult due to poor lighting and generally, on the day, you are seen as a necessary evil rather than a person of artistic flair and skill. Indeed, such is the (understandable) demand for certain ‘posed’ images, little free time is left for anything too artistic if anyone wanted them anyway!

The Wedding itself took place in a lovely high-ceilinged Church in Wiltshire, bright, with trees guiding the happy couple forward to the middle front for the vows and swapping of expensive metal. The main wall behind proclaims Jesus is “King of Kings” but written large around the Cross and on a fantastic luxurious red emulsioned wall. Even so, my light meter reading was suggesting a paltry f2.8 even at 800/1600 iso. This really meant that for the official photographer, flash was nigh on a pre-requisite for any shots with depth. I, on the other hand, could snap on wafer thin focal lengths with both a 24-70mm @ 2.8 and a 70-200mm on a cropped sensor also at 2.8. This allowed me to hand hold at reasonable speeds with only a small amount of modern ‘noise’ on the shots that I am finding myself adding in post anyway!

I left all of the normal official kind of shots to the pro wedding guy, he knew what he was up to and I spent most of my time seeking out interesting and poignant angles. I found myself way too often dragged towards the large gold letters written on the wall and couldn’t help framing the B&G with the Minister together with this stark and firm message.

I grabbed a couple with rings and word exchanges but found it hard to capture ’emotion’ but hopefully this came through in a couple of them.

It was then a small 20-30min drive to the venue for the reception which was a re-furbished Old Tythe Barn. Sadly, the lighting in here was a lot worse and meant flash only or don’t bother at all. I mostly didn’t shoot due to my dislike of on camera flash and the freedom it prevents. I can however see that a bit of homework on speeches would be worth it with some good reactions from story tellers and their subjects at times.

After a far too long an evening spent tasting different wines, beers and spirits, the local Hotel that was to be our sanctuary was welcome after a bracing midnight walk. A wonderful day and a beautiful service followed by fantastic company and good old fashioned music and giggle!

Processing finds me as always struggling to move away from the retro slide looks of Ektachrome and the like, giving the overall feel amore nostalgic, romantic look in my eyes.

This week has seen me shooting another subject for my project. This time a friend who is completely gutting (and I mean completely gutting) a house for his new young family to move into later in the year. I wanted to grab him during a major piece of wall removal amidst the chaos and debris that goes along with this effort. It involved a well wrapped camera on a tripod and two 500 watt studio lights. I think I only held up the work for the equivalent of a tea break and I managed to get the shots I wanted. At least I hope I have! There are no second chances with this one!

Business continues to be tough this year and breakthroughs feel harder with Corporate Sponsors for the large project. Determination hasn’t waned though so keep watching this space and remember, if you know anyone that might know someone in the right position in the right business, then please please let me know!

Hugs as always….

Groom and Best Man. Nerves? What nerves!

The Vows

Ireland here we come….!

Photographs

The last few days have been spent shooting images for the “Englishman’s Home…” project and some landscaping for pleasure!

I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to shoot Mike who has two snakes he keeps in his home as pets. I even got to hold “Monty” his pet Royal Python which was a first for me and tremendously exciting! He had never bitten anyone and I was far too kind to him to upset him but Mike did warn me to keep my nose away from his face as they sometimes mistake them for a mouse!  “Maddox”, the Corn Snake was a bit too lively for me however. At just over 5 feet she is totally beautiful. She has amazing markings and Mike obviously looks after them really well as they are in prime condition.

The task was to shoot Mike in his home environment with his snakes. We decided on the living room with Maddox climbing over the door frame and Monty being hand held. My dilemma was that it was very tempting to shoot only these gorgeous creatures and not what I had come to do! So I managed to take some of Mike in his living room with his snakes being ‘part’ of the scene rather than ALL of it!

As I complete more of these shoots I realise that I am just a voyeur of these lovely people’s lives. Whilst it is tempting to re-arrange furniture etc it cannot be done! I shot Mike using an on camera flash for fill and a narrow depth of field. I am happy with the result and I have my memory of my first snake handling to also take with me.

At the weekend we shot down to the New Forest to visit some old and great friends to watch the rugby and generally hang out. On the Sunday morning we visited a site my friend knew on the River Test that promised much pre-dawn. However, although there was even a bit of snow on the ground, the cloud cover was too heavy and consequently there was no light of any worth to two budding and expectant photographers in arctic gear.

All was not lost as we then drove all over the Forest looking at potential spots to revisit and photograph in favourable light and misty conditions in either spring or autumn.

Which leads me onto this weekend, which for me, starts tomorrow as I am off with me bestest buddies to visit the Emerald Isle of Ireland on its beautiful west coast for my Stag weekend. Yes, it has come to this. I have now to get married in order to come up with the great excuse of needing to visit a photogenic country and boy does it look amazing. We are right on the coast overlooking a small estuary and bay. I am already dreaming of Guinness and sunsets…..

Corn snake, royal python and Mike

Monty, Maddox and Mike

Shaftesbury Avenue

Photographs

These past couple of weeks since our return from holiday have totally flown by! I know, I know, everyone says that and it really isn’t interesting but when it happens to you it seems a bit weird.

So, in the world of a pro photography, what has been going on? Well, quite a lot actually. Processing has been the by-word of these weeks. It takes so much of your time and is so much fun, when you are in the right frame of mind. I have had two ‘strands’ to process to get to two different ends. One is straight, what I call, “medical” product shots. These show off the object/item as it truly is. A clinical shot, often/usually taken on a white background, colours as accurate as possible and designed to appear in a brochure/website showing off the item in a simple but beautiful way. High-key the books will call it. The other ‘strand’ is the “marketing” or “arty” shots, aimed at selling the product/object in an advert or other such collateral.

Both have their benefits and interests. For the medical shots I have been mostly shooting guitars and other musical instruments for web and leaflet reproduction. Whilst many think these images are relatively easy, they do need a lot of care and time taken with the lighting. Again, I split these type of shots into two. One is a pure brilliant white background and the other produces a white to light grey gentle gradient from left to right or vice versa. Nearly all are shot at around aperture of f8-f11 at 1/160th shutter speed, always at ISO100 and using tripod, mirror lock-up and a cable release. These last three are essential for crisp images despite what you hear about flash freezing the subject! Manual mode is the order of the day as it leaves everything flexible and easier to manage. Lighting is always awkward with shiny objects such as musical instruments so effort is required to ensure that reflections are in the right place and non intrusive. Medical shots can be shot on a white-ish background as nearly always the subject is ‘cut out’ and the background put back in either as pure white or a gentle fade. Care needs to be taken to use dark card on aspects and areas of the guitar (or subject) that you don’t wish to have white reflections on and this fiddling can take many precious hours. When aiming at a predominantly white background it is best to use high white studio vinyls and light both sides and maybe to the rear as well. I do use a product lighting cube also when necessary.

The processing of these shots can be very time consuming as you cut out the object carefully. Trust me, slap happy short cuts do not work and never look convincing in my opinion! The object then usually needs de-dusting using the spot heal and clone brushes as unless you are using a hermetically sealed environment, dust as always, remains a photographers enemy! Finally, you have to adjust the normal areas such as levels, saturation and odd elements of dodging, burning and sharpening.

The ad shots can be much more fun. The example below,  produced recently for Simon & Patrick guitars and due in the shops in a couple of weeks was produced after an inspired session with the client. I rushed home that day in order to capture the feel of what we had discussed. Others are more structurally planned but all should be free to allow some flexibility and licence to allow the idea of the look to breathe and develop. The majority of my current work develops almost daily and to my mind, the images become stronger and more attractive. The purpose of an advert in any location is to make the viewer stop and ponder, even if only for a fleeting moment. On the street, on the underground, in a magazine. If one of my images makes you hesitate and look again, I have achieved my goal with the imagery. Simple as that…

My next few days are designing and processing more images. We are re-launching a brand of instruments and have to design for online (website) and in-store promotions including light boxes, T-shirts and posters etc.

I have found enough time to watch an excellent performance by Noah and the Whale at Bristol Colston Hall, sadly without camera for once! We also have picked up Poppy our new VW T5 van that has gone through a full re-spray. She looks wonderful but the downside is that in order to protect the paint, we need to thoroughly wash and then fully polish the new paintwork, not once, but twice. Well, one down but man, these vans are large!

Oh and the title? Why, it is the name of the brand of guitar famous in the 60’s/70’s (and originally manufactured there) we are busy gearing up to relaunch.

Simon & Patrick acoustic guitar, taken at Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire.

Shaftesbury guitar 'medical' shot for web and brochure use

Sto-Fen

General

OK, so picked up a small flash diffuser called a Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce. Tried it out very quickly and wowee, much better than my homemade efforts! Light is sooo soft now.

Final thoughts (and cleaning) of lenses needed for this afternoon and tonight’s Jessie J gig – trying to cut down on weight as we are travelling by train but don’t want to miss a great shot cos I was too lazy! Well, not lazy but trying to protect my poorly back you understand…. Not sure what to expect from the pics, really hoping we get proper and good access as anything else will be pants. Heard yesterday that apparently the Godin guitar the guy is playing (and I need to photograph) was damaged by the lighting guys!! Hope not too badly but hey, I guess thats Rock ‘n Roll.

Received a call from an agency this morning for a small job which might be interesting technically, waiting for a return call to accept the quote and then it needs to be done by next tuesday. Thats the thing with these jobs, never any time to prepare and think about it which keeps the mind focused and the results more spontaneous, which isn’t always a bad thing.

Oh and I love the Mumford and Sons album………hmmmmm hmmmmmm hmmmmmm..