Pet Photography 101

Photographing Pets by Lara Blair

Photographers tend to photograph that which is closest to them more often than anything else.  For me, that means photographing my dog.  My dog is such a good dog too.  She sits when I ask her to sit, stays when I tell her to stay, shake, and all the rest.  But I’ve not had the best of success in taking pictures of her.  Every once in a while, I got lucky in a shot or two, but something was missing.  After reading Lara Blair’s book from Amherst Media: Photographing Dogs: Techniques for Professional Digital Photographers, I sort of head-smacked myself and said “Well, where was this book five years ago?!”

Maggie on the Bed - Looking Cute!

Maggie From AboveTilted Head

Are You Kidding Me?

She offers insights in her book that only an experienced pro can really give you.  For instance, as much as I love my dog and her trotting to me – I can’t tell you how often I’ve let her barge into me and my camera, thus resulting in my sending gear in for repairs from scratches, nicks, and re-alignments.  One would think I’d learn from mistakes, but until Lara said:

“I hold mine high above my head when a dog is running at me”

I just kept on missing the obvious!  Now I know better…just in time for my beloved pet to be the most docile and non-running pet in the world (sad to say, she is in her twilight years…every day I have left with her is precious!). Other great insights include shooting dogs from a lower angle (it makes them look larger than life, which is what owners want), anticipating session behavior (timid and aggressive dogs), and yes, handling the inevitable messiness to clean up from your studio!

Not only are her insights valuable, but her sample portfolio she includes to demonstrate various techniques, as well as insights on how and where to market yourself as a dog/pet photographer make this book an ideal resource for both the photographer turning to pet portraiture, as well as principles for setting up a pet-friendly studio.  If you’re looking to make an entry or transition into pet photography, this is definitely one to include.  My one nit for this book is that a substantial portion of the book is devoted to the business side.  Lara talks a lot about branding, what outlets to visit, setting up your business, and other aspects of a pet studio.  While these are very useful insights, these aren’t really specific to pet photography techniques.  The technique portion is really only about 1/3rd of the book.

Don’t get me wrong though – it’s a great read, and very easy to get through.  Often how-to books like this get either too wordy, or do not really have enough substance to them.  Lara provides both, but does have a good portion that is tangential to the main topic. It’s all good content though, so it’s a very minor nit. Thanks go out to the folks at Amherst Media for sending me the review copy too!  And that does mean that some lucky reader will be in the running to win this, along with several other prizes to close out 2012!

For a quick link to purchase though (if you can’t wait until year-end), hit the link below:

Photographing Pets by Lara Blair
Photographing Dogs: Techniques for Professional Digital Photographers

Another book review is coming up later this week on human portraiture, so stay tuned!

Is Film making a resurgance?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about film making a resurgence. Ever since Polaroid announced a about a year ago that they were ending production of their film, forums, blogs, and photography communities have been ramping up a widespread discussion over the benefits of film.   More recently, when Polaroid filed for Chapter 11 less than a month ago, the discussion of film vs. digital was taken up yet another notch.  While I am firmly in the digital world of photography, since my roots are founded in the Vivitar 110 I used as a youth, (and subsequently with my brothers Pentax K1000) the subject does hold a certain appeal for me.

So, I’d like to take a moment here on the blog to frame the “debate” from my own perspective. As a digital enthusiast, and at times, an admitted pixel peeper, the benefits of digital technology are not lost on me. At the same time, while technology can benefit us all, in many ways, and across many disciplines, it does have limits. Why? Because of the physics of it. Technologies can only be broken down so far before they reach limits. Data, for instance, can only be broken down into 1’s and 0’s. Likewise with the pixel in photography. Yes, we can advance technologies, and make pixels smaller, but in the end, there is always a limit to what a digital sensor can capture.

This is not to say that we cannot approach film-like quality with digital means. Feathering techniques, plugins, and action scripts can approach film-like characteristics, and many are quite good at it. For some examples of some of the best resources out there, I’d recommend a site called Action Central (www.atncentral.com) that has an impressive array of actions and such. Several plugin sites are also out there that include The Plugin Site, Adobe’s own Plugin pages, among several others.

On a side-by-side comparison though, I tend to be of the belief that film has a degree of smoothness in tonal and color gradations that simply cannot be duplicated by a digital sensor. They are getting very very good, and coming close, but from where I set (like I said, as an admitted pixel peeper at times), a pixel will always have a line that it cannot cross on its own. From that perspective, film will always win. I understand the converse, that when pixel peeping, I am looking at prints much closer than ever were intended for viewing purposes – but that’s just me.

What struck me most about this debate though, was a statement that really hit home, made by my friend, Dave Zarzecki (sorry folks, he does not have a web presence). It was analogy to graphic design and I think perfectly summarizes the difference between film and digital:

Film is to digital as vectoring is to rasterizing

Think about it.  Film is smooth and transitions from one tonal area to another blend very seamlessly,so even when you look at a print very close, it’s hard to tell where one color, tone or shade ends and where the next one begins.  The same holds true with vectoring…you can increase or decrease your viewing distance to HUGE degrees without seeing any pixelization.  By start contrast though, with digital, there will always be lines that the photoreceptors cannot cross for traditional sensors.  Wheter they are CCD, CMOS or other bayer arrays, there are fundamental limits to digital incarnations that cannot be surpassed without help.  The same holds true for rasterized objects.  Lines of demarcation are made, and to cross them, you need help, whether it be in the form of feathering, actions or plugins.

This is not intended to denigrate digital by any means – I love my 40D, and suspect within the next year I will also own a 1st generation 5D.  However, a fondness for the early days of my Vivitar 110 (and my brother’s Pentax K1000) will always be there.

So, what about the listening audience?  Will digital ever surpass film in tonal and color quality?  Has it done so already?  Or is it about to cross that line soon?  Sound off in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts!  In the meantime, happy shooting, and we’ll see you back here tomorrow!

Monday Musings – Reducing Noise in your photos

Before I even start on anything photographic today, this is a great day to be alive.  Not only is it the first installment of MNF (Monday Night Football), but it is my own beloved Denver Broncos!  Having been a fan since the age of 8, and cried through the first 4 Super Bowls in sadness, and then in exhilaration for the next 2 in happiness, let’s just say GAME ON as the season gets underway with us revving up against the Raiders (yes, I’m a Raider hater like nobody’s business!) tonight at 8pm!

Okay, now having set the stage for tonight, let’s shift back to the photography theme of the day – reducing noise in your images.  Let’s start with a little background:

From even the early days of film, photography as a medium has always had noise as a factor.  Before digital came of age, this was actually referred to as grain rather than noise, and the speed of the film was directly proportional to the amount of noise that you would get.  Higher ASA values meant you could capture images in lower light, but at the expense of grain.

As most major forms of photographic expression have moved to digital, we now are looking at this issue using more current semantics, that being noise rather than grain.  Digital noise is introduced as we increase the ISO levels within our digital cameras.  This has been a major advantage to digital photography, because you can change the noise/grain tolerance from one frame to the next, whereas with film, you had to choose your tolerance level when you put the film in.  If you put in too high a film speed, and you wound up with a lot of noise in images that otherwise did not need it.  Alternatively, if you put in too low a speed film, none of your pictures would turn out.

Some of us try to introduce grain/noise for artistic effect, while others try to minimize it to achieve clean smooth color transitions without any granularity.   Each of these could merit its own discussion, so today I am going to look at 3 of the ways that you can reduce noise in your photography:

  1. During capture – if you want to minimize noise, one of the best ways to do that is to ensure you are shootig with the lowest noise tolerance in your camera.  This means ensuring that your ISO is set to its lowest possible levels.  Most point-and-shoot cameras allow for this type of adjustment these days, as do practically all SLR cameras.  As a general rule of thumb, the better the camera, the lower the ISO.  Most consumer grade SLR’s will allow you to adjust ISO settings down to 100.  As you price into higher quality SLR’s, some can drop this value further to 50 or even 25.  At that level, expect to pay about $2000 or more for the SLR body that can accommodate this.
  2. In your photo editor – There are many options here for reducing noise if your in camera settings did not minimize noise enough for your tastes.  Everything from Photoshop Elements, to Lightroom, iPhoto, Corel, and of course Photoshop CS3 have internal controls that allow you to make adjustments to compensate for noise in images.   Some methods perform noise reduction better than others and even some programs excel at this better than others, but by and large, variances in the quality of noise reduction will be a function of the cost of the software itself – iPhoto is free, so the noise adjustments will not offer much in the way of malleable controls.  Elements, at about $75 is a little better at handling noise, while Lightroom and Photoshop round out the higher end of photo software programs both in their price and in their handling of noise.
  3. Specific Noise Reduction programs – Because there is such an interest in managing noise, a growing body of software caters specifically to this function, and this function only.  Software developers have seen a need for this and specially designed programs are now made to handle just the management of noise in images.  Most offer as a part of their programs, a way to incorporate their algorithms into larger photo editing software by means of plugins.  Some of the most common and well-known noise editing programs include Noise Ninja, Noiseware, NeatImage, and Dfine.

As you can see, there are many ways to manage noise, including in camera options, within your photo editor, and with free standing noise reduction software.  I have found that the best results lie in a combination of all of the above.  I try to remember to make necessary adjustments in camera for the type of images I am capturing.  From there, as I move into my photo editor, if noise is present but not excessive, I will use the built-in noise reduction measures.  For images where the noise levels are high, I use Noise Ninja and have been happy with the results.

But, just like haircuts, there are more opinions out there on what constitutes effective management of noise in photos.  So, let’s hear it!  What methods do you use to manage noise in your photos?  Feedback, thoughts, and discussions are always welcome in the Comments section.   Well, I guess that means tomorrow I will probably have to do a tutorial on noise management in images.  So, until then, happy shooting and watch those apertures!