A couple of months ago I was asked by a magazine if I would go photograph a shelter. I had mixed feeling about this at first because I have a Golden Retriever, Emme who is a royal nutjob. My wife keeps telling me that somehow Emme got that trait from me. Well, we both like sticking our heads out of the sunroof in the car on cooler days. I have photographed Emme since she was just a young pup so I have some experience with pet photography. Here is a link to the last post we did with Emme: Family Christmas Portrait 2012. Anyway, I know what our furry, four pawed family member means to us and I wasn’t sure going to a shelter to see a bunch of animals that were “donated” would effect me. Nevertheless, this would give me the chance to see how our local animal shelter was run and how clean it was. Thinking that this location was going to be cramped, dark and who knows what else, I charged my batteries for my flash and camera. I also do my usual ritual of giving everything a look over for any switches that may have gotten bumped and clean the lens. The big day had come and it was time to go see what was in store for me. I’m usually a little on edge anyway as you have no idea how things are going to go. As a photographer you come up with a plan. Then Murphy steps in and the first thing when you get on site is you throw the plan out the window and improvise. All while keeping a smile and telling the client that everything is going smoothly when you know that all hell is breaking loose. (hummmm, I should play poker more often.) Being a photographer is like being MacGyver. You are handed a situation that you aren’t sure how to deal with and all you have is a paper clip, 12” of string and a dime and you are expected to escape out of Alcatraz, I’m just sayin’!
I arrived on location and the first photo that was on the shot list (yes, get a shot list ahead of time so you have a clue what they are looking for, this research will save you time, money and HAIR!) was a photo of the board. These folks take time out of their life to help this organization, so I don’t want to hold anyone up. It was 10:00 a.m. and the light was lovely, right! It was full sun, harsh shadows and highlights on everyone’s faces. This is not exactly going to show everyone in the best light. So my go to plan when this type of issue arises is to find some shade. These folks are wearing their best clothes and shoes so tromping through the grass to get to a big oak tree may not be the best idea, especially for those wearing high heals. The front of the shelter has a covered area. Perfect, shade! I had everyone step back under the roof until they were all in shade. I checked the settings in manual mode and the camera was on a tripod and I ripped of a few shots. With groups, take fifteen or twenty shots. Even though you tell them, “Ready, 1, 2….3”. It seems as if on three, that is the time to close your eyes! So, if you take multiple shots, your chances of success will increase dramatically!
Now that all the formal stuff was over it was time to see what was going on with the animals. Some of the volunteers lead me into the cat sanctuary. I couldn’t believe it, these cats were living better that I was! There was a two-door system to keep everyone where they were supposed to be. I made my way through the doors and I was all of the suddenly surrounded by cats. Here’s a little side note, when I was very young, I petted a cat down it’s back and the cat proceeded to scratch my arm from shoulder to my hand. It was a very painful experience and I have never forgot it. All of the sudden I felt as if I were chum floating around in the pool at Sea World just before the big show. Again, smiling, I crouched down on one knee. Working with animals, you have to be at their eye level or it’s not gonna work. Have you ever seen photos of someone’s pet that was on the floor? The photo is all floor and there is a little ball if fuzz in the middle that is the pet. This won’t win any prizes for the photographer of the year award. Now that I was on their level, I assessed the lighting situation. They were free roaming in a room that was lit by florescent lights. This is basically an office lighting situation that I have been in before. These lights don’t put out that much light, especially when you have to freeze your subject. It was time to employ the external flash. I turned the flash on and set it for ¼ power. I shoot manual flash as well so I can control how much light is coming out of this lightsaber. I twisted the flash head around so that it was pointed at the corner pocket of the room behind me. I dialed in a manual exposure of ISO 400, f/5.6 at 1/250. There are a couple of reasons for this. With a higher ISO, your flash doesn’t have to work as hard. The f-stop of 5.6 does two things, it blurs the background and it also allows the flash to work easier (flash only cares about ISO and aperture). The shutter speed of 1/250 is my sync speed on my camera. If I go any higher, I would have gotten a black frame as the shutter would have opened and closed before the flash went off. Isn’t lighting fun? After I had the parliamentary settings in the camera, it was time to try and take a few photos. At this point, I can’t feel my legs anymore so I was glad that I had my Nikon 18mm-200mm lens on the camera. This was going to extend my reach. I had my Nikon 50mm f/1.4 in my pocket, but I couldn’t exactly get blood flow to my legs to reach it. Again, being MacGyver I was going to use what I had at my disposal. The cats are interested at what is going on at this point and I wasn’t sure how they were going to react when I was about to light up their life. I took a couple of test shots and at first they were taken back a little. However, as I worked they became comfortable with me and I was with them. This is when the real photos were going to happen.
When the photographer’s God throws you a bone (how fitting for this post) you better take it. This guy was really interested and wasn’t scared of the lightning that I was creating in the room. Most of all he was staying still. This is when you know your gear inside and out, your equipment takes a back seat to what is going on and you can concentrate on what is happening in front of your lens.
Before along all the cats were going on about their business and started to play with the abundant selection of toys that were in the room. Once this cat realized that I was taking a portrait of him, he stared right at me with his floofy in his paws. These are the moments that count. I probably spent about 45 minutes in the cat room and shot a couple of hundred frames. Anyone who has photographed animals or children, know that you have to shoot a lot to get enough keepers.
With any of these great organizations, it’s the people that make it tick. I had the honor of photographing the executive director.
I took a few of just Sharon, but something was missing. We were at the animal league. I asked Sharon if today was “bring your pet to work day”. In a flash showed up a dachshund. She said, “This is Chester, he’s my pet and the league’s mascot.” Now this was coming together. At first we did the pose at the camera and she was trying to get him to cooperate. Chester was like one of those water snakes you get as a kid. The harder you hang on, the faster it leaves you. After a few moments, I told her to take a break and maybe Chester would settle down. After all, I had an umbrella set up about a foot away from them and I’m not sure if this dog was use to flash. Just as I started to put the electronic release down on the tripod, Chester was starting to lick Sharon in the face. I picked up the release and just started pressing. When you least expect it, a real photograph will present itself, all you have to do is know when to press the shutter.
I was told that they had a very special cat; it was chocolate brown which apparently is rare. They named her Ghirardelli for obvious reasons. Rita is the longest serving volunteer at the league and we wanted to get a photo of her. As you can see, there isn’t any shortage of love for these animals in the building. Again, we did the pose routine, which was OK, but I wanted to show the care that was being provided for these animals through the lens. It can be difficult to photograph a “feeling”, this isn’t exactly a tangible thing that can be seen in the physical world. Once Ghirardelli settled in Rita’s arms, the rest fell into place.
It was time to go into the area where the dogs were. They warned me that the dogs might be a little more of a challenge to photograph. I thought to myself, “I have a Golden nutjob, how hard can this be?” They opened the main door and I was instantly greeted and everyone wanted to say “Hi”. These dogs were in their own areas so we would be able to work with each animal individually. We first went into the puppy area where the dogs seemed to be a little more relaxed.
This pit bull was one of the gentlest dogs I have ever interacted with. She was up on her condo ready to be taken home. She held still and I was able to get a few good frames.
After we checked out the puppy area, we moved into the main area. They brought a few dogs out to be photographed. These guys were a little more excited to see me and were all over the place. There were high ceilings so I set the flash to “nuke” mode and I was able to get a few useable frames. I forgot that Emme is trained to sit and stay still, which makes photography easy, these guys were all over the place, but full of life.
When I saw the main area where the dogs were kept, I felt as if I was walking down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. Also, this place was so clean that you could eat off the floor. I was really impressed.
At the end of the day, it was an amazing experience and I’m glad that I went. This is a no kill shelter and the animals stay as long as needed. There are all kinds of animals to choose from and all different breeds. I would highly recommend checking out your local shelter to find an companion or an additional family member. Check out the Animal Welfare League of Charlotte County site.
Those of us who have cameras can “donate” or help any of these types of organizations without necessarily handing over money, which can be difficult at times. Check out your local shelter and ask if they need any photographs taken for their marketing material or website. This is a great way to give back and use your photographic skills. You never know where things may lead or who may come home with you!
Until next time…
Keep Your Glass Clean