A while ago, a guy named Fred Levy came to my attention. He’s a photographer in Massachusetts and started a photography series called the Black Dog Project. He has a tumblr blog dedicated to black dogs as well. There’s mixed and contradictory evidence about the adoption of black dogs from refuges. In some countries, like France, there is out-and-out superstition about black dogs. In others, it might be a whole load of other influencing factors. Are there more black dogs than any other colour? Are there lighting issues that mean black dogs are not as easy to see in the refuge? Do they look more aggressive? I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked past people with Heston and they’re giving him the evil eye for a bark or a grumble, ignoring Tilly who is yapping her head off.
What is not disputable, however, is how hard black dogs are to photograph. That’s especially true if you don’t have a camera where you can bracket for exposure. Their coats don’t often gleam the way they do in real-life, and those blacks are hard to vamp up, leaving them looking like a muddy brown or a miserable grey.
It’s not always true, but they don’t always burst out of your screen like other dogs might. It’s also hard to mess with in post-processing. Okay. It’s not hard if you have a couple of hours to mess around with files in Photoshop and you don’t mind spending hours manually dodging and burning in bits of the image to make them crisp.
It wouldn’t have crossed my mind, therefore, to take photos against a black background. Photo shoots in the refuge are bad enough. For a start, there are cats who wander in and out at liberty and keeping dogs out of their enclosures a moment longer than you have to is a recipe for disaster. And you know cats. They’re all “well, hello, Dog. I think it’s about time you remembered who’s boss around here.” or they’re all shy and skittish. If they run, canine chase instinct kicks in.
This is Felix, who sadly died recently. He’s sitting up on an electricity box and I’m literally right next to him trying desperately to keep the attention of the dogs who I’m trying to photograph for the Christmas advent calendar.
Toupie, of course is all “Cat… there’s a cat up there… there’s a cat… Cat…. Cat!”
All the while I’m trying to get her to sit still amid a pile of Christmas presents for a half-decent photo to get her adopted.
Plus, there are people. There are the refuge staff who walk past, as they are in the habit of doing. These are the primary care givers for the dogs and the dogs are all pleased to see them, as well you might expect.
Like this one of Azor, who’d seen Thomas. He’s going, “Thomas! Thomas! THOMAS! Where’s my dinner, mate? Why aren’t you coming to say hello to me? Thomas? Thomas mate? THOMAS!! Dude??!”
Me trying to distract him with a biscuit and he’s like “who the hell are you? … THOMAS! Thomas, mate!”
Sometimes that works in my favour and I can lure the refuge staff to stand behind me for a great photo. I did that with Crista this week, a pointer who was abandoned with her six babies on Christmas Day. She just loves Robyn and it was the only way I could tempt her to look at the camera.
Other times, it’s members of the public who don’t realise how much they’re distracting the dogs. One lady was walking backward and forward behind me, a tentative grip on the lead of a tiny little dog she’s trying out and I’m trying to get a photo of Kayser. Kayser hates little dogs. He’s a rottie cross who’s trying to decide just how he’s going to rip the throat out of this little beast in front of him. I ask the lady to move away and she’s affronted. Oh well.
Then there’s the other crazy stuff that happens in refuges. Arrivals. For some reason, people who abandon dogs like to come in numbers. Maybe they feel safer. Takes five people to abandon two dogs on Friday. They’re standing at the gate and Elaine’s trying desperately to wrestle Elios into place.
Of course, then the wind picks up and rips my precariously-taped bit of black silk from the side of the cabin where I’m taking photos. When people offer me “advice” on taking photos, I smile. Professional animal portrait photographers have marvellous things called studios, complete with studio lighting. They have assistants. They have owners they can coax into helping get the dog’s attention. The dogs don’t have to be on the lead. They aren’t stressed. They aren’t surrounded by chaos. They can take a whole afternoon to get six or seven perfect shots of one or two dogs. They don’t have cats, other dogs, staff members, volunteers, leads, bits of tape, intermittent sunlight, arrivals, departures, barking and a dog that’s only had twenty minutes exercise that day.
I have a yard surrounded by three hundred animals, at least ten busy volunteers and staff members, and a crazy dog on the end of a lead who’d much rather be out on a walk. That’s the real world.
My real world is also one of an amateur photographer. I have an entry level Canon 1100D. I have a standard, entry-level Canon zoom – the one they supply with the camera. I also have a Sigma 70-300mm zoom. They say a poor photographer will blame their equipment and never use it to the edge of its capacity. I use mine to the edge of its capacity and realised I’d quite like a longer zoom so I didn’t have to get in the dogs’ faces. They don’t all like that. So I have the Sigma lens which is just wonderful. I can’t tell you though what I would give for a Canon 5D mk III body (£2299) or even a 7D body (£1135). What I couldn’t do with a Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens (£1089) or even a 50mm f/1.4 (£279). How wonderful it would be to have Photoshop and all its accoutrements. Still, I have a great basic camera, a polarising filter (my indispensible accessory) and picmonkey. It’s more than enough to take great shots. I did want to show you some of the world I work in and then how it ends up.
I started out by having a play around at home. Less stressful. No leads. Responsive dogs. I get a great shot of Heston and I know the black on black is going to work. His tongue’s a bit meaty-pink and that was difficult to get the exposure for, but I do this out of direct sunlight, under clouds and I know it’s going to work.
I decide that tongue-free will be better than tongues if possible. Then it’s time to pack up kit. Both my lenses, lots of biscuits, black lead, masking tape. Basic but does the trick.
Here you can see my ‘studio’ – the front of the pound reception, where stray dogs are dealt with. Just so you know, there was a giddy little shih-tzu about a metre away behind the door, doing his best to distract everyone. Notice the fact I took this at ISO 6400 – the fastest ISO it’ll do, so I don’t have to use flash. Even so, Kayser is moving and agitated! I love the fact the backdrop is being help up by a very willing volunteer’s leg. She’s trying desperately to stay out of the shot but it gives you an idea! Actually, my ‘failure’ rate for photos is quite low. I take about 200 and about 30 make it through to final cut. Sometimes that’s just because they are duplicates and I’ve gone for the best. Sometimes it’s because the dog yawned or blinked. But I’m used to working on film where it was costly to make mistakes. I get rid of a good number of shots that are okay. Very few are complete failures like that one above!
This one, not only distracted but blurry too…
This one, Thomas has just walked by to get something from the van.
Then I get one where he’s kind of looking at me, but it’s not brilliant. Workable but not brilliant. Look at his tail. Gorgeous lad! I have to tell you that Eloy peed on the backdrop about half an hour before this shot as well. Now that’s hardcore animal photography!
Once I get the photos home, I then have up to 50 shots to edit, crop and improve. Sometimes I add names or the refuge details depending on the project. First thing in is a brutal cropping. Next up is a quick exposure adjustment, a little messing with the curves (techno-jargon a-hoy!) perhaps a little dodging and burning. No photo can take more than 10 minutes of my time, especially when I have 50 photos to get through. 5 mins is my usual time – and often more like 2 minutes. Crop. Adjust. Save.
I did get a perfect shot of Kayser, but as the project isn’t unrolling until March 1st, he’s staying behind doors.
Here is one instead of Rex, adopted on Friday following a short trial period with a lady I know. He is still bouncy and bonkers and lovely. I did one of him anyway, just for fun. I think you can probably see why I’m so pleased with this set of photos. I’ll, for once, let the image do the talking.
Rex is a great example because he’s giddy and not keen on sitting still, especially when there are lots of distractions. Let’s just say that the black dogs project was tougher than the oldies. For a start, oldies don’t have crazy energy. There are a good few black dogs who have been a devil to photograph simply because they are so bouncy. Salma and Darius, Elios, Fidèle, Hoogy, Manix… mention these names to any number of volunteers and you’ll see involuntary muscle spasms as arms remember being pulled more than they were ever expected to be. I suspect this is exactly how Heston would be in the refuge. Out of it, he’s still lively on the lead, but he gets to let off steam. Darius is just looking for cuddles. He preferred to get in for a cuddle with a volunteer than pose for his close-up.
It’s such a shame for this guy. Anyone who came to see him would think he’s insane. All he is, is a veteran refuge dog who has little by way of restraint and who just wants to be your friend. Super cuddly and super loveable. Look how happy he is to get a bit of love.
To finish, a few words for Darius.
Darius…. I hope this project works for you, because I love you and I know the other volunteers love you too. I hope the rest of the world gets to see how special you are. You really are a diamond in the rough. One day, someone’s going to see that, as soon as they get you home, you’re going to be an absolute darling.