Christmas Dogs 2014

Zara in Christmas Hat

Zara in Christmas Hat

A few years ago back when we had two other dogs – Tessa and Topaz, I took a few photographs (snapshots really) of them wearing a full size Christmas hat calling Xmas Dogs. They were captured using a 1.7MP Fuji MX1700 digital camera which in 2000 was the only realistically priced digital camera around; this camera used the horrible and flimsy Smart-media cards that were only a few MB in size, you read that right, that’s right MB not GB!

This Christmas my sister (Louise) brought with her a small Christmas hat that she had used with her cats with the express intention to use it with our current dogs (Zara and Seska) and getting some photos of them wearing the hat. I think that either Louise or my mum took some photographs on their iPhones but asked if I would like to take some shots too. The hat was left with me and I decided to plan a small shoot with the dogs with and without the hat. The shots in this post were all taken over a two day period using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera and the rather excellent 40-150mm f2.8 PRO lens. I also used the two Cactus RF60 flashguns that I own along with the V6 Transceiver in TX mode.

Day One Shoot:
The idea for both days was to photograph the dog on a stool (anything without a back) with the Christmas tree behind them, using a wide aperture (f2.8-f4) the tree would be out of focus and it would produce some nice “bokeh”. Just to be clear here “bokeh” is the quality of the out of focus background elements and has nothing to do with the aperture which really deals with the amount of background elements that are out of focus.

The tree was on a small table at the far left of the room next to the book case, as I didn’t want to re-arrange the room I left it where it was and worked around its current location. I placed one of the kitchen stools a couple of feet in front of the tree; on the stool I arranged a few of the christmas cloth napkins that we had so that the corner pattern on each was covered or out of shot. The cloth napkins were predominantly what I call “Christmas green”, they had a “Christmas red border” on the outside but this was quite thin so was not too distracting.

I took some meter readings of the tree at f4 (going for f2.8 was pushing it) and at ISO 800 I worked out what shutter speed was needed to get the tree exposed, it was quite dark in the room as it was the evening – remember shutter speed controls the amount of ambient light in the room in flash photography.

With the ambient light readings noted, I placed the two flashguns. The flash to camera right was on a lightstand with an umbrella acting as a reflector – the flash fires into the umbrella and then bounces back. The flash was initially set to its lowest power 1/128 and was left at that power, the flash was on channel A. The flash to camera left was placed onto a quite high CD cabinet and then I placed a gold reflector on the back of the settee just to the left of the stool, the flash was angled at the reflector this flash was also on channel A at 1/128 power. I took meter readings of the flash and then set my camera to manual with the readings (f4, 1/128s and ISO 800) and took a few test shots of a toy dog on the stool. With hindsight these are a little under-exposed a little so I had to push them a bit in Lightroom. I should have gone for a stop more light – such as 1/60 shutter speed or maybe 1/64 power on the flash?

However I did manage to get the following shots of Zara and Seska. My favourite is at the top of this post, the slight tilt of Zara’s head just makes the shot. I started with Seska which as the smaller of the two dogs had no trouble sitting or standing on the small stool, however she was not too happy at being there. I was also having trouble focusing as the light levels were so low, however this is the best shot that I got that is OK but is slightly soft. Fortunately, the expression carries the imperfections in the technical areas:

Seska in Christmas Hat

Seska in Christmas Hat

Zara on the other hand managed quite well on the stool and was less worried even though she is much larger than Seksa, I managed to get more photos of Zara in focus, she is quite happy having her photo taken:

Zara in Christmas Hat

Zara in Christmas Hat

Both dogs were praised during and after the shoot and fed a few more doggy chocs that they both really like.🙂

I later post processed the images the next morning (in Lightroom) and was a little unhappy with the results for Seska as they didn’t turn out like I hoped. I liked the overall idea of the shot but decided that a daylight shot was needed to help with the focus and I would try for a bit more light, I had too much as it happens. I must remember to check ALL of my camera settings such as the ISO!

Day Two Shoot:
This was also the last day that I could take the photos with the tree in the background as it was going to put away. So we moved the tree onto the ground and used the lower but larger “puffe” that lives in the living room to put the dogs onto. The puffe was covered in the same green cloths and the extra space to camera left meant that I could use my second stand and umbrella on both sides. Again both flashes were set to their lowest power and pointed into the umbrella for a reflected flash. This time I set one on channel A and the other on Channel B. Good practice and common sense dictates that when you are using multiple speed-lights on different channels you go from A to D starting at camera left on going around left to right sequentially, unfortunately as I haven’t got round to uploading the latest firmware the flash to camera left would only work on channel B, the flash to camera right didn’t care and worked on any channel; so I used channel A in this instance.

I took meter readings of each light and the ambient too and the plan was to shoot at ISO 400 at around f2.8 to get the maximum separation between the dogs and the tree. I concluded that 1/250sec was right. I started here and later changed this to 1/200sec to get an extra half a stop of light. The flash to camera left was at 1/128 power and the flash to camera right was at 1/64 power – I was trying to get some light into the dogs left eye, I also changed the angle of the flash and stand to get it as close as the dog as possible but just out of frame. This helped but in hindsight a reflector in front of the dog would have helped bounce the light into their faces – they both have large “eyebrows” at the moment!

However, with the test shots out of the way I took some shots of Seska with and without her hat as well as Zara without her hat. We also removed Zara’s peach jumper as she looked better without it; rest assured the jumper was re-applied after the shoot was concluded.

So we started with Seska and once the initial “what am I doing on the puffe” look was over she settled down and let me take lots of photo’s, again I had some issues with focus but nothing like what I had had the previous day. All shots here have been processed in Lightroom and saved from the overexposure using the “Highlight” slider. The overexposure was only evident in the white parts of the fur and the white fur trim of the hat. The reason I had not noticed during the shoot is that I had changed my picture display from highlight and histogram view to full screen with no details so that the parents could see the shots as they were taken. IF i had set this back to the highlights warning I would have noticed and then set the ISO to what it should have been, the photos were around 1.25 stops too bright (ISO 400 vs ISO 1000).

Early into the shoot before she had fully settled down, I got this shot of Seska in the hat:

Seska in hat

Seska in hat

After a slight wardrobe malfunction I took some more photo’s without the hat:

Seska

Seska

As you can see when has settled down to a lying position:

Seska

Seska

Seska

Seska

So eventually we managed the best shot of Seska lying down and proudly wearing the hat:

Seska in hat

Seska in hat

I didn’t want to leave Zara out so this time I took a few photographs of her without the hat:

Zara

Zara

Zara was even better than Seska as she crossed her paws and “vogue” she was in the zone:
2015-01-03-CD2-1

The girls were again praised and plied with a few doggy chocs for being good subjects and I got some nice shots to boot. I will take some more shots of them after their next grooming session when their look their best in February. I will put into practice what I have learned here, check everything and check it twice. I will also upload the latest firmware into the RF60 flashguns and V6 transceiver – hopefully this will combat some of the issues I have found. I will also learn more about the OM-D E-M1 camera, although it is a fantastic picture taking tool there is a lot more that I can learn and master.