With entries now open for The Field’s Gundog Awards, David Tomlinson offers advice on how to produce a winning entry in the photography category

Entries are open for The Field Gundog Awards, in association with Skinner’s Field & Trial. David Tomlinson offers his gundog photography tips for those looking to enter our most popular category: gundog photograph of the year.

For more information about The Field Gundog Awards and how to enter, read all about the competition here. Whether you hope to snap the winning picture or simply a photo worthy of the downstairs loo, read more advice on how to photograph your gundog: dogs in the frame.

GUNDOG PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS

One of my most enjoyable tasks is judging The Field’s annual Gundog Awards (in association with Skinner’s Field & Trial). If you haven’t thought of entering, now is the time to do so as there are numerous classes, from most impressive retrieve to best photograph or portrait. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the latter class that attracts by far the most entries. Last year there were nearly 400, and I’m sure that this year there will be more.

Almost everyone has a camera in their pocket, even if it is in the shape of a mobile phone. I never cease to be amazed at the quality of photographs that it’s possible to take with a phone. Not owning a proper camera certainly doesn’t rule you out of entering the competition. The secrets of successful dog photography are understanding your subject and using light to its best effect, as a good photograph is all about light. In theory, low light is ideal and it’s best if it comes from behind you – but experimentation costs nothing. A little luck, and the ability to anticipate what might be a good picture, are the keys to success.

The one great rule about dog photography is always to shoot at a dog’s eye level, especially if using a phone or a camera with wide-angle lens. Photographs taken looking down on a dog never have the same impact. If necessary, sit on your game bag or use a small, portable stool to get down to dog level – it will transform the impact of your pictures. Using a long lens makes it much easier to get good pictures but, even then, a low angle makes a terrific difference to the power of the photograph.

Every year I take thousands of photographs of gundogs, mostly using an Olympus OM-D camera with a 75-300mm lens. My choice of camera is dictated by the fact that nowadays I hate carrying around heavy kit. My little Olympus, a mirror-less, single-lens reflex, is tough, can take numerous frames a second but doesn’t weigh heavily on my shoulder. The zoom lens gives me a great deal of versatility when shooting dogs in action, and it’s action shots that I prefer.

MODERN CAMERAS AND MOBILE PHONES

Modern digital cameras allow shooting in poor light, so you can set your ISO high and still get sharp pictures. In the days of film cameras a lack of light invariably meant putting the camera away. I like shooting in sunlight as it gives me the most options, but it is possible to get great results on even the dullest of days. Using a proper camera, as opposed to a phone, does allow such options as deciding whether to go for shots that freeze all the action (using the fastest shutter speed possible), or using a slower shutter speed to give an impression of movement. Blurred body and legs but a sharp head can be most effective, but make sure that the autofocus is centred on the dog’s head and simply swing with the dog as it gallops.

It’s essential to be hypercritical of your results. Never hesitate to delete anything you are not satisfied with, then try again to get the shot you want. Shooting a galloping dog in a burst of shots will generally produce one or two pleasing pictures but there will be many images where the position of the legs looks awkward or wrong. Delete them.

Achieving good retrieving photographs is the ultimate challenge. Resist the temptation to bring a bird home for photography the next day, as anything other than a freshly shot bird will look stiff and unnatural in photographs. The best photographs are always the genuine shots taken in the field. Even then, many of the shots you take will be pleasing but ordinary, and it takes something extra, something almost impossible to define, to achieve that special picture that is worthy of a big print on the wall or an entry to the competition.

One of the advantages of using a long lens is that it will throw the background out of focus, ensuring that the eye is drawn straight to the subject and not confused by what is behind it. In contrast, phone cameras or iPads invariably have a great depth of focus, so that almost everything in the picture will be sharp. If the background is attractive this can be a real bonus, but watch out for parked cars or other distractions that can ruin an otherwise perfect picture. On one of the first occasions I used a digital camera I photographed my spaniel sitting in hazel wood. Everything was pin sharp, and I’ve scarcely taken a better landscape-type picture since.

Digital photography allows you the option to work on your pictures once you have downloaded them onto your computer, iPad or whatever. Keen photographers will spend time perfecting their picture using processing tools such as Photoshop, but if the original image is both sharp and correctly exposed there’s little reason to do much work. I rarely do anything other than crop a photograph – the position of the dog in the shot can make all the difference to the picture’s impact on the eye. Even if you don’t take a winning shot you will be sure to have a lot of fun photographing your dog. Happy snapping.

For details on how to enter, go to: www.thefield.co.uk/gundog-awards