With the results of The Field Gundog Awards to be announced this month, David Tomlinson offers advice on producing a winning entry in the photographic category
Whether you are hoping to triumph with a worthy picture for Gundog Photograph of the Year or simply want to take a pleasing snap of your companion in the field – gundog photography doesn’t have to be difficult. Follow David Tomlinson’s golden rules on how to photograph your gundog for a picture you’d be proud to hang in the downstairs loo.
To discover the picture that took the ‘Gundog Photograph of the Year’ title, read The Field Gundog Awards 2018 winners and highly commended.
HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH YOUR GUNDOG
One of the frustrations of judging a competition is not being able to enter it, as I have found as one of the judges of The Field Gundog Awards. Not that my spaniels would be contenders for any of the more serious awards but I would enjoy having a crack at the Gundog Photograph of the Year. I’m a professional writer, not photographer, but I’ve long found satisfaction in illustrating my articles with own photographs.
Dog photography is fun and not difficult. However, my best shots have always been taken by chance rather than design, when light, background and subject have all combined successfully. I’ve set up numerous shots but, perhaps reflecting that I’m an amateur, they have rarely been as pleasing as spontaneous photographs, especially those taken on a shooting day.
Today, almost everyone has a camera, even if it is only on their phone. Smartphones are capable of taking stunning pictures. To use one effectively, observe the golden rule of dog photography: take pictures at the dog’s own eye level. Photographs taken looking down on a dog simply don’t work. The standard rules of photography also apply, such as not shooting into the light, avoiding sunshine or shadows, and trying to compose a pleasing picture rather than grabbing a snap.
Take all these factors into consideration, plus a photogenic dog, and it’s difficult to go wrong. The chief limitation of phone photography is the difficulty of taking action photographs, for which you really need at least a bridge camera or a digital single lens reflex (DSLR). I specialise in action shots, for which modern autofocusing DSLRs are perfect. My success ratio with a manual focus camera and long lens was never great but the latest DSLRs will focus accurately on a dog galloping straight towards you.
Phone photographs feature a huge depth of field, with everything sharp and in focus from inches in front of you to infinity. There are times when this contributes to the success of the photograph but one of the many advantages of using a DSLR is that with a long lens and large aperture (the f setting) you can throw the foreground and background out of focus, so only the subject is sharp. This is particularly useful for dog photography – portraits invariably look best with nothing to detract your eye from the dog. Combine a long lens with a slow shutter speed and swing the camera through the dog as it runs, as if you were shooting a rabbit, and you can take photographs that really give a sense of movement. Such pictures are often more atmospheric than a pin-sharp picture captured with a high shutter speed.
If you experiment with your photography you will soon find that some dogs are more photogenic than others. Photographing black dogs is a nightmare, as the camera’s built-in light meter becomes confused. My best labrador photographs are invariably of yellow or fox-red dogs, both of which are perfect for pictures, just like golden retrievers. The latter also score highly as they have a higher head carriage than a labrador, which makes them more photogenic.
Spaniels offer great opportunities for action photographs but are a real challenge. Cockers are particularly tricky as they change direction as quickly as a stoat; springers, being bigger, are easier. Perhaps the most exciting dogs to photograph are pointers and setters working on a grouse moor. Because they tend to work a set pattern they are relatively predictable, so action shots are easier than you might imagine.
Arguably the ultimate gundog photograph is of the retrieve. Don’t be tempted to take a stiff bird out of the game larder, as they never look good in photographs. The best pictures are always of a bird that has just been shot. By all means take the freshly shot bird and hide it again to get that perfect photograph but don’t be tempted to do this with a bird shot even half an hour before, as it just won’t look right.
One ambition was to photograph a setter retrieving. In this country it’s rare to ask pointers or setters to retrieve, as it’s generally thought that finding and pointing the quarry is sufficient work for them. On most moors spaniels or retrievers do the picking-up. That’s not the case on the Continent, so when I spent three days pursuing willow grouse with Irish red setters in northern Sweden I was optimistic that I would get my shot. Frustratingly, I failed. The dogs were accomplished retrievers but the grouse proved far too elusive and not a single bird was shot.
However, there is a growing tend for British handlers to train their dogs to retrieve, mainly because Continental competitions insist that all dogs can hunt, point and retrieve. I finally got my shot of an Irish setter retrieving a grouse on a Yorkshire moor three seasons ago, a highly satisfying moment.
Entries for this year’s Gundog Awards have closed but that gives you plenty of time to take the shot that will win next year’s competition. And don’t forget that The Field also features photographs of the month – so why not have a go?