I've been a reader of Schutzhund USA magazine for more than a decade. However I looked forward to the July/August with particular interest. You see, this issue was to feature my images from the United Schutzhund Clubs of America Working Dog Championship (WDC). This is the story of how this came to be.
While I have been an avid portrait photographer for about 3 years, it wasn’t until August of last year that I got the idea to mix my love for photography with my other love of Dog Sport. This is a list of the key points I learned along the way:
September 19-21, 2014: Northwestern Regional Working Championship, near Sacramento, CA.
- Assuming one has the technical photography skills and understands the subtleties of the sport, one needs the right gear. Fact is, pro-grade sports camera gear is expensive. Renting a 400mm prime lens will cost you $500 for 5 days! You need to be either well off (which I’m not) or be good enough at our craft to produce images people will actually buy if you want to do this without costing you a fortune. We shall see if I have what it takes...At this point, this is a leap of faith.
- Tracking a subject while filling the frame through a 400mm lens is bloody hard! I have far more misses than hits in my first try.
- My Nikon D810’s camera's 36MP files are enormous and make for ridiculously long post processing tim. Only 5MP is required for a good print and HD computer monitors are only 2MP. 80% of image sales are for the web. 36MP turns out to be overkill.
- D810 can do 4 frames/second which is fine for portraiture but too slow for IPO protection strikes if you want the capture the precise moment before or during a strike or jump. I will need to rent a pro sports camera body like the Nikon D4s for future events.
- The weekend involved 9,000 frames. I quickly learn that when shooting sports one will spend 2-3 hours in post processing for every hour spent shooting. It took 60 hours to process the images from this event. (note: My day job involves 55-60 hours per week, so image processing must happen at nights and weekends. That means 60 hours of processing stretches to about a month). In short- will have to get much faster at post processing!
- I shot more frames in one weekend than I do in a normal year doing portrait work.
- SSD hard drive can save you a lot of time not waiting for the image to render! This was next on my gear shopping list.
December 13, 2014: Menlo Park IPO Club Trial, San Francisco Bay Area, CA.
- I rent a D4s, a pro level sport camera. Until this time I believed more mega pixels made better images (My D810 has the most at 36MP), I was misinformed, its better for controlled light studio portraits, not sports. The D4s only has 16MP but the images are stunning with a higher percentage of in focus shots. The battery lasts 3000 frames and it is almost 3 times faster than the D810 with 11 frames/second. Oh, and it has better low light performance to boot!
- I do the math and decide buying the 400mm lens is cheaper than renting if I plan on doing this long term, which I do. I am fully aware that this represents a point of no return.
- I'm learning to find the best viewing angles (shooting lanes) and clean backgrounds that have no distracting elements. This is not something I used to notice and is my biggest "ah ha" moment. A sports images is planned? WOW, who would have thought? It's not so different than portraiture in this respect.
- Improving tracking technique with monster 400mm lens. I still miss more than hit but there is progress.
February 21-22, 2015: South Central Regional Working Championship, Austin, TX
- My first event that involved air travel. I make a list of what to take and leave half my gear behind.
- Found out quick I did not pack what I need when I land and find it the temperature 32F with rain. Coming from LA I did not have warm cloths or rain protection for the gear. My hands froze and I struggled with numb hands fumbling with the wet cameras. I am sure this cost me some shots.
- Rain and overcast conditions are fantastic shooting conditions for dramatic action.
- With only 9 entries and the cost of travel and the gear considered, I realize that some events will be very expensive (they will cost much more than revenue from image sales). This is a reality check.
- My image hit rate (nailing it) rate is improving significantly. I have streamlined processing down to about 1.5 hours per competitor (about x2 as fast compared to the first event).
March 7-8, 2015: Southeastern Regional Working Championship, Longs, SC
- 2nd event that involved air travel. I now have a system with two carry-on camera bags and one large suite case that I check in for tripods, support gear, cloths and toiletries.
- Added a second D4s camera body: 1 for the 400mm f/2.8 lens and 1 for a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. This combo is perfect for Schutzhund.
- Image hit rate is now mostly ‘hit’ which allows me to be more disciplined in my shooting bursts because I am confident I have the shot which makes for less work in post processing.
- Big turn out for this event which is a fantastic event. I process all images from the event in 40 hours. Not sure if I can get any faster than this. I set this as my benchmark to beat.
- At this point is is clear that the best shooting angles are also the best angle for the judge to stand resulting in a judge photo bomb. Of course you cannot watch the judge and the dog at the same time through the camera's viewfinder. Often at the last minute the judge will step right into your view. Solution: study the judge and learn their preferred viewing pattern, the judge will be consistent, then pick the next best angle.
March 28-29, 2015: Southwestern Regional Working Championship, Temecula, CA
- First time dealing with early morning hard light and limited angles due to the field having baseball diamond backstop. Difficult choice: clean background but limited angles limited by shooting through backstop or run to other side and shoot with noisy background of a backstop but with better angles. No good answer, I choose the clean backgrounds with less than optimal angles.
- Fast learning curve on how to shoot with hard morning light. This can be make for super dramatic images!
- Hard lesson- there were only 8 competitors which makes ROI impossible. Even more concerning was a local photographer posts gallery of images of all competitors on web for free. It's hard to compete with free. I have a huge commitment in cameras, lens and travel expenses. I must up my game to produce images that are ‘different’ which people will value enough to buy even when they have access to free. So it’s pretty simple really- I need to get my game to a higher level. This is a huge motivator and probably the biggest lesson for the year.
April 10-13, 2015: American Working Dog Federation IPO Championship (AWDF), Farmington, MO.
- My first national level event. Take everything involved in a Regional Championship and double it for scale.
- National level events attract the most serious competitors who are willing to travel from across the country (like me) to show. This provides for some intense performances and emotions and I am in heaven with the quality of subjects to shoot. However, the flip side is that competitors have worked their butts off preparing for this event and this is their moment of competing with their dog at the highest level, there will be no retakes so you had better get the shot. You get one chance. No pressure right?
- I have learned to manage shooting bursts and energy to make it through long shooting days. In all I shoot about 17K images which I process in about 60 hours.
- I try posting select images on Facebook, which in turn gets more than 1000 clicks per day. My website traffic is increasing two fold per month. Hadn't given that much thought to this point but now realize that this is an important part of generating awareness of your work.
May 22-23, 2015: USCA Working Dog Championship (WDC), Buffalo, NY
- Third event involving air travel. Got my system down now and this might make a good topic for a for future blog post.
- This event is huge with 80 entries. Take the AWDF and times two. We’re talking 12 hour shooting days with no lunch break. Having the energy to run around the field with a two heavy cameras in 90F tempurature takes its toll. In the future I will plan better nutrition to improve stamina. Each night when I get back to hotel room I am completely spent.
- The level of competition is awe-inspiring, simply fantastic. I get some of my all time favorite captures.
- Lessons learned at the Regionals and AWDF on tracking and focus, clean backgrounds, timing of shooting bursts and shooting lanes all come together for this event.
- Low light conditions for the competitors that showed in early evening between 6-7pm was a challenge. I was lucky to have the Nikon D4s for low light ability. Maximizing available light over shooting angles was a quick lesson.
- Post processing takes 90 hours, which equates to about a month when doing my post processing at night and on weekends.
- I needed to get images to the Schutzhund magazine editor with 5 days of event to make deadline. Images for the July/Aug issue were selected by the editor.
And that brings us full circle to the top of this blog post with the arrival of the magazine...
I learned a some cool stuff on this journey sports photography techniques, processing efficiency, how to organize and work out of suitcases and creating a viable photography business plan. Just as cool was being able to reconnect with Dog Sport in a whole new way and the many warm and interesting people I met on the way.
When the Schutzhund magazine arrived, what really hit home was the notion that life takes us in an wonderful and interesting directions when we lead with our heart. At least that is what the image represents to me. Than you for following along...