Animal Hows

January 18, 2012 

It's hard to gauge your growth as a photographer. I remember confidently flipping through magazines and newspapers in college, smugly thinking I had this photojournalism thing figured out pretty well with every photo I saw that I thought I could have made.

The more I learn, though, the further I realize I have to grow.

Clip contests are an easy benchmark to point to, but as I wrote before, they're not a meaningful measuring stick. A great example would be to look at the current Region 11 standings of the NPPA's monthly contest, which has me tied with the legendary Alan Berner of The Seattle Times.

While I may not know exactly where I am in my development as a photographer, I know I'm no Alan Berner.

Last week's trip to the Tri-Cities Animal Control shelter made me reflect on how I approach assignments, though. I've made photographs at the shelter numerous times, including an unfinished project idea I had a couple years ago that may never come together like I had planned.

The old building has wildly varying light depending on which room you're in, and some of the spots are frustratingly dark. My photo request form listed three animals that reporter Kristi Pihl was going to focus on, so I brought in one light on a stand with an umbrella to make some simple portraits.

My first stop was Helix, who hung out in the dim room for male cats. He was fairly shy, but after some time, I was able to make a couple of frames I liked. This one was a little too gimmicky,

so I went with this one:

In the past, I would have probably relied on the ambient light, which just doesn't look as good:

If the subject isn't looking toward the ugly, overhead fluorescent lights, then their eyes end up looking dark and lifeless.

Brewster the Husky was up next, and he was chilling in the even more cavernous quarantine room for sick and recovering animals. I stuck with the simple lighting setup to make a photo that hinted at his tennis ball-sized tumor,

without making the grotesque growth a glaring violation of the Cheerios test:

Last up was Kate, also in the quarantine room, the little chihuahua/pug mix was in an even darker and smaller kennel. I tried to find an angle for the light to reflect off the stainless steel in a way that wasn't too distracting to help bring out the nuanced color in her dark fur while trying to capture her skittish personality:

Going with a super slow 1/15 sec. shutter speed at ISO 1600 shows what the ambient light was like from above:

And as a funny aside, those gigantic eyes still had catch lights in them when I shot too quickly for my flash to keep up at 1/200 sec. and f2.8 at ISO 400:

It's hard to imagine how I would have handled making location pet portraits before, either settling for poorly lit snaps or struggling to juggle an off-camera flash with one hand while trying to focus on unpredictable animals with the other.

While I was happy with the shots, I didn't feel like any of them could really carry the story as the main photo, so I hung around a bit to make some different photos. After hanging outside the Cattery for a while,

the Fousts showed up to pet some kitties:

Unfortunately, their visit into the darker room where Helix was hanging was harried, and the skittish subject quickly hid, so I don't have any shots of them interacting. In the past, I probably would have seen that photo as the main goal when approaching this assignment. I would have hung around in that room for a lot longer, hoping for some visitors on a slow day.

Instead, I spent much longer working on the portraits to try and capture a little of the critters' personalities, hunting for some human and animal interaction later.

Is it a better approach? That's hard to say. Part of the change comes from trying to come back with something different after photographing at one place several times. Another part is because I have a light kit I travel with now.

It's like that old proverb, "when you're holding a hammer, every problem looks like your thumb."

I'm pretty sure that's right.

Speaking of not right...

That's what Radu Sigheti says of contests always awarding photos of carnage and conflict as every year's best. It's a sentiment I agree with. These images are very important and need to be made, but if his statement that "in an easily accessible conflict zone, the place is swarming with photographers, sometimes they outnumber the combatants," is more truth than hyperbole, then I hope something changes to encourage award-hungry shooters to pursue less-covered stories.

The Washington Post ran an HDR image on its front page with a flowery disclaimer that read, "This image is a composite created by taking several photos and combining them with computer software to transcend the visual limitations of standard photography.” I've never been a big fan of HDR (high dynamic range) photos, which combine several photos of different exposures to include plenty of detail in both the shadows and highlights.

I don't mind the technique if it's used to more accurately render the scene, since digital sensors are limited in their range, but it's more often used to create surreal landscape photos that look purdy, but don't have any place in photojournalism. What bugs me even more is the plane, which would have only been in that position for one of the shots used to create the image. While not as hinky as the November fauxto pas involving two trains ten minutes apart, it's an interesting first that raises a lot of ethical concerns.

Ethics are far from black and white, though, and thanks to the artistic colorization stylings of Sanna Dullaway, neither are these iconic monochrome images. It's an interesting collection of masterful work that doesn't fall under the same ethical scrutiny since it's not being presented in a photojournalism forum.

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