|Action shot of Abby for CAMH's 2020 Therapy Dog Calendar. We might not have captured many frames of Abby but we loved the sense of motion and personality in this frame, and we only needed one winning shot per dog!|
I am a big fan of mental health and hope to have it some day. Ha-ha! In the meantime having a sense of humour will have to do. In all seriousness, though, Toronto is very fortunate to have driving progress in the realm of mental health "Canada's largest mental health teaching hospital and one of the world's leading research centres" (CAMH website) -- Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, or CAMH. One of their many stand out initiatives is the Clinical Volunteer Program, a subset of which is the Pet Therapy Volunteer program. So far there are over 60 dogs and volunteer owners certified to participate. This year they decided to produce a calendar to promote the program and thank donors, sponsors, partners and participants.
The idea was to showcase a broad spectrum of breeds and sizes so people would get an idea of the variety of dogs involved, and for the sake of visual variety in the calendar. There was some concern that people with similar breeds may feel left out but I understand the number of people and dogs available for the selected shoot day worked out pretty much perfectly so that no one was slighted.
Prior to the shoot date we headed off to CAMH's Queen Street Site to scout for suitable shooting spaces. I am very much in favour of environmental portraiture (for people and animals), so I loved their spacious, hilly garden around the back. (No pics to show, I'm sorry! I knew that as the sun moved and the light changed during a day long shoot we would be moving all over the place so there wasn't much point taking scouting snapshots.) Plan B, in case of inclement weather, was to shoot inside against a gray background. Had there been a suitable indoor environmental background for our Plan B I would have suggested it but there wasn't. Sometimes budget and logistics allow for a weather day. This wasn't one of those times.
|Fantastically uninspiring meeting room (no offense CAMH!) in which we ended up shooting.|
I hoped fervently for good weather, but as the date approached it became pretty clear we weren't going to get it. (The weather the week prior to the shoot was perfect, of course!) It actually turned out to be a very good thing we didn't have the chance to shoot in the garden because the day of the shoot the garden, or at least the area around the garden, was under construction, so this would have negated a number of potential angles and backgrounds, and the noise and activity would have been incredibly distracting for the dogs, and likely for the people.
Apart from the aesthetics I don't love photographing dogs on seamless paper because their paws tend to slip on it, but alas that was what we had to do. And I'm happy to say, even though it wasn't what I'd hoped for, the pictures turned out beautifully, with the added bonus that certain bits of retouching required were facilitated by the plain background (eg. removing a dog owner's arm from the frame).
One notable retouching situation that was not helped by the gray background was the fixing of Toulouse's scarf. CAMH therapy dogs have a uniform -- a small purple scarf, and originally the thought was that as long as the purple scarf showed to some extent, people would know it was the CAMH Therapy Dog Program scarf. It was understood that it wasn't reasonable to expect that the scarves would be perfectly styled and oriented in every shot as every time the dogs moved the scarves moved, the dogs changed their orientations to camera continuously, and the scarves fit every dog differently. An owner would position a scarf to one side for a slight profile shot and the dog would flip around showing his other side and obscuring the scarf completely. We knew this would happen and there wasn't a retouching budget big enough to make 13 scarves look perfect. However with little Toulouse, in particular (below), the scarf was almost invisible in the select, so I was asked to see what I could do. Thankfully there was another shot in which he was standing on a similar angle and the scarf looked good. So I was able to do some "magic" and fix the shot.
|Left: The select with the scarf barely visible. Right: A frame in which the dog is in a similar position and the scarf looks good.|
|The final retouched image for the calendar.|
We scheduled half an hour per dog. In some cases we got a usable frame in as few as three exposures, which was a good thing because in some cases that reflected about how long the dog was was willing to be in front of the camera. At some point I was reminded of the fact that when I was a kid I was afraid of dogs, thanks to a few bad experiences. Funny that I would grow up to specialize in dog photography (among my other specialties). If the dogs I'd met as a kid had been like these dogs, particularly the shy, sweet Enya (below) the idea of being afraid of dogs would have been even more ridiculous.
|Mostly while trying to photograph this beautiful Irish Setter we saw this.|
|One of very few frames we captured of this camera shy beauty. We all loved the ear flick.|
In other cases we captured multiple great frames. Some dogs weren't worried about the camera or the set at all and just wanted to have fun.
|This wasn't the only frame that had a person in it. They were easily retouched out.|
|I loved this shot, albeit we didn't get to see his cute little face, which is why it didn't make the cut.|
While some dogs were overflowing with energy, some were a little more laid back.
|A couple of outtakes in which the subjects were a bit too relaxed.|
After every few dogs we would have to refresh the background paper (seamless) as it got slobbered on, scratched and dirtied. We had canned air to blow the shed fur off but that only helped a bit. I wasn't about to change the paper for every dog as that would be wasteful, and we'd use up too much paper, so we compromised, rolling out and cutting off the wrecked section every few dogs so that retouching wouldn't be a total nightmare. As it happened, we actually did use up most of a roll (of 9ft wide seamless).
We were looking for a variety of looks so there would be some variety between calendar pages: ie. headshots, full body sitting, full body standing, walking, etc. Some dogs gave us lots to choose from. Some made us laugh. Some were hilariously awkward, as if they had never been on a photo set before in their lives (which they hadn't)!
|The camera is over here!|
Talk about one of the best dog portrait shoots ever. Trained to be around people in a therapeutic way these dogs made this shoot seem like 13 dog therapy sessions in a row for those of us working on the set that day.
In case this is helpful, here are a few things we look for when photographing dogs:
- when standing 4 legs visible if possible (not 1 leg blocked from view by the leg closer to the camera resulting in a 3 legged look),
- if the dog is lying down legs are towards camera not away from; if away the dog looks like a legless sausage
- if sitting the dog should be on about a 45 degree angle so you can see front and side of dog, and if you get it just right the family jewels are discreetly blocked from view,
- main light on the face,
- sense of movement can be nice,
- ears up,
- alert expression,
- eyes toward the camera or just off camera axis,
- 'smiling', not a super long tongue if the tongue is out (there's cute tongue and there's stressed/dehydrated/exhausted tongue...we want option 1)
In our case for this calendar we needed the dogs to fill each frame more horizontally so a sitting pose was just too vertical for many of the taller dogs in cases where we were shooting full body.
|This girl did a perfect sit but we couldn't use the shot for the calendar's horizontal layout.|
Obviously I've included only a few of the final calendar images here. Anyone lucky enough to get a copy of it can see the rest. I believe the print run this year was limited by various circumstances. Hopefully if there's a 2021 calendar the print run will be bigger and the calendar will be made more widely available.
I'm so looking forward to doing this again next year. Maybe with luck the garden will be back to being the peaceful place it is sans construction and the weather will be perfect!
Since doing this shoot, my family has adopted a dog, so I'm hoping to be able to have him join the program in the future (after he turns 1 year old). I've seen first hand the effect that pet therapy can have on people who are receiving care for mental illness. CAMH's therapy dogs and their volunteer owners bring comfort and joy to patients in treatment programs throughout the organization. If you're interested in applying contact Theresa Conforti, Coordinator, Volunteer Resources Clinical inpatient and pet therapy.
In the meantime, if you need professional photography of animals, or people, please get in touch!