Friday, February 24, 2023

January 2023 Newsletter

 For those not on my e-mail list here is a copy of my January 2023 newsletter. Please e-mail me if you'd like to receive my (approximately) quarterly newsletter in your InBox. 


Happy New Year! Who is as excited as I am to have left 2022 behind?!

As we all know it is coming up on three years since everything slammed to a halt. While I have already had the pleasure of reconnecting with some people in person, others I look forward to seeing for the first time in a while, in 2023, now that business is back to sort of normal…


...Although, for many people the issue of where they'll be working -- in office or at home or both -- is still in flux. This continues to make in-office photo shoots more of a challenge to organize, although I'm thinking in some cases it may make reserving those busy, often previously booked up boardrooms a little easier. Here's hoping!


If you work in an office I am curious to know your circumstances and would love to hear from you.

Before I continue, this is issue #6 of my super-infrequent newsletter. I am very sensitive to overreaching my welcome into your InBox so I've been quietly saving up things to write about rather than peppering you with frequent, shorter e-mails. I know I get really sick of seeing multiple e-mails per week even from people to whose newsletters I have subscribed, so I hope this works for you and that you find some interest and inspiration in what I have to share.


Photographing dogs who help humans: the CAMH Therapy Dog Calendar

Above: Gracie

Our set

In the summer I was thrilled to get the chance to work once again with CAMH's therapy dog program on their annual calendar project. The calendars sold out quickly so hopefully next year's print run will be even bigger, raising more funds for a great cause and bringing more awareness to a fantastic program.


Before working with CAMH I had worked on many a dog photo shoot, but this job had its own particular challenges. By this stage, our fourth go around, we had established once and for all that we needed to shoot inside. This way we wouldn't be worrying about weather, or construction, or squirrels, or any other distractions. However, this year, we definitely wanted the dogs to look as if there were outside (as we did two years ago). So once again I donated a bit of extra time make this happen.

Knowing from experience that it can be easier to have a dog stand on a platform to limit their wandering (as long as they are willing to get on it!) we first built a portable barn board table with folding legs. Once I did a preliminary scout for suitable locations I then returned with the table which I dragged around on a wheelie cart to photograph in situ. I didn't actually need the shots of the table; I needed the background behind and around it from a camera angle that would make sense when compositing in the shots of the dogs on the table. Preparing this way made the compositing much easier than it might have been.

Yes, people looked at me weirdly. And hilarously, one little park denizen hopped up to eat its breakfast while I was shooting. It loved my table.



My little photo assistant/model


The shots worked out so well I added several of my favourites to my portfolio here:



I still love authors!

Dahlia Lithwick's new book Lady Justice available everywhere! 

In my previous newsletter I mentioned photographing this particular author prior to her book coming out in the fall. Now that it's out and I've got a copy I have the never-gets-old satisfaction of seeing my work in print while also getting to read a fascinating, informative and inspiring book I may never have known of (by someone I now know personally) had I not been given the opportunity to photograph her. (And holy cow what a nice inscription I found inside the jacket!) I can tell you now I've finished reading it...highly recommend.

As many readers will know I have photographed a number of authors over the years some of whose portraits you can see here.

I am just going to throw this out there: I used to be hired directly by publishers but these days more often than not authors are tasked with finding their own photographers, so if you know any authors or you are one, I'd love to help!


30+ Tips on how to prepare for and get the most out of your next professional portrait session

Back in the spring of 2022 I started posting on LinkedIn a weekly series of tips on how to prepare for and get the most out of your next professional portrait session. Over many years of portrait shoots I have seen so many things that compromise both the experience and the product, and that I figured might be easy to fix if people only knew. If you follow me on LinkedIn you may have seen them. I posted the (almost) final one of the series in December.  In case you missed them I plan to share some of my favourites in my newsletter going forward.


Update: I have now compiled the whole set of tips into an ebook downloadable here.

Today I am going to share the final ones, Tips #34 and #33 in reverse order, because these are really good ones to start with if you are responsible for organizing a shoot for yourself or for people you support.

Rough example of an ideal space to shoot

Tip #34 How much space do you need for a portrait shoot?

Are you ever unsure about what kind of space a photographer needs to do a business portrait shoot?

Here is a link to my recommendation (scroll all the way to the bottom of this very long post):


Tip #33 Pick up the phone.

Another important element is communication.

I know that many people responsible for planning (corporate) portrait photo shoots for others or for themselves have a lot on their plates, one small morsel of which may involve, on occasion, hiring a photographer. So I understand the desire for the process from the first outreach to receipt of final files to be simple, quick and painless. I also get that there can be a need for several reasons, to make sure everything is in writing and everyone on the communications team (if there is one) is in the loop and on the same page. This is easily accomplished by copying everyone on the e-mail that is sent after the initial conversation between the main point of contact and the photographer. 


What is there to discuss? Once again I'll direct the reader to my blog post to read my thoughts. Please see the link above, and again, scroll almost all the way to the bottom.

And very briefly, a shout out to the PIC (Professional Independent Communicators) special interest group of IABC Toronto (International Association of Business Communicators), of which I am a member, for mentioning my Tips series in the September issue of their monthly online magazine The Buzz . Thank-you PIC! Check it out!



One more calendar and a little bit of art

Every year for the past bunch of years I have produced a mini desk calendar with the help of my friends Martin Finesilver of Finesilver Design and Mark Smith (formerly of Finesilver) principal at Rhyme Design. It gives me an excuse once a year to play around and make some mini art with a small 'a'. I say mini, because anyone who gets my calendar knows it's a wee little thing measuring less than four inches per side. So the challenge is always to produce a set of six images that read well at this very small scale.

This year's theme was wabi-sabi, which has been interpreted and explained in different ways by different people but which for me reflected the idea of the beauty in decay.

Using specialized fibre optic macro lighting with macro focus enhancing and extending software I was able to capture sharply focused, precisely and dramatically lit images of small pieces of flora and foliage in a way that portrayed their decomposition as art.

Don't ask me why I didn't do this before we went to print, maybe because the printed pictures were going to be so small, but later, I decided to add a subtle, distressed antique texture (from my archive) to some of them, which only enhanced their wabi-sabi-ness. These I uploaded to my website/portfolio at

Special Offer: To the first few readers who contact me, if you don't already have one I have a few remaining calendars so please let me know if you'd like one. I will send you one free of charge.

Yay Us! Testimonials


From another happy client as I wrapped up 2022:

"Thank-you for your amazing work...!"

And I don't recall who said these but in a binder I found a scrap of paper with notes I'd made so I wouldn't forget what people said after one particular shoot, so I thought I'd share:

"That was fun."

"That was painless."

"I have never looked so good."

"Can you follow me around every day and make me feel this good?"

"This is the best picture of me I have ever seen."

Final thought

As always, I'm here to help you plan and problem solve your next photo shoot, whether it’s where to shoot, what your options are, what to wear, etc. I look forward to seeing old clients again as the world gets back into gear, and to meeting new ones! Let me know how I can help, or reach out and I'll let you know how I can help!

Thanks so much for reading!

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Pandemic Lockdown Portrait Shoot

 Sub-title: Shooting against a green screen in a back yard in the middle of winter

Malene's final selected file, comp'ed into an outdoor background (photographer's version)


January 2021. It has been a mighty tough time for so many people and not great for photographers of people. As I write this we are in a lockdown that for the most part precludes shooting, for obvious reasons. However, recently an old friend and colleague called to ask if there might be a way to do a headshot as her new career launch schedule had just accelerated somewhat unexpectedly and she had to have a professional portrait pretty quickly. She said that she wanted an outdoors shot which would fit well with her 'personal brand' (my words), and would allow us to shoot at a time when visits to indoor locations for any unessential purpose are forbidden/discouraged/not cool. So we chose her back yard as our studio.

I can tell you that as a photographer who has frequently pushed back at the idea of shooting outside unless there is a really good reason to do so due to the many and varied potential drawbacks, but who was also dying to be shooting again, I leaped at the opportunity to make it happen with the caveat that there would be a few necessary compromises that we'd need to discuss and understand ahead of time. Things like my not being able to bring an assistant which meant my lighting would be a pared down version of what I'd normally do. And it would be cold, which would make it tough for her to look relaxed and happy. And I probably wouldn't be able to style her properly. So we set out secure in the knowledge that we might not actually succeed.

Before I go on I want to note that the image above is the one I optimized to a level that I felt satisfied with. Malene felt very strongly that her likeness should not be enhanced in any way as in her profession as a psychotherapist authenticity is crucial. So for her version I had to stop short of what I'd normally do.

Here's the above portrait right out of the camera:

The sun kept going in and out meaning that the contrast ramped up, ie. the shadows got darker than I wanted every time the sun went behind the clouds.

And here's the version Malene approved for her purposes:


The version Malene approved is less retouched than my final version.


So how did we do this? The first thing we did was choose a date based on both the weather forecast and her availability. Of course the day before the shoot date the weather forecast changed and the pre-shoot day swapped weather with the shoot we had sun on the pre-shoot day and clouds with snow in the forecast for the shoot day. Excellent! But we didn't want to postpone because temperatures were slated to drop by the following week, so we went ahead. Believe it or not I actually brought a fan, because Malene has fine hair which is longer than usual due to salons being closed and I knew a bit of a breeze in her hair would give it some volume and life. As it happened there was an actual wind so we didn't need to create one. Thankfully, periodically, it came from the right direction!  In between it did things like this:

Obviously the goal was to shoot when the wind caught her hair perfectly, just enough to give it a little volume and life (not like this).

We knew we weren't gong to use stands for the green background as we needed to keep gear to a minimum and didn't want unmanned stands holding up what would effectively be a sail in the wind, so we tacked the green screen to the one fence that faced away from the ever-changing light (sun going in and out) and was tall enough to fill the frame behind a standing subject. Thanks to 36Pix's brilliant green screen knockout software the fact that the screen was not lit perfectly or stretched perfectly didn't really matter.

How uninspired does this scene look?! The hero shot at the top was taken when it was overcast like this.

As I mentioned above one of the most important things when doing portraits is to make the subject comfortable. A profile portrait shoot is not like a fashion shoot where models get paid a bunch of money have to suck it up and look warm in summer wear during between season shoots. There was no way Malene was going to be comfortable wearing a t-shirt outside in just above zero degree weather, but she was willing to power through it. And I knew I was going to have to retouch out some nose and eye redness. When the sun did come out spasmodically, the slight increase in warmth was hugely welcome, for Malene anyway. And aesthetically it was nice, throwing lovely backlit highlights onto her hair.


An alternate version, not retouched at Malene's request, with different hair, sunny highlights and a different background.

Other compromises included using a far smaller light modifier than I normally would, and using only one light, resulting in harsher shadows on Malene's face which I had to mitigate during retouching. I am a big believer in getting the exposure as close to perfect as possible in camera rather than having to "fix it in post", but this time I had to work with what I got. And I knew I captured enough to ultimately get what we wanted.

It's an important step to be able to review captures with the client prior to wrapping, if at all possible, so as to ensure that we've really captured the magic (ie. shots the client loves). (If we haven't we shoot more.) But during Covid we have to do this at a distance, so I attached an external monitor to my laptop and she took that inside with the door cracked open so we could hear each other speak while I stayed outside. 

Left: Moving my laptop closer to the house. Right: Setting up an external monitor for Malene to take inside to review the images. Photo credit: Malene Johansen

Do I recommend shooting business portraits outside in winter, or ever? Well, let me summarize why we may question shooting outside:

  • Can't control the weather 
  • so shoot dates may have to change last minute
  • may have to deal with changing light (eg. as sun moves), or not ideal light
  • may have limited control in terms of the direction of available light/sunlight relative to background and subject ie. the best available, most appealing background may not line up with the best light for the subject
  • lighting may be compromised unless extra crew is hired to man lights and appropriate modifier(s)
  • subject may be cold or hot (ie. not comfortable or relaxed)
  • may not be able to keep hair styled, or make-up perfect

Unless a specific outdoor location is significant or meaningful to the portrait or the subject will be interacting with it...for example sitting on outdoor furniture or leaning on a tree, one might ask what the benefits would be to introducing al these variables into the equation when you can shoot indoors on green screen and put in one of the many backgrounds your photographer has collected in her "outdoor portrait backgrounds" archive. ;)

That said, it can be done! In October 2020 in between lockdowns when it made slightly more sense, and I do mean slightly more, to be outside, we did a huge multi-day people shoot outside on green screens, and in that case there was no "maybe"; the shots had to be great. I'll write about it in an upcoming blog.)

Hopefully soon the world will open back up, and I look forward to working in close proximity to people again then! In the meantime if I may be of any assistance please do not hesitate to reach out. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Video Conferencing Package Set-up and Tips

Photo fabric backdrop #6 on stand. (Actual colour may vary.)

This post contains a set of instructions for clients who have bought my Executive Video Conferencing Package - Basic, and will be setting it up themselves rather than having me do an in-person set-up and consultation. 

Before we begin I'd like to thank you for buying a kit, and congratulate you on taking this step towards levelling up your video conferencing presence!

In an ideal world I would be able to physically see the space in which you are going to set up, so as to be able to offer guidance specifically geared to you, but hopefully with the following instructions and suggestions, and a video call if you choose to schedule one with me, you will still be able to significantly improve your video conferencing without my actually being there. So here we go!

In your kit (if you bought the Basic Kit) you will have received a photo fabric background, a t-shape background stand kit including 4 clamps, a daylight balanced desk lamp, and a small piece of foam core.

T-shape background kit (T-shape referring to the shape formed by one five foot long pole mounted on one height adjustable stand) includes carrying case, fixed length pole in 2 segments with connector piece, height adjustable stand and 4 clamps.
What the background stand kit looks like assembled (minus the clamps)

To put the stand together:

First loosen the knob at the top of the legs of the stand by turning counter clockwise.

Then pull out the legs.

Once the legs are fully opened re-tighten the knob, finger tight need to reef on it! The struts that hold out the legs should be parallel to the ground for greatest stability. If you would prefer a smaller footprint you can leave the legs only partly extended. Just remember that the stand will be less stable.

Once you have the legs extended you can extend the segmented centre poles by turning the knobs counter clockwise and pulling up on each segment, then lightly retightening the knobs.The height is adjustable and ultimately should be set to that the backdrop, once hung from it, fills the frame of your web cam.

Next, assemble the fixed length horizontal pole. Start by attaching the short silver connector to one of the long black segments. Align the button on the connector with the hole in the pole, push down on the button and slide the connector into the pole segment until the button pops up through the hole.

Do the same to attach the other pole segment to the connector.

Once the fixed length pole is assembled it's time to mount it on top of the stand. First remove the wing screw and the washer.

Then line up the hole in the middle of the fixed length pole and insert onto the threaded part of the top of the stand. Replace the washer and wing screw.

Now the t-shaped stand is ready to take the background! The background should fit almost perfectly across the length of the pole, so start with a clamp at one end, put the second clamp at the other end, and then place the final two clamps spaced evenly along the pole between the end clamps. Please note that these little clamps are very tight, so be careful to hold firmly when deploying them. In order for the backdrop to hang neatly, I recommend placing the fabric so that it is even with the top of the pole and attaching the clamps on an angle, rather than straight up and down, so that they rest firmly against the horizontal pole and can't move. In this position they are more stable and less likely to pop off.

Please note that this image shows the old fabric which has been replaced with opaque rubber backed fabric.

The final step once the background is hung is to steam it to take out the wrinkles if there are any (only if your backdrop is on non-rubber backed any backdrops shipped pre-spring of 2021). *Please note that as of this update in the spring of 2021 the old jersey fabric is no longer available. Backgrounds are now printed in Canada (yay!) on a black rubber backed fabric that holds it shape better and is also opaque to light. It doesn't wrinkle easily but if wrinkles occur they can be relaxed out by using a blow drier to apply some heat to the rubber backing once the backdrop is hung. Helpful hint: another way to get rid of any kinks or wrinkles is to store the backdrop by wrapping it around the cardboard mailing tube instead of putting it inside the tube.

Now for positioning. Your very small backdrop and stand are designed to take up as little space as possible, so you will find that in order for the backdrop to fill your camera frame from edge to edge they will need to be placed quite close to your web cam. Usually this would mean placing it pretty much right behind the chair you'll be sitting on to make your video calls. The distance between your web cam and the background should not be much more than  around 3.5 feet (less than 4 feet). (Helpful hint ...if you are having issues with setting a workable distance between your laptop, webcam (whether separate or internal), chair and backdrop there are software programs you can buy to zoom in on yourself and your backdrop. For Mac I recommend iGlasses and for PC try ManyCam, or if you have a Logitech webcam on PC download Logitech's free Camera Settings software. They can give you a bit more flexibility in terms of where you sit relative to your backdrop, if you really need it.)

The guidelines for setting your webcam position are the same for real rooms and for a fabric backdrop. Your web cam doesn't know the difference.

Your set-up will look best if your camera is set pretty much straight at you, not tilted. If you tilt the camera either backward or forward, or left or right, any vertical lines in your background, such as window frames, will be distorted or tilted and distracting. Disclaimer: the stand provided in this kit is obviously not professional quality photo gear because there is no need for it to be and pro quality gear would cost much more. As such, you may find your stand does not hold your backdrop totally straight. If that happens, first make sure the wing nut is tight, and if that doesn't fix it, either gently push down on one side of the horizontal pole to try to straighten it out, or you can shim your laptop slightly with a piece of cardboard or something so your web cam and backdrop align. (Please don't use your stand for anything other than light fabric or paper backgrounds as it won't hold up much weight.)

Helpful hint: Some people need to be able to type while on video calls
meaning your internal web cam may initially be positioned lower, to facilitate comfortable access to your keyboard, than it should be to capture you and your background (real or fabric) in a flattering way. The best solution is to acquire a separate keyboard which can be placed at a normal, comfortable typing level, allowing you to raise the laptop, and webcam.



Importantly, once an external webcam is positioned at eye level, the laptop needs to be raised as well, so when you look at the screen you aren't looking down.


And finally the light. During the summer season many people are able to make use of natural and readily available daylight for their video calls, unless their window is behind or beside them (ie. not illuminating the face) in which case a light directed at the face should always be used. Regardless, as the days get shorter, windows are not going to provide the light you need, so you need to be ready to turn on a flattering, daylight balanced light. The light I selected for the kit after some research, and which I use myself, is this one:

Credit to for the photo showing the three colour settings. I find the middle setting most pleasing not the the orangy warm one, and not the cool blue one.
To power this light you can either connect by USB to your computer (you may need an adapter if you have a laptop such as a newer Macbook that has only the Thunderbolt ports), or you can use the block included to plug into an AC outlet. 

In the kit I provide a small piece of foam core to which you can attach the lamp's clamp if you don't have anything on which to clip the clamp and/or want more flexibility. I use this technique myself and just place the foam core and lamp behind my laptop/webcam with the light shining towards my face.

You can also attach it to your laptop. If you are not typing during your calls I suggest you put your laptop on a book or small box and clip the clamp to the free edge of the base of the laptop. The overhang accommodates the clamp so laptop doesn't sit unevenly. 

Disclaimer: on my little sell sheet I mention that I may not be able to get the particular light I advertise. Please understand that due to Covid I saw an opportunity to help people solve a problem...this is not a big business as part of the solution I sourced a light from Amazon that had the basic features I was looking for, and would be cheap but do the job. It's not always available as it sells out repeatedly and I am not in a position to carry stock. This is why I say it may not be the same light in every kit. But any light I do provide will have two key features: it will have a daylight balance setting, and it will be a soft light source (ie. flattering on faces). It may or may not have the clamp on the bottom. I actually don't love the clamp on the one that I chose for the original kit, but I loved the other features and was willing to live with the clamp. Some lamps I ship may have a standing base, which in some ways I might actually prefer. 

Screen grab of me using backdrop #6.

A final word on light...your backdrop will look best if the only or at least the brightest light falling on it is coming from the front. If it is lit from the side, for example by a window next to your set-up, that lighting will highlight and exacerbate any wrinkles. And if the backdrop is backlit, ie. light is hitting it from behind, it will look see-through, and you'll see the stand (right through it). So, as much as possible, cover up or turn down any light that is not falling directly on you and your backdrop from the front.

As for storage, in between video calls, the easiest thing to do, particularly if you are on calls frequently is just move it aside and leave it assembled so all you have to do next time you have call is put it in place behind your chair. You may never have to tidy the room again! (Caveat: you may find that over time the fabric does start to stretch a bit if left mounted for an extended period, so it may help to give it an opportunity to 'rest' and reset every now and then by rolling it around the mailing tube for a spell. Note: Do not use tape on the rubber backing...removal of the tape will peel the backing off the fabric.) If that doesn't work for you, though, you can remove the horizontal pole from the stand and collapse the stand (and the pole if you want), roll up the backdrop and stow them out of the way. You may have to allow some hang time or apply a little blow drier heat if the background gets wrinkled. 

And that's about it. You should be all set! If there is a anything I've missed, or you have any questions about setting up the kit, please get in touch so I can help, and so I know to add that info here. Enjoy your great new set-up!
416 465-8280 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Shooting During the Pandemic

On set during an executive leadership team portrait shoot. Thanks to my client communications advisor for sitting in for our illustration shot, and thanks to Miora Wong for snapping the photo.

How great did it feel to be back on set last week photographing 14 executives for their organization's website refresh! I just wanted to share a few things about this shoot as it was, for obvious reasons, a bit different from shoots like this we did before the pandemic.

The primary deciding factor in terms of this shoot's being made possible was people's comfort levels with the safety protocols in place. As the client organization is a health related business, they were already fully set-up to accommodate screening upon entry and rigorous sanitation procedures within the building. For some portrait subjects this was their first out-of-home work experience since the lock down, so the bar was high in terms of their trusting their health would not be compromised.

First of all the room we were scheduled to shoot in was very spacious, so lots of air space and no need to be in close proximity to anyone else. My assistant and I drove to the location in separate cars. The number of people in the room was limited to my assistant and me and the subject. Each half hour session was spaced half an hour apart, so in between each session my assistant and I could go outside for fresh air while cleaners came in and sanitized every surface that may have been touched during the photo session. We also had our own container of Clorox wipes just in case.

Subjects would enter the room and make their way to their portrait seat where they would remove their mask and place it on a fresh kleenex on a chair (which was one of the surfaces disinfected repeatedly). My assistant and I wore mandatory masks provided by the facility. And if and when I needed to approach the subject to style their hair or adjust their clothing, with their permission, I first donned a face screen and a pair of single use exam gloves. (I went through a lot of gloves!)

When it was time to review and make selects the subject would take a seat on a (repeatedly disinfected) chair in front of which was an external monitor attached to my laptop by an eight foot long cable, so we could go through their portraits together while maintaining safe physical distance.

As anyone who has worked with me knows, I offer a full service experience; one of my key working style features is my hands on attention to detail. When we don't have a hair and make-up artist on set I make sure that subjects' hair is tidy and nicely styled (as much as I can help with hair spray and a comb.) I also do what I can to mitigate wrinkles in subjects' clothing, straighten ties and necklaces, etc. I had wondered if I would have to forego my usual attention to detail which requires such close proximity between subject and photographer, but I wouldn't have been able to deliver the clean, professional looking portraits I'm known for if I didn't get in close, especially on these two shoot days which were unusually windy and humid, meaning subjects were finding it very hard (ie. impossible) to show up "camera ready".  The upshot is that for the foreseeable future a face screen and gloves will be part of my kit. In fact I may never give up the gloves as for once I did not have to wash multiple coatings of hair spray off my hands during the day.

A few more comments on the experience from my point of view: 

I know so much has been said in acknowledgement of all the front line workers who have had to wear this style of mask day in and out for months now so I am late to the party in terms of truly understanding their discomfort. But I can say from experience now that those thin little straps are brutal. My ears hurt within half an hour and it was tough to keep the mask up even if I tightened the loops. Not only that but as a high energy photographer I found myself huffing and puffing as I sucked air through the mask. How unexpected that I would find myself longing to put back on my trusty polka dotted cloth mask.

The face screen was also critical, and also somewhat hampering in terms of my being able to work comfortably. As many eye glasses wearers will attest, wearing a mask can cause glasses to fog up. So not only was I dealing with foggy glasses whenever I had them on but the screen was fogging up too. I wanted it off when I looked through the camera's view finder, anyway, so I took it off and put it back on repeatedly using the handy clip on the elastic head band. Unfortunately this made for a very, very bad hair day for me. But that was a small price to pay, along with the other discomforts, for being able to work in way that felt safe for all.

One more client need we were able to accommodate despite safety measures requiring only one subject be in the room at a time was a (virtual) shot of two of the senior leaders together. For this two person shot, during each of their individual sessions we switched to a green screen backdrop and photographed each subject as if they were standing together. Then during retouching we placed them next to each other against an environmental scene photographed elsewhere in one of their facilities, sans people. This technique would also facilitate group shots during these times...something to keep in mind!

Like many people in these uncertain times I do wonder how things will go moving forward. A key thing with photographing people will be ensuring no one shows up sick, not the subject, the photographer, the assistant or anyone else involved. For my part I am assuring assistants that I'd rather they call in sick on a shoot day rather than show up unwell. And we will not be penalizing clients for cancelling due to illness. 

So here's looking forward to this virus getting wiped out, but in the meantime, if you need photography we are back in business, and will continue to be diligent around safe and sanitary working conditions, regardless of bad, face shield hair. Stay well!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Therapy Dog Calendar Photo Shoot at CAMH

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!