Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Bargaining with Hellhounds.
Photography is full of written rules about what you should or should not do in the interest of making photographs your teacher will find acceptable. The application of these inflexible rules governs every genre.
For example, street photography is not always carried out on a street. Nor are humans always the subject. Nevertheless I’ve watched tutorials on how to shoot on a street, beach, railway station or any other location I’m likely to find interesting subjects, and much of what I see makes no sense to me.
One well-meaning expert suggested I should never use a telephoto on the street because it will make me conspicuous – I will stand out – his implication being that if someone knows I’m taking a photograph, something diabolical will happen. This is seldom the case.
True, sneaking into the Comancheros HQ with a flash powerful enough to light up the Jenolan Caves might on several levels be ill-advised, but generally speaking, modern telephoto lenses are the size of a sausage roll, have no smell, are by nature mute, and therefore unlikely to trigger the diabolical unless you’re in the business of provoking the easily provoked.
The same expert whose opinion I chose to seek on this particularly bleak and windy day, when my front door refused to open, insisted that whatever I’m shooting ‘on the street’, as well as never using a telephoto I should use only a wide-angle. This is a widespread belief among street photographers, one of the rules they never leave home without.
But this pearl of wisdom proves to be nothing more than common grit.
I like to photograph dogs, wherever they are, but chasing a fast, highly athletic Border collie up and down a beach with a 28mm lens is not as easy as it sounds and will soon enough render me fit for autopsy. My best photographs of dogs were taken with me rooted to the spot using a 200mm lens and an aperture intended for bugger-all depth of field.
Keen to shoot dogs? Then learn about their behaviour before em-barking (sorry about that) on the challenging task of capturing their energetic character. And don't be anthropomorphic about it, attributing purely human characteristics to dogs. Like it or not, a dog can only behave as a dog. If we treasure them for anything it should be their dogness, not that they look cute in a hat and sunglasses.
In my experience, unless you're too close for comfort, theirs not yours, dogs don’t usually put a high price on where you stand. They are motivated by self-interest. Unless it benefits them in some way, they don’t know what you’re doing and don’t care. If you don’t interest them, you don’t exist. Occasionally though, if you’re lucky, one will smile at you for no particular reason. A dog’s smile is a wonderful thing. It is so obviously a smile because it can’t be anything else.
Opposing commonly held beliefs on what canines will tolerate, most dogs dislike being crowded or hugged. They don’t generally enjoy being patted or even stroked on the head. Even my Border collie Millie, who from me gets nothing but love, will turn her head away to avoid uninvited attention in a sensitive area. If I touch her feet or nose, Millie gets all twitchy.
Some canines, especially those with inscrutable expressions, can be difficult to ‘read’, giving a photographer no warning when the animal’s mood changes swiftly from mildly curious to DEFCON 1.
If unsure of a dog you’d like to photograph, approach it as you would a Comanchero: avoid prolonged eye contact and don’t pat it on the head. If the dog arrived by motorcycle, don’t mess with that either.
In the category of difficult to read, I would place Rottweilers, Dobermans, bull terriers (with those ball-bearing eyes), Staffordshire bull terriers, or when it comes down to it, pretty much any terrier larger than a rat. To the list I would add any kind of ‘fighting dog,’ trained through deprivation to attack an intruder or anyone other than its owner, whoever comes first.
In my experience, people who own these sorts of dogs invariably work in wrecking yards where the distance from perceived threat to actual attack is equal to the circumference of an apple.
It should come as no surprise then that photographing a rabid dog determined to rip off your arm is nothing if not a technical challenge, made more so if the wide-angle lens you were persuaded to use forces on you a proximity you find uncomfortable. Man-eaters are best photographed at much more than arm’s length, with a long lens, and from the other side of a shark cage.
Writers on photography spend a lot of time discussing arcane subjects like how to hold a camera. It doesn’t matter if you hold the camera with your feet if you’re good at holding it that way. Dogs fail to acknowledge the existence of cameras anyway, much less that you’re holding it with your toes as you go about choosing too short a lens to photograph a truculent hellhound leaning on a Harley.
Granted, it might look a little odd, and will make you even more conspicuous than sneaking up on the ever vigilant Comancheros, but if you make better photographs holding a camera with your feet, you should not only be rewarded with a civic reception but in my opinion marked as some sort of genius.
Next week, warthogs.