FEATURE STORY• TEXT BY MARISA E. CAMPBELL • IMAGES © BY DOGPHOTO.COM •
Stare into the intelligent, curious eyes of a dog and you'll see
what keeps animal photographers Dale Churchill and Kerrin Winter
entranced. Large or small, champions or beloved pets, canines are
what make this renowned husband-and-wife team travel around the
country to capture images that speak for themselves.
With over 10 years' experience capturing quality show animals and personal dog portraits on film, Churchill and Winter are not only the top choice for dog lovers nationally, they are also well-established equine photographers. Their websites, www.dogphoto.com and www.equinephoto.com, both created by Churchill, feature hundreds of images, as well as samples of their published works, which have graced the pages of many national magazines, including Dog Fancy, Dog World, The Equine Chronicle, and a series of canine guidebooks.
They've recently published the book How to Photograph Dogs, which is enjoying considerable success. In addition, they have photographed numerous major events, including the Westminster Dog Show and the American Quarter Horse Congress.
Churchill's vast photographic experience and Winter's in-depth knowledge of dogs is a winning combination. Together, their skills create an ease with the camera and animals, which fills their images with perfect lighting and accurate portrayals of each breed.
Each dog, they explain, has specific poses that are appropriate for its breed. For instance, a German Shepherd needs to have his ears forward, his mouth open, and his tongue about one-third of the way straight out, while a Cocker Spaniel needs to have his ears relaxed and his mouth closed. Who works the camera and who handles the subject is generally determined by the animals, since they typically take to one person more than another.
Not every animal, however, is a willing model. Several years ago, a 220-pound Mastiff grew impatient with Churchill's pushing and posing. Without warning, the dog simply took Churchill's entire face in his mouth. He didn't bite down, but just held him as a threatening reminder of who was really in charge. His knees shaking, Churchill continued shooting—sitting down!
Although capturing the right expression is key, controlling the lighting is equally essential. Whether it's a natural vignette created by shooting through leaves or dappled light filtered through the branches of a tree, all are created by Churchill's quick-thinking abilities. Often he'll clip cut branches and leaves to lighting fixtures and the front of lenses, which adds carefully placed shadows and a touch of nature to the immediate environs.
To handle the unexpected, he's always armed with three extra lights and a dozen spring clamps. "There's never a shadow out of place," he says. "You don't see [one] except by intention." Proper lighting also creates catchlights in the eyes of the subject, which add vitality and depth to the image.
When Churchill and Winter shoot a portfolio of a dog, which will include various backgrounds, it's not uncommon for the couple to shoot all of them outdoors—some amidst trees and rocks, others against seamless paper or a heavy canvas, to effect a studio look. In fact, the ordinary park bench can be the perfect spot for setting up a softbox. "When we're on location," says Churchill "we use the same number of lights and everything else we would if we were inside."
Together with their clients—whether animal publications or owners of show dogs—Churchill and Winter explore in great detail what look must be achieved. Then they decide on composition, framing, and background.
Choice of aperture, shutter speed, and lens is directly dependent on the depth-of-field they want. For an out-of-focus backdrop, he uses the Canon 400mm lens, which places him a calculated distance from the subject and the subject an exact distance from the background. After those decisions have been made, Churchill chooses the film.