Distraction, Duration & Distance: The Key to Improving Your Photographs

In the second unit of the Karen Pryor Academy, we learned about behavior fluency. Fluency means that when an animal perceives a cue, they start the behavior right away (low latency) and they perform it precisely (precision) and quickly (high speed). Fluent behaviors are pretty impressive to watch. I wrote a bit about how I was working on fluency with Paco in my post about playing training games.

In this third unit, we are covering three more aspects of fluency: distraction, duration and distance. Those characteristics are all for the most part self explanatory. Distraction refers to being able to perform the behavior in distracting environments, duration means holding/continuing the behavior until released and distance means being able to respond to the cue even when the handler is not directly next to the animal.

These three aspects of fluency – I’ll call them D/D/D – are also impressive to watch. A dog who can respond to a “down” or “wave” cue from across the room is likely to be quite the crowd pleaser. As you can guess, mastering D/D/D takes a decent amount of time and practice. You have to work on each aspect individually while temporarily relaxing your criteria for the others.  They all sort of build on each other, so once you have one mastered, you can begin working on the next and then inevitably adding them all together down the road.

Like pretty much any dog who is just starting to learn, Paco needs work in all three categories. He started out by being easily distracted, jumping up as soon as he performed behaviors and only really responding when he was right next to you. I am happy to say he has improved a bit since we have been practicing. By slowly adding distractions to our sessions – never adding too many at one time – he has become less sensitive to them. By shaping duration (basically rewarding him for holding behaviors for different amounts of time) I am now able to give him certain cues and know he will hold them until I release him. He is even getting better at “sit” and “down” from a few feet away from me. Slowly but sure, he is shaping up to be quite the great little performer.

I didn’t realize it until I took him out on the town the other night, but these skills are really going to help me improve my photographs of him. Before, I would give him the sit cue and as soon as I would back up to take the photograph, he would follow me (which you might have noticed because of the amount of close ups I have of him – ha!). I am looking forward to the day where I can plant him somewhere and get whatever shots I want! And have him be happy about it, of course. The whole point of teaching him D/D/D with clicker training is for him to hold these behaviors and respond to cues from far away and not worry about distractions because he wants to, not because he is worried about what will happen if he doesn’t.

Here is a photo from week one of working on D/D/D. I plan to have many more for you moving forward, thanks to Paco’s new found modeling skills!

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Photography Week: Improving Your Photos

Welcome to Photography Week where we’re covering all things photography! So far we’ve discussed the basics to capturing a good photo and then manual settings for a DSLR camera. Today we’re going to discuss some more advanced ways to improve your photos other than what we already mentioned in the basics post. Thanks for stopping by (or bearing with me if you’re not into photography!).

Once you’ve gotten a feel for how your camera works – perhaps you’ve started to understand your manual settings or you’ve just gotten more comfortable with the way it operates – you can start adjusting other aspects of your photograph. While exposure can make a huge difference in the quality of your photo, there are also other areas to pay attention to if you want to enhance your pictures.

Composition.  I discussed this a bit when I wrote about Instagram last month, which shows how you can use composition to your advantage no matter what gear you’re photographing with (phone, point and shoot camera, DSLR).  There are no fixed rules for composition of a photo, and a lot of it is personal preference, so I’ll just share some of the tips that I keep in mind. The more you research on your own and practice, the more you’ll discover what your individual composition preferences are.

Rule of Thirds is a way to make your photograph more interesting.  Basically you divide your photo into nine equal parts using two horizontal and two vertical lines and then position your main subject along one of the lines or points of intersections.  I don’t always do this exactly – I usually just crop my photos so the subject is on the side instead of the middle, but the end result is pretty much the same.

This photo of Charlie is cute, but imagine if the frame was wider and he was in the left third of the photo – it would be more balanced and interesting than here where he is awkwardly in the middle.

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The composition of the below photo is better (in my opinion) and creates a more interesting and visually appealing photo. Ideally he would be even a bit more to the left, but I didn’t want to crop out his tail – which brings me to my next aspect of composition.

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Cropping can make all the difference in your photos! You can crop out all sorts of distractions, you can crop to the rule of thirds, and you can crop to create a close up of your subject. It’s likely there is always something in the background you can crop out to put more emphasis on your subject.  This is where another preference of mine comes up: I will always crop using the same aspect ratio (which is 4×6) of the original photo. I don’t like to crop into squares or odd rectangles, but that’s just me.

Here is a photo of Seamus in the snow that I cropped to make it into the photo I wanted. Not only did I get rid of that big structure in the back right, I was able to put him on the right side of the frame to keep the photo interesting. (You’ll notice how dark the first one is versus the second. I was shooting with a different camera than my own and had to stick to auto, so I couldn’t control any lighting settings. The snow made the camera think it was WAY brighter than it actually was outside, so the photos came out dark. I adjusted that in post-processing, which we’ll discuss tomorrow.)

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Miscellaneous composition tip: Try not to cut off limbs. This tip was told to me early in my photography life, and ever since then I’ve noticed if a picture has chopped off someone’s hand or a dog’s paws. Obviously sometimes this is intentional for a closer crop, but the trimming of limbs can be done tactfully. If you end the frame awkwardly right below the elbow, consider moving the crop higher up the arm or giving them their hands back.

I absolutely love this photo of Joanie, but I wish she had front paws! It was impossible to avoid because I was shooting on stairs with a fixed lens length and that was as far away as I could get, but it still bugs me.  As often as possible I try to include the full limb or body of my subject, or I crop it in a way that doesn’t look so awkward.

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There are many other aspects of composition like framing, leading lines, symmetry etc. and I highly recommend you read up on it if you’re interested. Like I said, so much of it is personal preference, and even within one aspect of composition there can be many ways to do it well.

Point of Focus. Every photographer’s worst nightmare: you take what you think is the best photo of all time only to realize at your computer that your camera focused on the wrong thing. Many of you know the comforting beep that occurs when you press down half-way on the shutter button, meaning your camera has auto-focused. You line your subject’s face up right behind that clump of red dots you see through the view finder and click, yet the trees in the background end up sharper than the subject – UGH.

What changed my entire world as a photographer was discovering that I have control over that little red dot I see through the view finder that decides what the camera focuses on. I had no idea that the multiple red dots I saw meant my camera was picking what to focus on because I had multiple auto-focus points engaged. All I needed to do was turn off each auto-focus point (I think there are eight total) except for the one in the middle. Fixing this will be different for each individual camera so you’ll have to refer to your owner’s manual for how to do this on your own model.

By having only one auto-focus point activated, YOU can decide where your camera focuses. With that being said, shooting at a low f-stop with a shallow depth of field will mean you’ll still need to be very precise to get exactly what you want in focus.  If you’re photographing a dog, there’s still not very much space between their nose and their eyes, and it’s easy to get that awful say-it-ain’t-so nose in focus, eyes blurry shot – even with the single auto-focus point. Perfecting this takes a lot of practice so you get good at quickly focusing on the eyes before snapping the picture.

My neighbor Rojo shows us the difference between one photo where the focus has gone wrong and one where the focus has gone right.  These photos were literally taken seconds way from each other.  Every time I click the shutter button I try to refocus on the eyes – sometimes my camera listens, sometimes it doesn’t.

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I know I only covered two main areas of improvement in this post, but as you can see there is a lot of versatility and room for growth within both. Example: think a dog’s eyes will be the only thing you will ever want to accentuate in a photo by manipulating your focus point and depth of field? Think again.

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As usual, the more you practice with these creative pointers, the more comfortable you will get with them. You will also quickly learn which ones are important to you and which aren’t.  It’s really a lot of fun, and can give you an individual style to your photos.  Enjoy!