By: Nathan Cool
How helping others pays more than money can buy.
Artistic endeavors rarely pad a person's payroll, but that's not why I got into photography. I love what I do: the art of capturing a moment, the technical challenges of equipment and software, and most of all, experiencing the gratitude of my clients, thankful for the work I've done for them. It's because of this passion that I dedicate some of my time each year to doing pro bono work, where I feel a small investment of my time and resources will have a large return of investment: not just in my satisfaction, but in the aid of others as well.
This summer I was honored to be asked to do a photoshoot for the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (NDSDF), a non-profit based in Ventura County that rescues dogs from animal shelters, then trains them to be search and rescue dogs that are used by law-enforcement and other first-responders in the aftermath of disasters such as earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks, and more. This organization's goals touched me deeply; not only do they rescue dogs from the pound, they also save humans lives as well as these dogs rifle through rubble to find those buried and facing death.
The photoshoot for NDSDF was at their new, still under construction training facility outside Santa Paula, CA. A handful of donors came for a tour of the facility, getting a first-hand look of how some of their donated dollars are being put to good use. At a very touching memorial, a bridge was constructed, thanks to the donor pictured here, posing with the star of the show that day, Stetson, a hyperactive Labrador that, if not for NDSDF, may not be with us today.
I love shooting pets, and Stetson was no different. But what was even more thrilling, was seeing how this dog was not just loved by all the people at the event that day, but the depth of appreciation everyone had for the work he and his handlers had invested in his training. Stetson could sit still on command, not moving a muscle, but you could see the overabundance of joy in this dog's eyes when his handler, dressed in the blue jumpsuit, would command Stetson into action.
There were plenty of photography challenges that day, making this one tough shoot. The sun was in high gear with no cloud cover, making for pictures that could be overexposed in some areas and dark shadows in others. Stetson, being a yellow lab, blended into the background of dry grasses around the facility. The heat was on as well, and it was rather warm to be moving around quickly while keeping concentration on all the subjects that day. And, as is the case with any kind of animal shoot, it takes quick thinking, a fast shutter, continuous mode shooting, and a little bit of luck to snap some quality keepers.
Stetson was the star that day, and I did what I could to make sure he shined. To overcome the lighting problems, and not startle the dog with flash (which really wouldn't have affected this highly trained dog that much, actually), I shot in manual mode most of the time, with a shutter speed that ensured I wouldn't blow-out any highlights (TIP: meter using aperture mode, set up in manual, shoot one shot, then check the histogram for over and under exposure).
With using this "safe" approach to the lighting, I could then fine-tune the contrast and shadows in Lightroom using selective brushes. While I could have used a fill-flash in many shots, even if it wouldn't have bothered Stetson, I couldn't have shot nearly as fast. Shooting without a fill-flash allowed me to shoot at 4 frames per second -- quick enough to capture special moments from a subject that can change expression and action in the blink of an eye.
Unlike other, traditional pet shoots, I gave no direction during the shoot, except for some pictures of the donors with Stetson at the very end. I wanted to be a bystander, capturing what happens naturally. It paid off, as I got to see the magic between rescue dog and handler, and how their synergistic symbiosis saves lives.
At the end of the event, I was wiped out. I was sweaty, dusty, and feeling as though I just finished one heck of a workout. But I couldn't have been happier.
After a few hours of shooting, I was able to provide NDSDF with variety of photos of the event, Stetson, and the goings-on that day. The cost to NDSDF was no charge, financially. They though paid me with something that money can't buy: a feeling that will stay with me forever, knowing that my work will help to promote the efforts of this wonderful non-profit, which will in-turn save the lives of many dogs like Stetson, as well as people who would otherwise perish in the aftermath of an earthquake, flood, or other disaster, if it not for the wonderful skills of such a highly trained animal.
If you feel my photography services would benefit a worthwhile cause, please let me know.