It’s been four weeks since you finally beat your cross-town rival. You check the mail for a week for that large, cardboard mailer holding the only tangible evidence of the great event. This will be a photo you’ll scan and post on Facebook probably at least twice a month for the foreseeable future. You finally got the pattern on the dog just right and your lucky suit came through again. Just when you are truly annoyed at the delay, the picture comes. Eagerly you open the mailer and prepare to relive a great moment in dog show history. With one look, all that fades. The beautiful purebred you left the house with that morning looks like your neighbor’s pound puppy. Somewhere between the ring and the photographer’s stand he lost three inches of leg and gained four inches of body length. His coat looks like he was groomed in the dark in about twenty minutes. And then there’s you. All that Hagen Daz you passed up and trips to the gym were for naught. You look thirty pounds fatter and slightly out of focus. Not enough to make you unrecognizable, but enough to actually make your double chin look tripled. The one thing on your body that is in focus is that stain, shouting from the front of your jacket, you acquired during a lunch ten minutes before ring-time. There is no do-over, no way to Photoshop this nightmare into some semblance of acceptability, and this is your young dog’s only win in competition this show season!
We’ve all been there. We’ll all be there again. You have little recourse except to return the photo with a note to the photographer. But of course without even this pathetic rendering, you have no visible reminder of a nice win. You buy the picture and hope for better next time. To be fair, not all dogs are photogenic. Just like some people, the camera loves some dogs. Our current dog special has few pictures that are less than flattering, but our Bedlington never took a good picture. In the world of dog show photography there are two categories: Professional and amateur. There are gifted practitioners in both camps, but they never seem to be around when your dog has his big moment. What can the exhibitor do to increase the odds of getting a better win photo? And what about the amateurs happily snapping away from the second or third rows ringside? They are enough to make you cringe. Recently, the top dog in our breed was a victim of a well-meaning fan with a digital camera. This over zealous shutterbug posted a photo on Facebook of the dog and her handler at a specialty show in the Mid-West. The photo was taken from a profile view with the judge’s hands measuring the dog’s loin. The dog appears long-cast in the extreme and no matter if you love this dog or not, none of her virtues were visible. Whether to leave a more favorable impression of this animal in the minds of judges trolling the social media or mere coincidence, another photo of the same dog was posted a day later. This time the photo was professionally taken in more than three-quarter aspect and little of the dog was actually shown. But it was a beautiful photo of a blue dog against a shadowy green background. With the photo identified you almost breathed a sigh of relief for the owner.
Professional dog show photographers have a difficult job. Mind numbing, like shooting a high school graduation ceremony, and full of pressure, they must scurry ring to ring, slipping into the judging order to satisfy exhibitors and sometimes impatient judges. Dirt floor arenas are dimly lit and the lighting is often pinkish or yellowish wrecking havoc on the camera’s light meter. Nobody trains their dog to stand for a picture and most don’t win enough to get good at it. Just when you get over caring that your rear end jiggles when you run full tilt around the ring you have to pose for a photo. You stand there sweating, trying to suck in your gut, lifting your head slightly and wishing you hadn’t worn that flora skirt. Why are you standing here again? Oh yeah, your dog just got a win. Some photographers with a modicum of care and professionalism will work with you, but only to a point. Sometimes they shout out orders before the shutter is depressed. “Front leg on my side back a little, rear leg on your side slightly forward, step back from the dog.” As the judge becomes annoyed, the dog refuses to cooperate and the hapless exhibitor seems to be having an out-of-body experience, the photographer takes the picture. You just got that one in the mail. I’m not convinced most dog show photographers even like dogs let alone working with dogs and people. I think some stumbled upon a niche market for their mediocre talents and are laughing all the way to the bank.
Each show-giving club chooses the photographers they want to use. Usually the one they used the year before. Exhibitors seldom complain to the show committee about the photographers so nobody is aware of which ones are good and which are not. After you’ve been showing about five years you learn which photographers give you a good picture and which can never seem to. There are some very good photographers who take the time to work with each exhibitor and seem to know something about their craft and about dogs. But you never seem to see them enough. We all spend a lot of money going to dog class. Maybe we should start requesting instruction on stacking our dogs for a win shot.
As bad as these professionals can be, worse are the legions of amateurs who think they are as good as the pros. While we seek out the professionals, hoping for the best, the amateurs are omnipresent. Armed with more technology than they can handle, they stalk us from ringside. Some of them are friends and family. In their attempts to document the specialty show they succeed in taking some of the most worthless photos of the dogs and handlers possible. Amateurs have big hearts but have no technical know how. They carefully pick their spot outside the ring and earnestly click away taking enough shots to fill several 16gb cards. Most of us don’t mind being the subject of well taken pictures but nobody likes to see a shot of their dog’s head peeking out from behind the copious butt of the handler in front of you. We all like to think our dogs are close to perfection and seeing a picture of our specialty winner with his rear leg touching his front leg as he waits in line for his individual exam shakes us to the core. The sad thing is these snapshot artists think they are doing a good job. We have all anxiously weeded through several hundred photos online, taken by a well-meaning club member, with no editing skills, to be sure our dog isn’t there too often or in some compromising pose. Another annoyance, the people’s faces in the photos are usually tagged but the name of the dogs are missing. People who did not attend the event ask the name of the dog over and over until somebody admits it’s theirs. Two years ago, I spent a few minutes laughing myself silly at a close up photo from our National of a poorly groomed dog and a handler with grotesquely large legs. When my mother took a look and pointed out how I needed to clean my shoes next time. I quit laughing. How could the dog and I look so bad?
Taking a cue from celebrities on the red carpet, the only way to avoid seeing an unflattering picture of yourself and your dog online is to pick a spot in the ring and assume a stiff position with a well rehearsed smile on your face. it helps if you stand in a corner as it cuts down on the angles available from which to photograph you. As long as you remain standing with the dog perfectly stacked you are reasonably assured of not looking bad in the inevitable photos your friends and competitors are sure to take.
Anybody can sell photos taken from ringside. Seasoned exhibitors learn to deftly avoid these people. They run up to you as you leave the ring shouting that they have taken a wonderful picture of your dog. Since many time you didn’t get the purple and gold ribbon you become highly suspicious. As proof of their skill, they offer a look at the tiny screen on their camera of what might be you and your dog. You hopefully give them your email and when they forward the photo you can’t hit delete fast enough. There are however, exceptions. Someone barely able to speak English ran up to me after my German Pinscher and I finished showing one day in Scottsdale. He excitedly shouted, “I have a good picture of your dog.” I thanked him, gave him my email and hurried away. Three days later I received the best picture of the dog I have ever had. You never know.
Any psychologist will tell you intermittent reinforcement is the strongest kind. We all get just enough decent photos of our dogs and ourselves to keep us hopeful we’ll get more. This makes nearly all of us a sucker for anybody at a show with a camera.