E220: Amy Johnson - "Ready to Shoot the Dog?"

Amy and I talk about what it takes to get great photos of our canine companions — we cover tips for photographer and subject alike! 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Amy Johnson here with me to chat about photographing our dogs — both during competition and at home!

Hi Amy, welcome back to the podcast.

Amy Johnson: Hi Melissa. Thanks so much for having me. It's good to be back.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Excited to catch up. To start us out, do you want to just remind listeners a little about you, a little about your dogs, maybe share a little bit of your background?

Amy Johnson: Sure. My name is Amy Johnson and I have been a dog sports photographer for twenty years, actually about twenty-one, since we're in 2021. I primarily do agility, but I've also done obedience, rally, a little bit of disc dog a couple years ago before Covid shut us down. I think I've done dock diving once or twice, some horse dressage, so covered a whole range of sports.

But I also, in the past five or six years, have started doing birds and wildlife and landscapes as well. Definitely not all the things. I'm not a studio photographer, I'm not a high-fashion photographer, or anything like that, but I certainly have broadened my horizons a bit.

You asked about dogs. I just added another one today — or yesterday, I should say. It seems like it's been one long day. I currently have … I'll start from oldest to youngest. Zora is … I think she's about a 9-year-old. She's a Lab mix, not quite sure exactly what she is. She's the matriarch of the family. She's the one that has to give the blessing on anybody else who gets added to the family. I'm sure you all know how that goes.

Next would be Spy, and he is my … I think he's about 15 months old … Great Dane. He's a black Great Dane. He is a conformation dog. I don't show him. His breeder shows him. He has no points. We're just getting there. So there's Spy, who was named for Hercules Mulligan of Hamilton fame.

And then there's Pie, who is my Terrier mix. I have an Embark test, the kit here, and I just haven't sent it in. But I need to find out what she is, because she's got to be quite a mix. She's something-Terrier, maybe Dachshund-Terrier, and that is the closest to a true Terrier that I ever will get in my house because they're just a little bit too smart for me.

Yesterday I picked up Iris, who is my 5-month-old deaf Great Dane puppy. She's actually my third deaf Dane. My first Dane was deaf, and then I had another one along the way, and now she's number three. So I've got some experience, which is why the breeder was really happy to let me take her, and that's going to be another new adventure. So yes, there's four dogs in the house at the moment.

Melissa Breau: Very exciting and what an adventure. At least you've been down this road before, so you know what you're getting yourself into.

Amy Johnson: I do, and I was reminded today, just watching her interact with the world, how visual they are. She was watching every bug on our walk. She was chasing leaves and butterflies and shadows, she was chasing my shadow, I think, at one point, so she is so tuned in to what is visually going on around her.

But definitely totally deaf, because I clapped, called her name, did a few things while she had her back to me. In fact, one time she woke up from a nap, and I was upstairs here and she was downstairs, and I heard her moving around. I went downstairs because she was looking for somebody because nobody else was around, and I had to wait for her to turn and see me. But until then it was a little bit sad. But she doesn't know she's deaf, though, so she doesn't know anything different.

Sweet, sweet dog, and that's been my experience with deaf dogs in general. I know they have reputations and whatever, but I think if you know what you're doing, then I find them to be delightful. So that's why I'm on number three.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. You talked about the dogs, and normally I ask folks about their dogs because that's what they teach. But since you teach photography, let's make the photo nerds happy too. Do you want to talk about your typical gear breakdown?

Amy Johnson: Sure. Right now I'm in transition, and so I have a really wide range of gear at the moment. I've been a Canon shooter for twenty-plus years. When I started teaching at FDSA, I bought a Nikon camera. I think it was a couple terms after I started teaching I realized I needed to learn Nikon better so I could be better a better help to my students, because they were asking camera-specific things. I could look things up, but to have that firsthand hands-on experience is always different than just looking up an answer in a camera manual.

So I've been shooting Nikon and Canon back and forth interchangeably for many years now. It works really well at my agility events, because when I have a crew come in, I can use whatever gear is left over, so to speak. I make sure that they all are shooting with what they're comfortable with, and then if I have a Nikon camera left, or if I have a Canon camera left, I can do that interchangeably. Or if somebody needs me to step in, whatever camera they're using, I can step in and just go for it.

What's going on right now, we're at a really interesting tipping point from going from DSLR, digital SLR cameras, to mirrorless cameras, and so I have also picked up a Canon R5. Right now, it's the highest high-end mirrorless that they have. They do have another one coming out, and they'll probably keep bringing out others along the way. But right now the R5 is their high megapixel, it shoots twenty frames a second, it's quite extraordinary.

What's the most extraordinary is its autofocus. It tracks the eyes, which is an amazing thing for someone like me, who's shooting animals, whether it be birds or wildlife or dogs. It will track the eye. It somehow knows what an eye is, and can track that and focus on that even as the subject is moving. DSLRs are going to be around for quite a while. People who want to shoot DSLRs are going to be in good shape for getting used gear at a really good price these days, but definitely the switch is happening to mirrorless, so I'm trying to stay on board with that.

So I've got Canon DSLR, Nikon DSLR, and Canon mirrorless, and I'm toying with the idea of picking up a Sony mirrorless too, because I have a lot of Sony shooters, and I'm at that point where I'm feeling like I need to learn that system as well. It's like people with lots of dogs and who want to do lots of sports — I'm that way with cameras. I'm like, "I need to learn something new, so maybe I'll just pick up a whole new camera system. Why not?"

Melissa Breau: Just try one of these and one of those.

Amy Johnson: Right. I'll take one of those and one of those.

Melissa Breau: I know you talked about being able to interchangeably switch between cameras, but I would guess that at least some of your gear choices depend on what you're shooting and where you are and bits and pieces like that. Can you talk a little bit about how photographing something like an agility trial might be different than, say, taking portraits of a dog?

Amy Johnson: Sure. When I am doing agility, I need camera equipment that is the best of the best, because that isn't a sport; it's an extreme sport. Actually, taking photographs at any dog sport is an extreme thing, so you need camera equipment that can keep up with the dogs.

Over the years I have always been using, whether it's Canon or Nikon, their top-of-the-line sports camera to do my agility trials. Do I need that to do portraits? No. If I'm just doing portraits, things that are moving slower, landscapes even, I don't need the super-high-end camera bodies. I can do that with something that has fewer frames per second.

High megapixel is good, because if you're doing landscapes, for instance, you want to be able to make maybe some big wall-size prints from that. But it doesn't need the same kind of high performance specs that a dog sports or any sports camera would need. But of course I'm not going to buy a lower-end camera if I'm doing portraits. I'm going to just stick with my high-end. That's of course the way it's going to go.

Now, I have had an interesting experience recently in terms of the mirrorless. Like I said, I've got the R5, and I was just in Florida to do AKC's Premier Cup. It was a last-minute add and it was on the end of a road trip I was doing, so I didn't have my DSLR's with me, so I decided to just use the mirrorless that I had with me. I rented a lens because I needed one more lens to do that, and I shot the Premiere Cup with the R5.

It was an interesting experience because it handles just a little differently than the DSLR, and there are some things, there are some tricks that I have on my DSLR that I don't have on the mirrorless, and so it threw me for a loop a little bit. I got pictures; it's not like I blew the event or anything. But there were things throughout the day that I was thinking, "Oh, shoot. I really wish I had my DSLR here."

The mirrorless is fantastic at birds because I'm able to get some shots that I never would have gotten with a DSLR. But with the mirrorless there were a few things missing, or a few things that were lacking for the way that I shoot agility trials. I've been raving about the R5 for months now, ever since I got one. But it was an interesting experience to go, "Oh, wait, there's something that it doesn't do as well as my DSLR. There are things maybe that it's not as ideal for." So that was an interesting experience to find something that it wasn't quite as good at.

I shoot agility in a very specific way. Not everybody does it the way I do it. There are photographers that are using the mirrorless systems and are very happy with them, so it's not to say you shouldn't buy one or they aren't usable. It's just for me and the way I've been doing this for twenty years … it makes me sound really old: "Oh, back in my day." I'm now the old-timer. I'm old school in the photography world, but I'm trying. But for the way that I shoot agility, the mirrorless didn't make me happy. I was a little frustrated throughout the day. But it was a good learning experience.

Melissa Breau: I'd love to have you elaborate. What did it feel like it was missing?

Amy Johnson: The primary thing that it was missing is a frame rate. I did say that it shoots twenty frames a second. There are two different … I'm going to get techie here, so hopefully … sorry, dog people, if you don't know anything about cameras. This is going to make all the camera people really, really happy, though.

There are two different types of shutter on the mirrorless cameras. You can do a mechanical shutter, which is the traditional … it physically opens and closes to take the picture. That's the mechanical shutter. That maxes out at twelve frames a second and under ideal conditions. It has to be ideal conditions, and I can list those, if you really want me to.

Then you can use the electronic shutter where there's no moving parts. That's what can shoot up to twenty frames a second. It is not adjustable. I can't say, "I only want sixteen frames a second," or fourteen frames a second, because fourteen to sixteen is the sweet spot for me for the way that I shoot agility. So twelve isn't quite enough, twenty is too many, so I needed that sweet spot right in-between, but I couldn't get it.

I couldn't even get the twelve frames a second because the conditions I was shooting in were not ideal. It's indoor light. I mean, it's fantastic, it's the World Equestrian Center down in Ocala, Florida, and the light there is fantastic for indoors. The surface is really bright. It's a sand and like a fiber mixture. It's really interesting. But it's bright, it's white, and so it reflects the light up. For indoors, it's ideal shooting conditions. But it still wouldn't give me the twelve frames a second. It's not that I was counting; it's something that I just have a feel for. It was hitting eight or nine, maybe, and that, for the way that I shoot, is just too slow.

So I'm panicking, three dogs have run, and I'm like, "I'm not getting the shots that I need." So I flip it into the electronic shutter and go to twenty frames a second, which means I'm way overshooting. But I end the day with I think maybe about 15,000 images where I should have really ended with 5 or 6000 at the most. So yeah, way overshooting. But that's better than not getting it at all, not getting the shots that I need. So I'm going to err on the side of overshooting rather than undershooting.

Another trick that I use on my DSLR's is something that's meant to fix when you have a lens that isn't focusing properly, like, it's focusing in front of where it thinks it should be, or behind where it thinks it should be. You can, in the camera, in the Menu setting, fine-tune that focus. You can push the plane of focus away or you can pull the plane of focus towards you. Like I said, we're getting techie here. I hack that system in terms of I use it to deliberately misalign that lens. I use it to pull the plane of focus towards me for certain shots.

You cannot do that on a mirrorless because of the physics of it, because of the way it's constructed. I don't know all the details, I'm not going to list those off, but the mechanics of it, it can't be misaligned because of the way the sensor and all of that works. It's the fact that it doesn't have a mirror in there anymore. It's a mirrorless, so it's something to do with that. It cannot be misaligned, so there is no way to fine-tune the focus because there should in theory be no reason to fine-tune the focus.

I do it on purpose, but I can't do that on the mirrorless. I have other ways around that, but I did not realize quite how much I rely on that until I was setting up shots and thinking, "I can't do that." Tunnel shots in particular, it really helps, because instead of getting the dog while the face is still in the tunnel in shadow, I can pull the plane of focus out and get the dog's face when it's out in the light and it's in focus out there. So it's a neat trick. It was taught to me by another photographer years and years ago, and I've always loved it. But it doesn't work on a mirrorless.

So those are the two primary things that came up: being able to adjust where the plane of focus is and the frame rate, and either having to way overshoot or not get the frame rate that I need. So there you go. There's your technical answer.

Melissa Breau: That's good stuff. Obviously you talked a little bit about light in there. Light obviously plays a huge role when you're talking about photography. Can you talk a little bit about what's ideal in terms of lighting when you're trying to do some awesome stuff, take some really nice shots your dog?

Amy Johnson: Good light for us as humans just to see the world is different than good light for photographers and for cameras. The best light for outdoors is at the edges of the day, like an hour or two before sunset, an hour or two after sunrise.

If you're doing portraits or even action shots that you're setting up not at an event, you want to find that light at the edge of the day, because then the angle is really low. It's coming through more of the atmosphere, so it's got a nice warmth to it that it doesn't have if it's noonday sun. It's prettier, it's softer, the color is nicer. So the edges of the day are really great light for outdoors.

Indoor light is always tricky, especially for someone like me. I can't go into an agility trial and say, "Can I set up this big flash here?" I would be booted out of the event so fast I wouldn't even know what happened. So I am constrained by the light that is available inside of whatever the venue is. I shoot a lot in horse arenas, state fairgrounds are a popular place for these big events to be held, and that light isn't always great.

It's improving, because as these facilities upgrade their lighting, I'm always happy when I walk into a place and they've upgraded their lighting. I'm always like, "Ooh, yay." I know — the things that make me happy are weird. I totally get that. Everybody else is looking at the footing; I'm looking up at the lighting. That's how it goes.

I'm always limited by what the light is in in the place. So my go-to for how to manage light indoors, primarily at a big event, is using the ISO on the camera. ISO is kind of like turning up the volume on your radio. It amplifies the lights. In essence, there's some negative consequences to that. But as cameras get better, they have increased the range, the upper limit of the ISO. On the high-end cameras, we're talking going up into 102,000 and on up.

It used to be in the film days that film speed, which is the equivalent of ISO, would go up to 800 or 1600, and you could push-process to 3200. And now, cameras, I regularly shoot at 40,000 ISO. The newest cameras, AKC Nationals in March, we were shooting at 80,000 ISO. That's insane. And yet that's what allows me to get the photos in places like that and get the shutter speed that I need in order to stop the motion of these really fast dogs. Rather than being able to bring in light with a flash or external light source, I rely on the ISO to give me the settings on the camera so that I can get those images at these events. I don't know if I might have taken a little bit of walkabout on that question.

Melissa Breau: No, it was good. I think you took and you merged what I was going to ask you next. I was going to ask you about how you compensate for bad lighting in a situation like that. It sounds like part of the answer is really good gear.

Amy Johnson: Well, yes, and actually that's true. That's a huge part of it. That is one of the primary reasons that I spend as much on my camera gear as I do is because I need a camera that can give me as high of an ISO as possible.

It's one of those features, it's just like on cars, where the high-end vehicles start out with the really fancy features and then it trickles down into the lower-end cars. Same thing. ISO used to be the realm of just the high-end camera bodies, and now it's been trickling down and more and more camera bodies have a really nice range of ISO. But if you look at a camera that's ten years old, then you're probably limited to 6400 ISO and that is really ugly, so you probably don't want to do any more than 3200. So the age of the gear will play into that a lot. But yeah, every year the camera bodies get better and better, even the ones that are middle of the road and not the high-end ones.

Melissa Breau: Just because you brought it up, what would be a good range for somebody who's maybe just dipping their toe in or just starting to learn this stuff? What should they be looking for?

Amy Johnson: That's a really tricky question because it depends so heavily on what you want to photograph. If we go back to that question you asked about cameras for agility versus cameras for portraits, the requirements for a camera body depend heavily on what you're going to photograph. I know a lot of this audience likes to think about photographing their dogs and photographing their dogs doing things, not just sitting there smiling at them, although those are lovely too, believe me.

But if you're wanting to photograph your dog moving, playing in the backyard, or doing something even more … you're probably not going to photograph your own dog doing agility because you're out there with your dog, unless somebody else runs it for you.

The requirements for camera gear is so different depending on what you want to do. If you want to just do portraits or still photos, then you can easily get a camera that will do that very nicely for under $1000. If you're doing a DSLR or mirrorless, it's the camera body plus you have to have a lens to go on it. You can't just have a camera body. That won't do you any good. You want to take into account you've got to buy both a camera and a lens.

A lot of cameras come with a kit where it's a camera and a lens and a battery and a charger, and then you're all set to go. Those kit lenses tend to be a little lower-end, so you've got to keep an eye on those specs and decide if it's worth spending the money on that kit lens, or if you want to buy the body separately and then spend the money to get a little bit better lens.

If you're trying to do action, then you're not looking at under $1000. You're probably looking at $1500 minimum. You can probably find a good used camera, something that was the top of the line five years ago, and now you can maybe find some of those good deals.

If you're looking at new, it's probably $2000 or more. For instance, the Canon R5 and R6, the R6 is a little less expensive. There are reasons; we don't need to go into it. But it's got many of the same specs as the R5. It is a fantastic action camera, but it's still going to cost you, for camera and lens, close to $3000.

It's worth it, in my opinion. If you are serious about this, spend the money, and that camera will last you for years because the specs on it are so good. It's got the 20-frames-a-second electronic shutter, it has the eye-tracking focus, which is phenomenal, it's going to last forever and ever and ever. It will last certainly for any class of mine that you take. But that's a little different than under $1000. So it really depends on what you're going to photograph.

That's a question you have to think hard and decide, "How serious am I about the action stuff, and if I am, am I ready to put down a chunk of change?" You don't have to start that way. Start with things that don't move so fast. Start with a camera that is under $1000 and just see if you like it. Make sure you like taking pictures before you sink $3000 in your first system.

My students and I are very good enablers, though. We will point out all of the sales on the refurbished gear: "Hey, Nikon's having a sale." If you want to get serious and get into the gear, I have a whole bunch of people that will help enable that, so come and join the craziness.

Melissa Breau: Is that just the class Facebook group, or is that …

Amy Johnson: I have a group of my alums that I interact with. I give them … it's not just FDSA. It's places along the way that I've encountered people. But I have a Facebook group for my alums that we do all sorts of enabling and we have a lot of fun doing it. That's the joy.

Melissa Breau: Sort of like going into the FDSA puppy group and saying, "Should I get this puppy?"

Amy Johnson: Exactly. It's exactly the same thing. Who's ever going to say no?

Melissa Breau: Right. We've gotten into the nerdy stuff for the camera folks. To zoom out just a little bit, do you have any tips for those who maybe haven't invested in some gear yet and they're just trying to capture good pictures with their phone camera in the back yard, or pictures of their friends because they're sitting on the sidelines while they're at a trial?

Amy Johnson: Sure. Again, I think part of this is being realistic about what your camera gear can do. A cell phone is going to do great at video. It is not going to do great at taking action still pictures at an agility trial, for instance. You can get decent portraits with a cellphone these days.

I think the biggest thing is to think about not so much the gear but about how you're taking the picture. Things that you want to consider are get down to your subject's level. If you have your dog sitting very nicely in a nice place, don't stand up and shoot. Get down, kneel down. I know, my knees don't like it either, but find a way to get yourself down to the dog's level. Or raise the dog up to your level. Put the dog on a table or a bench or a sofa or something. Find a way to put you and the dog, or the camera and the dog, on the same level. That's going to improve your photos 1,000,000 percent right there.

Consider what's in the background. Make sure that there's no trees growing out of heads. I know these are really simple things, but these are things that we get home and we look at our pictures and we go, "Why? Why did I leave that lamppost growing out of my dog's head?" So make sure you're checking the background. Look for all those things that might be a distraction. Again, that's one of those really simple no-brainers, but people forget them. So pay attention to your background. Pay attention to the level that you're shooting from.

Be realistic about what your gear can do. If you have a lower-end camera, it is not going to do so great at taking agility photos. You might get lucky, so take a gajillion photos and you might get that lucky shot, and that'll be fantastic and fun and it will be great. But to get consistency and being able to repeat the same shot over and over, you have to have a little more than luck at that point. That's where the camera gear comes into play. If that's something you really want to do, then you look at saving your pennies and investing in better gear.

The other thing I'll say: If you're at an agility trial and your friend says, "Hey, can you take my picture?" consider whether or not there is a professional that is there doing that already. If there is, perhaps say, "You know what, there's someone who's going to take much better pictures than I am, so why don't you see if you can get their card and buy from them?" Be considerate of the pro that is there, because they've spent a lot of time and effort and money learning their sport, learning their craft, getting there. There's a lot that goes into being a professional photographer at a dog event, and so I would just ask that people be considerate of that.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Speaking of, if folks listening, if they're planning on heading to a competition where they do expect there's going to be a professional, is there anything they should be thinking about in terms of their clothing, or how they approach things in the ring, to help ensure they get some good photos to help memorialize the event?

Amy Johnson: My biggest thing is, as the photographer, I want to be invisible. I don't want anybody to see that I'm there. I don't want a dog to be distracted. I don't want competitors to be thinking about me and what they might look like in a photo. I want them to do their absolute best in the ring, whatever that is.

Yes, if you have a black dog and you're wearing black pants, and I get a photo where you and the dog are lined up together, the dog can disappear into your pants. That's something to consider. But quite often you and the dog won't be lined up quite that way in the photo anyway. So you can think about that, whether you want to contrast with your dog or whether you want to hide your dog, and that's totally up to you. There may be reasons, competitive reasons, why you want the dog to disappear into your pants, and that is your call. I don't want you to change your plan because of the photos. I want you to do what is best for you and the dog in the ring. I was going to go off on something else and now I forgot.

Melissa Breau: That's all right. What about the pros there? They want to make sure they get some good photos, memorializing maybe the dog's last run and they're going to retire, whatever. Go ahead.

Amy Johnson: I remembered what I was going to say. I was going to say the one thing you can do is groom your dog, because I have had so many people come to my sales booth and say, "Oh, I love this picture, but I should have groomed my dog."

I can't help with that. That's not a Photoshop thing. There is nothing I can do about that after the fact. So if you are the kind of person who wants your dog to look its best in a photo, take some extra time the night before, groom it up a little bit. We're not talking conformation-level grooming here. We're just talking about brush it out, maybe bathe it, if it needs that, I don't know.

I know that if we're running in a dirt arena, then the dog is going to get dirty naturally. That's going to happen. But if you start with a clean dog, a groomed dog, then maybe you're going to be more happy with the picture. It's one of those funny things that people don't always think of until it's too late, but it's a very consistent comment that I get of, "This photo is great, but I wish my dog was groomed."

The first few times I heard it, I didn't know what to do with that comment, because I'm like, "I can't help you, I'm sorry." I felt really bad about it. But that's what I was going to say. You can groom your dog or make sure it looks the way you want it to look for photos.

Melissa Breau: If somebody knows going in, though, that they're definitely going to buy some pictures, or they're definitely interested in making a purchase, is it worth saying something to the photographer in the morning, or does that just get obnoxious? Because then you have, like, sixty people coming up to you over the course of the day.

Amy Johnson: This is going to come down to every photographer runs things a little differently. For me and the way my crew runs, we photograph everybody. If you want photographs, you don't have to say anything. You can; you can certainly tell us. We aren't going to necessarily do anything different, but it's always nice to know that people are interested.

Maybe the more important thing is if you don't want photos, or you know that your dog for some reason is going to react to the camera … generally it doesn't happen, especially in these big events where we're so far away from everything that dogs and humans don't even see us. But if you have some reason why you don't want to be photographed, then I want to know, because the last thing I want is for you to feel like there was something that happened, there's a reason you didn't get your cue or something, that was related to the photographer.

Generally that's not the case. But if you know that your dog has an issue with the click of a camera or the lens — because they're big, giant lenses looking out into the ring — by all means, for me, I will always want to know that. I will make a note of it on my running list. I will make sure to put the camera down. I won't leave the ring, because I have to stay there, but I will make a note of it and do everything I can to just look like a bump on a log while your dog is in the ring.

So for me, it's more important to know who doesn't want pictures. I just assume everybody does and take pictures of everyone. That's easier than trying to make a list ahead of time at the beginning of the day. Now, there are photographers that will have you sign up ahead of time that do want to know and will only take pictures of people who sign up. That's their call. But for me, if you ever see Great Dane Photos at an event, we just automatically take everybody.

Melissa Breau: Good stuff. I know you've got two classes on the schedule this term, which is starting in just a couple of days. Do you want to talk us through them, what they are, and what folks need in terms of equipment to sign up?

Amy Johnson: Sure. June is my favorite term because it's the term where I

offer both Shoot The Dog and Chase The Dog. Shoot The Dog is the intro course. It's the course for if you haven't even taken the camera out of the box yet. You've got to do that by day one. It is meant for people who have no shooting experience and just want to learn how to take good pictures.

We start from the ground up and do all the fundamentals, just very, very basic. In fact, it starts with a little bit of a scavenger hunt. I give you a list of things that you need to go find on the camera, figure out how to change the shutter speed. I don't tell you what you should put it at, but just where's the shutter speed, where's the ISO, aperture, just a little scavenger hunt. That's how we start. We get you familiar with your camera gear.

It is a class where you will end up shooting, learning the basics of manual exposure, by the end of those six weeks, and that is a holy grail in photography. If you are shooting in manual exposure, that's a really good thing because it means you have some skills, you have some knowledge and understanding of how photography works, it means that you are a control freak like me who wants to manage all of the things about the way a photo looks. I've started with many people who know nothing, and they come out at the end of six weeks and they are shooting in manual exposure. They're not fast, they're not fluent in it yet, but they are shooting in manual exposure, and that's just in six weeks. And then they're hooked and they go on to the next classes.

At the other end of the spectrum is Chase The Dog. That's my class for people who want to learn to do action photography, photographing things that move. It is not a beginner-level course by any means. It is definitely meant for people who understand manual exposure, who understand how their cameras work, who are fairly competent at getting good pictures of things that are not moving, and just are having some problems and want to learn more about how to photograph things that are moving.

I bring all my agility skills to that, I bring all of my birds and wildlife experience to that, and we talk about a lot of different tricks and skills, and try and even dig into the camera menus. See, this is why I need to get a Sony, because I don't know the Sony menus at all. But dig into some of those little things like the micro adjust, the fine-tuning hack that I was talking about earlier, just all those things that maybe are very camera specific or sports specific, and try and get into those nitty-gritty details.

I love teaching this pair of classes because it stretches me in a lot of different ways. Trying to find ways to explain topics that I've been dealing with for twenty years to people who have never heard of them before is really challenging, but in a good way, and then trying to explain all the things that I do on automatic pilot in my Chase The Dog class, like, "Oh, right, okay." So it stretches me and it makes me a better instructor after every time I teach both of these classes.

It's also a gateway for a lot of people. Both of these classes are. Of course I get the beginners in Shoot The Dog, but then I also get people who have never taken any of my classes who come into Chase The Dog, and they find that there are other things that they want to get better at as well that are classes that I offer. So it brings people in from two different directions and then merges them into some of the other things that I do, and we get a really interesting mix of people in the classes that come after that.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you want to go into?

Amy Johnson: You had said, "What do they need?" Let me talk about that briefly. Shoot The Dog, if you're going to be at Gold — and Gold is full right now, but for the future — Gold students need to have either a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. At Bronze you can use any camera that will shoot in manual exposure, a manual mode.

There are things called bridge cameras, where it's kind of like a DSLR but the lens is fixed, it doesn't come off, you can't interchange it with another lens. There are some point-and-shoots that have a manual exposure mode. Anything that has manual exposure on the camera, that is something you can use at the Bronze level.

What I hope is that you'll get hooked and realize what you're missing by not having a DSLR or a mirrorless, and that will take you to the next level. And then next year you'll come in and do the class at Gold and we'll get to work together. That's the method to my madness there. But Gold students definitely need to have the DSLR or mirrorless camera.

For Chase The Dog, you need to not have the entry-level stuff to get the most out of the class. You can certainly do Chase The Dog with lower-level gear. What will happen, or what I've seen happen in the past, is that people realize where they are lacking in their skills and where they are lacking in their gear.

That's actually a really good thing that comes out of this class is we're able to separate those two things and figure out are you not getting the pictures you want because you don't have the skills, or are you not getting the pictures you want because you don't have the equipment. That's a hard distinction to figure out if you don't have a lot of experience, but that's something that I can pick up on pretty easily.

We've had a lot of students that have realized — and this is where the enabling comes in — "I guess if I just upgrade my camera, then I might be better at this." So you should come into Chase The Dog with the mindset of "I might have to spend some money and get a new camera." I'll apologize right now for that, but that's just the way it goes. You do get what you pay for when it comes to a camera body. That's the way it works.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you want to share that folks should know about either class?

Amy Johnson: I guess the biggest thing is if you have any interest in seeing if photography is your thing, just do it. Jump on in, especially Shoot The Dog. This was the very first class I taught at FDSA. I think June 2015 was my first term, so I've got five or six years, however many years that is. Time has no meaning, I swear.

This is a class that has seen a lot of students come through and has had a lot of success. I have students that started in that class that are now working for me at agility events. So if that's something you want to do, this is where it starts. You don't need to be afraid of, "Oh no, I don't know anything." That's the point. Come in not knowing anything, and I promise you will feel very competent by the time you leave. You'll also know what you don't know anymore, of course, and there are things that you can't unsee, like, "Now I can see all the flaws in everybody's photos, and mine especially." Be prepared for that.

But overall it has been a fantastic experience, and I've had a lot of success with people coming in knowing nothing and going on and pursuing this. In fact, I have one student who started in that very first class who just recently won a photo competition and a fairly prestigious one. She has gone on to great success, and she's one of many who has done that.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I know you've also got some new things in the pipeline. Do you want to mention them or tease them a little bit?

Amy Johnson: Sure. One question I get consistently asked when I solicit "What else do you want me to teach?" people want to know how to use Photoshop. I did teach one term, I did try and do a Photoshop class several years ago. It was too big, it was too wide-ranging, it tried to cover too many things.

What I've done is go back to the drawing board, and I have created a Photoshop class that is designed to teach you how to do collages. The reason I'm teaching collages is because that is a product that I've been offering for about eighteen years to my clients and they love them. I have a lot of years of creating them with my agility photos for other people and I've got the whole thing down pat. I know it's a very limited list of tools and processes in Photoshop, so it's not trying to teach you anything and everything. There are things we will not do in that class, but there are a lot of things that we will do that you will be able to use in other projects as well.

It's called Collage The Dog: Creating Photo Collages in Photoshop. I'm really excited about it. It's something that I've worked on individually. When I've done my Photographer's Choice class, I've had several students that have wanted to do collages, and so this is an outgrowth of little bits and pieces that I've done one-to-one with students over the years and now put it together in a much more of a cohesive, planned way.

We'll start with some basic tools in Photoshop, layers and masks, and the Gradient tool and the Text tool, and then we'll start using those things to put images together. I have two primary types of collages that I do. One is called Blended, where the edges of one photo blend into the edges of the next. The other kind is called Scrapbook collages. Those are like what you would see in a traditional, paper, physical scrapbook, where it's individual photos, but there's extra embellishments around as well. And by the end of six weeks, you should be able to make your own photo collages.

You don't even have to be a photographer. You have to have images to use. I had a student one time who wanted to put together old photos. She had scanned in old photos of her family generations back, and was putting together a collage in multiples that she was going to make a book. She put together multiple pages of collages of these old photos and family groups, and really an interesting idea and quite a gift that she was going to be able to give.

It doesn't have to be your own photos. You have to have permission to use them, of course, but this is a little bit of a diversion away from the strictly photography-based class. So that's what's new, that's what's coming up. That's August is when that's going to start.

Melissa Breau: I was going to say "When is that?" Awesome. Everybody will have to keep their eyes peeled for that one.

Amy Johnson: It's on the schedule, so you can go and check out the description and see. Still fleshing out all the details, but the syllabus is there, so you can take a look at the syllabus. I've got a couple of sample collages loaded in there as well.

Melissa Breau: Very cool. One last question to round things out. If we were going to take our conversation today and drill it down into one key piece of information you really want listeners to take away from this, what would that be?

Amy Johnson: One of my big things is being realistic with your expectations. It's being realistic with your expectations of your own skills and your expectations of the gear that you are using. Going into an agility event and trying to take pictures with a cellphone — there's a mismatch in some expectations there. There's a mismatch in the gear with what you are trying to photograph. If you get lucky a few times and then decide that you're going to go into business as a photographer, there's some mismatch in the skills there, I think. So being realistic about what is reasonable in terms of your experience, your gear, that's the biggest thing is to take a critical look at what you want to do and how are you going to get there.

Like I said, I have students that are shooting for me now that are working for me at national level agility events. I'm not saying you have to take my classes. I'm saying put the time into learning your gear, improving your skills, and bringing those expectations to the same level so that everything matches, that your gear matches your skills matches what you want to do. That's, I think, the biggest thing.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I think that's true of anything, not just photography.

Amy Johnson: It is. I think what happens is we think the camera body is magic, and we should push the button and everything is going to happen for us. What I see a lot is when I slow people down and say, "Let's think about this," yes, they do have that realization of, "Oh, right. That's the way that everything really works." But putting those thoughts towards photography isn't necessarily an intuitive thing for everybody.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Amy.

Amy Johnson: You are very welcome. It's always a pleasure.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We will be back next week with Nancy Gagliardi Little to talk about the less obvious skills that agility dogs need to thrive in the sport.

If you haven't already, subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training! 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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