"What's so great about a photograph of your dog?" one woman said to another. "Even I could have done that."
We were at a showing of prize-winning photographs. The print in question was a studio-style shot of a beautiful Afghan posed against a rich brown background and lighted just right. On the lower right-hand corner of the print was a blue ribbon stamped in gold: "First Place."
If I'd been a judge, I doubt that I would have awarded a blue ribbon to that particular photograph. But I'm sure the woman puzzled by the shot has never tried photographing her pet. If she had, she'd know just how much work went into the shot and how much patience - and luck - the photographer had to bring it off.
Pets are among the most intriguing photographic subjects around. Their daily antics range from cute to bizarre. At times, their expressions are nearly human.
One of the most striking pet photos I've seen anywhere was of two dogs seated side by side. One was dressed in a frilly blouse and sporting a string of pearls beneath a large, floppy hat. The other had on a neatly starched white shirt with polka-dot tie and was topped by a very proper-looking derby. You had to look twice to tell that they weren't human.
I don't know whether it was art, but I do know the photograph appeared in magazines and newspapers around the world, probably earning the photographer a good deal of money for his efforts. And I mean efforts. I've tried slipping a pair of sunglasses on my dog several times, just for fun. Ten seconds and one shake of the head later they were off.
The point I'm trying to make is simple. Posing an animal is grueling work. Capturing an animal at rest or play in a candid photograph that "works" is even harder. You need a combination of patience, luck and the right equipment.
Snapshots taken with the family 110 cartridge camera rarely capture animals at their best. That's because, to fill the frame, the photographer has to move in close. As soon as the master comes near the pet, it's as if some deep-rooted biological signal triggers the animal into action - just about the time the shutter release button is pressed!
The best chance for capturing those all too fleeting moments of endearment come when the photographer has a camera equipped with a medium telephoto lens, 150 to 240 mm. Then he can get close enough to the animal to see what it's doing, yet be far enough away not to excite the pet into action.
Another way to get good pet shots is to enlist the aid of a friend. By having someone sit with or hold the pet, you're virtually assured of getting a shot of the animal when it's not moving at 20 mph. Children, especially, make good assistants. Not only do they aid in keeping the animal still, but they add an extra element of interest to the shot.
A third key to getting good animal shots is to get down to the pet's level. A hamster photographed from 10 feet away and 5 feet up makes a ho-hum subject. But lie down on the ground and shoot the animal from another hamster's point of view, and you're practically guaranteed a winner.
Did the photographer who took the prize-winning photo of the Afghan earn the award? Undoubtedly. You can do likewise, but it'll take more than ahit-or-miss approach to come up with a quality shot.