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Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

For the last 2 years, FDSA has been working to provide high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports online, using only the most current and progressive training methods. And now we’re bringing that same focus to you in a new way. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods. We'll release a new episode every other Friday, so stay tuned--and happy training!
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May 18, 2018

Summary:

Amy Johnson is the owner of Great Dane Photos and teaches the dog photography classes offered through FDSA.

She is also the official show photographer for many of the premier agility events in the United States, including the AKC National Agility Championships, AKC Agility Invitational, USDAA Cynosport World Games, and NADAC Championships, as well as numerous local trials, regional events, and breed national specialties. She has photographed a wide variety of dog sports, including agility, obedience, rally, and conformation, and dog events, including FDSA camp.  

Her start in professional photography came by taking pictures of her friends' dogs at conformation shows, and quickly grew to outpace her interest in showing her own dog -- and today she’s here to talk to us about the reason a great number of people use the internet each day -- dog photos!  

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Next Episode: 

To be released 5/18/2018, featuring Sara Brueske, the benefits of teaching tricks … and a little bit about disc dog!

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 we’ll be talking to Amy Johnson.

Amy is the owner of Great Dane Photos and teaches the dog photography classes offered through FDSA.

She is also the official show photographer for many of the premier agility events in the United States, including the AKC National Agility Championships, AKC Agility Invitational, USDAA Cynosport World Games, and NADAC Championships, as well as numerous local trials, regional events, and breed national specialties. She has photographed a wide variety of dog sports, including agility, obedience, rally, and conformation, and dog events, including FDSA camp.  

Her start in professional photography came by taking pictures of her friends' dogs at conformation shows, and quickly grew to outpace her interest in showing her own dog -- and today she’s here to talk to us about the reason a great number of people use the internet each day -- dog photos!  

Hi Amy, welcome back to the podcast!

Amy Johnson: Thank you so much for having me back.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to talk about this stuff today. I know we want to chat about the behind the scenes stuff, but to start us out, can you share a little bit about some of the big events you’ve covered recently? What kind of events were they and what did they involve, a little bit of background?

Amy Johnson: Sure. The most recent one I covered was actually just this past weekend. I was the show photographer for the AKC World Team Tryouts. While that’s not one of the biggest events that I do, since it’s a relatively small number of competitors, it still is really high profile. AKC sends all of their big guns to the show to be involved. It’s not just a local trial. It definitely is a national-level event. I did AKC’s National Agility Championships in March, those were held in Reno, Nevada, and I’ve got several more nationals coming up for later in 2018.

Melissa Breau: As somebody who covers those kind of big events, how much traveling are you doing, how much travel is involved? Are you often on the road for this stuff, and how much of a factor is distance in whether or not you take a job? Can you share a little bit?

Amy Johnson: I do a lot of traveling. There are times when my family wonders if I’m actually part of the family anymore, I think. Modern technology of texting and that stuff has been very good for that.

For the local weekend trials — I say local, but the one that’s closest to me is an hour away, but most of them are in the Twin Cities, which is about three-and-a-half hours south of me, the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area — I travel even to just do smaller trials, the normal weekend trials. But those are just in Minnesota. I leave home on the day before, so if it’s a three-day trial, if it’s a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I head to the cities on Thursday, usually set up on Thursday night at wherever the show is, and then shoot Friday and Saturday and run the booth on Sunday, and then I head home Sunday night and get home usually between 8 and 10 at night.

The national events definitely are something that take me out of state and I’m gone a lot longer, but they’re also much larger in terms of the number of competitors. The amount of business that I do at those is significantly larger than the amount of business I do at a local trial, so it’s worth the extra distance and it’s worth the extra staff I bring in. So I will travel out of state.

All the nationals that I do other than World Team Tryouts this year were in Minneapolis, so that was a nice, close event. That was easy. AKC Nationals in March was in Reno. I’m going to Arizona, I’m going to Tennessee, I’m going to Orlando, so I get kind of coast to coast over the course of a year or two.

Melissa Breau: That’s pretty awesome. That’s getting to see a lot of awesome places.

Amy Johnson: Yeah, I do, and I drive everywhere because I am the person who has all of the gear. I have all the photography gear, but I also have all of the sales booth gear, so that doesn’t pack up and ship very well. It certainly doesn’t fit on a plane. I have a pickup truck and I fill it from tip to tail with everything I need and drive across the country, so not only do I see the places I’m going to, I also see everywhere in between, which sometimes is not very interesting.

My dad’s a retired geography teacher, so I think part of my desire to travel came from him instilling a love for the land that we live in, so being able to drive it rather than fly over it has been part of the appeal of the job itself, which is kind of weird, but what it is, it’s a good part.

Melissa Breau: That’s kind of neat. I’m getting ready to do a crazy road trip myself, and there is something to be said for driving a long distance and having that time to explore on your own a little bit. I’d imagine you’re working on a lot more of a deadline, so it may be a little more intense.

Amy Johnson: Now that my kids are older I can extend my travel time by a little bit. I’ve never driven through the night. I need my sleep too much. I’ll drive all day, but I’ve started to add an extra day or day-and-a-half so I can stop somewhere and do a little birding, see a local landmark or something. I’m actually starting to get off the Interstate and be able to have some time to explore places along the road, which has been fun.

Melissa Breau: I’d imagine that makes it a lot more fun. You mentioned going all over the place, and I’d imagine that that comes with its own challenges. How do you prep for some of these big shows? What do you need to think through, especially if it’s a

facility maybe you’ve never been there before? What do you do?

Amy Johnson: The national events or the events where I’m going somewhere where I’ve never been before is a little scary. My biggest concern, and the one that I can’t do anything about to prep for, is the light in the place. A lot of the big events are held in state fairgrounds, coliseums, horse arenas, and they’re generally fairly well lit, but for the human eye and even for video. But for photography, for still photography, to stop the motion of these dogs that are moving so incredibly fast, you need a lot of light, or you need a camera that can handle the relatively low amount of light that is found in these places.

My stomach used to be tied up in knots when I would get to a place before I walked in the door and just go, Please let there be enough light, please let there be enough light. In fact, ten, maybe twelve years ago I walked into a horse barn, a horse arena, where a championships was going to be held and I almost — I had just driven for a day-and-a-half to get there — almost got back in my car and turned around and went home because it was so badly lit. I didn’t, I’ve never done that, but the thought crossed my mind because it was just so incredibly dim.

I pushed through and I did it, and the thing that I consoled myself with was, if I’m having this much trouble photographing in here, nobody else is going to be able to do any better. In fact, I’m going to do OK because nobody can photograph anything in here unless they have the kind of gear that I have. So I did OK. People were appreciative of the fact that I was there and stuck it out, and they understood the difficulties that I had getting images and that they just weren’t up to my normal standards, but that was as good as anybody could have done in those conditions. The nice thing is, going back to that place after a couple of years, they had swapped out the lights, they had put in new lights, and it was about four times brighter than it was the first time I went in there. So I don’t mind going there anymore, but it was terrifying the first time. So that’s always my biggest concern.

In terms of prepping, I have to arrange housing, I have to make sure I’ve got my contracts signed with the organization that’s putting on the event, I have to line up my staff. These days I have a bunch of photographers that come and work for me, and then I also bring in a sales staff that works at my booth. So it’s gone from me, myself, and I, or me and my husband, because in the early days he would come with, and he’d be in the booth and I would be shooting, and now it’s evolved into I have some events where I bring in ten to twelve people — four to five other photographers, and then five to six booth staff.

There’s a lot of logistics involved with that. They come from all over the country. I have photographers coming sometimes from the East Coast and some from the West Coast and everywhere in between. A lot of my sales staff comes from the Minneapolis area because they are customers who have become friends who have become loyal salespeople for me. They know my product, they believe in me and what I do, and that makes them really good at selling the images.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. That sounds like a huge team. That’s phenomenal that you’ve grown to that point where you’re bringing in that many people.

Amy Johnson: It’s fun. It used to be that I would go to these big events and there would be two different photography outfits there, me and somebody else. We’d divide up the rings. I’ve always worked really well with other photographers. I enjoy talking to them, and the last thing I want to do is be snotty about “Why are you here?” or anything like that. There’s enough room for both of us to play in this.

But over the years I’ve been able to bring more and more photographers, and the organizations I work with have liked having only one point of only one photographer or company that is there, and so I’ve pretty much gone to being the exclusive photographer at all these big events. But part of the deal is if I’m going to do that, then I make sure I bring enough photographers and enough booth staff to fully staff that whole thing. We cover all the rings. I don’t bring two other photographers and let two of the rings go without any pictures. If there are five rings, I have five of us. It’s complicated, but it’s worth it.

Melissa Breau: Most of our listeners probably primarily compete rather than work at the events, and I’m sure that working at an event is super-different from being on the competitor side. I’d love to hear a little bit about how you balance things like trying to be in the right spot to capture that perfect image, but at the same time you don’t want to be “in the way” or in a spot where you may be distracting for the dogs. How do you manage to blend into the background? How do you manage to set up in a way that allows you to accomplish both ends?

Amy Johnson: One of my favorite compliments, it’s a weird one, but one of my favorites is when somebody will come up to me and say, “I didn’t even know you were here.” It’s not that they didn’t know that I had a vendor booth, and it’s not that they didn’t know there was a photographer, but if they don’t see me in the ring that they were running in, that means I’ve really done my job well. It’s one of those backhanded, weird compliments, but I always appreciate hearing it because then I know I didn’t distract anybody.

Making sure that I’m in a place — me and my other shooters, of course — that is always right at the forefront of my mind.

I think at most events we’re outside of the ring. There have been a few events where the boundaries of the ring are … at World Team Tryouts, it was held at a soccer arena, and so the boards that are the boundaries of the soccer field and there was netting above those — we can’t shoot through that. I can’t see through walls, and to put a net in front of the lens would be kind of a problem as well. So we do sit inside, but we keep our backs to the wall, just like a bar setter would. We try and make ourselves as small as possible. So we’re outside of the ring in general.

I’m always looking at the equipment and which direction they’re taking the jump, or which end of the tunnel they’re coming out of. I’m looking to see where  — and when I’m talking about “they,” the dog — I’m thinking about where the dog’s sightline is going to move. If they come over a jump, will they see me as they’re turning their head to look at the next obstacle that they’re going to, or as they’re turning their head from one thing to the thing that they’re going to take that’s close to me, are they going to look at me and find me to be a distraction?

If they’re far enough away, it’s usually not a problem. They’re so engaged in what they’re doing, especially at national events, the level of competition is so high, these dogs are so accomplished, they’re so prepared, the handlers have done such an amazing job of getting them ready that it’s generally not a problem. But I still am really paying attention to the line that the dog will take and making sure that I’m not going to be something that will catch their eye and cause them to misstep, or to miss something, or to not pay attention to their handler.

I try not to move very much, so if the dog is taking a jump and it’s coming directly over the jump towards me, I’ve got my shot lined up, all I’m moving is my shutter button, and I wait until that dog has moved past me, or moved through that obstacle and a little bit beyond, before I move to set up my next shot, rather than click and then move while they still might be able to see me, because movement catches our eye. If you think about if you’re watching something and there’s just a little bit of movement inside of a bigger area of things that aren’t moving, you’re going to see that movement really fast, so that will grab your attention. So my goal is to not be the one moving thing in the dog’s line of sight. Not being a distraction is a really, really high priority for me.

Then, of course, the flipside of that is we have to get good shots. So I look at the course. Usually I manage to get hold of a course map so that I know what direction everybody’s going and what the order of things is. So we’re looking at … I know that I want to get a jump picture, I’m always prioritizing contact obstacles, so the A-frame, the dog walk, the teeter, if it’s that type of a course. If it’s a jumpers course, those won’t be there of course. I want to make sure we get contacts. I want to make sure we get a good variety of jumps, not just straight-on but also maybe coming across at a bit of an angle.

I’m looking at where the dog is coming from, the obstacle I want, and then I’m looking at where the dog is going next, because it’s not just about, Oh, if I set up right in front of this jump, they’re going to come right at me. They may not. If they’re coming from the left out of a tunnel and then they’re going to move to the right and then take the A-frame — I’m making this all up — if they’re moving from left to right, then I have to make sure that I know where that dog is going to be looking, how the dog is going to be positioned over the jump when it takes it, and then set up my shot so that I make sure that the dog is sharp in focus when they are over the jump.

Tunnels, it always helps to set up with them coming a little more straight out towards you, because then you can see them coming and take the shot at the right moment.

There’s all sorts of angles and lines, and even knowing the handler moves. I will watch the walkthroughs because I need to know if maybe a jump that I’ve picked out is going to give me a beautiful shot, except all the handlers are doing a front cross in front of it, so they literally are putting themselves in between me and the dog coming over the jump because that’s the best way to handle the course. So it doesn’t help me, I can’t take that jump shot if I can’t see the dog, so I’ll watch the walkthrough and see how the handlers are thinking about handling it. And it might set up a really nice team shot where I can see both the dog and the handler in the shot at the same time, the kind where the dog’s going one direction and the handler’s already moving on to the next thing, going the other direction, and you get this real interesting dynamic and action shot that people seem to really like.

Melissa Breau: Is it really possible to be in one spot and be able to capture multiple obstacles like that? How do you figure that out?

Amy Johnson: Going back to the whole distraction thing, we don’t move around the ring while we’re shooting. The thing that takes so long for us to set up our shots is that — I’m saying “our” because I’m thinking of the big national events where there’s five or six of us shooting — and usually it’s a whole conversation of, “Did you see this?” and “Did you see that?” and “What about this?” and “Should we try that?” So it is a “we.” It’s not just me being royalty here, even though I am kind of the queen!

We plant ourselves in one spot for any given course, and once you’re there, you’re not moving. You’re swiveling in your chair back and forth. The camera’s on a monopod so you can swivel around it. The monopod’s holding the weight of the camera so you’re not carrying that the whole time. But we’re sitting in a chair and don’t move. If I find that the spot is just terrible because there’s a judge in the way or a handler in the way — nothing against them, they’re just doing their job — but I didn’t anticipate something about the way that course was going to run, I may pick up after four dogs and move over or somewhere else that I find that I got better shots. But in general we are planted in one spot and don’t move for the duration of that course.

These dogs are on course for about 30 seconds, so I would die to have them on course for a minute-and-a-half, although I’m not sure how interesting that would be because that would mean the dog was really not having a good day. So a jumper’s course generally is in the neighborhood of 30 seconds. The standard course where you get the contacts sometimes will go to 45, and that’s for the big dogs. The littler dogs, you’re talking 35 - 40 seconds for the jumpers and maybe 45 - 55 for the standard courses. But it’s definitely, for the dogs that are doing what they’re supposed to and not messing up, it’s under a minute.

So the trick is find a spot where you can get at least three solid shots. There are some courses where I can get five or six, and those always make me really happy. I get done shooting those courses and I’m kind of floating because I’m like, “Yeah, that was great!” It’s like someone coming off the course saying, “That run, ooh, it just all came together, it really clicked, and it was amazing.” That’s how I feel if I get a course where I can get five or six really solid shots. Oh, there’s nothing like it.

Four shots is a really good number. If we can get — again going back to a standard course — if we can get a jump, a contact, the weave, or maybe two jumps, a contact obstacle, and the weaves, that would be great because then we’ve got a little variety. Generally we will see the dogs more than once. I may not, I may not see any jump height more than once, but over the course of a weekend, since we are covering all the rings, then that means we’ll see the dogs three or four times, maybe five if they get into the finals. So that means we’ve got plenty of opportunities, hopefully, to get a wide variety of different types of shots.

The preparation, the knowing where the dog’s going to go, I don’t know all the fancy names of all the new moves that people do. I know basically what a front cross is, I know what a blind cross is, I know what a rear cross is when I see it. I couldn’t do it, don’t ask me to try to do it, but I could probably, if you showed me a video, I could probably name those crosses. I can’t name all the other fancy stuff, but I pay attention to it because it helps me know how the dog is going to take an obstacle, if I know how the handler is going to direct the dog to take that obstacle.

As a team we’re always looking at the course and deciding, “What kind of thing do you think they’re going to do?” Because I haven’t actually ever run agility, then that means I’m at a slight disadvantage to a few of the other photographers that work for me. Two of them have run dogs, and so they are very valuable to me in terms of being able to say, “For this thing they’re going to do this, so we’ll want to consider moving to a different spot.” It’s a group effort when we’re talking about where we go, where we plant ourselves for any course.

Melissa Breau: How much do you really need to know about the sport you’re photographing to be able to make informed, intelligent decisions? I’d imagine that that’s been a learning curve.

Amy Johnson: I shot my first agility trial knowing nothing about the sport, so it is possible to do it. I shot a lot of jumps because those are obvious. It makes sense. The dog is going to go over the bar, and you can follow the numbers and you can figure out where they’re going to go. In the most basic sense, it is absolutely entirely possible to photograph agility or any other dog sport without knowing anything about it.

Now, does that mean that’s the best way? Probably not. I know that I can get shots these days that I never could have anticipated 18 years ago when I started in this. I know that my reaction time is faster, my ability to visualize how the shot’s going to look before the shot even happens is much better than it was 18 years ago. The more you know about your subject — and this applies to any type of photography; this doesn’t just apply to dog agility photography — anything you can know about your subject, if it’s something that’s alive, if you know more about its behavior, if you know more about its environment, if you know more about its habitat — I’m thinking about birds or wildlife — the more you know about your subject, the more you can predict what might happen, the better you’re going to be able to capture that moment that you want.

I also do bird photography, as all of my students know. One of the things that I’ve really worked hard on, especially this past winter, was getting some flight shots of a Great Grey Owl. I’ve been watching these birds for several years, and I’m starting to pick up on the really subtle signals that they give before they take off to fly. There’s the not subtle one of they tend to poop before they fly. That’s the one that everybody jokes about, “Oh, the bird just pooped, it’s getting ready to fly.” But they don’t always do that, so it’s not always that obvious. They start to shift around on their perch a little bit, they might fluff their wings out a little bit, they turn their head, or you notice that something catches their attention. All these little body movements are giving you a clue that the bird is about to take off, so make sure that you have your shot lined up for the bird taking off.

Same thing with agility. If I know where the dog’s coming from, I know where the dog’s going to, and I know basically how the handlers are going to be handling the course, I can generally predict exactly how those photos are going to look within a range. There are always outliers, and unfortunately, if a dog does something really unexpected, we might miss that one jump shot if they jumped really high, or they crashed the bar, or if they don’t even take the obstacle, or they do something weird to mess up their timing. So the outliers create problems for us, but for the most part, as long as we have a sense of the rhythm and the flow of the course and understand what the dog’s going to do, then that greatly increases the likelihood that we’re going to get a good shot.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier the idea of getting a couple of different obstacles, maybe setting up so that you can get a shot of the dog and the handler. Are there types of pictures that competitors seem more likely to buy? Are there things that they are looking for? Are those what drives you to get those specific shots, or is it more about what shots you can get that are going to be good shots?

Amy Johnson: I mentioned I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and for every trial I’ve been to, if I had only taken the shots that I thought people would buy, then I would have been wrong for at least one or two people at every single trial I’ve ever shot.

Just like with anything, people have a huge variety of opinions. Some people really like the jump shots where the dog is coming right towards you. Some people really like the jump shots where the dog is kind of slicing the jump and taking it at an angle. Some people hate the pictures on the contact obstacles. Some people love them. It is across the board. Anything I get, I can get a person who loves it and a person who hates it.

My goal, because of that, is to try and get the biggest variety possible. So we try and make sure that there’s some sort of teamwork shot in the mix. We want to make sure that we hit all the contact obstacles. Now, we aren’t always successful, because we’re restricted to what sides of each ring we’re allowed to be in. For instance, at Nationals in Reno in March, they had three rings running in the main arena, and then one ring was off in another section. Well, those three rings were touching in the middle, so to speak, so we could access the backside of all three rings, we could access the side of Ring 1 and the opposite side of Ring 2 — excuse me, Ring 3 — but all we could access on the middle ring was the backside.

If the course isn’t set up where I can get a shot of an A-frame from that side of the ring for the whole weekend, like, I never get that shot, then those dogs that ran in that ring, maybe we don’t have A-frames for that jump height.

The goal is always to get that variety working within the boundaries of the courses and the way they’re laid out, and again working with that idea that we don’t want to be a distraction. I have passed up shots that would be awesome shots, but I can see that where we’re sitting is too close to another obstacle. Even if we’re not trying to shoot that obstacle, but it’s the end of the weave poles and where I want to be puts me too close to the end of the weave poles, I won’t set up there because I know weave poles are a touchy obstacle. Not every dog is as solid on the weaves as they maybe would be on a jump or a tunnel.

The last thing I want is for a handler to come off the course and say, “Man, if that photographer hadn’t been there.” We’re great scapegoats. That is the one thing that I hear that makes me want to cry, but it also drives a lot of what I do. I don’t want to be a scapegoat. I don’t want to be the reason why someone thinks their run didn’t go well. Even if I didn’t have anything to do with it, I have to avoid that perception. I’ve passed up shots because I don’t want to even have a hint of being in a place where someone could say, “Well, if that photographer hadn’t been there, then we would have qualified.”

But going back to the idea of the variety, it’s all over the board, and I wish that there was a way to narrow it down to, “Oh, people only like jump shots.” “Well, great then, we’ll just take the jump shots.” But you know what? That just is never going to happen. And actually I think I would get a little bored, too, if all I did was the jumps. So yeah, yeah, so it works for everybody.

Melissa Breau: We’ve talked before, I think you actually included it in one of the webinars you did, about the challenges of capturing black dogs in particular. I’m assuming you don’t have a ton of time between competitors at some of these events, so how do you work with the variety of the dogs you may see in the ring, both based on color and size and what have you? How do you have to adapt to that?

Amy Johnson: The one thing we do at the national events … generally the light in these arenas, especially these days with modern LEDs and the modern fluorescents that don’t have the same kind of patchy flicker … older lights are a nightmare to deal with, but the newer lights are quite nice. So we set our exposure for each ring. Like at Nationals, where we had three rings in the main arena, the exposure settings were the same for all three of those rings. We had different exposure settings for the fourth ring that was out in another section, but we set the exposure settings and then leave them alone.

I don’t try and adjust for a black dog and a white dog, and the biggest reason I don’t is because I will screw it up. Like you said, we’ve got so little time, and if I’m trying to make adjustments because, oh, I see it’s a black dog coming up — and I can’t always actually see the start line very well from where I am, depending on where I’m shooting — so if I’m trying to adjust that and I say, “Oh, it’s a black dog, let me adjust my settings,” great, shoot the black dog, looks wonderful. Then a white dog comes to the line and I forget that I’ve adjusted for the black dog, then I shoot the white dog at the black dog’s settings, and I’ve screwed them both up, or I’ve screwed up the white dog.

So I prefer to find that middle ground. The way I set the cameras is that we shoot in RAW, which is a file type that is very easily manipulated in Lightroom and Photoshop, so I can brighten the dark dogs and I can darken the light-colored dogs, because it isn’t really off by that much. It’s much better to pick that middle ground, because I have other things I would much rather put my brain power to, like making sure I get all the shots I want, and making sure I know what dog is in the ring, because we do a lot of data collection, and we can get to that in a bit. I don’t worry so much about the color of the dog.

What I do worry about — you mentioned the height of the dog and I’ll mention the way a dog runs. The heights at a national event are nice because I may only see one jump height for most of the day, or half the day at least, so I might only have the 16-inch dogs. All of those dogs are jumping, they’re very similar height, which means if I am visualizing things correctly, then that shot I’ve got is going to work for all the dogs I’m going to see. Little dogs, we can line things up. We can use a longer lens for a ring that has just little dogs in it, and shoot much tighter, rather than having to worry about using a lens that’s going to work for everything from the 4-inch dogs all the way up to the 24-inch dogs.

That’s one of the things that’s very nice about a national event versus a regular local event. When I’m setting up shots for my local events, I have to accommodate all the different jump heights. Sometimes at a walkthrough I’ll go grab a different lens, but usually I can do everything with the same lens.

The last piece of this, though, with the variety of dogs, goes back to understanding your subject, and that is, I need to understand how different breeds run and how different breeds take obstacles. What I mean is, if you put a Border Collie on the course, they run very efficiently. They run low to the ground, they come in really tight to those weave poles, and they just skim right over the top of the jump bars. They come tight up to the jump standards. They run very small, and I don’t know if that makes sense, but they’re very efficient, they’re very compact in that respect.

Then you put a Doberman out on the course. They run very upright, so you’ve got long legs. If they have cropped ears, you’ve got to make sure you’re incorporating that into the frame. They take up a lot more vertical space in an image than a Border Collie. So even though they may be jumping the same jump height, I have to frame the shot completely differently for a Doberman than I do for a Border Collie. Now, there are exceptions. There’s a Doberman in the Minneapolis area that runs like a Border Collie, and when he comes to the line — I am not joking, this dog is phenomenal — when he comes to the line I have to literally tell my brain, This is a Border Collie, this is a Border Collie, this is a Border Collie, because if I shoot him like a Doberman, he’s only going to be taking up about the bottom third of the frame because I added extra space to treat him like a Doberman. I can’t shoot him like a Doberman. I have to shoot him like a Border Collie.

Poodles are another one that run very upright. Great Danes, the few of them that are out there running, run very upright, and I have to make sure I have enough vertical space for them. The little dogs, there’s less variety in that way. Of course there’s always the Jack Russell Terriers that think they should be jumping 20 inches, even though they only jump 8 or 12.

There’s an advantage that my local clients have that my national clients don’t, because I know my local people. I know how their dogs run. I know the little dogs that run as if they’re 20-inch dogs, and so I can be set up for that. I have pictures where all I have are toes in the frame because the top of the dog is cut off at the top because it jumped so high. I have the jump bar in there, and then I have about 8 inches of space, and then I have toes. Sometimes those are really funny shots and the people really like them, but not at a national so much.

Understanding the breed, and even if it’s a mixed breed, you still can see, you watch the dog go over the first jump and you have a clue about how they’re going to run the course. That’s another part of knowing your subject. You’ve got to understand how the different dogs run, and that’s just something you learn after observing dog after dog after dog after dog.

Melissa Breau: Can you walk me through what a typical day looks like at one of these major events from your perspective?

Amy Johnson: One of the things I always want to know is what time does the building open, because I want to be there as early as I possibly can. The reason for that is I want to have as much time as I can to see the course, to look at the different angles, to look at the way it’s going to run.

If there’s a course map, if there are multiple courses in the day, hopefully they put out course maps that are for everything, and so then I can start looking ahead. If we’re going to have a course change in the day, I can also start looking ahead for the second half of the day, when you need to switch, consider this, this, and this, so I can prep my team for what they’re going to be looking for midday.

I get there, and usually a couple of my team of my photographers will be there that early with me, and we look at the courses and start thinking about what shots will work. Once everybody gets there, we make sure everybody’s got their chairs, everybody’s got the right lens, because if they’ve got little dogs, they might need a 400mm, if they’re shooting things that are all the way across the ring, they might need a 400mm lens, if they’re shooting things that are closer, they probably need a 300mm. Everybody keeps track of their own camera body for the week, but we swap the lenses around, depending on what jump height and where the obstacles are physically located in the ring, compared to where you’re sitting.

There’s a lot of … you’ve got to make sure your cards are formatted. One of the things that is key to the way I do business is that we keep track of what image numbers belong to which dog. The way we do that is we have the running list loaded into a spreadsheet on an iPad, and as you’re shooting, you’re looking in the back of the camera and recording the image numbers that correspond, the last image number that corresponds to the dog that just ran. We’ve got data collection that goes on as you’re shooting, so we’ve got to make sure that the iPads are charged, that camera batteries are charged, cards are formatted, cards are loaded in the camera. I have sat down — because I’m trying to get everybody else situated — sat down and realized I don’t have any cards in my camera, so then it’s a quick scramble.

Once the shooting starts, then things settle into a rhythm, and time just becomes weird, and you keep going and you fall in to … your muscle memory takes over. After four or five dogs, you have the pattern, and you don’t have to think so hard about I’m going here, oh wait, then I’ve got to go there. You just settle in.

The day … you are always happy to get a break, but they’re never very long. We’ll shoot from probably 8 o’clock in the morning — earlier on … some nationals start the day even earlier than that — 8 o’clock and sometimes we’ll go on until 4 or 5. We’ve even gone until 6. In fact, World Team Tryouts started shooting on Saturday morning at 7:30 and finished that night at 7. That’s a little bit of an extreme, but ten hours of shooting isn’t … eight to ten isn’t out of the realm of normal.

But then the day doesn’t end, so we’ve got to go back to the house and download images, and I have some data stuff, so I suck into my computer the spreadsheets and everybody’s images, and through the magic of the scripts that my husband has written for me, we come out on the other side with images that are sorted into directories named with the dog’s name. So if I click on Ace Smith, then inside of that folder are all of the pictures that are of Ace Smith — or we hope so, if we’ve done the data entry correctly.

Then we take the time to edit the photos, and editing meaning deciding which ones to keep and which ones to delete, not post-processing in Photoshop or Lightroom. None of that happens. We go through and delete all the bad ones, because there are bad ones. There are lots of bad ones. Keeper rate is probably about 25 to 30 percent of the images are kept.

On an eight- to ten-hour day I probably shoot minimum 5000 images, probably closer to 6 or 7. On a day where I’ve got one of those courses where I’ve got six shots and they all work really well, I can get up to 8000 images, and then we go through and delete the junk, because there’s always junk. I don’t want my customers to see the junk. Some stuff does slip through that I would probably prefer not be out there, but for the most part we get rid of a lot of things that just don’t need to be seen by anybody. We keep the best of the best, and that’s part of what keeps people coming back for more.

So the day starts really early. I have trained my booth staff to do editing so we can distribute the images, so I may not have to do all my images. I can split mine between me and someone else. All my photographers, we generally can split so they’re only doing half and then one of my booth staff is doing the other half, and that’s made a huge difference in how early we can get to bed, because we’ve divided that work so much. For Nationals I was in bed by 10 or 10:30, but there are times when I’ve been up until midnight or 1:00 and then had to get up at 4 or 5. You just run on adrenalin at that point, there’s not a lot else. And coffee, lots of coffee. I often wish that I could sit ringside and just have a caffeine drip, but nobody’s offered to do that for me yet. So adrenalin and coffee. Now, those are the days where all we’re doing is shooting, like on the first day of the event. On the Saturday and Sunday of an event, I also have to make sure that the booth gets up and running. Not only am I trying to look at courses and get everybody set, I’m also trying to get the booth. My staff is really good about doing most of it, but there’s still some of the computer stuff that is really just me, so I have to make sure that’s all working properly.

I also have two of my photographers who have become regulars know how to set up the shots the way I want them. I’m getting much better at delegating. It’s very hard, but I’m getting better at it, delegate that stuff, getting the shots set up, to them, and then I concentrate on getting the booth up and running, and then hopefully they’ve even found a spot for me, so I just sit down and start shooting and hope that they did their job well, which they always have.

Melissa Breau: That’s important. Having good people is an important piece of the process. Having photos available next day for competitors — you mentioned that’s not the norm, that’s not standard. What led you to make the decision to do that? You talked about being up really, really late the night before, so I’d love to hear what led you down that path.

Amy Johnson: There’s a lot of things that I do that are not standard. Being willing to stay up late and edit pictures until all hours of the night is the biggest one, I guess. Sorting by dog name is a really big thing to me, and it’s not something that most other agility photographers have done. The ones that I’ve trained are doing it, and it’s a very small number, but it’s growing. Usually it’s sorted by jump height or by group or by arm band number, something.

The decision to do that is based on I want my customers to spend their money, not spend their time hunting for their dog. I want them to be able to find their pictures within 30 seconds of walking up to one of my viewing stations. In that 30 seconds they’re just typing in their name is all they’re doing. And it should — if all their data is correct — it should pull up their dog’s pictures as soon as they hit the login button. That makes them feel important, too, because we took the time to know who they are and who their dog is, and to find a way to match those up and to not waste their time with, “Well, here’s all 500 20-inch dogs that ran yesterday. Go ahead and look through them and see if you can find your Golden in amongst the 500 other Goldens.”

I think that’s not respectful of their time as a competitor, and it’s certainly not respectful of my sales booth time for my employees to be looking for … to help these people find their pictures, because by the time they find their pictures, then they’re exhausted — “Oh, well, here they are. Now I have to decide what to do with them? Really? Oh.” They’ve made decisions all week or all weekend. They’re trying to decide how to handle their dog, they’re trying to decide what to do that is best for their dog. I don’t want to add to that mental load by making them hunt for their pictures. That’s the motivation for me is I think it’s a better use of all of our time if they can find that stuff really quick.

A lot of agility photographers or dog event photographers will actually find a way to have images up within even on the same day, but the editing piece for me is too important, and so I want the chance to see all the images, or to have a photographer look at all the images, before they go in front of my customers.

I sometimes talk about this whole organization is kind of like I’m the chef, and all of the food that comes out of my kitchen has to taste like my food. Even if I’m not the one who actually cooked it, it’s still my food. It’s still got to taste like my food. So my photos need to look like my photos, whether or not I was the one who actually clicked the button. I’m kind of a control freak. “Kind of” — yeah, right. I’m a total control freak and my students know that. It’s the whole premise of how I teach photography is, “You can be a control freak, too, and take better pictures because of it.” Anyway, I don’t want to rush through the editing process. I would much rather save it for the evening, and then we get it done and we get it done well, and then my customers are only seeing the best images. Those two pieces: the sorting by dog and then the edit at night and don’t have things available until the next day. For day three, if we’re shooting on a Sunday, that makes things a little bit complicated, but we’ve found ways to help people, “Well, I know I want to buy a collage, but I haven’t seen all the pictures yet,” we have ways to work around that.

Melissa Breau: I’d imagine that at some of these big events, things are pretty high stakes and pretty high pressure. You joked earlier about slipping a memory card in last-minute, but have you ever had something just go totally wrong, and if so, will you share?

Amy Johnson: Sure. There’s always things. And there are so many moving parts to this that it’s amazing in some ways that there aren’t more things that go wrong.

There are a couple of things that come to mind immediately because they’re the most stressful to me. There’s a lot of things that could go wrong, but I have learned to just let it roll off me, not a big deal. But the two things that could go wrong are if a camera breaks or if my software in the booth goes a little wonky.

I did actually have a camera break. My camera, the one I was using, suddenly quit working in the middle of the last day of Cynosport last year in Tennessee. Literally it just … and found out later, after I sent it in for repair, the whole mirror assembly inside of the camera just came apart. I don’t have any explanation for it, but it wouldn’t focus, the shutter button couldn’t make the camera take a picture anymore. Well, I’m a huge believer in backups, and that applies to both computers and it applies to cameras. So I had a backup camera. I called up to my booth, and one of the guys came down with the backup camera. I probably missed maybe ten or fifteen dogs, I mean it felt like forever, but it wasn’t. It just felt like, Oh my god, there’s another dog that went, oh my god, there’s another dog that went. So I missed dogs and that about killed me, but we made it through. I had a camera up and running again in probably ten or fifteen dogs, finished out the day, no problem. That is the only time it’s ever happened. Oh no, I take that back. It did happen with actually a rental camera just was not working right at another show many years ago.

So that doesn’t happen a lot, but I do have backup gear. I can’t come to one of these events and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, we can’t shoot that ring because we don’t have enough cameras because one broke.” That’s just not acceptable. It’s not like we have double the number of cameras, but we certainly have, even if everybody’s shooting, there’s always at least one backup.

My software that is running in the booth is actually custom software that my husband wrote because he’s brilliant. So we have this point of sale software, and because it’s custom, it’s also a little bit … it’s not finicky, but I’m the only one at the show who knows all of the idiosyncrasies and all the ins and outs. If something happens, if it’s not just the wireless network going down or the printer not responding, if it’s anything more than that, then it usually involves me having to go up there and fix it. Both at the Nationals both this year and a year ago, I had one of my booth staff come down and hover behind me and say, “Amy, the pictures aren’t coming up. What do we do?” Thankfully, this year, one of the other rings was idle, and so the shooter for one of the rings came over and he took over for me, and I was able to go up to the booth and fix it.

Those are the two things that stress me out the most: if the software goes wonky or if a camera breaks. There are other little things. Someone’s camera wasn’t set up with the right file format, and there are ways to work around that. We’ve never lost images because of it. I don’t know. There’s always weird things going on, but the major things are if gear goes down or if software goes down.
Melissa Breau: What other behind-the-scenes things are there that competitors or novice photographers might not have thought about? Any advice for others who are interested in getting involved in this stuff?

Amy Johnson: The first thing I’ll say, the behind-the-scenes, it is fun, it’s really fun, because I always get there a day early to set up the booth, so I’m kind of in on the setup. I’m watching, whether it’s USDAA or AKC or NADAC, I get to see some of their behind-the-scenes stuff as well. The people that I work with in each of these organizations are amazing, and we have a really good working relationship, and it’s always, “Oh, it’s so good to see you again.”

The thing that impresses me is how much they are as concerned about making sure they do what’s best for the dogs as the handlers are concerned about doing what’s best for the dogs. Not everybody agrees with every decision that an agility organization makes, but the message that I keep seeing over and over and over every time I work with them is that they’re in this for the same reasons. I hope that comes through to exhibitors, but I know that that can get lost in the chaos sometimes.

My photographers and I live and die on those courses with all the dogs. We sit there and see every single dog that runs. We see everything that happens, and we rejoice in the great runs and we are destroyed a little bit with every run that doesn’t go quite as planned. We feel bad, and if we could get the dog through the course ourselves, we could probably just will it to happen, because we are your silent cheering squad, whether you know it or not.

If there’s a photographer, one of my photographers, at your ring, they are cheering for you silently, because we don’t want to distract the dog. We are thrilled when you do well, and we love watching your runs, and we love watching the cool things that happen, the relationships that we see when it all comes together, or you get to the end of your run and it went well or it didn’t go well and it doesn’t matter and you’re having a good time with your dog. You will always have at least a cheering squad of one when we’re there.

A weird thing that I’ll throw out there — this doesn’t happen so much at a national, but at my local shows I’ve had people approach me and say, “Can you just sit there and take pictures and let me get my dog used to the click of the camera?” I would just say that I love that, because rather than being a scapegoat — we talked about that earlier — this is someone being proactive and saying, “I want to help my dog work through this,” and I am thrilled to death to be able to help with that. We’re not scary people, even though we have these big, giant pieces of metal and glass in our hands. We’re really not scary people, so come and ask us to help, and we’re happy to do so.

Novice photographers, the biggest thing you can do is learn how your camera works, like, really well. Not just where the shutter button is, and not where the auto mode is, but learn how it works. Learn about exposure, learn about how to capture motion, and learn about the behavior of your subject. Make sure you know your subject.

If you’re thinking about going into dog events, don’t feel like you have to know it all at the very beginning. Yes, you need to know how to take good pictures, but in terms of actually doing the business side of it, make sure you do all the things that you have to do from the legal standpoint of course — register as a business and sales tax and all that good stuff. But you don’t have to have a full booth. You don’t have to have twenty-five different products. Just start somewhere. Go take pictures, try things out, see what works, see what doesn’t, and then the next time you go do a trial, you do a little bit better. And eventually, 18 years later, you find yourself at a national event managing eleven other people and you wonder how it happened.

But start with baby steps. Everything I’ve done in this business has been very incremental. I didn’t suddenly go from just me to having a staff of twelve or thirteen. It’s been very gradual and very incremental all along the way.

Melissa Breau: To round things out, where can people go to learn a little bit more about this stuff?

Amy Johnson: Isn’t it amazing, but FDSA offers photography classes!

Melissa Breau: Imagine that!

Amy Johnson: Imagine that! If you don’t know anything about photography, I will say Shoot The Dog, which is my beginner intro course, is coming up in June. That’s a great place to start. If you know a little bit, just enough to be dangerous, then you might consider doing Chase The Dog, which is my course on how to photograph dogs in motion. If you don’t want to take courses through FDSA, that’s fine, or if you feel like you’re beyond that, that’s fine as well.

I do offer mentorships on an informal basis, but I have had students come through my classes who are now working for me. The way that happens is they take my classes, they do well — these are Gold students; you can’t do this at Bronze because I have to be able to see your work. But if you think you want to do this, frankly, the best way to get on my radar as someone who has the chops to do this is to be a Gold student and to come through that way.

I have students who came through all my courses and came to a national event and shot the event but didn’t have their images included for sale. It was still just me, or still just my regular staff. But then I got to see the images and we could evaluate. The next time it’s now you’ll be double-covering a ring and you just are responsible for getting one or two shots, as opposed to the normal four to five shots that a full-fledged photographer would do.

It’s something that has worked really well for several of my students. I’m on … I think number three is working with me now. So it’s a really good way to get into the business. It won’t help you develop a clientele locally, but it will let you see an event photography business from the inside, and you can decide if you don’t want to edit photos at night in terms of when you do your own business, you can see what pieces of my ideas you would want to retain and what pieces you maybe aren’t interested in doing. It doesn’t hurt me. You have to build your business the way you want to build your own business.

But that is something that I’ve slowly been offering on a very limited basis to students that have expressed that interest. That’s kind of the advanced level of stuff, but definitely if you are interested in photography, start with Shoot The Dog, and then Chase the Dog definitely is the one where we really work seriously on the dogs in motion. And not just for agility. We try and cover all sorts of different types of motion.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Amy!

Amy Johnson: It was great fun. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: It was so interesting to learn a little bit about behind-the-scenes stuff. That was awesome. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in and joining us for that!

We’ll be back next week with Sara Brueske. We’ll be chatting about the benefits of teaching tricks … and a little bit about disc dog!

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our 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.

CREDITS:

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.