AVALANCHE DOGS PROJECT
It’s just before 6am, still dark outside and as I anxiously await confirmation that the weather conditions will allow today’s flight to go ahead, I’m making some final preparations. First, a couple of last minute checks to make sure I’ve got everything for the adventure that lies ahead. Camera – a brand new FUJIFILM X-H2S – check. Batteries charged – check. Hat and gloves – check. Dog treats and squeaky toys – check!
I don’t know what’s more exciting, the helicopter flight, the location, the dogs or this brand new camera, the X-H2S. I’m buzzing!
Finally the phone rings. We’re good to go!
You might think dog treats and toys are a little odd to be carrying with me, but today I’m working with the Aspiring Avalanche Dogs, an alpine search and rescue team in the south of New Zealand. Today’s location is a remote glacier where I’ll document a search and rescue dog training session. The stars of the show are Wizard and Ziggy, a red and white border collie and a black labrador, along with their handlers, Matt & Callum.
You see, I’m a specialist dog photographer; something I’ve been doing for more than 20 years. One of the greatest pleasures I have in my job (aside from all the cuddles and tails wags) is witnessing dogs at work. To me their drive, focus and determination in getting their job done mirrors how I feel about my own photographic journey of capturing the canine spirit. We are both born to do what we do, and we love it.
When I’m working in extreme conditions like today’s, I need camera equipment that I can put my trust in, just as the dogs put their trust in their handlers. I need a camera with great speed, capable of keeping up with both me and the dogs. A camera that can handle the weather conditions. A camera that provides me with fabulous image quality.
To say the X-H2S does not disappoint is an understatement. For the first time in my photography career, I can shoot at 40 frames a second. Let me say that again; 40. Frames. Per. Second! Combine that with the new auto-focus capabilities allowing subject detection. There are several subject types to choose from (dogs are one of those options), and I must say it works brilliantly! This camera’s capability of tracking a dog in motion are astounding and I found myself capturing shots of Wizard and Ziggy that I never imagined possible.
On the glacier, Matt & Callum set the dogs off on a search to find something stinky they’ve buried in the ice. As the dogs pick up on a scent, they zigzag, moving erratically, rather than in a straight line. They frequently change direction to hone in further on the smell as they pin point its location. An important feature of the X-H2S is its stacked sensor, which has several amazing benefits. In this moment, the most beneficial is the blackout free Viewfinder/LCD. It allows me to keep track of the action at all times. Gone are the days of half-looking in the viewfinder and predicting where where the dogs will be in the frame!
My ideal shot is to capture the dogs jumping over a crevasse on the glacier. We find the perfect spot. It’s small enough to jump, and lined with crystalline icicles. After a couple of trail runs, getting the dogs used to the idea, I lay down on the ice, hold the camera down into the crevasse and shoot blind, relying solely on the subject detection to capture focus.
Another image on my shot list is getting the dogs as they are hoisted on a long line from the helicopter. In a real rescue situation, this would be used to lower the dogs and their handlers into remote locations where the helicopter can not land safely. As the wind and downdraft from the helicopter blades spin the dog and handler around, the subject detection comes into play once again.
Of course, I need to test out the speed and tracking capabilities further with more action shots, so we attempt some more search work. I can’t believe the results! The dogs are rewarded after every successful search, usually with a quick play with a tug toy. It’s really in these moments that you see the bond the dogs have with their handlers. These moments of magic are so precious I simply have to capture them, the joy on both dog and handlers faces say it all.
As I’m capturing my final portrait, a Dogorama® (a patented panoramic shot that showcases the dogs and the location), the helicopter pilot calls us on our radios. The weather has turned quickly and we have to get out of there or risk needing our own rescue mission! We pack up quickly and hustle back to the helicopter as the cloud rolls in surprisingly fast. The adventure is over too soon. Even so, I feel confident that I’ve captured everything I wanted. Ziggy, Wizard, Matt and Callum, were amazing. The new developments in technology contained within the Fujifilm X-H2S are unprecedented. With the X-H2S in hand, I can’t wait to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with dog photography!