Everyone loves dogs–the heartwarming creatures have been proven to lower stress in humans. In our years of interviewing various dog photographers, it’s usually tough to find the absolute star amongst the loads and loads of them out there. Nicholas Lindsey really stands out from the rest. In Nick’s portfolio, what truly tugs at my heart is his analog 645 portraits of dogs. They’re unlike much of the others out there and Nick’s methods to capturing the scenes are very unlike anything else that I’ve seen out there.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Nick: I was four years old when I took my first photograph. I remember being surprised my mother finally let me use her camera, so I had probably asked her many times before she finally gave in. It wasn’t the subject matter or the art form that interested me, it was simply the idea of capturing what I see with my own eyes onto a piece of paper I could hold in my hands. When I was nine I bought my first camera, a Kodak Cameo, for $16 at the U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia. It is currently sitting on the desk beside me, right next to the Nikon N75 I got when I was twelve. I shot film until I was nineteen and I still have many of my photographs taken during that time. The majority of those photos are awful, however a select few are actually quite good although I can’t claim to have known what I was doing when I took them. Photography, especially film, requires attention to detail and a degree of pre-visualization that I can’t remember ever having at that age. Yet if you stick to it as long as I did, I suppose you’re bound to get lucky once in a while.
Phoblographer: What made you want to get into using analog cameras?
Nick: I switched to digital right after starting undergrad in California, and I have continued to shoot primarily digital to this day. My passion over the last decade or so has been landscapes and astrophotography, and digital cameras have certainly helped me create photographs that may have been impossible to create with film. While I love this genre of photography, it’s not always easy to get away from the city or take time off work or grad school to indulge in it. Therefore, like many photographers I’m sure, I occasionally find myself in a rut. My advice to anyone who feels this way is to design a personal project, something different from your typical photographic routine that is easy to do in your spare time and not too demanding. For example, a couple years ago I started taking panoramas of street scenes at night. Unlike landscape photography, I didn’t have to drive far and it required little to no planning in advance, however it let me continue to exercise the creative side of my brain in a very rewarding way.
“It wasn’t the subject matter or the art form that interested me, it was simply the idea of capturing what I see with my own eyes onto a piece of paper I could hold in my hands.”
My return to analog cameras is my most recent, and possibly most rewarding, personal project born out of a desire to escape from a creative rut. I could recite the boilerplate differences between film and digital – it slows you down, makes you really consider your compositions, etc. – but I haven’t really found that to be my experience. Film photography is different from digital in many ways, but the core elements are still there: light, subject matter, and moment. What I have found really exciting about film are its eccentricities, its flaws, and the feeling of not really being in complete control over the final product. When film was my only option, these traits could be annoying or even devastating, but as a curiosity they can actually be almost magical. Finally, I have never been fond of the 3:2 aspect ratio 35mm SLRs and DSLRs produce, so the wide array of medium format aspect ratios has been a welcome departure as well.
Phoblographer: Typically, most photographers wouldn’t be brave enough to try to get photos of their pups due to their moving so fast. But you do it at the 645 format, which is even more impressive. What made you want to try this?
Nick: Like everything in photography, you have to rely on luck to a certain extent. You may need more luck with dogs than people, but I find it worthwhile. I hope I don’t sound misanthropic because I am a fairly sociable person, but I’ve never enjoyed mixing people and photography. I probably like landscape photography as much as I do because it doesn’t involve other people and no one is expecting a final product. This means I can succeed or fail while keeping it entirely on my own terms. The 6×4.5 frame is really ideal for headshots, human or otherwise, and when paired with certain film stocks you can really create gorgeous portraits.
For me, photographing dogs is a harmless challenge. I’ve failed far more often than I’ve succeeded, but the dogs don’t really hold it against me.
Phoblographer: Tell us about how you do this and how you’re able to get your dogs to be so composed and calm in their photos?
Nick: Initially I figured if I held a treat in my hand, I would have the dog’s undivided attention. The problem with this is that dogs can start to drool or become impatient, and neither reaction really lends itself to a nice portrait. The other problem is they focus solely on the treat and nothing else. If you watch dogs on TV shows, you can usually tell someone is standing just off camera with a treat because the dog is ignoring everything in the scene while maintaining an unblinking gaze off screen. What I found works best is to give the dog something curious or captivating to look at, so I bring them outside to watch cars drive by or squirrels climb trees. This distracts them from me and gives them a natural expression.
Meanwhile, I have my camera’s settings and focus ready with my eye in the viewfinder and finger on the shutter. It might be a while before I press the shutter and my neck might start to ache, but I have to be ready because when they strike a pose it may only last for a fraction of a second. Rory, the Irish Setter, is three years old and full of energy so it’s not easy to get him to sit still. With people you often have to break the ice and direct them, but with dogs it’s really best to take a less interactive or controlling approach and just wait for the right moment – a lot like landscape photography, actually.
Phoblographer: What kind of cameras, film and lighting do you use? How do you feel it makes you more clearly able to deliver your creative vision?
Nick: The equipment and settings I use here aren’t necessarily surprising to portrait photographers who still shoot film, but I find they really produce the results I’m looking for when photographing my dogs. For these photographs I use my Mamiya m645 Super with an 80mm 2.8 lens loaded with Ilford Delta 400 for black and white and Kodak Portra 400 for color. As I mentioned earlier, the 645 really yields a pleasant aspect ratio for portraits and these two film stocks complement skin tones and facial details quite well. My lighting is completely natural and almost always has been. I have always been intimidated by flash photography (strobe-o-phobia?) and have relied on natural or ambient light whenever possible. Cloudy days cast even lighting on your subjects and produce great reflections in the eyes. I have no backdrops for portraits, so I simply find a neutral wall and shoot wide open at 2.8 to isolate my subjects and blur any distracting details behind them. This is really a gamble because shooting at 2.8 on medium format produces an extremely thin depth of field. If either my dog or I move slightly, I could completely miss-focus and I won’t know it until the roll is developed. Still, in the spirit of embracing film for its eccentricities, I sometimes really love the photos despite missing the focus point. In this regard I would say my creative vision is honed, but flexible.
Phoblographer: Lots of photographers don’t really like getting photos where the dogs look away from the camera, yet in some of them you do this. What usually goes through your head and makes you decide whether or not you’re going to press the trigger?
Nick: It’s really all about composition and moment. Composition I can control, but moment is something I have to wait for. Sometimes the dog is looking right into the camera, sometimes he isn’t, but if the moment feels right I’ll press the shutter. I suppose I get a more sincere, almost candid, moment when the dog is focusing his attention on something else and I love that. The sincerity you get from a dog can be really endearing, or hilarious if you know deep down your dog is typically a buffoon. I was told Sonny, the Australian Shepherd, looked like a senator in one of his portraits. There is definitely something Churchillian in his gaze, like a noble Head of State looking off into the future. That’s not it at all though; he was simply fixated on a neighbor mowing his lawn. You have to approach dog photography with patience and a sense of humor.