Some outings stick in your mind more than others, this was one of them

My heart was in my mouth as we clambered over the jagged stepping stones – not only because of the drop below but also because I was about to make a dream photo come true. No words can accurately describe the other-worldly appeal of Malham Cove. The limestone pavement was formed during the ice age when an ancient waterfall tumbled over the rocks. As the harsh weather changed, it opened up large crevices in the rock, leaving behind an epic landscape.

This iconic cove is a magical place that I’ve had pegged to shoot at for quite some time, so as soon as a session with Dalmatian cross Darcy and her new Dalmatian sister Darla was on the cards I knew that the mottled rocky formations would be the perfect setting for this spotty pair.

Darcy has had a session with us before – but that one was on the Royal Albert Docks, a far cry from our spot here in the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales.

The recce

The previous week Michael and I had investigated the location with my parents – where we met for a socially distanced walk in celebration of my birthday. We traversed from the Cove to Gordale Scar and down to Janet’s Foss, but on this occasion, I had nothing more than my iPhone with me.

Swipe left to see more iPhone snaps

When we got back to the car that evening, I noticed that the sun was setting a little earlier on the top of the cove due to the surrounding hills casting a shadow.

I knew this meant our session would have to begin a little earlier to avoid arriving at the top to a sun sunk behind the surrounding hills. It’s quite a hike to the top, so if this happened, the beautiful golden hour light that sculpts the rocks would be gone, and our efforts would be wasted.

So we decided that a sunset session time for Darcy and Darla’s adventure should be a little earlier than usual and the following week we drove through the breathtaking Yorkshire Dales to meet them.

After following the long windy path along the river and pottering around at the base of the Cove where the water fascinatingly springs out of the bottom, we hiked up the 400+ steps in the sweltering Indian summer sun. I was already feeling pretty exhausted. Darla was only eight months old but big enough to pull us over if she shot off in the wrong direction. I gripped onto her lead tightly as we scrambled over the uneven rocks, my pulse racing.

The most challenging breed to shoot!

Dalmatians are one of my favourite breeds to photograph.  They are also notoriously one of the hardest!  True to form, Darcy and Darla were certainly not the easiest pair I have ever photographed! Darla was initially a little wary of the camera and our strobe light. That, coupled with the incredibly uneven surface of the limestone pavement meant we really had to take it easy and be mindful of our whereabouts, monitoring the dog’s energy levels at all times.

This is where Michael really shines.

If you know anything about us by now, you will know that he is a bonafide dog whisperer. Throughout the session, he had been gaining Darla’s trust and gradually bringing her round to the unpredictable clicks of my camera and pops of my flash.

The sun was beginning to race towards the horizon, and I knew we didn’t have much time to nail the shot I had been dreaming up.

When you are in this kind of situation, it is important not to panic and fall into the trap of ‘spray and pray’ – i.e. shooting without intention for fear of missing the moment. Ironically by doing this, you usually end up missing the mark because you are not focused enough on one idea or concept. I wasn’t going to let the so-called panic shooting set in.

Making my vision come to life

Something that has stuck with me throughout my photographic career is the voice of my old boss when I was training with him in family portraiture a decade ago – chanting ‘see the moment Cat!’  He was from the film days – an era where you only had 30 photos on a film roll so precision was of utmost importance and wasted shots were a big no-no.

So that is exactly what I did. I scrambled over the rocks, squatting down occasionally and looking through my viewfinder to see where that moment might take place.

The challenge with my composition was that I knew I wanted to shoot from a super low angle so that I could point my camera upwards towards my furry heroes. However, such a low angle meant cutting out the breathtaking views over the Yorkshire Dales which is part of the charm of this location.

Eventually, I found the perfect spot that allowed me to nestle into one of the crevices in the rocks next to a gap overlooking the cliff, showing far-reaching views across the Yorkshire Dales. In the final photo of them together, you can see the winding path we had just walked up to the far left as a thin white line along the ground.

I knew that I needed to be quite close to my subjects to create the quirky wide-angle look I was after, but by the same token I realised this would mean cutting out much of the landscape to the left and right of the dogs I had so carefully chosen this spot for.

Planning ahead, I pre-empted that some extra photos would be needed to the left and right of my main shot once I had it in the bag. More on that later!

Dogs will be dogs

This was it! Everything was starting to fall into place. I called the gang over and felt butterflies rise in my stomach. The only challenge now was getting the dogs to play ball.

And we all know how easy that is! In case you are not from my tiny little island, that’s British sarcasm. 😆)

The protruding rock I had picked out was just about big enough to fit the two dogs on, but when it came to sitting and facing my direction, divas Darcy and Darla had other ideas. 😂

At first, Darla sat with her back to me, clearly much more interested in the setting sun than my desire to capture it before it disappeared forever. Darcy, a little older and wiser than her younger sibling, shuffled towards the edge of the rock keeping her eye on the treats in my hand while simultaneously blocking Darla and any view of the landscape behind her I had hoped to capture.

Michael had his work cut out but all was not lost. He has this magic way with how he holds the leads  – similar to how a horse rider feels the tension in the horses bit through their reins and manipulates them to signal the direction in which they want to go (not that we should be sitting on any animals back in this day and age.)

Creating a sun-star

The golden sun in the sky was in the perfect position to create a well-placed sun-star. I was already using a narrow aperture to maintain all the detail in both my surroundings and two subjects, and I knew if I could compose the sun in the right place, it would be perfectly defined.

If you want to incorporate sun-stars into your photos, first of all, you will need a clear sky. It is better if the sun is lower in the sky and a little less intense – although I have shot midday sun-stars on occasion so never say never! To increase the definition of your sun-star, partially covering it often helps too.

Learn how to set your camera up to capture a sun-star in my short Instagram Reels tutorial.

Using his extensive understanding of canine body language, he gently coaxed the pair into the spot I desired. They were both stood practically on top of each other as I was composing the sun to shine through their legs when Darcy slumped down onto the cool stone (still keeping an eye on the treats Michael was holding off-camera) creating an entanglement of spotty fur with her sister. My heart leapt into my mouth once more as the sun streamed through Darla’s legs, just above Darcy’s backside – this was the moment!

I mustered my best high pitched cat impression and clicked the shutter as Darla’s head delightfully tilted to one side in curiosity.

As the pair began to wiggle out of position on top of the rock, I drew the camera away from my face to look at the screen, and my heart sank. I had got so wrapped up in the crucial head tilt moment that I had inadvertently chopped off Darcy’s paw. Quick as lightning, I pulled the camera back to my face and took another photo – this time incorporating that all-important mottled paw – phew. It’s just as well we are well out of the film days! 😂

Move the slider to see the straight out of camera photo vs the edited version

The finishing components

Remember those extra photos that I predicted I would need when setting up the shot? This was the moment to take them.

I locked my camera settings and held firm my position as the dogs were moved out of the shot. Then I twisted my body around from left to right taking extra shots so that I could use them to extend the canvas later and create one epic panoramic photo that does justice to this spectacular location.

I am often asked if I use a tripod for this kind of scenario, but I prefer to shoot freehand as the nature of my work (photographing wriggly subjects like Darcy And Darla) means that I have to adjust my position quite frequently as the shot develops to adapt to their evolving positions within the frame.

My ‘blank shots’ and the stitch of them composed together to create a panoramic

To see how I subsequently edit a photo stitch like this check out my IGTV video showing my process in Photoshop – where the magic touches are applied to bring this kind of photo together.

People are often astounded at how much work goes into creating this kind of photograph, both in its production on location and the post-processing.

My friends think I’m a little mad at times for going to all this effort, but for me and my clients, lugging a load of heavy equipment up 400 steps for a dog photography adventure followed by hours in the digital darkroom bringing my vision to life is extremely rewarding, in fact it sets my soul on fire with delight throughout the entire process and leaves my clients with something so special it may well become an heirloom!

If this sounds like the kind of experience you would like to have with the furry face in your life fill in your details here and request a complimentary connection call. Then when you are ready, you can get your session here.

See you soon for the next adventure!

Behind the Scenes Video