Canis Major – a Halloween theme photoshoot

Posted on Oct 30, 2019
Canis Major – a Halloween theme photoshoot

Our favorite season is back, though increasingly, it feels like it comes tinged with smoke from monster fires ravaging California and stealing the joy and magic from autumn. But you know what? Life and everything else may get in the way, but it is our choice whether we let it or not. So, the 7th year in a row for our Halloween Passion Project still happened.

We tend to have a couple of ideas jotted down, it makes it a little easier to pick a theme to focus on when the time comes. This particular idea had been floating around in our notebook for a couple of years. This year, it kept rising to the top. We kept putting it off because of the emotion attached to it, but when an idea does not leave you alone, it’s probably for good reason. So we listened to our guts, and started making plans.

Canis Major: A constellation, home to the brightest star

Its name means “The Greater Dog”, often depicted in illustrations as a running hound. On the dog’s chest, like a bright beating heart, sits Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. As dog lovers, I have always delighted in this fact… of course “the dog star” is the brightest of them all.

But Canis Major is more than a constellation to us, and the name of the brightest star in our night sky is not Sirius, but Corbin. The same black Labrador that started it all. He is our Canis Major, our Greater Dog, and much like the people of old navigated with the stars as guides, he has been our guide and the catalyst for altering the course of our personal and professional lives.

Corbin was 6 years old when we started The Labs & Co. back in 2010. At nearly 15, he’s fought and beaten cancer twice and faced any hiccups in life with utmost optimism and gentleness. He has an effect on people, always loving and gentle, always seeing the best in everyone before anything else. He has helped raise many puppies, and helped many scared foster dogs find their legs and tail wags in this human world, most notably his would-be sister, Willow.
We did a LOT of work with Willow, to get her to where she is today, but in truth, I credit Corbin with teaching her his gentleness, his lovely sociability with dogs, his rare and wonderful welcoming nature and sharing of resources and most importantly for her, his judge of character and trust in people. “Give them a chance,” I imagine him saying to her, “you might be surprised in the end.

Such a dog deserves an apt tribute. But we didn’t want to do this after he was gone. You don’t wait–if you can help it–to honor someone who has changed your life for the better, you do it every chance you get. And so, before our Canis Major returns home among the stars to brighten our night sky, and while we still have the joy of his earthly company, we dedicate this little tribute to him, in honor of the stardust he leaves behind, wherever he goes.

source: Stellarium

Reimagining Canis Major with photography

It began with Corbin, absolutely. But the spark for doing this as part of our Halloween Passion project started with a tattoo.
A few years ago, I got the constellation, Canis Major tattooed on the top of my shoulder, in honor of Corbin. When we were brainstorming ideas about how to pull this off, we knew we wanted to borrow a page from Year 4, where we turned Willow into a glowing Patronus. The techniques we learned for that specific project would come in handy for this one, to turn an image of a much younger Corbin running, into an ancient Greek mythology-inspired constellation.

The other challenge we faced was getting more comfortable with astrophotography, and somehow getting Willow, Bill and myself in the frame… in the dark… and hold one position for a few seconds without moving. We also knew we wanted to do this at Corbin’s favorite place, the beach. Well, if you’ve followed any of our previous years and read any of our behind-the-scenes blogs about it, you’ll know we like a challenge.

Willow and Corbin by Jesse Freidin

Why don’t we have behind the scenes photos, you ask? Because it was pitch black! But here’s what we did in a nutshell.

Once we selected our spot on the beach, we set the camera on a tripod and framed the amount of sky we wanted in there in relation to the horizon line and determined a marker spot for each of us: Willow on the far left, me in the middle and Bill to my right. We marked the spot in the sand with something we could easily see with our head lamps but also easily hidden so we wouldn’t have to retouch them out.

We did a few test shots for the stars, anywhere between 5 and 15 seconds. We wanted to have the stars visible and bright but static. The longer the exposure, the more the stars travel (because the earth is moving!) which can be a cool technique in itself, called star trails. Once we got that exposure, we took a few frames to save for the background, just in case we needed them.

Next, we figured out an appropriate exposure for each of us. The exposure needed to be long enough to catch the stars and enough detail in our bodies, but also short enough for Willow to be able to hold a static position. We quickly discovered we would have to do a mix of minimal light painting with a head lamp and around 8 seconds of exposure. I photographed Bill in his spot, he photographed me as well as Willow. I kept her focused and still by holding up a stuffed Kong toy for her to watch, and I would later retouch myself out of that frame.

Corbin, by the way, was cozy and warm in his bed back home while the three of us danced around in the dark of the beach trying to stay warm.

Then came the digital assembly of it all. First, we had to find the right image of young Corbie and selected one of him running on the beach, he must have been around 3 or 4 years old then. I selected him out of the background and followed a similar series of steps like I did with the Patronus project. I then tried to match the position of his body to the stars in the Canis Major constellation, and on separate layers, added stars, and then lines. All the color in the sky and overall night scene was brought out in Lightroom with finishing touches in Photoshop.

This is one we had to work on and then let it sit for a few days before picking it up again. When it is something so personal and so dear to your heart, the work is never finished and never good enough. But that’s the thing about a project with a deadline; come October 31st, this needed to be ready to share, so we better be happy with it.

We are.

So, in honor of Corbin, we wish you a very happy and safe Halloween and All Souls celebration. Hope you enjoy year 7 of this passion project of ours, Canis Major.

Canis Major will go beyond this piece. We are currently working on a longer term project, mentored by our dear friend Jesse Freidin, and based on this same theme and dedicated especially to telling stories about everyday humans, who find their paths completely changed by that One animal. Hope you stay tuned for that.

Want to see previous years of our Halloween theme photoshoots?
Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4
Year 5
Year 6

This photograph is ©The Labs & Co. All rights reserved. Thank you for sharing our work! But please be kind and give credit.