There's a lot you can accomplish with peanut butter.
Photographer Belinda Richards often relies on this tasty treat to get her four-legged subjects to sit still for the camera. When dogs come in for a portrait at Frog Dog Studios in Melbourne, Australia, Richards has all sorts of tricks to get their attention.
"Noises and peanut butter are our biggest secret," Richards tells MNN. "Getting the subjects attention with a fun noise is key to getting that connection with the lens. I have what I call my tribal necklace which is some braided rope with a lot of different noise makes attached to it (bells, duck callers, squirrel callers, squeakers, whistles etc.)"
But the key is a lip-smacking gob of tasty goodness.
"Peanut butter should be in any pet photographer's arsenal. Dogs love it!" she says. "It gets them to sit still for a couple of minutes while they lick and it gets a huge variety of different facial expressions."
In addition to her in-studio pet photography business, Richards has a popular online following on Facebook and Instagram where fans check in to find samples of her recent portraits. Her latest series is a collection of fine art portraits called "Dogs Are the Best People."
"The idea behind each shot is to capture images which emulate human portraits and elicit a connection with the observer," Richards says. "We see headshots/avatars of humans in our lives every day on our social media platforms, instant messaging applications, heck, even in video conferences we are sometimes stuck talking to a photo of someone's face. It is a form factor which we have all grown accustomed to and is a staple of the digital age."
Richards translates that to canine — and sometimes feline — form.
"We specialize in capturing animals' personalities and turning them into art," she says. "What better way to showcase that than by making fine art portraits of our best friends' faces, which not only resonate with a headshot on a screen but would feel right at home hung on a wall in a gallery."
The images brim with personality, showing everything from grins and smiles to befuddlement and curiosity.
"We don't aim to capture any particular expression," Richards says. "We aim to capture the animal's unique personality, whatever that may be!"
Richards relies on a lifetime of working with animals to help her understand her subjects.
"That experience has given me the ability to see what a dog or cat is going to do before it does it, allowing me to capture the right moment," she says.
Richards also depends on her husband, Tony Ladson, who wields the peanut butter and helps keep the animals in front of the camera.
"I couldn't do what I do without an assistant. I work with my husband, who is the extra set of hands you need when working with animals," she says. "He will get the pet comfortable and in position. I've taught him a few tricks over the years which help get the best out of each pet."
Richards says sometimes she knows the second she has the perfect shot and other times she doesn't realize it until later.
"It's different every shoot. There have been times that I've checked the back of the camera and thought we had it only to load it onto the computer to find it's not focused," she says. "There have been times when I've assumed we didn't get anything only to scroll through the shoot to find a gold mine of great expressions!"
So far, they've always come away with great photos.
"We definitely aim to get the best out of every session and we have never had an animal beat us (touch wood)," she says. "We work with patience and at the animal's pace to ensure we can get the shots we are looking for."
Some animals are very expressive, while others require a little more coaxing to offer photo-worthy expressions.
"French bulldogs (one of our favorites here in the studio) are notorious for their one look regardless of how they're feeling. But that is something we work with," Richards says. "We'll play with the animal, trying different techniques to get their full range of faces. Some might only have two or three, others might have 200! That's all part of the fun."
If the peanut butter or squeaky noises don't work, Ladson sometimes has to get creative to get the pets to give Richards the camera-ready looks she wants.
"I've not done anything overly extreme for a photo, but the funniest thing is we once had two little dogs in the studio who were both crazy about each other. This made it hard to get individual photos because when they were alone, they both would worry about what the other was doing," he tells MNN. "I ended up using one dog as, for lack of a better word, 'bait' by getting one dog in position then holding the other one right above Belinda's head so the subject dog would look towards the camera."
He's used the same technique with their own dogs, only using the family cat to get them to pay attention.
"I'll also let the animals behave however they feel comfortable behaving in the moment," Ladson says. "This will often lead to cats climbing the bookshelf or dogs flying around the studio. We've destroyed countless backdrops from dogs fly-kicking holes in them. It's all part of the fun really!"
Richards says they truly could spend all day in the studio with their four-legged subjects.
"We'll often tell our [human] clients that their patience will wear thin long before ours. We're working with animals … it's kind of hard to get tired of it!" she says.
"Sometimes running the animals' patience down will help us get them to stay. Especially with cats! Cats love to explore and get into places they shouldn't. When they're in the studio and have spent a good while wandering around, we'll put them in place and, nine times out of 10, they'll immediately wander off. We've found if we simply pick them up and put them back in position, after a while, they'll get sick of it and just sit there."