Have you ever taken an outstanding photo of your pets and had someone say, "You should do this professionally"? Or have you dreamed about spending all day with cute animals, just clicking away with your camera and making beautiful portraits? Most people who are good with a camera and love being around animals have harbored at least a passing thought, if not a full-blown passion, for becoming a professional pet photographer. But it's not nearly as easy as it looks.
Putting the rigors of running a business aside, working with animals like dogs and cats takes an extra skill set that needs to be developed through experience, education, and patience. We talked with two pet photographers, Bill Parsons and Natalia Martinez of Photo Lab Pet Photography, about the special talents it takes to really be a success at photographing animals. If you dream about going pro with pet photography, their experiences will enlighten you about the most important things you need to know to make it happen.
Did you start out in photography working with animals, or did you move into the field later?
Natalia: It’s funny, I got into photography because of animals, I dreamed of being a National Geographic photographer, but during college -- both Bill and I went to photography school -- I didn’t have much of an opportunity to work with animals at all. My favorite photography teacher and mentor would tell me that photographing what I loved and cared about would automatically make my work better, and in photographing what you care about, you might get the audience to care about it too. I never really understood that fully until there was a dog at the other end of the lens. So I decided to forget about what everyone else thought, and started caring about listening to my calling, and go back to photographing animals.
Bill: I spent most of my early photography life with the vision that I would be a commercial photographer shooting product and people, but life’s path took Natalia and me to San Francisco. When the economy tanked, I moved into to shooting product for a company that Nat worked with, but did not feel fulfilled. At some point our dog, Corbin, was diagnosed with cancer and a friend offered to help us pay for vet bills. Of course we declined, but she insisted and suggested that in exchange we photographer her dogs for her. We did, and that was the spark that started the fire.
How have you gained experience in the years since you started working with animals?
Natalia: I grew up with dogs, and I have always been fascinated by animals in general. But when we got serious about working with animals professionally, it was important to learn as much about them and the many different aspects involved. Understanding your subject, fully, completely, will enable your work to portray it better, not to mention, you are working with a living, feeling being, not a prop. So communication is crucial. For canine behavior, ethology and training, I attended Trish King’s Canine Behavior Academy, an intense course filled with a treasure trove of information. I have devoured almost every book out there on dogs and cats, and have enjoyed countless videos, documentaries and chats with dog pros. And later we invested in one really good workshop for pet photography. The rest has been a mix of networking and books. I think I have learned more over a cup of coffee with a colleague than in years of school. The experience part, actually getting out there and doing it is a huge learning experience in itself, and it will be your toughest but most valuable teacher.
How does being a pet photographer differ from being a photographer of people?
Natalia: Most of all, it is a different language, and you have a few more things to think about other than lighting and exposure. Connecting with your subject, and your subject’s people, making them feel at ease with your gear and presence is key to getting an engaging photograph.
Bill: Being a pet photographer is such a joy. There is some correlation to baby photography, in that communication with your subject is limited to almost a different language, but the similarities mostly stop there. An animal will never have an issue with how they look, what is their best side, if they look too heavy. Animals are just who they are and we aim to capture them naturally.
How is it the same?
Natalia: Just like portraiture and photographing kids even, you cannot force anything. The minute anyone feels uncomfortable or forced to do something, it is immediately noticeable. Conversely, if everyone is comfortable and having a great time, that seeps through the images. It gives them life and it becomes photography at its best: a tangible keepsake of that moment. When people look through those photographs, they remember how they felt, how happy their dog was that day, whether it was sunny or cold… it becomes more than a photograph.
Bill: I think it is the same only in that the final use of the images brings joy to the viewer, and makes a part of one’s life timeless.
What skill sets do you utilize outside of knowing what to do with a camera?
Natalia: Already as photographers, you have quite a bit of things you are thinking about; your exposure, where your focus is, where the light is, how it is affecting your subject. When we photograph dogs, or cats, it is these plus a few other key things we are thinking about, mainly our subject’s comfort level and body language. I try to see things from a dog’s point of view, and for many dogs (and cats), a camera with a lens is not something that belongs in their daily lives. The lens, when simply pointed in there face, can look like a giant unblinking eye. That is scary and threatening, so they will often respond with body language letting you know they are nervous or uneasy such as looking away, licking their lips, their ears go down or they choose to move away from you.
It is incredibly important to learn to recognize signs of stress, fear and anxiety. Never, ever push a dog or cat beyond their comfort zone. Trust your gut, and observe closely, without staring, if a dog or cat is just really uncomfortable around you and your gear, give them space, and if you still need to shoot, use a long lens and try not to make sudden movements. Every dog or cat is an individual, and they deserve the respect to be treated as such. We are creating an illustrated booklet as a step-by-step guide for introducing photography gear to both ends of the spectrum, a social/confident dog and a shy/fearful dog. I am hoping to make it available in particular for people who photograph dogs in shelters. Many if not all of the techniques can apply to cats too.
We have worked individually before, and know many amazing photographers who work on their own, but I personally love to work with Bill as a partner in photo sessions. We hand off cameras back and forth with barely a word needed, and while one can focus on the photography, the other can focus on the subject. If one of us sees anything -- maybe the dog needs a break, or water -- a gentle tap on the shoulder communicates all that. And in some cases when a dog is a little nervous about looking at the one holding the camera, having an actual friendly human to focus on instead can be very helpful and comforting. One of us will be doing something and the other will notice a great photo opportunity and let each other know. It is a team effort.
Bill: I would also add that as a team we also see different things and double our efforts on good shots to do in the session.
What approach do you take to a new animal at the start of a session?
Natalia: Ideally, we get as much information beforehand from the dog or cat’s person, and if possible schedule a time to meet at their place or the location of the shoot. We do this in order to not be strafers that day and start creating a positive association as well as scouting the location, looking for the light and getting a sense of the dog or cat’s personality. With every session, we send out a series of questions for the parents, so we are armed with that information the day of the shoot.
On the big day, we get there early, and we take some time to greet and let the dog or cat relax for a bit, especially if it is a new place we are shooting in. We have a little process we take with every animal we photograph, where we take the time to get to know each other, this is the time for them to sniff, get a few cookies or a quick game with their favorite toy or just some gentle pets. Once that initial relationship is in place, we slowly introduce the gear, the sight and its sound. We go at the animal’s pace, not ours; you can never go too slow, only too fast. During this time, we are observing and listening to the dog or cat parents, discovering what makes that animal tick, and that is what we use to customize the photo session to each individual animal. This experience, whether it is for a family, a commercial or editorial project, should be pleasant and fun for everyone, especially, the animal involved. We never force or rush anything. If something is not working, we take a step back and figure something else out. Doing this, we give that individual the respect they deserve, and make it a pleasant experience.
Doing something like this is especially important for dogs and cats you don’t know much about, such as photographing for a shelter. The shelter can already be a stressful place, and their time with you could be their only time out of a kennel that day, all the more reason to make it a happy experience. We always ask for the help of a volunteer, and take special care and time for those animals.
Bill: Also, as each animal is an individual they each need a different approach but the final result is that they are comfortable and natural, as that is our goal to create images that show that animal as who they are.
What does an ideal session look like for you?
Natalia: A lovely natural setting, at magic hour. It is one where we have had time to connect with the dog and his family. The dog is comfortable and happy, playing, doing tricks for his person and we are able to get a gorgeous set of portraits, some landscape and action shots. And towards the end of the session, when the dog is getting tired, we get some intimate moments between dog and human. We get some details, what makes that dog unique physically -- his eyes, his collar and tags, the patters of his coat. And after a great day, we say goodbye with hugs and send our film off to the lab, we cannot wait to show them the results of the day.
Are there success stories or particularly touching (or trying) sessions you want to share?
Natalia: Two very different sessions come to mind recently. We shot the cover for the summer issue of Bark Magazine recently, and it was huge for us, not only because it is a beautiful and well respected magazine we are honored to contribute to, but because we were trusted with an important milestone: putting a pit bull puppy on the cover. And not just any pit bull puppy, but a very special one, rescued from certain death and lovingly fostered back to health. Photographing him was being able to tell his story in photographs. The day of the shoot, this puppy was so happy, so happy to meet everyone, sniff everything, completely unfazed by our gear despite a slight sight impairment. We soon realized that this puppy had energy to burn! So we took turns shooting, and since the pup was too excited to sit still for more than a few seconds, we didn’t sit still either! One of us ran and played with him, careful to be out of frame while the other photographed and gave direction. Laughter during a shoot is my favorite music. We got our cover shot and much more, and for us, it was a perfect day at the gym… or, at work. It was that perfect time when work and play are one and the same.
The other session took place that same weekend. We got an email asking for an emergency photo session for a family, who’s beloved senior dog was diagnosed with cancer. This is the type of session we drop everything and find the time for. Ironically enough, it was another pit bull, same beautiful coloring as the Bark Magazine puppy, only he had had a very hard life and wore signs of it on his body. This amazing family adopted him after he was rescued, and they loved his past away. He was the sweetest and most gentle dog, and his family was having a very hard time knowing what was to come. We met them at the park as the sun was setting, and before we pulled out the gear, we sat down with them to listen to the dog’s story. We cried with them, and asked if there was anything in particular they wanted. They initially wanted it to be just the dog, but as we photographed, they slowly became a part of the shoot. This session has been one of the most powerful ones we have ever had the pleasure to do. It was love at its best, and we were so grateful to be allowed into such an intimate moment. To share that with someone and feel it as your own, and to give them a tangible, timeless memory of a dog that changed their lives. There is nothing like it.
Lennie, the dog, passed away naturally the day after our session. It is as if he knew, and he waited for us. When we recently showed the family their photographs for the first time, it was very powerful and emotional. It was like having him back, and the realizing he would never really leave, because that love is now timeless.
Bill: One of the things we aim to do is capture the dog in images for a person who may be loosing that dog soon, and those can be the hardest for the sheer emotion that is loaded into the session. We have no problem capturing the images, but your heart aches that this wonderful creature’s life is nearing an end. The best way to stay focused though is knowing that the images you create will make that creature live on forever.
How has working with animals as a photographer changed you as a person?
Natalia: Working with animals in general I feel has made me a better person. Better in that they have taught me patience, compassion and mindfulness. I have been to many yoga classes, but only a cat has been able to teach me stillness. Never have I been more mindful of my body, and my body language than when I am working with a dog that is fearful or shy. They teach me daily, to live life and not just be in it; life is very short, so there is no sense in wasting it. Animals have taught me, funny enough, how to connect with people on a different level. Since we started our company, we have had the great fortune of meeting, and befriending so many amazing people, like minded individuals, kindred spirits. Following your bliss has endless rewards.
Bill: The number one thing it has taught me is patience and communication. With animals, the approach must be different in those respects.
How has the pet photography field changed?
Natalia: I think it is constantly changing. For one, it is no longer looked upon as odd and obscure. It really is a fine art to be able to work with animals, and it is also a privilege. More and more people are inspired to try it out, whether just for fun, for charity or for passion. The photography industry itself is constantly and rapidly changing, so pet photography has more and more avenues to be explored. It is slowly starting to gain recognition as a specialty field for those of us who do it professionally, and I am very glad of that.
Bill: In some ways the speed and ease of digital has made pet photography more accessible to many more people, so the industry has grown. We like to think that the tools to make the images are just that, tools. It is the photographer though who “creates” them. We utilize years of experience in variety of photography fields, a deep understanding of photography at it’s most basic techniques including darkroom work, processing and use of light, as well as an inherent love for the medium as the visual art that it is. We shoot film and digital, utilizing both for the benefits and beauty.
If you have a single piece of advice for someone interested in getting in to photographing animals, what would it be?
Natalia: Whether it is for your own pets, for fun, for charity or you want to do it professionally, the best investment you can make is in learning about your subject. Learn to read canine and feline body language. Learn to see the world through their eyes and do everything in your power to make your photo session a fun and pleasant experience, it will show in your photographs. If you are serious about it, find yourself a mentor and ask lots of questions. Draw from work styles that inspire you without copying them out right; you have your own voice and it takes time and experience to find it. Gear is not as important as what you can create with it. Slow down, take time to compose your shot, practice, practice, practice.
Bill: Forget the camera in your hands, use it only as a means to an end to capture the image. Become as comfortable with it as possible so that it is second nature to adjust and shoot. Let the connection between you and your subject and the moments you capture be your number one focus.
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