by Roberta Lites
Pets have always been a part of my life. Over the years I’ve shared a special companionship with eleven dogs, four cats, two turtles and a parrot. So it was no surprise when I picked up my first camera that animals would become my favorite subjects to photograph. The more I shot, the more I knew I was in my element. There was something about capturing the spirit of a living breathing creature that spoke to me. While photographing wildlife is a spectacular experience, and one I always enjoy, it’s not as easily accessible. But with 56 million dog households and 45 million cat, there was definitely plenty of opportunity to put my passion to work.
Today, the commercial pet industry accounts for $58 billion in annual spending. While a significant portion of those dollars are spent on the basic needs of the pet, a generous portion is spent on the needs of their owners (ie, pet fashion, pet travel and yes, pet photography). And I might add, many spoil their furry companions as much or in some cases more than their own children.
So what does it take to be a pet photographer? Well from my experience it requires patience, flexibility and planning. It’s important to have a checklist to make sure you’re well prepared. Below are a few things I have found to be invaluable in photographing pets.
Do your homework. First, have your pet parent complete a questionnaire about their companion. Since I predominately photograph dogs, here are the common questions I ask include:
- Does your dog know basic commands? If their answer is yes, don’t just assume they are well behaved. Often times a pet parent’s view of good behavior is very subjective. So be prepared for anything. If you are able to meet the dog in advance, even better.
- Ask about favorite toys and have them bring some along. Remember, if you choose to use toys for props make sure to have your own. I can’t tell you how many tattered, dirty dog toys I’ve had to gently replace from a dogs mouth.
- Have them describe their dog’s general behavior. Are they playful and active or do they prefer being a couch potato. Are they good with strangers? Kids? Other animals?
- Is the dog good off-leash? You never want to take a dog off-leash in an non-contained area, unless you are 100% confident the dog has perfect recall. The very last thing you need to worry about is a run-away dog. Knowing whether the dog is reliable off-leash will often dictate your shooting location. I personally prefer environmental shots, at a park, in the woods, in a swimming pool, but that isn’t always an option. Sometimes the studio or pet’s home is better suited.
- Find out if the dog has any medical issues. A dog in pain may not be receptive to lying down, sitting or even jumping up on things. Always be cautious and gentle, and when in doubt, just stop. No pet or person needs to get hurt.
Prepare for your shoot. In addition to your camera gear, (two bodies are ideal, with a 24-70mm and 70-200mm), I recommend having an arsenal of parent approved treats, tennis balls, squeaky toys, a whistle and my trusted dog handler. If I’m on location, I always bring water (for both humans and pets), extra leashes (typically dark leather work best), waste bags (dogs will be dogs), a towel or two (to wipe slobber) and a blanket. I can’t begin to tell you how much rolling around on the ground I do. If you’re working on location, remember to scout in advance. If you are photographing a sporting breed at a lake with water foul, all I can say is Katy bar the door. Herding dogs, well let’s just say stay away from playgrounds unless you plan to round up kids from recess. Never forget, a dog is still a dog and may at any time follow its instincts.
Meet your model. I can’t stress enough the importance of not rushing this step. Most dogs are excited and curious; some are shy and frightened while others may play a dominant game. It is essential that you stay calm and relaxed, yet confident and in command. Animals have long been known for their keen sensibility to pick up on human emotion and dogs are no exception. When possible, ask the pet parent to step into another room or out of sight. Loyalty runs deep with dogs, and parents tend to be a distraction when photographing.
Make a connection. After an initial assessment, decide on the best way to gain their confidence and trust. In most cases the first thing I do is sit on the floor and get down on their level. For the exuberant pups we usually end up having a love fest, with lots of licking andslobbering. For the shy or frightened dog I typically turn my back, sit still and speak in a soft voice. At times I may leave a trail of treats around me so they can approach gingerly and sniff to check me out. I’ve even been known to slather my hands in peanut butter and lay flat on the ground with my hands extended for the more timid to approach. (And let me just say that’s quite a visual.) For more dominant dogs, I generally remain standing, at a slight angle. I do this to avoid creating an intimidating and/or threatening posture. With my hands by my side, I allow the dominant dog to approach me on his terms. Generally speaking curiosity prevails and they usually come up and give their approval.
Understand dog behavior. By no means am I a dog behaviorist, but I have spent a lot of time around dogs of all breeds and temperaments and have learned a great deal about their behavior. Begin to interact with the dog slowly. Play fetch, use a squeaker, and give a treat. Find out what motivates the dog and use it for capturing that special moment. While I have shot many dog portraits, my favorite photos are of dogs being dogs: running, jumping, rolling in the grass. If you have a model that is overly active, let him burn off some energy. Once you see a yawn, the moment is golden. They have submitted and you can get to work photographing. Remember; always pay attention to signs of stress, pain or agitation. Excessive panting usually means the dogs is very anxious, hot or over stimulated. Tucked tails can indicate fear, and when hackles are up, stop immediately. Any of these situations can result in a negative consequence. Simply take your time and let the moment unfold. Most of my best shots happen in the last 30 minutes of every shoot.
Get creative. I must admit, over the years there have been a few times when I’ve come across a dog or two that just didn’t want to be photographed. I’d take out my camera and the dog would take off, turn away or just hide. It was if they thought the camera was stealing their soul. But then I began to look at it from the dogs’ vantage point. I had just blocked my face and eyes with this big black box and lost the trust and connection that had been established. So with long lens in hand I began hiding behind trees, under tables, on top of cars, but in the end I always got the shot.
While pet photography is not my primary job, it’s a vocation that I truly enjoy. I’ve been fortunate to put my passion to work in photographing the Arizona Golden Retriever Connection rescue calendar for the past 11 years along with countless pet families across Arizona.
I have often said that these wonderful creatures are not put on this earth nearly long enough, but if my photography can capture just one treasured moment and lasting memory of someone’s faithful friend, then I am the lucky one to give them that gift. So if you love pets and photography, see how you can make it dog-gone fun too!
Dogs don’t make our whole life, but they make our lives whole!