Tail-wagging keepsakes: expert advice on pet photography

 
James Dillon-­Graham discovers the intricacies of pet photography, and how treasured family memories are created

Tara Sutherland

As Kiwis, there are few relationships we cherish more than those we have with our pets. In fact we often have such a close bond with our feline confidantes and our canine companions that we don’t see them as pets at all — we see them as genuine family members. 

This sentiment is wholeheartedly endorsed by Tara Sutherland, a Hamilton-based pet photographer, diver, and animal lover. In fact, Sutherland believes that a successful pet photo shoot hinges upon the recognition that our furry friends are unique beings in their own right, with their own special character traits.

Rachel McKenna

“Our pets have personalities — likes and dislikes, favourite toys, foods, and places to sleep. One of the key ingredients in producing a portrait of a pet that their family will love is learning those little details, and using them in the creation of the photographs,” Sutherland says. She is also mindful of projecting positive body language when she first approaches her furry subjects. 

“Animals have an amazing sense of how you are feeling,” she explains. “There is a certain amount of preparation I can do, but if I am nervous or stressed, they know. So I make it as fun and natural as possible. If they are not comfortable, we stop and wait, and perhaps just play. And that helps with people, too.” Craig Bullock is a pet photographer who also believes that capturing great images starts with building a positive rapport with both pets and owners. Having started his career as a bird keeper in the United Kingdom, Bullock is very aware that when he comes into an owner’s home for a shoot, he is also coming into the animal’s home — to a space where the pet feels safe, physically and psychologically.

Craig Bullock

“Sometimes I go to a shoot and I haven’t met the animal before. So I talk to them first and give them a pat. You know how the animal is by its behaviour, so you’re not going to shove a camera in its face straight away, because you’re never going to get a shot that way,” Bullock says.

For Bullock, developing a relationship founded on trust was essential for capturing evocative portraits that chronicled the lives of Christchurch cats and dogs in the wake of the February 2011 earthquake, for his books Quake Cats and Quake Dogs. 

Craig Bullock

“I approached people for my books who said, ‘My cat has an awesome earthquake story but you’re never going to get a good photo of him.’ And they were always amazed when I did. It’s all about the connection, whether it’s the connection with me, as the photographer, or the connection between the animal and the owner, off to the side.”

Tauranga photographer Rachael McKenna agrees. Having started her career working as a photographer’s assistant for the iconic baby photographer Anne Geddes, McKenna has always approached her animal subjects in exactly the same way she approaches her human subjects — with respect and kindness. McKenna also sees her work with people and animals as complementary, and is always keen to give pets and owners the opportunity to share the frame, believing this often produces more evocative images.

Rachel McKenna

“Encouraging people to include the family pets in their photos is a strong aspect of my approach,” McKenna explains. “I love to capture the relationships families have with their fur family members: sometimes it is these images that portray the most natural and relaxed expressions from my people subjects.”

Having had his own experience of the Christchurch earthquake — along with his two cats, Jazz and Mr Tinkles — Bullock always tries to produce more than great images for his clients. Instead, his aim is to create a lasting visual representation of an animal’s physical and emotional self, set against the backdrop of their environment. And the best way to do this, Bullock believes, is to get ‘down and dirty’ wherever the pet feels most comfortable. “It’s all about getting down to their level. Because if I’m looking down on them then it doesn’t give me the same kind of intimacy as when you’re immersing yourself in their point of view. So I often get caught up in shoots, because I’m running around with them with my camera, or getting my feet wet, or lying in the water.

Tara Sutherland

But Bullock doesn’t just go for the serious or the dramatic — he likes to mix things up, especially if he discovers a lighter side to his subject’s personality.

“I like to capture the humorous side of pets too. The lick of their lips or a yawn — there’s always something going on that’s funny. My own cats are pretty crazy, Jazz the Bengal in particular. I’ve done a lot of shots of him leaping in the air.”

Craig Bullock

A self­-confessed ‘pet parazzi’, Sutherland also likes to keep things light­-hearted when it comes to pairing pets with their owners. Not only does this relax both two­- and four-legged subjects alike, it also helps her produce more compelling images.

“Whilst a beautifully posed portrait is definitely lovely to look at,” Sutherland says, “I like to create photographs that have more emotion to them in a natural documentary style. When I was starting out, I would spend Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings at our local dog park. I still do this occasionally, and in the sessions I have with my clients and their owners I can use those skills of capturing pets and owners at play, being themselves.”

Rachel McKenna

Having shot cats and dogs around the world for many of her books, such as The New York Dog and The French Cat, McKenna is passionate about shooting pets in a way that is reflective of their unique identity, set against the backdrop of the world they inhabit.

“When photographing an animal in their natural environment, I am always aiming to make it look as true to life as possible. I don’t manipulate my images in any way, I try to capture everything as it happens — within the camera — and not change anything in post­production. So there is no need for artificial lighting — natural light gives me everything I am looking for. I just have to work within the environment and make the light work for me.” Bullock also prefers to work with natural light, as he feels it produces more authentic results, particularly when working with dogs. “I’m definitely not a studio person,” Bullock says. “I like to get outdoors as much as possible. A lot of working dogs, like Border Collies, have so much energy. You can see the life in their eyes and the joy on their faces when they go full out on the beach.”

Craig Bullock

Meeting with owners before he starts shooting is also something Bullock likes to do — it’s something that allows him to find a location that holds a special meaning for the owner, or for their dog. 

“I did a shoot with a couple and their dog in the Port Hills [in Christchurch], where they got married. A place with meaning always brings something extra to the images.”

A successful photo shoot, according to Sutherland, Bullock, and McKenna, isn’t just about capturing a beautiful likeness of a cat, a dog, a horse, or a mouse — nor even the quirky personality of a pet snake (one of Bullock’s more challenging assignments). Instead, the real value that these pet photographers strive to bring to every photo shoot is in recording a moment in time that will serve as a reminder of shared love and joy. 

Rachel McKenna

“A professional pet photographer doesn’t just take a snap,” Sutherland explains. “They take the time to create a memory. It is having the patience with the pet, to know what poses highlight their body shape and their profile best. And it is using high-­quality equipment with skill to create an heirloom that people are proud to hang in their homes.” Bullock agrees. “Pets aren’t with us nearly as long as we would like them to be,” he says. “And people realize that having professional photographs of their pets is something special. I think the earthquakes highlighted that for a lot of people.”

While it doesn’t quite compare to the dangers of working in war-­stricken areas, pet photography does have its hazards, especially when the subjects are the lions at Orana Wildlife Park that Bullock photographed for Quake Cats. “The staff at the park went with me as I went over the barrier so I could get the fence out of the shot,” Bullock explains. “I was using my 70–200mm lens shooting one of the lions that was a bit further back. Then they said ‘step back!’ and as they said it, I heard this big roar in my ear and there was one right in front of me against the wire.” As for the formula for success, Sutherland believes that it all comes down to turning a passion for animals into a photographic approach that emphasizes patience and persistence.

Tara Sutherland

“It’s about not being afraid to spend an hour on the ground, getting mud on your knees and elbows, and then wanting to get up and do it all over again.”

This article was originally published in D-Photo Issue No. 67. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: