Before getting behind the camera seven years ago, most of my professional life was devoted to caring for animals. In fact, my first job in high school was working with a veterinarian, and since then I have been blessed to work in three other practices. During college, I even worked one incredible summer at the Indianapolis Zoo! After I took a class from a certain someone whom we all know (wink, wink), it became obvious to merge my two passions. Here are 6 things every pet photographer should know. These have come out of personal experiences working with pet photographers.
#1 Pre-consult…never go in blind
Many of us like to think we have a special connection with animals. However, there is always that one dog or cat that is going to love everyone BUT you. You don’t want to find out Fido wants to make you his new chew toy the day of the session. Not only is it inconvenient for your client, it’s dangerous for you. Moreover, if you get bitten, then it could mean euthanasia for the pet in some states. Learn the personality of the animal, so you will know exactly how you are going to approach the session. You may have been considering an outdoor venue, but Mr. Hyper might be a better candidate for the studio. You had planned on using treats, but wait a second, Fido doesn’t crave treats, instead he LOVES his squeaky chicken. You will certainly encounter fewer hiccups when you meet the fur babies in advance.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when setting up the pre-consultation. Don’t treat this meeting as if you are assessing Fido and Fluffy to see if they are the next “Cujo”. Stress to the client you are establishing a relationship prior to the session. Naturally, you’ll want Fido and Fluffy to become familiar with the equipment you will use throughout the session, as well as the sound of your camera. In addition, let your clients know up front what your needs are. However, if they are resistant to the pre-consult, then require them to show up at least 15 minutes prior to the start of the session. This time will allow you the opportunity to get acquainted with the animal.
#2 Every session is playtime
Who wants a picture of their dog sitting super stiff, ears back, or looking like they were just scolded? I want to get a real shot of my fur baby! Therefore, my sessions are 70% playtime peppered with 30% clicking camera. I get down on their level and we romp, play ball, cuddle, snuggle, play with string, and/or get strung out on catnip. I follow where Fido and Fluffy lead me. This approach has never let me down, which always allows me the chance to capture the true spirit of my clients’ fur baby.
#3 Be aware of your surroundings
During your sessions, you need to be constantly on alert. You don’t know what is going to set off Fido or Fluffy on any given day. Things can go from peachy to the pits in a twitch of Fluffy’s tail. When you are on location, keep an eye on everything around you, especially other people and animals. Anything that catches the fur baby’s eye should catch your eye, too. Monitor body language and educate yourself in this area. Is the animal relaxed? Have they suddenly changed from a playful to a defensive posture? What caused the change? Is it something you have done or has something changed in your environment?
#4 Calm, cool, and collected
This one is simple. Perhaps it even goes without saying, but it’s truly important. You have to stay calm and relaxed no matter how Fido or Fluffy are behaving. The moment you lose your cool, you’ve lost control of the session. The animals sense everything. If the shots aren’t working and/or the pet is not cooperating, then call the session off rather than trying to power through. I know others will disagree with this, but if your client’s first priority is Fido or Fluffy, yours is too.
#5 Educate yourself
Is there an animal you’ve been asked to work with that you’ve never touched before? Have you ever worked with exotic animals? Educate yourself! Sessions with unfamiliar animals aren’t something you should just jump into blindly. Talk to an exotic vet, several animal specialists, and/or other experienced photographers. Furthermore, continue to read blogs and books about animal behavior.
#6 Give back
Five to seven million pets go into shelters yearly according to ASPCA. Only 20% of the dogs and 25% of the cats ever find their forever home. Those numbers need to drastically increase and YOU can help! As a photographer, we can make a huge difference. Our pictures bring the public into the shelters in a powerful way. Offering your talent to a local shelter/rescue allows for more hands-on experience, expands your portfolio of fur babies, and creates a name for you throughout the community for the positive work you are doing. But most importantly, animals spend less time in shelters because they typically get adopted more quickly!
Law Tog Tip: Don’t forget to make sure your photography contracts are covering pets as well! There are some very specific and sensitive situations that need specific provision drafting to protect yourself, the pet, and the client.