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North Hills Monthly

Say Woof! Photographers Capture Human-Animal Bond

Nov 30, 2015 06:14PM ● By North Hills Monthly magazine

Photo © Lisa West

By Erica Cebzanov

As national pet spending continues to increase—the American Pet Products Association estimates people will spend more than $60 billion on their pets in 2015—a new breed of photographers are working to capture animals’ personalities and the bonds they share with their owners.

“Pets, to a lot of people, are just like their children; they are family members. It’s about what shines through in that photo image to remind you of that unconditional love that you have for one another. Many times people are willing to pay someone to capture that,” said pet and nature photographer Tabatha Knox, who owns Vibrant Images gallery and studio.

During a pre-shoot consultation, many photographers will ask the client if he or she wants to join a few of the frames in order to capture the relationship between the pet and owner. They will also discuss the pet’s temperament, which may determine a shoot’s location; for instance, most photographers will travel to clients’ homes for sessions with cats, in order to minimize stress on the animal. “Sometimes the dog is nervous in a new situation, so we’re not going to do a downtown session…the same thing with horses,” said Nicole Begley, a zoological employee for 13 years prior to launching Nicole Begley Photography. “Some horses are more hot-blooded and skittish, so I will approach them differently. I wouldn’t pull out certain light modifiers because it would make them nervous.”

Before snapping any photos, Linda Mitzel allows her dog and rabbit subjects to explore the Linda Mitzel Photography studio for five to 10 minutes. “I am very Zen. It’s good to be relaxed. If the animals are wound up, we just give them time to relax,” she said. In the past, she has had to move shoots outside because dogs—usually Animal Friends’ residents she volunteers to photograph—react fearfully to her camera’s flash.

Photographers have developed tricks for dealing with various species. Lisa West, who owns Lisa West Photography, employs feather cat toys when dealing with dogs trained to hunt and retrieve birds. Meanwhile, Mitzel relies upon her assistant, Patty Bumbaugh, who is equipped with toys and treats to help position the dogs and direct their eyes toward the camera. Begley utilizes rabbit and turkey calls, as well as a dog-whining noise app. “The trick with the noises is that you can only use them once or twice until they lose their novelty,” she said.

When photographing cats, Begley has discovered that string and catnip toys, along with turkey, cheese and hot dog squares, motivate her feline clients, while she avoids loose catnip, which sticks to fur. During equine shoots, she tries to get the animals’ ears to prick forward by crinkling paper or a water bottle or using a horse noise app. 

“The main thing is—I know it’s funny—but it’s changing your voice, changing your tone. Getting a little bit of a distraction. When you have a fast camera, you only need a split second,” said Knox, who eschews flash photography, relying solely on natural light.

According to Begley, one misconception that potential clients have is that their animals aren’t well-behaved enough for photo shoots, even though she has snapped photos of many dogs who didn’t know basic commands, such as sit and stay. Knox actually finds it challenging if an animal is too focused on his or her owner. The other big misconception is that there are limited location possibilities if the dogs need to remain on leashes. Instead, photographers simply use photo-editing software to remove collars and leashes from the final images. Mitzel even edits out the edges of exercise pens confining rabbits in her studio.

Animals also don’t necessarily need to sit still to pose for photos. “If you have somebody that is really experienced in pet photography, they are going to be able to capture action shots. You can get a lot of cute shots of them jumping and running. And, if that’s their personality, then that’s what you want to capture on film, anyway,” said West. “The clients are really surprised after they get their pictures. They are like, ‘Oh wow! I didn’t know my dog did so well, or my cat did so well.’”