10 Questions on Being a Pet Photographer
A while back a girl (I'll call her S.G.) emailed me. She was studying her Diploma of Photoimaging at CATC Design School and as part of her Folio Development, needed to find a mentor. Now I was in this position myself a few years back, so I always feel a twinge of guilt having to turn people down for mentorships. The truth of the matter is I just don't have the time. However, those of you who follow my blog or facebook page will know that I am passionate about sharing knowledge. I'm a total geek and I love to learn (and love to talk - I know, shocker), so if you have questions of your own drop me a line and I will make time to answer them (eventually, haha).
S.G.: How did you first get started in pet/animal photography? Caitlin: When I was little, I always dreamed that I would one day work with animals. Then as a teen I picked up photography and threw myself into discovering the world through a lens. By the time I was 16 I had started winning awards and exhibiting my work, focusing mainly on fashion photography. I enjoyed photographing perfect, beautiful people (of course!) but deep down I was craving something more meaningful. It was Lyra who inspired me – the ultimate ragamuffin, a cheeky, shaggy mutt who won her way into my heart with plenty of cuddles and a fair few chewed up socks. Before she was even a year old, I knew that I needed to become a pet photographer. I launched Ragamuffin Pet Photography and haven’t looked back since!
S.G.: Is your portfolio a collection of your best work overall, or a set of images taken specifically for it? Caitlin: My portfolio is a collection of my best/favourite pet photography overall - it's primarily made up of images from client sessions, plus some of my work with rescues and of course my own fur family!
S.G.: What kinds of images work best in a folio to showcase your styles and talents? Caitlin: It's very important to keep your aesthetic processing style consistent, whilst showcasing a wide variety of compositions, narratives, angles etc. I do show a mixture of black & white and colour, but I make sure my post-production stays true to my "signature style" - i.e. soulful, artistic pet photography with a natural approach.
S.G.: How are you able to get great shots from an animal? Caitlin: Getting a great portrait starts before I've even met the animal. I've designed the Ragamuffin Pre-Session Questionnaire for my clients, which gives me a fantastic insight into the life and personality of their pet. That way I can tailor my approach to make sure the images I am capturing reflect the character and soul of the furkid that they love so much.
At the beginning of the session I spend some time letting the pet get used to me and my equipment. I prefer to start at their home for this reason - they are relaxed and confident. There's lots of treats, praise and cuddles involved here (well, there are lots of treats, praise and cuddles throughout the session)! I need to bond with my furry clients quickly, but genuinely. I want them to love me. There is no way you are going to be able to capture the essence of their soul if they aren't looking at you with pure love.
I also genuinely love my ragamuffin animals. They are smart - you can't fake love to a dog. It's a relationship that goes both ways, and I believe that the love I feel for them shines through my photography. I get to know the idiosyncrasies of their facial expressions, I know how they like to be talked to. Thanks to the questionnaire that their humans filled out, I know what makes them excited and nervous and content. This much love makes for an emotional job, especially as my ragamuffins get older, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
Once I start photographing, my approach really depends on the individual. For example, if they are confident and very interested in me, then I will immediately focus on capturing dynamic, close-up portraits. If they are more interested in exploring the landscape, then I'll focus on capturing wider environmental portraits and wait until they have settled in before I attempt to move in closer. For portraits with that amazing eye contact and perked up ears, there's often a lot of ridiculously silly noises from me.
My approach with cats is completely different. With cats I work very slowly, starting further away and gradually moving in closer (or using a telephoto lens) as the cat becomes used to me.
S.G.: Do you have more than one folio, and is it digital or hardcopy? Caitlin: I have a digital folio on my ipad, which I have on me at all times and I also have sample albums that I bring to events. However, the work on my website is my most important folio.
S.G.: How often do you update your folio, if you do? Caitlin: Not as often as I would like. But I did just give my website a big makeover and finally got around to updating my portfolio and creating a slideshow on my homepage with some of my very favourite photographs. I love it!
S.G.: What kinds of things make a "successful" image when working with animals? Caitlin: Well, it's all subjective, of course. But for me, on a technical level, the eyes have to be pin-sharp. I'm pretty OCD about that - I want to be able to count their eyelashes. That is, unless you are making the conscious decision to highlight another feature (e.g. their nose, paws or tail).
On a more conceptual level, I think a successful portrait needs to capture a little of the animal's soul or personality. That's why I am so dedicated to getting to know the animal before we start shooting. I also think magic can happen when we photograph pets with their humans. Nothing super pose-y or fake, but when everyone starts to relax and be themselves, and I can capture that look of pure love, then I know I've got something special.
S.G.: How did you begin to develop your folio? Caitlin: When I first started Ragamuffin, I was still in university (studying my BA in Photography at RMIT), so I did have the luxury of time and motivation to develop my portfolio. I worked a lot with rescue animals and did a series of fine art projects to hone my style and message.
S.G.: How do you price your work, what things will make the pricing change? Caitlin: My pricing is calculated based on my cost of goods (e.g. how much it costs for me to create a canvas print, or an album), plus the costs of running my business (everything from the expenses of camera equipment to insurance to marketing) plus my personal cost of living.
When I wrote my business plan for Ragamuffin, I knew I wanted to position myself as the high-end option for pet photography. There are plenty of photographers out there who will shoot-and-burn, but I know my clients feel confident when they choose Ragamuffin because they are hiring a full-time, professional photographer who will never compromise the client experience to save a few dollars. My pricing structure allows me to shoot with my Patience Policy (no time limits) and to offer the very best products to my clients. By going down the high quality/low volume route, I'm able to share a connection with each client that cheaper competitors churning out work cannot offer.
S.G.: Do you have any advice for developing my own folio, and as an emerging photographer? My number one piece of advice would be to practice, practice, practice! Perfect photographic moments with animals are fleeting, so there is a lot of technical skill required. You need to know your equipment inside out, so that you can focus (ha!) 100% on the pet.
Experiment until you start to refine a style (especially when it comes to post-production). During this stage it can be really useful to keep a visual diary full of any photographs or artwork that your find inspiring. You will begin to see an aesthetic pattern emerge. Try to apply that style to your own work, and you may just discover something that works.
As an emerging photographer, I would advise that you be ruthless on your portfolio. You are only as good as your worst photograph, so if it's not amazing don't show it!
I'd also advise that you study the business of photography. I consume business books/information with an insatiable appetite. I'd recommend checking out my list of the Top 10 Business of Photography Blogs.
So that was my interview with S.G.! I meant what I said lovely readers- please don't ever feel intimidated or shy about asking questions. If we don't learn, we don't grow and everyone started at the beginning! For more tips and insights for photographers, you can subscribe to my newsletter here.