Shooting pictures with animals is not as easy as it looks.
Recently I was asked to make pictures of a Pet Clinic. At a first glance, an easy job; taking interior shots with a dog here and there and its done.
Reality is something else. When I met the Veterinarians, it was obvious that they had no idea on what was to be portrait. So we started to talk , and defined what was possibile.
The pictures had to be animal friendly, showing the openness, good care and professionalism of their bussines . Covering the operations quarter, medical check-up, nursing facility, waiting room and so on.
I visited the Pet Clinic and explored the possibilities, learning what a Vet does and tried to picturize their job and how I could convey the message into pictures.
Selecting dog actors
I needed animal actors with the right doses of coddling . So, why not a dog, cat and a few kids. That always works.
It’s fundamental that the dog is calm, relaxed, controlled, obedient, well behaved, sweet and lovely. After all, the dog will act as the patient and be placed on the examination table, the X-ray scan, aspiration apparatus and so on. A lot to ask for, especially since most dogs do not like a Vet or the Pet Clinic just like a child doesn’t like the dentist.
Selecting the right breed is crucial, considering the strange environment, the people and kids that will be part of the shoot.
There are many breeds, all lovely and gentle if raised properly. Yet the public opinion has characterised or should I say stigmatized certain breeds as dangerous. Despite the fact that this is only a perception. It needs to be considered as it will set the public opinion.
Hence the selection of the right breed is essential for a successful shoot. The choice fell on a Border collie.
The Border collie is an intelligent dog widely considered to be the most intelligent. Although the primary role of the Border collie is to herd livestock, they are becoming increasingly popular as a companion animal. They are playful, and energetic eminently trainable.
I invited a Border Collie owner for a meet and greet, and see how the dog reacts to kids, people and camera /flash gear. And most of all if the dog has the stigma and character to act. Good control over the dog is essential (by the owner). Border Collies tend to be very agile, and because of that behaviour it didn’t work out with the first selected dog.
With the next Border Collie things were very different, the meet and greet session was a pleasure and we decided to visit the Pet Clinic.
A time and place for the dog to explore and get used to. Remember that some dogs just freak out at the Vet’s place. If they do, then you need to look for another dog despite the fact that all else was great. It’s always good practice to take two or more dogs with you , belonging to the same owner and part of the same group. It creates an at-ease feeling for the dog who will act in the shoot.
The day of the shoot;
Invite all the dogs and people way ahead of the actual shooting time (at least 1 hour). Make sure that the dog owner exercised the dog before the shoot so that they have drained some of their energy.
Let the dog and people socialize to the Pet Clinic and each other . Let the dog run around and have all participants to meet the dog. Show the dog the camera, let them smell at it and see how they react to flash light. Do this in a playful manner and let the dog owner drive the meet event as he or she knows what the dog likes and what not.
After the play and meet time elapsed, start with all the participants the rehearsal of the different scene’s. Including placing the dog in the different positions. Explain to the owner what you expect from the dog and let the owner position the dog.
Obviously the people that will be part of the scene will need to participate, and especially when the dog owner steps out of the scene.
Talk to the dog owner where he should stand and what kind of attention you want from the dog. For instance if the dog lays on the operation table, you don’t want the dog to look up. So ask the trainer to sit low. So that the dog will look down.
Once the different scenes have been exercised the real work will start.
Start with one scene, be calm and relaxed as dogs will react to your own behavior. If you as a photographer are afraid of dogs, then don’t do a shoot like this as it will not work.
Place your lights (flash units) in the scene, adjust the light. Place the camera on a tripod and focus where you want to have the focus. Yes, I know nobody is in the scene yet. Focus on where things will be. Lock the focus and take a shot, check the histogram and framing, if all is good, get on with the next step.
Place the people into position, have them to take a pose the way you need it to be. Tell them to hold that position. At the last moment let the dog owner place the dog in the scene and wait for the right moment.
Don’t wait too long as the dog will not be that patient. If need be, start all-over again and give the dog a break. Don’t get nervous as it will rub off onthe dog and that will be the end of the shoot.
Take your time and work through the scenes.
Making pictures with animals is very rewarding and joy-full as long as you have patience, lots of patience and love animals. If you have no patience nor love for animals, then don’t shoot this kind of pictures as it is not going to work.
Thanks for reading