Photographers don’t always make safety a priority, and many times they are tempted to do things that nonphotographers shake their head at. If you are like me, you can get so caught up in getting a shot that your safety can take a back seat. For example, I’ve inadvertently stepped off a curb and into the road while photographing a subject on the sidewalk without looking at where I was going. Fortunately, no accidents occurred, so no real harm was done.
All this changes when you’re working with animals because not only are you responsible for your own safety, but you are responsible for the animal’s safety as well. As a pet photographer, you need to keep your subject safe, and you need to keep yourself safe from your subject. Some animals can act out when they feel stressed or threatened, and that can result in them turning on you.
You can take a few good measures to minimize the stress and increase the safety level of the photo shoot:
Pick a familiar spot. As with most people, I am more comfortable in my own living room than I am when I’m in someone else’s house. It’s a pretty natural feeling to be more comfortable in familiar surroundings, and this is very true when it comes to animals. Photographing my pets at my home and in locations they are comfortable in is much easier than photographing them anywhere else. This is even more important when I’m photographing someone’s else’s pets that don’t know me. Having them pose in an area where they usually hang out makes it much easier to get a great photo because they are content and calm. It’s the best location to start any pet photo shoot. My dog Odessa loves to lie out in the sun on the back deck, so it’s easy to capture this scene because she is very relaxed, as you can see in Figure 4.1.
Figure 4.1 Odessa loves to sun herself on the back deck, making it easy to get photographs of her. This is one relaxed dog.
Nikon D2X • ISO 100 • 1/80 sec. • f/4.5 • 50mm lens
- Use a long lens. Using a longer focal length can help you fill the frame with your subject and still stay a safe distance away. My favorite lens is the 70–200mm f/2.8, which you can purchase from Nikon or Canon, and every third-party lens manufacturer makes a version. This lens allows you to get in close and still have a very shallow depth of field with a wide aperture of f/2.8 through the full focal-length range. On the negative side, the lens is expensive and heavy, especially if you are holding the camera up to your eye for an extended period of time while waiting to take a photo.
- Stay calm. Animals can pick up on your mood very quickly. They can read the nonverbal cues in your body language and will sense how you feel. If you are anxious or upset, they’ll know it and react. Although I’m not a dog trainer, I have worked with a few, and the one necessity that they’ve all discussed is that you need to be calm when you’re dealing with dogs and other animals. It can be tougher than you think to remain composed, especially when your model doesn’t seem to understand what you want or keeps trying to chew on your camera lens. When you feel as though you’re getting frustrated, just stop and take a breath. Remember that letting the animal have fun is the most important aspect of a shoot.
Keep your eyes open. Photographers tend to get tunnel vision and only pay attention to the subject that’s in the image they’re taking. When you’re photographing more than one pet simultaneously, you need to keep an eye out for all of them. For example, recently I was photographing a pair of horses and was so fixated on one that I didn’t notice the second one sneaking up on me. And yes, horses can sneak up on you. By the time I noticed the second horse, he was pushing me over with his head, which was not the best way to interact with an animal that outweighs you many times over (Figure 4.2).
Figure 4.2 imagine my surprise as i looked up to find this horse much closer than i expected. i was so busy paying attention to the other horse that i lost track of where this horse was.
Nikon D700 • ISO 200 • 1/4000 sec. • f/4.0 • 70–200mm lens
- Watch your gear. Be aware of where you put your camera bag and any other equipment you might have with you. You want to keep your gear close to you so you can change lenses if needed or conveniently grab a reflector or diffuser to use. Keep in mind that when you open a diffuser or reflector, it could spook your subject, so work slowly. You might even find a lizard hanging out on one of your lenses (Figure 4.3).
Talk to the owner and the pet. The best source of information about the pet that you are photographing will come from the owner. Talk to them about what the pet likes and doesn’t like, or if the pet has a favorite spot or favorite toy. The more information you have, the easier it will be to get and keep the pet relaxed and calm. For example, one of my dogs loves people and has no problem with anyone coming up and scratching her head; the other is a bit timid and needs more time to warm up to strangers. Talking to the pets you’re working with in a calm, low tone helps to assure them you are not a threat and that all is well.
Figure 4.3 You never want to leave your gear unattended because it might attract one of your subjects. Full disclosure: The lizard was placed carefully on the lens and enjoyed hanging out from that vantage point.
Nikon D3200 • ISO 800 • 1/60 sec. • f/11 • 105mm lens