Including Pets in Your Portrait Business with Norah Levine
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Pet owners consider their pets to be part of the family. They’re certainly part of mine. Pets are often included in day-to-day activities, brought along on vacation and some pets even go to work with their pet parent. Each year, Americans spend a tremendous amount of money on pet food, bedding, toys, daycare, veterinarians, boarding, training and grooming. Pets are a big deal.
Including pets in your portrait sessions is a smart way to add variety, additional income and a hearty challenge. While I am not suggesting that every portrait photographer needs to become a pet photographer, including furry family members in your work is a fun way to expand your offerings.
As a portrait photographer, you should always look for reasons to give clients a “call to action” for scheduling a session. This article gives some call-to-action inspiration.
Behavior (Yours and the Pet’s)
Before I jump into some of the ways you can filter pets into your portrait business, a note about behavior.
No matter what you do, pay attention to the animal’s behavior—how it is reacting to you, your gear, lights and the general situation. I won’t dive deeply into animal behavior in this article, but use good judgment. It doesn’t matter how incredible your idea is—stressing an animal or putting anyone in danger is not okay and won’t get you a winning photograph.
When I photographed a dog with a family recently, I quickly learned that the dog was terrified of the lights (the owners had never used flash around the dog before, and weren’t aware of this). While I was disappointed I couldn’t continue to use my lighting setup, I had to adapt and move on with the shoot. Adapting is a large part of photographing pets.
Pets and People
People of all ages are often calmer in front of the camera when they have their pet with them. Focusing on their beloved animal allows them to forget about the camera and let their true self shine. Self-conscious individuals often relax and children often forget about overposing for the camera when Fido is near. While adding pets to any type of photo shoot can add a layer (or three) of complexity, it’s well worth the effort.
I always hear from new and expecting parents that their pet is their first baby. Documenting this transition professionally and creatively while their first pet baby is still the only “baby” in the house can be valuable. During this time, there is a lot of emotion and excitement involved in the shift in family dynamics.
Your client may not initially contact you about including a pet in their maternity session, but you can make the suggestion (also add it to your portfolio), and they just might be thrilled about the idea.
Not all of the images in your session have to include fur babies, but you’ll be glad to have more options for your client both from a creative standpoint and in sales. Consider photographing the whole family together, looking at the camera and also engaging with one another and their pet.
Create images where the pet is engaging with the momma-to-be’s belly. Hide a treat in the expecting momma’s hand or ask her to connect with the dog or cat using special words or sounds to capture the pet gazing at their momma. (You can also ask your assistant to give you a hand with the attention-getting.) These sessions can be a lot of fun, and the couple will look back at these images with fondness.
I love photographing lifestyle images of families as they welcome their new precious baby into their lives. Your clients are in the midst of a huge adjustment in their lives, one that many couples want to creatively document. Since pets in the family are adjusting to the new addition, including them in the session adds a layer of challenge, but if the situation is conducive to it, give it a go.
I have seen many photographs with both babies and dogs, and they’re quite sweet—but they make me nervous for safety reasons. I prefer to include pets and newborns in more of a lifestyle situation where I am not holding my breath hoping that the dog doesn’t accidentally knock over or harm the baby. I love dogs and cats, but they are animals with instincts and a level of unpredictability I’d rather not take chances with.
If you decide to closely pose a pet and a newborn, clearly communicate with the pet parents. Have a spotter on hand (preferably one of the parents) to keep a close eye on the pet’s behavior.
Another solution is to ask Mom or Dad to hold the baby and have the dog or cat positioned on the floor, couch or bed. The pet may be super interested in the baby or not at all. Where possible, encourage physical connection of the pet parents with the pet. Including pets in the frame on any level tells the story of this family and this chapter of their lives.
New-pet photo sessions can apply to families with young children, couples or individuals adopting their first dog or cat. When a new pet arrives, a bundle of new memories is created that deserves to be captured by professional photography. You can document the day of adoption or arrival to the home, or have a session just a few weeks after the pet has had time to adjust. This is a very special time, another valuable call to action to keep in mind in your portrait photography business.
All pets leave their mark on our hearts, but first pets are a huge deal. This can be your client’s first pet as an adult, or an elderly pet with whom they spent their childhood. These animals have been there for them during their formative years, and the photographs from these sessions are like gold to them. This is an excellent reason for a portrait session.
Pets are often like siblings to children. If you already specialize in photographing children, adding a pet to even part of your session can add a layer of sweetness and value for your client. Photograph the pet and child playing or cuddling together, or engaged in their favorite activity.
Depending on the age of the child, you can encourage interaction with their pet. Make it a game. Ask them to tell the dog a secret or offer the pet a treat if it sits. If you ask them to handle the pets in any way, encourage soft, gentle movements so as not to scare or annoy the animal.
If you photograph stock imagery, consider using pets in your work. So many households own pets, and pet imagery resonates with them. You can create playful images of pets individually or pets being involved in everyday life. Pay attention to the commercial imagery you see that includes pets.
Attracting the Work
We all know by now that we need to show the kind of work we want to get hired to create. If you want to start including pets in your portrait business, start generating imagery that demonstrates your ability to do so. You may try it out and decide it isn’t your thing, but if you are an animal lover and are up for a challenge, consider these and other ways to expand your portrait client options.
Adding Fifi to the mix may require an extra hand and will likely lead to some new skills. Practice till you’ve learned how to conquer the challenges of working with lighting, composition, directing, camera settings—and a dash of fur.