New Zealand pet photographer Tara Sutherland talks to Storyline about her recent business venture into pet photography. We hear about how her dog’s cancer diagnosis revealed the sudden awareness of the fragility of life and how that motivated her desire to preserve memories through photography. Capturing the intimate connection between pet and pet owner is a talent Sutherland has mastered and the journey to photographing “the face” or that special moment has provided plenty of laughs along the way.
SL: You take captivating, gorgeous photos (or do you call them portraits?) of pets for their owners. This is a very specialized genre. Can you give us a little back-story into how this all came about?
Firstly – thank you! I make photographs, sometimes I call them portraits. I don’t think the description matters, it’s the moment and the emotion that matters. All I really care about is that the pet owner feels connected to what we create.
I’ve been running around with a camera in my hands for …let’s just say way more than ten years. Travelling, whether day road trips, weekend missions or months overseas, has always been a big part of who I am, and documenting them in both pictures and words has to be a part of that travel experience for me.
In 2011, I started a 365 Project – taking a photograph a day for 365 days. The first photograph I posted was of my cat and at the time I remember joking that I hoped it wouldn’t be 365 photos of him. Thankfully it wasn’t!! The 365 Project was an amazing stretch of my photography skills. I photographed flowers and sunsets and landscapes and people portraits – and my cat. I tried new techniques and equipment, had massive failures with some photographs and successes with others. (A couple were published, one won a competition and I sold prints of a few others.) I found that the ones I enjoyed making the most were the sunsets and the portraits. Pets are a little more relaxed about having their photo taken than most humans however. People, you need to stop shying away from the camera!
Fast forward a couple of years and I adopted Nixie Lix (my American Bulldog cross) from the SPCA and there were a lot of photographs taken of her. A combination of dog obedience classes, and learning about animal behaviour resulted in me specialising in pet photography. I hoped to provide people with the types of photographs of their pets that I absolutely treasure of mine.
SL: Tell us more about your own pets. How have they inspired you?
My own pets are most definitely my inspiration. Before we start, I AM aware that all my pets have three names. I reckon you need a middle name so it sounds just that little bit cool when you are telling them off! Napoleon James Dynamite is a super moggy cat. He is incredibly grumpy and has a very bad attitude. But he has been with me through super crappy times and I love him – feral or no. Nixie Tilda Lix is almost two, she’s an American Bulldog/Greyhound cross – and she’s just the loveliest. She was diagnosed with a Fibrosarcoma last year (a canine cancer) and nothing made me surer that pet photography is the thing that I am meant to be doing. Not just for me, but for other pet parents too. Nixie is a spokes model, a model, a would-be-champion Frisbee catcher, and she takes up ninety percent of the couch. Django Mako Lix is our little boy. He came to us via Chained Dog Awareness and Auckland Puppy Rescue. He has had the absolute hardest start to life. He is the most snugly out of the lot but also requires the most management. But Django’s snuggles make all the challenges totally worth it!
SL: What’s involved when taking photos portraits of pets? Can you talk us through the process?
The portrait process starts long before I pick up the camera. It is really important for me to learn about the pets first – and their relationship with their owners. Their relationship is the real subject that we will be photographing. I also do a little research on the breed – a little history and find out about some of their more unique features. (I stay away from a lot that is written about personality though. Breed specific personalities are a whole different conversation!) Then, whilst keeping an eye on the weather, we look for a location that will be suitable or find out about the place that the owners have chosen. Often for older and ill pets, and most often for cats, that location is their home. I love taking portraits at home – animals are super comfy here and you get loads of little stories about the mischief they have gotten up to during their lives.
SL: Do you have a studio or do you do most of your work “on location”?
The majority of my pet photography sessions are done on-location. We have amazing scenery here in New Zealand and we all love to make the most of it. Letting the dogs out to play really brings their life onto the photograph. For the winter, I have created a mini studio in my home. This started as a personal project – I have some photographs in mind that I would like to create, so I am currently practicing on my two willing and one hating models. I also have access to a couple of studios around the country so if that’s what my clients want … My clients get what they want.
SL: What are the elements that make up a great image?
If you asked all the photographers in the world, I bet ninety-nine percent of them would say, “light is the most important element of any photograph”. For a pet portrait, I would say that light is the second, or even third, most important element on the list. A pet portrait is made to be looked at – and it is usually made for the owner to look at. The owner’s connection to that portrait is extremely important and you obtain that connection through ‘the face’. I’m looking for the expression on the pet’s face that the owner recognises and can connect to. You know when you have it – you can feel the emotion from the owner when they see it. That emotion, that feeling is worth more than the portrait fee itself.
SL: How do you manage the pets for each photo shoot? They say, “you should never work with children or animals” but you’ve chosen to work with pets anyway. Got any secrets to share about how you contain/manage pets to bring out the best image?
In the grand scheme of things, dogs are almost the easiest! Cats are assholes, horses are big goofs, and alpacas spit. My secret would be to find out as much as you can about the animal first. Ask the owner what the animal likes and doesn’t like. Some love food as a reward, others are all about their toys. Some loathe people getting too close, some like to be chased. Pets are as different as we are! To get a great image, take your time and try all the angles.
SL: Have you got any funny stories around photo shoots that you would like to share?
Every session has me in giggles for a large part – the dogs often try and steal the treats from my camera bag or I get bowled over by the affection. I was trying to photograph Floyd the Doberman in a tender moment with his mum while his sister Plum was sitting beside me licking my ears.
SL: How have you approached the marketing side of your business and how have you used social media to share your business with audiences?
I have to say, marketing absolutely scares the pants off me! But it is a necessary evil that needs to be conquered so I am learning what to do and how to do it well. My first real year of business saw me utilising social media quite a lot. As photography is image based, the social media platform Facebook is a natural fit for photographers. But you need to pay to play on Facebook – even with a good group of supporters. We’re told to create great content so that it will be commented on, liked and shared, however there is just SO MUCH CONTENT on Facebook that people scroll through their feed quite quickly. The content we create has to have a connection in order for it to make its way into the newsfeeds of those that would be interested in hiring us.
Twitter is a whole different beast – the timeline scrolls even quicker and even with a great image, it is the platform that requires the most investment for it to work for you (or rather, me). It’s about building lasting relationships rather than just one off clients so most of my commercial work comes from Twitter – once they see past the potty mouth and photos of food that also come along for the ride!
Out of the three social media platforms I invest my time in, Instagram feels more natural and more connected – but without the call to action of the others. There are no links to click so I don’t feel like I am selling myself. People that follow me get photos from inside my house as well as the studio and on-location, they can see the difference between an iPhone shot and one from my Nikon, and I can post anything that I want to at any time without sticking to a ‘plan’.
What I think a lot of people don’t realise is that even though we don’t pay a fee, social media isn’t ‘free’. If you want people to see your post, yes you can pay, but you have to put some time and effort into it. And just like anything, that time should be multiplied by your non-shooting fee so you know what the real cost of it is.
Outside of social media, my marketing plan currently involves regular new content on my website, getting involved with other pet related businesses and looking at co-marketing events. I regularly donate to community auctions and I attend as many events as I can. If you have any other ideas – let me know!!
You can contact Tara Sutherland through the following links: