Never Work With Animals or Children
“Never work with animals or children.”
– W. C. Fields.
As a pet-centric portrait photographer, I work with animals and children all the time. Often at the same time.
When people I meet find out what I do for a living- after they finish questioning my sanity – they frequently ask me, “Which are harder to photograph – kids or dogs?”
Well, that depends on the child and on the dog. No, seriously.
Dogs and young children share an enviable trait that makes them rewarding subjects: they lack self-consciousness. The most compelling portraits illustrate people who don’t look as though they’re thinking about being photographed. Clearly, not an issue with dogs. Young children don’t generally think in those terms either – that is, until adolescence. From that point forward, self-consciousness becomes by far the most significant (and challenging) obstacle in photographing people.
Luckily for me, I find that most adults and post-adolescent children become less self-conscious when they share the spotlight with a beloved (albeit non-human) friend. Then the portrait becomes more about the relationship and less about the “me”, which is ultimately my goal. I portray connections and emotions, which can often be seen in a palpable manner, but go undetected if the subjects aren’t comfortable enough. With kids and dogs, trust is key.
Both kids and the dogs take a bit of warming up. Whereas an adult might walk into the studio and, after a brief get-to-know-you chat, sit down under the lights, my smaller subjects have to be won over. They need to feel safe. Earning their trust often requires a more oblique approach. This usually means letting them walk around the studio and “sniff the corners” – both literally and figuratively. Yes, I let toddlers sniff my camera. I draw the line at licking. Only for the toddlers, though.
Since kids and dogs are usually small and therefore lower to the ground, I find it helpful to get down on their level. It’s a win-win: I get more interesting photos, and children appreciate the gesture. They respond well to adults coming down to their level to talk. In the case of very small dogs, getting the camera right down onto the floor gives owners an unusual perspective on their pet (and a window into their pet’s perspective on the world!)
Dogs and children have limited attention spans, so we tend to work in short bursts, punctuated by play breaks. When it comes to directing, both dogs and children respond better to persuasion (treat, anyone?) than literal direction.
Kids and pets probably differ most significantly in terms of language comprehension. Dogs usually know a few verbal commands, but asking them to “step just a little to your left” or “tilt your head toward the light” doesn’t work so well. Clearly those commands aren’t covered in obedience school.
Meeting and photographing dogs and children (and the families they bring along) continues to fascinate me after over twenty years. I am so passionate about the challenges and rewards of photographing kids and dogs that I think the more appropriate question would be, “Which are more fun to photograph, kids or dogs?”