I am not a pet photographer, I’m a family photographer.
My goal for every in-home family lifestyle session is to document the current chapter of the family’s life – to capture their story right now. This means including all the characters of the story: there’s Mom, Dad, brother, sister, baby, and of course… the family pet!
Whether the family dog was mom and dad’s first baby or whether a new puppy, kitten, lizard or hamster is the latest addition, pets are an important part of family life and thus, an important part of their story. I love to imagine families looking back at the photos from their sessions and marveling at how much their tiny furball of a kitten has grown, or remembering a beloved and bewhiskered older dog who has since passed over the rainbow bridge.
By including Spot as a member of the family, I’m giving my clients a complete story of this chapter of their lives and a full spectrum of memories and details to “ooh” and “aah” over for years to come.
I approach all my sessions with a casual, documentary style approach, with the goal of helping all my subjects relax and have fun – all the better for capturing their natural expressions and interactions. Here are some tips to help document the family pet’s role authentically.
You’ll notice that I’ve focused on dogs, but these tips can be used and adapted for any other family pet – furry, feathered or otherwise – as long as you factor in the unique characteristics of the pet.
1. Greet the family, and the family pet, without your camera.
Parents, of course, are always expecting me when I arrive for their sessions. Pets and little kids, on the other hand, have no idea why I’m there or what to expect from me. Sometimes I’m met at the door with exuberance and hysteria, and sometimes my smaller and furrier subjects are peeking shyly from behind doors and furniture.
I take my time upon arrival to get down to their level, greet them in a friendly and casual way, and set the tone for my visit. The sooner they’re able to relax into my presence, the sooner we can get down to the business of capturing their routines and having fun.
2. Let them be.
Since my goal is to capture the family as they are, I do minimal orchestration for the majority of each session, preferring to accompany my families through whatever routines and activities are part of their daily lives. I remind myself to pay attention to what Fido’s doing as I follow the kids around, and notice and capture his role in the activities.
By letting them be as they are, I capture moments with significance I may not understand until the parents tell me later. (“Hattie just loves to watch over the family through the staircase balustrades – I can’t believe you got this photo of her in her favorite spot!”)
3. Talk to mom and dad about relaxing the rules.
This is a tip I adapted from working with little kids. Maybe Rufus isn’t allowed up on the furniture, but when Daddy comes home, he invariably bounds onto the back of the living room couch with the kids to offer an enthusiastic greeting from the window. That’s a classic memory that’s worth a little lapse in discipline.
4. Consider safety first.
Pets are unpredictable, and you aren’t familiar with their personalities and eccentricities. Always talk to parents ahead of time about their comfort level with allowing furry friends close to babies and kids, and remind them during the session that it’s up to them to pull the plug on a scenario that they know might be dangerous based on their familiarity with the pet.
The giggles you can get from allowing a beloved puppy to excitedly chase a five-year-old around the house might make for a treasured memory, but if it’s not something that’s generally allowed to happen because of a known tendency to get overexcited and nip at her heels, the activity will not end on a happy note.
5. Ask them to put on a show.
Does Daisy know any tricks? Will Fluffy shake hands? Does Lassie give kisses? Can Charlie roll over on command? Does Quincy like to dance on his hind legs? Asking the family to show off their pet’s tricks and special talents is a great way to make them part of the family’s interactions. And the hugs, treats and belly rubs that are sure to ensue after the performance are great moments to capture.
6. Include pets in more formal portraits, too.
I always smush the family together a few times during the session to get a few slightly more formal family portraits. I offer to include the pets in at least one of these more staged photos. To get Fido looking in our general direction, I’ve developed a few tricks over the years.
The first – the easiest and most reliable, I’ve found – is simply to bark. Yes, that’s right, I bark at the whole family. Invariably, Fido’s ears perk up and of course, I get a good laugh from the kids and parents as a bonus! If barking doesn’t work (or if for whatever reason I’m not in a barking mood), I’ve also had success with a whistle, a party horn or a duck caller. I build suspense while the family settles into their spot on the couch or floor (“What’s this silly thing I have in my pocket?!”), dramatically blow on the noisemaker, and then snap away at the reaction.
Anyone who’s ever felt the love and loyalty of a family pet knows that memories of that relationship will always be intertwined with their memories of family life.
By including family pets in my lifestyle photo sessions, I’m helping them enjoy those memories with something tangible and beautiful.