How to get real emotions from people and their pets

I am often asked how I am able to capture the raw emotions of pets and their owners in photos when neither are professional models and the settings aren't staged. Much like my photography, it all hinges on connection. 

Girl and her 12 year old senior dog during sunset.

Girl and her 12 year old senior dog during sunset.

From my very first encounter with a client, I try to connect with him or her. In my line of work, this is easy because I know we are both animal lovers. Having that very powerful trait in common helps to build the foundation of trust necessary for coaxing out the emotions clients share with their pets.

I also try my best to get to know the owners, not only because I am genuinely interested but also because learning about their background will help inform our session together. After I've gathered the basic information—names, ages, location, breed of pet, etc.—I probe a little further, testing the trust we've built so far. 

What is your pet's story? How did you meet him or her? What is your daily routine? What do you do together that is special? What things are particularly unique to your pet and your relationship with your pet? These are some of the more personal questions I ask in order to better understand who the owners and their pet really are. 

Owner cuddling on a couch his rescue dog.

Owner cuddling on a couch his rescue dog.

As a pet owner and animal lover myself, I know that these are the types of things that are singularly important to the relationship between humans and pets. I challenge you to think of your pets and not immediately be reminded of that special grin they give you when you come home or the way their tongue sticks out when they're feeling playful or whatever silly thing they do that makes you smile. Each of us has a special memory of our pet's unique personality that is personal and meaningful to us.

Once you understand an owner and a pet's story, as a pet photographer, you can pull these emotions out during a photo shoot. Instead of capturing staged, happy faces, drawing from these authentic memories and feelings calls forth the raw and genuine emotions you see captured in my photos.

Proud owner with his two Rodhesian Ridgeback dogs.

Proud owner with his two Rodhesian Ridgeback dogs.

In order to use their story as inspiration for a photo shoot, the owners need to trust you, and that's where connection comes back in. By trust, I am referring to the kind of trust that makes people feel safe sharing with you without fear of judgement. Not everyone is comfortable in front of a camera—especially when you are dealing with real people, not models—and not everyone is comfortable sharing their private relationship with their pet with a stranger.

To help put clients at ease, I share silly stories about my own dog or weird things that we have done together. I want to convey to them that we speak the same language, and I understand the type of relationship they have built with their pet because I have done the same with mine.

 
Girl smiling while holding her Jack Russell Terrier.

Girl smiling while holding her Jack Russell Terrier.

 

Once they feel like I understand them, they are more comfortable interacting with their pet in the way they normally would at home and not the way they feel is expected of them in front of a camera. They trust me to give them direction and suggestions throughout the photo shoot, without being critical or judgemental.

Sometimes, I'll give suggestions that will prompt owners to engage with their pet in a way they may not have thought to do at a photo shoot. Do you want to kiss his belly? Nibble his ear? These are very intimate interactions that owners may not do without prompting, but they are very authentic and emotional moments when captured in the photographs.

Girl chilling on her bed with her beautiful Devon Rex Cat Moose.

Girl chilling on her bed with her beautiful Devon Rex Cat Moose.

Another challenge on set is preventing clients from becoming distracted by the cameras, crew, strobes, and everything else going on around them, so I tell my clients to focus on being present. By present, I mean forget everything that is happening around them and focus on the moment they're sharing with their pets. Take that one moment to share how much your pet means to you and show him how much you love him.

At first glance, my method for working with real people and pets may seem like circular reasoning; how do you capture strong, emotional connections in photographs by building connections first? However, this is an effective and accessible way to capture genuine emotions between owners and pets, and it is not exclusive to pet photography. It can be extremely challenging to capture authentic emotion between real owners and their pets in photographs without taking the time to develop trust through genuine connection.

Military man and his working dog.

Military man and his working dog.

If you're going to be working with real owners and pets who are not trained models, make sure to:

  1. Learn the basics about the client and their pet(s) prior to the session date.
  2. Dig deeper and discover their personal story.
  3. Develop a connection with the owners.
  4. Coach them during the shoot and offer suggestions.
  5. Minimize distractions and remind them to stay in the moment.

I hope that my post has helped you in your journey as animal photographer by giving you some ideas on how to get better photos by connecting more deeply with your subjects.