10 Tips for a Themed Pet Photoshoot
Copy: Serena Faber-Nelson
Photography: The Labs & Co. & Jaymi Heimbuch
Pet lifestyle expert Serena Faber-Nelson is the founder of Pretty Fluffy. A contributor to Everyday with Rachael Ray, Modern Dog Magazine, Cesars Way and more; her modern, stylized take on DIY dog treats has seen her recipes viewed millions of times over.
Serena is the author of the go-to dog mom bible, Dog Mama, and the popular dog treat recipe book, Healthy Homemade Dog Treats.
Everyone is a photographer these days. Whether you’re armed with an iPhone or a fancy-pants camera, beautiful images are now a way of life for a lot of us.
So when it comes to life’s celebrations, sometimes it’s fun to go all out with a party and themed photoshoot. But, how to you actually turn your idea into a reality?
Today, talented photographer Natalia from The Labs & Co. is here to share her top 10 tips for creating a Themed Pet Photoshoot.
So whether you’ve got your pups b-day coming up, or want a cool snap for this years Christmas card – her tips will be sure to help!
Have you ever looked at a photograph and wondered “How did they do that?”
Sometimes, a photograph can be as simple as freezing a passing moment in time, and others, especially for conceptual photoshoots, there is a lot of planning, prepping, scouting, training and if applicable, post-production work that goes on behind the scenes.
When our friend, past client and fellow photographer/writer Jaymi Heimbuch approached us about collaborating on a birthday-themed photoshoot for her pup Niner (a dear BFF of our little Willow), we were thrilled and game for the challenge.
Jaymi had dreamed up a birthday party scenario among canine best friends in a Hundred Acre Wood setting, with warm light, oak trees, hand-made decorations, presents and of course, cake! When she voiced her ideas and shared her inspiration board with me, I took her to a place that I thought would fit her vision.
We scouted a location together, and Jaymi went about gathering the materials and props we would need to make our Hundred Acre Wood birthday scene come to life. I love crafty and organized folks, and Jaymi delivered there and then some. She made all of the props and baked the “pupcakes” our dogs got to enjoy during the party.
Themed shoots have a way of moulding themselves into what they are meant to be at the time. They might be different from what you originally envisioned, or they might be dead on what you imagined. Whatever they turn out to be though, they are quite a fun experience (ideally) and a great source of learning.
If there was one true thing about our birthday shoot, it was that we all had a blast. The humans had fun putting everything together and trying to keep the dogs from tearing it apart (too soon) and then enjoyed watching the dogs have their little party, pupcakes and all.
Instead of the one birthday image we set out to get, we got a storybook filled with little moments, behind the scenes and centre stage, wrapped in golden light, surrounded by oak trees, woodpeckers and three very happy dogs. It was an afternoon to remember.
How do you make something like this happen at home? Here are my top 10 tips for a themed photoshoot with pets…
1. Brainstorm, clarify and write down your ideas
Don’t underestimate this step, the more clear you are about what you want to accomplish, the easier it will be to figure out HOW to accomplish it. Sketch, imagine, jot down notes, create an inspiration board, do whatever you need to be able to express what is in your mind.
This step is particularly important if you are enlisting the help of others (which I highly recommend). A note on inspiration: it is different to be inspired by than to copy. Be cool, don’t copy, be original and if you are really inspired by something, credit your sources and find ways of making it your own.
2. Make a shot “wish list”
Small pieces and tasks are a lot easier to accomplish when they are broken down. Think about your light source, will it be natural or will you need some auxiliary light? Think about your location, do you need to go find a good place or will you shoot it in a controlled environment indoors? Will you have props? And if so, how many of those do you have, how many do you need to get, how many can you make yourself?
Lists are your friend, plus it feels really nice to check them off when completed, doesn’t it? Make a wish list for the shots you want to make sure and get, it will keep your brain from going bonkers on the day of the shoot, when you will have a million other things to think about.
3. Scout your location
Don’t skip this step. Don’t! Knowing where you will shoot and what the light looks like at the time you want to shoot is crucial! You also need to time how long it takes you to get there, and leave enough time to set-up and break down your set after you are done.
In this case, Jaymi wanted a Hundred Acre Wood setting, with warm light and oak trees, so I took her hiking to one of my favorite locations. I am very familiar with this place, I hike and shoot there all the time, so I know what the light looks like at certain times of the day. For the purposes of this shoot, I suggested we start location scouting at 2:00 p.m., to give us enough time to hike and look for the right spot. We found two great potential spots, and knowing we would have to hike in for 30 minutes or so, with a lot of props, equipment and three dogs, we left ourselves a couple of hours before the magic hour (in our case 4:00 p.m.) when we knew the light would be perfect.
The day of the shoot, we ended up choosing one of the two spots that was closest to the cars, making it a lot easier on ourselves. When you scout, take pictures! If you can, bring your model, or get a stand-in, but take pictures and take note of where you were, so you can find your way back later.
4. Gather your props and equipment
You don’t want to be wishing you had something the day of the shoot, so start going through your list and gathering what you need. Jaymi had her list and purchased some props, gathered some she already had and then made some too! She was very smart in having a budget for what she wanted to spend on this, and most if not all the items she purchased were things she will likely use in the future.
In terms of gear, test out your camera and gear before the big day. Make sure everything is working well to avoid glitches. Chances are, that if your battery dies or your flash card fails or you forgot water, that you will miss your magic hour moment to go to the nearest store to get it. Planning folks, it saves lives.
5. Communicate with your helpers
Communication is key if you want a successful shoot. Jaymi, Bill and I are good friends and we were more than happy to collaborate on this fun project with her, and a big part of the success of this was constant communication and openness. She knew what she wanted but she was open to suggestions and ideas, we all asked questions and yes, we did talk about all the nuances of collaborating professionally, the things nobody thinks about such as: “Who will own the copyright to these images? What if they show up somewhere without permission? What if one of us wants to sell them as cards?” etc.
Even though we are all good friends, it was important to protect ourselves from all the what ifs. We opted for a shared copyright for all, which is great because there’s not only one person looking out for the images, but three! Both Jaymi and us have had burns with copyright infringement, so we decided to be proactive here and registered all our images before they left our computers. Something else I HIGHLY recommend.
6. Prep/train with your models
This is applicable of course if you are working with live models, whether people or animals, the both need to know what you’d like them to do for your photograph, and prepping them accordingly will make it easier on them and give you more of a chance to nail the shot. Plus, it will ensure everyone has a good time during the shoot.
For our Hundred Acre Wood shoot, we wanted three dog friends to enjoy a birthday party scene, so with that in mind, we figured we would need our dogs to hold their “stay” commands, which all three dogs have pretty solidly. That being said, I worked on “stay with distractions and food” present because I know my dogs, and I know that in a fun environment, with not only dog friends around, but people they love and cows in the distance, and many other distractions, holding their basic “stay” was going to be a lot harder.
The other thing we worked on was desensitizing them to wearing a birthday hat. Don’t just assume your dog will be ok with wearing something on the first try, you can certainly give it a go, but more often than not, this new thing will cause their face expression to change or their body to feel uncomfortable and you DON’T want your models feeling uncomfortable, in any way, shape or form. It will be obvious in the photos.
Knowing what your dogs can and can’t do is important, and respecting them and praising them for that is even more crucial. We knew Niner and Willow were comfortable and great at perching, so we used that. We knew that Niner can hold items in his mouth or on his head, so that made getting the present shots a little easier. We knew Corbin would be more comfortable sitting or laying down because of his older age, so we worked that into the shot as well.
Most of all, we knew all three dogs genuinely enjoy each other’s company, so we were never worried about having food or treats around for all of them to enjoy. Even though, these are all well-trained dogs, the shoot was not without challenge, and it is important to arm yourself with patience and good humor. Why else would you do something like this if not for fun?
7. Be Flexible
So you are not quite getting what you originally imagined. So what? One of the greatest lessons I have learned in doing themed shoots, ESPECIALLY when working with animals, is to think on your feet and go with the flow. Don’t miss capturing what is going on in front of you because you are frustrated with not getting what you originally hoped for.
I don’t know if Jaymi got her money shot, but I know that together, we got a ton of images that made us all VERY happy. The light just kept getting better, and the dogs kept offering opportunities to photograph. Sometimes the things you don’t plan for, are the ones that made it all worthwhile, and more often than not, it is that experience that you will remember most.
8. Edit wisely
During our editing process, I ask myself the same questions: Does this image help tell a story? Does it convey the emotion or mood I am hoping for? Do my models look happy and comfortable? Is it aesthetically and technically pleasing? I value composition, light and emotion over focus and a technically perfect image, every single time.
It comes from my analog background of shooting film, I love imperfections with purpose, such as grain, flare, focus planes and crop. Those images to me, help tell more of a story and are more interesting than a technically perfect, crisply sharp, well-lit frame. Both have tremendous value, but the magic happens when you can combine the two ends into one.
9. Don’t over think your post-production
Bill and I come from the school of thought to “get it in camera first”. I did major in digital imaging, so I know how to make a red towel turn blue and build a fairy forest out of a city landscape. Photoshop is amazing and anything is possible. But unless that is what you are actively going for (and planning for), be true to your concept and don’t over think your post production.
We did so much planning and prepping for this shoot, that post production really didn’t go beyond basic color, contrast and retouching out doggie eye boogers. The best advice I can give you on Photoshop work is that it resembles flower arrangements: you can start with a whole lot of flowers, plants and fillers, and gradually take some away until you come to the perfect arrangement.
10. Take note from what you learned…
What did you learn from this experience? What would you have done differently? What will you do differently next time? What worked and what didn’t? All those things are valid and part of the learning experience.
Now, before you go on about sharing this amazing thing you created, go online and register your work with the copyright office. Do this before your photos go anywhere, especially if they have the potential of going viral or share-happy.
That’s all folks, I hope you enjoyed a look at what went on behind the scenes for Niner’s birthday shoot, and if you are inspired to create your own themed photoshoot, we look forward to hearing about it.
Hope these tips help you out. Have fun out there!
ABOUT THE LABS & CO
Bill Parsons and Natalia Martinez are the team behind Northern California-based The Labs & Co.
With a shared passion for animals, their work in photography, boutique graphic design and illustration centers around companion animals. They work with private and commercial clients and volunteer services to shelters and rescue organizations.
The Labs & Co. is a proud member of HeARTs Speak and honored to be a favorite to a variety of companies, organizations and publications including Bark Magazine, PLAY Pet Lifestyle and You, K9 Scrub Club, as well as the Sonoma and Marin Humane Society.
They live in Petaluma, CA supported by their pack: dogs Corbin and Willow and cats Leeloo and RT.
Copy: Serena Faber-Nelson
Photography: The Labs & Co. & Jaymi Heimbuch