Let’s Play Movie Director!


Here’s a question I got that’s a good blog topic:

I would love to read up on how to work with the owner or client. Hiring an assistant is expensive unless perhaps one teams up with another pet photographer in the area on occasion? So that means communicating with/coaching the owner ahead of time and on the day of. It’s a challenge adjusting/changing lighting, dealing with technical issues and customer service and giving direction all at the same time.”

I agree! It takes a lot of concentration to make a good animal photograph, and when you are working with the owners to accomplish that it can be a real challenge. My pet peeve is the owner who stands behind me playing movie director shouting, “…take it, take it…shoot….”

Ever had this happen?

It kinda makes you want to shoot them, right?

Ok. Just kidding. Deep breath. The trick is to plan every shoot with Murphy’s Law in mind. Break the shoot into small chunks ahead of time so that “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong” is not a factor when you shoot.

The suggestions below come from many years of working on assignment with owners but they will also work with small animal operations where one person is in charge of the animal photography and their partner takes on the job of photography assistant. I can’t tell you how many times I have been called in to do a shoot where one of the partners is actually a very good photographer, but not well versed in what they needed to go over with their “assistant” before the shoot. Disaster in the making…animal shoots must be completely planned ahead of time from start to finish. If they had just spent a bit more time on the basics ahead of time, they wouldn’t have needed me at all!

Bottom line. Communication with your assistant is key. They need to have a clear understanding of what you want them to do before you begin. It doesn’t have to be a paid professional. Owners have the most up to date knowledge of their animals, so they can do this work as long as they are willing to listen and follow instructions.

So what instructions?

Be sure they know how to set the animal up into a proper stance. If it’s a large animal, they need to practice so that the animal is standing with weight on all four feet. If it’s a smaller animal like a dog, they need to be able to get him/her to sit, stand and stay. Again, if it is your partner who is going to help, don’t assume that they know how to do these things properly. You are the expert. (Just because your partner helps you in the kitchen doesn’t mean they know how to cook the meal without you.) Talk it out before the shoot so you don’t have to talk it out while the animal is standing there getting bored and everyone is frustrated because they don’t know what to do.


Getting a great image of these animals is easy because the owner/handler worked with them ahead of time on the stance.

Ok, check. We are done with that “’chunk” and we have eliminated the hardest part–the part that wears everyone out when the shoot begins because the animal/animals won’t co-operate.

The rest is easy. You are an animal photographer so you  know how to direct the shoot so there won’t be any surprises. Your mind is free to concentrate on the animal and nothing else. Check. Homework finished.

Hey what homework?

Well on the day of the shoot before you begin, you have:

1. Scouted out a good background (no clutter) with good lighting. Check!

2. Run test shots and figured out the correct exposure so you don’t have to think about exposure again. Your settings are set. No last minute fiddling for you. Check! 

3. Discussed any last minute instructions with the handler. Check!

Now you have really whittled down Murphy’s Law. You’ve controlled what you are able to control and you are ready to place the handler and animal into the scene. They both know what is expected of them. If the owner or art director is hanging around behind you issuing orders to shoot, this is the time to tune them out and if possible, give them a job that will keep ‘em busy. Even if the job is irrelevant to what you are doing. (You really need a bottle of water right now, don’t you?)

Take control. Now you are the movie director and you issue the orders as you concentrate on the animal in front of the lens. Click, click click. Done.

That’s right. You’re done because you did all the homework ahead of time. The shoot is the easy part and you know you have to be ready and you have  to work fast because you only have a short window to make the image. After about ten minutes the animal’s concentration is gone and it’s all downhill.

So have some fun by setting up a mock shoot and practicing these suggestions. Your efforts will pay off when you go to your next show and direct a shoot while your animal is groomed to the nines. Wow! The animal looks terrific, they are standing correctly and everyone is on the same page to make a great image. Good job. Well done.