Pet photographer: the moment it clicks

Interview with dog photographer, Fenne
By Laure-Anne Visele, written Nov 2012
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Behind the scenes with pet pros

This article is part of a series of chats with dog professionals. When their story is too fascinating to pass, I grab pen and paper and we chat about their lives, their jobs, their aspirations.

In each interview, I let you peek beyond the business card, and we reveal what it is really like to be vet, a lecturer, a lobbyist

Fenne and one of the assistance dogs she has fostered

Fenne Kustermans is a university-trained pet photographer. She lives in Antwerp (Belgium) with her partner, Joeri, and three dogs.

Fenne has many passions, but her two most transparent ones are: light and dogs. What got me in her pictures was not just the technical quality (out of this world), but the life that is bursting out of them. Visit her galleries, and you’ll be transported from one magic shot to the other.

So, like so many of us educated women with a passion for dogs, she swapped catwalks and champagne for Frolicks and muddy shoes.

Here comes the story of Fenne’s career with her hairy, funny, dopey friends.

Career path

L-A: Your pictures have it all: composition, capture, colour. So: natural born talent, or a hard-working diligence?

Fenne: I learnt the technical side of things when I did my BA in Photography. It’s funny, my fellow students dreamed of making it into the fashion world, but my heart was already into dogs…

Anyway, so I learnt a lot at college, but i think it’s also in me: I see pictures everywhere. I notice details that people just walk right past. I am addicted to light.

Also, with photography, you never really finish learning. I am constantly exploring, trying out new things.

L-A: So you experiment a lot?

Fenne: Definitely a lot more since digital photography! Now, I’ll click even if the light isn’t perfect, and I get instant feedback.

Playing around with the depth of field

I also like to experiment with concepts. But I generally use my own dogs for that, as I need a model that is used to the studio and whom I know inside out.

L-A: With your curiosity and drive, you must be a constant student, no?

Fenne: Definitely. Right now, I am combining work with a full-time Graphic Design and Illustration degree. It’s tough scheduling, but I had to do it. It’s like my brain is breathing again.

L-A: Among all the beautiful shots you’ve taken, do you have a favorite picture? Which one are you most proud of?

Fenne: I couldn’t single one out. I guess I am happiest with my work when I have managed to capture a little bit of the dog’s story. I try to catch the small moments: the typical habit, the familiar look, the funny pose…

L-A: Have you been published in print?

Fenne: I get media assignment once in a while: magazines, a book, a commercial, a TV television show … But most of my work is for regular families.

Fenne's picture on the front page

I also take promotional photos for pet businesses, like this Mexican Hairless one for a dog groomer.

L-A: What’s your next career move?

Fenne: I don’t plan that far ahead anymore. I had this hip problem a while back, and I had to quit my job. It’s made me realize that life is too short to plan everything, and to postpone your dreams. So I follow every path that calls me –like the dogs, these studies– and see where it leads me. It’s a constant evolution, and you can see that in my work.

I like that I am not tied down to just one thing. There are so many things I want to do: like seeing the world… So I’m going to finish my studies, and then we’ll see.

The tech stuff – skip if you’re not a photographer

L-A: So, are you a Nikon, or a Canon girl?

Fenne: I am not a die-hard fan of a particular brand. Nikon was cheaper when I was studying, so that’s the one I got, and I stuck with it. I have the D300 as my main camera, and the D7000 as backup.

L-A: How do you deal with less-than-ideal background or light conditions? Do you spend hours post-editing in Photoshop?

Fenne: I can make tricky backgrounds work for me. They don’t have to be a problem. Given a choice, of course, I’d pick the seaside: the  light is amazing there, especially in the Autumn.

Clean background: a seaside shoot

But most people call me in the Spring –when the light is harsher. But even then, there are these great moments for light, like early in the morning.

So really, the tricky situation is when the light is harsh and scattered –a bright day in the woods or in a shaded garden.

L-A: What post-editing software do you use?

Fenne: Mainly Lightroom, and a bit of Photoshop when I feel creative. I like to make collages and that sort of thing. [You can see Fenne’s design work on Fennek.be].

L-A: What sort of backdrop do you have in your studio?

Fenne: I have a paper one. Dogs are tough on it (those scratch marks), but the colour range is amazing.

L-A: Do you shoot in raw?

Fenne: It might sound blasphemous, but I don’t. I don’t do that much post-editting, so I don’t feel the need. I make the decisions about light when I shoot, not really after the facts.

L-A: Any tricks on how to convince the dogs to strike the pose?

Fenne: It’s mainly a question of patience. One time, I really wanted to catch these puppies as they lay sleeping, so we cuddled and cuddled and cuddled them until they fell asleep.

Some breeds are so eager to get into position, though. Especially Border Collies (and other sheepdogs). They make composition a breeze.

Strike the pose: sheepdogs are the best

The average dog is not so responsive. I have to pick up on the way they move, the way they think — and wait for a moment that captures their personality — rather than prompt them into position.

L-A: Do you have a favourite prop?

Fenne: I ask people to bring their own things, but some of them are coy about it. On the other hand, some people bring half their house. It’s really funny.

But my friends know I like incongruous old objects, so they turn up with an old chair, phone, suitcase… My favorite is this old armchair.

A day in the life

L-A: So you love dogs, that really shows. Do you have your own?

Fenne: I have two of my own (hunting breeds), and one foster one. The foster (a golden retriever) is a future assistance dog. It’s the second time I do this. I prepare them (from 8 weeks to 18 months) to start the assistance dog training for wheelchair-bound or epileptic people.

My previous one just got its permanent owner. Handing her over was a tough, but beautiful moment. I saw her back recently. She recognized me instantly, but I had to take a step back. I was distracting her from her work.

L-A: Pets bring their share of heavy emotions, hey. I sometimes get asked to photograph old pets in their last days. Do you get a lot of these ‘last chance’ assignments?

Fenne: I do get these requests once in a while. Then it’s especially important  to give the owners the pictures they want. It is an honour that they trust me with it.

One time, I had this dog whose eye was gradually shrinking away… The owners wanted the last pictures with their dog’s face intact.

L-A: That’s must have been a tough moment, hey. Talking of tough moments, how do you deal with it when dogs just will not cooperate?

Fenne: Generally you wait and observe and the moment will come. But there was this time, where the owner was getting frustrated, so the dog got more and more restless. She [the owner] briefly left the room, and it happened: the dog just lied down on this beautiful flower. The owner was so happy when I showed her what was on my camera!

And then, he settled down...

L-A: What is the hardest part of your job?

Fenne: I find it tough to pick which pictures to keep. You can’t keep them all, and I want to remove the technically imperfect ones, but then they may be the very ones the owners would have really loved. So it’s a tricky process.

And then there’s the weather… I had to turn around and go home so many times this Spring because of the weather. I can work under a lot of conditions, but I need at least a slither of sunlight to make the dogs sparkle.

When the dog sparkles

L-A: (Outside of the US) is it financially realistic to plan a career living solely off pet photography?

Fenne: I don’t live exclusively from it myself. Right now, photographing dogs is a choice that I can make every time again. This choice keeps the quality and joy in my work.

But even without living from it exclusively, I notice ups and downs. The private photoshoots are going quite well for me at the moment, but I am getting less corporate contracts than I used to, for example.

My (Canis bonus) personal favourite

L-A: Is there a typical misconception about your job? Some stereotypical, and misled, opinion that you hear again and again?

Fenne: Some people assume that my customers are chihuahua-pampering millionaires. I don’t get this: man has been painting pets for the longest of time.

My clients just want to mark a moment. Say their dog did really well in a sport, or they just want a souvenir of their companion.

L-A: So, no Paris Hilton, then?

Fenne: No, just regular people like you and me. But I wouldn’t send her away if she ordered a portrait of her dog!

L-A: I’ll be you wouldn’t! Am thinking she’d be a handsome payer… So, what’s made you chuckle in your work lately?

Fenne: There was this clumsy moment… I was (trying to) follow a Weimeraner on a snowy day. He was leaping like a gazelle and I was following in slow motion, digging trenches in the snow. And that athletic, lean, silver bullet of a dog just kept running. To think I kept trying as long as I did… [laughs]

L-A: I can just imagine! [laughs] I assume it’s mainly dogs, right? What’s the most exotic pet you have photographed?

Fenne: There was a girl at a dog show: she had a reptile and a bulldog with her. I just managed to take a snapshot before they went off again. But generally, I photograph cats and dogs, and their human family.

L-A: Are some breeds of dogs more or less photogenic?

Fenne: I guess it’s tougher to capture the expression when you can’t see the eyes. Also, long hair can hide movement, and movement can tell a story too, you miss something there.

But my personal favorites are water dogs. There’s something about a picture of a dog splashing in the water…

L-A: So, how long is a typical session?

Fenne: I set aside two hours. That means the dog can explore the studio, take its time, and the owners can relax, not feel rushed. I want the owners and the dogs to really enjoy the session.

References

  • Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Les Chiens – ISBN: 1863333142, 9781863333146 
  • Nick Ridley, How to Photograph Dogs – ISBN: 1 86108 332 7
  • Paul Walker, Pet Photography now – ISBN: 10 1-905814-33-X

Contact Fenne

http://www.dogvision.be/

Comments

I love to read your comments. Particularly if you are a photographer, or a wannabe pet photographer.

  • Can you live off it full-time (and where are you based)?
  • What’s the biggest perk?
  • What’s the worst aspect of the job?
  • Are you subject to the same stereotypes?

Further reading

Dogs and society

Dog training and behaviour

Follow Canis_bonus on Twitter

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