Pet photographer, Carli Davidson, has published her new book, SHAKE: a collection of adorable portraits of dogs captured mid-shake, completely transformed with jowls flapping and fur flying. Carli created this brilliant photo series by shooting at the highest frame rate the Nikon D4 offers.
We spoke to Carli to find out how she created the SHAKE book, what inspires her photography, and her tips on how to create beautiful images of our furry friends.
How did you get into pet photography?
I’d always been interested in photography. Growing up we used to live off the beaten track – we had three dogs a couple of cats, a few lizards and snakes, a bird, and some intermittent rescues and they became my models. Animals had always been a part of the family and I just felt comfortable with them.
What inspires your passion?
I find it really exciting to portray animals in their most positive light. Sometimes I go to the rescue center and photograph dogs that have been abused or born with birth defects, but this doesn’t stop them enjoying their life. They still have so much to offer and it’s a privilege to be able to capture their spark and personality.
Then there are the animals that people don’t tend to like. I recently shot a baby skunk which I thought was so sweet and curious, but they’re negatively perceived as ‘the animal that sprays dogs’. In fact, they are highly intelligent creatures and I like to be able to give them a voice. I also love reptiles for that same reason – sometimes people can be fearful of them, but I get to show them in a way that’s beautiful. I like to think I can do a little bit of good with my photography.
Tell us about your latest project, SHAKE?
SHAKE is a project I’ve been working on since 2011. It started out of curiosity and has evolved into a book of entertaining and playful images of dogs. It captures them in a way they haven’t been seen before – shaking their heads with their faces flapping around.
I’m always on the lookout for something that grabs me personally, I like to capture an animal’s expression that a human can respond to. One day, I was cleaning my own dog’s spit off the wall and I had that “ah ha!” moment, thinking about him shaking his big jowls gave me the inspiration. I took a few shots to experiment with the idea and when I looked at the images I knew that this was going to be a project I’d be proud of.
However, I had no idea just how amazing the reaction would be. The moment I shared some of the images online they went viral. I get fan letters from people all over the world thanking me for making them smile. The excitement and the positive energy the images generated eventually led to a book deal.
How did you find all the dogs?
All the dogs in the book were sourced locally in Portland and I relied heavily on the animal community. I used Facebook to find some of the models and Panda Paws rescue was a massive help – we had to photograph about 70 per cent of the animals in just three weeks. It was important to me to have the dogs’ owners and veterinary technicians on set to make sure they felt comfortable and that we were setting them up to succeed. I was so appreciative of all the people that came together to make it work.
How did you capture the images?
I shot the book using the Nikon D4. Shooting 10 frames per second is very fast and the focus is phenomenal with the movement. It meant that I could go back through my shots and find the exact moment where the dog looks most bizarre. I also used high speed lights in the studio to avoid motion blur.
This technology used to cater to sports photography as it was able to capture rapid motion with high shutter speeds. However, the development of that field has leant itself incredibly well to animal photography because you have to shoot something whose movements you can’t predict. The camera has allowed us to do something very cool.
What do you use when you’re outside the studio?
I’ve started using the Nikon D5300 when I take my own dog, Norbert, out hiking. It’s really easy to use – I can just throw it in my bag and take it anywhere I go. It’s a light and compact but solid DSLR.
It is great at getting a quick focus, which is ideal for taking shots of animals, and it has a rapid frame rate so I can capture Norbert when he’s running or playing. I find its vary angle monitor a helpful feature as I’m always rolling around on the ground – it saves me bending my knees and back all the time. Also, as it’s Wi-Fi enabled, I can upload my images to a smart device and post them directly on social media so I can show my fans what I’m doing and get instant feedback.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My work now is completely unpredictable, but I like it that way, I’d be bored in a 9am – 5pm job. One day I might be working at Oregon Zoo in Portland taking photos of a baby elephant for their website. The next, I could be in my studio working on commercial or personal projects, like SHAKE. I’m always looking to try something that I haven’t done before.
How can we create our own successful pet shoot?
The one thing you absolutely have to do is make sure your pet feels comfortable with the camera. A lot of people tell me that their pet is afraid of it, so I advise them to make the camera seem like a reward. Try putting it on the ground next to their food so they start to realise that when the camera is there, they’ll get a treat.
If they’re still nervous, try putting on some classical music or create a corner with all their toys and lots of treats so they can relax. Also, avoid approaching the animal, let them come to you – if they feel they are the ones making the decision, they’ll feel more in control and be easier to work with.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need patience. Remember that they don’t know what they’re doing, so you can’t get cross with them if it’s not what you want. If you find things fizzle out then take a break, put the camera down and play with your pet so you get out of the photography space and back into the “I love my dog” mentality.
Once we’ve got our pet’s attention how can we make sure we get a good shot?
I know it can be quite difficult to capture good images of a moving target, but try to focus your shot on the animal’s eye. Setting the f-stop low will give you a nice soft background, but be aware of how long an animals face can be to get a good focus. You can always practice while they’re asleep to give you time to work on creating the right depth of field.
If you want to make your shots more creative, try using peanut butter or honey on their teeth as you’ll get some amazing expressions when they try to lick it off. You could even challenge yourself and start throwing a ball for your pet to catch – it might take a bit of practice throwing it in one hand while holding the camera in the other, but it’ll be worth it when you get the shot of them jumping in the air.
Finally, make sure you always have treats to hand to reward them and try not to shoot for more than a few minutes without a break, it can be difficult holding their attention for any longer.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to take their hobby to the next level?
You need to get as much experience as possible shooting different animals in all sorts of environments. Because I’ve spent so much time with animals I can read them pretty well and I normally get them to perform the way I want them to, eventually, but that takes time. Try volunteering at a local rescue center and get used to working with other animals, not just your own. I’m sure the rescue would appreciate any support you could give them.
Carli’s book, SHAKE is now available on Amazon. Watch the video to learn how the Nikon D4 helped Carli capture the much loved images in her book.