When I started photography around eight years ago, I started like most mom-togs do: by taking pictures of my two kids. After a while, people began telling me that I was “really good.” Ha! I was not at all, but that got me thinking… Why shouldn’t I put my love for the arts and photography together?
I had no idea where to start but I knew I wanted to be a photographer. I spent hours researching and practising, determined to get better after each shoot. I had no idea at the time that there was such a thing as workshops or paid mentoring! My first shoot was a disaster – I shot in direct sun with a pop-up flash and the family was so awkwardly posed. I cringe every time I see a time-hop pop up with my name tagged in it. Those first two years were rough.
After a while, I reached out to several very popular photographers in the industry. Kim Winey was one of the only photographers to message me back, giving me the creative criticism I needed to be a better photographer and artist. She was blunt, but kind and I really grew from her. One very important thing that she taught me was to be kind to the beginners, something that’s lacking in the photographic community. I remember how excited I was when an established photographer took the time to answer my questions, so I try and pay it forward. After all, we were all beginners once.
I grew up an animal lover which led me to work at a duck hatchery in high school and also raising seeing-eye dogs from the Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ. I may have a bit of an obsession with all things puppy and duckling. And I love children! I taught preschool for five years and I have four kids of my own. Children are just so innocent. Everything is a new adventure. They aren’t worried about if their hair looks perfect or if they look too fat for their outfit, they just do their own thing and I love that. Combining these two just seemed natural.
Toddler-aged kids (2-5 years old) are my favourite to work with. Their little personalities seem to come alive when they interact with the animals and vice versa. Plus they are able to follow directions while still being amazed by the animals. But as cute as they are, animal sessions are chaotic… In a good way! There’s always a lot going on, but often times the challenge is dealing with a difficult child and not the animal they are paired with. Some parents will want a session with a particular animal, but I try to discourage this if their child has never been around any animals before. Of course, this is far and few between, but it does need to be addressed before any animal session.
Planning wardrobe ahead of time is so important. The outfit can make or break a session in my opinion! I always recommend several websites and outfits (for both the child and the parents) as soon as the session is booked. I also have a huge wardrobe on hand as well. I shoot with a Nikon D750. I only own three lenses: the sigmas art 35mm. Nikon 50mm 1.4 and Nikon 85mm 1.4. When I shoot children, my go-to lenses are my 35 and 85. The 35 allows me to get real close and produces amazing shots from above. The 85 is a great lens for getting that beautiful bokeh and creamy skin tones!
Photographing children and animals together is a great distraction for any child. Most kids hate to sit and pose for photographs. When you add an animal in the mix, they are distracted and focus less on a camera in their face. These types of sessions feel more like playtime than a photography session! I get the best interaction shots when I ask the child to find the animal’s nose or look at their ears. I also bring my 13-month old son to my animal sessions. Kids love him and he can chase the animals for me if needed. This saves so much time on my end. I don’t have to be running back and forth and potentially miss a great shot! He is a lifesaver.
A typical shoot with animals usually includes me covered in some kind of poop and dirt for sure. Super glamorous, right? I always have baby wipes with me and hand sanitizer! I give parents a list of instructions ahead of time to make sure the shoot goes smoothly:
- Bribes to help with encouragement.
- A later nap if we are shooting close to sunset in the summer.
- ALWAYS having the child eat before a session. A hungry kid equals a grumpy kid which leads to a much more difficult session.
My most exciting shoot has been with a baby kangaroo. I mean seriously. A BABY KANGAROO. One day, my hairdresser was talking about her friend who had a baby kangaroo. I about died. One of the things that inspire me is my favourite children’s book: What Do You Do With A Kangaroo by Mercer Mayer and I knew a shoot just had to happen. I asked for his number and he kindly brought his “ roo” over. The kangaroo needed to be treated softly and gently and I didn’t want to risk him being harmed, so this was not a shoot open to clients. I knew my daughter, who was 8 at the time, would do an amazing job. The kangaroo just snuggled with her the entire time and it was the best experience ever! I did have to edit out a ton of baby kangaroo poop, though.
A few things that I think are so important when photographing children with animals:
- Never ever put a child or animal at risk. Safety is always KEY and nothing is worth risking a potential injury to either party.
- Always have a backup plan. Not all children respond well to animals. Sometimes I shoot the animal and then the child and just merge the two images together to make sure I get the best shots as well as keep animal and child happy
- Make sure you are familiar with the animal’s temperament as well as the laws in your state about shooting animals with children. I often exclusively shoot children with their own pets. I won’t ever shoot a child with a rabbit unless it’s their pet. I find that rabbits have the tendency to bite or have a heart attack when scared. And they scare very easily.
- Casting calls or model calls are great to feed your creative side. When I get a great idea, I offer a casting call for the child and pet I am looking for. I never do the session for free, but I do discount the session.
- Up your aperture! This is something people seem to forget a lot. I see so many adorable shots with the child in focus and the animal is totally out of focus. make sure you are shooting at a high enough f-stop to get both crisp.
My goal with each session, each photo I create is to evoke emotion from my viewers. Norman Rockwell is a huge inspiration to me – all his images bring out so many different types of emotions. Plus my great uncle was one of Rockwell’s muses for the character Willy Gillis! I love when people comment that an image made them laugh or smile. I want every single one of my photos to form a connection with my viewers. Bringing back a feeling of nostalgia or happiness is a win for me.