By Pragalbh Vashishth*
Our family was complete 11 years ago when we welcomed our dog, Laika, to our lives. I still vividly remember the first road trip with her. There was an extra suitcase, extra snacks, and a whole lot of extra planning to make sure we don’t leave any of her things behind. She turned into a perfect travel companion and I’ve never missed out on capturing precious moments spent with her. There are so many benefits of taking your dog with you on vacations – sad puppy eyes don’t literally send you down on a guilt-trip, your vacation pics become instantly pawsh, and a puppy on a road trip gives you bragging rights that you have a sub-woofer in your car!
A decade later, I am happy to note that India is not only witnessing an increase in the number of pet parents but also a change in perception towards companion animals. More and more people are opening their doors to pets, and pets are thriving in the love and care of these families. Food, nutrition, grooming, health, and hygiene for pets is starting to get the same, or if I can say, sometimes more importance than the humans at home. This is fuelling a rapid growth in the pet industry in India. There are new pet-related products being launched every day, the number of veterinary hospitals is on the rise, and more businesses like cafes and resorts are turning ‘pet-friendly’.
The changes over the years have also fuelled pet photography as a genre in India. When pets become family, you start to document special moments and what better way than to freeze them in time. Portraits, life stage, action, candid, the possibilities are innumerable. Many pet parents even run social media accounts for their pets where there’s demand for high quality content.
Pet photography is gaining ground and maybe a close second to diet and healthcare, which go hand in hand. With pets in a photograph, the emotions run high! You cannot direct them always and therefore it is far more challenging to strike that balance of technicalities and animal behaviour. However, the good news is that if you’re good at photography and know how to handle animals, pet parents are ready to sign up.
A pet photo session can fetch you anywhere between 5 and 15K per session on an average, and the potential to earn is often subject to the photographer’s vision and creativity. While there’s a clearly defined demand for pet photography in India, the availability of skilled pet photographers is low. To get started, you must have 3 things in your arsenal – great photography skills, a good body of work, and genuine love, respect, and understanding of companion animals.
My foray into pet photography 11 years ago was a result of my passion for photography and love for dogs. I had a good hold on my DSLR and a sound understanding of studio lights. However, theoretical knowledge is never sufficient to command a fee, results do that for you. Timing is the key, when it comes to photographing pets. Like with photographing children, pets also give you a very limited window to tell your story in frames. In that window of opportunity, you can’t afford to fumble with camera settings. Pets need to be engaged throughout the session since photo shoot is a concept alien to them. Let’s be honest, an old abandoned shoe is bound to get more attention than a camera!
I started building my portfolio as I started photographing Laika from the day she came home. While she has always been a cooperative subject, to excel in this genre I’ve had to work on a few other things like understanding how to develop trust and comfort before tempting them into a shoot. I also gained experience and confidence by volunteering my time and skills at a local animal shelter and animal rescuers for creating adoption portfolios of abandoned dogs and cats. This is a cause close to my heart and my way of giving back the unconditional love they shower on me. Additionally, I have been taking up courses on animal behaviour and also nurturing a circle of experts whose knowledge make me better at my work. One must accept that love for animals is not enough always, gaining the knowledge about my subject helps me identify when they are stressed and I can take steps to comfort them. That one look from them tells me when to pack up or take a break. It’s a vast ocean of knowledge and I’ve just set sail.
Good news is that Internet platforms have made it extremely easy to access information. Anyone looking to start as a pet photographer today has plethora of online tutorials that can teach basic to advanced photography skills. Initial investment costs are relatively low. I say ‘relative’ because let’s be honest – photography gear is not cheap. However, a basic camera setup like a crop sensor camera with a 50mm f/1.8 lens is enough to get started. You don’t need expensive locations and can conduct sessions at a client’s home, nearby dog park, or any other place that allows pets.(3) Basic post processing skills like white-balance correction, removing leash/distractions, and rudimentary clean-up are enough to get started and can easily be learnt online for free. Collaborating with animal rescuers or visiting local dog park is a good starting place to build your initial body of work.
Although, there’s one reality you can’t escape. If you are driven only by recognition, this genre isn’t going to satisfy you just yet. While most of the photography industry is centred around wedding, travel, wildlife, and commercial photography, pet photography is yet to find its place. A quick reality check can be done by introducing yourself as a pet photographer to a group of strangers at a party, and watch their heads tilt like a puppy hearing a squeaky sound for the first time, only it’s not cute.
But the silver lining that continues to motivate me is that this industry is evolving by the day and I see immense potential in the future for this genre to carve a niche in mainstream photography. Start-ups focussed on pet products are coming up with new innovative products, and would continue to do so. These companies would always be on a lookout for photographing their products being used by pets. Pet parents are gradually recognizing and appreciating the amount of skills and effort that’s being put into delivering high quality images of pets. Globally, artists are starting to express their unique vision by combining pet photography with mainstream genres like portrait, fine art, commercial, and landscape. This is a promising field to be in right now and I can definitely see spectacular times ahead for pet photography in India. Challenges force you to push boundaries and I welcome you to join the brigade!