Peanut Butter, Honey, and Drool: The Life of a Pet Photographer

carli davidson pet photographer

“My camera is always covered in peanut butter, honey, and drool.”

You can learn a lot about CreativeLive instructor Carli Davidson from that statement. Carli is an unabashed animal-lover and extraordinarily talented pet photographer. From her studio in Portland, Oregon she’s done what so many hobbyists aspire to do: created a successful career around animal photography.

Carli, who is now the author of the ultra-popular book Shake, and the forthcoming sequel, Shake Puppiesgot her start photographing animals while working in the Oregon Zoo – what started as a fun way to share her love for her charges became her most viable professional opportunity while recovering from a debilitating car accident. While she couldn’t do the heavy lifting required of zookeepers, she could hold a camera, and she wasn’t afraid to get low to the ground and make funny noises to get the right shot.

“I don’t mind embarrassing myself because animals don’t care and they are the only ones whose opinion I care about,” she explained during her CreativeLive class, How to Shoot Pets in the Studio.

Plus, she had the most important characteristic of all: “a great sense around animals.”

Her experience taught her how to create a space that will make animals feel the most relaxed, given the circumstances. For her in-studio shoots, she lets dogs sniff around off-leash and cats are encouraged to hide until they feel ready, secure, and safe. She adjusts the temperature to fit the needs of the animals she shooting – heat for cats, cool air for dogs. She doesn’t rush the animal and encourages pet photographers to build in plenty of time.

“Let it come up to you, let it check out the space, plan for 15 or 30 minutes so they can sniff,” she advises.

Looking for some more expert advice on how to include pets in your family photography? Expert, Norah Levine has your covered! 

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Genuine flexibility is key to photographing animals. Earning affection and trust requires plenty of patience and a willingness to go with what the animals need.

“I don’t assume I’m going to pose anybody,” Carli explains. Her goal instead is to let their personality unfold by making them happy and comfortable. The real measure of success for Carli is a happy animal, “If you a see an animal play on your set, it’s a good thing because it means they’re not afraid.”

But when things get difficult there is always food – which explains the peanut butter and honey, “Food motivation goes a long way.”

And while Carli does photograph mostly dogs and cats, she says she’s also had some less-expected clientele.

“I like insects because people aren’t used to seeing them blown-up,” she explained, “I’ve trained lizards before.”

Being sensitive to the needs of animals tops her list of qualities an aspiring pet photographer must have. Carli got her training through working with raptors and lizards, but her advice to anyone wanting to get started is to pick up the basics by volunteering at shelters.

“Animals come from a spectrum of backgrounds.” Volunteering, says Carli, will help you understand their body language while providing needed services for adoption agencies.

“Volunteer! Volunteer for rescues – it’s a great way to get experience, and you feel like an awesome person.”

Looking for some more expert advice on how to include pets in your family photography? Expert, Norah Levine has your covered! 

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Rachel Gregg FOLLOW >

Rachel is the content marketing lead for the CreativeLive Craft Channel. Her side hustle is floral design and her day job is awesome. @ms_gregarious.