I stood on a mountaintop with Shep some 12 years ago, looked at my best friend and said, “It’s just you and me, bud.”
He seemed to understand, looked out onto the Bow Valley below us and lifted his chin a little with pride.
I didn’t know then the path my life would take, that the journey to becoming an adventure dog photographer was getting started.
But I will never forget that moment. It is etched in my brain and it comes to life when I look at the pictures of that day.
The journey of an adventure dog photographer
Life takes its funny twists and turns. It was only months after I said “it’s just you and me” that we met the man who would become the third piece of our puzzle. As he grew from friend to boyfriend to fiancé and husband, he unwittingly became part of my journey to become an adventure dog photographer.
Here’s how it all happened:
Step 1: Get a dog
Shep changed my life in so many ways. He gave me the confidence to walk alone, he taught me patience and he got me off the ballfield and into the mountains.
That last one is key. I was convinced my social life revolved around the world of slopitch in Calgary. Man, was I wrong.
Shep, then a young Maremma sheepdog, was getting cheated out of his best life ever because I was packing a gear bag off to the ballfield. When I finally figured it out – traded in my Ford Mustang even – he couldn’t wait for the weekend to jump into the Escape and head for the Rockies.
Step 2: Have a soul-sucking career
The fog might never have lifted off the path to becoming an adventure dog photographer if I hadn’t been laid off from my sports-writing career. I loved being a sports writer. I loved my shifts hanging out with the boys in the “toy department” at the Calgary Sun. We did incredible work, especially during the Flames’ 2004 Stanley Cup run.
When I got laid off in 2006, I turned to marketing and communications. I started at a nonprofit, became a media relations specialist at a college then made insane amounts of money as a website copywriter for a telecommunications company.
None of it felt authentic.
I had a bit of a breakdown in the middle of it all and my therapist suggested I find outlets for my creativity that filled my soul.
On one of our trips to the mountains, I looked at Shep and thought, “How am I in the most beautiful place in the world with the most beautiful dog in the world without a proper camera?”
My Christmas bonus that year turned into my first digital single-lens reflex camera, a Nikon D40 with a couple of kits lenses.
Step 3: Take a lot of bad pictures
I look back at a lot of the photos I took of my beautiful Maremma sheepdog and realize that they are crap.
(Laugh at me, because they are such crap.)
Look, shooting sports is easy. Once you get your exposure settings down and figure out how to focus quickly – manually, because these were the good ol’ days of film) – all you have to do is wait for the action to cross your lens. Hockey, rugby, soccer, baseball or whichever sport floats your boat, find your spot and wait.
OK, it might not be that easy but my point is that you need a keen eye for beauty, perspective and color when you’re out and about in nature.
I spent a lot of time taking photos of wildflowers, mountain peaks and waterfalls. None of them spectacular until I started to develop a deeper appreciation for where I was, what I was doing and how to do it.
Then when I figured out my focal point should be my dog? Look out, bishes. The adventure dog photographer is emerging!
Step 4: Realize you don’t know it all
Even my early photos of Bella are crap. Once I joined a Facebook group for dog photographers and posted a few photos, I learned I had no idea what I was doing.
I was one of the turkeys trying to soar like an eagle.
So I’ve studied. I’ve spent a boatload of money on tutorials, mentorship, always learning and trying to be better.
I also quickly learned that I knew SFA – ah … sweet fuck all – about running a business. If it wasn’t for Nicole Begley and the Hair of the Dog Academy, I wouldn’t be the adventure dog photographer I am today.
Step 5: Spend a boatload of money on gear
Oh, wait. You think I’m talking about camera bodies and lenses, right?
Well, yeah. I have spent a boatload of money on camera bodies and lenses – and I’m getting ready to drop several thousand on more this year. I love to work with off-camera flash and I’m forever on a quest to find the right modifier that’s lightweight and functional.
And when you’re an adventure dog photographer, you also need to think about clothes (I swear by Duluth’s Flexpedition pants), hiking boots, winter gloves and so on.
Step 6: Find the most epic locations in your area
This part does not suck.
Because I’m always looking for the coolest places to do a session, Bella and I frequently hit the trails around Spokane and North Idaho. We’ve found epic epic epic viewpoints at some of the simplest places, like Mirabeau Point Park, Dishman Hills and Saltese Flats. And this time last year, when I was prepping for Paws of the Panhandle, we hiked Evans Landing near Sagle, Idaho.
On my way back home, I pinged my friend Cat and said, “Dude, your book session … Evans Landing … sunrise … it will be amazing.”
Step 7: Be prepared to get dirty, wet and cold
Sometimes it’s just dirty.
Other times it’s dirty and wet.
In the middle of February, it’s all three.
No matter which or all, it’s so much stinkin’ fun. I will happily belly flop onto the ground, crawl over fallen trees, scale rocks and jump into the Spokane River or Lake Pend Oreille in freezing temperatures.
Just to get the right shot.
Step 8: Marry well
When I walked out of my full-time job in marketing four years ago, I knew I was giving up an easy paycheque. Without the support of my husband, this little business would not be happening.
Being an adventure dog photographer – as yet at least – is but a meagre income. No, I don’t make money hand over fist. Whatever profit I do find rolls back into the business in the form of education, gear, gas and all the fun administrative things you need to run a business in Washington state (taxes … I have to pay sales taxes? WTF!).
My husband is my therapist, my financial adviser, my tax return specialist, my ego boost and very very very occasionally my voice-activated lightstand and Bella handler.
Step 9: Move with your whole heart
One of the most important things I learned as a newspaper reporter was how to turn my feelings off. When you’re faced with life’s horrors, including the very worst things humans can do to each other, on a daily basis, there’s only one way to get through it.
Not feeling anything.
The aforementioned husband thought for a long time I had a heart made of stone.
Becoming an adventure dog photographer has forced me to turn the feelings back on.
I’ve been brought to tears during a session when I see how much people love their dogs.
I’ve shed tears while working with special needs dogs because they are so damn resilient and determined that I can’t help but feel.
I’ve come home from sessions in tears, knowing the dog that appeared in my lens is approaching her final days.
I’ve cried so damn much since I started this business that sometimes I just feel ridiculous about it. They aren’t all sad tears, sometimes they’re happy tears.
Because I become engulfed by the love I see in my viewfinder.
All around the circle
The life of an adventure dog photographer is anything but boring.
And that’s OK.
I would shrivel up into a decaying leaf on a trail if it was.
It isn’t either and it takes a lot of work to market and promote this gig.
And that’s OK.
I learned a lot during my soul-destroying marketing career and I continue to learn more.
This professional dog photography gig is soul-fulfilling and I’ve never been happier or more content in my life.
Now let’s go learn about the niches in which my fellow pet photographers find themselves. Head over to Milan, Italy, where Carol Mudra of Apawture Studios talks about how she adds a little “something extra” that goes into her pet photography sessions to really make them pop!
When you get to the bottom of Carol’s post, click the next link in the circle and then keep going to magical places like Boston, Pennsylvania and Minnesota until you find yourself back here to nine steps on becoming an adventure dog photographer.
That’s when you know you’re home.
Right where you belong.
I am glad you found this creative place to be in life. And I agree about “boatloads” of cash on equipment. I don’t think people realize the photographer’s investment in making correct and perfect photographs. Great blog post!
It’s a bloody expensive business to pick!
Soul-sucking careers seems to be a necessary evil for a lot of pet photographers, huh? I can say in my years of design work, no one’s ever been brought to tears over the work I’ve done. My very first pet photography client however, a mechanic and very much a man’s man, mysteriously got dust in his eyes when I handed him the portraits of his pup.
It’s definitely more fulfilling than marketing!
I love this list and the chronological order that everything took place (and I too have sooo many bad pictures of my earlier dogs, but at least we have them!). The last image of the dog in the wheel cart was priceless…that’s a million dollar image right there!
Isn’t that what it’s all about? The puppy snuggles?