Focus On Barbara O’Brien – From Animal Trainer To Photographer


Barbara O’Brien is a very talented photographer, but she is an animal lover first and foremost. There is something very unique about the path she took to become a pro photographer and how she developed her skills. She started as a animal actor trainer and naturally picked up the camera years later to capture the expressions she had learned to expect from the animals she knows so well. You may not recognize her name but, if you buy pet food or vet products, you’ve probably seen her work! She splits her time between her beloved farm in Western Wisconsin and large studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I am delighted to share a short interview I had with her as well as some of her amazing and inspiring work. If those images don’t make you want to head out to the nearest farm and photograph a horse or a barn cat, I don’t know what will!

What came first, your love for farm life or photography?

I have always loved animals and have always wanted to live on a farm. I eloped at 19 so I could live on a farm and have a horse. I am happy to say that I am still married to the same man and I still have horses. The photography didn’t come until my late 40’s. I was too busy running my animal actors agency and raising a family.

What was your first paid commercial job involving farm animals?

My first client was an animal supplement company. I had the pleasure of shooting some dogs and horses for them. They are still a regular client of mine.

What made you decide to specialize in such a niche market?

I have been an animal actor trainer for over 20 years so it was only natural to begin photographing the animals I worked with. Because I know what the animals are going to do next, I am able to capture just the look or expression I am looking for.

What are the main challenges when working with animals?

Domestic animals are pretty easy for me to shoot as my clients usually have me source the animals as well. The hardest part sometimes is that people think animals are little humans in fur suits and don’t understand why a dog, for instance, can’t do five different commands at once.

How do you find specific animals for a specific shoot?

Since I am also and animal actor trainer I know where they all are. I audition almost all of the animals I use for shoots to make sure they like it and will be happy on the set.

Do you have a favorite subject?

I like to photograph anything that moves. Be it cows, or chickens, horses or kids. I have found that I am not really moved to photograph things that are not living. I guess it’s a good thing I have found my specialty as I would be terribly unhappy as a product shooter.

Ok I will admit. I have a thing for cows.

Any animal you would love to photograph if given the opportunity?

That is hard one as I like to photograph all animals.  I guess I would like to photograph more stories and essay about animals and people. The animal human connection as it were. That is the real story to me.

What was your most memorable moment, good or bad?

I have been lucky so far to have had only good moments. I think that, on every shoot, when the moment hits that I know I “got it”… It’s the best feeling you can have!

What would you tell a new photographer who wants to have a go at photographing animals?

The smartest thing you can do is hook up with a good animal trainer. It is very hard to wrangle and shoot animals at the same time.

Barbara and Bayou!


Visit Barbara’s website and connect with her on FB

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Valerie Jardin I live and breathe in pixels! Photography is more than a passion, it's an obsession, almost an addiction. When I'm not shooting or writing, I spend my time teaching this beautiful craft during photo workshops all over the world! I am also thrilled to be an official X Photographer for Fujifilm USA. Visit my Website Follow me on Facebook , Twitter , Instagram. And listen to my Podcast!

Some Older Comments

  • Morris March 17, 2012 02:14 am

    Nice vibrant photos. Animals are always good talents to shoot. Here is one example of it:

  • Paul March 10, 2012 02:45 am

    Amazing horses head shot....... I used to work professionally as a pet photographer, but it's hard work in a recession getting people to shell out on pet portraits :(

  • Bonnie Hudson March 9, 2012 11:10 pm

    What wonderful photos!I have a thing for horses.What a wonderful unique shot!!

  • Lois Glewwe March 7, 2012 04:34 am

    Thanks for a great interview about one of the greatest women in the world who just happens to be my niece!

  • Barbara O'Brien March 7, 2012 03:56 am

    Victoria and Dori, will do! Thanks to all of you above for your kind words.

  • Victoria - Washington Boudoir Photographer March 7, 2012 12:37 am

    Great images Barbara!! I am a boudoir photographer myself, but I LOVE photographing my Pixie Bob cats in my studio here in Washington State. If you get a moment i'd love to have you take a look at a blog post I did especially dedicated to them, you can view it here:

  • PhotoVorm March 6, 2012 11:00 pm

    Nice pictures, photographed in a unique way! Again a nice article "Focus on"

  • Dori March 6, 2012 10:31 pm

    OMG, you really must have a thing for cows, Barbara! The one up there looks so so sooo beautiful... These are the times when I realise again and again that the amount of love that pushes the shutter down does make a magnificent difference.

    My dad trains dogs. Let me share my fave shot with you - if you don't mind.
    I know, focus could be better, but he was so damned fast! :o)

  • Karin Newstrom March 6, 2012 03:46 pm

    I have the great privilege of knowing Barbara - she truly is as talented as she is both kind and generous (and my dogs love her, too)! Thank you for the wonderful interview. :)

  • raghavendra March 6, 2012 02:16 pm

    Picture of horse is splendid.
    On talking about wild animals.

  • raghavendra March 6, 2012 02:14 pm

    That is a unique way of shooting pictures.
    many stories can also be made through animals.

  • Jai Catalano March 6, 2012 12:42 pm

    The dog in bed was cute but had you staged it where the dog had all the covers I would have died laughing.

  • ccting March 6, 2012 10:25 am

    Wow... great article and photos..

  • Wedding Photographer Manchester March 6, 2012 08:56 am

    These photos look fantastic, particularly the horse. It's as if the picture jumps out at you. They are very natural shots, which capture the true beauty of the animals. It's a good advantage to be an animal trainer too.

  • Lara White March 6, 2012 06:54 am

    Great interview Valerie! I had never thought about an animal trainer before, but that makes sense otherwise it would be near impossible to ever get the shot. My favorite image is the cow-I never thought a cow looked cute before!

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