How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

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There are many ways to make your photographic content stand out. Cool wardrobe, jaw-dropping location, awesome perspective, or famous subject. Or… how about posing a model with a gray wolf? Collaborating with exotic animals is a photographic niche that is rather unusual and incredibly interesting.

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Alexandra Fische with an ambassador wolf.

Utilizing exotic animals as props in photography was an idea that some image makers thought was near impossible. However, depending on your geographic location, this is a very possible notion. That being said, working with exotic animals has its own set of rules, ideology, and tricks to make the newfound unique collaboration possible. There are many misconceptions, stereotypes, and stigmas associated with the use of exotic animals in art or entertainment. As someone who has worked as an exotic animal photographer, animal handler, and helped prepare animals for film and photography, there is a lot of information to share.

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Dorian Dane with Chudo the red fox

Before we get to the tips, it is important to keep the following information in mind. Working with wolves, tigers, or bears is no walk in the park- and shouldn’t be taken lightly. First and foremost…

Exotic animals are not wild animals. Not even close.

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Geera the ambassador white tiger.

A very common misconception is that exotic animals in film and photography are animals kidnapped from the wild. The term “exotic animal” simply means one not typically kept in a human household.

Although wolves, coyotes, and foxes are wild species, the animals you would be working with are not wild. Far from it, actually. These animals are domestically bred, much like your household dog or cat. Most of these exotic animals are many, many, many generations removed from any wild animal. The animals are equally bred with a specific intent in mind and are tame versions of their wild counterparts. Breeders look for docile temperaments, friendliness, and health.

These animals have never once faced the horrors of the natural world, they have never had to hunt for food, suffer for survival, or fight for life. If anything, releasing them into the wild would mean sure death as they are unable to survive outside of captivity. These human-handled creatures have only known companionship from their handlers, excellent health, plenty of delicious food, and lots of play time and mental stimulation.

Some animal rights activists would like you to believe that these exotic animals are abused or severely deprived – that is simply not true. Although there are always bad seeds, the majority of facilities and individuals that work with these animals provide them with the best care imaginable. Numerous welcome photographer partners to get to know the animals and see their care first hand.

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Mark Doble with Shiloh and Wachiwi the ambassador wolves

Ambassador animals

Many of the animals that are available for photo and video shoots are called ambassador animals, as they are representatives to educate the community on their wild brethren. Ambassador animals are trained and praised to be exposed to the general public.

However, all of this being said, exotic animals are not pets. Only educated professionals should keep them, as these animals require very specific care to be able to thrive and live happily. In many states and countries, you are legally obligated to have a license to keep certain exotic animals. In the United States, this license is issued by the USDA (the United States Department of Agriculture). Other countries have similar associations which govern the ownership of unusual animals. Which leads me to my next point…

Check the licensing of the facility you work with

Make sure that whatever facility or individual you acquire exotic animals from for your photo shoot holds a valid USDA license (in the USA) or equivalent in your country. If they do not, you are liable for any complication and can face legal problems, as written by the Animal Welfare Act.

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Luna Marie with an ambassador wolf

Absolutely, without a doubt, make sure that whoever you obtain exotic animals from as models for your photo session hold a valid license that grants them permission to utilize these animals. It is not enough to simply ask if they have a license, make sure that you receive their license number and cross check it with the USDA office. In previous years, you were able to double check license numbers through the APHIS system, however, as of 2017 you are now unable to access this information online.

Be diligent and call the USDA number. This can be the difference between a happy collaboration with incredible creatures or facing criminal charges. Some individuals have attempted to utilize another person’s or facility’s license as their own. Make sure that all of the information matches up, including their name, address, and number. If an individual or facility does not hold a valid license but is offering their animals up as models, this means that they are operating illegally. You can be in serious trouble for not doing your due diligence.

The license ensures that the individual has passed inspections that correlate directly with animal care and welfare. Each license has its own requirements that lead to the animal having the proper amount of space to frolic, the right type of food, and is in good health. As well as this, make sure that the exotic animal handler has liability insurance. Please keep in mind that not all animal species in all states may be interacted with by those that do not hold licenses themselves. Large predators such as tigers may only be touched during photo shoot sessions by those holding a valid license in states such as California. Animals such as wolves and foxes may be touched and handled by those without a license as long as a license holder is in the same vicinity.

Make sure that the animals are comfortable and not displaying fear responses

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Ziyka the ambassador white tiger

On very rare occasion, even license holders fall through the cracks and do not care for their animals properly. Just in case, always make sure that the animal you are collaborating with is healthy, not anxious, not extremely fearful, or otherwise uncomfortable. Make sure that the handler is treating the animal appropriately, and not using aggressive force or scare tactics to get the animal to cooperate. Use your better judgment in this situation. The animal’s safety (and your and your model’s) and happiness should be the number one priority, period.

Now, on to the photography technique tips:

Try to avoid the use of flash or strobes

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Gray Eldritch with Soul the ambassador fox

This is a personal preference, to an extent. However, there are definitely animal species that are very sensitive to flashing lights. I prefer to avoid any form of flash for all types of animals (exotic or not) as the lighting can make them very uncomfortable and be painful for their eyes. Instead, use continuous light with a soft box (to soften the lighting) or natural light. Continuous light gives the animal time to adjust to the lighting situation at the shooting location. Be sure to listen to the animal’s handler in regards to studio lighting. Some animals prefer the lights dim to be comfortable. In that case, use a DSLR that has very good low light capabilities and bump the ISO up to properly expose the frame!

Use a fast shutter speed and shoot in burst mode

Animals aren’t people, they won’t always pose perfectly for you. Animals blink, turn their heads, and move around at the most inopportune moment. You can ensure you get the right shot by setting your camera to burst mode (where you take multiple photographs in a row while pressing down on the shutter) and shooting with a high ISO and fast shutter speed to freeze the action. As well as this, you never know what moment you might capture in front of your lens. Being fast and ready is the key to success.

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

 

Set your camera to Continuous Focus Mode

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Alexandra Fische with ambassador wolves

Pairing with the high shutter speed and burst mode in the aforementioned section, adjust your camera to Continuous Focus Mode (AI Servo for Canon users or AF-C for Nikon users). This mode allows your camera to lock on to your subject and follow it around as it moves, preventing you from consistently needing to refocus. This is especially useful for animals, who have the potential of moving around erratically. Essentially, photograph as if you were photographing a fast sport, that is a good mindset to have. Even if the animal behaves perfectly and stands as still as a statue, you never know when it might decide to get up and walk or run away.

Clean up the images in post-processing

For the safety of the animal, the members on set, and some license requirements, most exotic animals will be on leash during your photo shoot. Be prepared to clone out those leashes when editing the photographs.

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Kota Wade with Soul the ambassador fox

Some facilities that have animals trained for film and photography have special “photography” leashes that match the animal’s fur color and keep the animal tethered to the handler by a very thin, but very strong, metal wire. This really does help when it comes time to edit. That being said, I have personally worked with ambassador wolves that were off-leash trained, but that is few and far in between.

As well as this, even if the animal is exotic, they do still have to adhere to leash laws in public parks and other such public locations.

Ensure your model signs a liability release

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Mark Doble with Shiloh the ambassador wolf

This is self-explanatory but good to mention. Even though the likelihood of something going wrong is slim with properly raised and trained animals, it is better to be safe than sorry. I have never had an animal ever cause any form of harm to anyone on set, however, I did have an individual mistake a playful huff for an aggressive growl, and the form certainly protected everyone involved.

There are additional tips to keep in mind that can help during your photo shoot process:.

Meet the animal before the photo shoot

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

If you are able to, meet and get to know the animal before the photo shoot to assess their comfort and ability in front of the lens. This allows the animal to become comfortable with you, get used to your camera noises, and you can judge how well the animal responds to being photographed. All of this knowledge is very useful to have before inviting models and staff members on set. This also allows you to either validate or invalidate any preconceived notions you may have about the animal.

Follow the rules and guidance from the animal handler

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Alexandra Fische with Rogue the ambassador wolf

The animal’s handler is a trained and educated professional. Make sure that all those on set follow their direction, guidelines, instructions, and rules – that includes you, your models, and your staff or assistants. They know the animal better than you do, and their direction will ensure that everyone has a good time without any complications. Failure to do so can cause big problems, and no one wants that.

Educate yourself on the animal’s natural behaviors

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Briana Shneyder with Mohegan the ambassador wolf

It is a very good idea to research the species you will be photographing long before the photo shoot takes place – try to base your shoot around that. This information will help you better plan your photo session and grant you the ability to anticipate the animal’s behavior. As well as this, basing poses around the animal’s natural conduct will help the animal strike the perfect pose for you.

Know exactly what you want before the photo shoot begins

This is very important for a successful photo shoot, know what you want the animal to do or where the animal should be beforehand – plan ahead. Make sure that the animal’s handler knows exactly what you want and expect. That way, they can either train that behavior, or know what technique to utilize to ensure that the animal responds accordingly. As well, this allows you the tell the model what to do before the shoot begins so that once the camera is rolling, all the pieces fall into place.

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

 

Give the animal time to warm up to the set and people

It can be nerve-wracking to walk into a room with strangers and expect to get right to work. Animals can feel the same thing. Be sure to allow the animal a decent amount of time to check everything out, get to smell and know everyone present, and become more comfortable with the environment. This helps the animal feel more safe and secure.

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Dorian Dane and Kota Wade with ambassador foxes

Keep the model posed regardless of the animal’s pose

Even if your animal model is not following direction perfectly, make sure that your human model continues to pose regardless. You never know what moment you might catch, and you don’t want your model to break out of their pose when it happens! As well, letting the animal be more organic on set can create a frame you never anticipated, and it could very well end up being your favorite.

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Sage the ambassador wolf

Anticipate that the animal will need breaks

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Kota Wade with an ambassador wolf

Like people, animals get tired too. Expect that your furry friend will need breaks in between shooting. From my own experience, most of these breaks last about 30 minutes and involve the animal being entirely removed from the set to detox from the exposure to artificial lights, sounds, and people.

Your turn

Now that you know how to utilize exotic animals in your photo shoot, it is time to get acquainted with your friendly neighborhood fox and get photographing!

How to Use Exotic Animals in Your Photo Shoot

Dorian Dane with Chudo the red fox

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anabel DFlux is a published photographer in Los Angeles, California. Having started her photography business at the age of 15, Anabel has dedicated her life to her photographic passion. From canine sports to exotic animals, to some of the biggest musicians in the world - Anabel’s work doesn’t fall into any specific niche. She believes there are no limits to what you can create, and to photograph everything that gives you that spark of inspiration.

  • I find this a very irresponsible article, for so many reasons. Exotic animals should not be encouraged for use as photographic props. In fact, no animal should be encouraged to be used in this way.

    It’s the same reason that zoos as so regularly chastised for their poor adherence to the true needs of their captive animals. Look at the recent deaths from tigers attacking their keepers. Just because an animal is captive bread as has never ‘hunted in the wild’ does not mean its innate tendencies are absent. These ‘exotic animals’ need huge amounts of space, and without it they can even suffer mental difficulties – ever seen a big cat pacing its enclosure?

    “Some animal rights activists would like you to believe that these exotic animals are abused or severely deprived – that is simply not true.” You can’t say this. You don’t know this. Take one look at Asia and you’ll see the horrific conditions and situations captive animals are exposed to.

    Your white tiger ‘ambassador’ animal – white tigers are inbred purely for the colouration and have a host of genetic issues because of it. Using them in shoots simply creates demand for more white tigers, more inbreeding, more badly educated people, and more suffering animals.

  • Francesca

    Oh, look! First comment AND a troll! That’s gotta be a record.

    Will, the article covered watching for abuse and most exotics, if not all, that are used for film, are privately owned. The USDA looks into their care, and trying to compare the US standards of care regarding Ambassador animals to Asia’s. Keep it in the same country, especially when it comes to federal regulations. You’re exactly the kind of alarmist she was warning against in that sentence. All the exotics I’ve worked with myself have had plenty of space and interaction, and are not stressed or suffering. If you don’t know what you’re talking about besides taglines from a PETA site, you have nothing.

    Please move along, we don’t feed the trolls here.

  • Francesca

    On a separate note: WONDERFUL article, Anabel! Really great information for people just starting into this line of photography and film!

  • I’m not a troll. You just don’t have a grasp of what’s really going on.

  • Anabel Dflux

    Hello there! I see that you are a nature and wildlife photographer, with great praise to your work (congratulations!). I do commend and appreciate wildlife photographers deeply. However, I would say that your perspective on the topic is rather different from mine, and I can guarantee that your experiences differ from my own significantly, having operated immensely in the exotic animal world. I would like to respond to each of your points individually.

    “I find this a very irresponsible article, for so many reasons. Exotic animals should not be encouraged for use as photographic props. In fact, no animal should be encouraged to be used in this way.”
    I’m sorry you feel that way. I disagree, and if you would like a detailed debate on the matter, I am happy to provide it. I would much rather educate the public on how to utilize them ethically, safely, and positively than allow dangerous misconceptions to fly rampant. All of the animals I use raise funds for conservation efforts, educate the public on their wild counterparts, and use the photo shoots to dispel negative violent stereotypes about the species.

    “It’s the same reason that zoos as so regularly chastised for their poor adherence to the true needs of their captive animals. Look at the recent deaths from tigers attacking their keepers.”
    I did not mention, or even hint on, zoos in my article. Zoos are an entirely different entity from exotic animal facilities and private owners that are a part of the ambassador program. Zoos have different motivations, regulations, licenses, and ideology than facilities. Zoos are stifled by quantity of animals and monetary incentives, both of which are no problem to facilities. I do not work with zoos purposefully. Facilities and private owners do a significantly better job than zoos do at adhering to the true needs of the animals in their care.

    “Just because an animal is captive bread as has never ‘hunted in the wild’ does not mean its innate tendencies are absent.”
    Selective breeding ensures that innate tendencies remain dormant, or significantly subdued.

    “These ‘exotic animals’ need huge amounts of space, and without it they can even suffer mental difficulties – ever seen a big cat pacing its enclosure?”
    You make an assumption on an enclosure without having ever visited. The facilities and owners I work with hold acreages dedicated to their very few animals. The mental difficulties are suffered due to lack of proper stimulation, all of which are provided in abundant amounts in private facilities. There is hands-on care for each and every individual animal around the clock.

    “Some animal rights activists would like you to believe that these exotic animals are abused or severely deprived – that is simply not true.” You can’t say this. You don’t know this. Take one look at Asia and you’ll see the horrific conditions and situations captive animals are exposed to.”
    Please refer to the statement that follows that quote in my article: “Although there are always bad seeds, the majority of facilities and individuals that work with these animals provide them with the best care imaginable.” Asia’s ethics and ideology on animal well-being is incomparable to that of the United States. Those are also not private owners nor facilities. I strongly encourage you to volunteer at a facility or speak to private owners about their beloved creatures.

    “Your white tiger ‘ambassador’ animal – white tigers are inbred purely for the colouration and have a host of genetic issues because of it. Using them in shoots simply creates demand for more white tigers, more inbreeding, more badly educated people, and more suffering animals”
    This is true of most animals, exotic and domestic. Your friendly neighborhood German shepherd endured this fate upon its creation. However, ethical breeders ensure their animals do not have a host of genetic issues through various breeding methods. The white tigers are ambassador animals that raise copious amounts of money for big cat conservation efforts, and have been awarded a slew of times for their efforts.

  • Anabel Dflux

    Thank you so, so, so much!

  • Francesca

    Oh, wow, and you’re the ONLY one who does, do you? I’m a photographer and I work with exotics, so I’ve got a pretty good grasp on the EXACT subject here. So, Tin Foil, can I call you Tin Foil? What EXACTLY is really going on? Are you the only Woke one here? Do you know better than people who actually do this for a living and are in the industry? Do you have all the answers because an internet commenter told you so? Do tell, I’m so interested to know why your opinions are better than facts from people who actually do this regularly, including myself!

  • Phil Young

    I own a wolfdog and although I don’t use him for photo shoots other than for my own pictures, he has been extensively socialized from 6 weeks old and is wonderful out in public. There is a huge difference between having a captive bred animal in a zoo, and a captive bred animal that has been raised to be around people from very early on it’s life. My boy was pulled from his mama at 10 days old and bottle fed to get used to human contact as early as possible. I picked him up at 4 weeks old. He is over 2 years old now. So making blanket statements about exotics is very uneducated as there is a lot more to it than is being said by Will.

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