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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Set your camera to Continuous Focus Mode
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Anticipate that the animal will need breaks
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.
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!