Alex Cearns: Making animals’ personalities shine through pet photography

With International Cat Day (Aug. 8) and International Dog Day (Aug. 26) both falling this month, it’s the perfect time to make those pet portraits extra special. Whether it’s something you do regularly or want to try for a change, we have the charming work of pet and animal photographer Alex Cearns to inspire you.

Based in Perth, Australia, Alex runs Houndstooth Studio, where she works her magic with animals guided by 15 years of experience. Of course, to thrive in such a profession, one needs to be an animal lover. For Alex, it was a natural progression brought about by her childhood surrounded by different animals in the Australian outback. She eventually developed a lifelong love that led her to pet photography, which she considers more as a lifestyle built around animals and nature.

“As an only child, my constant companions were my dogs, guinea pigs, horses, rabbits and bottle-fed lambs. My family had a great regard for Australian wildlife, and I often helped my mother rescue and care for a wide array of injured kangaroo joeys, birds and other creatures until they could be released back into their natural habitat,” she shared.

“At age 11, I moved with my family to the Pilbara, an area in northern Western Australia, and a place that was the ideal environment to grow up in. I spent much of my spare time there exploring the surrounding desert with my dog, Ally.”

The path to animal and pet photography

It became a serious passion for her in 2006, where she used point and shoot and film cameras until a friend introduced her digital photography. While she explored other genres, not surprisingly, she still gravitated toward animal and pet photography.

“Never one to do things by halves, I spent every spare moment studying photographic literature, and practicing the craft on my own pets, those of friends and family, as well as farm animals and wildlife. I tried a few other genres such as landscapes and people, but animals enthralled me more than any other subject.”

A work trip to the stunning Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean Territories led Alex to her big break. There, she recalled photographing a group of giant blue clams at a rustic breeding facility. Drawn to the vivid colors of the clams, she waited patiently to get the right shot. With positive feedback and support from family and friends, she entered one of the photos into several major competitions, where it garnered several awards.

“I was thrilled (and a bit surprised!) when it won several major awards. This led to gallery representation and print sales of the image — and was the first time I felt like my photographs had a value.”

At the time, however, Alex had a full-time government role. Despite this, she set up her own photo studio where she spent weekends taking pet portrait requests.

“What started as a weekend hobby was growing so much, I found myself working up to 100 hours per week in both jobs. It was crazy busy but thrilling to gradually see the emergence of a viable business in which I could merge my two passions: Animals and photography.”

Philanthropy through photography

In 2010, Alex left her government job and rebranded her photography business into “Houndstooth Studio.” As a photographer, her goals and passions are to show the beauty of animals; and to support, promote and endorse animal rescue organizations.

“Every charity project I undertake is about improving the lives of animals. Knowing I can help make a difference to the lives of rescue-animals is a huge motivation for me. The right image viewed by the right person can mean a dog is re-homed, a donation is made, or that media will run a story that increases awareness or raises public concern for a cause which directly affects the welfare of the animal.

“A very important goal of mine is to continue to do whatever I can to promote and support effective animal rescue and conservation organizations, be it dog rescue, bear rescue or tiger rescue, through my images. There are so many species that need help right now and so many great animal organizations that need help.”

Go-to Tamron lenses for pet portraits

Every photographer has their own chosen tools for the trade. For Alex, these include some trusty Tamron zoom lenses, which she has been using exclusively for the past decade. Zooms, she said, are her first choice as they allow her to keep a safe distance for all kinds of shots.

Currently, she uses a range of Tamron Super Performance Series lenses, mostly the 24-70mm G2, 70-200mm G2, 150-600mm G2 and 90mm Macro for her Canon 1D X Mark II body. When using her Sony a1 kit, she uses the 28-75mm, 70-180mm and 150-500mm E-mount lenses.

“I use the macro and 24-70mm portrait lens in the studio with my Canon and other lenses, including the macro and E-mount lenses outdoors when I photography wildlife. My favorite lenses would be the 150-600mm and 150-500mm. The extra zoom is always welcomed when photographing wildlife and both lenses continue to amaze me with their response times and image output.”

A creative life inspired by pet personalities

More than just a job or business, pet photography has evidently enriched Alex’s creative life. It shows in her adorable captures of her animal subjects, whether beloved pets like dogs and cats, or wild animals like koalas, parrots and geckos. Likewise, her desire to highlight their fun and quirky personalities allows her to be as creative as possible with her approach to pet portraits. This is most likely founded on her realization that she wanted to showcase her subjects in a positive light.

“During each photo session, it’s up to me to catch my subject’s personalities shining through in those split-second moments. I always know a bit about each dog before they come to the studio, through their booking information we receive in advance. When they are in front of my camera, I prefer to let them sort their own posting, and my utmost priority is ensuring they are comfortable and relaxed. This is the best way to capture organic, character filled images.”

With her love for dogs and extensive experience handling them, Alex finds them both the easiest and hardest subjects. She also often works with dogs that come from abusive backgrounds, so she knows how to relax them and avoid their triggers.

“Dogs are very aware of their environment and the fact that they are in a new place, with a stranger, surrounded by flashing lights, with a large object (camera) pointed in their face. All dogs are welcome in my studio and I photograph many dogs who have been aggressive to people, and I’m proud to say I’ve never had a problem with any of them because I’m able to call on my dog handling experience and knowledge and ensure they trust me and have lots of fun. That really is the most important thing. Some people call me a dog whisperer, but to me it’s using my body language and energy to relate to them in an easy and nonthreatening way.

“Cats are the opposite of dogs to photograph. They generally grumpy from either being woken up to have photos or from having to go in the cat carrier. But they tend to stay quite still, or play with a toy or two once they arrive. Everything else I find easy to work with, from mice, to ferrets, horses, birds, farm animals and reptiles. They tend to all cooperate for me fairly well.”

Pet photography misconceptions, do’s and don’ts

Years of experience have taught Alex all the knowledge valuable to her craft. These include the do’s and don’ts that allow her to not only take great photos, but also dispel some of the most common misconceptions about pet photography. These include the notion that pets must be perfectly still throughout the session, and that the dogs she photographs are all fully trained. In fact, animals won’t sit still, so it’s the photographer’s job to work with what the subjects give them.

“Many people, particularly owners, have a misconception that pets must be sitting perfectly still during their photo session. Not only do they NOT need to be sitting still, if they move around I have more poses to work from and to choose.

“We have information on our website to negate this which says, ‘Your pet doesn’t have to sit still — we are very fast!’ and have a big banner with the same text on it on display at any events we participate in. Not only do I shoot fast and look for those split second moments to grab as an image, my Profoto studio lighting can sync extremely fast and helps me freeze motion and capture what I need.

“People also assume every dog I photograph comes fully trained and knows a gazillion commands and most owners think their dog will be the worst behaved one I’ve ever met. The truth is, it’s irrelevant how much training a dog has. As a pro photographer, it’s my job to get the same standard of images of every subject, regardless of their level of training. Being a stranger to the dog often works for me in relation to this, as many dogs tend to want to impress new people and so will be on best behavior. I think 15 years of working closely with animals helps me too, as I can tell what dogs are thinking and what they are considering doing, before they even do it.”

Understanding animal behavior is another pillar of Alex’s pet photography. This is important for creating a stress-free and safe environment for everyone present in the shoot.

“Animals will often give you a warning before they lash out, and will show their mood through their body language,” she noted. “Learning how to read these movements and signs will help put your subjects at ease and lead to a more fluid and successful session.

“I connect to my animal subjects by firstly making friends with them. With dogs I find this particularly easy by offering them select toys and treats. Once I’ve won them over they think I’m the best person they’ve ever met (until the treats run out!) and I then pretty much let them do whatever they like — I’m a bit like the naughty auntie who doesn’t have any rules and lets the kids do what they want.

For those who also want to get into pet photography, Alex advises approaching it as with any other genre: Find your own style and make consistent work out of it. Focusing on a niche may help once you already find your strength. Being selective about your shots will help you establish the standard for your work.

“I’m self-taught in photography, so the key for me was self-auditing — really going over my work and trying to tweak it to let me style evolve. I’m still trying to capture that elusive ‘perfect shot.’ Having a niche is something which has benefited me too, as I just get to focus on animals as my subjects. Since I’m a huge lover of animals, this makes my day job an absolute joy.”

Meanwhile, if you also want to make a business out of it eventually, she adds that developing a business mindset is essential. Building a solid foundation to work from is just as important.

“You can’t service customer needs to the required standard if you don’t have systems and processes in place. If you want to take your pet photography to the next level, I’d highly recommend enlisting the services of a business coach who has ‘been there done that’ and can help you build your business from the ground up.”

Don’t forget to check out Houndstooth Studio to learn more about Alex Cearns and the rest of her impressive work.

All photos by Alex Cearns. Used with permission.