To celebrate #nationalpetday, our Pet Brand Marketing Team spoke to British Award-Winning Equine & Pet Portrait Photographer, Karen Bennett to find out why photographing pets is her passion, and why her Springador/Labradinger dog, Bugsy is the secret behind her success.
Karen is a full-time professional equine and pet photographer. Following a Photography Diploma with the Photography Institute a few years back while bringing her daughters up, Karen has gone on to win numerous awards, including multiple national and regional titles.
“I also regularly enter monthly digital competitions with the Societies of Photographers, and in February of this year, I won the Gold and Highly Commended Award.” Karen explains with delight.
“It’s wonderful to share with clients that news that their pet is the subject in an Award-Winning piece of work!”
Karen, tell us about your journey to becoming a celebrated equine & pet photographer:
“We have always had dogs in the family home. I was and still am completely obsessed with dogs and horses!”
Karen reminisces with a huge smile.
“In my youth I would cycle a few miles to a farm to muck out the pigs in return for a ride on one of the farm ponies. In my teens we moved to the Lambourn area (Valley of the Racehorse) where I finally got my very own pony. I spent every waking moment I could at the stables, grooming and riding my pony Willy Nilly. Sadly, it wasn’t too long before I had grown out of her, and we had to sell her.”
Karen then took to riding out the racehorses in Lambourn for established racehorse trainers including Reg Akehurst, Dave Hanley, Paul Cole, Stan Mellor and a few others at every given opportunity. It was Dave Hanley who gave Karen her first ride as a lady amateur jockey at Chepstow. Karen then went on to have a few more rides, being lucky enough to ride in the Ladies Race at Ascot.
“In those days, it was challenging as a female to get rides, especially If you were not a trainer or owners’ wife/daughter. When I left school, I flew to South Carolina for ten months to work in a racing yard as a work rider.”
This was, as Karen explains, quite an experience and set Karen on the perfect path for starting up her own livery yard business.
“I focused on preparing racehorses to go back into work after a few months of rest or recovering from injury. This allowed me to look after and prepare ponies to go into the show ring for my brother, who is sixteen years my junior. To this day, my brother is still involved with horses working at a very high standard in the show jumping world currently in Kuwait.”
After two years of marriage, Karen fell pregnant and gave up her livery business to become a stay at home mum. When her girls were teenagers, Karen decided that she would try an online photography course, as she had always had a great interest in photography.
“The diploma took me two years to finish.” Karen explains;
“I did many workshops on different genres of photography, including weddings, portraits, food, etc., but it just wasn’t leaving me fulfilled, something was missing. “
That ‘something’ was animals, as Karen explains;
“It was during this time that I would practise for hours with our family dog Bugsy. Bugsy is my best friend and definitely comes first before anything or anyone (but don’t tell my husband or children!). Bugsy gives me so much joy and pleasure. I absolutely love him.”
“One day while photographing Bugsy I had a light bulb moment!
‘Why on earth wasn’t I photographing pets?’ I asked myself. “
Having worked with animals previously, Karen understood how to interact and the time and patience that’s required to achieve their trust.
After a lot of preparation building websites, creating portfolios, sourcing printers and framers etc. Karen completely transformed her back garden to accommodate a photography studio.
“Our studio has been designed to photograph small pets using only natural light streaming through a bank of windows. This use of natural light is a signature that runs throughout Karen’s work, both indoor and outside.
So, who was or is Karen’s biggest inspiration?
“I feel it’s what inspires me, rather than who inspires me. I don’t compare myself to others or copy what they do, but I do look for something unique in their work. I look for something which I can take away, which in turn inspires me to develop myself into new areas and keep persevering (photography is incredibly hard work). I am always encouraged by my ‘Mindset for Success’ group, my talented husband and two lovely daughters who are proud of my achievements, as I am of theirs and of course my mother, sister and brother are hugely inspirational. I also have Bugsy to thank for that lightbulb moment and continuing to entertain me daily with his antics and big personality.”
Karen’s motivation comes from a whole raft of people, including entrepreneurs (not just photographers) who are passionate about their work and make a positive difference to others. One photographer who captured her imagination then and now is Photographer Jonathan Critchley.
“I have attended a landscape workshop of Jonathan’s in Cornwall. I love the black and white simplicity of his landscapes, oceans and sails; his equine images show pure strength and power.”
What qualities does Karen think you need most to be a successful pet portrait photographer?
“The biggest quality of all would be patience and the ability to stay calm. And of course, you absolutely need to love all animals.”
You need to be very aware of what is happening around you, especially when photographing horses; things can change very quickly, and you need to be aware of the body language signs. Be prepared to be jumped on, get your hair pulled, have your face washed and be slobbered on! You also need to be good with a steam cleaner and exceptional with a hoover, animal hair gets everywhere!”
What makes a beautiful image?
“Firstly, for me, the image needs to speak to you, be full of emotion. The image needs to pull you in and engage with you, something that tells a story. Then there are also technical aspects such as interesting lighting, composition, engaging subjects and point of focus.
Karen also believes you don’t need to have a professional camera to take exceptional photographs at amateur level;
“You don’t need a professional camera to take great photographs, especially if the images are stored on your phone, desktop or computer. JPEG images on your phone are compressed, designed to take up less storage, and each time you edit or use filters, it can damage the original file. If you want to print images from your camera, then I would definitely suggest using a professional photographer or purchase a professional camera. You may need to take time to view hours of YouTube demos, workshops, tutorials etc. on how to use the camera or you could leave it in automatic mode and hope for the best.”
The saying ‘never work with animals or children’ is particularly true of photography, and Karen has some great stories to share;
“I was laying down on the floor getting ready to take some action shots of two Boxer dogs, as they were running full pelt towards me it became very apparent that they were not going to stop. I quickly lay the camera down guarding it with my hands avoiding injury to the dogs, that left nothing for me to protect myself from the over-excitable dogs which on reaching me proceeded to jump on top of me and use my ponytail as a tug toy!”
Karen has also captured magical moments on film with owners and pets, and for Karen, one memorable occasion certainly stands out;
“Try photographing 13 rabbits with a three-year-old, all of which needed to be photographed in different groups. As the three year old was lying down with the rabbits to give them some greens, she promptly ate them herself much to the dismay of the rabbit. It made a great image, though!
Does Karen have any top tips or tricks to get your pet’s attention?
“I have my own repertoire of sounds (I do warn my clients within my session guide about my noises and not to be embarrassed for me!), which are the first on my list to use.
Dogs quickly become tuned in to noises, so you need to time it well when as to let out that squeak. I very rarely use treats or balls as the pets can become food or ball obsessed, which does not work well with my style of photography. Once I have used up my repertoire, I have a hidden toy squeaker, so the dog has no idea where the noise is coming from.
Speaking very gently to the pet is also very effective, knocking on the floor or wall with my foot (I do get into some bizarre positions) and saying ‘come in’, ‘who’s that’ or ask them where is a loved member of the family that isn’t in the studio with you. Watch and be ready to click, you only have a split second to capture that shot.”
Is someone is thinking of using a professional pet photographer to capture those special moments, what should they look for?
1] Look at the photographer’s work and look for happy and relaxed pets
2] Do you like their style of photography?
3] Is the personality of the pets shining through?
“I only book one session in a day so that I can dedicate my whole attention with no time restrictions; we take as long as is needed for your pet.” Explains Karen.
And finally, that magic ingredient you need to produce a beautiful image of your pet?
“A Professional Pet Photographer, of course!” smiles Karen and looking through her beautiful collection of work, we have to agree.