Mark Taylor’s childhood growing up in Kenya was similar to that of Gerald Durrell as described in My Family and Other Animals. His parents, Jane Burton and Kim Taylor, were both animal enthusiasts and photographers, which gave him him a good start in the field of nature photography, although it wasn’t his first career choice. Mark now concentrates on photographing cute animals, both wild and domestic, often combining different species together, on white backgrounds. Mark gave us an insight into how he got started, and the practicalities of pet photography…
How did you get into photography and specifically pet studio photography?
Photography was not my initial choice of career and pets were not my first choice of photography. I trained as Mechanical Engineer and later had aspirations to peruse a career in acting then discovered photography while living in Canada. I fell in love with landscape photography in the wonderful wildernesses of North America. But when I came back to England, I found myself more and more involved with my mother’s work with cute animals, helping her with some book and jigsaw projects. When my mum died, I took over her work to keep the family business going – they were big shoes to fill.
How do you find your models?
Most of my cats and dogs come from friends or friends of friends, and usually I offer hi-res photos of their animals for printing, in exchange for borrowing them. There is a breeder who regularly sends me her puppies and kittens and I pay her for the use of the animals. I prefer not to have the owner present during a shoot as the animals are usually focused on them and not on me, but it depends on the animal. Dogs are particularly difficult to photograph with their owners present. I also keep my own selection of rabbits and guinea pigs, who are accustomed to being photographed with other animals. I call them my ‘extras’.
What is the most unusual animal you’ve photographed? And what creatures sell the most?
Although the most interesting animals I have photographed in the studio are some wild creatures like badgers, foxes and deer, by far the best sellers are cats and dogs. They make up at least 80-90% of my direct sales.
Do you work on commission, or photograph animals as and when available?
I don’t like to do commissioned photography. Working with animals it’s hard to get them to do exactly what you want. When someone makes a commission, they usually have a very specific idea about what they want, and often it’s impossible to get. I much prefer to have a general idea and see if I can make it work to add some more pictures to my library. A magazine client once commissioned me to do particular shoot – they’d seen a shot of mine and liked the animals but wanted to have them on a different background. I spent a long time trying to get them to do the same thing but of course they didn’t, and in the end the client used the original photo.
How long does an average photo session last?
My photo shoots tend to last 2 or 3 hours but can vary anything from 1 to 6 hours. It depends largely on how cooperative the animals are. I shoot anything up to 1000 photos, out of which usually about 10 to 25 are usable – such is the difficulty of working with animals!
Any top tips for photographing pets?
The most important factor for this type of photography is to be open-minded. Don’t try to force the animals to do certain things, it will most likely end in total frustration. It’s much better to have a backup plan or two, or even just see what they do and hope it’s something interesting. The other, possibly even more important thing is to have support! I would not be able to do this work without my animal handler, Britta. She positions the animals for me and stops them from straying too far during a shoot. It’s out of the question to expect all but the best trained dogs or most placid rabbits to remain where you’ve put them while you go back to the camera. Britta also plays with them, encourages and feeds them and keeps them interested while I concentrate on taking pictures.
Are all the animals you work with well trained to respond to commands?
Hardly any of the animals I use respond to commands such as sit and stay, particularly as I prefer using very young animals. Not only are they usually cuter, they’re also more compliant, and adapt more quickly to the unusual conditions of the studio. When a baby animal does what you want and you reward it with food it usually catches on pretty quickly!
Do you have a favourite image?
My favourite image changes all the time, as new ones come along. At the moment it’s the two tabby kittens sleeping in a hammock. Having got the idea of shooting this, it took me a long time to find a suitable hammock, I eventually found a doll hammock online. Then having got the hammock, it was a long time before I could get the kittens to sleep in it. They had almost grown too big for it by the time they were relaxed enough.
Why do you photograph against a white background?
Most of the time I use white backgrounds because that’s what designers want. I’ve tried suggesting different colours to some of my major clients, but most of them are not so keen. Sometimes, just for a bit of variation, I use different coloured backgrounds, but the thing about white is that with Photoshop you can change it to all manner of different colours, to suit your needs.
Some technical questions – what kit you use, and how do you process your images?
I use Canon cameras and, predominantly, a 28-300 zoom lens. Zoom is essential to frame the animals properly as they move around. I always use flash in the studio – four flash heads, three bouncing off the ceiling and one with a diffuser to light the front of the subject. Outside I like to use natural lighting. Most of my images only need a little post processing, just cropping them so that the frame fits the subject and ‘white spotting’ to make the background near or perfect white.
Any funny stories?
One of the most interesting and fun episodes was when I had a Bulldog breeder bring her Maverick Bulldog gang to be photographed. She was connected with a television company and they wanted to film the photo shoot, so I had her, her partner and son, a film crew and about 8 Bulldogs all in the studio at once. Five of the dogs were puppies and absolutely brilliant, I couldn’t have wished for better subjects to work with on a film shoot. However, when it came to the adult dogs, it was quite a different matter! She wanted some shots of them dressed in Union Jack gear for the royal wedding but they simply were not having it. All mayhem ensued as they wreaked havoc in the studio.
Any advice to aspiring photographers?
My number one piece of advice to anyone thinking of doing this sort of photography is to get someone to help you. Also, start with just one animal at a time and, if possible, use a baby animal. Rabbits and guinea pigs are the easiest to work with, but if anyone in the family has a puppy or kitten, see if you can arrange to photograph it regularly. Puppies and kittens that are photographed regularly soon get used to it and become much more relaxed, which makes your job easier!
Mark’s images are available for prints, check out his gallery here.