Alex Cearns: Diversity in the Workplace

Perth photographer Alex Cearns has been quick to establish herself as a specialist in studio animal portraits. Steve Packer talked to her about her work with creatures great and small.

I’ve been looking at the website for your business, Houndstooth Studio (www.houndstoothstudio.com.au). Dogs and cats, okay. But you also have studio shots of lizards, snakes, possums, budgies, cockatoos, ferrets, goats...

I love to photograph all creatures. It’s always exciting to have an animal in the studio that I haven’t worked with before and I’m constantly seeking new subjects, be they a different animal species or breed.

I grew up on farms, surrounded by animals. From a young age I learnt to respect animals and understand how they behave. I have a diploma in animal care and part of the promotion of my business is that I’m a specialist in animal behaviour. When I started taking photography seriously about four years ago, I soon found that animals were my thing rather than people, landscapes or any other subject.

Four years ago? You’re a fast learner.

Thanks. It’s flattering to receive praise, but like many photographers, I’m a perfectionist and strive to improve on what I do. I aim to take a better shot in every studio session, for myself as well as my client.

I bought my first digital SLR about four years ago. I was on holiday in Tasmania, with a film camera and a digital point-and-shoot. A friend I was with had a DSLR with a zoom and a portrait lens, and it made me think I had to get one. I did a beginners Know Your Digital Camera course at Swan TAFE and it has been a rapid learning curve since then.

After the Tasmania trip, I bought every lens available because I thought I’d become a ‘be everything’ photographer. I went out and took pictures of landscapes, people, plants... but none of them really captured my attention and the images weren’t particularly great. Then a friend asked me to take some family portraits at a local park. When I got home, I had more pictures of ducks than the family. I noticed that as soon as an animal was around — be it a bird, dog, cat or bug — everything else was forgotten and it would become the focus of my attention and camera. Capturing the character of animals was something I found quite easy.

Then in October 2007 I went to the Cocos Islands and took a photo of blue clams at a breeding facility, entered it into state and national photo comps, and it won two of them and placed in two others. As a result, I received gallery representation and recognition and sold quite a few copies. It’s still selling quite well.

Why do you photograph animals in a studio environment?

I started out as Alex Cearns Photographics in 2008, photographing domestic pets in natural light. I was finding it quite difficult to get the result I wanted within the confines of a backyard, often in difficult lighting conditions. I wasn’t really enjoying it, so I focused on wildlife photography until January last year. When a colleague who owned a Perth pet studio moved interstate, the opportunity presented itself to open my own fixed-base animal studio. I already had a mobile studio setup I’d take to the RSPCA and other offsite shoots, and I renovated an office area at the bottom of my garden and people were then able to come to me. I still take the mobile studio to the RSPCA and to clients who can’t travel.

The studio style allows me to focus entirely on the animals and that’s what my photos are about — capturing and showcasing the pure essence and personality of the subjects.

You’ve been the official photographer for the RSPCA WA for more than three years. What does that involve?

 It’s pro-bono work. I do several shoots for them each year and am always available if a specific shoot is required. Some are for media releases, some for publicity, and I’ve gone out with inspectors and taken in situ shots, sometimes for court cases. It can be quite traumatic, but I see it as important work. It’s vital to document the good and bad in life and in the way we treat animals.

I also provide pro-bono work for other not-for-profit animal groups such as Kanyana Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Animal Aid Abroad, Animals Australia, Stop Live Exports, Victor Harbour Penguin Centre and the WA Dingo Association.

What sort of camera gear do you use?

A Canon EOS 5D Mark II and, in the studio, usually a 24-105mm Canon lens.

How do you get the animals to pose or do what you want them to do? Especially, say, a budgie.

I know a few tips and tricks to make sure they don’t look too hot, or to get them to put their tongue back in their mouth and that sort of thing. It’s also a matter of predicting what they are going to do. I draw on my experience and feel easy and confident handling all sorts of creatures, from budgies to snakes.

Some of the RSPCA animals have been so badly abused, if you show up with a big black box and put it in their face, they just curl up into a ball. I’ve learnt how to be extremely patient and how to ensure that my photo sessions are stress-free for my subjects.

I also use food treats and sound surprises. For the budgie shots, I held up a seed bell and he was jumping up, trying to grab it, so it looks like he’s on tiptoe. I have fridge magnets that bark or meow. They’re great for getting tilted heads and other responses. I also have a wide selection of squeaky toys.

Obviously, some animals are more difficult to photograph than others, for all sorts of reasons. Echidnas have very small, low-set eyes, so getting a catchlight in an echidna’s eye is quite difficult.

A native animal handler often assists me with the wildlife photo sessions. She’s well aware that if a snake is posturing a certain way, it’s time to back off because it’s getting a bit warm, sleepy or agitated. A number of helpers assist at the RSPCA too.

Over and above getting the shot, my whole ethic is about safety, for people as well as animals, and not stressing the animals out. In the studio, it has a lot to do with patience and energy. If I maintain a state of consistent, calm energy, then the animal will remain calm. I never raise my voice or make them do anything they don’t want to do. If a dog doesn’t want to sit, it can stand. If it doesn’t want to stand, it can lie down.

A shot on your homepage shows a black dog on a black background. The exposure and lighting must be critical.

I’ve heard of photographers who won’t even shoot a black subject against a white background for fear they’re not going to get detail, but it’s just a matter of positioning the lighting. I find that the darker the animal is, the better it looks against black. To me it’s more about the shadows than the light — illuminating enough to see part of the face, with the rest hidden in shadow.

I have four Elinchrom lights, two mounted on the wall and two mobile in front of the subject. I usually use all four for the white backgrounds and one, and on occasion two, for the black shots. With a single light, I position it fairly close to the animal, which is fairly close to the backdrop.

How do you feel about working with snakes and lizards?

 I’m quite a reptile fan, so no problem there. I’m not so keen on spiders, but it would still be exciting to have one in the studio for a shoot.

What other staff do you have at Houndstooth Studio?

I have a business manager, and a digital retoucher who ensures the backgrounds in my shots are pure black or white. I also have a team of different animal handlers, depending on the animal we are photographing.

You have a blog on the website, and you use Facebook and Twitter for promotion. How do they work for you?

The aim of everything I do on the social marketing sites is to build brand recognition and to drive traffic to my website.

If I can get people to my site, hopefully they’ll have a look around and might fill in an online inquiry form. I blog frequently and post ‘blog alerts’ on Facebook, which sends people to my website.

I try to market very intentionally by focusing on my target market, which I know really well. My business is growing rapidly and I’ve started working with national media and public relations companies and vets in the eastern states. Technology allows me to be based in Perth but work for anyone anywhere. Plus I travel quite extensively so I can work on location with an art director or creative team.

I was recently contracted to photograph a horse for a commercial client based in Queensland but with offices globally. Having a horse in a studio is very ambitious, but the subject was an outstanding dressage horse and he did really well.

My long-term goal is to be the photographer people and organisations think of when they want a quality studio photo of an animal.

See Photo Review magazine Issue 45 for the print edition of this profile which includes additional images.

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