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Puppy Poses 

Random hugs and excitable subjects are all in a day's work for Utah pet photographers.

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A  photo of Scout by Dawn McBride - DAWN MCBRIDE
  • Dawn McBride
  • A photo of Scout by Dawn McBride

In a Salt Lake City back alleyway, against a colorful mural of classic book spines, Dawn McBride prepares to shoot her subject. Out of nowhere, a girl of around 4 years old rides up on her bike, dismounts, and runs up to hug that photo subject, having just met him a few minutes earlier; "He really loves me," the girl says.

All artists have their unique challenges. This is just one that you might deal with as a pet photographer, and your subject is a friendly golden retriever named Scout.

McBride has operated Fuzzy Love Photography since 2017. But despite photography being something of a family business, she really didn't expect it would become her calling as well. "My dad was a photographer, and he was always trying to get us interested," McBride recalls. "And I tried ... sort of. There was so much to learn, and I just didn't care enough—until I adopted my dog Milo [nine years ago]. When he got a little older, I wanted some good photos of him, and there just wasn't anyone [doing pet photography] at that time. So I dusted off my old Nikon and tried to figure it out. And yeah, the photos were really bad. ... But the more I did it, the more I thought about doing it."

While McBride couldn't find any options a decade ago in the local pet photography marketplace, it's a growing one. Kim Kuhlman, who runs Chile Dog Photography out of her Sandy home, relocated to Utah 18 months ago for her husband's job as a veterinary internist, hoping to continue work she's been doing for more than 20 years.

Originally trained as an engineer, Kuhlman tried out photography around the same time her husband was transitioning to his second career in veterinary medicine. "It turns out that dogs were the passion first," Kuhlman says. "My husband has bred springer spaniels and competed with them for 20 years. I got my first paying gig, and it wasn't very much, shooting for a competition 21 years ago. My husband bought me a film camera off of eBay to keep me entertained while he was training."

Both Kuhlman and McBride emphasize the need to have a good understanding from the "pet parent" about what they want from the photo shoot—studio setting or outdoors, posed or more candid. Then it comes time for the session itself, and for the photographer to let the animal and the setting help shape the shoot.

At her home studio, Kulhman says, "I let [the dogs] run around the room and explore. Occasionally we have a 'marking' problem, but that's a hazard of the job. I get down on the floor with them to get them comfortable with me. Treats are usually involved. And it involves a lot of making crazy noises. I buy squeaky toys from Amazon by the bagful."

Kim Kuhlman in a photo session with Snoop at her home studio - SCOTT RENSHAW
  • Scott Renshaw
  • Kim Kuhlman in a photo session with Snoop at her home studio

"I make the most obnoxious noises out of my face," McBride of her own photo shoots with a laugh. "You can only use those noises so many times, but it takes just a split second that I need them to look at me with head tilted and ears up."

Not surprisingly, the job involves working with subjects who aren't aways perfectly cooperative. For a home photo shoot with a retriever named Snoop, Kuhlman deals with a dog who seems too excited to sit for a photo. To an untrained observer, it seems impossible that she got anything worth using as Snoop darts repeatedly from his mark to sniff around the room—but the shots Kuhlman provides from that shoot are delightful.

So too are the ones McBride gets of Scout on the streets of downtown SLC, though it helps that she has worked previously with Scout and owner Brandy Chenoweth, operator of the pet-centric website DogFriendlySLC.com. Having worked with multiple photographers, Chenoweth believes there are some specific qualities that make for a great pet photographer.

"Those who only photograph pets are different, in terms of understanding how dogs need to be photographed," Chenoweth says. "It requires a different mindset. ... You have to be quick, and you have to work with the animal where they are. People assume you have to have this perfect dog who understands 'stay,' and knows all those commands. You just have to meet him where he is, and be flexible."

After the shoot itself, there's still work to be done in selecting the best images and working on the photo-editing process. But as uniquely challenging as the job is, pet photographers still face internal and external voices about whether the work they do is a real art form.

"I project stuff like that on myself," McBride says. "My partner is actually a landscape photographer, published in National Geographic. He's legit. And sometimes I have a hard time not comparing myself to what he does. I do puppies!"

"I've been at Park Silly Market with my booth," Kuhlman says, "and will occasionally hear someone make a snide remark: [sarcastic voice] 'Oh a pet photographer.' But I'll also get [excited voice] 'Oh, a pet photographer!'"

That's the kind of energy inspired by working with beloved pets—even if it means interruptions in the middle of a job.

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