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We Chat To Canine Photographer Jess Wealleans

Find out more about canine photographer Jess Wealleans and her latest book 'Lick and Tell'.

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All the images featured in this interview are from Jess Wealleans' new book, Lick and Tell

Jess Wealleans

 

Tell us a bit about yourself, how did you get into photography?

My first attempts at photography happened when I was 14 - my family bought me an entry-level DSLR for Christmas that year. We lived on a farm in the countryside so I had very little to do other than take photographs in my spare time! My first efforts were rubbish, as to be expected, but Tess our Labrador was always a willing model. My images improved slowly but surely as I learnt to use Manual settings from YouTube videos. At 15 I began selling my work on microstock websites and even then dogs were always my main subject. From then on I focussed solely on dogs, and at 17 I began Wealleans Photography, which was later rebranded as WP Studio. I’m now nearing my 21st birthday and have photographed over 2000 dogs in studio over the last 3 years.

 

Has photography always been a passion of yours?

Ever since that first camera, I have been totally absorbed by photography. Although I have no formal qualifications, which I honestly do not mind at all, the technical perfectionist in me always had to have everything spot on. I was awarded the Licentiate qualification award by the Master Photographers Association in 2014 for my studio work with dogs, which further fuelled my desire to improve my work and think outside the box to do something a little different.

 

Jess Wealleans
 

What drew you to dog photography in particular?

I love photographing dogs because it captures the personalities and freezes the memories. As all dog owners know, they stay with us for such a short time and age a lot quicker than we do. Losing dogs to illness and old age has always been very difficult for me. All you have left when they are gone are memories and photographs. If I can give owners those memories to cherish forever in a physical format, rather than just ‘on a CD’ or ‘on an iPhone’ then I have done my part well. Most of my clients have big wall panels, framed prints and albums which show the unique personality of their dogs in a format that will last for the lifetime of the owner, and beyond.


Tell us about the inspiration for your latest book, Lick and Tell.

Lick and Tell was an idea that began in 2013. I’m a huge user of positive reinforcement training whilst photographing dogs, which means that when the dogs do something right in the studio, they always get a reward. It is usually a food reward like sausage or chicken. When the dogs do a great sit/stay for their photographs, they get a treat after every shot I take which keeps it interesting for them. I’d line up the next shot while they were finishing eating their reward, and as soon as they were ready, I’d take the next shot. Occasionally, exactly at this point, the dog would lick. I was accidentally capturing all of these ‘lick’ shots on every shoot. They were great to look at afterwards and tended to show the dogs personality in a totally unique way. Timid dogs would do a small lick, bold dogs would do a huge slobbery lick - they were hilarious. And from there the series idea began.

 

Jess Wealleans
 

Can you explain a little about how you work on a typical photo shoot with a dog?

Dogs are unpredictable animals for the most part, especially in an unusual situation with a lot of strange lights, strange people and strange items to sit or stand on. You never really know what you’re going to get. Immediately on the dogs arrival, I will work out their personality and adjust my behaviour to match what sort of energy level I am trying to achieve. A very hyperactive dog will need to be calmed down before going near any of the set, so you close down your body language a little, talk quietly and softly, use treats to work on focus and attention beforehand. A timid dog you want the opposite, you want the dog to be moving around, focussing on you whilst letting them investigate everything in their own time. Once the dog is in the right frame of mind, then I begin by getting the ‘safe shots’ - the standard sits and stays, profile and headshots, down stays and head tilts. After that point, I’ll be more creative, getting the owner to ask the dogs for any tricks, using props or other items. When the dogs concentration begins to go, that’s when we stop. Always finish on a good note!


What's your best trick for getting them to sit still?

Getting them to sit still is usually quite easy if the dog is relaxed. I put the camera down and actually do some basic sit/stay training until they have learnt the desired duration and distance. If the dog already knows a good sit/stay, but is looking around and becoming distracted, all you need is an unusual noise and they will look straight at you with that adorable head tilt. I make my own noises now, which some people find a bit bizarre, but 90% of the time, it gets the perfect shot! There are iPhone apps that have specific sounds on which can help if high pitched squeaks won’t cut it, but I rarely use them.

 

Jess Wealleans
 

What camera settings / lighting setup do you use?

I use a real mixture depending on where I’m shooting and what I’m shooting. Usually though, I use a 3 light setup, the main light with a large octabox, fill light with a large softbox and a hair light with a small softbox. For the camera settings, it can vary depending on the colour of the dog, but generally I will always stick to ISO 100, 1/200s and will then adjust my aperture between f/9 and f/14 depending on the colour of the dog and its distance from the main light.


What kit do you use and why do you like it?

I shoot with a Nikon D800 and 24-70mm f/2.8 lens in studio but will occasionally swap to the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 if I know my subject is exceptionally well behaved and won’t move around too much. I like the D800 because of its accurate and fast autofocus system, it’s essential to have that with dogs! Although I would love to upgrade to the D800e or even the D4, I just haven’t seen the need for it - the D800 does everything I need it to do perfectly well.

 

Jess Wealleans
 

Do you have a favourite breed of dog and why?

I hate to sound obvious with this one, but I do love Border Collies. They are so intelligent and learn different commands very quickly which comes in really handy in photography. I have my own Border Collie puppy, Alfie, who knows many commands for different poses, he can do them all so effortlessly. It’s just a big game to him. Sometimes the Collie focus can be difficult to cope with in studio because they usually maintain solid eye contact with their owner, so getting attention towards the camera can be pretty tough!


Have you had any particularly memorable incidents with dogs in the studio?

There have been lots of memorable moments, some good, some pretty bad! The most common thing is dogs peeing on the backdrop or on the light stands. Thankfully we use disposable paper backgrounds and the light stands just need a good hose down!

 

Jess Wealleans


If you had to give 3 top tips for someone new to working with pets in photography what would they be?

  • Get to know the behavioural traits of the species you are going to photograph. If you’ve never worked with a horse before and don’t recognise their body language for stress or fear, you may end up with a broken camera and some broken toes! Safety is paramount and you need to know when to back off or move out of the way.
  • Make sure you give the animal a reason to like you from the start. Usually feeding them something they like is a good place to begin. Make sure you ask the owner if you can feed them though, they may have specific dietary requirements.
  • Watch the ears! For dogs, cats, horses, cows and goats, the ears are going to make or break the photograph. Attentive ears are what owners are looking for. Try different things to see what works best. A mixture of strange noises, rustling packets, squeaky toys or a scarf moving quickly. Just be ready to press the shutter because they don’t stay there for long.

To find out more about Jess and her new book, Lick and Tell, take a look at her website.

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