I, Photographer: The Dog Portraitists

Capturing canines for a living can be tough work, but to Illona Haus, its all part of the job

July I, photographer
July I, photographer
Waterloo, Ontario-based Illona Haus, 46, was a successful author of psychological thrillers before she took a hiatus to explore her other passion: dog photography. Check out her environmental portraits at ScruffyDogPhotography.com.Janet Dixon

Why dogs?
I've always had dogs. I grew up with them, and I've adopted and rescued dogs with issues. I studied photography in college a few decades ago and was always shooting pictures of my own dogs throughout the years, just for myself. It's always been dogs in front of the camera.

How did you start your business?
After the loss of my first scruffy dog when he died at four years old, and having had only about four rolls of film of him, I taught myself digital photography. Later I began photographing more and started shooting other people's dogs. I decided to create Scruffy Dog Photography about three years ago.

Why specialize?
I am so immersed in dogs and dog behavior and dog training. Dogs for me are very natural. I get all kinds: aggressive, fearful, shy. It's a matter of reading their energy—it's all about energy with dogs—understanding their behavior and drive, and knowing what motivates them. Pet photography is all I do, so I've been able to hone that skill. I love it when a dog presents me with a challenge, because it lets me think outside the box.

How do you prepare?
Clients fill out a booking form to give me information about the dog, its behavior, what motivates it, what their favorite things about their dog are, where they want to have the shoot, and what they're after with it. When I meet dogs on the day of the shoot, I assess what they're like with the camera. If there's any hesitation, we head outside first so they're more distracted and not as shy.

Describe a typical shoot.
My shoots always involve several locations—the bulk of my work is environmental. The standard shoot is at least 3 hours long, roaming around outside as well as back at their home. Most of the shoots are late afternoon. I always shoot a big variety: I want to capture every possible angle and every emotion, and a lot of different backgrounds, colors, tones, and light. I do a lot of processing after the shoot. I promise clients 30 to 50 images, but I usually deliver 70 to 100, so it takes about 2 weeks to deliver them.

What gear do you use?
I shoot with a Nikon D3s and D700—I like having two cameras so I'm not constantly switching lenses. My main action lens is the 70–200mm f/2.8 VR Nikkor; I also use a 17–35mm f/2.8 and 35mm f/1.4G. If I have to be farther from the dog and I still want sharp portraits, I like the Sigma 150mm f/2.8. I don't really use fill flash outside—if I need to, inside, I bounce a Speedlight off the ceiling.

What's the biggest challenge?
Shy dogs are hard, but there are always ways of bringing them out. I had one instance with a shy dachshund who wouldn't leave her owner's ankles. She would circle to always keep her owner between her and the camera. I did the entire shoot behind the owner with my head almost on her butt as I shot between her ankles, but with most of the shots you couldn't tell she was straddling the camera. The hardest ones are the really crazy dogs who aren't trained at all and never stop—it's hard to get variety. In a situation like that, I have to know my camera settings and let the dog go. I have to move with whatever the dog's energy is and adapt to it. You can't go in with any preconceived ideas of what shots you're going to get.

What do you love best about the work?
Meeting all the dogs—they are so special to their owners, and I love capturing them in an artful way that's not just a typical portrait. Unlike when I was writing novels, the gratification is immediate: I don't have to wait a year to see one in print.

Matea, rescued wirehaired pointer (photographer’s dog)
Matea, rescued wirehaired pointer (photographer’s dog)
This tunnel of trees is a frequently requested location by clients, and some travel great distances in order that we can include it in their dog’s gallery. No matter what the season, I love the light; although in summer evenings the glow is unparalleled.Illona Haus
Summer, retired/rescued racing greyhound
Summer, retired/rescued racing greyhound
It’s about providing clients with memories of their beloved 4-legger, but also giving them artwork to put in their walls, not just ‘portraits’ of their pet.Illona Haus
Summer, retired/rescued racing greyhound
Summer, retired/rescued racing greyhound
Client portfolios are made up of more than ‘portraits’ ... ‘parts’ shots are important components of any scruffy dog shoot as well.Illona Haus
Riley and Stella, black and yelllow labs
Riley and Stella, black and yelllow labs
Obedience helps with any shoot, but since I don’t go for staid portraits, often it’s about waiting for something else to capture the dogs’ attention, to draw their eye someplace else for a more natural appearance. In this case, another dog.Illona Haus
Bridie, Cairn terrier senior
Bridie, Cairn terrier senior
Including the owners in the images in some form, even reluctant owners, is important to me for some of the images, as the connection and bond they have with their pet is the main reason behind what I do.Illona Haus
Oxford, young schnauzer/poodle mix
Oxford, young schnauzer/poodle mix
Working with small, quick dogs takes a lot of practice and heavy doses of patience ... and knowing exactly where to throw the ball.Illona Haus
Morleigh, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Morleigh, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Shooting low is essential with dog photography ... even if it means getting a little wet.Illona Haus
Lolli, 12 week old yellow lab puppy
Lolli, 12 week old yellow lab puppy
Puppies never stop. Shooting puppies is all about knowing your settings and working them on the fly.Illona Haus
Fritz, mini-dachshund
Fritz, mini-dachshund
Sitting alone in The Badlands, Caledon, Ontario.Illona Haus
Cricket, young brittany spaniel
Cricket, young brittany spaniel
Both of us were hanging out of the client’s window, on the way back from our shoot, in order to capture this windblown smile.Illona Haus
Stella, yellow lab
Stella, yellow lab
I just love the splash under Stella’s foot.Illona Haus
Mackelin, 8 month old pug
Mackelin, 8 month old pug
High-energy adolescents often have the attention span of puppies but energy that won’t quit. Sometimes in order to get them to stay in one place, a stump, log or big stone helpsIllona Haus
Barkley, poodle senior
Barkley, poodle senior
A lot of my clients prefer not to be included in the photos, but I still try to sneak them in there, especially if they can be standing in the background. I love capturing their presence in the photo as they are such a force in their pet’s life.Illona Haus
Sox, Newfoundlander
Sox, Newfoundlander
When I met Sox and her gorgeous eyes, then spotted this orange wall on the owners’ property, I knew I had a winner. The owner now has large, framed canvases of each of her three Newfoundlanders in front of the orange wall like this, each one more expressive than the next.Illona Haus
Merrick, puppy-mill rescue (photographer’s dog)
Merrick, puppy-mill rescue (photographer’s dog)
He’s working at becoming the best and scruffiest model ever.Illona Haus
Summer, retired/rescued racing greyhound
Summer, retired/rescued racing greyhound
Always determined to provide a range of backdrops to each client, I’ve used this red caboose a few times.Illona Haus
Matea, wirehaired pointer (photographer’s dog
Matea, wirehaired pointer (photographer’s dog
My own rescue girl is the quintessential model.Illona Haus
Kahlua, hound cross
Kahlua, hound cross
Shooting wide open really makes the eyes pop. I don’t generally like to shoot this shallow head-on, since that the out-of-focus nose becomes a potential distraction, but in this case, as dusk was falling on the beach, I needed the extra light.Illona Haus
Greta, mini-dachshund
Greta, mini-dachshund
Five-pound spit-fire. I love the models with attitude.Illona Haus
Oxford, young schnauzer/poodle mix
Oxford, young schnauzer/poodle mix
The clients had seen a previous client’s shoot where one of the dog’s tricks had been to balance on a fence post. Oxford, the muppet, was a quick study.Illona Haus
Olive, springer/cocker spaniel cross
Olive, springer/cocker spaniel cross
I love shooting action, and capturing expressions that owners never actually see on their dogs faces as they fly across open fields, beaches or parks.Illona Haus
Sophie, Chinese Crested
Sophie, Chinese Crested
For each shoot, I strive to find different backdrops, textures, colors, presenting clients with a wide range of images to select from.Illona Haus
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