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POTW: Lois Cunniff of Chelsea

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 6, 2010 09:00 AM

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Lois Cunniff has been a faithful RAW reader. One day she emailed me about one of her contest photos, and I noticed links in her signature to her budding pet photography business. She agreed to be one of our Featured Photographers. Here's her story.

By Lois Cunniff

My love affair with pet photography is a long story with a few twists and turns along the way.

I grew up in an average, middle-class, Irish Catholic family, the youngest of seven kids. From an early age, I had a special connection with, and affinity for, animals. I was always bringing home stray animals, mostly cats.

Because of my love of animals, I started asking to be a vegetarian around the age of 8, and I am still a vegetarian today. As a kid, I wanted to become a veterinarian, but sometimes life makes other plans for you. I ended up going into human services, case management, and HIV outreach education.

I was really good at what I did, but, as anyone in that field will tell you, it is high burnout. In December of 2006, that is exactly how I felt. It was crystal clear to me that my career was over, or at the very least, it was going on a very long hiatus. It's a scary thing to have several working years ahead of you and no idea of what is next.

I had always walked a few dogs to supplement my income, and thought dog walking might be a nice bridge to get me by until I figured out what I wanted to do next. Almost four years later, I have a thriving business!

As for the photography, I’ve always had an appreciation for it. Ansel Adams is my all-time favorite photographer, but I never thought that I, personally, had much talent. One day, out of boredom, I bought myself a Sony DSC-H50 . It was a pretty nice camera, a good size to bring along when I was out with the dogs. I started shooting a lot, and experimenting with camera settings.

Before this camera, I had no idea what an f-stop was . . . aperture, huh? . . . but this camera opened up a whole new world to me, and a whole new passion. Friends and family started commenting on my work, which I thought was really just a series of lucky shots, but I kept shooting. In 2009, some people near and dear to me gave me a Canon EOS Rebel Xsi with a 18-55IS lens for my birthday. My first digital SLR camera! I was a little intimidated at first, but my nature, when intimidated, is to dive in and play around, and that is exactly what I did.

Pet photography is high energy, very spontaneous, and perfectly suits my style and personality. I love it! In my opinion, it’s the most creative form of photography because you don't have time to think about it. For me, creativity happens on a gut level; when you are in the moment. Animals are forever in the moment, highly impulsive and often unpredictable. My job is to just try and keep up. If you allow them to control the shoot, you often capture the unexpected and, if you are lucky, you manage to bring out their unique personalities in your work.


Animals will almost never pose for a shot they way you want them to. Most are not terribly interested in the camera - since they can't eat it - so to expect them to pose is an exercise in frustration on both sides of the lens.

I've read a lot about the rules of photography and in general, I ignore them, not out of arrogance, but because I never want “the rules” get in the way of my creativity. The only rule I adhere to is my own, and that is, “keep it fun”! I constantly tweak the camera settings. I'll experiment and try different shots with different f-stop settings, shutter speed, ISO, etc., but I don't obsess about them. If I'm messing around trying to figure out what settings I should use for the light at a given moment, I might miss an amazing shot. For a photographer, there is no worse feeling than missing a shot.

My work has grown a lot this past year, and I'm grateful for my friends and family who have supported me and cheered me on. I've fallen in love with action photography, so I will soon be lens shopping!

Here are three tips for taking good pet photos:

1) Keep it loose and easy. Animals pick up on our energy very quickly, so if you are getting tense about your pet not "working the camera", your pet will pick up on your tension, and you'll capture photos of a freaked-out looking pet - not a good look!

As I mentioned above, animals are impulsive, and in these moments of impulsiveness, their true personality shines. Learn to get out of your own way, and roll with it. You'll have more fun and so will they.

2) Get low . . . and whenever possible, get close. Pet photos look better when you get down on their level. This allows you to focus on the face or bring out some interesting markings, etc.

When I talk about getting close, I'm not referring to just zooming in. I mean to physically move your body as close to the animal as you can, and if you're dealing with a nervous animal, move slowly. When I shoot portrait-type shots, I will contort my body, crawl on my belly - whatever it takes to get the shot. Yes, I get some very strange looks from people walking by, but I don't care! I've have also nearly been knocked over a few times in an attempt to get an action shot, but I'll do anything to get the shot.

3) Use the flash sparingly. There are times you need it, but try to avoid it if possible. Some animals are spooked by the flash, but the main reason I try to avoid using it is due to glowing eye effect. You can use Gimp or some other program to try to fix it later, but this is not always possible to correct.

With my Canon, I can go into the menu, flash control, and from there turn down the flash exposure and even set it so it goes off on the second curtain, which I have found helpful. I imagine most DSL cameras also have this function. You can buy diffusers that go over the flash as well. I've had mixed results with these and ultimately ended up rigging up my own system, so play around and find what works for you.

Here's a gallery of Lois' pet photography.


In addition to photography, Lois - a Boston native - creates some pretty unique photo coasters and photo cards. The cards are suitable for framing, but can also be sent through the mail as a regular greeting card. Her website for pet photography and photo tiles is Artsy Photo Tiles (aka Boston Candid Pet Photography).

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