It’s a familiar concept for springtime photos: a child and an adorable animal in a set swathed in pastels and white, a picture of all that is innocent. It seems simple. It looks great. But do you know what you’re getting into if you decide you’d like to attempt such a promotion? Federal requirements to do this lawfully are rigid and require substantial effort and preparation by the photographer. Add possible state or local restrictions, and you can see that it’s not as straightforward as you may have hoped.
When a client brings their family dog to your studio to be photographed alone, with their child, or with the family, your path is free and clear; there are no restrictions regarding your client’s pets. However, if you photograph clients with animals you’ve provided, you’re considered an exhibitor as defined by the Animal Welfare Act, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. And you may be subject to additional requirements by your state or county. (Find out how to acquire an animal exibitor license.)
Some studios have been doing spring portrait sessions with animals for such a long time that it’s become a family tradition for their clients.
Pat Rubin, M.Photog., owns P.M. Studios in Edison, New Jersey, with her husband, photographer Mitch Rubin, CPP. They’ve been doing Easter portraits of children with bunnies for more than 20 years, and it’s a favorite with clientele, so much so that this year, adults who were photographed with bunnies when they were children are coming to have their own children photographed. “It becomes a family tradition,” Rubin says. “Some people have brought in their 18-year-old because it’s such a tradition they can’t not do it.”
Pat Rubin does the studio portraits for the business. She says when she started the Easter sessions, her family’s pet rabbits were used. Now that the Rubin children are grown and there are no pet rabbits at home, she works hard to find the right animals to hire for their week of bunny portrait specials. “It has to be a rabbit that is used to being handled,” Rubin says. And there has to be help as well. “There is always a bunny helper. I would never consider doing a session without a helper.”
There are many considerations and cautions that go into making the popular week of sessions run smoothly, she notes. Sessions are scheduled in 30-minute intervals. Rubin first asks the parents if the child has a pet at home and if the child is used to being around animals. She introduces the child to the rabbit with the bunny still in its hutch. Next, the handler takes the rabbit out and holds it for the child to pet. This is an opportunity for Rubin to see if the child is eager to interact or a little fearful so she can plan accordingly.
First and foremost, “It’s all about a quality portrait,” says Rubin. “The bunny is a secondary thing.” She will make sure that the lighting and set are perfect and then pose the child to get a good smiling portrait for the parents before the handler places the bunny in the pose, often next to the child or in a basket. Rubin will offer to place the bunny in the child’s lap only if that’s acceptable to both the child and the parent.
With babies she uses a set featuring a twine nest and an oversized egg where the baby is cradled in soft, contoured padding and white bedding. “The bunny always climbs up to look at the baby,” Rubin says. “They’re so curious. When the bunny starts to move and the child reacts to it, I want that shot because that’s the one that Mom wants to buy,” Rubin says.
Sonya Keener of Studio 13 Photography in Pierceton, Indiana, has been doing springtime children’s portraits for 16 years, usually using ducklings. “I’m from a small town,” she says, “and to this day I will run into clients and their kids who are now teenagers, and they remember me as the duck picture lady.”
Before she obtains the animals, Keener finds an appropriate home for the ducklings to go to after her weekend of portraits, such as a friend’s daughter who participates in the local 4-H organization. She purchases the ducklings from a commercial farm supplier and sets them up in a suitable environment with a heat lamp and monitored temperature that ducklings (and chicks as well), need for their first few weeks of life.
Keener limits the duckling portrait sessions to two days, and the ducklings used for images are rotated so that each gets a long break before being posed again. She’s also learned to use washable drop and set pieces since ducklings can be messy.
As you can see from just two examples, working with live animals in your studio involves detailed logistics and attentive care. But there are alternatives. For example, Midwest Photographic and other suppliers offer realistic animal props—no feeding, no mess, no rehoming required.
Another alternative is partnering with a local farm that participates in the burgeoning agritourism business. Rancho Alegre Farm in Dacula, Georgia, hosts field trips, birthday parties, and workshops. Owner Pilar Quintero says that on her farm, there are plenty of baby goats and lambs in residence in spring, and that would be perfect for a photographer to schedule an event there. “There is opportunity there to benefit both sides,” Quintero says. “It shows the venue in the best light, and the professional photographer can capture the best memories.” The key to sealing the deal is structuring a photo event so both the photographer and the farm attract the income needed to make the effort worthwhile.
Joan Sherwood is senior editor of Professional Photographer.