“I’m like a conductor in an orchestra,” says dog portrait photographer Amanda Jones. “I move my hands a lot to get them to look different ways,” she says of her subjects. And she uses the click of her shutter as a dog trainer uses a clicker for training. When the dog arrives for the session, she first conditions it that when it hears the shutter click and sees the flash pop, it’s rewarded with a treat. Once it knows the drill, she begins making images, crouching down on her knees an arm’s length away from the dog, with her Hasselblad in her left hand and pieces of Pup-Peroni snacks in her right. Looking down into her viewfinder, she guides the dog’s eyes toward the lens by gently waving her treat-filled fist toward the dog then pulling it back up over the top and sides of the lens—over and over. “I want to get them engaged with the camera so they are looking right at me,” she says. “I really focus on the eyes.”
Jones began her career as a wedding photographer in Maine. After a few years photographing nuptials, the stress got to her. “I was having nightmares the night before about my camera falling apart in my hands,” she says. Around that time, she and her husband moved to San Francisco. During their cross-country road trip, she told him she no longer wanted to photograph weddings, and he asked what she’d like to do instead. “California is the land of opportunity, right? So, I’ll figure it out when I get there,” she told him. They arrived in 1994 during the dot-com boom, and she landed work making portraits of internet and technology bigshots for Red Herring magazine. But photographing people in a sea of cubicles proved uninspiring.
One day, Jones and her husband asked a couple they were friends with to bring their dogs to her studio for a casual session and a few beers. “It was literally life changing,” Jones says. “It was so much fun. I thought, This is great. Oh my god—I could do this all the time. That would be awesome.” The friends went crazy for the photos, and Jones floated the idea of opening a dog portrait business even though no such business existed in her area at the time.
“You can’t photograph dogs,” her husband said warily. She countered, “I can try.” To advertise her niche, she asked a local pet store if she could display some of her printed works on their blank walls and leave her business cards. “I started getting calls the next day,” she says. “Right away I was photographing dogs, and now I have been doing it for 27 years.”
After Jones’ daughter was born, the family moved back to the East Coast, and that’s when Jones began traveling. Two weekends each month, she travelled to New York or San Francisco to photograph clients’ dogs. Soon, people in other cities were reaching out for portraits, so she expanded her reach to Dallas, Atlanta, and Arlington, Virginia.
When her photos ran in The New York Times style section, her work snagged the attention of art directors, so she began doing commercial work, ultimately heading up massive shoots for brands such as Pedigree and Hill’s. “That was a whole different ball-game,” she says. The productions, which often took place in Los Angeles, were huge, involving large teams. Dog and cat models were represented by agents.
Five years in, she began to see the commercial work drying up due to the Great Recession. She wasn’t upset. Though it brought in a good income and allowed her and her husband to buy a house, it was soul sucking, she says. “When I do commissioned portraits, it’s all about their dog and love and energy and passion for the animal,” she explains. The commercial work was all about the money. “I will take passion and love over the money any day.”
Four years ago, Jones’ daughter went to college, and her business evolved yet again. Getting into the car at the airport, she told her husband she was tired of flying. On a whim they stopped at an RV dealership on their way home and looked at small camper vans. They purchased a Winnebego Travato on the spot.
Today, the couple and their three dogs take five-week road trips across the country, stopping in various cities to make dog portraits in rented studios. Ahead of the trip, she posts the list of cities where they will host two-hour sessions so clients can sign up. They also travel a bit out of the way if a client requests a home session. In fact, Jones enjoys these home sessions because they allow her to take time and chat with clients, many of whom she now counts as friends. In some cases, the friendship is so close that the Jones RV can be found parked in the client’s driveway for the night. On their most recent five-week trip, Jones completed 33 client sessions across the country.
The real work begins when she returns home, Jones says. She edits and packages the photos, sending an 8x11-inch folder of proofs to clients. Some clients simply display that package on their coffee table. Others order products: Photo albums are popular, as are Jones’ handcrafted notecards, which feature the dog’s face or an action shot of the dog in the corner of the paper. She uses a framer who does custom framing and does her own printing.
While Jones enjoys all the canines that sit before her lens, some breeds are more photogenic than others. Leggy dogs are the easiest to photograph—greyhounds, standard poodles, Rhodesian Ridgebacks—because their long bodies allow them to stretch into pleasing poses. Photographing two dogs together is fun for Jones, because she can capture them interacting and play with depth of field. But it’s the variety and the challenge of the unexpected that she enjoys most. Some dogs are completely comfortable in front of the camera; others are terrified of the flash or hate the feel of the paper backdrop.
“What I love about photographing dogs is that a lab is completely different from a long-haired chihuahua,” she says. “They are all different personalities and colors, and some are into it and some aren’t, so I never know what’s going to come.”
The other thing she loves about photographing dogs? Their owners. “I feel like I am making people happy and giving them memories, which is lovely because it’s not everybody’s cup of tea to bring in a dog to a photography shoot. It’s a very specific person who is my client,” she says. “They are wonderful. They are dog lovers. They are empathetic people. They care. They are just lovely, and some of them I have known for 20 years.”
One longtime client recently gifted her mother a session with her 15-year-old dog. Jones marveled at what the 15-year relationship meant to this 80-year-old woman who got the dog when she was in her 60s. Jones made portraits of the dog, mother, daughter, and daughter’s dog in every conceivable combination of arrangements. “It was such a moving experience,” Jones says. “It is what I love about what I do. That connection through dogs with people is really incredible. They are truly community building, dogs.”
Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.