Om and nom: of Zen Dogs and the art of a great dog portrait

International Professional Pet Photographer 2016 Alex Cearns tells Wunderdog how she gets her dog models to relax

Alex Cearns photographs more than 800 pet dogs each year in her studio in Perth, Australia. That’s a lot of dogs. In 2013, an image of sharpei Suzi with her eye closed and a broad smile on her face was the starting click for a portrait series of blissed-out pooches. A selection of Zen Dogs, as Alex calls them, has just been published by Harper Collins and features some of her favourite canine clients as they are about to blink.

The Australian photographer started her craft 10 years ago when she was 32 and looking for “her thing”. She picked up a digital camera and was instantly hooked and started experimenting with animal photography. A patiently composed shot of giant blue clams won an award. With more animal models came more accolades – more than 100 awards to date. The most recent is the title of International Professional Pet Photographer of the Year in the 2016 International Photography Awards.

Animals have always played a huge part in Alex’s life. She grew up in the outbacks as an only child with a menagerie of pets, including dogs and guinea pigs, and a whole host of rescue animals her mother cared for, including kangaroo joeys and echidnas. Her dad was a wool valuer, so sheep joined the family flock as well on occasion.

Despite her zoophile upbringing, she ended up working for the police and as an airport auditor, but her success behind the lens encouraged her to quit and set up Houndstooth Studios in 2009. Apart from photographing pets, Alex works with 60 animal rescue charities and shelters around the world to highlight their work.

Having portrayed thousands of dogs by now, Wunderdog wanted to know what it takes to make a dog relax in the unusual environment of a studio, with strangers and in front of technical equipment.
“To capture a relaxed and happy-looking dog, they authentically need to relaxed and happy,” Alex says. “I try to find what they love most – a certain type of treat or particular toy – and then use that knowledge to win them over.
“I think the most important elements of success are empathy with my subjects and the ability to make the photo session fun. Whether I’m photographing in my studio home in Australia, at an animal shelter or on location in a sanctuary overseas, if I can connect on a heart level with my subjects and ensure they feel relaxed and safe, their sentience shines.”

Having grown up surrounded by the varied wildlife of Australia, she remains a canophile. She has two rescues – Pip and Pixel – and a rescue cat called Macy. Alex tries to take a cue from dogs’ mindful presence and enjoyment of every moment whenever her own life becomes hectic. “They make us feel zen. Dogs really are our best friends and the Zen Dogs provides us with a gentle reminder to be in the moment, to stop, and to relax. Preferably in the company of a beloved pooch.”

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