Ever wondered what it takes to create and release a photo book? Well today’s guest post will explain just that. Charlene Winfred interviews Cathy Topping who has just created a book for DCH Animal Adoptions. With all proceeds from the sales of the book and subsequent photography sessions going towards building a new shelter to temporarily house abandoned animals.
SHELTER is a series of pet portraits has been released as a photo book. The animals who feature in this book have all been rescued by DCH Animal Adoptions, looked after and rehabilitated by foster carers, and then adopted to their forever homes. All profits from the photography sessions, as well as sales of the book, will go towards building a physical shelter to temporarily house more abandoned animals. Support the cause by buying a book here (http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/3124145)
SHELTER was put together by Cathy Topping for DCH Adoptions. Cathy is a Sydney photographer who can’t make up her mind about which is her favourite photographic subject – people, pets or places. Cute rescue animals are a firm favourite though. She loves spending time wandering around her quiet little corner of Sydney, going for long walks with her latest foster dog. Visit Cathy’s website (http://www.cathytopping.com/)
First things first – I want to say congrats on a gorgeous book! It must be awesome to see all your work over such a long period of time in the flesh. How did you get involved with DCH?
It was a bit of a two pronged thing. I was looking around for a way to really get into doing some animal photography, so I approached them to see if they wanted a photographer to take pictures of their foster animals, or do a calendar. The book suggestion came from that. At the same time, Mat and I were thinking about fostering a dog ourselves, so we ended up with Gertie last year. Crazy little pound dog! I’d never had a dog before, apart from when I was growing up. It was our first experience of being ‘dog parents.’
Gertie was really quite traumatised, so it was a steep learning curve. It’s true – they are a lot of work! But we saw her make progress, and that was an amazing experience. And we just fell totally in love with her. When she got re-homed, it was heartbreaking for us. We dropped her off, and both of us sat in the car and had a little cry.
So why fostering then, as opposed to getting a permanent pet?
I’m still not totally settled. We’re renting at the moment, and it makes it hard if you have a dog. Mainly though, I’m not sure if we’ll be staying in Sydney for the next 10 years (or however long a dog would live), and so don’t really feel we can make that sort of commitment. Fostering is a nice compromise.
How long did you work on the book for?
Gosh….probably 8 months. I started shooting in May last year, finishing all the photography by the end of 2011. This is the first project of its kind that I’ve ever done – nothing like flinging yourself in the deep end hey? – and it was pretty nerve wracking the first couple of times. I’d work out a suitable time with the owners, and turn up on their doorsteps at the appointed hour. I organised it so I would be able to visit two or three families a day, as travelling to some of these homes did take a significant amount of time.
Some of the owners were a little nervous, although most were fine. For the ones that preferred not to be in photos, I’d suggest shots that included them, without showing their faces, so they were still part of the photo. I didn’t push it, unless I got a feeling that they wanted to but were too shy to ask. Most people are really camera shy (me included), so I could understand them not wanting to have their pictures taken! Kids were a bonus, as they are willing to be photographed. But trying to get a dog and a young child to sit still was a challenge! I got a couple though.
We had some owners emailing their stories though, but the majority of the write ups were done by recording audio interviews after the photo component of the session was done. I’d hand the audio files over to Mat [writer], who would turn them into written pieces. The layout was done during that period too. I had a graphic designer work on the layout, but we did it together, meeting up around 3-4 times to play around with it.
We encouraged owners – there were 40 in total – to review their sections of the book. I’d create a gallery from each shoot within a couple of weeks of taking the photographs, and we would email everyone their story text to make sure all the facts were right, and to make sure they were satisfied with what we had written.
The final months were mainly spent liaising with Judy (one of the DCH coordinators) and all the owners, making sure everyone was happy with their portion of Shelter.
How did you find these owners? Did they respond to a call out for the project or did you have to ask?
Judy organised that. She’s one of the DCH co-ordinators. In fact, the project was her idea initially. She found people who were interested, and organised the fee etc directly with them. She would then pass me their details and I’d take it from there.
An hour isn’t a long time when dealing with a wary dog or cat. How did the animals react to being photographed? How did you get the more traumatised ones to warm up to you enough for photos?
I took it slowly: Take some pictures, and then put the camera down. I think I spent more time cuddling and hanging out with them than actually taking photographs! I started out with only my 50mm and 24-105 f4 lenses, and my 35mm f2 was always a firm favourite, but halfway through the project I had to get more gear as I wasn’t getting the photos I wanted. So I invested in a 70-200mm f2.8….and wished I could start all over! I think, that once I had the longer-reach lens, I was able to spend more time photographing as I could keep my distance.
It changed as I went along. I think at the beginning, I was just totally obsessed with nailing a type of portrait shot. You know, shallow DOF, dog looking into the camera. Then, when I saw I was getting that sort of shot every session, I needed to start coming up with other ideas, so I would be looking for something different in later sessions.
As I got further into the project, I also got better at pre-visualising what I wanted. That’s when I would gently push people to be in the photos if I felt I didn’t have enough of that sort of shot. Or work on a good action shot to break up the portraits. As an exercise for my photography, I haven’t worked on anything more useful!
That “something different” you were looking for in later sessions, what was it?
Something with a bit of a story in it. A portrait shot is nice, but I was most happy with shots like Dalton and the little kid, or Honey munching on her dog treat, Tea looking up at her parents (standing between their legs), the family walking along the beach, Kalle chewing on the soccer ball with a cheeky glint in her eye.
All of those shots you just mentioned – did you deliberately set up the situation to make those moments happen?
I just had to go with the flow. I actually thought that each session would only be 1 animal, and often it turned out I was photographing 2 or 3 dogs, which became a big challenge. I knew that we were only going with 2 or 3 shots per spread, so I had to figure out how to make that work. Dalton and the kid was a lucky moment, and Kallie and her soccerball too. The others were set up as much as you can in those circumstances.
I love that one of Tea and her parents’ legs. That was a most memorable image.
Yes…I really enjoyed that shoot, and it was good it happened so early on. Tea was really easy to photograph though, so it set up a bit of a false expectation. The rest of my subjects weren’t so good at sitting still!
That leads me to Goggles. HOW did you get that shot of that dog doing a superman?
I got lucky! Well…she is insane and would spend all day leaping into the air chasing balls, so I had her family get her to do it over and over and over (for about ten minutes). She loved it! I just shot the hell out of those ten minutes. I didn’t realise it worked so well until I got home.
I imagine you would have walked away from each session with a couple of hundred photos at least. How did you edit them down to the handful for each story?
Um….I got good at editing! I would cull it down to about 20 into a gallery for the families, and then pick a handful of my favourites from those. Once I’d done my initial cull, I’d send these across to Emma [graphic designer], and part of the process was finding the ones that fit into the layout and spread. Also with some animals, I simply didn’t have a lot to choose from. A few of the cats, for instance, would give me two minutes tops, and then disappear under the sofa, never to emerge. Cats aren’t the most malleable of subjects. Twistie was good value though, he LOVED the camera. Martha was an exception too, she was more like a dog and could be made to do almost anything for a treat!
In the entire undertaking of Shelter, could you name one experience as being the best, or standout?
Gosh. Good question. I guess this will sound a bit trite, but I really enjoyed meeting the families. I’ve always considered myself quite shy, so I was surprised by how confident I was just turning up on strangers’ doorsteps with a ‘hi!’
and a smile, and trying to get everyone at ease. That’s the other thing I love about photography actually, the experiences it has given me. A camera really is the ultimate ice-breaker. But, yeah….the sort of bizarre nature of being taken into all these different homes for a hour or so, chatting and photographing with complete strangers. It was actually a lot of fun.
How did you get started in photography, and when did you realise you were well and truly bitten by the bug?
Well. I got my first camera back in 2000. My ex-boyfriend got it for me as a present, and we had just moved to London after I’d spent two years in Europe and Mexico on backpacking adventures. I didn’t really know anyone, and I can’t remember what I was doing for work, but whatever it was, was only part-time. So I spent that summer wandering around London, getting lost in alleyways, and taking photographs of all sorts of stupid things. I quickly fell in love with it; I think it was the first time I had really slowed down and paid attention to the world around me properly. It’s certainly my way of feeling ‘flow’. I also started doing family portraiture during this time.
I still really just love wandering around with a camera – ‘street’ or ‘travel’ photography I guess – I think by putting my focus on the world around me, it stops some of the incessant monologue in my head, that endless chatter we all have. It takes me out of myself, and gets me engaged in a way nothing else does. I’ve picked it up and put it down since then, but it’s always going to be something I do. My other outlet has been writing, but not really anything fit for public consumption!
One for the gear heads. What gear did you use shooting all the images for this book? And what software do you use for post processing?
I’ve got a Canon 5D Mark II. A 35mm f2, 50mm f1.8 (didn’t use that much), 24-105mm f4 which died half way through the project, and then the 70-200 f2.8 that I HAD to buy as a replacement. Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop for post-processing. All on my lovely iMac 🙂
Guest Author: Charlene Winfred – Looks for tug boats, and other wonderful things.