Animals are a difficult subject matter. Each one is different, they’re always moving and what might catch one puppy’s attention might bore the other who is still not looking into the camera lens.
Whitney McLaren might as well be part pet wrangler for how she has to capture an animal’s attention and get it to hold still. Alaska Pet Portraits is all McLaren, her camera and the animal in front of the lens.
“I’ve always liked taking pictures and I’ve always really appreciated pets,” she said.
McLaren had family dogs growing up and currently has eight dogs herself. Being around dogs and capturing them has always been important to her, McLaren said, and she gets a lot of practice taking pictures of her own dogs.
For people with an equal passion for photographing animals, McLaren’s advice boils down to being familiar with the equipment and the animals.
“I mean, the base advice is to know your gear, and then learn the behavior and make yourself familiar with how dogs are going to react in certain situations,” she said, “and then just practice. You can never get enough practice. I still make mistakes. All humans do.”
Along with the practice, she said, comes the hard work and time investment.
She wears a few other hats besides the pet portrait business as well. McLaren is an archaeologist when the weather allows. She was a volunteer photographer for the Yukon Quest in 2014, followed the whole race with another videographer in 2015 and has been an official photographer for the race since then.
She decided about three years ago to start up a business taking portraits. Alaska Pet Portraits has now been going for two years.
Her setup fits inside one giant backpack, about four other carrying cases and a plastic tote. It takes about 20 minutes to put together: a tablet for people to sign in on, a roll down backdrop, two lights, a computer hooked up to her Nikon D810 and a printer. Then it’s just up to her to work with the animals.
Sometimes there are pets who are more anxious than others. In those cases, McLaren said she tries to desensitize them to what’s going on around them. She’ll work with the owner to try and get the shot.
“The flash that I have, I can make it go off without actually taking a picture,” she said. “So, to desensitize the dog, you kind of make it go off more frequently and while it’s going off that owner is giving the dog tons of treats, giving them tons of treats, making them feel like everything is OK and then the dog can kind of settle down and be like, oh this is normal, this is fine.”
The same, she said, goes for cats. She might only get four or five shots of a cat though, whereas with dogs she tends to get more.
McLaren can photograph a number of different subjects. She has taken pictures of dogs, cats and reptiles and even fielded some requests for birds, ferrets and a snake. But dogs are her bread and butter — they’re where the business started.
“When I started it was dog portraits and a friend of mine that is a web designer that designed the website that I have said that I should open it up so that it wasn’t specific to just dogs,” she said, “and the dogs are the majority of the things that I photograph, but I do enjoy photographing other pets as well.”
For the record, the crocodiles don’t need the squeaky toys, a treat to bribe them or any desensitization.
“The crocodiles didn’t care,” she said, laughing. The two she photographed sat still and looked at her.
While she takes her pictures, the owners can be with the pet, watch in real time as the photos get uploaded to the computer and choose from their favorites to purchase prints.
McLaren has worked with Alaska K9 Center, Vested Interests, Pawsitive Dog Training, Golden Retriever Rescue and Noble Paws. She sometimes has a dog table set up in shelters where she can do portrait sessions. She says she always donates a portion of her proceeds back to the facility she photographs in, so the nonprofits can receive some of the funds from the session.
McLaren has worked with a variety of breeds. She’s even done photo sessions with show dogs.
“So I’ve done very prim danes and dobermans, and a couple poodles and some Australian shepherds,” she said, “and there’s always a lot of variation in behavior.”
Sometimes people will show up and tell her they don’t know how their dog is going to act, but McLaren says sometimes the people who are most upset about how the dog is going to act, their pet “cooperates flawlessly.”
Her style is crisp and realistic, animal faces staring out from sharp black backgrounds. Pomeranians have double coats that fill up a frame while curious eyed German shepherds and mixed breeds of all sorts tilt their head at the camera lens.
“I really enjoy doing the black and white portraits for the dogs just because it kind of eliminates everything else,” she said.
She does color portraits as well, but says she likes to offer the black and white as a specialty.
To book a session with McLaren and check out her work, readers can visit alaskapetportraits.com.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMlocal