Pet Photographer’s Portraits Show Why Animals Mean So Much To Us

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People love cats, dogs, and other pets. They are cute and lovable and make our lives so much better. Few capture the personalities of furry, four-legged friends quite like professional photographer Grace Chon, who has carved out a strong niche in the animal photography space.
PetaPixel chatted with Chon to learn more about her career, how she got into pet photography, and the techniques she uses to craft compelling visual narratives of what makes pets so special for so many people.
The Jump From an Advertising Career to Photography
“My background is in advertising,” Chon explains. “I worked as an art director for a number of years developing ad campaigns for all kinds of different clients… it’s a very stressful industry.”
While Chon admits that she liked how she could use her creative energy, the job was highly demanding.
“I was so burned out and I remember feeling like I needed to make a change,” she says, recalling that she found herself in a very unhealthy, unsustainable emotional state day after day.” she continues.
“That’s when I decided to buy a camera and when I decided to start taking photos of my dogs.”
The joy she felt doing that led Chon to post an ad on Craigslist offering her photography services to pet shelters and dog rescue organizations.
“A rescue group reached out to me, said they needed my help, and I just started taking headshots of these little adoptable dogs,” Chon says. “As an art director, I understood the power of a really strong visual. So, if there’s a great image of a dog out there and someone sees that online, they’re going to be more likely to want to come in and meet that little creature.”
Unsurprisingly, that’s precisely what happened. More people started coming into the shelter to meet adoptable dogs, and more dogs found forever homes.
From there, Chon started a “little side hustle” and began a family pet photography business. She was still working “crazy hours” as an art director, but after about nine months of juggling that full-time job and her growing photo business, Chon quit her advertising job and went all-in on photography.
“I haven’t looked back since,” Chon says.
Just over a decade ago, she transitioned from the retail photo side to commercial photography and has worked with Purina, Fancy Feast, Nintendo, Tinder, AARP, and many more. She has also worked with many celebrity clients, including Chris Pratt, Chelsea Handler, Anna Faris, and other big names. Chon is represented by Retriever, an agency that specializes in professional visuals with animals, including massive marketing campaigns for some of the biggest companies out there.
No Matter the Photography Job, You Must Shoot Photos You Like
Having worked as a volunteer photographer, side hustler, gig shooter, and now a massive name in the commercial photo industry, Chon has experience at every level of the pro photo pyramid. Not that any level is better than another, of course, but Chon has excellent advice for people looking to turn their passion for photography into a money-making endeavor.
“First and foremost, I just think it’s really important for you to photograph what you like,” Chon says. “That sounds so obvious,” she admits, but there’s a lot beneath the surface.
When Chon first got into pet photography, the type of lifestyle work she is now famous for was not prevalent at all. There was a pretty straightforward way people were photographing their pets: looking down at them. As a relative novice, it would be easy for Chon to do what everyone else was doing, but she didn’t like that style.
“It felt so uninspiring,” Chon says. She explains that thanks partly to her art director background, she knew there must be a way to tell more compelling stories about dogs.
“These dogs are the story, so let’s get them in their house. Let’s get them on the couch, let’s get them in their environment, and let where they live inform who they are. And let’s go to the park and get shots of them doing the things that they love.”
Chon also realized that so few photos included the pet’s families in the frame. She asked her clients for “the longest time” if they would like to be in the portraits with their pets. For a while, people resisted. But finally, one client agreed and was excited to be part of the photos with their beloved animal.
This photoshoot was such a homerun that suddenly, clients were asking Chon if they could be in the photos rather than the other way around. It was a transformative moment for Chon’s career.
“That’s why I think just do what you like and shoot stuff, even if it doesn’t exist, why you should make it; make the stuff that you want to see in the world and really infuse your own viewpoint and your style and your color and whatever that is into there,” Chon explains.
People or Animals? Either Way, Photographers Must Make the Subject Comfortable
“You have to meet them where they are,” Chon says of her furry subjects. “Animals are so sensitive. They’re tuned in.”
Chon credits her calm, grounding energy as a critical ingredient in her success. “I know it’s easier said than done, but this is a practice where you must do whatever it takes to get into that space of feeling really grounded, present, and aware. Because when you’re in front of an animal, they’re going to feel all of it.”
This is one way that Chon captures such brilliant photos of pets, but she also thinks it’s vital that photographers understand that it is a collaborative effort.
“We’re working together,” the photographer says. “[My subjects] look happy because I’m not forcing them to do things.”
Chon says it is vital that she pays very close attention to an animal’s emotional state. She’ll move on if they’re tired of a shot. If they’re not having fun, how can she make them enjoy the process more?
“I’m really doing photography slash training,” Chon says. “So I have a camera in one hand and a squeaky toy and treat in the other. It’s like I’m training an animal as I work with them. They’re so smart, they understand quickly what you’re doing.”
Referring to the process as “paying the model,” Chon routinely rewards dogs (or cats) whenever they do something she thinks is positive. Chon says that dogs typically want to do the right thing; they like pleasing people more often than not. As for cats, they “only work with you if they feel like it.” If a cat is food-motivated, they can make for a fantastic subject. But if not, it’s a bit trickier. Chon says you must have a very high-value treat ready when taking cat portraits.
People Love Animals, and Chon Loves Bringing Joy Into People’s Lives
Although Chon is a bona fide expert pet photographer, she still faces challenges. Even though she knows many ways to work with a diverse range of animals, it’s not always sunshine and daisies. So why does she do it?
“I want to create a moment of upliftment for someone when they view my work,” Chon says. “I want them to feel better having seen my work, especially in this day and age when we’re all doomscrolling. If during that, you come across one of my photos and even for a second it makes you laugh or smile, or you get that moment of feeling better, that’s really all I’m looking for.”
“Animals bring so much positivity into our lives. They’re so therapeutic and healing, and I think truly make our lives so much better and more meaningful.”
Concerning the therapeutic quality animals can have for people, Chon has done a project, “Healer,” focused on this aspect of the human-animal connection. This series of black-and-white meditative portraits connects the viewer directly to an animal in the same way people connect to other humans through portraits: Eye contact.
While the “Healer” series is so different from Chon’s other work, primarily by virtue of the high-contrast, monochrome aesthetic, there is still a throughline that connects it all; the work is still about making the viewer feel something positive because of their connection to animals.
“I believe that all pets, specifically dogs, are healers. They show us what pure, unconditional love looks like,” Chon says. “It’s something that can be so hard to come by as humans, but this [dog] in front of you will love you no matter what.”
“They don’t care what you’re wearing, they don’t care how much money you make, they’re just here and they want to be with you and love you. We can be so exposed and vulnerable; we can be ourselves in the presence of dogs. To me, that is pure medicine.”
“Healer” is about tapping into that feeling, Chon explains.
Ultimately, Passion Breeds Success
When discussing the most rewarding part of her photography career, Chon laughs, “I didn’t even know this was a career. I had no idea.”
“My parents are immigrants from Korea. They told me you can’t make money being a creative. I feel like this entire journey so far has shown me profoundly what can happen if you follow your heart and do it to the best of your abilities. And do it for reasons outside yourself. Amazing things can happen.”
Through her success, Grace Chon shows what can happen when you focus on doing what you love, doing it your way, and being patient. She is working on a new book, which is scheduled to arrive early next year. To see more of her work, visit her website and follow Chon on Instagram.
Image credits: All photos by © Grace Chon

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