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The Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography Forum
Artist Showcase: Ken Phillips
by James Morrissey

This interview took place via e-mail between April 3 and May 26th, 2005

This article is Copyright 2005, James Morrissey, and may not, in part or in whole, be reproduced in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author. The images in this article are the property of Ken Phillips and have been licensed to James Morrissey and the NWP Photo Forum.

Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography

Owen with Goggles (c) Ken Phillips

Part I:  About Ken Phillips

JM: Would you be willing to a little about yourself and your upbringing?

KP: I was born forty-something years ago in northeast Ohio, the second of four children, three boys and a girl. I certainly feel much younger! I come from a family of smart, creative, & neurotic people ... it wasn't until I was an adult that I realized how unusual my family was!

My father was a WWII Army official photographer, and did work for the army as a civilian in Europe for several years after the war. He didn't go to college until he was nearly 30, and got a degree (and taught at the same time!) in photography from the University of Houston. He married rather late ... typical in my family. I grew up around still and motion picture cameras. No 8mm for me ... I shot 16mm with sound as a teen. And tons of film, such as the Tri-X we bought in bulk as to 'rolled our own' 35mm cartridges. I also shot some medium format and 4x5.

I have a photo of myself with a 4x5 view camera taken in ~1965 ... I still have that camera and tripod, inherited from my father. I cannot even recall explicitly learning about photography ... osmosis is the term that comes to mind. I was strolling about with a light meter around my neck when I was six or seven! (Of the four children I am the apple that fell closest to the tree, sharing my father's love of photography, computers and electronics, and flying.) I've never married (which has probably saved me from a divorce or two!) :)

[I began photographing] Nearly from birth!! I can't really say 'self taught', as my father was my primary teacher. I had a grant to university for the study of commercial art; I didn't show up much, and collected no credits. I will say this, however: in the late 1980's, when film and flatbed scanners were not affordable, and digital cameras were expensive, quirky curiosities, my father told me that the wave of the future was digital, whether the original medium was silicon or emulsion. He collected a huge number of articles from popular magazines and technical journals and gave it to me. I was interested enough to buy a multi-thousand-dollar grey-scale scanner, and some very expensive image editing software for DOS! I was so far ahead of the PC curve ... and so jealous of the Mac people that I even went that way for a while. (Somewhere in here I even wrote - in BASIC - some image editing routines. The programming ability came from my father, as well.)

JM: How long have you been in business?

KP: I've done professional photography rather sporadically over the last 28 years or so. I've helped in a portrait studio (which really means taking the portraits while someone else collects the $$) and I've assisted in several wedding shoots (which made me decide to exclude them from my repertoire!) When I sold industrial machinery I went about shooting large and wonderful machinery, usually in a plant somewhere, under the most atrocious lighting conditions. As I did this fairly well I was the default photographer!

Besides pet photography, I do charity events, birthdays and anniversaries, and home sittings. I also document unusual veterinary procedures and surgeries. In the last year or so I've done quite a bit of shooting for internet catalogs. When I decided to 'specialize' in pet photography I had no idea of whether it would be popular. I developed my own stark, high-key style that emphasized the animal over the environment. It's also largely seasonal, with November and December accounting for half of the year's revenues of  print sales.

JM: What made you feel that you could take this professionally?

KP: I found that I always could make money with my photographs ... it seemed a natural thing to do (I was also repairing motorcycles for cash at age 14, to the amusement of Pop)!

JM: Is Photography a first profession for you then, or have you done other things as well?

KP: I have been a professional motorcycle mechanic (including modifying motorcycles to fit Evel Knievel's bent and twisted body!), a graphic artist (I still like to point out certain potato chip bags), an industrial machinery salesman, and a software architect (a term I borrowed from Bill Gates!). I have several vertical market software products that produce a small but steady income.

JM: How did you decide to enter the door and become a professional photographer?

KP: Our family is listed in the dictionary under Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (DSM IV: Axis I 314.01)... most of us have had varied careers. Photography has been a constant in my life, off and on. The final nudge ... to make the lion's share of my income from photography, that is, came when four events happened more-or-less together: (1) I realized how bored I was with writing software, (2) a friend of mine bought a Canon D30, (3) I finally got paid on a large contract, (4) and my father became ill with cancer. It was time for a major mid-life crisis!!

I could afford to  take a year or two and figure out what I wanted to do. My friend lent me the D30 (as I had 1N and EOS-3 bodies and therefore EF lenses) and I was blown away by what the relatively small files gave me, compared to my scanned film and prints. Much easier to work with on the computer! (I've not shot more than 100 frames of pet portraits on film since ... and all of that B & W medium format!) The immediacy of the work - the short time between creation and fruition - has had me hooked ever since. My father's illness and subsequent death caused me to review -and marvel at -some of the tens of thousands of images he created, further feeding the itch. At the same time I was updating the computer network at a large local animal hospital ... and I asked them if I could shoot a few of the animals, using a small room that went largely unused. I had nothing really in mind ... I just wasn't so fond of shooting people, and I love animals!  I've never left, now having regular hours (and extending them seasonally, and to help out folks with odd schedules.)

Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography

Three Bunnies (c) Ken Phillips

Part II:  The Business Aspect of Photography

JM: You are an event photographer and do many things besides pet photography. Can you describe what your business looks like?

KP: In terms of physical looks, I have two setups: my tiny studio in the animal hospital (which is being replaced with one of proper size!) and a setup in my home office that allows me to shoot products that are ... smaller than a bread-box. I also have just about the best e-Bay photos going, as well! I have a pair of dedicated computers, calibrated monitors, somewhat more than a terabyte of storage (properly backed up!) and several color printers for proofing and printing display images or odd sized stuff. Up to this point I do exactly zero image processing at the studio, preferring to do it in the piece and quiet of my home office, with no chance of being disturbed.

JM: It sounds like pet photography is an important piece of your business plan?

KP: I'd love to say that it's the big money maker, and it is, for exactly two months per year. November and December see a lot of sittings for Holiday Cards and images to give as gifts. Those two months are also my busiest 'out' months, with few events, but a lot of in-home sittings. There is a spring-time puppy rush, which I find very enjoyable, as the pups invariably head for my lap. And everyone with a heart or even just a brain loves puppies. The remainder of the year the income from product and event photography and sales of nature photographs outstrip the pet business.

JM: What do you feel that the key pieces for running a successful photographic business are?  How does your website play into this, if at all?

KP: I use the animal hospital website, and post pricing and hours there. I have had several clients that found me via the website, but it's largely informational.


JM: How are you advertising?

KP: Besides the website, I advertise in several breed-specific newsletters, which gets me some show-dog sittings. I've also been featured in a few local publications, which amounts to free advertising. In the December 2004 'Best of the City' issue of Cincinnati Magazine I was featured in a full page bit; this literally doubled my holiday business over 2003, and the spillover continues. I got yet another mention in the same magazine a couple of months later. I also donate photo packages to various charities for auction or raffles. Generally, they allow me a display with plenty of business cards.

This has also gotten me a gig with a large private nature preserve as the first photographer ever listed as a "featured artist" at their annual benefit, which includes a 'live performance' where the artists have 30 minutes to create a work. Otherwise, as our animal hospital is fairly large, word of mouth has worked wonderfully. At one point about a year and a half ago the sittings for 'outside clients', those not using our animal hospital, passed the sittings for 'in house' clients, and it's been that way ever since. I never, ever forget to remind a client to tell their friends about me!

JM: It has been said many times that the biggest part of running a business is not actually doing your trade, but knowing how to RUN a business.  How have you educated yourself in running a successful business?

KP: I will confess to knowing how to run a business but not always following through on it. I do what I must, perhaps a little more than the minimum, but I could surely improve on it. But I want life to be fun, so to some degree I let some opportunities pass (I had a software company for some years, and am a partner in another firm presently).

JM: Is your photographic business what you had planned it on being when you had started?

KP: Yes ... when I decided on doing photography full time, I wanted to do things my way. So far, so good. More money could be had, but at this point I don't have to hustle.

JM: Do you think that pet photography employs a different skill set than photographing humans?  How is it different?

KP: People ... are easier if you count the percentage of shoots that we get what we want. If you count stress, pets are easier! Even if we don't quite get that one-in-a-million shot, we usually get something usable and very cute. That is, as long as the owners stay calm. I joke that I don't like people, only animals; some of that is true ... especially when a dog is uncooperative and frustrated 'parents' take it out on each other, or the hapless animal. ...[It can become] Very uncomfortable ... at that point I just take command, and one of the combatants must exit the studio (Always a human, of course!). In general, pets are very predictable, and most have some Pavlovian response or reflex that you can take advantage of (Trade secret: After a panting pet yawns you have about 1/2 a second to catch it with its mouth closed ... sans tongue!!).

JM: How does having the dimensions of both people and pets in a photograph different from just shooting a pet?

KP: Actually, this is really my favorite. You can really see the connection between the owner and the pet. I tend to favor the pet in the image, with the focus being on the pet's eyes! And I split the POV between the two. Just holding a dog or cat is OK, but some interaction really makes the picture.

JM:  How do you determine your rates for pet photography?

KP: With the exception of the J. C. Penneys and the WalMarts, I am certainly the lowest priced photographer in the immediate area. (And there is a portrait studio not 100 yards away!) I'll guess that my reprint ratio is pretty darned good compared to many shops. I simply made up a number, keeping it under $50, for our basic package. That seemed to be magic. Rarely does anyone buy just a single package, and I do charge for different poses, etc. So the low price covers the price shoppers, gets some in that otherwise wouldn't, and in the end, I'm happy with the revenue. I do charge extra for pretty much everything, but my rates are reasonable. I've been doing surgery on digital images for nearly 20 years (and with the same product, the Corel suite, since 1992) so it doesn't take much time to do some fancy things. A $200 order isn't at all unusual, just for a straight pet shot (Note to east and west coast folks: it's cheap to live here in the great midwest!).

JM:  Are you selling reselling photographs on the stock market after you take the initial pictures? 

KP: I don't sell stock, but I do sell limited rights to greeting card companies, advertising agencies, local companies, etc. Stock is a possibility ... I'm working on a library right now. I have a thousand or so pet/animal images that I believe have wide enough interest.

JM: How did you get into re-selling?

KP: The mother of a client wanted to have a cake painted with one of my photos, and a greeting card company employee saw and liked it. They've since requested others. It's still kind of fun to see my photos in a retail store! Otherwise, we also get  clients that want a print of something I've done, just because they like the breed or expression.

JM: What plans do you make for your business over the next year?  How do you see yourself expanding your business (both artistically and financially)?

KP: I plan on expanding the physical size of the main studio, with two different lighting setups, one on each end. I shoot mostly high-key, but sometimes I shoot low-key with hot lights, and in my present studio it's a bit crowded to have half a dozen light stands, some with umbrellas, etc. I'll also hire a permanent assistant ... right now I use temp assistants, and otherwise I'm pretty good at shooting solo. But some help that would be available any time would be nice. At that point I'll probably do more product work. One quirk at the animal hospital is that presently I can only shoot in the afternoons; two surgery suites, with large glass windows, are right next to my studio! But I can shoot products any time, as there is no danger of them going queasy at the sight of blood. I will also probably do more location work, with events arranged at local parks, to spotlight some of the more active pets in their element. As I add more photographic endeavors I tend to do less of what is now my 'side' business, dealing with computers in one way or another. I'd like to end that completely in the next year, as it's taking perhaps only 20% of my time at this point.

Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography

Tongue (c) Ken Phillips

Part III: The shoot

JM: Is most of your pet photography pet portraiture or is it less formal?

KP: My 'thing' is the formal pet portrait. No distractions in the shot, unless requested by the client. I prefer a high-key look, although I do some low-key shots, typically with both pets and people. "high key" describes a shot with essentially no shadows. Typically more flatly lit - that is, less variation (say) across a human face. The shot of Dr. Beverly Ramos and her French bulldog Owen (on the front page) is a good example of a 'low key' shot. Low Key photography typically a high contrast shot with lots of true black shadows. Last year I started doing a few outdoor sessions, with panoramas made from running/jumping dogs. It's a lot of work for what a client is willing to pay, but I may include it in my repertoire, at an appropriate (profitable) price.

A general note about the setup for high-key shots: I shoot from f/11 to f/16, depending on the camera (the ancient Canon EOS-1D has a base of ISO 200, the others are ISO 100) and I always shoot at the highest sync speed that works properly with my lights, which will be from 1/200th to 1/500th. This may sometimes even be a bit faster than the factory specs! I shoot my arctic white background for white balance and exposure, then I shoot away, not changing anything but the aperture to compensate for different animal colors. My typical lenses in the studio are all Canon, of course: the 16-35L for the 'big head' shots, the 28-70L for larger dogs, or groups, the 70-200L for smaller animals, and the 100mm macro for tiny things! Yes, I collect a lot of sensor dust; I clean it every session. I am still a fan of the 4.2 megapixel 1D; for 8 x 10/12 and smaller it has no peer in terms of great out-of-camera images, per-pixel resolution, and nifty small files to work with. I do 90% of my pet shots with this camera!

The low-key stuff (bevowen.jpg, on the front page) is taken with hot-lights that came out of their box last year for the first time in half a century! Now we haven't much light to use, so the apertures are larger, and because the light is continuous, the shutter speeds are lower. ISO is bumped up; any noise is simply accepted, and in some ways makes it more film-like. A tripod helps if the speeds get too low.

JM: For your formal work, is it normally done on location or in your studio?

KP: Even if I work on location, I typically take a full background and lighting kit; you wouldn't be able to tell where I took them ... and in fact, sometimes I don't remember. I will do the 'environmental' approach where a pet is shy, and must be [for example] in its master's chair to be comfortable. Otherwise I try to stick to the one style. Of course, the client is always right, and requests will be honored if not too outrageous. The number one request is to have the prints done in black and white. If the client indicates this I also send the proofs as 'quick and dirty' black and white.

JM: Can you describe your lighting set-up when you are on location?  How is it different from when you are doing work in studio?

KP: I typically use two strobes in the traditional 'Hollywood' arrangement, with an occasional third for chest fill or hair lighting, as needed. As mentioned before, generally the lighting is the same for road work or studio work. (Editor's Note: Hollywood Lighting typically refers to lighting that is shot is from above and from in front, often using fill and key lighting). I do make exceptions when I find fabulous natural light available at the time of the shoot; this seems to occur most often in high-rise condos, with nothing outside to obstruct the light.

One thing that has changed is that I started out with very flat (non-directional) lighting, so that it didn't matter where the subject was (pets being rather mobile.) The Hollywood lighting works best with a pet facing forward or toward the left (from the camera view) so I simply made space for the handler (owner or one of our techs) to stand on that side. Dogs in particular like to face people, so it was automatic.

Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography

Chocolate (c) Ken Phillips

JM: How are you using the light?

KP:  A couple of things here ... and one is that the strobes are 99.9% of the light. I have just enough ambient lighting in the studio (a recessed flood light, just over the primary subject area) to allow focus with any of my cameras, and I will bring a hot light to a shoot for the same purpose. I shoot at the highest synch speed, with an aperture as low as f/16. I also use a custom white balance to keep colors close. Of course, when I shoot ambient, I'm not opposed to adding a little fill as needed. A custom white balance is taken and used for every lighting change, unless framing allows a bit of my white card to be included in each shot.

JM: What special preparations do you take prior to a shoot?  What 'must haves' do you bring with you?

KP: Doggy treats and squeak toys are my primary consumables! Otherwise I have a checklist. All of my cameras/lenses/batteries/storage is in one bag, and never leaves, so as long as I have that thirty-something pounder with me I know I have all of the capture goodies. I take a power-pack lighting set, a portable stand w/paper (appropriate to the color of the animals!), and I also carry a set of old Vivitar flashes, with cable and slaves, in case the primary strobes go sour. So far, no equipment failure has cost me a re-shoot!

JM: Earlier you mentioned that you are doing panoramas with running and jumping dogs. Can you tell us more about the technique you are using to do this?

KP What I do is set up a camera on a low tripod, with a fairly long lens, manual exposure and servo focus. We get the dog running and [hopefully] jumping. The camera must be low, and the jump fairly high and nearly in front of you. For this to work right, I shoot at between five and eight FPS and assemble them so that the background is seamless. The end result shows a dog that appears in six or seven states of motion. We use a ball or frisbee ... When it works, it's great! The last one we did netted no great results after ten runs ... and the dog wasn't up to doing it again. Attached is a pano I whipped up out of 'reject' sequences, just to show the effect. The really great one is going to be used commercially, so I can't give you that yet!

Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography

Frankie Jump - (c) Ken Phillips

JM Are you using stitching programs for the panoramas, or are you doing this in PS on your own?

KP: I've tried the auto-stitching programs, and am usually not satisfied with the results ... so I do it by hand. It takes me about an hour to stitch a dozen shots together, and do the proper blending/erasing to get what I want. I try to keep the background moderately blurred, which makes for less trouble blending. I always shoot on grass, as well ... easy to stitch, easy on the doggies feet! We actually use Corel Graphics Suite in our place, BTW. (Our earliest unmodified files from same are dated 1992!) The latest versions of Corel and Adobe CS do essentially the same thing ... I'm periodically called upon to us PS/CS on location, so it's good to know both. I prefer the two 'off' brands ... Canon and Corel!

JM: Ken, Thank you very much for sharing some of your photographs and techniques! I learned quite a bit during this interview and really appreciate the time and effort that you put into this. To see more of Ken Phillips' work, you can check out his website at: www.ahomls.com/photo.htm.

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