The Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography Forum - Fine Art Landscape Photography

NWP Photo Forum Interview - Barbara O'Brien

Posted By: James Morrissey

NWP Photo Forum Interview - Barbara O'Brien - 05/02/15 06:32 PM

New York Pet Photographer, James Morrissey, interviews commercial pet photographer, Barbara O'Brien.

Posted By: James Morrissey

Re: NWP Photo Forum Interview - Barbara O'Brien - 05/02/15 06:33 PM

JM: Hi Barbara, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
BO: Yes. I am an animal person who also happens to be an animal photographer and motion director for advertising and editorial clients. I live on a small farm in rural Wisconsin.

I live on a farm with my family, three dogs, eighteen cats, ten rescue Morgan horses, two ponies, seven sheep, thirty-some chickens, five ducks, and three very naughty goats.

As luck would have it, I'm not just an animal photographer, but a trainer as well. I know where to find animal actors - most are in my own backyard - and more importantly, I know how to properly handle them.

My love for animals began early. As a kid, I used to sneak stray cats into my house, and since I wasn't allowed to have a a puppy of my own, I walked the neighbors' dogs instead. At 19, I eloped to have a horse(Horse people get this.) I'm happy to say that yes, we're still married…. and yes, I still have horses. Shortly after that I created The Animal Connection, an agency providing trained animal actors for film, television, and advertising. Nowadays, I'm both a professional shooter and trainer.

During my career I've tackled a range of assignments, including obtaining a polar bear from New Jersey, capturing 17 cats in one shoot, and photographing a 1500 -pound cow in my studio (Did I mention I have my own on farm studio? Clients love it!) I personally audition all the animals I photograph, and I truly love them all - and they know that I love them. This creates mutual trusts that allows me to get close and produce emotive natural photographs. But I don't just shoot animals! I photograph people too. And people with animals. And kids with puppies. Actually, kids and puppies aren't all that different - its all about finding out what motivates them, and then keeping them happy. I am so lucky that I get to play with animals every day. I really do have the best job ever.

JM: It sounds like you have taken a someone circuitous rout to professional photography. When you think of yourself today, do you think of yourself as a professional animal trainer, or a photographer? Where does it all fit in?
BO: Some photographers photograph animals. I am an animal person who happens to be a photographer. My many years of experience bring set of skills an understanding that a non animal type person no matter how technically good they are may be able to do.

JM: What brings you to professional pet portraiture?
BO: Except for the occasional portrait for friends I mostly work for commercial clients such as ad agencies and magazines.

JM: How did you wind up getting commercial work? i.e. how did you market yourself?
BO: The promise of triple chocolate brownies, real Wisconsin butter and eggs from my very own hens gets me in the door and once I am there hopefully my personality and portfolio get me the work. The funny thing is that most photographers when requesting a portfolio showing with an agency send an image of their work. I send an image of the brownie. I have three websites. One for the advertising side, one for stock and one for the product licensing side of my business. I am on Instagram Facebook, Behance, Pinterest and Tumblr all of which grow my audience and were crucial in helping my book DOGFACE get published last October by Penguin/Random House.

JM: Your portrait work is exceptionally well done. Where did you learn the photographic skills?
BO: I have been on sets for many many years and learned when the light was right and when it was wrong before I become a shooter. I had kind mentors who would show me how to work my camera and the lights.

JM: Can you tell us a bit more about your lighting set-up?
BO: I do a lot of natural light when I am shooting for myself (i.e. stock) only occasionally needing to use strobes. Each job is different and things can be lit in many different ways. When we are shooting not so tame bulls for instance, I may hang lights from a barn rafter rather than have stands on the ground. A C-stand is not much of a match for a feisty bull. You sound like you have to photograph in a variety of places, and I imagine you have to be very thoughtful about how you make the magic happen. When we have a client shoot, we will scout locations ahead of time to plan and figure out what lights and equipment we need to bring. We often have a pre light day for client shoots that happen in a studio. When I am shooting in the field its all about the light and the movement of the animals and that is decided on the fly.

JM: What is a motion director?
BO: I direct videos as well. I am happy to say that the spot we did for VOYCE did really well and resonated with dog owners who understood the emotions we were trying to portray.

JM: What items do you feel are important to your work as an artist?
BO: Quality equipment makes my job easier. I am a canon shooter. Surrounding myself with talented people who are way smarter than me has led to my success. I count on my crew to help me with my advertising shoots (assistants, animal trainers, producers, stylists, etc).

JM: Can you tell me what your location crew looks like?
BO: Most client shoots have from 1-3 photo assistants, a digital tech, a producer, production assistant, 1-2 animal trainers,and if we are using models and a location or studio set we will have 1-2 set and prop stylists, HMU, and wardrobe. When we shoot film, the crew is even bigger with grips and gaffers, a DP and a cameraman.

JM: What differentiates the work you do from other portrait artists?
BO: I am working to gather expression and personality first and then composition and lighting. I try to make a safe inviting environment so the animal is comfortable and will show his true self to me.

JM: How do you find working on your own? i.e. how do you find structuring your day to get projects done?
BO: I do all my editing alone with the exception of the dogs at my feet and the cats on my keyboard. I find a box of milk duds helps sometimes.

JM: Are there any artists work that you identify with? Why? BO: Fine art artists like CW Anderson, Wesley Dennis and Jeanne Mellin have influenced me by the showing the expression and personality in the animal’s eye.

JM: What have you found to be the most important factors in developing a business?
BO: Read and learn all you can about running a business and more importantly BE NICE. Being kind has opened more doors for me than any else in all my years of business. People like to work with people they like so being sincere, and honest and kind will serve you well.

JM: What advice do you for new people starting in business but ‘learning their way?’
BO: Shoot what you love. It will show in your work. Don’t copy what is popular. Find your own voice and style. The most important thing in any business and life, I believe is the wisdom the Dalai Lama has shared with us, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

I have found that by being wiling to go the extra mile and help others all I can I am often on the receiving end of people’s generosity and kindness to me. Nobody wants to work with a jerk. My father always told me. “ It's nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.

JM: How are you using social media to promote your business? BO: Facebook and Behance have helped people find my work. I do shot of today on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest and Behance. Behance curated my DOGFACE gallery which led to my book DOGFACE being released by Penguin/Viking earlier this year.

JM: Do you find there are better ‘bangs for the buck’ in terms of advertising?
BO: Personal meetings with clients and brownies help me get my advertising shoots.

JM: These brownies sound gang busters!
BO: If you'd like to see my book or meet in person, give me a call. I promise to bring triple chocolate homemade brownies, chock full of real Wisconsin butter and eggs from my own hens. I guarantee it'll be the most delicious meeting you've ever had.

JM: This sounds delicious just thinking about it! Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me over the last couple of weeks. For folks who want to see more of Barbara's work, check our her website at:

You can also check her out on Facebook and what seems like a billion other forms of social media!

Posted By: James Morrissey

Re: NWP Photo Forum Interview - Barbara O'Brien - 05/05/15 01:48 AM

Just a reminder that this article with Barbara O'Brien is the property of Barbara O'Brien, James Morrissey and the Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography Forum. The images are the sole property of Ms. O'Brien and licensed to NWP for the purpose of this article. Neither the text nor images may be used without the permission of Ms O'Brien or James Morrissey.

If you like the article, please feel free to pass it along. Word of mouth is always a good thing. :P

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