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#34262 - 02/28/11 01:37 PM An Interview with Helmi Flick
James Morrissey Offline
I
Carpal Tunnel

Registered: 02/11/05
Loc: Manhattan, New York, New York
The Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography Forum

Artist Showcase: Helmi Flick

by James Morrissey (c) 2006

_________________________
Manhattan, New York, NY Pet Photographer


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#34279 - 03/01/11 05:15 AM Re: An Interview with Helmi Flick [Re: James Morrissey]
James Morrissey Offline
I
Carpal Tunnel

Registered: 02/11/05
Loc: Manhattan, New York, New York
This article is Copyright 2006, 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 Helmi Flick and have been licensed to James Morrissey and the NWP Photo Forum for the purpose of this interview.

Part I: About Helmi Flick


Copyright Helmi Flick

JM: Can you tell us a little about what life was like when you were growing up?

HF: I am half-Finnish from my father. That’s where my name, Helmi, comes from. I was born in Grass Valley, California, in 1945. My father, Paul Kivisto, was a Clinical Psychologist and my mother, Beth, a Librarian. I have a younger sister, Paula. Cats have almost always been a part of my family. Through grammar school, I lived in central California, much of that time on the coastline in Cayucos, a small town north of Morro Bay. Those years were the beginning of my lifelong love of the ocean.

When I was 12 years old, we moved to Shreveport, Louisiana. It was interim culture shock born of a temporary language barrier until I learned to understand “Southern.” College, where I majored in Art, and the first years of my first marriage were spent in northern Louisiana, where I put my husband, Larry Haines, through pharmacy school. When he graduated, we moved to New Orleans, living in the University District. I worked at both Tulane Medical Center and Loyola Law School in an administrative support capacity in Biostatistics and Law, respectively.

We moved to the Los Angeles area in 1978. I worked for Childrens Hospital Los Angeles for 14 years, again in administrative support, in various departments from Neonatology to Neuropathology. A milestone in my life was when, in 1990, I finally decided to give up on a marriage that I had spent far too many years trying to fix. I got my own apartment, close to work, and reveled in my independence! A couple of years later, I reconnected with an old friend, Ken Flick, who had lived in Los Angeles but had moved to Dallas, Texas, a few years earlier. What had long been a close friendship with many mutual interests evolved into something deeper and became a long distance relationship. Ken, then in his early 50s, had never been married. I’d like to think he was waiting for me, but for all of his attractions, I had serious reservations about his qualifications as a potential life partner. However, when he told me that a stray cat, “Miss Kitty,” had adopted him and moved into his life, I decided to take him up on his invitation to fly out and visit him in Dallas.

In late 1993, after more than a year of a long distance relationship and several visits back and forth, he persuaded me (he’s good at that) to come live with him in Texas. It wasn’t for the scenery or the weather, I can assure you.

In 1998, we got married barefoot on the beach in Florida. We rented a beach house and invited a number of old friends to be with us and participate in a weeklong wedding feast. What a time!

A month before our wedding, we had bought a house in Bedford, Texas, a community between Dallas and Fort Worth, where we still live today with our four cats.

JM: Do you have a family of your own?

HF: I have no children but cats always filled that role for me.

JM: When and how did you first begin to photograph?

HF: My first camera was my mother’s Brownie, which I learned to use and took on a class train trip to New Orleans from Shreveport in the 6th grade. I remember taking pictures of the flamingos at the Zoo. How that little box could produce an image to capture a moment in time was an intriguing technology I didn’t understand. It was pure magic to me. This has proven to be a recurring theme in my largely non-technical relationship with photography.

I would like to say that that experience began a life long love of photography but the truth is I probably didn’t take ten rolls of pictures between that trip in 1958 and the early 1980s. That was when Ken (who at that time was a close friend of the family) gave Larry and I an Olympus OM-2, my first “real” camera. My favorite lens was a 28mm-85mm macro. I loved shooting flowers and landscapes. On weekends, I enjoyed going on photo shoots with Ken and Larry along the California coast, in the desert, and in the San Gabriel Mountains of Angeles National Forest.

JM: What formats (e.g. Medium, digital, 35mm, etc)? do you use for your current work?

HF: I am a digital photographer. I began my current career with a digital camera and have never used film. I cannot imagine shooting cats with film. My hat is off to those who made their living in this niche business in the years before digital was an option. I currently shoot with a Canon EOS 20D and use a Tamron f2.8 28-75mm lens exclusively.

I started this career with a 2MP Olympus C-2020Z in May of 2000 and stayed with the Olympus C-Series of point-and-shoot cameras throughout its evolution through 3- ,5-, and 8-megapixels. In the beginning, digital SLRs were horrendously expensive and simply not an option for my limited equipment budget.

In a way I was smugly proud of being able to do publishable work -- including several national magazine covers -- with these simple, affordable, consumer cameras, despite the considerable handicap of shutter lag when shooting an active subject, like cats.

Ken, who is my cat wrangler among many other things, would coax the cat into the perfect pose, step aside and wait for me to shoot. All too often that wait would be protracted and eventually Ken would say, with no little sarcasm, “NOW would be a good time!” And I, who had long since done my pre-focusing, and was squeezing the shutter button to no avail, would growl through gritted teeth, “I’m pressing! I’m pressing!” This interminable lag which perversely seemed to reach new levels of intolerability with the Olympus C-8080, combined with the eventual affordability of entry level DSLRs, was what moved me to the Canon 20D. Since then, the ability to take the shot immediately whenever the fleeting photo opportunities of cat photography present themselves was, and is, a joy.

JM: Photographic education?

HF: None.

JM: Photography is not a first career for you. Can you tell me how you got to where you are at today.

HF: For the first 25+ years of my working life before I began this career, I gave my best effort as an administrative assistant, medical secretary, legal secretary, executive secretary to a succession of bosses in a variety of fields. I approached each of these positions with the same dedication as I did throughout my first marriage. Yet, at work, much like at home in those days, there was just not the sense of personal fulfillment that I felt should be possible. There had to be something more.

After moving to Dallas, I told Ken I would go to work when I got tired of being at home with him and our kitties. Although that never happened, when I got a call from a friend for a temporary position, I took it.

I went to work for a company that supplied businesses with PCs and networking equipment and they soon made me an attractive offer of full time employment. They called themselves a “value-added reseller.” It was insufferable corporate jargon such as this, along with the blight of political correctness and evaporating sense of loyalty that companies used to have for their employees that fueled my growing disaffection with “working for the man.” Living in a Dilbert cartoon was not nearly as amusing as reading them, so I downsized myself before my attitude eroded my work ethic.

I was primed for a livelihood I could feel passionately about.


Copyright Helmi Flick

Like so many people, I was living two lives: one I dearly loved at home with Ken and the cats, and the other one that subsidized the one I loved. Like so much of the corporate workforce, I was living for evenings and weekends.

One of the delights of my home life was our cats -- the two British Shorthairs, Sky and Nox, whom we got when Miss Kitty died, and Bwana Bushwah, a first generation Chausie (a Chausie is an exotic hybrid, the half wild offspring of a domestic cat and a Jungle Cat – felis chaus).

I could spend hours just watching them, whether in agile antics or graceful repose. Beyond the joys of just observing these cats at play, I became intrigued with photographing them in an attempt to express and share in print the joy I got from observing these magnificent creatures. At the time, my tool for doing this was a little Olympus Stylus snapshot film camera. And I became prodigious in my consumption of film. Maybe profligate would be more accurate, since my boundless enthusiasm for this pursuit was in no way matched by my skill in producing aesthetically pleasing or even technically correct images.

Anyone who has ever photographed their own cats knows that this is typically an elusive exercise with a very low yield of satisfying results, and my early efforts were no exception. The cat’s participation in the process ranges from oblivious to outright contrariness and timing is everything. The cat is going to do only what it wants to do, but if you have Zen-like patience and cat-like reflexes, there may be a brief moment, if you’re lucky, when the cat’s pose or behavior coincides with what you want from it. In those early days, when I would pick up my prints from the photo lab and sort through the stack with great anticipation, the overwhelming percentage of the shots fell into the unlucky pile.

Digital Photography to the Rescue
In the spring of 1999, in an effort to reduce the expenses of my hobby, Ken got me a digital camera for his birthday, a 1.3MP Fuji MX-600Zoom. That changed everything for me. Compared to film-based cameras, the digital camera is an astonishingly effective learning tool that rapidly improved my picture taking skills. The instant feedback of digital enabled me to immediately see my shot, note what I did wrong or could have done better, and then retake the shot while the photo opportunity still existed. I also learned faster because, without the expense of film, I was free to take an unlimited number of pictures and thus acquired more experience faster. I took full advantage of this fast-track learning curve that digital photography enabled.

At the same time, I started fooling around with Adobe Photo Deluxe, the simple little image-editing program that came with my Fuji. I found that even my best images could be improved with a little tweaking and soon discovered that I enjoyed this PC-based part of the process almost as much as capturing the original image.

JM: What is it that gave you the confidence to go pro?

HF: In the year that followed my move from film to digital, my work improved steadily. Ken encouraged my transition into serious cat portraiture by building me a formal shooting stage and equipping me with studio lighting gear. As well as shooting our own cats, I started shooting those of some local breeder friends whom we met at cat shows where we had exhibited our kitties, and thus began building a small portfolio of my work.

By the spring of 2000, based on the reception that my photos were getting from acquaintances in the cat fancy and from fellow members of a online feline photo sharing site Ken started, I was encouraged to "go pro." I received an introduction from a friend to the Show Manager of a cat club in Oklahoma City and I followed up by sending a selection of my best cat images to her. She responded by inviting me to be the Show Photographer for the TICA Thunderkatz Show in Oklahoma City in May of 2000.

Maybe I didn’t know enough to be appropriately apprehensive, but I just jumped into it with great enthusiasm and never stopped to reflect on what might go wrong. Ken was with me to do my lighting and cat wrangling, my sister, Paula, flew up from New Orleans to show our cats and lend moral support, and I was surrounded by friends I had made online. Plus, this was my first opportunity to shoot more cats than I could imagine. I was so pumped that fear wasn’t a component of the experience back then, and this “no fear” approach that I seem to be blessed with has held true ever since. There always seems to be inevitable problems, be it technical or logistical, that crop up at each cat show. Yet I tend to view these as puzzles to be solved in the most expedient way possible – they become challenges that make each show an adventure. That first cat show certainly had its share of fiascoes and faux pas.

And while I certainly can’t claim to be pleased with every cat photo I’ve taken since then, I am amazed that the very first cat I shot at my very first show produced a portrait that I can still be proud of today.


Copyright Helmi Flick

JM: Who do you credit as your largest photographic influences?

HF: Ken Flick was a big influence, then and now. I learned from him what I knew at the time of the nuts and bolts of photography when we would go on field trips. Ken owned an audio-visual production company in Hollywood. He wrote and produced corporate multi-projector, multi-screen, slide shows in the 80s. Often our photo trips were to gather images for some of these projects. The ones involving nature photography were of particular interest to me. He has taught me the technical aspects of photography (which I regard as a necessary evil). He is my best friend and biggest supporter. He is also my roadie, lighting guy, technical advisor, cat wrangler and business manager. Ken critiques my work, even when I least want it, and boosts my spirits when I most need it.


There are two cat photographers who I consider to be the “Big Guys” in my field: Richard Katris, who goes by the name of “Chanan” and Tetsu Yamazaki. Both Richard and Tetsu have been photographing cats for more than 20 years. Well before the dawn of digital. And it was their ability to get great images with film that most impressed me.

After admiring their work in print for the first five years of my career, I had an opportunity to meet Richard and Tetsu in person, where both were the Show Photographers at the big CFA International Cat Show in Houston. When I introduced myself to Richard Katris, as Helmi Flick, he shook my hand, grinned, and said, “So you’re Helmi. I thought about putting out a contract on you!” Tetsu, apropos of his culture, was gracious and more restrained, but I was very pleased that he knew who I was.

My work had been published in books and magazines for a while, by the time I introduced myself these icons of cat photography – which was the main reason I felt comfortable in doing so. But it was those moments of being greeted as a peer that I counted as a milestone in my career, right up there with my first magazine cover.

I did not have a mentor-protegee relationship with either of these gentlemen. I simply aspired to do work at their level. Beyond that, everything I know about photographing cats is pretty much self-taught. From the beginning, I tried to do work that pleased my customers, the breeders and owners of my feline subjects. And because I was shooting digital from the beginning (and perhaps before anyone else in this business), I was able to review each photo session with my customers and learn from this process. I discovered from them what kinds of poses worked for cats in general as well as which poses showed off each specific breed of cat to its best advantage.

Beyond this, I cannot say that I was an ardent observer of the photographic craft, nor was I particularly influenced or inspired by the work of any specific photographer. My background in fine art and commercial art was more influential in shaping my interest in visual media. Graphic art, painting and architecture intrigued me more at that time than photography.

Once again, it would make a good story to say that my time with the Olympus OM-2 marked the beginning of what would be my eventual career, but when my marriage to Larry ended, it was no great loss that the camera went with him. It would be years before the real origins of my photography began – right in my own home.

JM: What motivates you in the work that you do?

HF: My love of cats. My goal as a cat photographer is to create portraits that showcase the best qualities of each of my subjects. These are magnificent creatures and I believe that each one of them deserves to be admired and remembered.

You can view more of Helmi Flick's work at http://www.webphotoforum.com/artist.asp?aID=1677

You can also visit her home page at http://www.helmiflick.com/
_________________________
Manhattan, New York, NY Pet Photographer


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#34280 - 03/01/11 05:18 AM Re: An Interview with Helmi Flick [Re: James Morrissey]
James Morrissey Offline
I
Carpal Tunnel

Registered: 02/11/05
Loc: Manhattan, New York, New York
Part II: The Business



JM: What does your business look like currently?

HF: It looks like a marginal enterprise that has been ever so gradually trending toward modest profitability. Although Helmi Flick Cat Photography, now beginning its 6th year in 2006, keeps both Ken and me busy, it has yet to yield the income that either one of us made during our peak years of corporate servitude . . . and nowhere near the leisure time either. Certainly not enough for either of us to have a “day job.”

I’m sure a hotshot MBA could review our business model and find lots of ways for us to expand our revenue streams and increase our income. Clearly, we have not been as resourceful nor as aggressive as we might be in exploring and exploiting the sales potential of our stock photography. At the same time, ironically, it’s clear to us that this is the only aspect of our business with growth potential.

I say that because, as we see it, there are only two basic sources of revenue open to us: first, there’s the income we derive from cat owners for photographing their cats, and second, the income we get from publishers from the sale of the stock images we have amassed. Actually, a third potential income source would be sales of products based on our cat images that we might create ourselves and self-publish, such as calendars, note cards or books. But publishing is another business entirely. First you have to finance a substantial production run to get your unit cost down to a point with some profit potential. Then, to move this costly inventory, you have to distribute your products to retailers or sell them directly, and either of those marketing strategies is an enterprise in itself.

It seems to us that, for the most part, we are already maximizing the income we can expect to get from cat owners for our photography services. And I say that for two reasons involving time and money. Because I was shooting digital from the very beginning of this career, and wasn’t that good back then, I made it my practice early on, not to deliver proofs, only images that I had retouched to correct technical shortcomings or aesthetic flaws. I wanted to make each image my customers chose (during a post-shoot review on a monitor) the best it could be. Digital image editing allows me to do this far more efficiently than it was done in the darkroom days of film, but it’s still a time-consuming process that, to this day, fills most of my time at home when I’m not on the road, shooting at a cat show. I soon found that I could take on no more than one cat show per month and still keep up with my deliveries to customers. And more recently, as my reputation has grown and the volume of business we do at each show has expanded, even that one-show-per-month formula is generating more retouching work than I can deliver on a timely basis.

In a service business such as this, when there is a greater demand for your work than you can accommodate, the obvious solution is to raise your prices. Unfortunately, after several price increases over the years and a couple of reductions in the quantity of product we deliver, that is no longer an option that is open to us. Among the customers in our primary market, the cat breeders and pet owners who exhibit their (mostly purebred) cats at cat shows, there is a market expectation of what a photo session should cost. Our reputation for quality enables us to price our photo sessions at the upper end of this range, causing our customers to spend more on their cats for a session with us than they would spend on a session for themselves at Glamour Shots. Even so, we could never make it on these session fees alone, given the retouching work on the back end that is part of what we deliver.

If we raised our session fees to a level beyond what our cat show customers expect to pay, we might be able to generate the same revenue from fewer photo sessions. This would reduce my retouching workload, which would be a relief, but it would also reduce our chances of attracting customers, some of whom will inevitably have those exceptionally nice cats that we would really like to add to our stock image library. And we need those images of great cats because those are the shots we can resell to publishers, which is a critical revenue stream for profitability in this business. In fact, the only way we can rationalize the paltry profits from cat show photography – which absorbs the great majority of our time -- is to regard this aspect of our business as “image acquisition.” Viewed in that light, at least we’re way ahead of wildlife photographers, for whom acquiring images is their major business expense. Our safaris to cat shows may not make us a lot of money, but at least they pay their own way.

JM: Where do the main sources of income come from?

HF: Our accounting practices are so unsophisticated that we don’t even have a Quicken pie chart to reference in addressing this question. So, we reviewed our numbers for last year (2005) to answer this question and they broke down about like this:

Cat Show Photography: 70%

Private (Studio or Location) Photo Sessions: 4%

Stock Image Sales: 18%
Graphic Design (Custom Posters, Ads, Business Cards): 8%

We knew, intuitively, that there was much room for improvement in our stock image sales, but seeing the percentage of our income this category currently provides, it is clear that we need to double or triple that percentage. Ideally, at this point, stock sales should be yielding as much of our income as cat show photography. And since the two of us are now in our 60s, we will soon approach the time when we’ll want to be working far less, cutting down our shooting on the show circuit, and instead have our stock image library be working for us with greatly increased sales.

JM: As you mention on your website, you have extensive experience outside of the photographic world. What pieces do you feel were necessary in aiding you in your jump to the photographic one?



HF: An affinity for cats.

A desire to express that affinity and share it with others.

A talent for, and some formal training in, the visual arts.

A husband/business partner/fellow cat lover who could guide and assist me in the basics of studio photography.

Enough of the soul-sapping Dilbert existence of a corporate drone in my last job to propel me toward the perilous adventure of self-employment.

A “no fear” approach to trying new things that enables me to “just go for it.”

JM: When you first decided to go full time, what sort of business plan did you develop in order to insure that you would be able to afford to keep your standard of living?

“Business plan?” Yeah, we’ve heard of those. Seriously, that question presumes a greater degree of business acumen, financial discipline and just plain planning than we collectively possess. This is where that “just go for it” approach is, admittedly, a failing, but we have to plead “guilty” on this count. Perhaps that kind of structured thinking would have been essential had it not been for a small inheritance that was sufficient to subsidize our struggling startup during its first couple of years of penurious profitability. But it’s far more likely that, without that financial aid, we could never have survived those first lean years. As far as keeping our standard of living during the transition, we didn’t. But we’re looking forward to the day we get back up there.

JM: What advice do you have for people in terms of developing a successful financial strategy for running a photographic business?

HF: We’re hardly the “gurus” to ask about financial strategies, for the reasons mentioned above. But it would help to have a substantial nest egg going in, or a spouse or partner with a “real job” and income sufficient to bridge your business’s journey to self-sustaining status. Or at least, more of a head for the hard core basics of business than Ken and I have between us.

JM: What experience do you have selling stock photography, if any?

HF: We have sold our images to publishers of cat books and cat magazines as well as note cards and even checks, but we cannot claim to have yet marketed our work aggressively. Except for initiating contact with a couple of U.S. cat magazines, all other sales – in the U.S. and abroad – have come from referrals or direct inquiry from the client companies.

JM: What advice do you have for people who are trying to get into stock?

HF: Do what we have been remiss in doing thus far: actively research the companies that are potential buyers of your type of imagery and do whatever it takes to make them aware of your work and interested in doing business with you. If that sounds like totally generic, common sense advice, keep in mind that we are only speaking from experience that, for the most part, we have yet to acquire ourselves.



JM: How did you break into the show circuit?

HF: I described earlier, how I secured my very first gig as a Cat Show Photographer, but it is important to note that the contacts which made this possible were formed as a result of Ken and me having shown our own cats for a year or so before that. If it is your ambition to become a cat show (or dog show) photographer, I believe it’s essential to immerse yourself in this milieu to see how it works and learn about it from what will be your customer’s side of things. Additionally, the contacts you will make during this exploratory period will facilitate your entry into this world as a “show photographer.”

And it almost goes without saying, but if you want to specialize in pet photography – whether it’s cats or dogs, or even birds or reptiles – pick the category of pet with which you have a strong affinity. Animals of most any kind are among the most challenging of photographic subjects, and to choose to shoot a species for which you do not have a deeply felt resonance is to invite frequent and intense frustration, or at least the absence of passion and aspiration. For example, we have shot dogs on occasion, always at the request of our cat-owning customers who have dogs, too. And we have found them far more cooperative, ready to please and easy to pose. But while we admire certain breeds and enjoy their occasional company, Ken and I are not “dog people.” So, even though they are easier to photograph, and even though the typical style of dog show photography is far less demanding (aesthetically, it’s closer to passport portraiture), and far more lucrative, we have never felt that it was right for us.


JM: How did you first start getting your work published?

HF: This was a bit more of a challenge for me than it would typically be for a beginning professional photographer. Everyone starts their photography career as an unknown with only the beginnings of a collection of images to show and sell, no established contacts to submit their work to, and only the vaguest notions of how to acquire them. Beyond these traditional obstacles, I was shooting for the first 2½ years with a 3MP point-and-shoot camera, and this puny resolution created an obvious bias among publishers who were still very much accustomed to working with film.

The most high profile market for cat photos in the U.S. was, and still is, Cat Fancy magazine, so I began submitting my work to them. We were still in the dawn of the digital era in 2001 and even though Cat Fancy had for some time been using electronic publishing processes to assemble their magazine, the editorial staff still insisted that all images be submitted to them as slides. This required me to spend $18 each to convert my digital files to 35mm transparencies, which, if they were chosen for publication, would be converted back to digital files. To me, the insanity of the magazine’s digital-to-analog-and-back-to-digital practice was only exceeded by the economic insanity on my part of spending $18 an image for maybe one chance in ten that it would be published and earn me a $50 usage fee for an inside partial page.

But when the magazine relaxed and began accepting digital image files on CD, I began submitting my work and seeing it published more frequently. In the May, 2003 issue, I was proud to see my first full-page image published. And prouder still to note that this head shot, judicially scaled up from 3MP, was as crisp looking as any other image in that issue. So it came as a surprise when word got back to me a while later that the then current editor of Cat Fancy had told another staff member that I would never have a cover of the magazine while he was its editor.

Fortunately for me, events conspired to change his stand on this matter. For one thing, when I moved up to a 5MP camera, my work became a stronger candidate for cover consideration. But it was only after a staff change in the personnel doing the considering that my images began to be judged on their own merit, without the obstacle of a film vs. digital prejudice.

And, beginning with my first Cat Fancy cover in the March 2004 issue, I managed to get half of the magazine’s covers for the rest of that year. It was a delicious irony that two of these cover images had been shot with my old 3MP Olympus C-3030. I believe there are a couple of points to be taken from this turn of events by those who are aspiring to break into professional photography. First, you don’t need cutting edge, high-end equipment to do good, saleable work .
And, equally important, no matter how good your work, the right contacts are critical. You need
your work to be seen by those who will be receptive to giving it a fair appraisal based purely on the quality of your images and their relevance to the publisher’s editorial needs.

Along the way since those early days courting Cat Fancy, I’ve sold my images to other cat magazines, here in the U.S. and around the world, as well as to publishers of cat books in several countries. In every case, these sales initiated with publishers contacting me after visiting my website. So that’s a sales tool that I regard as indispensable in today’s market and far and away the most economical way to give your work broad exposure.

You can view more of Helmi Flick's work at http://www.webphotoforum.com/artist.asp?aID=1677

You can also visit her home page at http://www.helmiflick.com
_________________________
Manhattan, New York, NY Pet Photographer


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#34281 - 03/01/11 05:22 AM Re: An Interview with Helmi Flick [Re: James Morrissey]
James Morrissey Offline
I
Carpal Tunnel

Registered: 02/11/05
Loc: Manhattan, New York, New York
Part III: The Shoot


Copyright Helmi Flick

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

HF: Our work is almost exclusively formal portraiture, which is to say the cats are posed on our shooting stage with a limbo background of various color-coordinated fabrics and shot with studio lighting.

Our objective is to showcase “the cat, the whole cat and,” in most cases, “nothing but the cat” and to do it in a way that is as flattering as possible while revealing all aspects of our subject’s physical appearance. We do this by wrangling each cat into a fairly standard sequence of poses, plus a few others that emphasize its most distinctive or photogenic features and perhaps a few action shots or playful poses that express something of that cat’s personality.

This approach to cat photography is shaped not only by our own esthetic and the style we want to be known for, but also by A) the needs of our customers, the breeders and owners of our subjects which are almost always show cats, and B) the needs of publishers who most often want to buy stock images that accurately depict the look of a particular breed of cat.

There is a market for photos of cats ensconced in an arrangement of fake flowers, lounging in miniature furniture or dressed up in little costumes, but that’s not one we care to pursue. We do have three or four simple props that we occasionally employ to engage the cat or encourage certain, behaviors, poses or interactions. But we try to avoid any look that might be characterized as cutesy, frou-frou, or precious.

JM: For your formal work, do you prefer to do it on location or in your studio?

Copyright Helmi Flick

HF: While we do have a small (too small) studio setup in our home where we occasionally arrange photo sessions by appointment, well over 90% of our work is done on location and almost all of that is at cat shows. Our reason for working this way is much the same as that quote attributed to the notorious bank robber of the 1930s and 40s, Willie Sutton. When he was apprehended and asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, it’s said that Willie replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Well, in our case, that’s where the cats are, or certainly the largest concentration of the kind of cats we want to photograph. Specifically, our ideal subjects are healthy, well-groomed kitties in prime condition and, equally important, those who are at ease with being handled by strangers. We also want to shoot as a wide variety of breeds as well as coat colors and patterns as possible. And there is no more target-rich an environment for this than a cat show, which is essentially a beauty contest.

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?

HF: Our lighting setup is the same, whether we’re working at a cat show or in our studio at home. We use a four light setup. Our key light uses a small soft box and is placed at 90 degrees from the cat and at about a 45 degree downward angle. It is flagged so none of its light spills onto our background subject. We place our fill light, which uses a larger soft box, directly in front of the cat. It is suspended on the crossbar of a background stand so that it’s above the camera and shining down on the cat from about 30 degrees above. Our back light uses a 20-degree spot grid and is angled slightly downward on the cat from its position alongside and behind our background. Our background light is a small battery powered slave flash, which is hidden behind an elevated deck where the cat is positioned. The deck keeps our subjects in a controllable plane of focus. Except for our little background light, all of our flashes are Alien Bees, which we enthusiastically recommend for their economy, flexibility, portability, and reliability.


Copyright Helmi Flick

JM: How are you using the light?

HF: If it would help to convey our lighting array, we could say that for an overhead (plan) view of our setup, envision a clock face with the subject (cat) at the center of the dial (or axis of the hands) and the photographer at 6 o’clock. Our fill light is also at 6 o’clock, above the camera. Our key light would be at 3 or 9 o’clock. Perhaps not as ideal for subject illumination as 4 or 8 o’clock would be, but we do not want any key light on our background. Our back light or hair light is placed at around 1:30 or 10:30. And our background light would be just above the axis of the hands and facing 12 o’clock.

Copyright Helmi Flick

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

HF: To summon up the equanimity required to photograph cats, prior to a shoot we meditate at length while listening to whale song. Just kidding. But we do have to work at maintaining an easy-going frame of mind -- both toward the cat and each other – since eliciting the cooperation of these blissfully uncooperative creatures can sometimes demand saintly levels of patience.

We bring cat teases, visible and audible, for wrangling and getting the cat’s attention. Ken’s favorite visible cat tease is a long pheasant feather taped to a dowel rod. Some of the audible teases we use are squirrel calls, squeeze toys (rubber ducky), clickers, and a toy train whistle.

JM: Working with cats is notoriously difficult. How have you been able to develop a career shooting them? Do you use any special techniques when photographing them?


Copyright Helmi Flick

HF: Photographing dogs, on those infrequent occasions when we have agreed to do this – always at the request of one of our cat-owning customers – is a far easier task. It helps immeasurably when your subject, by its nature, is both obedient and eager to please. Yet, while we enjoy the company of some dogs, generally the larger, mellower breeds, we prefer dealing with cats. Clearly, not because they are easier subjects but simply because we are “cat people” and we have a special resonance with felines that is just not there for us with dogs. That makes us more willing to accept the considerable challenges of cat portraiture and more tolerant of the cat’s often oblivious level of participation in the process.

We’re committed, and exclusively devoted to this unlikely niche of the photography business, not because “that’s where the money is,” but because we love cats and we want to create images that communicate this adoration to those who see our photos. Images that, hopefully, will justify our love of cats and infect others with it. We feel that our feline subjects can sense our special affinity for them by the way we touch them and talk to them during a shoot (and even “think” to them) and as a result, they are a bit more prone to perform for those who appreciate their elegance and beauty.

You can view more of Helmi Flick's work at http://www.webphotoforum.com/artist.asp?aID=1677

You can also visit her home page at http://www.helmiflick.com
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Manhattan, New York, NY Pet Photographer


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