Alex Cearns: Taking perfect pics of ‘imperfect’ animals
It was in the rugged Australian outback that young Alex Cearns fell madly in love with animals. Today, the 44-year-old continues to pay tribute to that enviable bond and everlasting love through her photography. Alex is the founder of Houndstooth Studio based in Perth and has been a prolific pet and animal photographer for almost a decade. Her stellar work has earned her praises from across the world with United Kingdom's prestigious Dogs Today magazine calling her “One of our greatest dog photographers." But it is her philanthropic work of photographing and re-homing rescued and injured animals that is closest to Alex's heart.
The South Australia born photographer regularly takes pictures of rescued and injured animals for various animal organisations across Australia, helping the latter gain funding and publicity. Alex's latest book Perfect Imperfection showcases the beauty of dogs with disabilities and has been lauded by critics and animals lovers alike for creating awareness around the need to rescue and home disabled dogs.
In conversation with TAL, the award-winning photographer talks about her journey as an animal photographer, helping her furry friends find better homes and her plans for the future.
When did you become a professional animal photographer? And, what is it about animal photography that attracted you to it?
My lifelong love of animals began during my formative years in outback Australia where my father was a sheep shearer and wool valuer. As an only child, my constant companions were my dogs, guinea pigs, horses, rabbits and bottle-fed lambs. My family had great regard for the Australian wildlife, and I often helped my mother rescue and care for a wide array of animals including injured kangaroo joeys, birds and other creatures until they could be released back into their natural habitat.
At age 11, my family and I moved to Pilbara, an area in northern Western Australia, and a place that was the ideal environment to grow up in. I spent much of my spare time exploring the surrounding desert with my dog, Ally.
Driven by a desire to contribute to society, I joined the Western Australian Police Service at age 19 and served for 14 years as a police officer and crime analyst. I transferred to the Australian Federal Government in 2005, where I worked for five years as a Senior Transport Auditor in airport counter-terrorism security for the city and regional airports.
Photography became a serious passion in 2006. On occasion, I’d used a point-and-shoot camera and film camera until then, but when a friend introduced me to digital photography, I was hooked. Never one to do things by halves, I spent every spare moment studying photographic literature, and practising the craft on my pets, those of friends and family, as well as farm animals and wildlife. I tried a few other genres such as landscapes and people, but animals enthralled me more than any other subject.
On a work trip to the stunning Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean Territories, I photographed a group of giant blue clams at a rustic breeding facility. Mesmerised by the vivid colours of the clams I waited patiently to get the right shot.
One of the images received positive feedback from family and friends, and I felt encouraged to enter it into several major photographic competitions. I was thrilled (and a bit surprised!) when it won several major awards. This led to gallery representation and print sales of the image – and was the first time I felt like my photographs had a value.
Meanwhile, I converted a small office at the back of our property into a photographic studio and spent every weekend filling requests for pet portraits. What started as a weekend hobby was growing so much I found myself working up to 100 hours per week in both jobs. It was crazy busy, but thrilling to gradually see the emergence of a viable business in which I could merge my two passions - animals and photography.
I left my full-time government role in 2010 and rebranded my business name to ‘Houndstooth Studio’. Since then so many incredible experiences and opportunities have opened up.
Philanthropy is such a big part of what you do. Can you please take through your philanthropic activities and experiences?
Philanthropy is a huge part of my business philosophy and one of my driving passions. I work pro bono with dozens of animal rescue charities, sanctuaries or shelters, across the globe, by providing images, sponsorship and conducting major fundraising projects every year.
My two aims through photography are: to show, through images, how beautiful animals are, and to support, promote, and endorse animal rescue organisations.
Every charity project I undertake is about improving the lives of animals. Knowing I can help make a difference in the lives of rescue-animals is a huge motivation for me. The right image viewed by the right person can mean a dog is re-homed, a donation is made, or that media will run a story that increases awareness or raises public concern for a cause which directly affects the welfare of the animal.
I know that many people feel as passionately as I do about animals and conservation. If ever there was a time to step up for those who don’t have a voice, it is now. The more we share information and discuss issues, the sooner we can all act to help create change.
No matter where you live, there will be an animal rescue organisation dedicated to making a difference in the lives of rescue animals. I would love to see more people becoming involved with a charity that resonates with their own personal ethics and compassion. All effective organisations welcome support via donations, attending fundraising events, volunteering or maybe even becoming a foster carer for domestic pets or farm animals.
You are one of the few photographers who beautifully capture pictures of disabled or injured pets. Many shy away from doing so. Please tell us about your experience of photographing injured animals?
When I first started photographing animals, I realised very quickly that I only wanted to showcase my subjects in a positive light. My favourite animals are dogs, and one of my most passionate aims as an animal photographer is to capture the adorable subtleties that make all dogs precious and unique. I love every animal I have the privilege of photographing, but those perceived as ‘different’ hold a special place in my heart. These are the ones who have lost a leg, been born without eyes, or are still showing the scars of former abuse.
Most dogs with ‘afflictions’ don’t dwell on them. They adapt to their bodies without complaint, and they survive with determination. They push on, always, wanting to be included and involved in everything as much as they can, and as much as an able-bodied dog does.
The tenacity of dogs to overcome adversity never ceases to amaze me. They make the most out of life and from them I have learnt so much about always seeing the positive in every situation and never giving up. Treatment for each dog is different – ranging from amputations to prosthetic limb implants, to the use of wheelchairs to assist with mobility.
During each photo session, it’s up to me to catch my subject’s personalities shining through in those split-second moments. I always know a bit about each dog before they come to the studio, through their booking information we receive in advance. When they are in front of my camera, I prefer to let them sort their own posting, and my utmost priority is ensuring they are comfortable and relaxed. This is the best way to capture organic, character-filled images.
With the Perfect Imperfection dogs (as I like to call disabled dogs), I like to lead with their beauty first, making their disability second to that. Often the viewer has to look at one of my images twice to see that the subject has a leg missing, or they question if that’s a wink or if the subject only has one eye. I photograph animals as I see them – beautiful.
The main thing I’ve learnt from working with these beautiful dogs is that they live in the moment. They are cared for by people who love them, and these people are just as special as their dogs are. Refusing to give up on them and providing them everything they need. These dogs have as much right to live the best life they can as any other animal.
Ever since I photographed my first perfectly imperfect dog eight years ago, I’ve wanted to release a book on the same. It’s a dream come true to share these inspirational, determined dogs and their stories with the world.
Animals can be extremely moody! How do you, as a photographer, handle the mood swings and manage to get the perfect picture? And, what kind of challenges do you face as an animal photographer?
Animals can be nervous around strangers. I connect with them by trying to be their friend first. With dogs, I find this particularly easy by offering them select toys and treats. Once I’ve won them over, they think I’m the best person they’ve ever met (until the treats run out!). I then pretty much let them do whatever they like – I’m a bit like the naughty aunty who doesn’t have any rules. If I ask them to sit and they don’t, I move on and let them stand. If they want to lie down, they can, and I never move, push, or pose them into position – they do it organically for me depending on what I’m asking them for or how I’m using food rewards. I find this is the best way to get relaxed and happy shots.
During my studio shoots, I sit about a foot away from each subject, and I maintain their focus on me for the entire session. I work fast and can often get all the images I need in a 30-minute shoot. I sometimes take 50 images, sometimes 300 and from those, I select the best 30 to share with my client.
I find that dogs can be the easiest subjects, but also can be the hardest. They are very aware of their environment and the fact that they are in a new place, with a stranger, surrounded by flashing lights, with a large object (camera) pointed in their face. I work with many dogs that have come from abusive backgrounds, and to relax them, I move slowly and deliberately and make sure I don’t trigger any of their anxieties. If they are known for biting the backs of heels, I never show them my heel.
All dogs are welcome in my studio, and I photograph many dogs who have been aggressive to people, and I’m proud to say I’ve never had a problem with any of them because I’m able to call on my dog handling experience and knowledge and ensure they trust me and have lots of fun. That is the most important thing. Some people call me a dog whisperer, but to me, it’s using my body language and energy to relate to them in an easy and non-threatening way. The safety of my subjects is always a top priority, as is making sure they have a relaxed and positive experience.
Cats are the opposite of dogs to photograph - they are generally grumpy from either being woken up to have their photos taken or from having to go in the cat carrier. But they tend to stay quite still or play with a toy or two once they arrive.
Everything else I find easy to work with, from mice to ferrets, horses, birds, farm animals, and reptiles. They all tend to cooperate with me fairly well.
What kind of camera do you use?
I use a Canon 1DX MII camera body and Tamron lenses. Most of my studio images are captured with the 24-70mm Gen 2 VC SP lens, and I sometimes use the 90mm Gen 2 macro and the 70-200mm Gen 2 f2,8 SP lens as well. Outdoors when photographing wildlife, I use the 70-200mm Gen2 f2.8 lens and the 150-600mm Gen 2 super zoom. The latter is excellent for cropping in or showing a wider area without having to move, especially if a multitude of subjects are in front of you, like a flock of birds or group of seals. As a professional animal photographer, I need lenses that respond instantly and are fast focusing. I love the Tamron technology and the new lenses being created for all different types of photographers.
What kind of advice would you give to up and coming photographers who like you have an interest in photographing unique subjects?
I think it’s vital for photographers to find their style and then work at it. You want your work to be distinguishable from that of other photographers. Study the images of those you admire, then put your spin on them. Photograph because you love it and not because you feel the pressure to make money. You must step back from the pressure as it is too great and you will be doomed to fail. When I started out people told me animals were boring subjects and that they are photographed during the learning phase, and I will outgrow them! I didn’t listen. They continue to be my favourite subjects.
When working with animals, you must remove any expectations. They often won’t sit still, respond when you want them to, or look where you want. It’s our job as photographers to work around this and achieve the results we want regardless of how engaged they are in the photo shoot. As soon as you learn to let go, and stop trying to control every aspect, beautiful images will flow.
Do you have pets of your own?
I share my life with two rescue dogs, 6-year-old Pip the greyhound kelpie mix and 5-year-old Pixel the greyhound. We adopted both of them when they were around 16 weeks old. I also live with a 7-year-old rescue cat called Macy, who is black and white and fluffy. She was adopted when she was 12 weeks old.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m about to open a second business later this year, to help others forge their paths in small business. Concurrently, I’m working on several new book projects. I also want to photograph as many beloved pets in my studio as I can and continue to help animals through my images.
How do you think animal lovers across Australia can help make the continent a more animal-friendly place.
I think allowing animals access to more places, especially dogs, would be beneficial for all pet owners. There’s a definite demand for additional pet-friendly spaces. Strengthening animal welfare laws to enact harsher penalties for those who harm animals would also be a big step towards animal sentience.
Head over to her website.
Order her book Perfect Imperfection – Dog portraits of resilience and love here.