They say never work with children and animals, but photographer Christina Gandolfo makes a living photographing both (she also photographs adults). Christina explains the joys and the challenges of photographing people and animals – and reveals one of the key skills needed to create a successful shoot.
Everyone takes photographs of family and friends (and pets), so what is it that separates the amateur snapper from the professional? Los Angeles-based photographer Christina Gandolfo has carved out a successful career photographing people and animals. “I like shooting people,” she says, “I like making that connection and I enjoy the challenge of trying to capture their personalities, quirks and idiosyncrasies. With animals, there’s that anthropomorphic thing, where they show human emotions and personalities.”
Christina started out as a journalist, but a life-changing event led to her switching to photography, when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. “I decided that I wanted to document my experience, and so I picked up a camera again [photography was a hobby since childhood] and began shooting – the changes I was going through, the treatment I was receiving, the place where I was living,” she says. “I discovered Flickr and posted my images online. This was almost 10 years ago – before everybody started putting every moment of their lives on the internet. “
Through Flickr, Christina gained a community of friends, and the positive feedback she received for her photography encouraged her to make the move to professional. “I knew I wanted to shoot people, because I had done many interviews as I was used to interviewing people as a journalist, and always enjoyed that interaction with people,” she explains. “Photography was a way for me to continue telling those stories, only visually: it’s like interviewing someone, but without asking as many questions.” The animal aspect of her work came about by chance; Christina had taken a lighting course and used her two cats as models: “I’ve found that you can get as much out of animals as you can from humans.”
Anyone can take pictures of people and animals, but not everyone has the skills to do it professionally. “You need to be able to make that connection, that contact and understanding between you and your subject,” says Christina, “you want the subject to trust you and enjoy the experience; otherwise, you’re not going to capture something authentic. There’s a skill to making somebody feel comfortable in front of a camera, because so many of us hate having our picture taken.”
The subject needs to feel that there’s a communication between them and the photographer, she adds, even though few words are actually spoken. “You know when you’re shooting animals whether there’s a connection, because they will start posing for you – just like people. The technical stuff is important, but unless you have that ability to connect, you will struggle.”
Shooting children and animals can be challenging, but their innocence means that the resulting images are often more honest and real. “You do meet the occasional child who has been trained by his or her parents to give a fake smile whenever they are in front of a camera, so the challenge is to really break down that reflex they’ve developed and get something more genuine,” adds Christina.
Animals, of course, can be unpredictable in their behaviour. There was a time when a cat decided mid-shoot to spring off set, sending the $800 handcrafted, mid-century cat bed Christina was shooting tumbling to the floor, its wooden legs breaking into pieces. The shoot wasn’t finished, so Christina and her assistants had to scramble to find a tube of wood glue and make a quick fix.
Then there was the occasion when a client brought her “new puppy" to be photographed, only for Christina to discover that the “puppy” was actually a six month-old, 65-pound St. Bernard mix, who treated her (somewhat small) studio as a local dog park – running, jumping, chasing, taking every opportunity to relieve himself. But Christina says it’s partly these challenges that make the job fun and interesting.
Christina’s markets include magazines, retail, private commissions and advertising – she’s currently targeting ad agencies, particularly with her animal work. “I like the variety in my work, because no two days are the same,” she says.
Taking photographs for fun is entirely different from taking them for a living, says Christina: “I often meet people who want to get into professional photography and my advice is always the same: don’t just focus on the creative aspect; you need to learn as much as you can about the business. You have to think of photography as a business, because at the end of the day, you’re going to have to pay your bills.”
Would-be professionals should also shoot as much as they can, she adds: “You’re going to learn something new on every shoot, and with that experience comes consistency, and consistency is how you build a brand. Few people succeed overnight, so it’s probably going to be hard, so you really have to love what you’re doing.”
Another mistake the novice professional can make is to spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment from the outset. “I would say buy good equipment from the beginning, but also invest your money into marketing yourself and put time into getting your work out there,” says Christina. “A lot of photo editors and art producers now expect to see your work on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. And they expect to see good work – even if it’s just snapshots, it should reflect your personal point of view.”
Social media sites are a useful way of getting your work out there, but Christina says that a professional photographer can benefit hugely from the support of an agency to get wider exposure for their work: “You want an agency that believes in your work and that will target clients on your behalf and get your images in front of as many people who appreciate good work as possible. Unless you’re one of the few who have hundreds of thousands of online followers, it’s hard to get global exposure for your images. You also need to be constantly producing new work and getting it out there.”
It is getting harder to earn a living as a photographer, and although there are many more outlets for images, and the demand for images has grown massively, so has the supply: in an era of digital photography and cameraphones, everyone is a photographer. Picture budgets have also fallen and magazines are closing; it’s a changing market. It’s also easy to have your images re-used without permission, which is why Christina says photographers should take steps to protect their copyright, which in the US means registering images with the Library of Congress, before posting them online.
But despite these challenges, Christina is optimistic for the future of professional photography: “I do believe there’s still a huge demand for good work, and that the people who hire photographers on a professional level know when they’re seeing something unique and original. I’m confident in the end that good work will always win out.”www.cgandolfo.com