Alex Cearns is one of Australia’s most awarded pet and wildlife photographers. Her Houndstooth Studio is a leader in the market of animal portrait photography. Her natural animal handling skills, remarkable images and contribution to lives of rescued animals has earned her high regard across Australia’s animal lovers. With over 50 awards to her name since 2008 (including a nomination for the 2014 Australian of the Year) she has worked tirelessly to capture and showcase the essential joy that people find in animals.
Ever since I wrote and published my article on The Best Dog Photographers That Help Support a Cause: Help Us Give Back I was hoping to get an interview with her. I approached Alex with an interview and she graciously accepted. We hit it off immediately!
Alex is also the author and photographer for two books published by Penguin Books Australia: Mother Knows Best – Life Lessons from the Animal World and Joy, A Celebration of the Animal Kingdom. Several additional books are in the planning stage.
iLHP: Hi Alex! How did you get into animal photography?
Alex: After finishing high school I joined the Western Australian Police Service where I served for 14 years as a police officer and a crime analyst. I then spent 5 years auditing city and regional airports for their counter terrorist security measures for the Australian Federal Government.
Photography became a serious passion in 2007 after a trip to Tasmania (southern Australia) with a friend and DSLR camera enthusiast. I was using a film camera at the time, and became fascinated with the scope of digital photography. I purchased a Canon 350D and multiple lenses on my return.
The natural focus of my lens became pets, nature and wildlife – I gravitated towards animals and found I achieved the best results. I could also easily capture their personality, whereas I struggled to replicate landscapes, still life or people effectively.
My government job required me to travel extensively to some of the most remote and beautiful places in Western Australia and I spent every spare moment in my down time photographing local wildlife.
I started my pet photography business as a hobby in 2007, after a work trip to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a ring of small atolls off the west coast of Western Australia. Whilst there I photographed giant blue clams at a remote breeding facility. Positive feedback on the vivid clams image encouraged me to enter several state and national Australian photo competitions, winning two and placing in a further two. This led to gallery representation and inspired my belief that I could earn a living combining both of my greatest passions – animals and photography.
I also became drawn to the exacting and intricate nature of studio art portrait photography so I converted an old building at the end of my garden into a studio, called my business Houndstooth Studio, and spent weekends photographing friends’ pets, rescued wildlife from local rescue centers and cats and dogs from local shelters. I particularly enjoyed the rescue work because my images were helping to rehome cats and dogs.
Before long, word got around about my images and the demand for my studio photography escalated. I continued to work full time for the next year, but ended up working around 100 hours per week in both jobs. It was so much fun and I loved it! But the potential to work full time as an exclusive animal photographer was so tempting that I left my government job in 2010. My love for what I do has continued to grow since then.
iLHP: Have you always felt an affinity with animals?
Alex: I felt a connection with animals as a very young child and my family all love and respect animals. My father was wool valuer and we moved often, living on or near sheep stations in South Australia when I was small. I’ve been surrounded by animals my whole life – dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, chickens, horses and bottle-fed lambs were part of the family. We cared for injured wildlife, and there were often rescued kangaroo joeys wrapped up warmly in front of the fire or various types of lizards rehabilitating in boxes in the kitchen.
I’m an only child, but I never felt alone because my animals were my friends. Whenever I was free to play I would race off with a dog in tow to the closest wild place – inevitably a big shady tree, a rambling hillside or a nearby creek. One day I surprised and terrified my parents by arriving home on the bare back of a large white horse from a neighbour’s property. I’d climbed onto his back and we just wandered home.
I understood early that animals were honest and incredibly forgiving, and I saw how they were capable of unconditional love. My family moved to northern Western Australia, when I was 11 years old and it was a great place for a child that loves the outdoors. There were endless opportunities to be around nature and I loved roaming the desert with my Rottweiler Alee. I feel grateful to share my life with animals.
iLHP: What do you like most about your job?
Alex: Well I guess first and foremost, it’s more a lifestyle than a job. Everything I do encompasses my love for animals and that’s the overall best part. I love working with the animals and their fabulous human owners or rescuers. My clients consider their pets to be their fur children and want them immortalised in professional portraiture. Many have never seen their pets in magazine quality photographs before and it is a true gift to see their genuine joy when they view their pets’ images for the first time.
iLHP: What are the biggest achievements of your career so far?
Alex: Professionally there are three “beyond my wildest imagination” achievements that stand out:
Partnering with Tamron lenses as their Super Performance Series Ambassador was a real turning point for my photography. Not only do their lenses cater for both my studio and outdoor photography but Tamron is coming up with some game changing lenses which are proving to be a hit with amateur and professional photographers – like their Tamron 150-600mm zoom which is exceptional for wildlife photography and the Tamron 15-30mm f2.8 wide angle which is brand new to the market. It’s nice to be a part of their growth and success and we have some exciting projects coming up.
The second would be my book deal with Penguin Books Australia, which really is a dream come true. My first book “Mother Knows Best – Life Lessons From the Animal World” came out in April 2014 and my next book “Joy – A Celebration of the Animal Kingdom” was released in November 2014. I’m currently finishing book 3 and contributing to a 4th book and we have plans for several more in the works too. It’s such a thrill to have my images presented in book form, published by Penguin, and I still get a kick out of seeing “Mother Knows Best” and “Joy” on the shelves in book stores.
And the third achievement I’m the most proud of is raising awareness and funds for rescue animals through my work. One of the best things about photographing for rescue organizations is that my images help make a difference to the lives and welfare of animals in need. The right image viewed by the right person can mean a dog is re-homed, a donation is made, or that media will run with a story which increases awareness or raises public concern for a cause that directly affects the welfare of the animal. Photographs can be very powerful tools to create change.
iLHP: Which animal do you find the hardest to photograph?
Alex: In the studio, the hardest animals to photograph are the ones who move the quickest and I love the challenge of doing photo shoots with fast animals. Generally in the studio I’m very patient and I pre-empt movements and responses to stimuli, but with fast animals I have to speed up my observations and responses so that I don’t miss vital shots. Ferrets are some of the fastest pets I’ve photographed. They’re very comical. I once had a pet ferret called Stinky who was full of character and taught me so much about ferret behaviour – she provided a good induction into the speed ferrets move at and how to freeze that action.
Small Australian marsupials like bilbies and quolls are extremely quick and incredibly beautiful. To ensure they experience very little stress, we keep the room is as silent as possible.
Last year I photographed a series of splendid insects including a grasshopper and a scorpion. It was a fantastic shoot but so erratic! The grasshopper was very large – about 4 inches long, and could fly and move in a split second. Did you know that grasshoppers can bite? Apparently larger grasshoppers have mouths wide enough to grab onto your skin. This one kept landing on my face! Knowing he could bite, I kept very still, because no one wants to be bitten on the face by a big grasshopper!
Scorpions are much faster than I expected. This one scuttled and scurried about making rapid, zig zag movements. I worked at double speed that day because I’d been warned about the damage his stinger could inflict if it came into contact with my hand.
iLHP: How is photographinganimals different from photographing people?
Alex: For me, animals are easier to photograph than people – they are my ‘comfort zone’. Animals are an essential part of my life and I’ve always been captivated by their behaviour and body language. After photographing animals for the past 9 years, anticipating their movements comes naturally now.
Like many people I feel awkward and self-conscious in front of the camera, and most people need some verbal direction to get the shot. But you can’t work with animals like that. You need to connect with them in a certain way until their natural humour and quirkiness shines through. I go to a lot of effort to ensure they are happy and relaxed and in return they give generously. I love the creative process of capturing that split second when an animal’s true personality shines through.
My core business is studio pet photography at Houndstooth Studio in Perth and I meet loads of new and different kinds of animals every week. I approach each shoot with no expectations because every individual animal brings their own spontaneity and set of idiosyncrasies.
I also work extensively with animal rescue charities and sanctuaries both across Australia and overseas, which offers endless opportunities for variation in my photography.
iLHP: Are you scared of any animal? Or have you been scared during a shoot?
Alex: No, I’m not fearful of any animals but there is one species I just flat out don’t like and that’s spiders. You know the big hairy legged ones? I admit that I’m never really happy when I know a spider is sharing my space. I always ask someone else to catch them up and put them outside, safely away from me. I’ve agreed to photograph a tarantula soon, so that’ll be intensely confronting and thrilling at the same time.
I treat animals like they are my friends and I speak to them like they are people. I get an immediate sense of an animal’s nature when I meet them and approach each one with great respect and compassion. I’m very aware that no matter their size, any creature can become aggressive on a bad day.
The work I’ve done overseas with various international wildlife rescue groups has definitely led to some amazing photographic situations. Occupational Health & Safety in remote locations is very different from Australian standards, so you have to take responsibility for your own safety.
When I’m on a shoot for a sanctuary I am permitted remarkably close access to potentially dangerous animals. It is a great honour to be trusted like that and a privilege I never take for granted.
I’ve been a metre away from a huge wild but captive male tiger, on the road with untethered elephants on their way back from a swim, had encounters with leopards, otters, all kinds of monkeys, reptiles and birds, and been up close and personal with Sun and Moon bears that melted my heart.
I think keeping calm and being sensible goes a long way to making it home each day. And I always listen to my intuition – if an animal feels edgy or is a bit too interested in me, I get out of there. I never want my next shot, to be my last!
iLHP: Thank you for your time Alex. We look forward to hearing more about you and your animal portrait tips in the near future.
Until next time,
ALEX CEARNS LINKS
Official Website: http://www.houndstoothstudio.com.au
Photography tours: http://www.houndstoothstudio.com.au/services/global-tours/