Quite by serendipity, Tampa Bay, Floridian Laurie Elmer became a professional pet photographer some 13 years ago. A creative artist her whole life, she had a passion for landscape, nature and wildlife photography, though never pursued it as a career. That is, until her husband, a veterinarian, asked her to come up with artwork for his newly built animal hospital.
“The only thing I could think of was pet portraiture,” recalls Laurie. “I had never done portraits, or used studio lights or flash—on-camera or off. But I jumped in and figured it out as I went along. I bought fabric for backdrops and also construction lights from a big-box store. I started photographing my own pets, then staff members’ pets. Those portraits still hang in the hospital lobby and exam rooms, along with others.”
The photographs were a hit. Clients began asking Laurie to photograph their pets. “I had become a pet photographer!” she says. “So, I invested in Nikon SB-600 and SB-900 Speedlights as well as Alien Bees studio lights. I made several large, hand-painted canvas backdrops and spent lots of time experimenting with lighting techniques.”
At that time, she shot with the Nikon D2 and D3 pro bodies. But she now favors the lighter D850 with Nikkor 14–24mm, 24–70mm and 70–200mm lenses—Nikon’s “holy trinity.”
My friend, portrait photographer Chris Appoldt, referred me to the editor of Popular Dogs magazine. I also submitted portraits and editorial photos to other magazines, telling stories and illustrating pet-related activities. At one point, I was in about 10 pet-themed publications! The first few covers were a thrill, but eventually I burned out and backed away from editorial work. Instead I focused on pet portraits and personal projects—especially rescue photos.”
Going Pro Bono
It’s been 11 years since Laurie Elmer shot her first major pro bono project: a fundraising calendar for GPA Tampa Bay, a Greyhound rescue group. “I had a lot to learn: coordinating shoots, getting people on board and on schedule, which was probably the biggest hurdle,” she says. “The dogs were always great!”
Subsequently, she supported SPCA Tampa Bay, photographing pets with their people. Moreover, she created images for use on promotional materials and event announcements. “Again, I found the biggest challenge was coordinating with other people involved in the project, much like working with an art director. You have to be a team player, not let ego get in the way. Whether a project is paid or pro bono, you have to bring the same level of professionalism.”
Laurie recalls a fun “maternity” shoot she did for Ruff Beginnings, a rescue group, which had just taken in a very pregnant dog. “It was a great way to start promoting adoptions of the puppies as well as a perfect opportunity to drive home the importance of spaying/neutering,” she says.
“Shooting for rescue groups requires lots of patience,” Laurie adds.
“When photographers arrive, the staff often has multiple dogs they want photographed in a short period of time. To encourage adoptions, we want the photos to capture the pups at their best. However, they often are confused, stressed or afraid after coming straight from a kennel or temporary foster.
“My assistant, Knicki Lucrezi, helps them relax with treats, toys and her calm demeanor. For dogs too stressed by the process, we reschedule and figure out a better setting.”
One Dog at a Time
Being married to Dr. David Elmer, who owns Pinellas Animal Hospital, Laurie had a unique opportunity to help rescued pets. “I wanted to do something but not take on more than I could handle,” she recalls. “I decided I could manage one dog at a time.
But you know what they say about the ‘best laid plans.’ Before I had even worked out any details, my husband and I found four abandoned dogs in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. We scooped up the ‘Suwannee Four’ and the rest is history. My rescue organization, One Dog at a Time-Tampa Bay, started with four dogs all at once. Apparently, math isn’t my forte.”
Having worked with various rescue groups, Laurie knew well the toll it takes on staff. Providing medical care, training, daily feeding, grooming, exercise, socialization and marketing requires a range of support. Her assistant Knicki helps out at photo shoots. In addition, a first-class trainer, Brandi Burket, provides services at reduced rates. By focusing on one dog at a time—or an occasional pack of pups—she does her best to avoid overwhelming the team.
“Moreover, social media is a must for promoting adoptable dogs and sharing their stories,” says Laurie. “As viewers get to know a dog’s story, they tune in for updates and share with others. We primarily use Facebook, Instagram and Petfinder—along with placing posters in strategic public locations and attending adoption events.”
Pro Bono Pluses
Pro bono work has its rewards. “It’s a great way to stretch skills, increase referral networks and give back to the community,” explains Laurie. “When you work for a cause that’s meaningful to you, the rewards far transcend any business benefits. Pro bono also has helped me rediscover my love of photography.
“I no longer have to answer to an art director or a client. I decide how I want to tell each dog’s story visually, alternating between formal studio portraits and environmental portraits. At times, I summon my editorial chops, documenting medical procedures as well as training sessions. The mix keeps things interesting.”
Laurie’s only pro bono caveat: Learn to say “no.” “I used to say ‘yes’ too often, sometimes for causes that were worthy but not what I was passionate about, which caused burnout. Now, I focus on my rescue, where I can have the greatest impact. If you’re selective, protect your time and also choose projects you’re passionate about, pro bono can add a new perspective and fulfillment to your life.”
For more information, visit One Dog at a Time-Tampa Bay on Facebook.