We’re so excited to bring you this interview with Monica Adalsteinsson, owner of Monica Wayne Photography, based in Phoenix, Arizona. Monica is a professional photographer who specializes in a service called "Pup + Me" Photos, where she captures the special relationship between her dog and human subjects. Monica got her start in dog photography as a rescue and shelter volunteer, where she started taking photos of pups to give them a better chance of being adopted. As her passion grew, she started using her photography to help raise funds for shelters and rescues - to date she has helped to raise almost $30,000! Monica shares about her background, her shooting philosophy, how she helps dogs and their owners feel comfortable during a shoot, why it's worth investing in professional photos, and a number of great tips for taking dog photos. Enjoy!
Thanks so much for chatting with us Monica! First of all, can you tell us a little bit about what led to you starting your dog photography business?
Thanks! I have officially been running this as a business for 2 years, but I have been photographing shelter dogs and doing Pup + Me photo sessions to raise funds for local dog organizations for over 5 years. It all started when my partner and I moved from Portland, Oregon to Phoenix, Arizona. Within the first month of moving we became volunteers at our local county animal shelter. After a few weeks of walking dogs, I realized that there was something missing: great photos of dogs. So I started bringing my camera and taking photos of dogs to help get them adopted. Not long after I started doing that, volunteers started asking me to take photos of them and their personal dogs, this is where Pup + Me was born! I began accepting donations in exchange for photos, as well as raffling photo sessions for charity and hosting exhibitions to raise awareness and funds for for shelter pups. I have raised close to $30,000 for dog-related organizations in the 5 years that I have been doing this!
I do still have a day job, I work at a hospital as an EHR Support Analyst, but I am working hard to go full time with my photography business!
How long have you been interested in photography, and what sparked your interest in it?
I have been taking photos, and have been obsessed with dogs, since I was a little kid. I have a photo that I probably took when I was 6-7 of my dad and his dog, so I think the passion has always been there. Wayne is actually my dad's first name - he taught me to live life to the fullest while we're here.
Can you tell us a little bit about your dog, Sasha, and about any other significant dogs that have been a part of your life?
Oh Sasha, she is a special girl. Sasha came into the shelter that I volunteer at, but I didn’t actually meet her there! My good friend decided to foster her and I photographed Sasha to help promote her. Well, over the year that she was adoptable she became my most photographed adoptable dog, and the rest is history! What led me to volunteer was my first rescue pup, Odin. We adopted him when he was 7 years old and within the first two weeks, he had chewed holes in the walls of our rental and had bit someone. We started seeing a veterinary behaviorist who practiced positive reinforcement training. As a young couple who had just adopted their first dog, I still feel so grateful that we found the behaviorist that we did and were connected with wonderful trainers. Because of this experience, we decided that we wanted to volunteer and help more dogs like him. I genuinely believe that if Odin would have been an easy dog to care for, we would have never met the people we have met and gone down the path that we have. Although it was hard being his guardian, I am so grateful for the experience.
You use positive reinforcement techniques with the dogs you are working with. How did you learn about positive reinforcement training and what made you decide to make it a focus of your photography business?
I first learned about positive reinforcement from Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, OR. Coming from that experience and then applying it to handling shelter dogs and shelter dog photography, I knew that I wanted to implement this in my business. When I first started doing the Pup + Me fundraiser sessions, I encountered people who were forceful with their dogs and it was so jarring. After those experiences, I placed clear guidelines on how dogs will be treated during my session. It is so important to me that everyone is respected during our session.
Do you find that you need to educate clients about why you support positive reinforcement training, or do most of them come to you already “on board” with the concept?
Many are on board, but I still have encountered many that try to force their dog to sit or do things that they just don’t want to do. For example, if someone is asking their dog to sit and the dog isn't comfortable doing so, I say “It looks like they're happy doing what they are doing right now, let's just let them be themselves.” When I say that, it seems takes the pressure off a bit. I am not expecting perfectly posed photos, I just want your dog to do what is natural for them!
What do you take into consideration when planning a photoshoot?
I get to know a lot of my clients from social media, or from the shelter where I volunteer. I always ask if there are any behavioral concerns or things that I should be aware of when working with them and their dog. A lot of times clients tell me that their dog needs slow intros, and I appreciate that heads up so much! I always try to be respectful of both the dogs and their humans’ needs.
What do you think about when scouting locations for a shoot? Any advice about choosing a location for photos, or time of day to plan a shoot?
Absolutely! I only shoot golden hour, so either sunrise or sunset; the light is always so dreamy during this time of day. As far as location scouting goes, I usually visit a trail and then walk the exact opposite direction of where the trail traffic is. I usually end up next to horse trailer parking or next to a parking lot! My goal is to find a place where there will be minimal to no encounters with other dogs or people. My previous pup was reactive and I know how stressful that is, so I do my best to find places that are beautiful, accessible and quiet. Needless to say, I spend a lot of time driving around to scout different locations!
How much of your shoot is composed of staged vs candid shots? How do you find a balance between the two?
I do what is called prompting. We'll do a few shots to just get warmed up, and from there I’ll have people walk their dog in the same path a few times, letting the dog do what it naturally wants to do. I really watch the dog and try have the person mimic whatever their dog is doing, to some extent. If the dog is looking like they want pets, I encourage pets. I always ask if they are comfortable doing an action, I think it’s really important to respect everyone’s boundaries. To a large extent I let the dog lead the session. If they want to sit and cuddle, then we do that, if they want to walk and sniff, I give them an area where they can do that.
Not all dogs love to “pose” or be photographed. What are some of the things you do, or have your clients do, to ensure that their dog is comfortable and not stressed during the session?
I let every dog fully investigate me and my camera - whatever makes them comfortable - before we start photographing. Clients usually get nervous when the pup sniffs my camera, and I just tell them that my camera has the BEST smells! I like to give everyone time to get comfortable, they are at a new place, meeting new people, and there's this weird camera thing involved too! I used to give dogs a lot of of treats when I met them, but I found that when I did that, the dog wanted to interact with me more than with their favorite person. I have found that simply letting the pup take the lead, and giving prompts as we go, results in the most natural shots.
My biggest tip is to allow sniff breaks and don’t ask the pup to do much. The most I will do is place a pup on one side of their person. I don’t ask the pup to sit, lay down, look at me, none of that; I want them to have a great time and not feel frustrated.
Could you share your top 3 tips for great dog/people photos?
Yes! Here they are:
1) Get down to your dog's level. I once bought this amazing dual camera sling that made it so that my cameras could rest at my hip. I quickly realized that with that set up, my cameras were hitting the ground, because I spend almost 100% of my time crouched down! Getting low shows the world from the dog's perspective and I just love it!
2) Be in the moment. I know it can be hard, you’re doing a new thing and it is weird, but I encourage you to tell your dog how much you love them, and really try to feel and show the connection that you have with them.
3) I love asking people to sit right next to their pup, facing the camera, and asking them to nuzzle in and love on their dog. I really enjoy seeing the reaction of the dog when their favorite person sits right next to them, it’s always adorable!
Most of us (myself included) use our phones for everyday photos of our dogs. Any special tips on how to take great phone photos of your dog?
Yes! For cell phone photos I always get down low, and play with the light! If you have a darker colored pup, I would face them towards the sun to naturally brighten their face, and I love putting the sunset behind them to get a gorgeous glowy shot. Early morning and the "golden hour" before sunset are the absolute best time to take photos. If you want a shot of your dog looking directly into the camera (like I do for my shelter pup photos), pose the pup (standing or sitting) and when you are ready for the shot, make a high pitched noise or squeak a ball (hold it right over your lens or phone). The key is to only make the noise when you are ready for the shot. You don't want to make noise constantly and stress or overstimulate the pup.
Any tips for great action shots of your dog, or “unusual” shots that may be fun to experiment with?
I’m terrible at action shots! But I think wide angle up close shots are super fun! On my cell phone I like to put my lens on .5x (the widest on an iphone) and get up close to get awesome wide angle portrait shots!
How do you find your clients? Any tips for someone who may be interested in pursuing professional dog photography?
I find most of my clients from doing rescue work. They see my rescue photos and then reach out for a session, which is so great! I suggest volunteering your time to a non profit supporting a cause that you care about, and see if they need head shots, product photos, or photos of their adoptable pups! As a bonus, you'll be helping pets in need and it'll feel so good to contribute to a worthy cause.
Why should someone consider hiring a photographer to capture them and their dog?
The relationship between human and pup is really special and should be documented. These photos are no different from human family photography. Dogs are our family, and we should honor that. Through my camera I do my best to see and highlight your connection with your pup, and you'll be able to treasure those images forever.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from clients from your photos? What is most meaningful/rewarding to you about this work?
There are so many things that are rewarding. First, I love making people feel confident and comfortable in front of the camera. I often hear “I forgot that we were doing a shoot!” which is the ultimate compliment! Now this is really sad, but when a client's pup passes away, the family usually lets me know about it. The fact that they reached out to me to let me know of the passing and to express their gratitude of having their relationship documented is so meaningful.
Our High Tail Hikes long lines are featured in some of your photos, and I know that use and Sasha use them as well! What drew you to our brand? What would you recommend to someone who may be trying out our products for the first time?
I found you through some friends and clients on Instagram! I really love your long lines, and then fell in love with your stories and how you promote all things positive reinforcement. I really enjoy our 15 foot long line. Sasha tends to stay close and doesn't really hit the end of it, so it is perfect for us! I'd probably suggest people try a 15 or 20 ft long line as a first purchase - it will give your pup freedom to explore, but not get too far away. As a bonus, the bright colors really pop in the photos!
Do you recommend that clients use a long line during their session? How can long lines be helpful in getting better shots of people with their dogs?
I do! I think it’s great to bring a 15 or 20 foot long line and a 6 foot leash. I mostly use the long line to let the pup sniff and get their zoomies out. When I am photographing, I often ask people to get really close to their dog, and prefer a shorter leash for those up close photos.
What are some fun or interesting things about you?
Great question! If I had a superpower, it would be that I am lucky. I win stuff often, and if there is any chance for me to be selected in a large group, I am ALWAYS selected. Characters at theme parks always flock to me. It is very odd!
I’ve raised over $27,000 for local and national dog not-for-profits!
Here is the best fact: when I was a kid at daycare, my love of for dogs really came to life. I would pretend I was a dog all day and got the other kids to join too, to the point where the daycare banned acting like a dog.
Thank you so much Monica! Where can people find you online?
All photos by Monica Wayne.