Sara Riddle is a professional pet photographer who has been based in the Northern Virginia, DC area, USA. Her two dogs/muses/loves of her life, Tater Tot and Kiki, inspired her to start to her business, Photography by Sara Riddle over 6 years ago. Sara specializes in capturing timeless, heartwarming, real moments between pets and their people in a relaxed, modern style.
Carrie: Welcome to Artist Strong Sara. When did you realize your interest in the kind of photography that you do? (Tell our readers a bit more about it 😉 ).
Thank you so much, it’s an honor to be a part of Artist Strong! I grew up on a horse ranch with lots of animals – even a peacock. From a young age I shared a closeness with animals that is hard to describe except to say that there is an intuitive bond and trust. I think most animals intrinsically sense the deep respect, love and compassion that I feel for them. Some people have called me the pied piper because their pets just follow me around everywhere, I was even herded by a Chihuahua once. Growing up I also loved many forms of art but as I got older I became more and more interested in photography. Before digital photography, I used to “borrow” my mom’s point and shoot camera and would polish off the entire roll of film of just random stuff like animals, leafs and flowers. She’d develop the film and would be like, “what is this? Another roll of film ruined!”
I took photography classes in high school and that’s when I really began to fall in love with photography. I loved being able to change someones perspective just by looking at a photograph – showing people a different view of the world around them really inspires me. From there I graduated from the University of Hawai’i with a BFA in Photography and shortly thereafter I moved to Northern Virginia with my husband and adopted two mini schnauzers. I found myself following (stalking) my dogs constantly and taking photographs of them. I loved it so much that I decided to turn my two loves into a business, and here I am.
Carrie: What are some of the challenges you face photographing animals? (We love stories here on Artist Strong).
As a pet photographer, no two photo shoots are ever remotely the same. You go into situations not knowing if a pet will have an aversion to you or your camera (or both!), if they are well trained or have zero training, if they are easily distracted or will be disinterested. There are a ton of variables when you walk into a shoot – not only do you have to help the animals feel safe, happy and comfortable – you help to make the owners feel that way too. If the owner is nervous or scared the dog will instantly pick up that and will likely reflect their sense of hesitation. You have to be prepared for just about anything and find ways to make it work on the fly all while maintaining a very cool and calm composure. One of the absolute toughest parts of my job are photographing terminally ill pets. It’s such an honor to be able to capture those images for the pets and their families that they’ll be able to live on in forever. I know I only have one chance with those shoots and that helps me to find strength to keep it together. Typically I’ll come home afterward, hold my doggies and cry.
Carrie: Can you describe your creative process to readers? (For example, how do you develop ideas or themes for your photo shoots?)
I go into each shoot knowing that most of the pets that I photograph will only have one professional photography session in their entire life. I have such a deep love and respect for animals and know I have one chance to beautifully capture as many aspects of a pet’s personality. Several hours before a session, I’ll read through a questionnaire that my clients fill out to try to get an idea of what their vision is for the shoot. From there I’ll start drawing out ideas and making a condensed list of the things that are important to them that I will try to photograph. I really look at it as a collaboration between my clients and myself to capture everything they want and more. Sometimes my preconceived ideas pan out and sometimes they don’t – which is fine too, I just try to go with the flow.
Carrie: When do you know a photograph is “finished?”
After a session I’ll upload the images, cull them down multiple times, do preliminary edits in Lightroom before the final edit in Photoshop. When I have a dynamic image that is bright, clean, clear and vibrant with great light that I can envision it up on a wall, I know it’s finished.
Carrie: Does your life experience and emotional state feed into your art? How?
I actually try not to let my current emotional state interfere with sessions because I genuinely want the images to be about the pets that I’m working with. I always try to clear my energy when I’m working with animals so that it’s all about them – it’s their moment to shine!
As for life experience, this might be an odd answer but to me, dogs are perfect, perfectly imperfect, they love wholly and unconditionally, they wear their hearts on their sleeve, they do not judge, they are comediennes, guardians, loyal companions, best friends and they live in the present moment – we have so much to learn from them about life and love. They are honest about their feelings, they don’t try to mask their emotions. You always know where you stand with a dog and I sincerely appreciate the raw honesty in that. My dogs love me more wildly and with more reckless abandon than I have ever been loved before. There is so much beauty in that type of bond and it has been healing for me. I want to capture that type of love that other people share with their pets so their hearts can swell with joy every time they look at those images.
Carrie: How does collaboration help and/or hinder your art?
My work fully depends on collaboration of the animal I’m working with. If an animal isn’t interested, is afraid or isn’t well trained, I have to find a way to connect with them, to get their attention or to help them build up their trust and confidence enough to begin to conquer their fears. It’s pretty special to watch a dog start to overcome their fears.
Carrie: How has social media and the internet helped you as an artist?
You know, social media hasn’t really brought in new clients, if anything I feel that it has helped to expose my work and style of photography to people and other photographers outside of the Washington DC area. The internet on the other hand, I single handedly learned just about everything I know about running a business, digital photography, editing and pet based businesses from the internet. It’s all there, you just have to be willing to do the research and dig deep. I have an ocean of gratitude for the internet.
Carrie: What is one piece of advice you have for struggling creatives?
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times my website has been plagiarized, and it almost always is by newbie photographers who are just starting out, trying to find their way and are struggling to gain clients. Plagiarism has become a major problem in the photography industry – it’s the polar opposite of being creative and authentic. My advice would be to stop trying to emulate the artists around you and find your own voice and style that will really set you apart in your location/ the industry. For me, that thing was stepping outside of just photographing pets to capture pets with their people.
I have one other piece of advice that I feel extremely passionate about sharing – in no way did my BFA degree in Photography prepare me to start up and run my own business. Art schools do their students a great disservice when they only focus on the art and not the business/marketing/financial side of art. It’s half the battle to setting artists up for success. If you haven’t already, take those business, accounting and marketing classes, it will help make you a stronger, more successful artist and a better entrepreneur.
Carrie: What is one creative resource you can’t live without?
Pure and simple – Mother Nature, and animals of course!
Carrie: Who/What inspires you?
We live in a world of opposites filled with simultaneous overwhelming beauty and immense darkness. I strive to bring a little bit of happiness, joy and light into peoples lives. What better way to do that than by looking at gorgeous images of your furbabies filled with love that bring a smile to your face every day? If someone’s day is even slightly better because of that, then I’ve done my job.
Carrie: How do you define Creativity?
To me, creativity is being in a zen-like, almost meditative state. When I’m creating, I feel like I’m more of a conduit – it’s coming through me from some other worldly magical place and I have to fully surrender to it. There’s no thinking, it’s just being fully present and trusting my intuition without hesitation.
“I strive to bring a little bit of happiness, joy and light into peoples lives.” (Click to Tweet)
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: Have you considered ways to manage your emotional state when you work in a collaborative environment? I want to know! Tell me about it in the comments below.
Additional Contact Info:
Somethinf Sara said about entrepreneurship really caught me. I’ve been a working artist for 2.5yrs. The first 18mos, I honed my style. And for the past year I’ve immersed myself in business and marketing learnings. Artists need both the creative pursuit and the business mind in order to not only chase but catch the dream. And I’m amazed that art schools don’t prepare artists for the real world.
I know what you mean Mandy. Some schools have begun to offer resources like that while others argue they offer an academic pursuit and opportunity for research and visual investigation. I can’t say I agree with it because it leaves an astounding number of creatives unprepared for the realities of working in the art world but there you have it.