Hey, my name is Jo Howell and my passion is pet and animal photography.
I have travelled, lived and worked all over the world but always find my way home to Melbourne, Australia where I run a dedicated pet photography studio and am also employed as a photographer by Zoo’s Victoria.
Photography has always been in my world. Some of my earliest memories are playing hide and seek in my grandparent’s photographic lab and my first SLR was a hand-me-down from my father’s photography business.
I still have a shoebox full of images from my childhood. Photos of friends, skinks and sunsets, all the things I could find in my neighbourhood to photograph while I dreamt of Africa and its wildlife.
When the age old question of “what do you want to be when you grow up” was asked I answered “a marine biologist” – not because of dolphins and whales, but because somewhere along the way I had seen a photograph of plankton. I loved the idea that there was a whole other world you could explore through a lens.
While studying Scientific and Industrial Photography at RMIT University, I learned just how many different techniques, styles and genres of photography there are, so with a degree and a backpack full of camera gear I set off overseas to explore not only the planet, but also, what kind of photographer I wanted to be.
I’ve worked in family and newborn, wedding, real estate, diagnostic, tourism, press, school event and commercial photography. They all taught me something but it was while running photographic tours through Africa that I found the path to my true calling.
Observing wildlife in their natural environments, where you have no control over their behaviour, taught me to read the little signals they are constantly giving. A muscle twitch, a slight shift in head position can allow you to pre-empt what that animal’s next move is.
These hours of studying animals along with the knowledge shared with me by the amazingly dedicated people I work with while shooting commercial wildlife is invaluable to me in my career today.
Understanding animal behaviour is one thing, having the right gear is the other.
At my studio, Jo Howell Photography, we have a great set-up with both indoor and outdoor options. Our main clients are dogs and their people and as you can imagine, they are always on the move, so it’s important for gear to be portable and be able to freeze motion.
I run two Canon 5D Mark III bodies and 95% of the time you will find the 70-200mm f/2.8 on one body being used for our outdoor sessions and the 24-70mm f/2.8 on the other for our studio shoots.
I love these lenses. Zoomed right in the 24-70 lets me get nice and close to my subjects without making them feel crowded, and to fill the frame with our smaller subjects. Zoomed out, its wide enough to fit whole families into the frame without too much distortion while letting me work close enough to adjust collars and give a pat when needed.
The 70-200 is my favourite. It’s pin sharp, fast and wide open at 200mm its ability to separate the subject and turn even the most distracting background into a beautiful creamy backdrop is magical.
The zoom range is perfect for outdoors, allowing me to capture close-ups of eyes and wider environmental shots without having to move position, which can mean the difference between getting the shot or not when working with easily distracted animals.
I also have a 100mm macro lens that is great for recording details, and is the go-to lens when we have reptiles and smaller critters in the studio, however sometimes I find I need to switch to manual focus to avoid focus-hunting on darker shiny subjects such as snakes.
The 17-40mm is great fun. My favourite shots with this lens are “in your face”. Think, big heads and big eyes, exaggerated facial expressions while enjoying peanut butter or catching treats.
Lighting wise, our subjects are nimble, we have to be too, so outdoors I use natural light. In the studio freezing motion is the secret to success and purchasing Profoto D2’s were a game changer.
We use a 1000 head for the main light and two 500’s for background / hair lights. With animals, sometimes you only have one chance to catch a certain behaviour, pose or look. The D2’s short flash duration, fast recycle time and colour consistency means I always get the shot.
When working at Zoo’s Victoria, I carry a very similar kit, with the addition of a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6mm lens, finding a bag that can accommodate that amount of gear and be comfortable to carry around all day was quite a task. Roller bags don’t tend to handle rough surfaces well and I find them quite loud which can disturb some animals.
The Peak Design 30L Everyday Backpack fits all my gear, and distributes the weight so effectively that it feels like you are carrying half the weight you actually are. It also looks pretty snazzy.
There are other things that I always have on hand at the studio; squeakers and noise makers for getting animals’ attention, head tilts and different expressions, bio-degradable poop bags (the glamorous side of pet photography), a variety of high quality treats in a wearable treat pouch (whether its meal worms for chickens or bacon for deaf & blind dogs, finding an animal’s most loved treat can help manoeuvre, pose and condition animals and make photo day their favourite day!) spare leads and collars, lint rollers for the people, Dyson Animal Cordless vacuum cleaner for everything else, portable dog water bottle and of course a tennis ball!
And lastly thanks to my test puppy Mia who never looks impressed in photographs but is fabulous at testing out new props, angles, lighting and set ups.
List of equipment
Canon 5D Mark III
Canon 17-40mm f/4
Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro
Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6
SanDisk Extreme 16GB memory cards
Profoto D2 500
Profoto D2 1000
Profoto Air Remote
Sekonic Flashmate L-308 light meter
Peak Design 30L Everyday Backpack
Lasolite 120cm Reflector/Scrim
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Wacom Intuos 5 Touch Medium
Eizo CG2730 Monitor