Waterloo, Ontario-based Illona Haus, 46, was a successful author of psychological thrillers before she took a hiatus to explore her other passion: dog photography. Check out her environmental portraits at ScruffyDogPhotography.com. Janet Dixon
I’ve always had dogs. I grew up with them, and I’ve adopted and rescued dogs with issues. I studied photography in college a few decades ago and was always shooting pictures of my own dogs throughout the years, just for myself. It’s always been dogs in front of the camera.
How did you start your business?
After the loss of my first scruffy dog when he died at four years old, and having had only about four rolls of film of him, I taught myself digital photography. Later I began photographing more and started shooting other people’s dogs. I decided to create Scruffy Dog Photography about three years ago.
I am so immersed in dogs and dog behavior and dog training. Dogs for me are very natural. I get all kinds: aggressive, fearful, shy. It’s a matter of reading their energy—it’s all about energy with dogs—understanding their behavior and drive, and knowing what motivates them. Pet photography is all I do, so I’ve been able to hone that skill. I love it when a dog presents me with a challenge, because it lets me think outside the box.
How do you prepare?
Clients fill out a booking form to give me information about the dog, its behavior, what motivates it, what their favorite things about their dog are, where they want to have the shoot, and what they’re after with it. When I meet dogs on the day of the shoot, I assess what they’re like with the camera. If there’s any hesitation, we head outside first so they’re more distracted and not as shy.
Describe a typical shoot.
My shoots always involve several locations—the bulk of my work is environmental. The standard shoot is at least 3 hours long, roaming around outside as well as back at their home. Most of the shoots are late afternoon. I always shoot a big variety: I want to capture every possible angle and every emotion, and a lot of different backgrounds, colors, tones, and light. I do a lot of processing after the shoot. I promise clients 30 to 50 images, but I usually deliver 70 to 100, so it takes about 2 weeks to deliver them.
What gear do you use?
I shoot with a Nikon D3s and D700—I like having two cameras so I’m not constantly switching lenses. My main action lens is the 70–200mm f/2.8 VR Nikkor; I also use a 17–35mm f/2.8 and 35mm f/1.4G. If I have to be farther from the dog and I still want sharp portraits, I like the Sigma 150mm f/2.8. I don’t really use fill flash outside—if I need to, inside, I bounce a Speedlight off the ceiling.
What’s the biggest challenge?
Shy dogs are hard, but there are always ways of bringing them out. I had one instance with a shy dachshund who wouldn’t leave her owner’s ankles. She would circle to always keep her owner between her and the camera. I did the entire shoot behind the owner with my head almost on her butt as I shot between her ankles, but with most of the shots you couldn’t tell she was straddling the camera. The hardest ones are the really crazy dogs who aren’t trained at all and never stop—it’s hard to get variety. In a situation like that, I have to know my camera settings and let the dog go. I have to move with whatever the dog’s energy is and adapt to it. You can’t go in with any preconceived ideas of what shots you’re going to get.
What do you love best about the work?
Meeting all the dogs—they are so special to their owners, and I love capturing them in an artful way that’s not just a typical portrait. Unlike when I was writing novels, the gratification is immediate: I don’t have to wait a year to see one in print.