Puppy Love and Puppy Style: Pet Photographer Grace Chon
Grace Chon’s new book features adorable pictures of dogs before and after their grooming appointments—based on a photo series that went viral in 2016, Puppy Styled is a celebration of Japanese-style grooming, which aims to bring out dogs’ individual features.
As a photographer who specializes in animals, Chon was immediately drawn to Japanese-style dog grooming, because it’s meant to highlight an individual dog’s character. She explains, “In the United States and Europe, many dogs are groomed according to breed standards—the cuts have been designed to highlight characteristics of certain breeds or even hide certain flaws…. If you watch a dog show, you’ll see that the dogs are groomed with specific haircuts. But with Japanese-style grooming, those rules get chucked out the window, and the emphasis is on grooming the dog to bring out its unique personality, often through a very whimsical haircut.”
And Chon aims to do the same thing—that is, bring out her subjects’ personalities—in her own work. So when she discovered Japanese-style dog grooming, she knew she had to do a photo series based on it. That series, Hairy, went viral and ended up being shared by publications as diverse as Cosmopolitan and the Weather Channel. Chon’s publisher saw potential for a book, so Chon lined up dozens more dogs and spent a few days shooting her charming before-and-after pairs.
“I think seeing a dog before and after it’s groomed is so funny and relatable,” Chon says. “My dogs don’t get groomed, but they get bathed—and they are so happy after they get a bath. Their demeanor noticeably changes, they’re running around, they’re giddy, they’re play bowing, and they just love it. It’s a transformation that we all know and understand even with our own haircuts, too.”
Chon started her pet photography business in 2008. At the time she was working full-time (and often a lot more than full-time) as an art director in the advertising industry—it was a stressful job, so to fight burnout she sought out something enjoyable and creative to do with her free time.
She started taking portraits of homeless dogs, to help them get adopted, on the weekends for fun. That led to people commissioning her to do portraits of their pets, and that led to work with corporate clients. Nine months into this side business, she decided to quit her art director job and become a full-time animal photographer—a gamble that paid off. These days, Chon is balancing her time between commercial gigs and personal projects like Puppy Styled.
Chon says that she’s not just a photographer but also something of a dog trainer. “When I’m on set with a commercial client, I’m fortunate to have a dog wrangler with me,” she says. “But when I started my pet photography business, I didn’t. So I had to be the photographer, the wrangler, the art director—I had to be everything.”
Through that experience, she gained some knowledge that any photographer with a pet can take advantage of.
Chon explains, “When I walk into a house to take a dog’s picture, what you’re going to see me do is basically very positive dog training. I bring very high-reward treats, and as I photograph, it really becomes a relationship that I’m building with the dog. So when they sit and look at me, I give them a little bit of a treat—I call it “paying the model.” Through doing that, dogs get into a flow where they think, ‘OK, if I sit and stare at this lady, I’m going to get a treat later.’”
In addition to treats, Chon employs an arsenal of crazy sounds to get dogs’ attention. “For dogs, noises get old fast, so you need to mix it up. A squeaky toy might get old after five minutes. So I have lots of noises…I’m widely known for a duck sound I can make, I’ve used YouTube videos of cats yowling—any sound to attract their attention.”
Chon has been using Adobe Photoshop for more than 20 years—first as a graphic designer and now as a photographer. In the case of her Puppy Styled images, time constraints meant she did not have time to swap out backgrounds between dogs; rather, she added the colored backgrounds with Photoshop. “Which is much easier than I think it would’ve been in the past, especially with something like hair. With dogs there is hair everywhere!”
Working with dogs who, as she explains, are not “professional models,” also requires that she composite multiple images of her subjects. “In the case of Puppy Styled, for almost all the dogs it was their first time being on a set with strobe lights. And for some of them, that was a little bit nerve-wracking. When the subject is inexperienced, it’s harder to get one clean shot.”
Photoshop is integral to Chon’s process, but she uses it to accentuate what she sees in her dog subjects, not to alter it. She explains, “I want to bring out the dog’s expression, and I do that with the Dodge tool and by emphasizing highlights and bringing out shadows and really creating dimensionality in the face. I do that in all my pictures—it’s subtle, so most people don’t even realize the amount of Photoshop work I do in my images. And then in the case of Puppy Styled, I also did a lot of work in terms of bringing out the actual shapes and dimensions of the haircuts, which are very three-dimensional and fluffy…photos straight out of camera can look very flat, so there was some work in bringing out highlights and shadows there, too.”