Sharon Montrose has what most people consider a dream job: She photographs adorable animals—from lions to flamingos to knobbly-kneed giraffes—and sells prints online at her store, The Animal Print Shop. But what's her job really like? Does she ever get scared? What's the trickiest animal to photograph?
Here, Sharon answers my 12 most pressing questions (her answers are surprising!)...
What's your goal during each shoot?
Capturing the animal’s charms—it can be something in their eyes, their smirk, or the way they move. The animals generally fall into two categories: Some are cute, and some are striking, like the American buffalo. I would never cute him up. I wanted to capture how majestic he was, so that when people looked at the image, they’d say, what an amazing creature! With the grown-up animals, it’s less of I-want-to-bury-my-head-in-their-belly and more what-a-fascinating-creature.
Do you get scared when you photograph animals like lions and bears?
No, it doesn’t even occur to me to be scared—which is funny because I’d never consider myself a fearless person.
Why don’t you get scared?
I have confidence in the handlers I work with, and it’s very rare that I work with a dangerous animal. I guess something could happen to me, but I could also get hit by a bus crossing the street. And when I'm shooting, it's like an alternate reality. My only focus is getting my shot, which totally distracts me from anything around me. If the studio were on fire, people would be trying to escape, and I'd still be standing there trying to get my shot!
Have you been charged or growled at?
I had a yak charge me once. The handlers told me ahead of time that if he charged, I should stay still so he would run around me. But, in the moment, my fight-or-flight instincts kicked in. I just started running. Luckily the yak ran the other way.
Any sweet moments you’ll always remember?
I bottle fed a baby tiger in my arms. A bear cub sucked on my ear. It was awesome. When you do something so much, you can become desensitized, but holding the animals reminds me to be present. Instead of focusing on the hard work, when I hold an animal, I remember how lucky I am that I get to earn a living doing what I love.
Are certain animals easier to photograph than others?
Stoic animals, like the buffalo or cow, don’t do much. They just stand there. They make it easy for me. I’m just looking for an eye or their head to tilt in a certain way. For the animals that move around—chicks, bunnies, the bobcat—I have to focus and be ready for the split second when they’re in the right position. Cats and kittens are really hard because they bob their heads a lot. Dogs are really amenable: sit, stay, roll over.
The baby animals are so sweet. My son loves the deer print in his nursery.
Parents tell me that their kids name them, blow them kisses, say good night and good morning. How cute is it that it’s interactive? People have told me that their kids now want to be vets because of them. I’m not like a doctor who is busy saving lives, but if I bring a little happiness to some little person’s life, that’s so cool.
People must glamorize your job: you take photos of cute animals. What are some tricky parts that people wouldn’t expect?
I think people imagine that’s it’s a party atmosphere, like monkeys are swinging from the chandeliers. But the set is actually very professional. It’s a lot of work coupled with the stress and self-doubt that comes with any creative pursuit. Some people think a high production level of animal photography could be done easily, but I’ve been at it for 15 years. It has been a journey and process.
Where did you begin?
Where I am now is a result of many things that I tried and failed at. First, I shot weddings and headshots, but I realized I connected more deeply with animals. Then, back in 1998, I tried to be a private pet photographer, but back then, people didn’t spend money on their dogs. It was humiliating: I took promo cards to vet offices and dog parks, but nobody called. Not one person called. Then I thought, maybe I’ll try to get a dog book published. So I read a book about how to get published, and I wrote letters to literary agents, and sure enough sold my book to Viking Press. That’s really where it all started to work out. After that, I started getting commercial work from companies like Iams and Pedigree. While building that side of the business, I wanted to do a side project, so I started an etsy store with prints from the animal series I had been working on. A couple people blogged about me, and it went wildfire. Once I realized it could be a viable business, I photographed more animals and opened my own shop. I’m still figuring it out as I go. Now I have a whole team, which is really crazy. This whole business is the happiest accident that happened to me.
What do you do behind the scenes?
Marketing, overseeing my operations and my team, creating ad campaigns, product shots for the shop, social media, creative direction, customer service, invoicing, billing, PR outreach, interviews, file management, sometimes fulfilling orders, product development, working with lawyers, dealing with contracts, hiring people, creating a press catalog, keeping up with emails, retouching files, testing prints, nursery projects...I also vacuum the shop.
My to-do list is giant. Sometimes I’m in the fetal position at night. Kidding!
Do you enjoy the business side of things?
I’m naturally business minded. When I was six years old, I would play office. No joke. I had a cubicle at my dad’s office and I even clocked in.
What are a few things people don’t know about you?
* People assume I must be really sweet and saccharine, but I’m an honest person with a lot of edge. I swear a lot. I’ve tried to rein it in but I can’t.
* I love reality TV, like "The Bachelor" and "Say Yes to the Dress." I like to put on my “comfies”—sweats and L.L. Bean sock-slippers and watch TV.
* My nickname is Nellie among my close group of friends. When they call me Sharon, it sounds weird.
* I’m always freezing. I move around the house with a space heater next to me because my husband won’t let me crank the heat to 80 and I guess I don’t blame him!
* I’m obsessed with pine trees. Being around them, preferably in Yosemite, is my medicine. I even have pine trees tattooed on my arm.
* I secretly feel like I’m 16. Sometimes I look at my career and responsibilities, and I’m like, what am I doing, I’m 16 years old!
* On the Internet, there can be a perception that we’re all perfectly happy and never suffer, but that’s not me. I’ve got my issues. Sometimes I feel totally secure, but other times I’m totally insecure; sometimes I feel great, and sometimes frankly, I’m a total mess. I just try to take things easy–live in the moment, breathe and stay rational. I don’t ever want to take myself too seriously.
Thank you so much, Sharon! Find all her fantastic photographs at the Animal Print Shop, if you'd like... xoxo
P.S. A Q&A with the costume designer for Girls, and my own post about blogging as a career.
(Behind-the-scenes photos from our day together by Laure Joliet for Cup of Jo. Photos of Sharon holding the animals courtesy Sharon Montrose)