Meet Pet Photographer Joan Walker
14 minutes

Meet Pet Photographer Joan Walker

- edited by: Glenn Shuck

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Dogs Are Life – Yup, my dogs pretty much run my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I currently have three adorable Havanese: Jolie (14) who is also known as Miss Sassy Pants, Carmen (10) who is affectionately called “FC” for Freakishly Cute, Noelle (9) who is my shadow and heart dog and literally is with me every second of the day, and her littermate, Choco Taco (9), who was our last AKC Champion and who is enjoying retired life to the fullest.

I’m *grandma* to three additional dogs: Lilo, a former cruelty case pittie who is ball crazy and loves to swim in our pool; Stitch, a rottie-mix (also rescued) who talks and acts just like my two Rotties used to do; and Choco Taco, Noelle’s brother, Jolie’s son, and a retired AKC champion who has a lotta sass – probably because he’s the only boy in the pack.

And, of course, there are professional portraits of everyone because, well, I LOVE them!

Going to the Dogs… And Loving It

Just awesome to finally meet you Joan. What you’re doing is very cool. So tell us what part of First Coast do you reside now and how long have you lived there? 

I live up on the St. Johns River with my husband and business partner, Randy, in the bluff area. We moved here in 2019 (because my adult son said I would love it here and was he right!). My daughter, son-in-law and grandson all moved here in 2021, so we are all here now.

Why did you get into photography? 

Initially to solve a problem. I began my career as a freelance writer and because I was considered a “dog expert” from all my accomplishments with training, obedience trialing (I trained the #1 Hound in obedience as a 12-year-old), showing dogs, etc., I wrote primarily for magazines, such as, “Dog Fancy,” “Dog World,” “American Kennel Club Gazette,” and many others.  Additionally, I began writing dog breed and training books for Barron’s Publishing.

The problem was that the photographers who were assigned to capture images for the articles and books I was writing didn’t “know” dogs. So, it was really difficult to illustrate the topics I was writing about when the assigned photographers were supplying very generic dog photos.

Out of frustration, I began photographing exactly what I needed for my articles and books because I could train the dog to perform the action or position for the spit second I needed it. And my editors and publishers loved me for it.

I always enjoyed photography and had worked as an assistant to my brother (a commercial photographer), so I definitely had an advantage getting started. However, and this will date me, I photographed when editors and publishers wanted transparencies (slides). So, with film costs, you had to “get it right” in camera and get it within very few shots to make any money. That was probably the best thing for my photography.

Then, as I progressed in my photographic skills, art directors and editors began calling me for assignments specifically for my dog photography. After a couple decades of that work, I finally opened up my pet photography business, Joan H Walker PAWtography, to work with my amazing pet parents and their dogs.     

What photographers are your biggest influences? How did they affect who you are and how you create? 

When I finally made the move to digital cameras (editors and publishers were slow to accept digital image files due to size and quality), I was a couple years behind portrait photographers who had already made the switch. I had a STEEP learning curve with Photoshop and Lightroom. So, the photographers who were my biggest influences probably come as no surprise to photogs — Scott Kelby, Joe McNally, Glyn Dewis and Dave Black. 

How long have you been shooting? How do you feel you’ve evolved since you started? 

My first nationally published photos were in 1990 (AKC Gazette), so I’ve been shooting a looooong time. I’ve always been one to really push my skills to the next level and never settle for “good enough.” In 1992, I joined the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) — after being a member of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) for decades — to compete at the international level with my work. I won’t bore everyone with my accomplishments, however, my work is considered to be among the top pet imagery in the country.

And, I bring that level of expertise and awesomeness to my clients in every single session. My awards and accolades were achieved with client work, rather than imagery created specifically for print competitions. So every session I try to think outside the box and create something unique, different and gorgeous that not only will be loved by my clients, but will be of the caliber to possibly be used in print competition.

Tell us about your photographic identity. You know you as a person have an identity that fundamentally makes you who you are. Tell us about that as a photographer: 

I love dogs. I can’t imagine life without dogs. I have literally not met a dog I don’t love to bits. And, I believe all my dog clients (and their pawrents) know this. I know how to work with shy, apprehensive dogs, boisterous I-LOVE-YOU-MAN dogs, and everything in-between.

And, as a lifelong dog owner, I understand my clients’ love for their dogs and the desire to capture the pure joy and essence of their dogs in stunning imagery they can treasure forever. 

Tell us about the gear that you’re using. Please give us a list with reasons why you choose it. Please be descriptive. We want to know how it helps you translate your creative vision: 

#TeamNikon I have been a longtime member of Nikon Professional Services (NPS) — back in the day when Nikon reviewed your professional portfolio AND you were required to have a current NPS member recommend you as an excellent, working photographer — and I’ve stayed with Nikon ever since.

Now, my gear has definitely evolved. I have always had at least one flagship camera as my primary camera and then backups. Since making the switch to mirrorless, I work with two Z9s, and all S-series (pro level) lenses.

One of my favorite lenses to use with dogs is my 14-24mm f/2.8. I use this lens for what I call my ‘Big Sky” images. I am so close to the dogs for these, that I have to clean my lens constantly from all the nose boops and licks. The color is fantastic and I love the wide angle look with the sky.

I also use my 70-200mm f/2.8 for action/running imagery and when I photograph my clients with their dogs for family portraits. The longer the lens, the more flattering it is to people, so I try very hard to make my human clients look their best, too.

And, of course, my 24-70mm f/2.8 is used for my pet portrait landscape imagery, where the dog is part of a bigger landscape.

My strobes and speedlights are Profotos; top-of-the-line professional lighting gear ensures that I have very infrequent failures. (I’ve had no failures with my Profoto gear but I don’t want to jinx that!)

Natural light or artificial light? Why? 

All of the above.  I use whatever I have at my disposal but probably my “favorite” is what I like to refer to as “enhanced” natural light. My photographic goal is always LOTS of color in the sky and to capture images that are close to what we see with our own eyes.

So for my subjects to not all be silhouettes at sunset or sunrise, or for my skies to be beautifully blue during the day, I give my dog subjects a pop of light from my Profoto strobe. This also illuminates the dog’s eyes, which is how we see our pups. 

Why is photography and shooting so important to you? 

I believe in legacies for my clients. Our pets don’t live forever, so my goals are twofold. One, to create imagery that captures the love our pets have for us. And two, to create archival, stunning wall art and fine art prints that will last (literally) for a lifetime, so that we always have these images to remind us of our pets’ great love for us and to bring a smile to our faces.

Do you feel that you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why? How does the gear help you do this? 

A little of both? I create artistic, colorful imagery of my clients’ pets but I am also documenting their pets’ love for their owners. It’s why my tagline is this: #BecauseLoveLooksLikeThis

Lens choice, lighting, the ability to position dogs “hands-free” with lures to capture the look and positions I want for the imagery… all of this plays a role in helping me to achieve the color-rich imagery I create for my clients.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically? PLEASE BE DESCRIPTIVE: 

What typically goes through my head? “Oh my gosh, this is the most amazing/adorable/lovable/cutest dog I’ve ever worked with!”

My process if very organized: I create a very detailed shot list for every dog I work with based on my pre-session creative consultation with the pet’s owner. So, I have a really good idea of what I want to try to capture, where, with what lens and lighting, etc. I know the client’s “must have” image they want, and I usually have several out-of-the-box ideas to create something they never knew they wanted — until they see it.

Please walk us through your processing techniques? 

I pretty much always try to “get it right” in camera, so there is minimal processing. I do, however, always photograph dogs on leash, so I will remove the leash in Photoshop.  

What made you want to get into your genre? 

Who wouldn’t want to work all day with puppies, dogs and their parents? 

What do you think is the most important component to producing great results? (camera, lens, light, editing, location, artistic vision, etc.)? 

All of the above. I firmly believe in using the very best professional gear possible — it’s “professional” not only for being built like a tank and being able to operate under extreme conditions but also because flagship gear allows you the ability to create at such a higher level.

My advice for anyone wanting to get into the photographic industry is to obviously learn your gear inside and out, but also to not waste money on budget gear because you will become frustrated with the limitations quickly. Purchase the very best you can afford for your business and business model.

What outside (non-photographic) influences (if any) shape your photography? 

Art. I was a watercolorist and acrylic artist long before my foray into photography and I still paint today. It’s very relaxing for me and it also helps with my digital painting, too.

And, you might have guessed, I love the use of color, light and shadow, and joyful subjects in my organic (and digital) art.

What is the goal of your photography? (A business, just to share on social media, gateway to adventure, etc.)? 

I have three goals for my photography.

The first, is to create imagery for my clients that they adore. It’s the only business I know that I can create photographic art, play with dogs, and have clients who feel the same way about their pets as I do.

The second, is to give back to the pet community through donations of my time and talent. I have raised thousands for several different nonprofit pet rescues, donated to silent auction fundraisers, and photographed tons of dogs available for adoption for different organizations.

The third, is to help other photographers excel — with their photographic skills or business mentoring, or both. Perhaps my most exciting award this year was being named “Mentor of the Year” by the Florida Professionals Photographers (FPP).

What is the best way for photographers to network? 

Locally, join the Jacksonville Professional Photographers Guild (JPPG)! It’s a great, welcoming group of professionals and amateurs with a monthly meeting that includes great speakers and instruction.

At the state level, join the Florida Professional Photographers (FPP). The next level up, this group of professionals holds a spring seminar, a summer convention (Focus) and shootouts throughout the year.

Full disclosure, I am a board member for both JPPG and FPP. But, that just means I know these groups so well! They have so much to offer for photographers of all levels and they are both welcoming, inclusive and fun organizations.

Do you shoot with your editing style in mind, or do you edit based on the shot that you got? 

I shoot to do as little editing as possible (other than leash removal). My style is lots of color, character and expressions.

Do you enjoy books? If so, any specific genre? 

I’m an avid reader and my choices are a bit eclectic. I usually have a business book of some sort open, a book on historical art (I LOVE learning about the subtle “symbols” in art from artists, such as Holbein), I have a book on the history of paint colors I’m working my way through, and there’s usually a murder mystery in progress.

What is your favorite photographic accomplishment? 

Mentor of the Year from FPP – 2022
It was exciting because this was really accomplished by the photographers I mentored and their success.

PhotoshopWorld 2022 GURU Award – Photographic Artistry
This was a pinnacle award for my photorealistic composting art.

Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze medals, Imaging Excellence awards, Showcase Collection awards — all from pet client work and won at the international level with PPA.

What advice would you give someone who just picked up their new camera on how to get started?

Read the manual. Seriously, before camera manufacturers created 100-page manuals and put them online, I would read, reread and notate my manuals. I know my cameras inside and out. With my newest cameras, I printed out that huge manual and put it in two binders and I’m doing the same thing.

If you know your gear, that’s one less thing you have to think about while out in the field or in the studio trying to create something you have in your mind.

What’s the best thing for you about living on the First Coast? 

Ohhhh so many things. This is the greatest community of dog lovers I think I’ve ever met. And the weather — if we can kind of put up with July and August (even then dawn and dusk are my favorite times of day here), the weather is pretty beautiful year round and the COLORS. Always changing, always stunning.

How can we see your work?
IG: @jhwPAWtography
FB: @joanhwalker
LinkedIn: @joanhwalker

2022 Photoshop World GURU award winner for Photographic Artistry – Dancin’ in the Moonlight.

Is there anything else that you want to tell everyone? 
Joan H Walker, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, FDPE, FP-VA, F.Ph.-NC
What the heck does the alphabet soup after your name represent?

M.Photog.Cr : Master Photographer and Photographic Craftsman
Both are awarded degrees from PPA. Master Photographer is for excellence in photography through print competition awards. Photographic Craftsman is for speaking/teaching classes to professional photographers.

CPP: Certified Professional Photographer
A certification from PPA that involves both a written exam, and — when I applied — a review of your professional work. Certification is renewed every three years afterward with continuing education.

FDPE: Florida Degree of Photographic Excellence
An awarded degree from FPP for excellence in photography through state print competitions.

FP-VA: Fellow of Photography (awarded by the Virginia Professional Photographers Association)

F.Ph.-NC: same as the above but from the Professional Photographers of North Carolina.

Are you active in any professional organizations?

Yes! I love to give back to the photographic community, so I’m involved in quite a bit.

American Society of Photographers (ASP): Member and a State Representative for Florida.

Authors Guild: Member (and author of 29 dog breed books and training books)

Dog Writers Association of America (DWAA): Member and 8x recipient of the Maxwell Award

Florida Professional Photographers (FPP): Board Member & Membership Director; Executive Board & Manager of Print Competition (’23)

Jacksonville Professional Photographers Guild (JPPG): Board Member & Director of Programs

Professional Photographers of America (PPA): Elite Pro Member and a State Councilor (representing Florida)

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