by Caleb Goellner

Carli Davidson on Shooting Shake

Where does inspiration come from? For photographer Carli Davidson, the seed was planted while she was wiping down her kitchen wall – again – because Norbert, her beloved Dogue de Bordeaux, had bedewed it with spit– again – during a particularly long and satisfying shake of his jowly head. 

“You spend enough time cleaning up drool and eventually you’re going to want to know – how exactly does this happen?” said Davidson, author of the best-selling books “Shake” and “Shake Puppies”. As the titles suggest, the wildly popular photo books catch dogs and pups, freeze-frame, looking adorably weird in mid-shake.

That “how” question dogged (sorry) Davidson until one day, when she had finally saved up enough cash to spring for some good high-speed lights for her studio, she cast about for a subject to shoot. 

“I’m thinking, pop a water balloon? How boring,” Davidson said. And then the Norbert question returned: how about having a dog shake his head in front of the camera?

How about a photo series of dogs shaking that promptly went viral on Facebook? Got millions of clicks on her web site? Led to two best-selling books, national acclaim, and international renown? 

“It was crazy,” Davidson said.

The sweet smell of wet dog success

Just how crazy became clear when, while in the airport in St. Petersburg , Russia, Davidson overhead the man sitting behind her ask his friends if they’d heard about these amazing photos of dogs shaking their heads.

“I turned and said ‘Those are my photos,’ and he didn’t believe me,” Davidson said. “So I showed him the shots on my iPhone -- really, this is me.”

Not too bad for the one-time wild child, a regular in high school detention who managed to get kicked out of detention for selling the room monitor’s belongings through an open window.

“You’re not going to use that story, are you?” Davidson asks, then laughs. Yeah, pretty funny coming from the person who describes herself in a post on her Facebook as “…covered in strange tattoos, have a penchant for cursing a lot, and often dress like a 15-year-old boy. Professionalism is not my thing.”

Rescue me

But animals are.  Davidson, who grew up in a small town on the Hudson River just north of New York City, says her earliest memories are of being outdoors.

“We lived near a nature preserve and I was just obsessed with animals,” she said. “I loved being around them and wanted to learn everything I could about how they live and what they do.”

As a child, Davidson hung around the nature preserve and pestered the staff until she was allowed to help feed and care for the resident wildlife rescues. When she was old enough she was officially hired by the preserve and worked as a camp counselor.

At the same time, Davidson’s interest in photography took root. Her father, a Madison Avenue art director, always had a camera in his hands. By the time she was 5 years old, Davidson was shooting photos. When she was in high school, her father gave her his Nikon F2.

Never one to do things the easy way, Davidson skipped out on college and hopscotched around the country, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Olympia, working as a bouncer, an assistant in a tattoo parlor, and a photographer for the state legislature in Washington. It wasn’t until she settled in Portland, Oregon and started working with the animals at the city’s zoo that her future took shape. 

“First I volunteered, which turned into two full-time internships where I was caretaking the animals, primates and marine life, working on their diets and training and enrichment, which was such a cool experience,” Davidson said.

Bump in the road

Life in Portland was pretty great -- and then came the accident. Davidson’s truck got totaled and the neck injury she sustained meant she could no longer do the heavy lifting her zoo work required. Just a few weeks away from closing on a house, she knew she had to get some cash flowing.

She managed to get a small loan, secured some studio space and started shooting pet commissions.

“I wanted to be in the studio every minute and I realized that this was what I wanted to do – nothing else,” Davidson said.

A growing clientele giving her a steady income from work she adored, and Davidson had found her true calling. Then she bought those high-speed lights and the rest became dogs-gone-viral history.

Lights, camera, action! 

So how does she do it? The first thing step is using her knowledge of animal body language to get her canine clients comfortable.

“We’ll get down on the floor and play, just hang out for as long as it takes,” Davidson said. “I let the animal direct the shoot, tell me when they’re comfortable to go on set, and then let them do what they want.”

For her “Shake” series Davidson uses a Nikon D4, which shoots 10 frames per second, and synchs the studio strobes to 1/13,000th of a second. As each wet dog does what comes naturally, Davidson looks through her lens, presses the shutter and makes time stand still.

Once the photos are shot and uploaded into Adobe Lightroom, Davidson’s go-to for processing is the Intuos Pro, with its its pressure-sensitive screen, customizable screens and precision stylus.

“The Intuos Pro is always on my desktop – I haven’t used a mouse since I first used a Wacom tablet during a summer job in 1996,” Davidson said.

The work she does in Photoshop, creating paths and layers, adding effects, would be impossible without the Intuos Pro, Davidson said. 

“I can’t ever borrow a computer now because using a mouse is just so clunky,” Davidson said. “Wacom has spoiled me.”

As for what’s next for the photographer whose love of animals has led her to fame, it’s more of the same. An avid supporter of local pet rescue groups, Davidson volunteers her time at various shelters. She and her husband have also begun to foster dogs in their home, though with mixed success. 

“We were fostering this really sweet schnauzer – Saul the schnauzer – and then we adopted him,” Davidson said, and laughed. “That’s what’s known as a ‘foster fail’.”

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