Animals as sitters - photographing animals in 1911

Amature photographers, most that I've met anyway, usually have little to no desire to spend money on hiring a professional model to do a photoshoot, fearing they'd be wasting their money and the model's time on account of their lack of skill behind the shutter. In the January 1911 edition of Snap Shots, "El Haran" proposes exploring the world of nature and animal photography. He makes reference to Douglas English, a famous nature photographer and editor of the period, whose work can be still be found through online auction sites, for those who are curious.

Snap Shots magazine, January 1911


By "El Haran"

Originally published in 1911 in Snap Shots magazine

The amateur photographer seeking for fresh subjects for his camera might do much worse than turn his attention to the photography of some of the commoner living things about us, or to the uncommoner, for that matter, if they are to be obtained. Not only may work of this sort be made to serve natural history, but, as some of the beautiful pictures of Mr. Douglas English have shown, there is scope for both novel and effective pictorial work amongst the animal world.

Birds and their nests form the first group of subjects to which the mind of the photographer turns when natural history work is man toned, and in this direction a great deal of interesting photography may be found. But it is the one side of this great subject which has had more attention than any other; and there are now few photographic exhibitions in which photographs of birds or of birds' nests do not figure.

There is a great deal of "sport" to be obtained from bird photography, quite apart from any zoological value which the results may possess. There are now on the market devices for liberating the shutter of a camera from a distance, and with one of these, a moderately good anastigmat lens of modern type working at something larger than f/8, and an unlimited stock of patience, no small amount of fun can be obtained. Birds have their favorite perches on trees or shrubs, and a little observation will soon show which these are. The camera is then set up, carefully focused on the selected spot, a plate is inserted, and the shutter drawn. The photographer then has to go to a distance and wait with his hand on the electric release, or holding the thread which, when the opportunity arises, is to enable him to make the exposure. There is much of the excitement of shooting about it, with certain humanitarian and other advantages thrown in, not the least of which is that there results a permanent record of one's success in the form of a print.

The photography of birds' nests calls in like manner for hard work, for patience, and for a knowledge of nature, and a cultivation of the powers of observation, which make it also a very attractive direction in which to work.


The mammals afford scope for an almost unlimited quantity of work, and allow of a greater diversity of treatment than do birds, since a great part of the life of a bird is spent on the wing, when photography of any value is almost impracticable. Not so with the mammals; and amongst mice and voles, hedgehogs, guinea pigs, bats, stoats, squirrels, rats and rabbits there are plenty of models for the enterprising worker.

There are two methods of work amongst these subjects; one is the stalking method, by which the animal is photographed while at liberty, and the other is by photographing it while under control. Both have their exponents and their advocates, and both methods are within the scope of the amateur.

When his object is chiefly to make effective pictures of his beasts, the "control" plan is almost essential, as it is only when the animal is a prisoner that the background and surroundings can be adjusted at will. By "prisoner" we do not suggest that it should be shut up in a small box and scared out of its wits — no animal could be expected to be a desirable model in such circumstances — but simply that it should be prevented from escaping for a long enough time to get well used to its surroundings.

This is the method by which most of the strikingly successful pictures of Mr. Douglas English have been obtained; which have been not merely life-like portraits of their subjects, but most effective pictures. A large wooden box, with a hole through which the lens of the camera could be placed, the box covered with a couple of sheets of glass, has formed the whole lot of special appliances required for the portraiture of some or the smaller animals.

The more strictly domestic animals are photographed often enough, and their use as models for the amateur is apparent; but even amongst dogs and cats and horses there is room for a great deal of original and attractive work for those who will take the trouble and who have the requisite patience.


Reptiles afford more uncommon subjects, as although some of them are met with often enough, they do not seem to suffer the indignity of the camera to any great extent. Lizards and snakes are fairly easy, and both frogs and toads offer no great difficulties, their immobility comparing very favorably with the nervous tension of a rat or a mouse in captivity. The principal trouble from movement with sitters of this class is from their breathing, which is both extensive and peculiar.

It is curious how seldom one sees photographs of fish — living fish swimming, that is to say. For the difficulties in the way of obtaining them are by no means great, and the subjects in many cases are very attractive. It is necessary to have some shallow glass tank or aquarium for the purpose, and in the case of small fishes, such as the amateur would be likely to attempt, at least at first, this can be constructed in a comparatively simple manner.


Two thin sheets of plate-glass are enclosed in a light wooden frame, while between them in one-half of a bicycle inner tube-the half with the valve in it-which is inflated so as to separate the two glasses and form with them a water-tight trough. Into the trough so formed stones or water plants in accordance with the natural habitat of the fish to be photographed may be introduced, and beyond taking care not to get any reflections from the surface of the glass next the camera, no special precautions are required. This work is, of course, carried on in the open air to secure as much light as possible.

Insects also provide interesting subjects for the camera; but enough has been written to show the realer what opportunities such work affords for those who would do something a little out of the beaten track.

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