July 23, 2012 —
Lifestyle pet photographer Seth Casteel’s life was turned upside down this past February—in a good way—when images from his series of dogs fetching neon balls and squeaky toys underwater in a pool became a viral sensation. We’re talking shots of a yellow Labrador Retriever doing a belly flop into water while going after a ball; furry four-legged creatures looking more like raging bulls or sharks moving in for a kill; and bug-eyed dogs swimming briskly to secure the object of their “affection” with their sharp teeth.
It all began innocently enough when the 31-year-old Los Angeles-based shooter received some e-mails alerting him to the fact that some of those dog images had been posted by someone in cyberspace to Reddit and Google+. Casteel already had some of the images posted on his Facebook page, but it was not until this year that they were seen worldwide, subsequently receiving millions of hits.
“The underwater dog photography thing was a happy accident,” Casteel explains. “While at a routine lifestyle shoot, a little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Buster decided he would spend the entire time in the pool. It was right then I realized there might be an opportunity to explore [a shoot] below the surface,” he says.
Casteel is still in awe of how it all unfolded after that. He doesn’t know who posted from his page to Reddit, but what he does know is that when he woke up the next morning, he discovered money in his bank account for orders of his pictures, and his e-mail flooded with job offers and requests to appear on numerous national television programs such as Good Morning America and World Report (CNN). He was also featured on various publications including The New York Times Lens blog and the Huffington Post.
“I had no idea what to expect. This has been a process of exploring and having fun. I thought the underwater work was just so interesting, but couldn’t have ever predicted the reaction from the rest of the world,” he says.
His website, which usually gets about 200 visits a day, eventually crashed because of the overload of visits. “It was a good problem to have,” he jokes. Especially since before his images went viral he had to hustle to make his business a success. “Some months were great, some months I couldn’t afford my bills. I spent so much time working for no paycheck, but all of the work I do really doesn’t seem like work.”
His riskiest business move came several months ago when he decided to buy a Canon 7D with underwater housing, which he eventually used to photograph his now-famous shots. Though he declined to reveal his lighting techniques, he did say he “worked really hard to get the recipe for these shots, and most people usually want to know if I scuba or snorkel. I don’t. I free dive and can hold my breath for 90 seconds. I weigh myself down to the bottom of the pool when I’m doing this. It’s physically demanding.” He adds, “The camera is only inches away from the dogs. There is no aggression towards me or other dogs but they are very, very excited about retrieving the toy. I have a pretty good strategy. I know exactly my space and my working distance.”
The resulting shots are captivating, made possible in part by Casteel getting up close and personal with his “little friends” as he calls them (also the reason his business is named Little Friends Photo). His sensitivity and respect for man’s best friend (and cuddly cats) is moving, and is also reflected in his “non-pool” portfolio, which shows an inside look at their world—digging dirt, playing in a box or jumping inside a flower pot.
And while Casteel loves his job, he admits it takes a certain amount of patience and a whole lot of passion to deal with the dogs and cats that may drool, shy away or become flustered at the sight of him, especially when he is wearing full-fledged underwater gear and waterproof camera equipment for pool shots.
“For most photo shoots, I show up at a location I’ve never been to, meet people I’ve never met before and work with pet personalities, some of which are less-than-cooperative. But this is what I love about it,” he says. “We figure it out as we go along. I don’t plan any shots in advance. I just wait to see what happens.”
He knows how important it is to get the dogs to feel comfortable in his presence by first playing with them, letting them run around to capture what would appear as a smile while they pant, and getting down on his knees to see their perspective of the world. He also never forgets to reveal their personalities by capturing the look in their eyes. He charges his clients—all pet-lovers from around the world—about $800 for an on-land photo shoot, but to hop in the pool, the fee increases to $1,000. The shoots usually last a couple of hours and the location varies, dictated by the pet’s liking. When asked how much revenue he’s received since February, he responds simply that, “business has improved.”
Casteel knows how important it is to not let his “instant popularity” dwindle, so he’s made great marketing strides by selling his photos in various mediums, including a printed calendar (available on willowcreekpress.com) and he has secured a book deal with Little Brown and Company. The book, titled Underwater Dogs, debuts this October. For the past couple of months, Casteel has spent nearly everyday shooting images for the book, adding up to over 200 dogs, including a real wolf.
The young entrepreneur got his start in photography after graduating from film school at Chapman University in 2003. While there, he learned all the elements of still photography—including how to develop film and make prints in a lab. Upon graduating, he worked in creative advertising for Sony Pictures and The Walt Disney Studios, designing movie posters and trailers for movies such as Spider-Man, 007 and UP! His biggest inspiration to work with and photograph animals came after a trip to Australia in 2002, where he became fascinated by the beauty of the local wildlife and began shooting with a Canon film camera. It wasn’t until 2007, though, that he started to take his passion more seriously, later buying a digital camera, the Canon Rebel XT.
“I enjoyed the unique challenge of working in the movies, but ultimately, I am passionate about animals,” he says. He is so much of a pet-lover, in fact, that he owns two dogs—Nala, a mini Labradoodle and Fritz, a Norwich Terrier—and also has two dog tattoos (one of Nala, and one of an Afghan Hound he photographed in New York City).
While Casteel has volunteered at animal shelters for more than four years, he also started SecondChancePhotos.org, a nonprofit that seeks to help with the photography and marketing aspect of rescue and adoption. He’s also been traveling the country to snap cat and dog photos to increase adoption rates, and teaches workshops on photographing homeless pets to shelter staff and other volunteers.
“Before I even had a business, I was a volunteer. Pets don’t have a voice, so we have to be their voice during tough times,” he says. “It’s amazing to see how one photo can make a difference. One photo can a save a life.”
For his future plans, Casteel strives to continue to work on behalf of his furry pals and show the rest of the world their unique and wonderful personalities. “Being a photographer means taking chances—it won’t always pay off, but it’s always worth it to try,” he says. “Animals are my destiny. I am grateful I have the opportunity to help them.”
Editor’s Note: Look for a Rangefinder Cookbook this fall on one of Casteel’s pool shots from his new book. He promises a more in-depth look at his setup, technique and overall process.
Freelance writer Nayeli Pagaza, is a 2006 University of California, San Diego graduate, and co-author of Impacts of Border Enforcement on Mexican Migration: The View from Sending Communities. She is an international relations expert, community and media liaison, and recruiter currently based in Huntington Beach, CA.