San Francisco has plenty to offer its dog-owning residents, and through her photography Robyn Kessler of Robyn Kessler Photography ensures they have the perfect way to capture and cherish their pets. With a background that includes a degree in photography, Kessler's pet images are colorfully engaging and almost always in context to best illustrate a day in a dog's life. While the intimacy that Kessler strives for is wonderfully obvious, it's also her first-rate and attentive customer service that ensures her clients walk away satisfied.
Kessler is never in a rush when she meets a new client at her office location. The scheduled initial interview is comfortable, friendly, and open to any and all dialogue, but particularly dialogue about what it's like for her clients to live with their pets. "I do everything on a personal level," Kessler says. "We start with a planning session to get to know one another and talk about the pet. Trust me--as soon as you start talking about someone's dog, they'll enjoy the chat for at least an hour. I find that if I give them the space to let me know about their relationship with their dog, I'll be better equipped to make their photographs. Sometimes you'll hear about a café they go to together every weekend, and sometimes it's all about the dog's favorite toy. From the very beginning, we set the mood of the shots as something very important and very personal."
With this approach that lets her into her clients' world, Kessler feels the images they make together will always be in a context that will be memorable to the owner. "The idea is that I want my client to know that I know them and would hate for them to think I'd forgotten their dog's or their family members' names, dismissing them as 'just another dog owner,'" she says. "Everyone has a special relationship with their pet, and I think my process of getting to know them delivers images that will always be special to them. It all goes back to the initial consultation and relationship building. They're trusting me for their investment, and they deserve their money's worth."
With the groundwork laid, Kessler arranges for the photo shoot itself to take place over the course of a few hours, often at several locations. "I decided to focus on location and environmental shots and avoid in-house studio shooting," Kessler says. "I think it's more real when the dog is in context. I want to see a reaction in the client later--I love it when they say, 'That's so Fido!' in response to the shots. I'm not sure I could capture that in the studio, an alien environment with bulbs popping. My 85mm f/1.2 is my solid location lens and lets in plenty of light for most situations."
Kessler wears casual clothes that she knows will get dirty on the shoot, and she spends a lot of time at dog's-eye level while shooting to capture up to 500 images over the course of the session. This angle lets her make some abstract shots of a dog's feet, and sometimes to uniquely juxtapose the subject with its surroundings.
Kessler often encourages clients to work with her, placing them in the frame as well. "Sometimes my clients don't want to be in the photographs, but I really encourage them to at least get in a few of the shots," she says. "I feel like there's something completely different about a shot with both the client and their dog, even if the person is just in the background of the image. The keepers from the set show their relationship, and no one has ever been sorry they gave in to my pressure to get into the frame!"
Kessler's experience takes over once a shoot is complete. She scrutinizes the images for the best of the best; more often than not, she comes up with 40 to 50 images that will satisfy the demanding, self-critical artist within. "I also don't want to let people have too little to look at," she laughs. "So my contract states that they can expect their proofing session at my office to take place about six to eight weeks from our shoot, which gives me the time I need to make sure everything's perfect."
While the client waits, Kessler is hard at work, "making over" the JPEG images in Photoshop, where she estimates she will spend a minimum of 20 hours per shoot in an attempt to present her clients with the perfect finishing touches. "I love vignettes, and I love playing with the color," Kessler says. "While my photographs represent a real moment, and I don't want to change that, I will remove a distracting power line, give it a timeless feel with sepia, and so on. I love Boutwell's Totally Rad Actions, and some Kubota Actions, to give images a special look and feel."
When the proofs are ready, Kessler will arrange a slideshow on her website using Into the Darkroom for proofing, allowing the client to get a preview of the photos two days before the scheduled review session. Kessler uses Lena Hyde's Design Aglow from Hyde's Inspire Guide of layouts and wall groupings for ProSelect projection software to help create a dramatic impact, projecting the images at actual size on the wall.
"I base some of the choices I show clients on the 50 shots I've selected as finals, and I counsel them on large wall prints, collages, etc.--all of which was part of our print consultation meeting," she says. "I think that's really important, having options with what they can do with the shots we've made. I think I lost a lot of income not thinking to say anything other than, 'Well, you can make this shot bigger.' I have product samples--canvases, books, and prints--on hand to help me illustrate. I do offer framing through a local framer, but I often feel as though my clients are apprehensive with, say, a $10,000 sale. They don't realize $9,000 of that is going to the framer!"
Wagging the Dog
Kessler admits she's not the best marketer for her work, but she has found that certain marketing moves do work well. "I offer a highlight of the shoot on my blog, hopefully causing some excitement as I further the work on their images. The idea is to make the blog post viral, with clients spreading the link on their own. Also, every year I advertise at a local dog show, buying booth space. I also put canvases up in a few local doggie boutiques, which is nice to do. In one boutique, we took it a little further and had a 'Champagne and Dog Treats' evening event, with the boutique offering a discount on their goods and me a special on sittings. The more people that see your name, the better off you are!
"The one thing that's been keeping me in business is the way I handle my clients during face time. When your customer service lets your clients know they count, and the interactions are as intimate as time spent with friends, everybody wins," she adds.
Robyn Kessler’s Gear Box
Camera & Lenses
• Canon EOS 5D
• Canon 70-200mm IS L lens
• Canon 24-70mm L lens
• Canon 85mm L f/1.2 lens
• Sigma 14mm lens
• Gitzo tripod
• Lexar, SanDisk, Silicon 2GB CF cards
• Balance Smarter white-balance tool
• Dell PC with EIZO ColorEdge CG222W monitor
• Totally Rad Actions
• Kubota Actions
• 1TB Maxtor hard drives
• Adobe Photoshop CS2
• Into The Darkroom
See more of Kessler's work at www.robynkesslerphotography.com