With the profusion of videos and photos of cats, dogs and exotic pets on the Internet, one would think the market for cute animal photos would be saturated. But photos in which the animal is clearly happy and the product designed around that image is innovative – combined with the latest technology such as virtual reality and 3-D designs – are more rare.
Photographer Myrna Huijing, owner of Studio Pets by Myrna – a five-person photo, design and licensing firm in Aalsmeer, The Netherlands – sensed she was onto something five years ago when reaction to her first project, a line of pet greeting cards, was very positive.
“I used to do fashion photography,” she relates. “I was often booked for shoots that involved models with pets, as I had two doggies of my own and always took pictures of them. At one point, I had so many pet photos, I decided to create a greeting card collection. I had my own greeting cards produced and had a distributor sell them for me. And that’s how it all started. The collections grew bigger so quickly with back-to-school stationery, bags and calendars that it became a full-time business overnight.”
Although the success of Studio Pets by Myrna is stretching the company’s resources, its employees still do most of the graphic design for all their licensees in order to maintain the right look and feel of the brand. Studio Pets by Myrna are licensed in Europe, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia.
Huijing thinks the next six months will be very interesting for the company as the brand will be established internationally on a larger scale. In the past year, the company has started marketing its brand to retailers and licensees directly and at industry exhibitions and trade shows. “Exhibiting at trade shows is a great way to show our new developments and designs created in the studio,” Huijing says. “It’s also the best way to get instant feedback from the right people.”
“We have thousands of images to choose from,” Huijing emphasizes. “But we are also very keen on new technologies like 3-D, apps, video and augmented reality. These developments within our company have set us apart compared to what’s already out there. Our Studio Pets’ key characters are captured as 3-D designs. These 3-D sculptures give our collection a whole new dimension. They can easily be made into plush toys, charms, zipper pulls, jewelry as well as games and apps.”
Studio Pets by Myrna is being licensed for stationery, apparel and accessories. Huijing credits a sense she gained in the fashion industry for directing the company toward a certain style. “We’re very aware of what is a trend,” Huijing emphasizes. “We love design, and coming from a fashion background, I always have my eyes open for the latest trends. So we combine the photography of cute animals with various fashionable, trendy, spot-on designs or props.”
Huijing maintains her products appeal to consumers of all ages. “The love for animals has no age limit,” she insists. “We get many positive reactions from little kids but also the older generation, even though our designs are very modern.”
As anyone who has tried to take a photo of a pet or an animal at the zoo knows, they can be some of the most difficult subjects to photograph. Huijing’s techniques for photographing animals have developed from trial-and-error and her patience with animals.
“I’ve always had a huge passion for animals and photography, so I read the animals,” Huijing reveals. “I know when they look happiest. Competitors can take a photo, but the animal just doesn’t look happy. We never force them to do anything, because they are the best models when they are free and relaxed. An animal has to be totally comfortable. If you’re an animal lover, you see immediately if the animal is happy or not.”
Rather than cats and dogs reigning, Huijing also has photographed deer, small horses, large horses, cows, goats and sheep. How does she keep her studio from turning into a menagerie?
“We do shoots one a day, because we don’t want to mix the animals too much and stress them out,” Huijing explains. “We give them all the time they need and let them walk around and become comfortable in the studio before we start photography. Most of the work is design and choosing the right images, but our favorite part of our day is the cuddle time with our models.”
Sometimes, two different species of animals are put together in the same photo. “We do mix animals in the shoots, but it is in one shoot a day, usually – it’s not a whole day of photography,” Huijing continues. “If we want to mix a cat and a bunny, they’ll come at the same time. We’ll let them play together and get to know each other, and then we start doing the photo shoot. When that is done, we move to the video shoot.”
Huijing shoots a large number of photos with a digital camera and flash for each photo shoot and reviews them on a nearby monitor. “We do have some tricks,” Huijing concedes. “I always use cat toys for any animal – dogs, cats, bunnies. They usually tend to react, and we’ll give them some nice treats. I am very vocal. I try to get their attention with my voice. I make funny noises.
“When we have the perfect photo, we move to the video stage, and we’re recreating that moment, which is almost impossible,” she laments. “But we will try, and eventually it does work. We did figure out a way to get the perfect picture and then recreate the setting for the matching video.” For video shooting, Huijing uses daylight with a little video lighting.
Huijing used to photograph small animals she would see in her neighborhood, but now that her work is becoming known, she does not have to seek out animals for photography but instead is brought animals by local people and through her website. In return, they receive professionally printed photos from the shoot of their pets.
“We take hundreds of pictures and not all of them are going to be commercialized,” Huijing says. One lady who lives near Huijing’s studio has land around her house for small animals, such as goats. “She’ll give me a call and stop by with a whole parcel of farm animals,” Huijing says. “So they like to participate – it comes easy.”
Huijing is expanding the company’s product reach geographically and considering creation of television shows with the company’s animal 3-D characters. Already, video games are being developed.
The secret of Studio Pets by Myrna’s success is “the combination of the love for animals and translating that love of the animal into the image, combined with my fashion-forward interest,” Huijing says. “It’s not so hard anymore to take a photo in the time where everything is digital. So you can set up the lights, but knowing what is the right shot and the right expression is the challenge. When I shoot, I already know, ‘This was the shot.’ The expression I go after is the happy animal – that happy feeling that it gives you when you look into its eyes.”
Other reasons for success include investing in new technology and being self-financed, as well as controlling all the design of the products the company licenses. “It’s important to give the licensees some space for creativity,” Huijing stresses. “Sometimes they can surprise you with the product design that brings more to the brand. But we have our style guide and always remain active in the process of designing. This way, Studio Pets is way more than just an animal photo printed on a bag.”