Pet photographer Seth Casteel enjoys the unexpected. And that’s a good thing, since his photos of dogs—taken as he plays underwater with them—have become a viral overnight success.
Casteel’s underwater photos reveal surprising emotions: a Labrador Retriever menacingly bares his teeth, a Bulldog looks wide-eyed in astonishment, and a Border Collie appears slightly goofy as she dives after a tennis ball. “I’m drawn to the emotions of dogs because they have a similar range of emotions as we do. It’s fun to see the exaggerated expressions from these dogs,” says Casteel, who splits his time between Chicago and Los Angeles.
“My whole thing is that I do what the pets like to do. I don’t put them in the studio. I do it on their terms and embrace what they like to do,” Casteel says.
Casteel first dove into a pool with a dog when he was taking photos of Buster, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Buster jumped into the water and Casteel wanted a better vantage point. So he excused himself from the photo shoot, bought a point-and-shoot underwater camera, and plunged into the pool with Buster.
Casteel started shooting more underwater photos of dogs and eventually splurged to buy an underwater housing for his camera. His friends thought he was crazy.
Fast forward to this past February when his underwater dog photos suddenly exploded online. Fans posted his photos to Reddit.com and Google+ and they literally took off overnight. The next morning, Casteel’s website hits jumped from 200 to 30,000, causing his site to crash.
Since then, Casteel has been running with the big dogs. He signed a book deal with top publishing house Little Brown for a book that will be out late October, featuring his underwater dog photos. He has been featured on CNN World Report, Good Morning America, and in newspapers and magazines across the world from The New York Times to the South China Morning Post and Vanity Fair Italy.
He’s had to turn down private clients through his pet photography company, Little Friends Photo. “I went from not having enough business to having too much business,” he says.
Luckily, Casteel continues to make time for his personal passion: the non-profit he founded in 2011, Second Chance Photos, which professionally photographs shelter pets to increase adoptions and save lives.
Often, a pet’s chance of being adopted rests on an unflattering mug shot. Casteel is on a mission to save animals’ lives through quality photography and marketing. He travels across the country training volunteers and shelter staff to take better photos of animals, giving them a greater chance of finding homes. Second Chance grew out of Casteel’s volunteer work at the West Los Angeles animal shelter and pet shelters across the country. Four years ago, he found some frisky kittens on a Sony Pictures Studios lot, sneaked into an executive’s office, and took photos of the kittens playing on the office furniture. He used the photos to promote the adoption of the kittens, and they all found homes.
Connecting more professional-looking photographs with increased adoption rates, he now teaches free photography classes at animal shelters nationwide. Upcoming workshops in Denver, Orlando, and Austin are already at capacity. “My goal is to give people the tools to do this themselves,” Casteel says. “It’s just one step, of course, to increase adoption rates, but it’s an important step. “If you really want to do it, you can become a wonderful photographer, and you can save lives. All it takes is one picture,” he says.
Casteel’s recent underwater success won’t shift his focus from Second Chance, he says. “My goal is to do this more. The underwater thing has been great because it’s going to help me pay my bills so I have time to do more things like Second Chance. This is a top priority for me.”
When photographing animals, Casteel plays games to coax the pets into shots that reveal their personalities. With dogs, he recommends playing hide and seek. “You’re hiding, the dog is seeking,” he says. Go around the corner in your house and find a good, but not impossible, hiding spot, like behind a couch, then call out to the dog. “When the dog finds you, you’ll get a very surprised reaction. So have your camera ready. As soon as that happens, snap! The moment they find you is the moment you take the picture.”
“There’s an element of emotion happening, rather than, here’s your dog sitting on the couch—that’s predictable. Doing this kind of thing is unpredictable and that’s when you get really exciting photos.”
Photos: Courtesy of Seth Casteel