To shoot this week’s TIME cover story about animal friendships — which you can read here — photographer Catherine Ledner called on years of experience of hanging out with cute critters, including her work on two books of animal photography, Animal House and Glamour Dogs. But this shoot offered something new, even for the animal pro. Most of Ledner’s work involves pictures of singular animals, while TIME’s portfolio features animal pairs. “I had to make sure that the dogs that were coming were actually friends,” she says.
With that criterion in place, Ledner found that shooting pairs of animals was no more difficult than shooting them one at a time. Like human models, the animals brought their own personalities to the set and Ledner was able to capture the interplay of those forces. Also like human models, the animals brought entourages (a.k.a. trainers) who kept the stars focused on the task at hand—and who conveniently stepped aside when Ledner wanted to let her subjects off the leash, so to speak.
But unlike human models, the animal managed to make the group shots look effortless. “If you’re shooting a group of people, you have an agenda of who you want looking in the lens and who you don’t,” Ledner says. “To get everyone to look good at one time is harder than it is, I think, when you have a bunch of animals.”
Which is not to say that the photographer’s sessions with her animal models were all fun and games. Ledner—who owns three dogs, two cats and four rabbits, but does not frequently photograph her own pets—says that animal photography requires putting cuddliness aside. While people may get relaxed and happy with background music and a festive mood, quiet is important to help a dog (or a bird or a rabbit, as the case may be) maintain his concentration. Luckily, almost all of the animals that participated in TIME’s cover shoot were seasoned professionals. One dog named Billy had sat for Ledner twice in the past. The only non-professional at the session was the rabbit, who was, in fact, a real friend of Billy’s. “The rabbit was so docile. It would let the dog put its head smack dab on top of it. There was just total trust between these animals,” says Ledner. And the photographer was hardly upset about shooting an amateur model: “The bunny’s only six weeks old—and how can you be a pro bunny?”
Catherine Ledner is an American photographer based in California and author of two books: Animal House and Glamour Dogs. See more here.
Read more in the magazine: The Science of Animal Friendships.