Photographer Randal Ford has photographed over 100 animals up close and in person and has no plans on stopping. Why would he? These are some fascinating creatures that we share this planet with and so anytime we can interact with them, its probably a good thing. They are also super cute!
When asked why he wanted to photograph animals, he quoted from his book
Over 40,000 years ago, we began to depict animals in cave drawings. Throughout history, mankind’s consistent portrayal of animals in art is a testament to the importance of our connection with the animal kingdom. As mankind evolved, so did our artwork. We began to not only depict, but personify animals. We began to see our human emotions in animals. This anthropomorphism or personification connected us to animals on a deeper and more emotional level. This collection is my perspective and portrayal of the animal kingdom. As a portrait photographer, my intention is for these animal portraits to speak to you. What they say depends on the conscious and subconscious feelings you embody.
By photographing each subject in studio on a neutral background, I am creating a portrait that is focused on the animal only. This deconstructive approach to portraiture allows you to experience the creature in a way otherwise not possible. Through this language of simplistic portraiture, these photographs are aimed to elicit an emotion in you.
Whether it’s beauty, power, or humor, I want to give animals the opportunity to tell their story and to connect with you.
Ford is a portrait artist at the core of his photography, so these animals are rooted in classical portraiture, inspired by the greats like Richard Avedon. Animals can be and quite often are majestic so to see them come across this way via the camera lens is really gorgeous!
In order to capture these images, it’s important that all the groundwork be laid in advance. Meaning, he will need to have communication with the animals owner, not the animal itself even if that might make for a fascinating article, prior to the shoot to discuss what he is aiming to achieve. As for the shot he hopes to achieve, typically its a headshot showcasing the animals personality. As mentioned above, while on set he needs to be ready and prepared to capture anything and everything that an animal may give him. He may only get one split second for that perfect portrait.
Obviously, access to the animals is a challenge with a project as large as this. He has worked with rescue facilities, zoos, private animal owners, or farm working animals (i.e. horses, cows, chickens). They come from a range of sources and he worked closely with a team of producers to find the right animals and has gone to great lengths to ensure those animals were living in a great environment and being treated with the utmost respect for their well being. For example, the Cheetah on the back of the book was photographed at an amazing sanctuary called Cat Haven near Dunlap, CA and they are donating a portion of the proceeds to Cat Haven as a way to give back and create more awareness.
Some of the animals he shot were photographed in a traditional studio with a painted cyc and cover while others were shot on location where he brought the lighting setup to them. Regardless, he utilizes lighting to create a consistent, timeless aesthetic.
Finally, not exactly a production or tactical note, but Ford mentions that all the animals have names. He believes that this is a crucial part of the intention to connect the animals with the audience. By including the animals name and story in the book, it further humanizes and heroicizes them to bring the readers further into their story. The descriptions and names for all the animals are included at the back of the book and at randalford.art. For examples, Highland Cow No. 1 is named Gertrude and The Young Lion with his mane growing in is named Jabari which means brave. By including the name, boundaries of the story and connection with the audience are pushed.
Ford believes that a portrait is a collaboration between subject and artist. Without collaboration from subjects on both sides of the camera, it would be impossible to create these unique portraits. Therefore he has to work and communicate with both the animal itself and typically the animals owner or trainer.
His process starts with photographing the animal in studio and crafting lighting that is simple but executed exceptionally well. In order to show off the animal well without any distractions, the backgrounds in his portraits are all in neutral colors.
“During the shooting process, it is not uncommon that an animal gives you just a glimpse of it’s personality. My need to stay on point and focused is imperative in capturing that split second when an animal reveals itself. To finish the process, I apply a simple treatment of dodging and burning to the image in post production. These subtle adjustments to color and contrast allow me to further push the image to a place that is tactile while at the same time soft and aesthetically pleasing. And of course, these are animals. We love them, we respect them, but we cannot control them. It’s up to them to decide the story being told. And at the end of the day, if the photo Mother Nature shines down upon us, we get to see just a brief glimpse into their soul.”
Without intending to be too lengthy or to deviate too much from the core point of this article, I’d like to highlight the below sampling of the forward from Dan Winters on Ford's works. There are some great analogies found within and its just a really enjoyable read!
As a portrait photographer of thirty plus years, I make my living with my ability to identify nuance in facial expressions and body language as it applies to human beings. It is a necessary skill, as my portrayal of the sitter does not manifest itself out of the ether. It must be coaxed then captured through careful direction, observation, and decisive reactions. Shared language is used to communicate my intent and achieve the desired results. Upon viewing Mr. Ford’s photographs for the first time, I was briefly taken aback, as the primary tool of a portrait photographer—shared language— does not apply to his images, and yet, they appear to be borne of consensual dialogue and collaboration.
The beautiful organisms that have graced Mr. Ford’s lens give us a glimpse into a world in which creatures that are often marginalized stand proudly before us.
Wild animals are most often seen in their natural habitats; however, in these photographs they are isolated from the confines of their prosaic environment and elevated through composition and lighting into the sacred forms that they truly are. This use of the studio environment, which eliminates environmental context, acts in the same way that a portrait photographer uses a studio setting to isolate a human subject—this is one aspect of Mr. Ford’s photographs that I find so alluring. Through a mastery of his craft, Mr. Ford has succeeded in removing the filter of our projection and preexisting notions and channeled genuine relatable emotion.
The physiognomy of each creature is elusive to us. Human cues don’t necessarily translate. We are, thus, handicapped by our inability to recognize and process a complicated set of visual expressions possessed by a life-form not of our species. We have been choked to near-death by Disney-type portrayals of animalia that we lack the ability to see them through any set of filters than those that we have absorbed through our culture. These exquisite photographs go well beyond anthropomorphism. We feel genuine emotion that provides us a cathartic connection. Mr. Ford has also given us a sacred gift. He has acted as an avatar, and through his efforts, he has allowed us to experience these beasts of the field with an intimacy that is reserved for a select few.
He has conjured a world in which these creatures not only inhabit the same plane but also exist with us as equals. As a result, we respond not with fear but, instead, with wonderment.
- 4 Broncolor MOVE Packs, each with 1 dedicated head.
(Ford uses Broncolor MOVE packs for their super short flash durations which allows me to perfectly freeze just about any movement the animal displays.)
- 1 Elinchrom Large Octabank (key light for large animals)
- 1 Elinchrom Deep Throat Octabank (key light for small animals)
- 2 Medium Softboxes if needed for large animals to fill the sides
- 1 Large Chimera Octabank if needed for large animals to fill frontal shadows
Ford’s camera setup is a Nikon D850 with Sigma ART Lenses. He believes that the Sigma ART lenses’ sharpness, color rendition, contrast and detail are superior to other lenses on the market including Nikon and Zeiss. The Sigma 50mm 1.4 ART Lens, paired with a Nikon D810 or D850 provides a file that has the equivalent detail, dynamic range, tonality, and crispness that medium format does - but without the sluggish medium format camera.
Almost all of Ford’s animal photographs are lit generally the same. He uses a key light camera right, ¾ up, so similar to a Rembrandt style lighting and then he fills in the shadows as needed. Ford strongly believes that less is more with lighting and he aims to achieve an aesthetic that is timeless, not trendy.
However, because of the varying size difference of his subjects, there are differences made to adjust accordingly. An example is the image he shot of an elephant. Ford explains, “Because of the size of the elephant I couldn't light this one as simply as the smaller animals but it's still similar in theory. I have a large soft source coming from camera right. This is a 20x20 Silk shooting 4 umbrellas through to create a nice soft source. On both sides of camera I am using an Octabank to act as a fill light so I can control the shadows. Above the elephant we are using a bleached muslin and bouncing 3 heads into that to create a soft even top down fill. So we basically have a large key light, two fill sources, and a subtle hair light. In theory, only 3 light sources.”
Behind the scenes video gives a lot of idea of how he use the lighting described.
Quoting from the closing from Ford’s book with his acknowledgements:
“I couldn’t produce the images I’m able to capture without the collaboration of the dedicated animal lovers that I have had the privilege of working with. I also couldn’t do it without the hard working photo assistants and producers I work with throughout this process. The final step in the creation of these photograph is retouching and am grateful to Amber Politi for all of her help digitally cleaning up the backgrounds and animals so they look their absolute best.
I am grateful to DJ Stout of Pentagram Design. 10 Years ago, the renowned designer, first hired me to photograph a series of dairy cow portraits. That cold and rainy day inside a barn in the middle of Texas was the inception of this animal portrait collection. The image of Shirley, opposite this page, was a highlight from that shoot. Thank you to Carla Delgado of Pentagram design who has spent countless hours with my work and the design of this book. And thank you to the publishing team at Rizzoli New York who saw the uniqueness and potential of my animal portrait collection.
Most importantly, without the amazing work of Divine Mother Nature, I wouldn't have such interesting and beautiful subjects to connect with. Despite having photographed over 100 animals up close and in person, I still marvel at the beauty of God’s animal kingdom.”
Ford isn’t the first or only photographer who has shot animals on white or black backgrounds. However, he believes that his works are fine art and stand out in its ability to elicit an emotional connection with the viewer. Further elaborating, “ What that connection becomes depends on the conscious and subconscious feelings a viewer embodies. These are portraits of animals, not documentary photographs taken in a pseudo-studio setting hoping to capture something. They are very conscious compositions and anthropomorphisms of the animals aimed at connecting with you.”
While many other photographers who work on similar projects focus on wild animals or animals that are in danger of extinction, Ford photographs everything from lions, tigers, and bears to chickens, cows, horses, and goats — all with an intention of fine art portrayals.
Finally, part of his project is naturally aimed at awareness for the beautiful animals in this world. But conservation isn’t the primary purpose — many others have done that already. His primary purpose are the readers. It’s about being able to connect the readers with these animals on an emotional level and a deeper appreciation for their soul.
All images used with permission of Randal Ford