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AIM was AMAZING! My Personal Experience at the Animal Image Makers Conference

Being a photographer can often be a lonely job. While you might get to work with people during a session, many of us spend more of our time doing one of the countless unseen tasks required to run a photography business. Those of us who work from home can sometimes feel isolated. While internet friends and social media can help to keep one feeling connected, these kinds of relationships lack the personal connection that comes from actually being with people face to face.

Cultivating those personal relationships was one of the main reasons that I was so excited to attend the first ever Animal Image Makers (AIM) conference recently sponsored by the Twin Cities Professional Photographers Association. AIM was the brainchild of photographer Lisa Asp of Tangerine House of Design. Lisa’s vision was to bring together animal photographers from all over the world to share their love of creating images of all things animal. Her vision came together this past week as hundreds of animal photographers from all over the world gathered in Minneapolis to learn from some of the best in the business, to share ideas and to build the kind of lasting friendships that only come from spending time with people face to face.

The list of speakers was phenomenal! If I could have been in two rooms at the same time, I would not have missed a single one! But alas, I could not, so I made my choices based on my areas of interest, my experience level and whether I had previously heard a speaker elsewhere. The only disappointing thing about AIM was that I couldn’t hear everyone!

I believe that continuing education is key to growing as an artist and as a businessperson. I find that I get the most out of smaller classes so I decided to take two of the pre-convention classes. I started off the morning on Saturday with a class by Amy Johnson of Great Dane Photo. “Chase the Dog” offered fabulous insight into the world of photographing dog sports. As the official photographer of AKC national agility events, Amy really knows her stuff. I went into the class knowing that the high volume business model of dog sports photography would not be a fit for my mission at Artful Paws, but I wanted to learn more about how Amy captures such amazing action shots. I came away from the class with some new skills that I can apply to my clients who want images of their dog’s more active side.

Saturday afternoon I chose to take a class with Alex Cearns of Houndstooth Studio in Western Australia. I have known Alex for some time through a number of online photography groups, but had never had the chance to meet her in person and was thrilled that she was able to make the journey from half way around the world to be at AIM. I have always admired Alex’s gift for capturing the inner soul of the animals she photographs. What I learned about her on Saturday is that she is also a brilliant business person who is driven by her passion for giving back to animals through her work with rescue organizations around the world. I also learned that Alex is a riot! In both her class and her presentation on Monday evening, Alex kept us entertained with her amazing images as well as her incredible wit and gift for story telling. I had so much fun listening to her!

While I was tired from traveling and a full day of classes, I was glad I did not skip the opening party! It was fun to watch the dogs walk the red carpet during the couture dog fashion show and to hang out and talk with people.  It was here that I caught up with two of my colleagues from the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, Emily Korff of Veralana Photography and Rosann Colovos. While all three of us volunteer at the same shelter, I had never really gotten to know either of them personally since we would only cross paths for a few minutes at a time. Emily’s main photography business is children and newborns. Rosann volunteers with Emily and handles dogs for her photo sessions at the shelter. I was so touched that they both traveled half way across the country to learn more about how to help the shelter animals and I was so glad that I got to spend time getting to know them better.

On Monday morning we were treated to the keynote presentation by the colorful duo of Kaylee Greer and Sam Haddix. Kaylee shared her incredible journey from shelter photographer to world famous dog photographer with her own TV show on National Geographic. She encouraged us to stand out from the crowd by building a style that is easily recognizable and to put in the hard work that it takes to make good things happen!

Monday afternoon continued the learning. The amazingly talented Sandra Pearce showed us how she creates her beautiful digital paintings. While she made it look easy, I know it will take a lot more learning and a whole lot of practice to even approach the level of skill and artistry that Sandra brings to her work.

Next it was Sarah Ernhart sharing how she works with the challenges of photographing terminally ill dogs in her Joy Sessions. I have photographed a number of end of life sessions myself. They are some of the hardest sessions because they are so emotional. But at the same time, it is extremely rewarding to provide a client with memories that they will treasure even after their beloved animal is gone. I really admire Sarah for being able to do so many of these wonderful sessions. She is doing something extraordinarily special for her clients!

Unfortunately, the drawback for me with conventions is that my back does not do well with sitting for long periods of time, especially in those meeting room chairs. I could only manage to attend one session on Monday. I was so glad I was able to see Kerry Weiss present her equine photography. The passion she brings to her work is just incredible. She took us on an emotional journey from laughing to crying to marveling at the beauty of the horses she photographs and the love between an owner and a horse that she is able to so artfully portray.

For me, one of the highlights of the whole convention was listening to Canon Explorer of Light Charles Glatzer and hearing about how he created some of his breathtaking wildlife images.  Charles was not only witty and entertaining; he shared a wealth of knowledge on how to best capture the spectacular moments that unfold so quickly in front of the camera when photographing wildlife. While I don’t think I am willing to brave the sub-zero temperatures in which some of his images are captured, I am excited to practice some of what I learned and put it to use on my upcoming trip to Africa!

My last day of AIM began with Kristy Steeves who demonstrated her techniques for posing people in the most flattering ways. We were treated to a live demo where she demonstrated posing a family with a dog, their young son and his puppy as well as his turtles! Kristy is a pro when it comes to bringing out the best in people!

At the tradeshow we had the opportunity to visit with a number of vendors and see some great products. While I had told myself I wasn’t going to buy anything, I caved and ended up getting a reflector and soft box from Sweetlight Systems. John Snow was awesome. He went the extra mile by having me send him pictures of my studio equipment so he could help me solve an issue I was having. Because of John’s great service and genuine desire to help me, I will be a Sweetlight customer for life!

The final presentation brought an inspirational message from the sensational Barbara Breitsameter. Barb challenged us to bring out our inner creative spirit and shared all kinds of ways to get the creative juices flowing. Barb’s quirky, out of the box humor as well as her exceptional talent combine to make her work second to none. Most photographers can only dream of creating the kind of images she creates, and the fact that she can do it with Parkinson’s disease is truly inspirational. Barb has been my teacher and mentor for the past several years and I am not only honored to be her student but to also call her my dear friend!

On the last evening all of the attendees gathered for a final dinner and the award ceremony for the first ever AIM print competition. The Minneapolis Hilton did a great job with the service and food. The dinner was one of the better convention meals I have had.

Since I was in classes, I missed seeing the competition images as they were being judged. A huge thank you to all of the judges who spent a long day judging over four hundred images that were submitted in 7 different categories. Judges are truly special people who volunteer their time to help others learn.

It was such a treat to see all of the winning images. I was thrilled and honored to be among the winners as one of my images took “Best Cat Image” and a “Judge’s Choice” award. I can’t post the image yet as I will be entering it in the International Photographic Competition this summer, but I am excited to share it once that judging is finished.

AIM was hands down the best convention I have ever attended in any industry! Not only did Lisa and her team put together a fabulous educational opportunity; they also paid attention to every little detail to make sure that their guests were happy and enjoying the conference. Most of all, they provided the opportunity for animal photographers from all over the world to come together and share, laugh, cry and learn with others who share their passion. It was amazing to catch up with good friends I have made along the way and to finally meet up in person with so many that I had previously only known online.  A huge THANK YOU to Lisa and her entire team of volunteers who put their heart and soul into making AIM the most amazing convention ever! I can’t wait for next year!


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