words by Sheri Baer
As she leads the pack of humans and four-legged pets winding up a trail at Menlo Park’s Bedwell Bayfront Park, Andrea Ou carries a hefty backpack of camera equipment, but it’s the accessories around her neck that really catch the eye. Or, more accurately, the ear.
“I wear as many as six whistles,” she explains, gesturing to the dangling assortment bouncing off the front of her terracotta-colored bib overalls. “This one is a squirrel call,” she says. “This one’s a mouse squeaker, and…” Andrea lifts a whistle to her mouth and blows. ‘Waak!’ a gutteral sound emerges, causing a Labradoodle named Teddi to whip her head in Andrea’s direction. “This one is a duck call.”
Observing Teddi’s interest, Andrea tucks that piece of valuable intel away. As we walk to a scenic vantage point, she casually studies Teddi’s habits, noting as the dog sniffs blades of grass and when her eyes track a bird in flight.
Understanding what motivates a dog is essential to Andrea’s success. “You have to learn about different breeds of dogs,” she shares. “Some, like sighthounds, don’t respond to noises, so you need to have quick movements with a toy or something to get them to look, to get their ears to come up.”
Yes, Andrea confirms, many pups can be enticed by tasty tidbits, but if you give them too many, she cautions, they will look tense because they’re so focused on the treats. “You need to learn about the dog and see what gets them going and work with that,” she says. “The key thing is knowing how to make a dog happy and relaxed so the photos will translate to a happy, relaxed dog.”
For Andrea, that’s the point of it all. As a professional dog photographer, her only goal is to capture the spirit of our canine companions—those loyal, devoted gazes, ridiculously goofy grins and tongue-hanging pants—with the rapid click of a shutter.
Andrea doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t thinking about dogs. Originally born in San Francisco, she grew up in Taiwan, where her earliest memories were of the stray dogs in the streets. “I remember the adults telling me, ‘Don’t go near them. They’ll bite you!’ But I was never afraid to approach them; they had very kind eyes.”
To ensure a better education for their children, Andrea’s parents sent Andrea and her brother to live with family on the Peninsula. She arrived in Hillsborough at the age of 10, speaking only Mandarin Chinese. She laughs thinking back on the sign-ups to meet a volunteer requirement in middle school. “I knew the word ‘dog,’ so when I saw ‘Dog Show,’ I thought, ‘Perfect!’ The actual title was ‘pooper scooper,’ but I didn’t know what that meant. When I got there, they handed me a brush and dustbin and all this dry hay.” Despite the ignoble nature of the assignment, Andrea recalls that she still enjoyed the experience “because I got to be next to all these dogs.”
After graduating from Burlingame High School, Andrea attended Parsons School of Design in New York, envisioning a career in art and design. She discovered that she loved the storytelling aspect of making movies and followed her first bachelor of fine arts degree with a BFA in film from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
While working in documentary film production in Los Angeles, Andrea noticed Zoom Room, a dog training facility, immediately across the street. At the time, she had a West Highland White Terrier (her fourth of five dogs), and she signed up to take classes with her Westie named Don-Don. “I had so much fun,” she says, “and I kept thinking how much the Peninsula would benefit from having a facility like this.”
As much as Andrea enjoyed filmmaking, her love of dogs prevailed as the stronger calling. After going through extensive training, she opened a Zoom Room franchise in Belmont. Her instincts were right on target—the business flourished. But after three years, the intense physicality and long hours had worn Andrea down. She sold the business and took time off to travel and explore with her husband, Ivano Gaggé: “We took these long-
distance hiking trips to calm the mind, and I was trying to imagine how I could combine my two passions, art and design—storytelling—with dogs.”
It was her cousin, a fellow dog lover, who identified a profession with the perfect blending of skills: a dog photographer. “She said, ‘This can be an actual career, not just a hobby, if you treat it right,’” recounts Andrea. “So I grabbed my camera again and found I really enjoyed it. I thought, ‘This is amazing. I’m with dogs, and this time, I’m creating art.’”
Andrea found a photography mentor and signed up for a variety of online classes. Through her training background and volunteer work at shelters, she found a steady supply of practice models to help her perfect her new craft.
“When I began photographing dogs, I started out standing,” she recalls. “Then I started squatting and realized, ‘Man, it’s still not low enough.’ So now, you’ll see I am lying down on the floor all the time, belly-down—that’s the way to get good angles.”
On the technical side, Andrea also learned how to work fast. “Dogs don’t know how to not move,” she points out. “They’re always moving—they’re looking at a squirrel, they see a bird or they smell something. You have to be really quick with your focus.”
When Andrea officially launched her dog photography business in 2016, the name Paws & Play Studio resonated as the obvious choice. “When we become adults, we don’t really play anymore, and it’s so sad,” she notes. “Dogs love to play, so being around dogs, they remind me to pause (paws) and play because we all need to play more.”
Andrea built up her new business through word-of-mouth, along with active Facebook and Instagram accounts. She says clients come to her with a range of motivations. “I now see myself as a family photographer because I’m capturing family life,” she says. That means everything from new puppies to milestone birthdays to senior stages and end of life. “Our dogs just don’t live as long as we do,” she acknowledges, misting up at the thought of her own past pups. “I understand the pain. Clients will come to me when their dogs are ill or getting old, and I’ll break down and cry with them. Even though it’s sad, it’s so rewarding to be able to capture the souls of their dogs, so they can always look back at that sweet moment in time.”
Making their home in San Mateo, Andrea and Ivano welcomed their daughter, Mina, in 2019, and Andrea now balances a mix of private clients and commercial work—lifestyle images including apparel, collars and harnesses. With year-round good weather, the Peninsula offers the perfect range of backdrops for photo shoots: “It’s a 15- to 20-minute drive to the coast or I can go out to the Bay or up to San Francisco. We also have a wide variety of architecture, from the more classic look of Stanford University to modern high-rises in the City. There are plenty of hiking trails for nature lovers, plus my favorite little gem in Palo Alto: Elizabeth Gamble Garden.”
Before going into a session, Andrea makes sure to learn everything she can about a dog—and what the client is seeking to get. Action shots, posed or candid? Just the dog (or dogs) or the entire family? Training is helpful but far from essential—Photoshopping out leashes is a primary skill of the profession. It’s also important for Andrea to understand how the client sees their dog. “Oftentimes, the photo I like the most is not what the owners like because they want the dog to look like the dog they know,” she says, “and I like the ones where the dog looks the most visually pleasing to me.” The final deliverable also varies—ranging from wall art and photo albums to desk prints and digital images.
Andrea appreciates that she’s able to support animal rescue organizations through her work. Specializing in calendar contests, she raised over $13,000 for Copper’s Dream Animal Rescue last year and her current initiative will benefit Love and Second Chances. “I love dogs because they are so pure,” she says, glancing with a smile at her five-year-old Westie Otto. “They don’t hide anything. You can look at them and know how they’re feeling.”
Back at Bedwell Bayfront Park, the photo shoot is underway in a grassy open field overlooking the salt marshes. Andrea has fully bonded with Teddi and delicious beef liver treats are clearly big incentives too. When Andrea shouts, “Teddi come!,” Teddi jets straight toward Andrea’s rapidly-clicking shutter, eager for yummy snacks and cuddles. “I just want to spoil all the dogs,” she laughs, as Teddi enthusiastically licks her face. “When I was a trainer, if a dog jumped on me, I had to turn my back and say, ‘Off!’ and ignore them. But as a photographer, when they jump on me, I don’t care. It’s ok if I spoil them a little.”
Standing up after facing Teddi eye-to-eye in a flat-out position, Andrea brushes off smudges and grass from her overalls. “I’m always on the ground,” she grins. “When I come back from a shoot with dirt all over me, I’m happy.
Andrea’s Top Dog Photography Tips
1. Get low. We want to be at our dog’s eye level or even lower to make them the true heroes of the image. Not ready to lie down on dirt? Then elevate them by having them sit on a rock, a bench or whatever you can find.
2. Work fast. Dogs are always on the move, so you should be too. That said, patience goes a long way when photographing dogs. Just let them admire the birds instead of fighting for their attention. The birds will fly away eventually—and you can admire them too in the meantime.
3. Have fun! Make the photo session fun by using your dog’s favorite treats (or toys if they’re more motivated by play). Think of the shutter as a reward clicker: Press the shutter and treats will follow. This way they will always be happy to model for you.
4. Set the mood. If your dog is happy and relaxed, she will look happy and relaxed in the photo. I would say this is the most important tip—making sure our dogs are enjoying themselves.
5. Capture attention. Use “keywords” you know your dog will always respond to to get him to look at the camera. For example, my dog always responds to “Hi, Abby!” because Abby is his best friend. I frame my shot and say the keyword when I’m 100% ready to take the photograph. Since we’re tricking our dogs, I would use this tip sparingly.