On an idyllic evening last week, as the sun set over the golden fields of Woldumar Nature Center, photographer Cheryl Baase coaxed a lumbering, 120 pound English mastiff onto a rustic cabin porch. Charlie, a 12-year-old gentle giant, is dying of lung cancer. The dog and its owners are there for a “Forget-Me- Not” session with Baase to capture some final photos while he is still alive.
“Busy families have pets, but they get family pictures done, and they get pictures of their kids done, and they never think about getting pictures of their pets,” Baase explained. “And then the pet passes away, and they feel bad because they don’t have any pictures of their pet.”
Baase is owner of Express Yourself Unleashed Photography, a business dedicated solely to dog photography. The photography packages listed on her website, expressyourselfbycheryl.com, include “Puppy Breath,” to capture a dog’s early years, the “The Drool” package for people with multiple pets and the end-of-life “Forget-Me-Not” session. Baase never planned on becoming a professional photographer. She stumbled into it while volunteering at an animal shelter.
“In order for dogs to get adopted, you need to have really good pictures,” she said. “So I’d chase them around on hands and knees to get good photos to post and find them homes. And it escalated from there.” Baase, 59, recently retired to focus on photography after 35 years working for a lobbying firm. Before retiring, she worked a desk job during the day and pursued photography on evenings and weekends.
Photo by Cheryl Baase/Express Yourself Unleashed Photography
“I would work from seven to four every day, then I’d come home and strap my camera on and go out to do what I loved doing,” she said.
For a while, Baase did the typical photographer gigs — weddings, newborns, pregnancy shoots, etc. — but eventually realized that pet photography is her real passion. About a year ago she rebranded to focus on capturing canine companions.
“My motto is ‘Where dogs are loved and people are tolerated,”’ she said with a laugh.
And while she got there by following her heart, focusing on dogs has proven to be a pretty good business decision. During her busy season, from early summer to Christmas, Baase said she has sessions booked six or seven days a week.
“Right now, there’s a photographer on every street corner,” she said. “But dog photography — there really aren’t any in the area, so I figured it was an open market for me. I keep pretty busy.”
She’s also found that interest in dog-centric products and services is as high as it’s ever been.
“I know so many people who don’t have children or can’t have children, so these dogs are their children,” she said. “The dog industry right now, with doggie daycare and everything — people take their dogs to daycare just like they would take a kid to preschool.”
Baase continues to volunteer at the Eaton County Humane Society in Olivet, where new director Holly Thoms recruited her to take photos of dogs up for adoption.
“We take the dogs into town and do a photo shoot,” Baase said. “And she’s kept the shelter empty because of those photos. You can take a picture on an iPhone and put it on Petfinder or whatever, but if you do something really special — people tell me I manage to capture the souls of these dogs, and that helps them find good homes.”
While many sessions are straightforward, Baase finds some time for fun. She barters with some dog trainer friends to get free training sessions for her pups in exchange for photo shoots. One of the trainers has a well-trained Jack Russell terrier named Stewart that is often recruited for outside-the-box ideas.
“She lets us dress him up and do funny sessions,” she said. “A local magazine was doing a story on veterinarians, and they wanted a fun cover shot, so we dressed Stewart up as a little doctor and took him to a vet’s office.”
So far, Baase has no regrets about making the shift to canine-exclusive photography.
“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”