The Internet is an amazing thing and its ability to disseminate images and information around the world, often in real time, means that anything that is genuinely new, innovative and exciting finds itself being forwarded and shared so quickly that, in no time at all, it's gone viral and pretty much everyone is in on the story. You hear about this kind of thing all the time, but what's it like when it actually happens to you, and the pictures that everyone is talking about are from a personal project you've been working on?
Los Angeles-based animal photographer Seth Casteel is in a good position to answer that particular question, because his images of underwater dogs have become the talk of the web over the past few months. Back on February 9 a selection of his underwater dog images landed on Reddit, Facebook, Google+ and then Warholian, overnight becoming one of the hottest trends amongst viewers on at least five or six continents.
This sudden turn of events has seen Seth elevated from a position where he was running his very successful Little Friends pet photography business and catering by and large for a local audience to the point where his pictures are now hot currency around the world. On the back of his success he's appeared on, or in, most of the major American news publications from The New York Times through to Good Morning America, a book is in the offing and he's got more commissions than you can shake a stick at coming his way from a host of international clients.
It's been a spectacular turnaround, and Seth himself sounds as though he can still barely believe it. "I got started in pet photography as a volunteer," he says, "snapping photos of homeless kittens to help get them adopted. Then I started working with dogs and cats at the local animal shelter. Through this work, I was commissioned to do a portrait for a private client's mastiff and things just built up from there."
Dogs in particular have always been Seth's passion, and he enjoys being around them, understands them and revels in the fact that he's paid to spend time with them. "I love dogs," he says simply. "I always have. That's the most important thing - I love my work. Dogs inspire me. On the technical side, I've had to figure out the secrets of photographing unpredictable subjects in a variety of environments, but I do this largely by asking the dog's owner a few questions about the dog's lifestyle. Together, we then choose a location, I show up and we see what happens. I never like to plan anything out too much. I like elements of uncertainty."
This love of the unknown was what lay behind Seth's first underwater experiments, although there was a little bit of serendipity involved as well. "I was photographing a little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Buster one day," he says, "and we were meant to do an 'on-land' shoot in his backyard, but he decided he would play in the pool the entire time. Watching him jump in time after time after a sinking tennis ball, it occurred to me that I needed to see what that looked like from underwater!"
With the idea firmly implanted in his head Seth went out and bought an underwater housing for his Canon EOS 7D and wide-angle lens combo and he was all set to go. Technical details about focal length, housing type and nuts-and-bolts technique are being kept deliberately hazy due to an impending book deal, while all Seth will reveal about his lighting right now is that it's 'secret', with a lighting contraption that will hopefully produce some super wild and crazy shots' likewise being kept under wraps until his book appears this autumn.
What Seth will reveal, however, is that a huge amount of patience is involved in order to get the timing spot on and to ensure that the dogs jump into the water at the right spot. "In some cases the dogs are only a few inches away from my housing," he says, "and by using wide-angle lenses it allows the viewer to feel that they are right there in the heart of the action. I tend to use swimming pools in different cities across the country for my photo shoots, and my most recent trip took me to Chicago, Orlando, Philadelphia, Houston, Austin, Phoenix, Havasu City, Las Vegas, Orange County and LA. The pools I use can vary a great deal: this time around it was mostly ones that were privately owned, but occasionally I'll also use pools that are there to provide hydrotherapy facilities for dogs. Not all dogs like the water, so I only work with ones that I know will enjoy taking part in the shoot."
The worldwide reaction to the posting of Seth's images was immediate and overwhelming. An album of photographs from his underwater dogs series that was posted to Facebook quickly garnered 30,000 'likes' and was shared almost 22,000 times. The Little Friends website, which typically was handling around 200 visitors a day, suddenly found itself overloaded with more than 100,000 daily visitors. Meanwhile, in addition to orders for prints, which Seth says ensured he "woke up to a bunch of money in his bank account," there were quickly nearly one thousand inquiries for private client shoots from all over the world.
"I didn't really know what to think," he says. "I was super confused and obviously excited. The underwater shots were already out on the Internet, but one day someone posted a photo on a new avenue, and BAM.
"When someone tells me " over 300 million people have seen your photos" I can't even understand that! Life is good right now, and I've found myself facing an unlimited number of business opportunities. I can go to any city in the US and quite a few countries around the world and accept as many commissioned photo shoots as I'd like to. And of course, the book deal that's been offered to me is amazing!
"This has also been an incredible opportunity to further the work of my non-profit making organisation: Second Chance Photos - Saving Pets Through Photography. I can use the exposure of the underwater shots to promote the importance of photography and marketing within animal shelters to help improve the image of rescue and adoption in the US and elsewhere."
With the worldwide interest in his work building rapidly, Seth was astute enough to realise that he needed help to make the most of this unexpected opportunity, and he employed a licensing and PR firm, Tandem, Stills + Motion, to ensure that his new-found profile was put to good use. Crucial to the deal was the fact that the agency was smaller and more client-focused: "If I had been with Getty or Corbis it would have been a mess."
Print sales, which start at $35 and go up to $500, have been brisk and there will be new limited edition images released to coincide with the launch of the Underwater Dogs book in October. Seth has also raised his prices for shoots, but he's been careful not to get too carried away. His on-land photos shoots went from $375 to $450 for an hour, while an underwater shoot, which can take several hours, now starts at $995.
So, what now for a photographer who has found overnight fame in the most unexpected of fashions? "I'm going to be expanding the efforts of Second Chance Photos," he says, "and I'll be teaching many Shelter Pet Photography Workshops in the months ahead: I can't wait! I am also super excited that a portion of the book profits will support an official Shelter Pet Photography Tour across the US and hopefully beyond. We're also hoping to raise enough money to be able to donate new cameras and lenses to shelters in need."
With all that going on plus two dogs of his own - a Labradoodle and a Norwich Terrier - to take care of and a host of new commissions to tackle, Seth is going to be amazingly busy for the foreseeable future, and right now he couldn't be happier about the prospect.
Los Angeles-based Seth Casteel specialises in lifestyle pet photography and is a volunteer at animal shelters across the US
Taken from the July 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine