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You’ve probably heard of Underwater Dogs, but did you know that the famous photo series started by accident? Photographer Seth Casteel used to wonder how he’d make his rent each month—until a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Buster entered his life. When Buster posed for him underwater in 2010, Casteel’s fortunes changed completely. He just didn’t know it right away.
After the shoot, he posted the photos on social media and his website, proud of the results. Still, “it didn’t have much of a reach back then and things were not really moving,” Casteel said when we interviewed him about his story. “I was getting great pictures but not monetizing it.”
Fast forward to 2012, when a fan posted one of his underwater dog shots on Reddit. It quickly became the No. 1 thread. “People went nuts,” Casteel said. Some of his other shots were then posted to Reddit and other social outlets and then, the media picked up on it. Things changed almost overnight. “People were emailing me my own photos and had no idea the pictures were mine. I woke up at 3 a.m. and people in Europe were calling me asking for an interview.”
His own website received about 100,000 hits in a few hours (and then crashed!)
Literary agents wanted to represent his book. “I’m like, what book?” Casteel said.
Basically every major U.S. publisher bid on the rights to what became Underwater Dogs. The whole time, he joked, he wondered, “what is even going on right now?” He signed with Little, Brown, and Company, and the book was published Oct. 23, 2012. It was a New York Times bestseller for 11 weeks.
Growing up in Decatur, Ill, Casteel’s family had a dachshund named Duchess. “I credit her with my passion for working with dogs and animals in general,” he said. The family lived on Dagmar Place, so they called her the Duchess of Dagmar.
He later moved to California, attended film school and took some classes in photography. After college, he worked for a movie studio, first in finance and then on the creative side, eventually working on 15 films.
Casteel picked up photography again to help coworkers with the community cats on the studio set who they were feeding and catching for spay/neuter. They snuck into the executive offices and took photos of the cats rolling around the furniture.
“I didn’t know a lot about cats or a lot about photography, especially photographing animals,” Casteel said. “We used the movie studio email network to blast out the photos to employees. It was uncertain what would happen to the kittens. Two days later, through the power of photography, they had homes.”
Casteel soon volunteered at the West Los Angeles animal shelter, taking photos of the dogs and cats every week to help get them adopted.
Along with volunteering at some shelters in Los Angeles, Casteel also started a part-time pet photography business and did commission work. All the while, he kept up his full-time studio job. “And then I lost my job and took a leap of faith,” Casteel said. “I asked myself if I should work in the movie business or work with animals.”
In the spring of 2009, he became a full-time volunteer and pet photographer. He booked commissions in various states and countries, which helped pay for his volunteer work at local shelters. He offered photography workshops for shelter staff and volunteers, teaching how to take better pictures of the animals so they could get adopted.
Some panic set in when the paychecks from Casteel’s full-time job ended. He worked around the clock trying to make his business successful, and then signed an agreement with Groupon to offer a 30-minute photo shoot with a pet at a location of customer’s choice. “The joke was on me because Groupon’s commission was high, but I still got a good opportunity to create pictures and to learn.”
Casteel’s first Groupon shoot was far away in Orange County. “At the same time that turned out to be the photo shoot that would change my entire life,” Casteel said, It was the shoot with Buster, his first and the aforementioned underwater dog model.
The shoot was supposed to be on land, but Buster quickly jumped in the pool. Casteel threw the ball, Buster dove in, and it continued.
However, the initial photos of Buster jumping off the side and swimming were not good enough for Casteel. “It was most exciting when the ball would dip down and Buster would go down and grab it and do it over again. So, I thought, ‘What does he look like under there?’ That was the picture right there. The real moment is what is going on underneath the surface.”
Casteel left the shoot, drove to the nearest mall, bought a hot pink point-and-shoot underwater camera and returned to shoot more photos.
“I put it on burst mode and just kept pressing the button, and I didn’t know if I was taking pictures or if they were looking good as I couldn’t figure out how to review the shots.”
Buster’s owner wasn’t happy, however. She wanted black-and-white portraits of a dry dog!
Underwater Dogs is Born
When Casteel got home and reviewed the photos, he found some great material.
Casteel called Jane, asking if he could continue working with Buster. She agreed, and so he went over every few weeks to try new things with Buster. He invested in underwater camera bags and housing and kept finetuning the concept and the photos.
Casteel has Buster’s face tattooed on his left arm in recognition of the dog who started it all. “He became sort of my teacher in terms of underwater dog photography,” he said. Buster’s skill and drive made him the perfect dog to work with.
Following the success of his underwater dogs’ photos, Casteel published eight additional books and has enjoyed editorial and commercial assignments with animals. For the past two seasons, he has hosted a dog adoption TV show called “Finding Fido,” on Z Living network.
“It’s kind of like House Hunters for rescue dogs,” Casteel said, as he matches families with the dogs.
It’s not always easy to photograph dogs, but these tips will help.
- Take pictures of what your dog likes to do. “I want to be excited because the dog is excited,” he said.
- “Take a ridiculous number of pictures,” which is easy to do with digital. The photo of Duncan the pug in Underwater Dogs took 2,000 tries to get the right shot (see it here on the cover of this jigsaw puzzle, top right).
- Casteel likes wide-angle shots. “Experiment with a fish-eye lens because you can feel like you’re right there with the dog.”
- Find motivation, which could be a certain toy or treats in which the dog is interested and engaged. “I show up with my toys, but I ask dog parents to bring their own bag of goodies. It could be the difference between no picture and a book cover shot.”
- Introduce the unexpected. An element of surprise is best. This could mean playing hide-and-seek with the dog. They’re surprised every time, which provides a moment to capture. “Dogs react in the moment, so they are 100 percent candid photos,” he said. “It can result in a great picture.”
Casteel is working on some new book projects and calendar concepts and continues working in television. “There are a couple other top-secret projects that may or may not have to do with dogs,” he said.
That doesn’t worry Nala, his own poodle mix. He rescued her from the Orange County Animal Shelter some years ago, and his grandma Jean, 97, adores her.
“I think t’s wonderful so many people treat their dogs as family,” Casteel said. “Dogs wouldn’t exist without humans, and we have a responsibility to care for them.”
Feature image: Seth Casteel