Setters in the spotlight
Barbara Young meets award-winning animal photographer Kirsty Bevan, whose Kennel Club Setter Project exhibition celebrates the appeal of this “vulnerable” gundog breed.
It comes as no surprise when Kirsty Bevan tells you that she has been obsessed with animals for “as long as I can remember”. It’s obvious from the moment you meet her that she has an exceptional affinity with all creatures great and small.
However, there’s an extra special place in her heart for the gundog breed of setters and it’s easy to see why.
These glamorous canine bundles of furry fun are stunning to look at, and setters have also proved to be loyal and loving companions – so it is saddening to hear that their popularity has severely dwindled over the years.
According to The Kennel Club, three out of four of the setter breeds are now on the club’s Vulnerable Native Breed list, with fewer than 300 puppies being registered each year.
It is these statistics which led Kirsty to set her sights on helping to highlight the plight of the breed through her photographic expertise and passion for setters.
“As a child I grew up with Irish Red Setters in our family, so it was only natural that I formed a love for the breeds. For me it’s how loving, yet independent setters are – they are also incredibly smart, and they know it!”
As a committed dog owner and animal lover, 24-year-old Kirsty runs her own successful animal photography business, aptly named Furreal Photography, which she launched in 2020.
Her reputation has grown quickly and last year Kirsty photographed 356 animals, either in her purpose-built Coningsby studio or on location in owners’ homes.
Needless to say, she is also the proud owner of two rather special rescue dogs – Murphy, an Irish Red Setter, and Katie, an English Setter – both of whom experienced a less than ideal start to life.
“I got Murphy in 2019 from Wales. He was just three years old and in very poor condition, having been neglected and with severe separation anxiety and barely any basic training,” explains Kirsty, who moved, to Lincolnshire with her parents 15 years ago.
“I then got Katie, who was nine months old, about a year later. She was born with an underbite and was going to be put to sleep by the breeder, but luckily the owner of the stud dog offered to take her.
“Katie had never stepped foot outside of her kennel before and was never trained – the day I picked her up to take her home was one of the first times Katie had ever been on a lead, so she’s been a lot of hard work to train, but we’re getting there!”
The Setter Project
It was Kirsty’s love of setters that fuelled a personal photography project that she undertook throughout 2022.
“My aim was to help raise awareness for these incredible breeds as three of the four setter breeds are at risk of dying out, so for me it was very important to raise and spread awareness.”
Kirsty says she visited many beautiful locations across the UK for the project, photographing more than 50 Irish Red Setters, English Setters, Gordon Setters and Irish Red and White Setters.
“The Setter Project was picked up by the Kennel Club, which wanted to feature my images in their photography library in London and I was absolutely thrilled when the exhibition finally went live in February.
“The photographs have also been published internationally and shared across many magazines and newspapers, so I’m hoping that I’ve helped spread the word about the setter breeds and that we don’t lose them, as they’re so incredible.”
Kirsty originally became interested in photography as a hobby when she studied Animal Care at Boston College, followed by an Equine Care and Management course at Lincoln College. Throughout her college studies, Kirsty owned more than 50 lizards and 200 tarantulas, and spent time taking photos of them with a camera gifted to her by her sister.
“Animals have always been my world – I’m a bit of an introvert and only really interact with people if there are animals involved. I struggle with making conversation if I can’t talk about my pets, or other people’s pets – or even better, if there are animals in the vicinity!
“I love the companionship that dogs offer and couldn’t imagine life without them – of course, that means I’m always covered in dog fur, but it’s a small price to pay!”
Kirsty says she also finds training rewarding too, especially when dogs are a little bit more difficult.
“There’s just something incredible about coming home after a long day and being greeted by your dogs who are just so excited to see you.”
After leaving college Kirsty decided to get a dog of her own and her passion to develop her photography skills soon followed.
“As Murphy was so poorly, we weren’t sure if he would pull through so I spent my time taking photos of him and documenting his recovery, which then led to friends and family asking me to take photos of their pets.
“Furreal Photography was officially born three years ago, although I’ve been a full-time pet photographer since early 2021 when I quit my day job working in a shop and bravely decided to take the plunge.”
Kirsty describes Furreal Photography as “contemporary pet photography for people whose pets ARE their family.”
When it comes to professional camera equipment, Kirsty currently uses a Nikon D500 and switches between two lenses – a 70-200mm for all outdoor portraiture and a 20mm lens for studio work.
She began entering competitions in 2022, and has gained more than 70 bronze, silver and gold placings in competitions, including Photographer of the Month seven times, as well as being chosen as a finalist in many international competitions. However, the icing on the cake was winning the title of British Pet Photographer of the Year 2022 at last year’s British Photography Awards with a photograph of her beloved Murphy.
In studio sessions Kirsty uses professional equipment to create soft, flattering lighting for portraits which perfectly capture the character and individuality of each animal.
“I will happily photograph any animal, and do love a challenge. My background in exotics means I’m also not afraid (and absolutely love) to photograph the weird and wonderful creatures, including tarantulas!
“My speciality is dogs, cats and horses, but if I had to pick a favourite it would be cats – simply because if you can get a cat to be relaxed around you, you’re onto a winner!
“Cats are the hardest to photograph as they can often be shy, but I allow them the time they need to come out of their shell and feel comfortable.
“As a pet owner myself, I know exactly how much your pets mean to you and my background in animal behaviour allows me to analyse body language and behaviour in the pets I work with. This means I can recognise when the pet is not comfortable, or is becoming tired, frustrated or bored.
“It’s very important to be able to recognise the subtle signs pets give us. I have a lot of patience and never, ever rush any of my clients’ pets to get photos – we take everything at the pet’s pace and if it becomes too stressful, we simply take a step back and allow the pet to calm down, or in some cases, end the photoshoot.”
Kirsty says all her sessions are super-relaxed, stress-free and created to suit each individual client’s pet.
“I’m naturally a very calm, neutral person with soft body language which also helps massively when I’m working with reactive or aggressive dogs, for example.
“I also never, under any circumstance, bombard a pet with strokes or cuddles – as much as the animal lover in me would love to – as I find it helps to keep them calmer. Of course, if they come up to me and show they’d like to be around me, or have some fuss, I happily oblige, but the most important thing is that everything is on the pet’s terms.”
Making a connection
Kirsty says that the most important thing when working with animals and preparing for a photo shoot is patience – and lots of it!
“Once you release the element of expectation from the pets you’re photographing, you’re able to take a step back and find ways to work with each pet as an individual.”
In terms of getting the best shot, Kirsty follows her main rule, taking shots from eye level or below as “ it creates a sense of connection and impact within the images”.
“Keeping it low to the ground and ensuring there is a foreground, midground and background to every photo creates the impact needed to connect to those looking at the image.”
Looking ahead Kirsty plans to continue creating bespoke artwork of people’s pets. She has recently partnered with Pupcakes Rescue, which specialises in rehoming dogs with complex behavioural needs, as well as the Broken Biscuits charity which works with paraplegic and other disabled pets.
“There’s something incredibly special about when my clients come to view their images and hearing the gasps of amazement, and often seeing the tears as their best friend’s images come up individually on the big screen.
“It makes everything worthwhile to know that the job I perform brings so much joy to people.
“My typical client is someone who, like me, views their pet as part of the family and who recognises just how incredible the bond we share with our pets really is!”
Kirsty’s exhibition is open to the public at The Kennel Club Art Gallery at 10 Clarges Street, Mayfair W1J 8AB, from Monday to Friday between 9.30am to 4.30pm until the end of May. For more information visit www.thekennelclub.org.uk/gallery
For more information about Kirsty Bevan and to book a session, visit www.furrealphotography.co.uk