Friday, September 24, 2010


Sometimes we get lucky in life and end up right where we belong.

It all began in early spring of 2002. Me and my husband Kevin, and our four sons, had been living in my hometown, of South St. Paul, Minnesota, for the past ten years. We both had our work and the kids were more or less happy in school. We had moved there from our small farm in Hastings, Minnesota to be closer to Kevin’s job and our extended family. I loved our little rambler in town but as the traffic grew on our suburban street and it became unsafe for my youngest to play in the front yard, I began to yearn for a place in the country to call our own.

And then there were the horses.  I had been horseless for a short time before that, and I became very depressed. I thought I would have to give them up entirely, when one free horse soon grew into five. The older boys were showing in 4H by now and we were paying a large bill to the boarding stable each month. It occurred to us, that the cost of our current house payment and the boarding of five horses really added up, and perhaps we could afford a place in the country.

Thus began my obsession with finding the right farm for us.  I became familiar with the Multiple Listing Service ads, and I pestered all the local real estate agents for their latest hot listings.  We wanted to stay within driving distance to Kevin’s job, but far enough out to really be in the country.

We soon learned that any plot of land (no matter how small) in the seven county area surrounding Minneapolis/St. Paul was completely out of our range. Even five-acre homesteads were priced way too high for us.

It was not long after that, when a friend’s father (a longtime farmer) suggested we look across the river at western Wisconsin. “Wisconsin?” we said, “that is too far away and we don’t know anyone in Wisconsin.” “There is still good land there,” he insisted. “And the prices are not too bad, either.”

And so I began my quest anew. I scoured the Internet and asked on the online horse forums I belonged to, if anyone knew of any farms for sale. We even looked at a few places. One was right on the road and not safe for children or animals. The other was a cute little house set on 10 acres that we liked. But in the neighboring yard, not more than 300 feet away, there was a large circular concrete pit of liquid manure, which belonged to the neighboring farm.

In early April, after I had just about given up all hope, a small quiet voice said to me, “Go to Prescott and pick up the Shopper.” The Shopper is a little local ad paper that covers Pierce County, Wisconsin and the surrounding area. I loaded my youngest child up in van and drove across the river to get the paper. I brought him a treat and he ate it while I glanced at the ads.

There was a new listing for a 40-acre For Sale by Owner farm with a house and outbuildings. It was over an hour away from our home, but at this point, we were willing to give anything a try.

I called the number on the ad, and talked to a nice fellow named John Larson. He told me he had inherited the house from his aunt. She had died the previous fall, and now that the estate was settled, he was putting the place up for sale.  I made arrangements to take a look at it that weekend, and I eagerly called Kevin to tell him the news.

He suggested that we there after work. “Just to take a quick look at it.”  He said. “That way, if it’s no good, we won’t be wasting anyone’s time.”

The farm had a long driveway that led house flanked by a few large, but ramshackle barns.  Faded yellow paint and a cracked window or two belied the house’s real beauty. From what we could see, the walls were still square and it had a new roof.

I couldn’t help feeling that threw was something sad about the place. The house reminded me of a shy young woman at a dance who was waiting for just the right man to come along and take her hand.

Kevin and I walked around, peeking into the barn and outbuildings.  The large granary and still held the remains of an oat crop from years ago. The barn walls were tipping dangerously to one side and full of hay that must’ve baled in the 70’s. We saw that many generations of raccoon families had lived there and there were numerous holes in the tin roof from long ago shotgun blasts.

Sunlight streamed in the cracks of the century old barn boards and I was struck by its beauty. Even now, all these years later, when I think of the farmers who came before us, their lives, their hopes, their dreams, what it was like for them to be here, it feels like a sacred place to me.

The paddock fences were overgrown with weeds and the fields were lined with old barbwire that would have to be pulled, but we knew that with a little hard work (ok, a lot of hard work) our horses would be happy here.

We surveyed the house by peeking in the windows, and our excitement began to grow.  I knew in my heart that this was it; this was meant to be our home.

“We have to find John…before it gets too dark” I said, as I dashed off to the car. A bemused Kevin followed. “We can’t bug him," he protested. “He doesn’t even know we are here.” I started the car and said. “I know where he lives, he won’t mind”

A few minutes later we pulled into John’s old home place. I knew I would find him in the barn, as it was chore time. I quickly swung the milk house door open and as John likes to tell it, “And in walked Barbara” I introduced myself to a startled John and his son, Randy, and John agreed to show us the house.
As we toured the house, John showed us the oak floors, the beautiful china hutch and untouched woodwork. The house, with the exception of the kitchen, was just as it was in 1931 when it was built. The light fixtures, the floors, the windows, everything was original. Even the walls retained their original paint and wallpaper.

I grabbed Kevin’s arm, trying to hide my eagerness from John as I whispered, “I want this house. Please, God, help us get this house.”

We went outside and John pointed out the boundaries of the 40 acres that the house rested on.  While he was doing this, the wind picked up and I covered my ears with my hands, as they were getting cold. Without a word, Kevin removed the warm winter hat from his head and placed it on mine. Little did I know that this little act of love and care would make all the difference.

We told John we wanted the farm and to given us a day or two to make an offer. John agreed and told us that although he had several different people who wanted to see it that weekend, he would hold off until he had our offer. Within a few days we came to an agreement and the farm was ours. Within 45 days, we had sold our house in town and moved out to the farm. I have never felt more a part of a community, than I do here. All of our neighbors, including the Larsons, have turned into good friends and there is no place that we would rather be.

In the weeks that followed, I found out from a neighbor that John had been offered much more for the farm than we had settled on. When I asked him why he chose our offer over theirs, he smiled and said, “When I watched Kevin give you his hat, I knew that you were the right people. Any man who takes such good care of his wife, will surely take good care of his farm.”

And I am happy to say that John was right.    

all images © Barbara O'Brien PhotographyBarbara O'Brien Photography is located at White Robin Farm in the beautiful rolling hills of western Wisconsin. Images are available for reproduction. Please e-mail or call with intended usage, size of print run, distribution. Barbara O'Brien Photography 612 812 8788 cell 715 448 3456 home

Friday, September 3, 2010



As a professional animal photographer for advertising and an animal actor trainer, I have had the opportunity to work with all kinds of dogs over the years, and I thought I'd share with you a few things I have learned.


The time to find your dog model is not the day before you need him. It is important to plan ahead and know what dog you are going to use. The easiest way to do this is to use an agency that specializes in animal models.  Good animal modeling agencies will have a list of experienced, well trained dogs that will provide you with excellent results. They can be found in most major markets. If you have not worked with a particular agency before, ask them for references and make sure that their humane record is exemplary. No one wants to mistreat animals and you do not want someone with a bad reputation on your set.

If there are no animal actor agencies in your area then you are going to have to find dogs on your own. Some good places to start are with your local dog obedience schools and clubs. Most people are proud of their dogs and are more than willing to help you out. Ask the school’s owner if you can watch some classes and meet some of the students. Better yet, take your own dog to school. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn and by how many nice people you meet. The more you understand about dog behavior the better you’ll be able to photograph them. If you are working on a paid shoot, make sure you pay the dog owner for their time.  This is only fair, especially if they have taken time off from work and were kind enough to bring the dog to you. If you are working to build your portfolio, then make sure you offer low resolution downloads that they can post on Facebook, etc. and some nice prints in exchange for their help.


If you have been hired to shoot a beautiful woman walking a dog in the park you better be sure that the dog is trained and walks well on a leash or you could have a runaway dog, a startled model, an unhappy client and even unhappier owner.

Dogs, like all animals, are unpredictable. As much as we photographers would like it, they are not little men in fur suits that we can expect to take direction and know what we want them to do.  It is important to understand that even the best acting dogs can only do one behavior at a time.  If you ever watch a trainer work you will see that they are giving the dog first, one command, and then another. The dog will diligently watch the trainer. or if the dog is used to the routine, it will listen for the trainer's cues as it goes through the wanted behaviors.

Look for dogs that are well trained, friendly and comfortable in with new places and experiences. If you are working through an agency, this will have already been done for you. Even the most well trained dog will look miserable if it doesn’t like the seamless paper he is expected to sit on or the pop of the strobe lights. He may stay, but he won’t look happy. Most clients do not want images of a dog with his ears back and a sad or frightened look his eye.


Make sure the owner/trainer knows what is expected of their dog. Send them layouts if you have them and be very clear about how long it will take and just what the photo shoot entails. You may have to change your expectations based on what the dog can do.

Have your lights and set ready before your animal talent arrives. Dogs, like children, are typically at their best during the first 1/2-hour of their arrival.  They could become bored with hours of sitting around while you fiddle with the lights or break for lunch. “Get ‘em in. Shoot 'em. And then, get’em out.” has always worked the best for me. You will get happier, fresher, expressions on both your dog and your client if you shoot right away.


Be sure to say hello to the owner/trainer and take the time to meet their dog. Move slowly and speak quietly at first, allowing the dog smell you. Dogs have extremely sensitive noses so leave the strong perfumes and aftershave behind.

I like to make a big fuss over the dog. Ask the owner for a treat to give to the dog. Let the dog take it from you and be sure to pet him. This will build trust between you and the dog. Tell the owner/trainer that you appreciate all of their hard work in preparing the dog and getting them to the set.


Make sure your set is as comfortable as possible for the dog. If you are shooting outlines on seamless or another slippery surface you can put narrow strips of gaff tape down to form a non-slip tread where the dog’s paws will go.

Keep the room set building and other activity to a minimum. Many dogs are easily distracted. A dog can’t focus on the trainer if there are people continually moving back and forth in his line of sight.  Loud sounds, like power tools and the hiss of pneumatics can frighten an otherwise well-behaved dog making it look tense and unhappy.

If you are shooting outside, make especially sure the environment is safe for dogs. If you are shooting near busy streets make sure that traffic is controlled, and that strange dogs cannot wander onto your set. Have a plan if the dog tries to leave the set Some dogs will only come to their owners, so it is good to know this ahead of time; you or a crew member could make things worse by trying to grab an already frightened dog.

Next time, I will talk about what to do, and what not to do, when you actually start shooting.

Barbara O’Brien © 2010

all images © Barbara O'Brien PhotographyBarbara O'Brien Photography is located at White Robin Farm in the beautiful rolling hills of western Wisconsin. Images are available for reproduction. Please e-mail or call with intended usage, size of print run, distribution. Barbara O'Brien Photography 612 812 8788 cell 715 448 3456 home