Dogged Pursuit

“It’s all voluntary, all the dogs are choosing to go in the pool and under the water of their own free will,” says Casteel (Seth Casteel photo)

By Mary Ormsby
Published: Feb. 25, 2012.

Their expressions are stunning.

Lips peeled back, fangs bared, toes spreads wide, eyes fixated, man’s best friend can look menacing, predatory, angry. In one shot with two dogs, 7-year-old border collie Nevada and 1-year-old golden lab Bardot are muzzle-to-muzzle, jawing toothily at a multi-sided pink plastic toy.

The surreal pictures of dogs under water have gone viral ever since they were taken by California based photographer Seth Casteel’s submerged camera in backyard pools.

“Dogs today enjoy being spoiled by human beings and enjoy all the benefits that come along with living in today’s world with human beings, from sleeping in your bed to enjoying the best food, the best treats, the best health care. But at the root of it, dogs do have a wild side.”

That wild side is summoned from its primordial depths with a colourful squeaky toy that looks like a tennis ball but is heavy enough to sink — one that prompts poolside pooches to plunge in for their close-ups.

Casteel says the dogs — they are friends — are reflecting a pre-domestication hunting reflex, not dangerous behaviour.

“There’s no aggression towards me. And in the photos where there’s more than one dog, there’s no aggression between the dogs. It’s really just a wild instinct to retrieve that sinking toy.”

Casteel is key to engaging the dogs. He meets them first, plays with them, then decides whether the pet is game. Not all like water.

“It’s all voluntary, all the dogs are choosing to go in the pool and under the water of their own free will,” says Casteel. One of his dogs, Nala, is a mini Labradoodle rescue dog — and she does not like water.

For the doggie paddlers who like to splash around, Casteel devised a series of ball games to get them in and out of the pool. In his “bobbing for apples” strategy, the photographer holds the ball under water and releases it. The dog dunks its face in to get it and “the timing of this is the most challenging part,” he says.

Casteel uses a Canon Digital SLR camera with underwater housing to snap the hounds. He rigs “a secret recipe of various lighting techniques” to illuminate his subjects. He wears swim trunks and a face mask and can hold his breath for 90 seconds to follow the dogs tracking their play prey.

Casteel began his animal photography business by doing a good deed with he worked at Sony Pictures in creative advertising. The university-educated film production major had volunteered to photograph homeless kittens living on the film lot to get them adopted. Many kitties found homes.

He also volunteered at the West Los Angeles Animal Shelter, where he began shooting pets for owners as a part-time job. One photo made its way into a magazine. His client list grew and in 2009, he left the film industry and followed his passion for animals — dogs, in particular — and opened Little Friends Photo.

A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Buster was the inspiration for Casteel’s pool shots. He was filming Buster on land (land shoots begin at $450 U.S.) but the young dog kept jumping in the family pool. Casteel photographed the long-haired spaniel swimming but wondered what a diving dog looked like from the bottom of the pool.

Casteel later experimented with a waterproof Sony point-and-shoot, got a couple of “really cool shots” and decided to add underwater portraits (at $875 U.S.) part of his business.

“Dogs gave me the idea,” he says. “I’ve got to give the dogs credit for it.”

(Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Toronto Star newspaper.)