Pet paparazzi with CatsDog Photography: the meteoric rise of Lancashire's world-renowned dog photographer extraordinaire
For Cat, photography was always just a passion, until suddenly it became her world. Having grown up snapping pictures, she loved photography - she loved it so much, in fact, that she never even dreamed of becoming a professional photographer because the idea simply seemed too good to be true.
But, as the proud owner of CatsDog Photography, the North West' s premier dog photography service with fans across the globe, Cat has realised a dream she never even dreamed in the first place. And, really, does it get more 'too good to be true' than fulfilling a dream whilst getting to work with dogs all day?
"I've been into photography since the year dot," says Cat. "It came from my dad's interest in cameras; he's always been a keen amateur photographer and, when I was like three or four, we used to go on these hiking adventures in Scotland. My dad would take his SLR and I'd have my little red plastic Fisher Price camera that I'd cart around and take 10 photos with!
"I got my first digital camera in about 2000 - back in the days when digital cameras had files of about three megapixels and resulted in super grainy pictures," she adds. "But I was just like 'wow, I've got a picture I took and it's on my computer!' After that, I got into photoshop at about 14 and started playing around with photos of friends I'd taken, making collages and stuff.
"Never did I ever consider that photography could be a potential career - in my head, it was like dreaming of being a popstar. I vividly remember a conversation I had with my dad where I was saying something like 'I really wanted a job where I can work in photoshop' and he was like 'yeah, but that's just for fun'. I knew he was right, but I did photography at college anyway."
Cat Race was born and grew up in Cheshire, eventually settling in Preston in 2004 having originally come to the city to do a degree in web design and media at UCLan - a decision she took because it offered her 'a more sensible career path', in her words.
"I mean, everybody needs websites, right?" says Cat with a chuckle. "Then I realised, a couple of years into my degree, that I didn't really like building websites at all. I decided to take a year out to get some real-world experience which also applied to my studies, which is something I'd always planned to do anyway.
"It was 2004 and I ended up working as a digital artist and spent my summer retouching pictures for an international family portraiture brand before going on to work for a fashion photographer called James Nader, who did shoots for Hollyoaks stars who lived in Manchester," she continues. "I once picked up Pete Bennett from Big Brother in my little Micra!"
The work offered Cat something crucial: evidence that her passion and talent for photography could be manifested into a career. A touch paper was lit.
"When I went back to uni, I geared my final year to more image-based things and anything photography-related," says Cat. "But I graduated in 2008 during the recession, so nobody could get a job in anything, let alone in photography. I did admin for a couple of years, but I was applying for work in every photography studio I came across.
"At that time, I didn't have the confidence to work for myself and wanted to get more experience of working in a studio, so I was literally writing to places which didn't actually have any vacancies saying how great an addition I would be to the team!" she adds. "Finally, one place responded, a photography studio called Venture in St. Anne's.
"I worked there for a couple of years doing family portraiture and, occasionally, a dog would come into the studio and I loved those sessions," Cat explains. "Around that time, I'd just got my own dog too and I knew from photographing her that she was much more relaxed in environments outside the studio."
"Some dogs are fine in the studio, but for some it's a bit scary and echo-y and, generally, they're happier when they're out and about. That gave me the idea for CatsDogs, so I went for it."
With first-hand insight into how much her own dog meant to her, Cat realised other people undoubtedly loved their furry four-legged friends just as much as she did and would want to commemorate that, which is what CatsDog Photography expressly aims to do through their unique on-location shoots.
And it makes for some truly amazing pictures.
"Within about three months, I had enough of a client base to quit my job and go it alone, which was a really pleasant surprise," says Cat, now 36. "All the work experience I'd done gave me the confidence to not only craft my art and build my photography skills, but also the ability to deal with the business side of things, too.
"Often, translating creativity into a business is where a lot of artists struggle because it can be hard but you have to have that determination that you are worth it and that your time is worth paying for," she adds. "Photography is one of those things which not everybody values because everyone has a camera phone these days and we all think we're photographers.
"But there's a big difference between that and how a professional crafts a portrait. Having the confidence to know and believe that was really helpful in the early days of the business."
Having started out as a part-time venture based out of Cat's own living room, the business grew quickly. Cat's mother Linda started helping with bookings and became the company's first employee as CatsDog grew and grew to the point where Cat was soon able to upgrade all her equipment and convert her then-garage into a home studio.
In January 2017, they moved out of Cat's studio to bigger premises on Tulketh Brow in Ashton-in-Ribble, from where they continue to celebrate each and every dog they photograph. Now eight years into the venture, CatsDog Photography has gone from humble beginnings to an established business with fans across the world and a dedicated online following to boot.
"My method is based on understanding the dog," Cat says. "That's why location is important and what makes the way we work different is that I'm behind the camera dealing with the creative and technical side of things while Michael Higginson, my other half, has a real understanding of lighting and a magic touch with the dogs.
"I literally call him the Dog Whisperer because of how good with the dogs he is - he's the new Cesar Millan!" she says, laughing. "I met Michael a year-and-a-half into setting up the business when he was working as a graphic designer with experience of working in a dog kennel. I was like 'you should just quit your job and come and work with me'.
"Literally, within about two months of us meeting, we'd moved in together and were working together but that was seven-and-a-half years ago, so it worked out alright! It was a bit of a whirlwind, but everything we do is a collaboration and we work really well together."
A super-team of experienced dog paparazzo who can make any Pomeranian, poodle, or Pitbull look like a superstar, CatsDog's service is all about making people's beloved pets feel comfortable, according to Cat. They give a dog time to adjust as opposed to diving in with the flash blaring, starting out with the long lens so the dog can get used to the shutter.
"We take things at their pace and adapt to them," says Cat. "We had one dog who was a rescue and who was so terrified of everybody that we couldn't get near her, but we used the long lens and got her parents to stand behind me so she was looking past me and we could get the shot."
I have to ask: how does Cat feel living out what, for many, would be a dream job given she basically gets to meet and befriend dogs every day?
"Working with dogs is a dream," she says simply. "I'm so grateful to be doing what I do but obviously it isn't all glamour and puppies all day - there's a lot of getting cold, wet, and muddy as well as the graft of running the business - but looking at dog photographs for work makes you realise that there's aren't an awful lot of things better than that to fill your working life with.
"And the business has opened a lot of doors for me," she adds. "The people we work with are always really lovely, too - they tend to be on our wavelength - so I'm thrilled with the business. That's why Covid has been such a weird time."
Having had to close completely during the first lockdown last year and again last winter, CatsDog has has a turbulent last 20 months or so. But, thankfully, Cat says they were able to access government support to cover the costs of their studio and staff which has enabled them to survive and, hopefully, thrive now that things are returning to a state of normality.
What's more, Cat has taken the chance presented by Covid to broaden the business' horizons, too.
"During lockdown, I started 'Tip Tuesday' to give people dog photography tips on Instagram," Cat says. "That gained a lot of traction and led to things like us doing a video with the camera store Wex Photo Video. We're also due to hold photography workshops in the USA and Italy next year after someone from the International Pet Photographers Club got in touch.
"To look at the business now after all these years is really fulfilling," she adds. "I started it off my own back and never expected to come as far as I have - I was just looking to make ends meet when I started but I've been lucky and being able to work with my partner is great, too.
"When you're working, everything is really go-go-go, so to look back and see how far we've come is important," Cat says. "I feel like I'm gushing, but it brings me a lot of pride."
And surely even the dogs themselves would agree: not bad for a cat.