Birds of a Feather: Peter Samuels’ Portrait Series “Pheasants and Peafowl”

By: Peter Samuels, Photographer

Introduction to You and Your Work:

Before moving to San Francisco in the early 2000s, I was classically trained as a product still-life commercial photographer in Orange County, CA. I honed my lighting skills for AT&T, Nissan, Genentech, Motorola, and several other tech and communications clients. Then, in 2009, I got a dog. She quickly became my muse, and a new photographic passion for photographing animals was realized. Good dog! In addition to moving to San Francisco, moving from inanimate objects to living, breathing subjects brought new life and meaning to my work, pushing me to explore the depth of animal emotions and their relationships with humans.

My image of a rather colorful pheasant, a Himalayan Monal, featured on the 2024 Graphis Photography Annual cover (woot!) captures the essence of that transition by utilizing the lighting and technical skills of my earlier product work and applying them to my newer animal work. 


This began when the CEO of an AI startup happened upon my work while at my studio for a team meeting. He made a point of having me drop in to share more about my work on display and wanted me to photograph his collection of pheasants in various aviaries on his property.

Creative Strategy:

I needed a studio environment where I could apply as much precision and attention to detail as possible and where the birds could be as comfortable as possible, allowing their spirit to come through and capturing the calm moments that resonate emotionally with me. Thanks to the fair amount of prep and planning, there were other, more fleeting moments I could also capture. 

Challenges and Solutions:

There were a lot of birds! So it was decided this would be a two-day shoot, and I’d use his three-car garage as my studio. While that wasn’t ideal for me, it was the most accommodating for the birds, so I was to make that work as long as he could have it cleaned beforehand. 

With a plan set, I gathered my team of two assistants so I could focus on shooting while they adjusted light and checked focus as we went along. I also need fast auto-focus, so shooting medium format wasn’t in the cards. However, the super-fast AF of my Sony A1 delivered well and allowed me to capture those spontaneous moments just fine. Another essential component was having a great handler; we had someone there who knew the birds well and could quickly get them onto my set without much adu. Everything went well; it was fun, and interacting with those beautiful birds was nothing short of amazing. I had a great team with a clear objective and produced excellent work. And that makes me happy!

Client Perspective:

While this project was a private commission, I treated it just as I would with various animal-focused brands: ensuring that my creative vision aligned with their objectives and balancing a client’s expectations with my artistic integrity. The process involved clear communication and collaboration.  

Outcome and Impact:

The project was a resounding success. My client is thrilled with the work, and I’m humbled that several images from the shoot won awards. My client and I are also discussing having me photograph more pheasants that may evolve into a book publication.  

Personal Reflection:

Getting the cover of a Graphis Photo Annual is incredible and probably the most significant award I’ve ever received. This award, as well as any other, validates my artistic journey, encourages me to delve deeper into exploring the relationships between humans and animals, shapes my future projects, and reinforces my belief in the impact of my work.

Advice to Fellow Creatives:

They should remain open to new inspirations and embrace their art’s evolution. Transitioning between different subjects and mediums can offer fresh perspectives and opportunities for growth, so they shouldn’t shy away from change.

Before moving to San Francisco in 1999, Peter Samuels was classically trained as a product and still life photographer at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, CA. His clients included notable names such as AT&T, Toyota, Nissan, and Visa. Then, in 2009, a change occurred when he got his first dog, a doxie/min pin mix named Leica, who soon became his muse, and a new passion emerged as he began to focus on photographing animals. Oddly enough, his technical experience in lighting products became the foundation of his approach to photographing animals, bringing a production level that’s become a cornerstone of his visual style. He says, “It’s certainly more difficult to photograph a moving subject rather than a product, but the essential formula is the same and the basis of how I use light in my work.” And it seems to be working, as work and accolades are coming in like never before! “It’s been very exciting!” he says. While his time with his pup Leica was sadly cut short, she lovingly inspired a new direction in his career (good dog!). His clients now include animal brands and related work for Clorox’s kitty litter, Nature’s Recipe, Virgin America, Hush Puppies, the SPCA, Amazon, Zynga, and others. In addition to his commercial imagery, artwork sales have also become a growing part of his work.

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Author: Graphis