Would you like to be a professional pet photographer?
To me it’s the best job in the world, it’s something I love and I’m passionate about. To make it work as a business isn’t easy however, it will often take years before things start to happen and will require lots of hard work in the business and promotion side of things – when all you really want to do is photograph animals.
I struggled for years to the point where I was ready to quit, I’m so glad I didn’t. Today I have a thriving business doing something I love, I’ve made great friends through this and I’m admired and respected by photographers all around the world – that is totally surreal.
I get asked lots of questions about pet photography, so I thought I’d do a post with some tips on becoming a pet photographer. For this post I’ll talk about dogs but it works the same for other animals.
You need to be passionate about photographing dogs and have the patience of a saint
It really isn’t something you can do unless you truly love dogs.
You will get dogs that have a perfect sit stay and will look straight into the camera. You will have dogs that are wired to the moon and back, that will be more likely to be found jumping on your head rather sitting nicely in front of the camera. You will have dogs that are incredibly sensitive and everything scares them. You will have dogs that will refuse point blank to look at the camera. You will have dogs that will sit and look at the camera only for a split second before shooting off to do something more fun.
You will get these and everything in between. Some sessions will be a pure joy and some will make you wonder why on earth you thought dog photography was a good idea.
Through it all you need to have patience, aided by a real love of dogs and for what you are doing. Especially in the beginning those difficult sessions will really get to you but in time you will learn to love them and the challenges they bring. What is better than giving someone beautiful images of their dog that they were convinced was going to be too nervous to get any images done.
For me I really love those sessions that are more challenging, I love finding ways to work with them and to surprise the owners with a beautiful gallery that is far beyond what they thought I would have been able to capture.
Tip: No matter how bad it is going, even if you are dying on the inside – laugh, smile and joke about it. If the owners think their dog is making you unhappy you will lose them and if you lose them the session will get far more difficult if not impossible. Plus people like to know that you think their dog is great and that they make you smile – this will get you more business.
Learn about behaviour and body language
Not every dog is happy go lucky. As in the first tip – some dogs struggle with the process – some struggle with people and others just struggle with life.
You should be able to look for the body language and the signals that tell you that a dog is becoming stressed. First and foremost the dogs wellbeing should be the priority. Knowing when to take a break and when to change up your approach is important.
There is nothing wrong with saying I think we should stop the shoot if the dog is unhappy.
You also need to be aware of your own safety. Sat or laying on the floor can put you in vulnerable position and if you have missed the signs that a dog is really unhappy bad things can happen.
So please make a point about learning more about behaviour it will make the job easier as well as safer for everyone involved.
That said you don’t need to be a dog trainer to be able to work well with dogs.
In fact making them feel at ease around you is often quite simple.
When you first meet the dog ignore them. Speak in a soft quiet voice, don’t make sudden movements and give them space. Owners are often surprised at how well their dogs do around me, even the ones that are nervous of strangers and men. It isn’t rocket science – I’m just quiet and calm, and I give them space.
Oh and hotdogs! A packet of cooked hotdogs cut up into small pieces will be of infinitely more value to a dog than a packet of fancy organic biscuits. Again don’t stick your hand in the dogs face with them, toss them on the floor a bit away from you if the dogs nervous.
Back to the theme of all dogs being different – you will get the dogs that just love everyone and everything that will be straight over to you for a pet or to bounce on your head. Those you can absolutely interact with straight away, you wont have much choice in the matter.
Make sure your images are up to scratch
I’d advise everyone to own at least at 27” monitor. It will make you a better photographer.
There is no hiding missed focus or soft images on such a large screen. I often see images that look great on my phone but then if I see them again on my computer they look awful, the eyes aren’t in focus, the lighting is a bit harsh, etc.
As a professional you should be selling sharp well lit images that can be viewed and printed large.
Dogs don’t tend to stay still for very long and the shape of their faces can often mean the camera will focus on their nose rather than on the eyes. You need to practice with all different dogs, not just your own – it’s a whole different ball game photographing unfamiliar dogs.
Learn how to consistently get the eyes in focus. This takes lots of practice.
Tip: Change your focus settings to continuous auto-focus, single point autofocus and then place the focus point over the eye.
Missing focus is not something you can fix later. I always get comments on how sharp my images are, that has come from years of practice.
Don’t get me wrong, capturing a special moment can be more important than having perfect focus but if you are doing portraits there really isn’t an excuse for showing clients images that aren’t in focus.
Also learning how light affects your images will also elevate the quality of them.
Try to be objective when reviewing your images – are they in focus, are they well lit, are the shadows on one side of the face a little too deep, have you managed to get eye contact with them, have you achieved what you set out to with the image…
Don’t beat yourself
I’ll let you on to a little secret… those big name photographers that you follow and look up to go through times when they doubt the quality of their work and become really self-conscious.
I go through this almost weekly, having mini melt downs worrying about not being good enough.
I think it happens to most of us, especially with social media where we are exposed to lots of amazing work daily.
So if you are having a bad day doubting that you are good enough just remember that we all feel like that at times. Sometimes it helps to take a wee step back from social media, especially the photography groups and pick up the camera do something for the sheer joy of creating an image.
Oh and another secret while I’m here… lots of photographers are really good at making themselves look much busier than they actually are on social media.
This is a great business skill as clients like to know you are in demand.
But again, don’t look at others and beat yourself up for not being busier – they might not be as busy as they appear.
Create a strong brand
With a small business people are hiring you as an individual not just a faceless entity. You want to create a brand around who you are and that speaks to the type of people you would like to work with.
Your brand is pretty much everything that is public facing from the look and content of your website, the content you share on social media, how you talk on the phone and in emails, your logo, your images, the wall art you provide, your interactions with clients, etc.
You want people to see you as a professional – so things like your website and logo are worth investing in. Not long after I started, I got an enquiry from a multinational dog food company purely on the strength of my website. It still stands out and people will often hire me on the strength of that (as well as my work) when they have been searching on google. A professional designer can help you think about the brand you would like to create and make magic happy.
Luckily I married a designer – I lucked out there. I might as well plug her – Wildflowers and Pixels.
I strongly believe in putting yourself out there when it comes to promoting your business, even if it doesn’t come naturally. People want to know who you are, they want to know what you look like, what you value, they want to see your dogs, they want to see a little bit of your life. It helps them to build a connection and trust with you. That’s what you want to achieve with your brand. Would you trust a faceless stranger with your dog?
My social media posts that achieve the most interaction are the posts about me and why I do what I do and how much I love it. You are doing a job most people can only dream of, if they are following you they love dogs, what better job than to work with dogs! Tell them how much you love it. Tell them you feel incredibly lucky to be able to do this.
Share the joy!
People will see through you if you are trying to portray something you are not.
So be yourself.
My brand revolves around my love for what I do, the happiness my clients dogs bring me that short time I spend with them, the fun they have during the shoot and the beautiful images at the end of it.
I don’t do fancy gift packs or champagne at viewings. I don’t value that, and it would be inauthentic of me to do that, so I don’t. I’m a bit scruffy so a shirt and tie for viewings would again be inauthentic for me.
Bring the things you value into your business.
Finding your style
This is all part of the brand and something people find difficult. I see it all the time people saying they are struggling to find their style.
It’s difficult, I struggled with this as well.
I like to think when people are scrolling and one of my images pop up they can recognise it as mines.
The biggest tip I can give you is try not to be looking all the time to see what others are doing, just go out and shoot. Try not to copy what your favourite photographers are doing. It can be a fun challenge to work out how they get lovely well exposed images with beautiful sparkly back light or how they created stunning portraits with off camera flash on location.
Try to be original, that doesn’t mean create something that has never been seen before, it just means doing something that is authentic to you and not a direct copy of someone else’s work. Often things like where you live, the weather, the space you work will all play a part in how you develop your style.
My studio style came about by accident. I had planned on doing textured back drops and lots of low key stuff but I’d bought a bundle of lights from another studio which included some pink seamless paper. It changed everything! I know what I do in the studio is simple, but it all came about organically and by accident. Also working in a small space meant I used a wider angle a lot which became part of my style rather than the more typical portraits with a longer lens.
I also like working quite close to dogs, I feel that I have more control of the situation. Even on location I’ll use my 24-70mm over a longer lens most of the time. These things all played into the development of my style.
I love my simple style. It’s consistent, it achieves what I want it to and people really relate to my images.
I shoot in a style that I would want my dogs to be photographed in. The images we have on the wall at home are in the same style that I produce for clients.
So ignore the latest trends and create something that speaks to you.
Tell people where you are
I see sponsored ads on my Facebook feed often for people advertising photography, most often pet photography as that’s what the FB algorithms say I’m interested in.
Almost without fail when it’s a new photographer starting up, they don’t have their location listed or filled out any of the information on their Facebook page.
Maybe you don’t have enough money to pay for a website but you can certainly invest 10 minutes in filling out the information on your Facebook page.
Tell people where you are based, what areas you cover and a little about the service you will provide. Fill in all the information you can!
Telling potential clients which areas you cover is super important and such an easy thing to do.
Same goes for your website, make sure your location is visible throughout your website.
Don’t compete on price
Pricing is difficult, I think we have all struggled with that at some point.
There will always be someone cheaper than you. Always, even if you are practically giving the images away, someone out there locally will be giving them away.
So don’t try and compete on price, it’s just a race to the bottom and not a way to create sustainable business.
Ignore the people that tell you that you can’t make a living just photographing dogs. There are people out there making hundreds of thousands a year from just shooting dogs. You can make a good living from it. I don’t make hundreds of thousands, I will never care enough about money to be driven enough to push the business in that direction, but I make a good living from it.
Ignore what other local photographers are charging. You will have people doing it as a hobby and charge people very little as a result, you will have people doing it part time around a more lucrative job, you will have people trying to make a go of it but who will burn out from charging too little, etc.
So don’t join the race to the bottom. Work out what would like to make and charge accordingly. Create a product and service that people want and they will pay!
That went long!
If you want to be a pet photographer… go make it happen!
It won’t always be easy, it will take lots of hard work but it will be worth it.
Those days when I’m rolling around with 8 black lab puppies, the days I’m in the Scottish Highlands with a lovely spaniel to those special times where I get to spend a couple of hours with a dog near the end of their life to create memories that will last for ever… I can’t begin to tell you how privileged I feel that this is my life.