There it is again, another ‘model call’ for a commercial shoot that your cross-country pet photography hero has cheerfully posted on their facebook page. You read it over, wondering who is the shoot is for? How did they get hired for it? And most of all, how much are they getting paid for it?
The world of commercial pet photography is a mysterious one. Unlike other aspects of the business of pet photography, no one seems to want to talk openly about it. That ends now.
I want to share with you some of my experiences and commercial pet photography resources because I believe that the more educated and connected we all are, the more we as individuals and as an industry can flourish.
So, without further ado, let’s get into these dirty little commercial pet photography secrets:
5. It’s not as glamorous as it looks.
It may look shiny, but commercial photography is hard, hard work.
Most commercial projects require weeks of project management and communication before and after the shoot itself. There is an endless on-going list of paperwork, demands, questions, tasks, responsibilities and fears that need to be addressed immediately, because to someone, they are the most important detail in the world.
Speaking of someone, there are usually about a dozen or more ‘someones’ involved in each decision, so nothing can be pushed forward quickly (especially your payment if you’re not careful about how you handle that in your contract) and you usually have several “bosses” to please.
Depending on the project, you will either feel like the world is on your shoulders: you (or your staff) are producing the shoot, finding the location and the models, coordinating hair, makeup, wardrobe and props, styling the set and oh yeah, shooting. Other times, you feel like you have no choice but to set up your lights and push the button how and when you’re told. A photographer made me chuckle recently with this comment,
“I swear, I’ve had some commercial shoots where I’ve felt like handing the art director my gear and saying: ‘bring it back when you’re done, since you really only hired me for my equipment anyway.’”
SO WHAT’S THE GOOD NEWS?
There are some really great moments that come with commercial photography: seeing your photos by surprise when you walk into a pet superstore, depositing a five or six-digit check for “one job” and a personal favourite of mine, the celebration dinner with the team when the job wraps and you know you’ve got some really fantastic images. It’s that same feeling as when you know you’ve rocked a private client shoot, but times 1,000 because this is for * enter name of dream client here *. These jobs are worth fighting for.
4. The stakes are high, and so are the costs.
It is expensive to be a commercial photographer. Not only to do the work (you may have to spend out of pocket before you get paid), but also to get the work. If the average private client costs around $50 to acquire, the average commercial client costs $500. Most of us got our first taste of commercial photography by accident. Someone called us or found our web site, and hired us based on our images of private clients, and sometimes that is still the case. However relying on happy accidents is not a strategy, and if you decide you want to actively pursue commercial work as part of your business, then you have to seriously hustle to break into it.
Acquiring commercial pet photography clients requires a strong marketing plan, and a budget to match. You can also consider trying to get representation by an agent, but that’s for another blog (you still need the marketing plan and the budget, plus you’ll kiss goodbye to 20-30% of your commercial revenue. You will also probably need to shoot video).
Surviving the commercial bidding process requires a healthy does of fortitude and patience, as well as a very thick skin. You will regularly lose bids and experience other disappointments. Just like any sales process, it’s a numbers game. I think of it a bit like being an actor and auditioning all the time – it’s hard on your confidence to be rejected regularly in the pursuit of great work. Meanwhile, you also need to continue to produce images that your commercial clients will be impressed by, and push them out into the real world, which can sometimes mean working at a loss in order to keep your blog/portfolio well-curated.
SO WHAT’S THE GOOD NEWS?
Once you have cracked it, once you’ve developed a few solid contacts at agencies or in-house at large companies with a regular demand for images, you can make a very good living. Better yet, once you’ve got the relationships, you get to skip all the initial “auditioning” stages of rejection and compromise. Often you’ll come to a really strong working arrangement that is win-win for you and the client, and life is good (and profitable!)
3. Your clients are big fancy pet companies only about 1% of the time.
The rest of the time, they are start-ups, they are agencies, they are big companies who’ve never had to hire a photographer before and may never again, and these clients come with some complications. Firstly, you need to be an expert in your pricing and your value, because you’re going to have to justify both to your clients all the time. What’s more, you’re going to have to educate them as to how the whole ‘commercial pet photography’ process works, and then you have to fight for your piece of the pie.
So practically, what does that mean? Well, it means that start-ups are going to find better and cheaper ways to side-step the somewhat antiquated model of “photographer time + expenses + image licensing = cost”, because disrupting existing models is what start-ups do best.
I had a recent client, who was interested in hiring me to shoot their catalogue. After courting each other for about 8 months, going back and forth about pricing, they got their own location and dog models and found photography interns to shoot the catalogue. Well done them. They didn’t see enough value in what I was offering. They were resourceful and it has paid off for them, because the quality of the images they received is fairly decent, and aside from investing time, their risk was fairly low.
Although you have to respect innovation, this example sets a pretty terrifying precedent for professionals like me who have invested 10 years in becoming an expert at that thing the interns did for free. (It’s a bit like the black cabs of London vs. Uber – value to the customer is all that matters and its definition is constantly changing).
Each of your potential customers comes with a unique set of challenges that necessarily require education, negotiation and compromise. Big corporations like Purina and Pedigree are appealing, because like us, they are more comfortable with the “traditional” commercial model. Photographer time + expenses + image licensing = cost, works for them with their budget and approval process and their desire to avoid risk. It works for us because we are getting paid fairly for our work. Win-win.
SO WHAT’S THE GOOD NEWS ?
Well this is a tricky one. I have started to bid commercial gigs without licensing fees. Not that I no longer charge them, but I am leaving the “licensing” section of the initial estimate as a “to be determined”, so that I *hopefully* have a chance to have further conversation with the client before my estimate simply gets dumped in the “no” pile because my bid is 10x higher than the others. I am finding this is especially key in the UK where there seems to be rampant under-bidding by my competitors. This gives me a chance to gather the information I need to quote for licensing accurately (including whether or not the client is willing to pay it, and whether or not I’m willing to do the job anyway)!
I should add that this is a slightly risky method, because I am delaying the tough conversation and risk getting the rejection after more time has been invested. The sad truth is that pricing is all about what the market will bear… what someone will actually pay… not what the “correct price” is. In the real world, it’s a fine line between ‘pricing properly’ and being unemployed. Lucky for you, I have created some free resources to help you with this issue:
Click here to download my commercial pet photography toolkit, including estimates, invoices and pricing explanations.
2. For some, working with private clients is actually more profitable than commercial pet photography.
How is this possible? Well if you’ve cracked the ‘system’ with private clients and have a nice little six-figure business, where you have regular work, solid per-client sales and a lifestyle that isn’t overwhelming, then commercial work can actually take away without giving much back. The advantage here, however, is that if you’re not approaching commercial work from a “need” basis (as in, ‘I think I need to do commercial work to survive’) then just like private work, you have the luxury of picking and choosing the gigs you want and the ones that just aren’t worth it.
There are a lot of skilled, profitable pet photographers out there who have tried and opted out of commercial photography (mostly for the reasons listed in this article). There are others, opting out of private pet photography to focus on commercial full time because that’s where they’ve found the most success. There are others still, who are opting out of both private and commercial client work to focus on shooting books full-time. There is no right or wrong answer. The most important consideration is making the most profit for your time spent so that you can get on with the rest of your life. It’s very easy to go broke sticking to your convictions or feeling pressured by what your community is saying. The reality, your reality, is that you should take inventory of your skills and resources and put them to the best (most profitable) use possible. If you hate doing something, stop doing it, because it will be obvious in your work and to your clients that you are miserable.
Equally, if there are elements of your work that you really love, search for ways to expand those elements into more popular, profit-making parts of your business. The key here is no different then the advice we’ve seen a hundred times on inspirational fridge magnets: The goal is not to live to work – but to work to live. I don’t know about you, but I want to live the most full, free life possible. If I have to spend some of that life working, I want to enjoy it and I need it to fund my freedom.
SO WHAT’S THE GOOD NEWS?
If this all sounds enticing to you but if you don’t know where to start, you should consider joining my ‘Pet Photography Bootcamp’ program. It is a six-week digital course with myself and an intimate group of established pet photographers, that focuses on taking the overwhelm out and putting the profit in to your business. We tackle issues like shooting and pricing commercial pet photography, creating passive income so you can earn while you sleep, and finding and converting more of your dream clients – all while we craft a business that supports your life, not the other way around.
1. There is no ‘one right way’ to price commercial pet photography.
This is the biggest secret of all. All of us who are actively shooting commercial work may have targets, sales funnels, contracts, pricing documents and projections, but the reality is that we’re basically winging it with every single new client. Why? Because as our colleague in San Diego, Allison Shamrell so aptly put it, ‘sometimes our industry reminds me of the wild west’.
Every new client is a new frontier – do they have any experience hiring photographers? If so, is that experience going to help or hurt you (were they commercial photographers who charged properly for their work or were they friends of friends who basically worked for free?), do they know the value of your work as a pet professional vs. hiring any ol’ photographer and chucking a group of dogs in front of them? Do they have a realistic budget for both your fees and the expenses for the shoot? (a location needs to be scouted and possibly rented, models need to be compensated, travel costs may be incurred?) and, what’s the timeline? What will the images be used for? What are the clients’ expectations of image delivery?
If your head is spinning, you’re not alone, when I first started pricing commercial work my head would spin every time I had to filter all of these queries into the actual questions I would ask the client in order to prepare a quote – and every time I did – a lump rose in my throat because I had no idea if it was a client that “got it” or not. Trust me I know it like feels preparing for battle.
SO WHAT’S THE GOOD NEWS?
The way to avoid this issue is set your own rules. To have high enough demand and unique desirability as a commercial photographer that you have a price model and contract that works for you and the client abides by it, or uses someone else. You have the luxury of saying no. This is very possible, but it does take time to build, and generally requires an investment in mentoring and a dash of luck.
Want help developing your Commercial Pet Photography business? For digital courses, one-to-one consulting, valuable resources and mastermind-level support to keep you profitable and accountable as you grow your pet photography business, click here.
J.Nichole Smith is a commercial photographer, marketing consultant and dog expert. Nichole is Director of dane + dane studios, a creative studio for pet businesses and co-founder of Dog is Good, a multi-million dollar lifestyle company for dog lovers.
Nichole has spent the last decade photographing dogs and crafting creative strategies and campaigns for the most influential brands in the pet industry, including Purina, Petco and Victoria Stilwell. In 2012, Nichole left sunny California for swinging London where, before marrying the man of her dreams, she completed a Masters in Marketing with Distinction at one of London’s top-10 business schools, Kingston University. Immediately following, Nichole opened a fine-art pet photography studio and dog boutique in SW London, near where she and her husband live with their two mis-matched dogs, Olivia & Charlie.
Follow Nichole’s work here:
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