I’m so excited to share an interview with Illona Haus of Scruffy Dog Photography based in the Toronto area.  Thank you so much Illona for taking the time to share your experiences with us!  I particularly love the answer discussing finding your own style in photography.  If we don’t all follow our own creative genius then the pet photography industry may quickly become like the newborn photography niche in which almost all of the images look alike!  Just think of the incredible art each of us could create if we let our imaginations and creativity lead the way.  Without further ado I bring you Illona….

Please tell us about Scruffy Dog!  How long have you been in business and what was it that inspired you to create your studio?

Scruffy dog continues to be an incredible journey.  Having spent the previous two decades making my sole income from writing novels, I knew nothing about starting and running a business … so the past few years have been as much about photography and dogs as it is about running a business.  Although I had been photographing my own dogs extensively, as well as others’, for years before launching scruffy dog, SDP was born only four years ago in 2008 … and I’ve been shooting full-time ever since.

As for the inspiration behind scruffy dog … that would be Murph, the original scruffy and my ‘everything’ in the four years following his extreme rescue.  His premature loss at only 4 ½ years of age, succumbing to vaccine-induced lymphoma, was an absolute shock and heartbreak … one which I have learned much from.  But adding to that devastation was the fact that all I had left to remember this amazing boy was five rolls of film, three of which were taken in his final, feeble days.  My goal with SDP has always been to provide dog guardians not only a big variety of great images of their beloved 4-legger, almost always presented in luxury, flushmount albums, but also with pieces of art – generally very big – to hang on their walls.

It’s important for photographers to have a strong base of technical photographic skill prior to starting their business.  Tell us about how you learned the craft and if you have any recommendations for people just starting out.

Shoot, shoot and shot some more.  The other aspect I feel strongly about is the importance of specializing; find your niche, focus on it completely, and own it.  I would never, ever, ever presume to shoot a wedding (although I’ve been asked countless times), to photograph babies or kids or portraits.  Specializing in one particular niche allows you to dominate your chosen specialty, to not only deeply understand your subject, but to learn all of the tricks and methods required to capture their best images and allow their character and spirit to shine through each one for their owners to cherish for years to come.  My clients get this … and appreciate it; instead of asking me to photograph their new baby or their wedding, they ask me for referrals, which I happily provide; they know that with SDP they hired a “specialist” for their 4-legger.

Although my family did have a home-darkroom growing up and I did study some photography during my Fine Arts degree, it was all film.  Today, I’m not sure if I could find my way around a darkroom … even with the lights on!  After losing Murph and investing in one of the first digital cameras on the market – a $700, 2 MP wonder – I had to relearn all that technical stuff.  And I did that by focusing almost exclusively on my dogs, determined to not lose another dog without having those extensive photographic memories.

I love your style of  photography, catching moments of dogs being dogs.  What advice do you have for photographers when trying to find their style?

If you’re determined to photograph dogs, I believe you truly have to know dogs.  It’s one thing to have a family dog you grew up with, but adopting and rescuing my own dogs, working towards their rehabilitation and focusing a lot on training, I think, has given me an edge when it comes to working with 100+ different pets each year.  If you plan to focus your cameras at dogs, it helps if you truly understand dogs – their behavior and language, their individual drives and character, and their energy as it shifts and changes throughout any session.  The more dogs you work with, the more able you are to read each new dog with their quirks and idiosyncracies, direct their drive, and work with their particular energy.

When it comes to style, a big issue I’m finding with the surge of new pet photographers breaking into the market is copying … and a lot of it. We’re not talking just plagiarism (although this is rampant as well), but actually copying other, more established photographers’ styles and set-ups, sometimes to a T.  The most frustrating part of this is the fact that this is supposed to be creative field … yet I see an ever-increasing lack of creativity as new (and some seasoned) photographers spend so much of their energy trying to copy and mimic the established photogs.

Copying is a one-way road to nowhere; it will not take you in any kind of direction as far as finding and defining your own style.  During the first two years of SDP I was so busy with all the aspects of a start-up business and truly learning the craft that there honestly was no time to visit other photographer’s blogs and sites.  At the time I worried about this, feeling as though I really should know what else is going on.  But today – still too busy with clients to have much opportunity to visit others’ blogs – I realize that it was a good thing that I’ve never had time to stalk other pet photographers.  Even though I work hard to always be original and creative, I feel assured that I was never unduly or unintentionally influenced by someone else’s work.  The result, I think, is a more defined and recognizable scruffy dog style.

I also love the shallow depth of field in many of your images.  What is your favorite aperture range?

I’m often asked questions like this … “which lens is your favorite?” “which aperture was this photo taken with?” “what shutter speed is best suited for shooting dogs?” … and there is only one answer to all of these question: “whatever gets the job done.”  Technical elements are absolutely dependent on what you’re shooting, the type of dog you’re shooting, the size of dog, his energy, the available light, action vs. still, one dog vs. two dogs or three dogs … each shooting situation and model calls for different parameters, and every turn on the trail offers more lighting challenges.  But the more you specialize and the more you shoot, the faster those settings are going to become second nature as you move from one shot to the next in any given session.  Of course, I’m speaking natural light, outdoors, in the elements, where the light and the actions of the dog are constantly changing.

What is in your camera bag?  Is there any particular piece of equipment that you couldn’t live without?

Hmm … you mean besides two camera bodies and a half dozen lenses, cleaning fluid and cloth, filters, batteries, squeakies, treats, tissues, poop bags, extra lines and long lines?  I’d say it’s my knee pad!!  If you’re a pet photographer and don’t already have one, trust me, you’ll thank me.

One of the most challenging aspects of starting a new photography studio is attracting your target market when you are new to the community.  What worked best for you when Scruffy Dog was just a young pup?

Honestly, I think it was just my nose-to-the-grindstone doggedness.  When I decided to take a break from my former novel-writing career, I was like a dog with a bone with SDP, and still am today.  Four years later, I still consider it a relatively new venture, and as the owner of an independent business (because don’t be mistaken, it is a business), I still work the long hours of a business owner.

Building word-of-mouth takes time.  I receive countless emails from start-up photographers and even seasoned photogs looking to switch to pets … all of them asking for the magic pill, the secret that made scruffy dog a success … clearly under the assumption that their own venture should be some kind of overnight success from which they are only one step away.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  Building and maintaining a reputation, shooting to the highest of standards and exceeding the expectations of one client after the next requires a deep level of dedication, a lot of thinking, trial and error, and of course, a lot of time.

As for target markets: it’s pretty simple.  If you want high-end clients with high-end standards, who are not only appreciative of your work but are also discerning, you must dedicate yourself to consistently delivering those high-standards, to not only answer but exceed those high-expectations, and you do this by focusing on your niche, and by always being original and creative.

What is your most successful marketing strategy now?

I think, currently, it’s facebook, although it’s really difficult to tell.  A big percentage  of my client bookings are the result of their on-line searches for a pet photographer, so obviously good SEO is key.

In regards to the SDP facebook page – just three years old –  and the building of its vibrant following, it’s all about keeping the page interesting and active, interacting with the followers, and, of course, answering their questions (which, surprisingly, I see so few FB photography-business pages doing).

I think the most successful marketing strategy is to consistently put out your best work … always be sure it is top quality, never lower your standards, and always, always, always exceed your clients’ expectations.

One of the signature products of Scruffy Dog seems to be your large framed canvases.  I’m sure that clients now come to you requesting that artwork but how did you initially convince clients that they needed it.

Absolutely.  The big canvases are what a lot of SDP clients are after.  In fact, the big canvases are the reason I offer the “Starter session” – a shorter session designed to capture just a handful of stellar images instead of the whole scruffy dog pie that comes with the Standard session.  Again, this session structure comes from years of working with my clients and knowing what they want most; the same might not ring true for another pet photographer in their area.  It’s all about knowing your target market, not some other photographer’s, then working with that target market for years, and learning what works and what doesn’t for your clients, present and future.

With the big canvases – the largest to date being a 7′ beast showcasing two little Yorkies in the woods – I do have a lot of clients who book a Starter because their goal is a big a canvas and a few prints (vs. the full album and huge variety of prints/products).  But even more than those clients, I get a lot of repeat clients who book a Starter after having had their full-blown SDP session previously, because they’re after a new, showcase wall piece.

As far as convincing clients that they should go big or go home … all that is needed is to put it out there.  Show them what “big” means.  I am not a salesperson; I never push my clients into more prints or product, and am always helping them choose exactly what they need, even if the result is a slightly lower profit margin for me; trust me, it’s happened more times than I can count.  Because for me, the bottom line is making sure the client gets exactly what they want, and no more.  And the result?  Clients who come back, and clients who refer.

What have you found to be most successful in your sales strategy?

Packages.  I have five packages for clients to choose from and all are loaded with variety.  Developing packages is no easy feat … successful packages can take years to fine tune, years of listening to and understanding what your clients want most, what works for them and what doesn’t, and then making sure that you’re covered for your work.

Do you have any advice for photographers thinking about giving back to their community through charity work?  What has been the most rewarding charity work that you have participated in?

For photographers starting out, focusing on pets, photographing shelter dogs can be enormously rewarding.  But, it can also go a long way in advancing your own abilities in both the technical aspects and challenges of photography, and in the skills required to work with different pets, read their energies and channel them.

Every year I shoot and design the local Humane Society calendar.  Not only does it raise thousands of dollars for the shelter, but it also raises awareness as the models who enter the contest to win spots in the calendar are former shelter pets, now adopted and in loving homes.

I also work with smaller rescues, photographing their harder-to-place dogs to better their chances of being noticed and finding their forever homes.  Seeing a dog who has been languishing in a foster “system” for months or years, finally being adopted after you’ve photographed them is probably the most rewarding of all.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us!  Please let Hair of the Dog readers know where they can see more of your work and keep up with the latest from Scruffy Dog.

For all of the latest, the scruffy dog facebook page is the place to be.  www.facebook.com/scruffydogphotography  – as mentioned, it has an active and vibrant following, and we’re always striving to make it fun and interactive.

If you’re not into facebook, no problem … the scruffy dog blog delivers just as much when it comes to sessions, advice, and general dog stuff.  www.scruffydogphotography.com

Happy shooting!