Jamie, please tell us about Cowbelly! What inspired you to start your pet photography business?
I had been photographing dogs and cats as a hobby for a couple of years while working as a dog walker and pet sitter for a small pet services company, and just took black and white film photos of them for fun. It became a hobby that I loved, and over time I developed a little physical portfolio filled with my best 8×10 prints.
In the meantime, I had graduated college as an adult and struggled to find a job post-9/11. After a year of looking I gave up and decided to give professional pet photography a go. That was 2003 and the rest as they say, is history!
There is a temptation when photographers are starting out to blog-stalk and be influenced by other photographers in their niche, which I feel can really block the ability to embrace your own unique style. Do you have any advice for people that feel that they are still trying to determine their style?
Be authentic and true to who you are, not who someone else is. Express yourself honestly, without apologies or comparisons, and you will end up expressing who you are at the core- that is what style is all about.
Also, I wrote a blog post on developing your Photodogstyle™, wherein I define seven unique pet photography styles. I think for a new photographer looking at these styles, they can identify with something they love, something that resonates with them personally.
Ultimately, a photographer’s style is always a reflection of their own unique perspectives, visions, tastes, preferences and personality. The best way to define this is by spending more time catering to your own perspectives, and less time looking at those of others.
What is in your camera bag? Is there any particular piece of equipment that you couldn’t live without?
Canon 5D Mark III (main body)
Canon 5D Mark I (backup)
Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L lens
Canon 24mm f/1.4 L II lens
Canon 20mm f/2.8 lens
Canon 70-200mm f/4.0 L IS lens
Canon 580EX II flash
The one piece of equipment that I couldn’t live without lives outside of my camera bag, and it’s my Wacom Intuous 4 graphics tablet. There is no way I could edit photos without it.
One of the areas that most new photographers struggle with is bring clients through the door. What are your most successful marketing strategies now and what worked best for you when you were just starting your business?
Before I started Cowbelly, I had grand plans of hanging fliers at off-leash dog parks, and marketing to the large mailing list that was owned by the pet services company I worked for.
I learned that the dog park postings were against city laws, and my employer at the time had no interest in seeing my photography business take off, so I got no help there.
So I scrapped all of my marketing plans and turned to the only one that was feasible- working with one client at a time, and building the business through word of mouth referrals, which is how I built my business and how I still get most of my clients. I literally started with four photo shoots, and it grew exponentially from there.
I try and knock my client’s socks off and give them awesome images, so they tell everyone they know about me, and it works. It’s a fantastic marketing strategy because it keeps me always wanting to do better and please my clients, and it also has no costs associated with it.
The downside to doing that for me now, is that since I’m in the upper price brackets as far as portrait and pet photographers go, I know I’m getting referred to lots of friends and family who can’t afford to hire me. But all I need is a couple or few great clients per month, and I never know when someone will refer me to a friend who will contact me years later when they can afford me. Just today I got an inquiry from a woman who was referred to another woman whose dogs I photographed for free at one of my workshop shoots. My workshop client couldn’t afford to purchase anything from me (she did get a couple of free prints), but she still referred me to a friend who could. For this reason, I always treat my clients like gold, no matter who they are or what work I am doing for them.
I have always taught in my workshops that the single most important thing any photographer can do is get out there and network. Meet people in their community (in our case it’s the pet community), shake hands, get involved, become known. Volunteer, donate, attend (or photograph) events. The more people you know, the more opportunities you have available to you.
You are truly the only person that I know that can rock the online sale for a multi-thousand dollar session average. Generally the rule of thumb for higher sales is in-person sales, what part of your process sets up the online gallery for those kinds of averages?
Sales has nothing to do with online galleries or even how you set pricing. It has little to do with seeing products or ‘going bigger’. It has little to do with whether or not you have a studio, or use ProSelect, or even sell packages. The ordering session itself isn’t even all that important.
It’s so much more than that. And it has a lot to do with the photography- the images themselves.
Let me see if I can come up with an analogy.
Due to a combination of wrecking my body as a teenager and bad genes as far as my immune system goes, I frequently suffer from health problems, often having to do with allergies or some other weird immune response.
Tired of never getting answers from the western medical community, I turned to naturopathic work. When meeting with a naturopath, instead of just looking at one system, and determining what’s wrong with that one system, and fixing it (or rather, giving you medication to quell the symptoms of whatever is broken), they look at all systems combined- how they all work together synergistically, or- holistically. How one thing is influenced by everything else.
I look at sales the same way. You have to look at everything you do and ask yourself “is this helping my sales?”. The way you shoot, the expectations you set, the types of products you sell, your branding, and how it resonates with a client. Your packaging, how you interact with the pet, how ‘likeable’ you are. What your personality is like, how you dress at a shoot. Most importantly- your images, and the quality of your images. There is so much that goes into having high sales than how those images are sold.
I have so much to say about pricing and sales I actually wrote a 33-page guide on the topic! The guide includes things like: important things to keep in mind, how you affect your sales, shooting to sell, consumer psychology, Value vs. Income, perceived value, different sales strategies, add-ons to sales, 5 no-no’s to pricing, and sales Q&A. The guide can be purchased here: http://www.beautifulbeasties.com/products/
What is your favorite part of your job?
Hands-down: the photo shoots.
One of the biggest issues with my business is I take way too many photos, because I just don’t want to stop. I’ll come home with 800 or more images that I need to whittle down to 50 or 60. I’m deleting tons of perfectly good shots, and the process can take a very long time because of it. But that’s how much I love photographing pets. I get consumed by it, lost in my passion, and just can’t help myself.
The industry has changed dramatically since you first started your business. What trends or changes do you see coming in the next 3-5 years?
I see a significantly increasing number of pet photographers entering the market each year. Of those I follow, I’d say around 30%-40% are still in business after 2 years. I think what will happen is a sort of natural attrition in which the cream of the crop will get stronger and more successful, and those who are sub-average will move on to other things. We’ll have more highly visible pet photographers, with more of them teaching.
And more pet photographers who don’t have highly salable skills will fall back to go on to do other things, whether it’s photograph people and weddings, or landscapes or another subject, or move on to an entirely different type of work.
I think this is an exciting time, as I’ve seen the industry change in just the past two years to one that is being taken more seriously. Pet photographers are starting to get more recognition, more attention, and are starting to become more credible in the eyes of the photography industry as a whole.
There will be more magazine features on pet photography, more opportunities to speak at major photography conventions, more interviews with radio programs, and to be featured on major photography websites and blogs.
But because of the explosion in popularity over the past 3-4 years, competition in pet photography is also fierce, with mimicry on the rise, as those lacking talent and good work ethics try to rise to the top by climbing on the shoulders of those they wish to be- by copying styles, plagiarizing websites, copying project ideas, etc . I think there will be more of that, but ultimately I see the genuinely talented, creative folks the only ones truly succeeding. So while there may be some homogenization occurring over the next few years, in the end those whose talent and vision puts them in a class of their own, will be the ones left standing on top.
Also, for generalists and portrait photographers who photograph multiple subjects (say weddings and babies and pets and seniors for example), while more and more realize the importance of having separate branding for their pet photography (and separate websites), we will see more generalist photographers rising to the top of the pet photography industry, who will be known for both their boudoir photography and pet photography for example.
Like I said, it’s an exciting time, and I’m happy to be involved in it and watch the industry grow! It has changed a lot in the past decade!
There’s been some exciting changes going on at Cowbelly recently! Please tell us about some of the great opportunities for pet photographers of all levels.
Yes, thanks Nicole!
First- I wrote a book! It’s a comprehensive guide on pet photography, aimed at the advanced amateur and professional. The book is called ‘Beautiful Beasties: A Creative Guide to Modern Pet Photography’, it’s a mass-market paperback book, approximately 350 pages long, published by Wiley Publishing.
Since announcing the book in early July, it has consistently been in the top 20 bestselling books in the professional photography category, which is a) way too cool, and b) shows that there is a great need for a book like this! My hope is that the book is a rich resource for anyone who is serious about pet photography. It’s designed to be ‘unfluffy’ and detailed, and we can all thank my publisher for tacking on an additional 50 pages onto my original allotment for me to really help the readers. I’ll even have additional ‘extra’ content in the form of pdf guides, that will go on the companion site listed in the book!
Second, I have a brand new website for pet photographers! I started building the site back in November as a companion to the book, but wanted it to be so much more than that.
The site is a comprehensive educational resources website, with information on pet photography classes, pet photography workshops, consulting, a gear store filled with gear for the modern pet photographer, a list of active Beautiful Beasties Network members (I touch on that below), a book page with my ‘extra’ book content and other professional pet photography titles, a products page with my own marketing guide and pricing & sales guide, and other fun templates like greeting card templates for pet photographers and other fun stuff from other photographers, and the most fun part- a blog, where myself and my colleagues talk about things like business and editing, and branding, and photography, and so much more.
The website isn’t just Cowbelly stuff, it also lists offerings from some of my talented colleagues, and since launching the site on August 1st, I’ve been adding content to it every day. Not only is the site a great place to network with other pet photographers (there is even a live chat!), but there is also the opportunity for pet photographers to do guest posts and have their websites and social media pages linked to. The site has received over 9,000 hits since launching on August 1st, so the exposure is great!
My goal for the site is for it too to be a rich and valuable resource for professional pet photographers- a resource they can turn to again and again.
Third, I opened up the little network I built and run- the Beautiful Beasties Pet Photography Network, to all photographers who shoot pets. It was initially exclusive to niche pet photographers, but now any professional photographer can join!
More info on membership criteria and how to join here: http://www.beautifulbeasties.com/beautiful_beasties_network/
Lastly, there is also a companion Facebook page for all of this Beautiful Beasties pet photography stuff.