How long have you been in business and what drew you into photography, specifically pet photography?
I started my business in early 2006, after quitting a full time graphic design job. I always had a knack for photography, and would go on “super adventures” with my college roommate and our film cameras. We’d photograph abandoned farms, junkyards, rivers, whatever we could find. With my first digital camera, I started photographing friends’ babies and kids. Word spread and I had a growing photography business alongside freelancing graphic design. I quickly learned, however, that I am indeed NOT a kid person; I usually found myself gravitating to the family pet. I then read an article about Amanda Jones, and was blown away that someone could be successful only photographing animals. When I had thought about “photographers,” all I really knew was the wedding / senior / family variety. So I started doing some volunteer work with rescues in Minneapolis, and through that I got involved with other pet businesses, did some mini-session days for practice and publicity, and it’s grown from there.
A strong technical knowledge is such an important aspect of running a successful photography business, how did you learn your craft? What recommendations do you have for those just starting out?
The only photography classes I ever had were one in 8th grade and one in college. Both were mainly about the film process, developing, enlarging, etc, and not much about technique or style. My “super adventure” friend knew her way around some manual settings, and we would experiment with long exposures and different lighting. At my design job, that was my first real experience with a digital camera, and my boss helped me figure out how to make it work. I got to learn a bit about studio lighting and product photography there as well. I was lucky enough to second-shoot with a wedding photographer I admired, and she helped me even more. So I’d like to say I’m self-taught, which is essentially true, but I did have some guidance along the way. Once I started really getting into the pet thing, I learned more on-the-job skills and settings specifically needed for fast-moving animals and lighting conditions that may not be ideal. In retrospect, I sometimes wish I’d have had more formal training, but I think I ended up ok. I’ve taken a few workshops and online webinars, and I’d love to do more and continue growing and learning. For those starting out, definitely take whatever learning opportunities come your way, whether it’s classes or workshops or someone you look up to. But you don’t start to really understand the equipment or develop your own style until you have real-world experience and practice, practice, practice.
What is in your camera bag? Is there a particular piece of equipment that you just couldn’t live without?
I shoot Nikon, really only because it’s what I had used before. I went from the d50 to the d200 to the d700, which I’ve had now for over 4 years. I have 3 lenses I shoot with consistently: Nikon 24-70 f/2.8, Nikon 70-200 VR II f/2.8, and Nikon 35mm f/1.4. The 24-70 is my workhorse, I use it exclusively in the studio, and much of my location work as well. The 35 is my lifesaver, allowing in-home images I could never get with the other lenses. The 70-200 is awesome for letting dogs run around outside. So at this point, I don’t want to live without any of my arsenal, but if I had to choose, it would be the 24-70.
What do you enjoy most about shooting on location and in-studio?
Studio is predictable and where I have the most experience. I know where the lights need to be, what settings, what I want to achieve. I like matching my solid color backgrounds with the animals, and the crisp, clean, distinctive images that ensue. I LOVE the action-stopping capabilities of the lights, allowing for some great “Crazyballface!”
Location is more challenging, just because I usually have no idea what the place will look like until I’m there. Most clients do location sessions at their homes and backyards, and it can really force creativity out of necessity; finding bright enough areas to shoot in that don’t look cluttered, having enough space, where is the sun coming from and can we make their yards look nice. It’s a fun challenge, and I feel like I learn something new every time I shoot on location.
What prompted you to start offering your Joy Sessions?
In late 2009, a woman booked a session for her friend, Joan, who was in hospice care. Joan had a service dog named Joy, (who would become the service’s namesake) and this dog was her world. She was so excited and so grateful that I was taking these photos for her, to capture their relationship and give her something to look back on and enjoy. Talking with Joan, I realized that what I was doing had a much deeper meaning than just pictures of cats and dogs; I was capturing relationships and memories and giving people one of the few things that will last after they’re gone. Shortly after that I had a session with a dog that had just been diagnosed with cancer and it all started coming together. I knew that more people out there must feel the same way about their pets, would someday be experiencing sickness and loss, and would love to have something special and beautiful to remember their loved ones. The idea has been steadily catching on, and I’m currently shooting about 3-7 (or more) Joy Sessions every month.
What do you find to be your most valuable marketing strategy for Joy Sessions?
I think the idea itself is so touching and relatable, that when people find out about it, they just want to share it with others. I work with a few vet offices and in-home euthanasia businesses who promote the service or talk about it on their websites. I have a fairly large fan base on Facebook, and when I post Joy Session images, they get more comments and shares than most anything else. A local news station did a story about it in October, and a number of recent clients have said that’s where they first heard about it. The vast majority is through vet offices and word of mouth. I recently launched a new website,www.joysession.com, where photographers who offer a similar service can sign up to be listed in the directory. Owners can then search to find a photographer in their area, hopefully giving more and more people the opportunity for beautiful images of their pets before they pass. I’m planning to really push the website this spring, and put together licensing opportunities for others to use the Joy Session name.
As you know, sales is a very important part of running a profitable business. What are the most successful sales strategies for your business?
I don’t know that I have “sales strategies” per se, I just have the products that I offer available to see and touch at the studio, and work with the clients to find the right solutions for their home and budget. The products really seem to sell themselves; for example, if it’s in their budget, once they see the albums they have to have one.
I love that you partner with a Rescue of the Month! Tell us a little bit about that program as it sounds like it’s a win-win for both the rescue and your business!
It’s definitely a win-win! The rescues get the benefit of some free publicity, a couple photos for their petfinder.com listings, and a percentage of all session fees from that month. In return the rescues promote my business, and hopefully bring in more clients for me. I’ve gotten a lot of bookings directly from my work with rescues, and I think it’s a pretty good partnership. I like to work with the smaller, lesser-known groups; the big ones already have a ton of support and tend to work with lots of other photographers. I want to help out the little guys, as well as not get lost in the sea of promotions that the bigger rescues are doing. I have my favorites I like to support every year, but am always happy to find new ones that could use some help.
I remember seeing on your blog last year sometime a post about a trip to Mexico that you took to help document the great work of a charity that was offering spay and neuter services. It sounds like it was a very rewarding, albeit challenging, trip. How did you get involved in that project?
That was through one of my favorite local organizations, Pet Project Rescue. We were talking about their ongoing work with Mexican street dogs and spay / neuter clinics, and we both thought it would be cool for me to come down there and take photos, so they arranged for me and my boyfriend to attend a clinic in Cancun and document a couple of the days. We ended up putting the cameras down and getting our hands dirty on the last day, when they were short-staffed. It was hot and messy and chaotic at times, but it was an incredible experience, and I’d really like to go again sometime. After the trip, Pet Project Rescue was having a fundraiser and we printed about 20 of my images to sell. Attendees loved seeing the first-hand experience, and the rescue made some money on the prints.
What do you think the next 5 years will look like for the pet photography industry?
Anything pet-related is definitely a hot industry right now. Dogs and cats are showing up in tons of ads and commercials, many people are spending more and more money on their pets and products keep getting better, higher-end, organic, etc.As more and more people are starting to offer it, things are already getting a bit overrun. I think it will continue to be a lot like the wedding or child photography industries –much more commonplace, lots of competition, people all across the spectrum of skill and pricing. I’ve already seen businesses come and go locally; not everyone is cut out for it. I think the perception of “playing with puppies all day” and the ease of taking pictures with relatively cheap, really nice cameras draws a lot of people in. To actually be successful, however, you have to be ready for the business aspect: bookkeeping, taxes, professional (i.e. not cheap) equipment, working with people, file management, technical problems, marketing, editing and managing your time so you don’t burn out. I feel like I came in at the right time, when pet photography was just sort of burgeoning everywhere. The stage has been set for new people to come in and offer a service that more and more people already want. Unfortunately, with the influx of people comes unethical practices of copying, plagiarizing and all-out stealing of others’ images, pricing, wording and style. I hope to see the good ones – the unique, honest and talented ones – continue to be the big names in the industry and pushing themselves toward even better and more original work, and continue to set the bar for what pet photography can truly be. I never imagined I’d be where I am today, and I’m very much looking forward to what will grow from this “job” of mine 🙂
Thank you so much for sharing your time and knowledge with us! Where can Hair of the Dog readers find your work and follow you?
Thank you so much for the opportunity!