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Professional Tips for the Aspiring Pet Photographer

Group portrait of six cute dogs against a red backdrop

Getting Started with People and Pet Photography

By: Michael Joseph

July 07, 2016

The Early Days

It actually all began after meeting a new friend at a part-time job in the Philadelphia suburbs. Nick was a graduate of Brooks Institute of Photography and his neighbor, Bill, a Purina Chow rep, challenged us to come up with a promotional photography event program. For about the next two years, on numerous weekends, we traveled from Boston to Baltimore photographing family pets, usually no people unless requested. We created a compact, double wide studio set-up, purchased watches that could be custom set to alarm every three minutes after hitting the set button. The idea was to handle about an average of 12 sessions per hour in each of our two set-ups. We quickly learned that in order to handle the volume of customers that showed up at these stores, we had to learn how to stay on time, get the attention of the subject, make the right noise and move them off the set for the next subject. On any given Saturday, we would photograph 100-125 sittings... each!

The experience and education in learning the breeds, how to get their attention, how to position and light them and the speed required to get the shot helped prepare me for what was about to unfold. In a companion to this article, “Part 1,” there will be a “Part 2” that expands on the technical how-to’s of what you're reading.

Photo shoot

An example image of our traveling, on the road "event" program, from the sales and samples area on the left, to the 12-foot background studio area with lighting and props on the right.

 

Taking it to the Next Level

It didn’t take long to realize that there was an available spot in the photography market... a valid one at that! But there were some missing key elements in order to run a full-time business and make a living.

  • The cost of not only setting up a local studio, but also having the willingness to take it on the road
  • The concept of making an event out of a “specialist” coming to town
  • The connection with a charitable, non-profit SPCA or Humane Society which lends credibility as host
  • The contribution of time and talent because any and all sitting fees go directly to the host organization
  • The combination of photographing individuals as well as entire families with pet(s) as their centerpiece!

CatThese key elements were quickly addressed, and marketing and promotion began in cities from Indianapolis to Miami. Some cities became “A” level... destinations repeating every year. Others became “B” level... every other year locations. “C” level cities were usually smaller or experimental towns that seemed worth trying. The sessions themselves would take place in one of two potential locations... either a vacant shopping center space that would be donated through corporate retail leasing agents, or the host humane society would have their very own, on-site education room that could be turned into our studio for however many days appointments might be booked.

Promotion and marketing efforts took place partially through the host organization and the rest was up to our studio efforts in reaching out to pet related businesses... groomers, veterinarians, etc. Obviously, repeating cities meant “past customers” could be marketed to as well... not only for their possible return, but for their enthusiastic referrals! Soon, one third of our sessions from town to town were repeat customers, one third referrals from past customers, and the final third would come from one of the marketing efforts listed above.

Also, an exclusive 800 number was established in order for appointments to be taken. And wardrobe recommendations were given along with price quoting in order to qualify the potential customer.

Originally, from this point on, there were three sessions booked per hour with the goal of shooting for two and a half days straight at about nine hours per day of shooting. The goal was to actually photograph 65 families and maintain an average of about $300 per sale. We would run two of these events per month and there was a studio representative to follow up the next week to present the images and close the sale.

 

Additional Refinement

Black dogAs the years advanced, however, the format evolved to forty to sixty minute sessions taking place over four to seven days of shooting at eight hours per day, with the goal of averaging $1000 per sale. The photographic quality was higher, the shooting style was not only sellable but became recognizable. The public perception of value, quality of product and experienced artist combined together made these averages possible.  Don’t forget, this was still a modified-volume portrait event.  Appointments were taken over the phone, not a one at a time sales situation in a fixed location studio where consultations would be possible!

During this period of operation, we would just stay in the market and begin sales at an upscale hotel with a suite that looked more like a condo or apartment... in other words... no bedroom or personal effects showing. That kept the feeling comfortable, professional and conducive to sales. Lighted samples on easels and tables were symmetrically and strategically arranged. There would be two 27” computers at opposite ends of the room. This allowed for a semi-private sales format, with two families or individuals to be seen and sold at one time! This cut the number of additional days in half to navigate through each sales session and collect the minimum 50% deposit required to create an order. It also created a certain psychological formula in which the fun of image selection between two families or individuals, although a half a room length apart, added a certain contagious element to sales! This format was our norm during the period ranging from 1994 to 2007. Our goal was to visit six cities per year, at about an average road trip of two to three weeks in length. It was out of the ordinary, but our longest event took five weeks to shoot and sell!

 

Thoughts on Recession Business Today

Everyone reading this article knows what took place in this country after 2007. Due to the recession, many long time pros closed their operations and even took public, full-time jobs. Some blamed the digital camera explosion and said, “Now everyone’s a photographer.” Or, some looked at the new “it’s good enough” syndrome that cropped up with the “do-it-yourselfer,” using their camera phones to satisfy their photography needs.

For us, the recession brought about a slight change in the host humane societies. They scaled down their number of employees and those that remained had the responsibilities of what would have formerly taken two or three employees. Their efforts on “special events” had to concentrate on the fundraisers that brought in five or even ten times the amount of funds that the Pet Portraits by Michael event would create. Fortunately through this period, some humane society directors remained on-board with our program... and looked at more of the “friend-raising” aspect of the event and not just the sitting fee funds.

I also believed and continue to believe in two concepts:

  1. That this program is a slight bit more “recession-proof” than some others. Mainly because it targets a distinct “niche” segment of the market.  There just haven’t been many doing what we’ve been doing or how we’ve been doing it. 
  2. In a down market there will always be a greater segment of the population that have or can take the time to do it themselves. But in any down market there are still those that have absolutely no time to fumble with creating their own family portrait, let alone including the family pet(s)!  They will gladly hire this service out to the professional.

Group of dogsSo, therein lies the challenge!  Finding a specialized area of photography that you’re not only passionate about, but that you eventually excel in...setting yourself apart from the others.  And, learning how to target the specific segment of the market that will want you to serve their need or desire for that kind of look or work!

Through the recession, our sales averages continued as usual, but the number of sessions decreased. We adapted by converting our large upstairs billiard room into a more than adequate, full-time studio space in order to concentrate on customers here in the greater Jacksonville, FL area.  In addition, we scaled down the volume event “road-trips” to just two or three per year and targeted a few of our favorite destination cities in which a large client base had been established through the years.

 

Product Quality Control

Black catFrom the late 80’s until today, we’ve been in complete control of everything that goes out the door.  We have everything needed to take an order from concept to completion... the 44” Canon iPF8400 printer, 27” print mounter, one hot and one cold laminator, and 50” spray booth and compressor.  We also have our favorite outside labs for smaller images and specialty items.  We’re proud of our product and the quality that goes into each piece. Occasionally, a customer will actually bring in a portrait to show us what I created years ago and explain how they’ve cherished it throughout the years.  I love seeing the pride in their expression, but I also enjoy, silently within my mind, seeing that the image has passed the test of time and the quality materials have endured as well!

 

A Few Thoughts On Canon Gear

Here is an overview of the Canon equipment that directly relates to the exact type of work I do.

• Canon EOS 5D Mark III

This is the best overall camera I’ve ever shot with.  The camera is well built and the features are robust.  The 22.3MP full frame sensor gives an incredible range of tonality from highlight to shadow.  Also, the Canon 5D Mark III has a lower shutter lag spec than the previous 5D and 5D Mark II.  They had a shutter lag of 72ms and 73ms (milliseconds).  When photographing pets and animals in general, this spec is super important!  The 5D Mark III is rated at 59ms, making it a close second to the EOS-1D X and EOS-7D II series of cameras, which are rated at 55ms.  The super fast twitch muscles of pets, particularly some of the smaller breeds, are so fast that even though you push the shutter button in time for the expression, the images is actually made some time during the push of your finger which results in the small fraction of delay, causing a missed expression.  Therefore, the lower the spec in shutter lag, the better the camera is for this type of work!

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

• Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

This is used as the portrait lens of choice for all my studio and location work.  With this updated model, compared to the previous generation, we now have a zoom lens that has been compared by many professional photographers to be as sharp as a prime lens!  If I did a ton of existing light work, I would have to go with the Canon EF 135mm f/2.0L USM, which would provide increased capability for low, existing light situations... not to mention the bokeh difference of an f/2.0 vs. f/2.8.  But at f/2.0, as beautiful as that depth-of-field falloff might be, you begin to enter the danger land of not enough depth of focus for photographing animals. I want the eyes and nose to be tack sharp with the image depth of focus falling off rapidly from that point.  This is my choice lens for all portrait work and you’ll read about how I use it in the “Part 2” companion article.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

• Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites & the Canon ST-E3-RT Transmitter used with various light modifiers & grids.

These Speedlites are actually the dawning of a new era of accurate, consistent and creative lighting for the working professional!  That’s a strong statement but one that is absolutely true.  They are built well and have a professional look, along with being lightweight and compact.  Recently, I traveled to Indianapolis to photograph families and their pets.  All sessions were on location in their homes or outdoors.  I used four Canon 600EX-RT units along with the Canon ST-E3-RT Transmitter for each and every session... the results were nothing less than amazing! 

Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites & the Canon ST-E3-RT Transmitter

• Canon CP-E4 Battery Packs

These lightweight battery packs hold eight AA batteries, are used everywhere I go and in every situation I’m working in.  Why?  Speed of recycle to get the next shot!  With a CP-E4 connected, a full power discharge would only take approximately two seconds!  Even more importantly, the fact that using multiple 600EX-RT Speedlites in what is known as the “group mode,” none of the 600EX-RT Speedlites will fire when you push the camera’s shutter button unless all the units are completely cycled up!  The padded black case that comes with each CP-E4 also has a wonderful design.  It allows four ways to mount to your belt or a strap... horizontal or vertical on either the right or left side of your body, a velcro strap for mounting to a light stand and a small slot for sliding a thin shoulder strap through!

Canon CP-E4 Battery Packs

 

My Inspiration

Someone might ask why I do this, or how I could have specialized in this one area for so long.  Yes, it’s a business and I’ve created revenue, but there’s been the three-way, win-win-win... for the hosting humane societies, the customers and our studio. For me, however, it goes much deeper.  You see, if I couldn’t photograph this work, I’d be the best customer of someone that could!  I love these animals and although I’m naturally partial to dogs (and to a cat that acts and responds to me as if they were a dog... they really exist), I can’t help but see the relationship between mankind and these lovely animals and how the owners value those relationships. The sad thought is that we all know we have these amazing creatures but for a season... they wrap themselves around our hearts and then one day, sometimes so unexpectedly, they’re gone.  The beautiful thought for me, is that I’ve captured and created a tangible legacy for these people to hold on to... along with their memories that last a lifetime!

Five dogs