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Five Things You Need to Know Before Starting a Pet Photography Business

Pet photography is a fast growing and super fun genre of photography, and it’s awesome to see so many people wanting to celebrate animals and the role they play in our lives! But how do you turn your passion for animals and photography into a thriving and successful business? What do you need to consider before setting up your business? Today I’m sharing the knowledge I’ve gathered over the last three years to help you prepare yourself for what is the best job in the world.

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#1 Do you really love animals?

Pet photography is messy, dirty, and at times incredibly frustrating work. You need to be comfortable with being jumped on by Great Danes, pawed by pugs, and scratched by cats. You need to be happy crawling through the mud, and bending and stretching at weird angles.

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This was shot lying on the wet ground on a freezing cold morning – but totally worth it!

You also need to be exceptionally patient. Often at the start of a shoot your subject will spend about half an hour running around like crazy, and jumping all over the place before finally calming down enough for you to photograph. You also need to accept that you will never have that much control over your subject – try telling a puppy to sit still and tilt his head 45 degrees!

At some point, your camera equipment will get covered in drool, your shoes will get peed on, and you will end up ruining several pairs of pants. So if you don’t really, truly, love animals, you are going to find the whole process miserable and give up very quickly.

#2 Is there a market for it?

I am lucky enough to live in a city (Melbourne, Australia) that has the highest rate of dog ownership in the country. People here absolutely adore their pets. There are high-end pet stores, hundreds of dog friendly cafes and parks, and so many Pet Expos that I have lost count. But that’s not always going to be the case for your area, so do your research. Some good things to find out are:

  • What’s the rate of pet ownership? Your local council is a good resource.
  • What is the general attitude towards pets? Do people see dogs as “just dogs” or are they part of the family or substitute children?
  • Are there lots of pet friendly cafes, restaurants, and parks? What are the pet shops in your area like? Do they sell just the basics or are they a bit fancier?
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Kimbo is most definitely part of the family.

It’s also a good idea to factor in things like the amount of disposable income the average pet owner has, and the general cost of living. One really handy tip – if the area you are in isn’t particularly pet friendly, focus your marketing on areas further afield.

#3 Do you have the right equipment and know how to use it?

Pet photography is similar to sports and wedding photography in the sense that if you miss a moment, it’s not likely to be repeated. We all know that equipment doesn’t make the photographer, but at a minimum you want to have a DSLR, prime lenses that autofocus (the 50mm f/1.4 is a great place to start), a good quality zoom lens, high-speed memory cards, and an speedlight you can use off-camera if necessary.

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Proof that with the right equipment, you can make it look as if a puppy is standing still.

Get to know your equipment back to front before you start charging for your work. Figure out how to change your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO without looking, and know how to change your lenses quickly. Some of the best shots come without warning, and if you’re staring at your camera wondering why something isn’t working, you’ll miss the shot.

As you know, practice makes perfect, and the only way to get really good at photographing pets and knowing your equipment is to find the most badly behaved animals you can and shoot, shoot, shoot. There’s no point in using well behaved, well trained dogs, because there are so many that aren’t. You know the friend who has a dog that jumps all over the furniture and runs in circles constantly? The friend with the cat who hates everyone? Practice with these sorts of pets and your camera will become like an extension of you before too long.

#4 What’s your style?

You know you’ve made it as a photographer when people can pick out your work from a line up. Having a distinct style is so important for setting you aside from the crowd. Here are some things to consider to help you find your style:

Are you a natural light or a studio photographer?
Do you like clean, clear backgrounds that don’t distract from the pet, or do you like contrasting backgrounds that add to the photo?
Do you like posed shots or natural?
How do you feel about styled shoots? Using props?
Do you want a soft or high contrast feel to your shots?
Do you like obvious post production or a more subtle approach?
Do you want to incorporate the pet owners in the shots?

When I started my business, I saw a gap in the market for really beautiful, shallow depth of field shots of pets. I also happen to love shooting with my lenses wide open, so that became my style. It has been refined over the years, but people hire me because they want beautiful, close up, emotive shots with a sense of warmth and humour to them. I only shoot in soft natural light, no direct sun, and I don’t do high action shots such as agility shows. I also very rarely photograph people with their pets, because it’s not my thing.

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Props can be an awesome way to bring a bit of humour to your shots.

Remember – do what you love and what feels good for you. Copying another photographer’s style is a waste of time and won’t help you grow.

#5 How are your animal handling skills and knowledge?

This is such an important thing to consider before you start your business. Safety (both yours and your subject’s) is extremely crucial. At best, you can be opened up to a law suit, at worst, you could seriously injure or kill someone’s pet.

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When you’re dealing with 40 kilos (88 pounds) of Doberman, you want to be confident with your animal handling skills.

Be honest with your skill level. For example, I have grown up and volunteered around cats my entire life, and I’m very comfortable with them. I also know their body language, signs of stress, and how to play with them properly. But I didn’t know nearly as much about dogs. I volunteered for a shelter walking dogs, taking photos, and doing general handling, which helped me a huge amount. I also did some basic dog handling courses, as well as reading up on different breeds and their personalities. I’m now at the stage where I’m 100% comfortable dealing with all breeds and sizes of dogs.

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Ellie is fourteen years old, so I was very mindful of her range of mobility. She was happiest lying on her bed, so I shot around this rather than forcing her to stand up.

Even if you grew up with dogs, it’s a great idea to read up on the different breeds and their traits. This will help you so much when you are shooting, and by knowing what makes a certain breed tick you’ll be able to produce some great pictures.

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Ralph and Gidget were on lead for this session, and the leashes were removed later in Photoshop. We had so much more fun knowing that there wouldn’t be any unforeseen accidents.

Unless you’re shooting in a fenced in, off-lead area, it’s better to be safe than sorry and keep the dog on a long lead. That way you avoid any accidents, and you can always edit leads out later in Photoshop (a big secret of pet photographers). Never, ever force a dog or cat to do something physically uncomfortable.

Lastly, one final safety tip – always talk to the owner BEFORE you start shooting. Find out as much as you can about their pet. That way, if certain things terrify or stress them, you know what to avoid. Always check for food allergies before offering treats!

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Did someone say treats??

I hope that this article has given you some things to consider – and most importantly, don’t forget to have fun!

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Erin McNulty
Erin McNulty

is a Professional pet photographer, animal mad, crazy cat lady, dog lover extraordinaire. I’m the girl who always stops to meet a new dog on my walk, and the girl who will cuddle the cat at the party instead of socializing. I’m also the author of SnapnPaws – Adorable Pet Photography in a Snap. For more cute animals and fun shots, follow me over on Instagram.

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