If you have a pet, then your smartphone probably has hundreds of snapshots of your furry friend from different angles, in natural light or playing with toys.
But have you ever wondered whether your pet photography hobby could turn into a paying gig?
Those impromptu photo shoots of your pet napping in the sun might be enough to jumpstart your new profession. While you might think you’re simply capturing your dog or cat at ease, that skill can earn big bucks.
There’s a reason why: Looking at photos of dogs actually makes people feel happier, more energized and relaxed. And that’s just when they look at images of other people’s dogs. Imagine how wonderful your new clients will feel when they look at their own pet portraits on the wall or add a four-legged family member to their holiday family portraits.
Ready to go into the pet photography business yet? Here’s everything you’ll need to know about photographing dogs, cats, lemurs and even … alligators.
Getting Started in Pet Photography: The Right Camera Gear
For some simple tips to help you get started in pet photography, we talked with an expert from Urban Dog Studio, a Pinellas Park, Florida, animal photography business.
Owner Laurie Elmer makes one thing clear: you don’t need the most expensive camera gear to get off the ground. When it comes to taking photos, here’s what you’ll need to get started.
- A DSLR camera. Elmer cautions against buying the highest-priced camera on the market, but also warns that a smartphone camera app or basic digital point-and-shoot camera are not viable options for a pet photography business. Getting a better camera and learning to really work with camera settings can have a big impact.
- A prime lens. A good lens is a must because it can outlast your camera. Elmer says she has used certain lenses for 10 to 15 years, long after her camera may have faded away. If you choose one piece of gear to invest in, make it your lens, she says.
- A reflector. Light is an important part of any photographer’s art. Knowing how to harness natural light when shooting outdoors and understanding when to find more light can delineate between a good photograph and a great one. A reflector bounces light onto the subject and creates a controlled glow for your pet portraits.
- Back-up equipment. Elmer recommends having a back-up camera and lens set. This isn’t something you necessarily have to buy. Borrowing from a friend before your photo session with Fifi will suffice until you earn enough revenue to purchase a second pair of gear.
Pet Photography Tips
Unfortunately, photographing pets is not just about tossing balls of yarn, handing out treats and watching tails wag. Much like photographing children, a photo shoot with pets is less predictable and requires some special skill sets.
A lot of work that goes into framing a pet portrait. And while having creative photography skills is important, understanding the animal in front of the lens is perhaps more so.
Here’s Elmer’s advice for pet photographers about dealing with animals.
- Understand animal behavior. Elmer recommends reading some books on animal behavior or taking courses on training dogs to really internalize animal body language. It’s a skill to know when a dog is stressed or overly excited or even aggressive, she says. A lens can be intimidating to a dog, and knowing when to take a break or try a different strategy is part of the job.
- Have an assistant if you can. Having somebody on hand who understands pets and understands this pet in particular makes a pet photographer’s life much easier. An assistant can help wrangle the pet, keep the animal in position or prompt it to make an expression worth capturing.
- Spend time with the pets — and their families — in advance. Elmer knows prospective pet photographers who want to get in the business to spend time with animals. They’re introverted and prefer as much time away from people as possible. But half of being an animal photographer is dealing with humans. And part of the role is celebrating the “bond that a pet has with its owner,” Elmer says. That’s why she holds pre-session consultations with each of her clients to get a better sense of the animal’s dynamic, how it fits in the family and what sort of activities it enjoys.
- Learn how to deal with different animals. While Elmer’s business is named Urban Dog Studio, she photographs more than just dogs. In the last year alone, her team has worked with cats, dogs, rabbits, an alligator, a tortoise, a lemur and a squirrel, among others. A home shoot might be the best option for a cat if you want a personality-packed photograph. For wilder animals, Elmer says they need to come with a handler because something can go wrong or the animals may require special treatment.
- Decide where you want to shoot. There’s a place for every kind of photographer — people who shoot outside, in a studio or in a client’s home. If you’re adventurous, you can do all three. But when starting out, simply shooting outdoors is usually sufficient as long as you know how to use light. Be wary of animals getting exhausted when the weather is hot or inclement outside.
How Much Can You Make As a Pet Photographer?
Elmer has been photographing animals professionally for more than 15 years. But it wasn’t until 2019 that she left her full-time corporate job to work in pet photography as a small business owner.
The pandemic made things difficult, but she will eventually be on track to surpass her corporate salary with the revenue from Urban Dog Studio.
One of the lessons Elmer has learned over the years is that a pet photography booking takes far more time than just the photo session. She spends about 10 hours per client on planning, talking, shooting and editing. Understanding that time equation helps her find the best rate.
On average, Urban Dog Studio’s clients spend between $1,500 to $3,000 for a photo session and take-home photographs. Elmer also sells wall art starting at $550.
Elmer also knows that shoots can’t happen once a day. She manages her photo shoots so she doesn’t find herself working a more-than-40-hour week.
But business models and rates can vary. Sarasota, Florida, Dog Street Photography owner and photographer Kim Longstreet charges a session fee of $175, which includes up to two hours of photo time. Clients get a few photo prints, plus up to 50 more in a “password protected online viewing gallery,” which remains active for three weeks. Longstreet sells additional professional prints starting at $40 each, and offers packages starting at $175.
Of course, the time involved never ends with the last click of the shutter.
Pet photographers have to take on various equipment and business expenses to keep things running. Photographer Shannon Holden says she had to raise her fees once she discovered that, after expenses and accounting for all the time she spent on her photos, she was making less than $6 per hour.
Pet Photography Expenses To Plan For
Here are some of the ongoing expenses Holden says you’ll have to plan for:
- Repairs and replacement of equipment
- Business registration renewals
- City occupational taxes
- Sales tax license fees
- A professional accountant
- Liability insurance
- Educational workshops
- Fees for professional organizations
- Magazine subscriptions
- Advertising materials
- Website hosting fees
These costs can add up to thousands of dollars annually. It’s important to remember that only a portion of what you charge will make it to the bottom line — something to keep in mind when pricing your services.
How to Build Success for Your Pet Photography Business
When Elmer found her way in pet photography, it was on a bit of a lark.
Her background was in landscape and conservation photography, but she offered to help her husband with photos when he opened a new veterinary practice. Those photographs were eventually hung in the lobby, leading to requests from new clients.
The rest is history. Elmer started receiving routine editorial work from magazines like Dog Fancy and cemented her freelance pet photography career.
Advice From a Pet Photography Pro
Elmer has learned a few things along the way and has some advice for people starting out in pet photography.
- Learn about light. Light is one of the most important aspects of photography. Understanding how to use and harness light, whether in indoor or outdoor environments, can make or break a photograph
- Learn about animals. Even if you’re already a photographer, you may need additional training and preparation to work with animals. Holden suggests that you take thousands of photos and constantly look at how you can improve them. Start with your own pets, experimenting with various backgrounds. She also suggests joining a photography club or online forum where you can share your work and get some unbiased feedback and advice.
- Find the right fit for you. Working for a company is almost always easier than working for yourself. That means it’s up to you to decide whether running your own business is what you really want. Elmer suggests considering what you want your life to look like in two to three years. Is there a way your business can enhance that or fit into that?
- Be flexible. You may find that you love doing things you thought you hated or hate doing things you thought you loved. It’s important to have a plan for your business and also be willing to change that plan as things come up.
- Know what you’re in for. Finally, remember that photographing animals is a small part of the job. Much of that time will be spent running administrative work for the business or dealing with clients or managing overhead expenses. So be sure that working with animals and photographing pets is what you really love. If it is, you’re guaranteed a career full of rewards — at least in the form of licks and pets.
Writer Elizabeth Djinis is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder, often writing about selling goods online through social platforms. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Smithsonian Magazine and the Tampa Bay Times. Work from former contributor Steve Gillman was used in this report.