Interview with Pet Photographer: Carli Davidson

When I asked professional pet photographer, Carli Davidson, what she thinks it takes to be a good pet photographer, she said: “When I work with animals, I am an animal.  I know this sounds kinda crazy, but it’s how I get to a point where the animals are willing to let me cram a camera in their face and pop off tons of lights all around them in an unfamiliar place. You kind of have to get into their heads.”

If you like pets and would like to learn more about how to photograph them for spare cash, scroll below for my interview with Carli and how she got her start in animal photography…

-- Lori

Lori Allen
Director, Great Escape Publishing

By Lori Allen in Alexandria, VA

LORI: How did you get into pet photography?

CARLI: I started photographing animals when I was in high school. We had a black and white darkroom and I was pretty much in there every second I could sneak away.

15 years later while I was working at The Oregon Zoo, I had an “Ah Ha!” moment when Michael Durham, the zoo photographer, suggested that I start a pet photography business. I always liked working with animals (hence my job working from the zoo) and I also always liked photography so it made sense.

I rented a studio, took a bunch of pictures of my friends’ pets (and a few dogs I accosted on the street), and created my first ad. From there things really took off!

LORI: I know you love animals.  What do you think it takes to be a good pet photographer?

CARLI: When I work with animals, I am an animal. I know this sounds kinda crazy, but it’s how I get to a point where the animals are willing to let me cram a camera in their face and pop off tons of lights all around them in an unfamiliar place. You kind of have to get into their heads.

You have to be open to a lot of different animal personalities, too, and sometimes be an impromptu pet therapist. I get some dogs and even cats that LOVE the camera, but to many of them, it’s a big scary eye! I often begin my session by making sure the animals like the camera… let them lick it even (I use UV filters to protect the lens) before pointing it at them.

I’m also a strong believer in researching your subject. Buy some good books on dog behavior and training so you can recognize fear behaviors and problem solve. I love Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas and Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor to name a few.

LORI: Can you tell us a little bit about your first paying client?  Where did you find her?

CARLI: My first paying client was a woman who saw my flyer in a pet shop. I started my price point where I wanted to end up, and made 50% off flyers for the first two months so I could build a reputation. It worked out well because one of her friends came into see me a couple months later raving about the photos! By that time, I had a strong enough portfolio and enough experience at this new industry to feel confident in charging my full price.

LORI: Where do your clients come from today?

CARLI: Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and I’m a social butterfly. I had friends that work for some of the bigger companies here in Portland, like Nike and Adidas, post flyers around their workplaces. I also gave killer deals to the first couple of employees I shot for so they would rave about me to their friends.

The more I shoot and post animals for rescues (this is unpaid donation work), the more business I get from people saying those were the photos that drew them in. I feel really good being able to give this service to the shelter community, so it’s a win-win.

Facebook has also been a great resource. I post my face of the day or “Mug Shot” a few times a week to keep my fans excited about my product.

I also started with a bang, I made catchy flyers and put them in every pet-related business in Portland.

LORI: Do you think you need top-of-the-line equipment to be a good pet photographer?

The most important thing is your motivation and your way with animals. That said, animals move a lot and focusing on their eyes instead of their noses can be greatly facilitated by good, fast equipment.

I recommend a fast focusing lens with a shallow depth of field, to help with stopping motion in low light, and learning how to use your individual focus points if you have a digital SLR. I also recommend an SLR with high ISO capabilities, so you can stop motion better in low light, especially if you’re planning on shooting action shots.

If you’re going to buy studio equipment, I recommend strobes or mono lights with a fast flash duration to help you stop motion… animals tend to be fidgety!

LORI: What does a typical day for you look like?  And how many days a week do you work?

CARLI: Having my own business means that I work almost every day. I love what I do, though, so it’s not a problem for me.

I do commissioned pet shoots around four to five times a month, commercial shoots about once every other month, and personal art project shoots about four times a month. In addition to these, I do a couple of unpaid donation shoots every month for local animal rescues.

Every shoot requires that I do editing work on my photos on my computer.  I process them in Adobe Lightroom, build an online gallery, communicate with my client about how to purchase photos, and other photo-related items from me, and then, of course, I have to bill.

Once a client decides what they want to purchase, I retouch my images and send them to my printer.

In addition to all this, there are marketing materials to make, connections to upkeep, events to go to, a website to maintain, and my own pets to take care of.

Again, it’s a full-time job.  Somehow the time just seems to fill up! But I have to say that I really love the flexibility of being my own boss.  I can take long lunches and walk my dog in the park, travel, visit friends, make important phone calls without my co-workers sticking their noses in.  It’s great.

It’s also fun work that gets me outside a lot.  I don’t have to sit behind a desk all day, everyday.  And it sure beats cleaning up poop at the zoo (though I have to admit that I loved my job there).

LORI: Do you travel?

I started traveling for shoots last year and it was great! I leaned a lot about the do’s and don’ts of how to create a working environment on the go. I recently purchased a bunch of cases to make my equipment more airplane friendly, and I’m building a marketing package just for out of city clients. I hope to do much more traveling in the coming years and set up client lists in cities around the world.

LORI: So, I know you’ve only been at this for a year but can you give us an idea about what you’re able to charge for your photography and how much you make?

CARLI: Well, lik
e you said, this is just my first year.  My sister actually suggested that I start my own pet photography business a while ago, but I dismissed the idea because I didn’t want to photograph dogs in baskets and silly costumes like some pet photographers do.

I had no idea (at the time) that I could call the shots and create the photos I wanted to create and that someone would pay me for that.

My style is my own.  I photograph pretty unique looking dogs and cats and like I said earlier, I do a lot of non-profit work with shelters and disabled animals which I’m not paid for.  And that’s my choice.

My commissioned shoots are $200 for the shoot and online gallery. I have a $100 print minimum, and people usually average $400 on prints and products.  My net on these comes to about $2,400 a month.

I think that’s pretty good for my first year.  And it says a lot that I didn’t have to sacrifice what I love to photograph just to make a buck.  Sure, I could probably make a lot more shooting that kind of photography.  But I don’t think I’d love what I’m doing as much as I love it now.

I’ve also been approached by Getty Images about my photos because of the niche I carved for myself.  So sometimes, I think it pays to stay true to yourself and what you really want to do.

My formalized pet photography business is still very new at only a year and a half out, so I feel comfortable that my numbers will only continue to grow with time.

It was really scary to drop my full-time job and steady paycheck at first, but now that I can see a bigger trend I feel much more confident about where I’m going.

I took a bit of a blind leap getting into this business, but I’m pretty sure it’s the best thing I ever did for myself. I’ve always loved being both an animal worker and a working photographer, so now that I’ve joined the two, everything seems to have fallen into place.

LORI: Thanks Carli.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about how you can turn your pictures into cash in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.  Sign up here today and we’ll send you a new report, Selling Photos for Cash: A Quick-Start Guide, completely FREE.]