When photographers start photographing pets, whether as an add-on to an existing portrait business or starting out photographing only pets, they might approach pet photography like a regular portrait business, except that their subjects have fur. Yes, there are similarities in photographing dogs and two year old children, but the marketing part is somewhat different.

Let’s start out with the fact that dogs don’t “have events.”  That is, unlike people, you are rarely going to photograph a dog at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months and a year, like you might with a human baby plan. You are also not going to photograph a dog as a high school senior, or at an engagement or wedding. We, as photographers and the U.S. culture in general, have marked these milestones in human lives as opportunities to photograph the event and create memories.

Dogs don’t have these kinds of events in their lives and they live a much shorter span of time. The culture doesn’t currently exist that creates the need to have a pet photographed on a regular basis.

So what do we do? In some ways a pet photographer is like a human wedding photographer in that they are more dependent on referrals from existing clients than from repeat business. Yes, there will always be a certain segment of your clientele that will come back every year, but for the most part, repeat clients usually come back every 6 to 8 years. It’s when they get a new dog.

Certainly there are referral strategies we can use to get new clients from the existing clients, and every business should be using those. But there needs to be more that we can do to bring repeat clients through the door more frequently.

Part of bringing them back is educating them on why they need to come back more often than every six years. A dog changes very little in appearance from year to year compared to the changes in a human. You need to create reasons for them to come back. After all, it was probably a photographer who invented the idea of a high school journey not being complete without getting a senior portrait. And a man and woman can certainly become engaged without having an engagement portrait done.

I’m sure it was partly photographers who created that need for engagement photography.  It was DeBeers that created the need for spending big bucks on diamond engagements rings back in the 1939. The need to spend lots of money on diamonds didn’t exist before that.  We can do the same for pets. Since the culture hasn’t created the events or the need for pet photography yet, we pet photographers need to create our own.

Let’s start by finding out why people come to you. We’ll look at reasons other than a referral from a friend. Is their dog ill? Did they just get a new dog? Are they frustrated with their inability to take pictures of their own dog who just happens to have black fur? There are many reasons. You need to know why people are looking and what prompted them to look at that moment.

Then what? Take those ideas and start creating “events” of your own, or create products available for a limited time. They become the reasons for clients to come to you more frequently.

You might do a pet version of themed, limited edition mini sessions. Do something other than your regular style. Don’t include people in the mini sessions because that gives the owner a reason to come back to book a regular session. Charge a price that is commensurate with your regular session pricing. Do them only a couple of times a year, or during your slow times. Partner with a pet charity. Frankly I look at the mini sessions as not just a way to bring new and old clients through the door, but also an opportunity for me to try out new things to keep me creatively fueled.

Don’t think that the sales from these mini sessions will be “mini orders” either. I regularly have $2,000 and $3,000+ orders from these mini sessions! I also have a client who has attended most every mini session the past three years with the idea of doing an album of all of the mini sessions… a product I hadn’t thought much about until she suggested it!

I have clients who come back every year for me to create very custom Christmas and holiday cards for them. Some have been coming back to me for 10 years or more. These are not “plug an image into a template” kind of cards. These are creative cards that tell a story. Over the years as dogs come and go, these cards tell their family’s story.  Again, I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t profitable, and it gets returning clients in the door another time.
I realize not everyone wants to devote the time to coming up with creative ideas for client holiday cards. But take the basic idea of creating events or timely products and find something that works for you. Build on what you found out when you asked your clients about the timing of their inquiry.

Be sure to educate your client or potential client about coming to you when they get a new dog, especially if it is a puppy. Photographing the puppy with an object of known size is a “must”, since later they will forget how small the puppy really was. Some pet photographers have found success with doing a “Baby Plan” with a puppy. Try these ideas or come up with your own.

The hardest part about educating your clients is talking about photographing a dog that is gravely ill. You need to be sensitive in telling people to come to you after the dog has been diagnosed, but before he/she looks sick.  Start early and plant seeds while the dog is still well and vibrant. You need to have a plan for photographing gravely ill dogs on short notice. You also need to have products that directly address remembering a dog who has died. We photographers don’t usually talk to our human clients about dying, but we need to appropriately and sensitively discuss it with our pet clients.

One way to plant some seeds is when you are first showing your regular product samples, you show your products to memorialize a dog (I am assuming that the dog is healthy at this point.) It could be special jewelry, a special matted photo on an easel, a box to keep the dog’s collar or other keepsakes, or something else you create. The point is to introduce it early and plant the seeds for when it is needed later. Sometimes the willingness of a photographer to sensitively discuss a pet’s future makes all of the difference in the choice to return.

Pet owners usually regard their pets as children. Their “children” don’t usually have reasons to celebrate the times of their lives. It’s up to you to create reasons to memorialize those moments with photography.

Margaret Bryant is an award winning photographer who specializes in photographing dogs and their people. Her style is simple, original and authentic and often shows the humor and whimsy of dogs. She shares her knowledge with others with speaking, teaching, private coaching and writing.