October 5, 2007
Jamie Pflughoeft, Pet Photographer
Like many animal-loving kids, Jamie Pflughoeft grew up with dogs, cats and birds for pets, and she dreamed of working with animals someday. In college, she studied animal behavior while working as a pet sitter and dog walker on the side. Stifled after graduation by a tight job market, she decided in 2003 to turn her hobby – taking photos of her pet-sitting and dog-walking "clients" – into a full-fledged business. Today, as top dog of Cowbelly Pet Photography, she snaps the mugs of hundreds of critters a year, turning many of them into brightly colored, digitally enhanced artwork that she's dubbed Decopaw.
Q: How did you decide to hang your own shingle as a pet photographer?
A: I studied animal behavior at the University of Washington. My master plan was to start a dog training business. I graduated right after 9/11 and the job market was horrible, people were getting laid off right and left. I was willing to take any full-time job I could get working with animals that wasn't entry level. I looked for a job for a year but couldn't find one.
I had been doing pet photography as a hobby since 2000, never once considering that I could make a living at it. I'd been working part-time as a dog walker and a pet sitter for a pet-services company while I was going to school. And it was my clients' pets that I was photographing – for free. So I had a ready-made model base.
I got really great feedback on the photos I was taking and ended up creating a portfolio just for fun. A friend of mine who was also starting a business suggested that I turn my pet photography hobby into a business, and I thought: What a great idea. You know how in the cartoons a light bulb goes off? It was just like that.
Q: Did you have a full-time workload as a pet photographer right away or did that take time?
A: I started the business in July of 2003. But I've only been doing it full time for the past two and a half years. For the first year and a half I was doing dog walking part-time to supplement my income.
Do you have any formal photography training?
A: I took one photography class when I was 17. It was a film class and I did all my own darkroom stuff. I've always loved photography and I think I've always had an eye for it, but as far as the technical aspects of photography, I'm self-taught.
For this job, my background in working with dogs for six years as a dog walker and pet sitter and studying animal behavior at the university level was essential. I would not have this job now without that experience.
Q: What type of pets do you photograph?
A: Dogs are 85 percent of what I do. Cats are about 15 percent. I also shoot any other pet people want me to. I will shoot an iguana if you want. I've done rats and horses, too.
Q: Can you tell us about the custom "Decopaw art" you do?
A: It's basically graphic design work of pet photographs. I do everything in Photoshop. Then I send the work to my printer and he prints them on canvases that I can stretch. And then I provide them as stretch-canvas art pieces that people can hang on their wall. I started doing this work two years ago and I have 250 clients nationally. This is 50 percent of my work.
Q: What's a typical workday like for you?
A: Every day I do client contact -- e-mails and phone calls -- at least two hours a day, to current clients, potential clients and marketing partners, like a store that I have an art display hanging in.
On any given day I'm either doing a photo shoot at a client's house or a park and/or editing and printing photos. A photo shoot is only 90 minutes, but I give myself two-and-a-half hours for each shoot, driving there, preparing, getting home. I do an average of two or three shoots per week. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays are the days that I book most frequently. If I'm not doing a photo shoot on a given day, I'm designing Decopaw art proofs for clients. On average, I probably spend four or five hours a day on that.
Other things that I do: shipping orders out at the post office, trips to the art supply store for stretcher bars, errands and a little bit of administrative work. I typically don't do any paperwork until I absolutely have to -- filing papers that have piled up on my desk, filing contracts and catching up on accounting.
"I once went to a doggie pool party with 15 dogs in an indoor pool in Auburn. I was wearing a bathing suit and a lei. I got to play with and swim with 15 dogs at a birthday party. It was just as much fun as it sounds."
Q: What equipment does the job require?
A: I have two cameras, three photo printers and lots of software.
Q: Do you have a photography studio?
A: No studio. The Seattle Parks Department provides me with my studio. I don't use any lighting. I don't even use flashes. I just use my camera. I do shoots year-round, and I've only had to reschedule shoots four times because of the weather. And obviously kitties are shot indoors.
Q: What hours do you keep?
A: I have more energy at night, so I get my best work done between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m. I have the luxury of not having to do photo shoots early in the morning. I generally start my shoots at 11 a.m., which is perfect for me.
I don't have an assistant, so I average probably between 60 to 65 hours of work per week. That's definitely a con, not having enough balance in my life between work and everything else. But I think that will change over time.
Q: Do you have a crunch time?
A: My busy season is June through December, and November and December are insane. If I made as much [money every month] as I make in the four weeks before Christmas every year, I would be loaded. But if I worked like that every month, I would burn out.
Q: How can someone train to be a pet photographer?
A: Get a lot of experience working with animals. It's the number one most important thing for a pet photographer. Volunteer at a shelter and experience working with other people's pets and lots of different dogs and cats. Work at a dog day care business a couple days a week, even as a volunteer.
Number two is get business knowledge. Eighty-five percent of this job is being a small-business owner. Fifteen percent is being a pet photographer and artist. People think, "I'm going to photograph pets all day long." It's not like that.
Read books on starting a business. I also recommend people get a job or an internship at any small business – a PR firm, a florist, a dog-walking business. And taking a basic photography class is, of course, indispensible.
Q: How competitive is this line work?
A: It's still a fairly small market, though the demand is growing. Two years ago there still weren't a ton of people doing pet photography. But in the last year or two I've seen it exploding. I have former clients who are now pet photographers. It's getting more and more competitive.
Q: Any resources you recommend aspiring pet photographers check out?
A: PamperedPuppy.com is a tool to help with marketing research. There is a directory on the site, and some of the best pet artists and pet photographers are listed. I recommend people go to these pet photographers' sites and see what they're doing. Research pricing, research process, look at their style. Try to figure out how you can be different.
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