Guest Blog: Professional Animal Portrait Photographer, Pet Photography Business Coach and Dog Hugger, Alex Cearns
Hi all! Greetings from the land down under. Thanks to Scott and Brad for inviting me to share some of my work and background info with you. I hope you’re staying safe and well. It’s been terrible to see the devastating financial impact Covid had on areas of our industry. May the sun keep rising and world keep turning – and lets hope brighter days are ahead for not just photography, but the planet as a whole.
IN THE BEGINNING
My lifelong love of animals began during my formative years in outback Australia where my father was a sheep shearer and wool valuer. As an only child, my constant companions were my dogs, guinea pigs, horses, rabbits and bottle-fed lambs. My family had a great regard for Australian wildlife and I often helped my mother rescue and care for a wide array of injured kangaroo joeys, birds and other creatures until they could be released back into their natural habitat.
At age 11 I moved with my family to the Pilbara, an area in northern Western Australia, and a place that was the ideal environment to grow up in. I spent much of my spare time there exploring the surrounding desert with my Rottweiler, Ally.
Driven by a desire to contribute to society, I joined the Western Australian Police Service at age 19 and served for 14 years as a police officer and crime analyst. In 2005 I was burnt out from the stresses of the job, and I transferred to the Australian Federal Government, where I worked for five years as a Senior Transport Security Inspector, auditing city and regional airports and airlines for their counter-terrorist security measures. I travelled a lot during this time, often doing up to 200 flights a year. And I hate flying, but that’s a whole other story!
THE FOCUS OF MY LENS
Photography became a serious passion in 2006. On occasion I’d used a point-and-shoot camera and film camera until then, but when a friend showed me the scope of digital photography I was hooked. Never one to do things by halves, I spent every spare moment studying photographic literature, and practicing the craft on my own pets, those of friends and family, as well as farm animals and wildlife. I tried a few other genres such as landscapes and people, but animals enthralled me more than any other subject. Within a short period of time, I knew animals would be the focus of my lens.
THE SHOT WHICH CHANGED EVERYTHING
On a work trip to the stunning Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean Territories I photographed a group of giant blue clams underwater. Mesmerised by the vivid colours of the clams I waited patiently to get the right shot.
One of the images called ’Blue Clams’ received positive feedback from family and friends and I felt encouraged to enter it into a selection of photographic competitions. I was thrilled (and a bit surprised!) when it won several major awards. This led to gallery representation and print sales of the image – and was the first time I felt like my photographs had a value. People actually wanted to pay money for one of my images.
I think ‘Blue Clams’ was a huge turning point in helping me realize I could take saleable images and that I should take my photography hobby more seriously. As an aside, I now sell ‘Blue Clams’ as a limited edition 20×30″ metallic print and have generated over $70,000 from it. I am so grateful for that photograph.
Wanting to create a dedicated shooting space, I converted a small office at the back of our property into a photographic studio and spent every weekend filling requests for pet portraits. What started as a weekend hobby was growing so much and I found myself working up to 100 hours per week in both jobs. It was crazy busy but thrilling to gradually see the emergence of a viable business in which I could merge my two passions – animals and photography.
TAKING A HUGE RISK
Fifteen months after opening my studio door, demand for my images was increasing and I was starting to get behind with admin tasks and orders. I knew a decision had to be made – stick with my safe Government job or take a chance on this burgeoning, in demand business. At the time I was debt free and my back up plan if photography bombed was to work in a pet products store. I decided to be take a leap of faith and left my government role. Houndstooth Studio was born.
At the time, I didn’t know anything about business, and I was leaving behind a 19 year secure Government career, where I received sick leave, great superannuation, and had the guarantee of regular income. But to be honest, it was a no brainer decision – I was dying on the inside working for someone else and photography was what fueled my soul. I wanted to take the chance and give it my best shot.
The minute I devoted 100% of my time to my business, clients started booking in droves, and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve photographed over 15,000 pets since i opened my doors and consistently earned an annual six figure income for more the past nine years.
Photography has bought so many incredible people and experiences into my life. I’ve been blessed to visit all seven continents leading ethical animal photography tours, am the author of 6 published books, have coached some of the best pet photographers in the world and helped them grow their businesses, am a brand ambassador for Tamron, BenQ, Spider Holster, Studio Ninja, Profoto and Ilford Imaging Australia. I’ve amassed over 350 awards for photographer, business and philanthropy, but the most humbling accolade to date was being awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) by the Australian Government, for photography services to animal charities, in 2019.
I’m also grateful for my past experiences. I think my 19 year career in enforcement, auditing, and compliance really taught me how to communicate effectively with lots of different people. In policing you are exposed to a broad section of the community, from all walks of life. It developed my compassion for people and it gave me an insight into the difficulties some people face in their lives. You never know what someone is going through, so I always try to lead with compassion and understanding. I’m pretty immune to taking most things personally, try not to get stressed unless I have a valid reason to and don’t worry about things I can’t control. I tried to maintain this way of thinking when Covid arrived (more on this later).
GIVING BACK FLOATS MY BOAT
Fast forward to today and I’m very clear on why I get out of bed each day to take photographs. I want to show people how beautiful animals are through images and support, promote and endorse, animal rescue.
Philanthropy is a huge part of my business philosophy and one of my driving passions. I work pro bono with dozens of animal rescue charities, sanctuaries or shelters, by providing images, sponsorship and conducting major fundraising projects every year. To be honest, I wouldn’t take photos at all if I couldn’t use photography to give back to animal charities in some way. I see pet photography as my day job – it’s an awesome day job, but it’s what I do from 9am to 5pm every day – whereas my charity work is my passion, and I’m blessed that my day job gives me the leverage (the funds and time) to conduct animal charity projects, either close to home or overseas.
Every charity project I undertake is about improving the lives of animals. Knowing I can help make a difference to the lives of rescue-animals is a huge motivation for me. The right image viewed by the right person can mean a dog is re-homed, a donation is made, or that media will run a story that increases awareness or raises public concern for a cause which directly affects the welfare of the animal.
A very important goal of mine is to continue to do whatever I can to promote and support effective animal rescue and conservation organisations, be it dog rescue, bear rescue, or tiger rescue, through my images. There are so many species that need help right now and so many great animal organisations that need help.
I know that many people feel as passionately as I do about animals and conservation. If ever there was a time to step up for those who don’t have a voice, it is now. The more we share information and discuss issues, the sooner we can all act to help create change.
No matter where you live, there will be an animal rescue organisation dedicated to making a difference to the lives of rescue animals. I would love to see more people becoming involved with a charity that resonates with their own personal ethics and compassion. All effective organisations welcome support via donations, attending fundraising events, volunteering or maybe even becoming a foster carer for domestic pets or farm animals.
HOW TO GET ‘THE SHOT’
Animals can be nervous around strangers. I connect to my animal subjects by firstly making friends with them. With dogs I find this particularly easy by offering them select toys and treats or using certain body language to appear non-threatening. Once I’ve won them over they think I’m the best person they’ve ever met (until the treats run out!) and I then pretty much let them do whatever they like – I’m a bit like the naughty aunty who doesn’t have any rules and lets the kids do what they want, ha-ha. When they are in front of my camera, I prefer to let them sort their own posting.
If I ask them to sit and they don’t, I move on and let them stand. If they want to lie down, they can, and I never move, push, or pose them into position – they pose organically for me depending on what I’m asking them for or how I’m using food rewards. My utmost priority is ensuring they are comfortable and relaxed and I find this is the best way to capture authentic, character filled images.
During my studio shoots I’m sitting about a foot away from each subject, and I maintain their focus on me for the entire session. I work fast and can often get all the images I need in a 30-minute shoot – I will sometimes take 50 images, sometimes 300 and from those I select the best 30 to share with my client. It’s my responsibility to me to catch my subject’s personalities shining through in those split-second moments. I always know a bit about each dog before they come to the studio, through their booking information we receive in advance.
DOGS VS CATS
I find that dogs can be the easiest subjects, but also can be the hardest. They are very aware of their environment and the fact that they are in a new place, with a stranger, surrounded by flashing lights, with a large object (camera) pointed in their face. I work with many dogs that have come from abusive backgrounds, and to relax them I move slowly and deliberately and make sure I don’t trigger any of their anxieties. If they are known for biting the backs of heels, I never show them my heel.
All dogs are welcome in my studio and I photograph many dogs who have been aggressive to people, and I’m proud to say I’ve never had a problem with any of them because I’m able to call on my dog handling experience and knowledge and ensure they trust me and have lots of fun. That really is the most important thing. Some people call me a dog whisperer, but to me it’s using my body language and energy to relate to them in an easy and non-threatening way. The safety of my subjects is always a top priority, as is making sure they are having a relaxed and positive experience.
Cats are the opposite of dogs to photograph – they generally grumpy from either being woken up to have photos or from having to go in the cat carrier, but they tend to stay quite still, or play with a toy or two once they arrive.
I find all other animals easy to work with, from mice, to ferrets, horses, birds, farm animals, and reptiles. They tend to all cooperate for me fairly well.
When I first started photographing animals I realised very quickly that I only wanted to showcase my subjects in a positive light. My favourite animals are dogs and one of my most passionate aims as an animal photographer is to capture the adorable subtleties that make all dogs precious and unique. I love every animal I have the privilege of photographing, but those perceived as ‘different’ hold a special place in my heart. These are the ones who have lost a leg, been born without eyes, or are still showing the scars of former abuse.
Most dogs with ‘afflictions’ don’t dwell on them. They adapt to their bodies without complaint and they survive with determination. They push on, always, wanting to be included and involved in everything as much as they can, and as much as an able-bodied dog does.
The tenacity of dogs to overcome adversity never ceases to amaze me. They make the most out of life and from them I have learnt so much about always seeing the positive in every situation and never giving up. Treatment for each dog is different – ranging from amputations to prosthetic limb implants, to the use of wheelchairs to assist with mobility.
During each photo session, it’s up to me to catch my subject’s personalities shining through in those split-second moments. With the Perfect Imperfection dogs, I like to lead with their beauty first, making their disability second to that. Often the viewer has to look at one of my images twice to see that the subject has a leg missing, or they question if that’s a wink or if the subject only has one eye. I photograph animals as I see them – beautiful.
The dogs I photograph never cease to amaze me by how normal they all are in personality – and that’s just it, there’s actually nothing different about these dogs. They have just been through a bit more than some others, but the get on with life. Even those with injuries inflicted by humans still walk in and trust me, even though I’m a complete stranger.
The main thing I’ve learnt from working with these amazing dogs is that they live in the moment. They are cared for by people who love them, and these people are just as special as their dogs are. Refusing to give up on them and providing them everything they need. These dogs have as much right to live the best life they can as any other animal.
For more than eight years I wanted to release my images in a book and this goal was finally realsied in 2018 when Perfect Imperfection – Dog Portraits of Resilience and Love was released. It’s a dream come true to share these inspirational, determined dogs and their stories with the world. Since then the photographs have gone around the world several times, culminating in a feature on 60 Second Docs, which has been viewed over 8.7 million times.
I hope my images encourage more people to consider adopting special needs. Sometimes people can fear difference, but a dog with a disability is has the same loyalty and desire to live as an able-bodied dog does. It’s a common misconception too that the care of a special needs pets will cost a fortune. Matching the right pets to the right adopters is pivotal and leads to a win win situation for everyone.
We recently adopted a perfect imperfection puppy called Marshmallow who is now 9 months old. She was born with a cleft palate and a spinal deformity and was rescued by a wonderful organization called No Pup Cleft Behind. She is the happiest puppy and reminds me to be in the moment and take each day as it comes. I would choose her a million times over again, despite her health hurdles. What an absolute blessing it is to be her humans.
SELF AUDITING & CALCULATED RISKS
I’ve always taken calculated risks in my business. I’m not reckless when it comes to trying something new, but I am fearless. I won’t make a decision which could tank my entire business or undo my years of hard work, but I also understand that to move forward I have to put myself out there. This is something I continue to do even after being in the industry for 12 years. The goals which are never attained are the ones you didn’t bother trying to achieve. I don’t like to ever wonder “what if” when it comes to business and my photography. I would rather make an attempt at something and have it not work out (and learn the lessons which come with it) than never give something a go at all.
I’m self-taught in photography so the key to improving my images was self-auditing – really going over my work and trying to tweak it to let me style evolve. I’m still trying to capture that illusive “perfect shot”. Having a niche is something which has benefited me too, as I just get to focus on animals as my subjects and given I’m a huge lover of animals, this makes my day job an absolute joy. To succeed in business as a photographer, developing a business mindset and build a solid foundation to work from is essential. You can’t service customer needs to the required standard if you don’t have systems and processes in place.
I’M NOT AN ISLAND
Everything in my business is a team effort. I would be lost without the direction and support of my business partner (who is also my partner) and my business administrations manager (who is a lifelong friend of 25 years). Then there’s the relationships I have with fellow photographers, camera store owners, brands, sponsors, animal rescue organisations, my clients … the list goes on. Many people contribute in some way to my business success and I’m immensely grateful for their support. I think we all need a strong support structure to be effective in our businesses and we need to surround ourselves with people who understand our vision and believe in us.
STRUCTURE IS KEY
Maintaining a career which has work life balance is highly important. As I get older (ahem!) I don’t want to be away from home day in, day out, so I compartmentalise my time well. I now photograph one day a week in my off site studio (smashing through 6 and 10 sessions back to back on that day), spend one day in my home office conducting purchase appointments, and coach pet photographers (or photographers wanting to transition into pet photography) three days a week from my home office.
Sunday is always a family day and on my other day off (usually Friday) I try to take a total break as well. For my down time I really enjoy just being at home. Our home is like our sanctuary and I love a good sleep in, doing domestic things like gardening, and hanging out with our rescue pets – dogs Pip and Marshmallow and cat Macy.
That is my favourite type of day, one without any commitments. I also enjoy kayaking and spending time with my marvellous friends, and I love going to the cinema – I grew up in a small town and we didn’t have a cinema, so I still see it as a novelty thirty years later. I enjoy reading and have my nose in several books at one time – preferred genres are business, non-fiction and Stephen King. I‘m quite happy to work hard when I’m at work, and to switch off when I’m at home.
LETS TALK ABOUT THE ”C-WORD”
The impact of Covid19 is definitely one of the toughest times I’ve experienced in my career. It was the first time I’ve closed my pet photography studio to clients. I started my business during the global financial crisis in 2009, so trading through tough economic times doesn’t scare me, but adding a pandemic added to the mix was completely new, for me and for everyone else. The day I officially shut up shop and moved my desk and PC home, I was quite sad. I’d worked so hard to build my business up and felt defeated and frustrated in that moment, as the decision to close didn’t occur through any fault of mine, like bad money management or lack of attracting the right clients. It was beyond my control.
But then I realised we were all experiencing a pause on everything and given the whole world was in the same boat, I had to sit it out like everyone else. I moved 40 client sessions forward a few months and they were all so lovely and understanding about it – no one cancelled. This was when I realised that I could pick my camera back up as soon as it was safe to do so, and could easily get the ball rolling again.
I recognised that this “forced break” was possibly time which I would never have again in this way, and I knew that I could either resist it or go with it. The latter was going to cause me a lot less stress! Making the shift from upset and frustration (with some fear thrown in) at the Coivd situation, to acceptance of it was a big turning point.
Once at home in lockdown (late March 2020) I started to resent being bombarded by Covid 19 information at every turn – it was all the online and Tv news focussed on and social media was filled with opinions and speculation about it 24/7. I began seeking daily joys and photographing them and this led to creating a Facebook group called Today’s Joy so that other people could do the same. I wanted to encourage people to look for their own joy, regardless of where they were, and to share it with others so that we all remember that there were still a lot of wonderful things in life too.
The group numbers rapidly grew (it now has over 9100 members and you are invited) and it pushed all of the unqualified Covid opinions from my Facebook news feed and replaced it with peoples joyful images. That literally improved my mental health overnight. So many people have sent me lovely feedback about the group, expressing how much it helped them get by and the group is still very active with over 500,000 interactions of some sort to date.
MAKING A PLAN
When Covid was becoming more prevalent around the world, I immediately made a plan. I lease an off-site studio premises, so I approached the owner for a rent pause, which they kindly agreed to. As soon as the banks announced mortgage breaks, I applied. With outgoings reduced, I discussed a way to get through the next few months with my office manager and my partner.
My office manager Colleen works from home 4 hours away from the studio, so she was already set up remotely – a real bonus and one less thing to implement. We also use the services of an off-site retoucher so I reduced the number of images I was sending out to be edited to cut costs. With outgoings reduced, the financial strain was eased.
With the studio closed, I increased enrollments for my pet photography business coaching programs and doubled the number of people I usually work with. Clients enrolled from Australia, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and the USA. This kept me busy during the ten weeks of lockdown, and I was working up to 30 hours a week with my coaching clients. It was also a nice way to stay connected to people in different parts of the world.
I tried to complete as many photo sessions as I could before I went into lockdown, and then switched all of my in person sales sessions to Skype and conducted them from home. The online session were very well received and clients seemed more prepared for them than in person sales sessions. This made me realise that in person sales are not necessary – but “guided sales” are. As long as you are stepping your clients through your sales process and assisting them with their purchase decisions, they will still buy. “Guided sales” is my new mantra and I’ve continued to conduct them for the past seven months.
Despite working 30 hours a week during the Covid pause, it gave me time and space to complete other things. I wrote several new coaching programs, participated in Skype interviews and hosted online training for photography groups and brands in Australia and the USA, created a global viral photo series which was viewed on Bored Panda by over 42,000 people and picked up by several media outlets, booked in client photo sessions for post Covid appointments, edited the text for my next book with Harper Collins Australia, transferred my entire client record management database from an antiquated system to Studio Ninja (no mean feat with over 9000 client entries!), populated Time Exposure pro Select with my price list and product templates (after 12 years of using it – better late than never), redesigned several marketing items, completed an online certification in Canine Communication and stated a second online certification in Pet Psychology. I didn’t have the excuse of “I’m too busy” or “I don’t have enough time.”
HANG IN THERE
In hard times I think it’s important to know that they will pass in some way, shape or form. We have to ride it out and stay as physically and mentally healthy as we can. Planning now for future difficult times, like a recession, is advisable. Arrange for staff to work from home at short notice, trim the fat off your outgoings, maintain strong and honest communication with your clients in case you need to shift appointments at short notice, and always hit it while it’s hot – make the most of every business opportunity to capitalize on the good times to cover the gaps of the tough times.
Strategize your marketing options to hit the ground running as soon as things lift and to attract clients back to your business. If you offer a product people want, they will continue to want it, you just need to reach them. And see down time as an opportunity to complete projects you are usually too busy to do, which will serve your business well in the long run. Don’t give up. You’ve got this!
Thanks for making it this far. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions about the brands I represent (Tamron lenses, BenQ monitors, Profoto lighting, Studio Ninja, and Ilford Paper) or are keen to discuss pet photography business coaching options. You are also invited to join my private Facebook group for photographers, creatives and small business owners.
You can see more of Alex’s work at HoundstoothStudio.com.au, and keep up with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Check out her books, Perfect Imperfection and For The Love of Greyhounds on Amazon.com.