Suzanne Bird: Capturing the Emotions, Connections and Stories of Beloved Pets by Donna Poehner

Pet Photographer Interview

Suzanne Bird photo by Miv Fournier

Photo by Miv Fournier

Have you dreamed of starting your own pet photography business? But how do you get started? Finding clients and working with pets can be a challenge. Our interview with the aptly named Suzanne Bird answers these pressing questions. Learn about the special pet services Bird offers, the promotional materials she sends clients and her tips for photographing pets. You can read the complete pet photographer interview below. For more photography tips and inspiring interviews, check out the 2014 Photographer’s Market.

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Suzanne Bird: Capturing the Emotions, Connections and Stories of Beloved Pets by Donna Poehner

hairless Sphynx cat photo by Suzanne Bird

Yodah is a hairless Sphynx cat that Bird photographed for a personal project. Bird observes, “Yodah was very curious, and the unique qualities of the hairless cat make for some great images.”

Urban Dog Photog is the clever moniker for the business of Ottawa-based photographer Suzanne Bird, who practices what she calls “animal lifestyle photography.” Her goal is to capture the bond between pets and their owners. “Capturing the bond is the backbone of my business. It might sound like a cliché, but it is true to who I am as a photographer and my training. I’m trained to capture emotions, connections, and tell stories,” says Bird, who began her photography career as a newspaper photojournalist. She worked at the London Free Press, Kitchener Waterloo Record, and the Ottawa Sun. She has also photographed for magazines, such as Ottawa magazine, Dogs in Canada magazine, and Carleton University Magazine. “My whole business model of capturing pets’ personalities relies heavily on my experiences as a photojournalist. Working for newspapers is fast-paced, high-energy. You work on adrenaline, in uncontrolled environments. You learn how to think, create, and execute your skills under pressure of time and deadlines,” says Bird.

“I adore animals of all kinds, but I especially love dogs,” says Bird. One look at her website will confirm that statement—dogs of all breeds, running with mouths wide open, in funky urban settings, in sunlit meadows, on the beach, on a red sofa, on a wood floor, wearing sweaters their owners have lovingly bought for them. In many of the photos, that bond between animal and human is the focus, and Bird’s keen eye for detail adds to the overall quality of the photos.

Her love for and involvement in photography started when Bird was still in school. She photographed for yearbooks and sports teams. She also worked at a photo lab most of the time she was in high school and during summers while she was in college, where she earned a degree in sociology and a diploma in photojournalism.

“I started playing with this business concept in 2003, while on maternity leave with my first child. I started to research the market—successful photographers who were creating stunning editorial images of dogs. There were only a few at that time in the market. Then, in 2006, in the Chinese Year of the Dog, I officially opened up my business. My business model has been to build slowly, allowing myself time to grow effectively, to be at home with my children, and to remain creative and active in my former career role while staying connected with my contacts. Now, in my fourth year of business, I am consistently booking sessions weekly, mainly through word of mouth, with a strong referral system in place. I have a small home-based studio that works for open house events with other vendors, a gallery to hang samples and a place to meet with clients. It is very country and is a very relaxed setting, as well as being animal friendly. I can also set up a studio area to use seamless backgrounds,” says Bird.

Pet portrait sessions can be done at the client’s home, at Bird’s studio, or in an urban setting, depending on the client’s preferences. Parks and farms are also good settings. Above all, Bird wants the animal to feel comfortable in the environment. The sessions are really about who the animal is and how it fits into the family dynamic. Sessions are relaxed so that Bird can capture the natural emotion that goes into making portraits that the family will treasure and keep for years.

During the sales consultation, the client can choose from an array of products for displaying their portraits. “Since the start, I have offered a package that includes a session and an artistic, custom-designed coffee table book. This is still the most popular session with my clients,” Bird says. This approach works especially well for Bird because of her photographic style, which lends itself to multiple images that tell a story. Gallery canvas wraps are also popular, and clients often buy multiple images to create a wall grouping for their home. Custom-designed handbags featuring photos from the session are becoming a popular item, as well as a line of museum glass frames. “The most popular items are the canvases and the modern pieces that suit a fun and funky pet photograph,” she says.

Even though Bird has found success with her privately commissioned pet portraits, she has not given up on her editorial clients. They are still crucial, making up about 50 percent of her business. She feels that her credentials as a published, professional photographer with images on magazine covers helps reinforce her portrait clients’ belief in her ability to create stunning images of their pets.

Bird offers a very special service to her clients, which she calls “Pet Bereavement Photography.” She says, “My ‘old souls session’ came from a need of my clients. Many of my clients were coming to me with older dogs and wanted to memorialize their bond with them. My ability to tell their story in photos was giving them a way to grieve and heal when the dogs had passed away. One of my clients called it Pet Bereavement Photography, and I thought it was very fitting.” It provides a way to keep the beloved pet’s spirit alive for the owner. To Bird, it is a celebration of life that captures the honor, nobility, and loyalty of the pet. The sessions can sometimes be emotionally difficult for Bird. She taps into how the owner is feeling: if the owner can be strong, then she can be strong. Many clients order an album of images from the bereavement session so that they have a keepsake— “A piece of their life with that dog,” Bird says. Although the animal may be very ill and may only reveal a shadow of its former self, if the pet can give Bird a glimpse of who it was in its more vibrant days, then Bird can capture the images she knows the owner hopes for. Sometimes all it takes is getting out a ball, and that old spark comes back.

Weimaraner puppy photo by Suzanne Bird

This beautiful Weimaraner puppy relaxes on the couch in Bird’s client’s home. Bird finds that her clients often unconsciously coordinate their decor with the colors of their pets.

On a happier note, Bird offers Pupternity sessions. “Although it is not a top package, we have had some adorable sessions with these pups. They do not stay little that long. Most of my puppy photographs are from my magazine sessions. We typically shoot them at age five to six weeks. After that age, they tend to lose the new pup look, and they start to get more curious and wander more in a session,” she says.

“People are still a part of my sessions, but I do end up using them more as props. So the focus is more on the animals, with some interaction from the owner. I will always incorporate families, kids, and teens as well for that wonderful, relaxed family portrait. Many clients comment on how much they enjoyed that day and have great memories of how much fun the session was,” Bird says.

“I love design and packaging—as a consumer, it draws me to buy the product. So I like to produce promotions that stay on the person’s mind—and on their fridge. I have had clients hire me because they kept my first business card for four years! I do mostly count on word of mouth for advertising, so I need pieces that people will talk about,” says Bird. For a Valentine’s Day promotion, she created “lil love letters.” “It was a unique way to create a product from a standard photo day at a local dog boutique. Instead of a regular 5×7 print, the client received these cool little cards that also worked as a referral discount for the person who received the cards,” Bird says.

Another promotion that worked well for her was an open house with other vendors. She says, “I had munchies, drinks, an outdoor fire going. I did it with three other women in business, and we all invited our own clients.” To make the clients feel special and to say thank you for coming, the vendors gave away gift bags to the first fifty clients. The bags included their business cards and give-away items from each vendor, including a booking special with Bird and a two-year perPETual calendar featuring her photography. “The day was a great success. I ended up booking sessions from that day, and the buzz of the event was huge,” says Bird.

Bird has found that building relationships with other vendors who cater to the same target client as she does has been a win-win situation. “I was very lucky to grab the attention of a local holistic vet who was inspired by my connection to the animals in my photos. Ever since, he has referred me to his clients. A holistic vet offers services that are not considered standard concepts in the industry. So someone who seeks a holistic vet would be the target client that I generally attract. I am very conscious of referring back to the vet as well. I am loyal to the businesses that I have created great relationships with,” Bird says.

puppy photo by Suzanne Bird

Bird took this photo for the annual edition of “Dogs in Canada” magazine. Bird works with an assistant on sessions with pups, which she typically photographs at five to six weeks of age.

Bird has also teamed up with three local boutiques in her city. She makes sure to have unique marketing concepts with each boutique to avoid cross promotion problems. For her, three is a manageable number of businesses to partner with so that each store can get more of her attention throughout the year with events and displays—quality vs. quantity. “In return I am heavily marketed by these stores, but it is a genuine referral after forging a great friendship with the owners,” she says.

Bird has advice for those just entering the photography market: “Networking is a very important part of this business. Network with other photographers. It is challenging getting into photography today; not every studio wants to become friends with the new photographers in town. So you need to join your local photography group, work on your craft by entering competitions, seek inspiration from photographers in other areas of your country or other countries, and then do something different. Or seek inspiration from a totally different field of photography—food, interiors, advertising.”

There is currently an epidemic of imitative photography in the marketplace, Bird believes. “I think if you can find a style that works, you need to stay true to yourself and respect the photographers who have blazed the trails before you. I miss the days when someone would look at an Ansel Adams print, a Henri Cartier Bresson print, or a Sally Mann photo and say, “Oh, wow, I wish I could do that,” and respect the photographer’s vision, concept, and artistry, and also respect that just because they love the photo does not mean that they can pick up a camera and copy it,” she says. Instead, Bird believes, looking at others’ work should inspire photographers to think harder and make something that is their own.

“You also need to know the industry standards for pricing and your cost of sales,” Bird says. “And you need business goals. These are all key elements that are a part of your business. As professional photographers, we are all responsible for this industry, and we need to make sure we are accountable for the information we give our clients and for how we run our businesses. This business is not as easy as picking up a camera and taking a pretty picture; a lot more goes into it. If you are willing to do the hard work to get there, it’s the best job to have.”

Donna Poehner, a former editor of Photographer’s Market, is a photographer, writer, and editor living in Cincinnati, Ohio.


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