Six years ago I found myself clocking up around 100 hours per week working part time in my pet photography business while holding down full time employment.


By Alex Cearns

Looking back, adapting to the role of business woman as well as ‘living the dream’ was a steep learning curve. I was fired up with limitless enthusiasm, but quite naive about running a business. Months of careful planning didn’t adequately prepare me for the harsh practical realities that often outweighed pouring heart and soul into my new venture.

I learned that a viable brand and a stable income grow from consistently working a business plan with a strong marketing strategy, keeping up with the admin, social media, emails, etc. And then there are the long, creative hours editing after a photo session, organising the viewing appointments, ordering and product quality control.

At first I was photographing only one or two pets per week, but in the past decade workload has increased to more than 900 domestic photography sessions per year and another 400 or so on-location shoots for charity organisations and philanthropic projects.

There was no choice but to develop new skills; I saw it as ‘adapt or fail’ and disciplined myself to run a critical eye across all areas of the business, including my photography, philanthropic projects and marketing. Sometimes I made it up as I went along and occasionally veered way off course. But I kept coming back to basics and chose to see every bump in the road as an opportunity to learn.

Eventually I developed a rhythm, a lot of insight, and several unbreakable basic rules that help me stay true to myself in business. These simple rules have opened many doors to invaluable relationships and business opportunities. This is what works for me but I think they will also work for any amateur or professional photographer and can be applied to almost any small business…


Simple but effective: always say ‘Thank you’

Every day I’m grateful for the opportunities photography has brought me. Expressing gratitude, with no expectation attached, creates a lasting impression on everyone you work with.

Almost five years ago I won a camera bag from Tamron Australia as a prize in a photography competition. I was thrilled to win this terrific bag, so I emailed the company to say “Thanks for such a great prize.” They reciprocated with: “Thank you for thanking us. No one ever says thank you much these days. Oh by the way, we love your photos”.

Those simple heartfelt words began an ongoing relationship with Tamron that eventually led to an invitation to become their Super Performance Lens Series Brand Ambassador.

Check names are spelled correctly in emails

First impressions are important because they stick, and in the digital age first impressions are often made via email. A misspelt name is likely the first thing a potential client reads when they hear from you. It’s personal and can make a bad impression, especially if you are quoting for a job or contacting someone for the first time.

It pays to check, then double check the spelling of your recipient’s name before you click send. If you realise you’ve made a mistake, send an immediate apology, as this shows consideration. I’ve lost count of the times my name has been spelt (or pronounced) incorrectly. On one unforgettable occasion I received a letter addressed to Alice Kerr (my name is Alex Cearns). Now, whenever I need to apologise for a mistake with a name, I try to lighten the mood by saying “You can call me Alice”.

Always reply to requests for work experience or employment

Regardless of where you are at with your business, when you are doing what you love it shows in your work ““ and it often inspires others to follow their dreams.

At Houndstooth Studio we receive half a dozen work experience or employment enquiries per week. The nature of my work and my busy schedule doesn’t give me time to teach work experience students, and our paid and volunteer positions are always filled with long term supporters.

However, I believe most people who approach me for work, do so because they value what we do. Therefore I’m vigilant about acknowledging every request and responding to questions about my profession. It’s good business practice and shows respect. You never know, they might become your competitor one day.

I was in a similar position when I first started taking photos. Eager for extra work, I wrote to three established photography businesses offering to help out any way I could. I knew it was wishful thinking and I still had a lot to learn about photography, but I was genuinely keen. I clearly remember the two replies that offered encouragement, but politely said they didn’t have any positions vacant. I also remember which business sent nothing. Ten years on, I’m their major competitor and still haven’t forgotten that basic courtesy.


About you

I love the saying: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken”. Your personal brand develops credibility, invites trust and differentiates you from your competitors. There is an entire science behind personal branding that is well worth investigating, but the rule of thumb I like to follow is that a personal brand is what others are saying about you when you’re not in the room.

Be authentic in everything you do.

It’s difficult to measure authenticity in business, but it is vitally important to your reputation and influences how much trust your target audience is willing to invest before they make a booking.

I never compromise on truthfully representing who I am and what I stand for in business. It’s important to make your audience aware of your achievements and the awards you’ve won, but don’t overstate their importance or make misleading claims to stand out from the crowd.

Directly plagiarising images, words or styles is not only unethical but clients will pick up on any imitation and it reflects badly on your business.

Sharing the benefits of your experience helps to position yourself as an authority in your industry and demonstrates that you embrace the opportunity to be an authentic leader. I’m always happy to respond openly to questions or comments about the technical aspects of my photography and I spend a significant amount of time nurturing dialogue with my audience of 116,000 Facebook followers. People in my target audience share my love of animals and photography and I encourage personal interaction by regularly posting images, videos, successes and behind-the-scenes stories about my work.

Be clear about the aims of your business

People who achieve the most aim high and are clear about their intentions. Supporting animal rescue and conservation are two of my strongest drivers. Starting out in business I wanted to do everything I could to help every cause, but I soon discovered that running my core pet photography business, as well as creating and executing a wide range of projects, led me away from my goals and stretched me and my resources too thin.

After considerable thought, I determined the main aims I was trying to achieve through my photography and business were:

1.            To capture exquisite animal portraits that convey the intrinsic joy people find in animals, and

2.     To support Australian and international animal charities, sanctuaries and shelters that improve the lives of rescue animals (be it bear, dog, tiger, or farm rescue animals) by providing pro bono photographic services, fundraising projects and sponsorships.

Whenever I’m tempted to take on another project or cause, I consider how it fits with these two main aims to ensure I’m staying on course.


Speak in your ‘own voice’, especially on social media

Sincere, personal, friendly and conversational posts are more believable on social media than cold, hard sales pitches. I use my ‘own voice’ for every social media post, endorsement and public speaking event. If there is something I truly want to express about my work, especially something relating to animal rescue or advocacy, I say it. However, if it’s not genuine, compassionate, and doesn’t sound like me, I don’t say it.  

I understand that my opinions and attitudes might differ from some in the community, but my clients share my passion for animal rescue and wildlife conservation. They tell us they support our charity endeavours and on our recommendation, some visit the organisations we work with and donate their time and funds.  

Don’t endorse anything you don’t use or believe in

Photographers are sometimes invited to trial and review products because peer-to-peer endorsements are perceived to hold validity, but whenever you put your name to a product, your reputation is on the line.

As Brand Ambassador for Tamron’s Super Performance Lens Series, Spider Camera Holster, Western Digital, Pet Stock and Wild Dogz Australia, I feel a huge responsibility to provide honest feedback whenever asked. I won’t endorse a product unless I use it extensively, am 110% happy with performance, utility and ethics, and if I know I’d want to convince my best friend to buy it over a comparative brand.

Keep your customers happy

Clients are worth their weight in gold to your business and it pays to treat them accordingly. Exceeding their expectations turns your clients into brand advocates.

No matter how many clients you start with, if they love your work and the service you provide, they will pass on positive word-of-mouth comments about you to their family and friends.

This is how my business grew and continues to flourish. Starting with around 30 clients in my first year, I did everything I could to build relations and ensure clients were happy with their products.

My biggest challenge now, with more than 750 clients per year, is delivering the same high quality of service at each transaction and preventing ongoing relationships from going cold. This means ensuring that retouching deadlines are met, communication lines are kept open throughout the booking process, and every order is managed within the promised time frame.

Clients have no reason to look further within your photography niche if they have already been delighted with your service. They will return to you time and again whenever they need new images.


Regardless of achievement always look after clients

You may find that as your business grows, so do the accolades from others, award wins, and possibly other incredible opportunities like publishing deals and collaborations.

No matter how many clients are coming through your doors, or how much success you’re experiencing, it is critically important that each client feels like they are your ONLY customer and receive the same high level of service and attention to detail as they did when you started out.

Photography is a highly competitive industry and there is plenty of choice for the clients who are looking for a photographer. It can be a juggling act when your time becomes more restricted as your client base is growing, but ensuring your core customer clients are looked after always needs to be the number one priority. Without clients, there is no business.

Seek trusted mentors

Whether you’re new to small business or a seasoned business owner, a mentor can be a great asset in helping you map your future direction, enhance your marketing strategy, or refine your goals for future success. A trusted mentor knows your potential and believes in your ability to succeed. They also need to believe that you’ll use their feedback and advice.

I have several mentors whom I speak to regularly. Each one is a high-achieving industry professional who genuinely wants to support my work. They form a small, trusted advisory team and we often get together to discuss topics such as trends in the photo industry, potential media opportunities, technical advancements, and new social media platforms.

Their deep knowledge from their given fields and their willingness to share it inspires me to see outside my own world of animal photography. Consequently I am encouraged to push my business forward into new areas that I may not have anticipated without their advice.


Build relationships with businesses whose ethics align with yours

Customers build emotional connections with brands whose values are harmonious with their own. Given my brand as a pet and animal photographer has been built carefully on compassion and caring for animals, I am vigilant that we align only with brands that have similar ethics.

I also apply these principles to commercial businesses and not-for-profit organisations, and only partner with groups that are genuinely focused on the greater good of the community. This means I sometimes turn down work from organisations with conflicting values.

Alex Cearns is the creative director of Houndstooth Studio and author of four photography books, the latest is Zen Dogs (Harper Collins).