Are you curious if it’s possible to go full-time with a very niche genre as a photographer?
My guest today is my friend Nicole Begley, and she started her photography business in 2010, focusing on family portraits. And after five years decided that she wanted to transition to become a very specific niche and that was a pet photographer.
There’s so many similarities between pet photography and birth photography or newborn photography, so I was really excited to bring Nicole on to share a little bit about her story and how she was able to go full-time.
And in this episode, we talk a lot about the specific way that Nicole transitioned from $175 sale, all-inclusive type photography to $1,500 sales in just a couple of months, how she made $100,000 a year in year two of being a photographer with really no photography experience prior, how the niche of pet photography helped her fully book her calendar, and how she was able to find clients for such a specific niche of photography.
Nicole now teaches pet photographers around the world in destination pet photography retreats. Nicole also has master coaching, she has an online academy and courses, and like I said, I know a lot of you are not pet photographers, but a lot of what we talk about here today will translate to any genre of photography. And the more specific, the better.
So I am so excited to share Nicole’s journey of going full-time with photography.
In this article, you will learn:
- About our guest, Nicole Begley of Hair of the Dog Academy
- How Nicole left her 9 to 5 to build her photography business full time
- Can beginner photographers do in-person sales?
- How she transitioned to being a generalist photographer to being a niched-down photographer
- Marketing strategies when you’re a photographer with a very specific niche
- Tips on how to do charitable marketing as a birth and baby photographer
- Tips on how to niche down as a marketing strategy
Tavia: Nicole, welcome to From Better Half To Boss. I am so excited to have you as a guest for the first time!
Nicole: Yay! Thanks for having me, Tavia. I can’t wait to chat today.
Tavia: It’s so awesome because there’s so many similarities between what you do, even though it’s a completely different niche than a lot of my listeners, birth and baby photographers.
And so before we get into niching and the power in that – which my listeners know a lot about, but there’s still a lot that comes up with that – can you just introduce yourself to my listeners and share how you got started in photography?
Nicole: Absolutely! There are a lot of similarities between pets and babies, and that is the pets and the babies are in total control at all time, and any control that we have, it’s a complete and total illusion.
And similar to baby photography, I know you guys have a lot of special little niche-specific tricks to get these amazing, beautiful photos of a baby, that’s because no one’s actually out there making all these poses. Same thing with the dogs. We have a gazillion little industry tips to be able to get these amazing animals photographed.
I’m Nicole Begley. I am from Pittsburgh originally, now I call Charlotte, North Carolina home, and I started my pet photography business back in 2010.
Prior to that, my first 13 years out of college, I was a zoological animal trainer. So I worked with free-flight birds, seals, dolphins, cats, and monkeys, primates, all sorts of animals for those 13 years. It was incredible. I absolutely loved it. But in the zoological industry it is 100% a labor of love because it is not a labor of make a lot of money.
Even when I left that world, I was an assistant director and I was pregnant with my second child and I was looking at daycare costs, and the fact that my paycheck really would just cover daycare for my two kids, and I was in this middle management place and so there were just a lot of things. I was like, “It’s time to move on.”
I always thought that I had this entrepreneurial spirit and gene, I always wanted to work for myself, but I loved animals so much and I loved my job. And still occasionally, I get little twinges when I go to a zoo or I talk to some of my friends still in the industry.
But then I realized, “Oh wait, I had two weeks vacation. Oh wait, I had to ask for time off. Oh wait, I had to work 40 hours a week,” and I get back to being thankful of who I am, where I am really quick.
So I left that position after my second son was born and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I thought about being a dog trainer for a little bit, but then I realized I didn’t have the patience to work with the people that maybe wouldn’t put in the work during the week in between. So I knew that was a no-go.
And I always loved photography. I always had a camera of some kind. Never used it on anything other than auto, but took photos of the animals that I worked with and really enjoyed photography. Originally, I started as a family photographer and I did some pets on the side. That was 2010.
And then 2015, I started to rebrand and niche down starting 2016 as pet only and got rid of the families, which we’ll talk about, but that was definitely the scariest, pivotal moment in my business.
Leaving Nine to Five to Building a Business
Tavia: There are so many similarities. I love that animals have been such a huge part of your story. So, let’s talk about that time period. Let’s go to 2010 – you’ve got your family photography business and what made you even think that you could or should niche onto pets? Was it successful doing the families? Were you trying to get more clients? What even brought on that want to niche down?
Nicole: I want to touch on something real quick though, about that early 2010 time, which was leaving that full-time job to a business that didn’t have full-time income yet.
It was one of those rip the band aid off. I was thankfully able to still work a little bit part-time for the aviary. I could go in and do some educational programs when they needed extra help and things like that, so I could get a little bit of income there. I just looked for like little places where I could still earn some income and it’s super part-time, kind of contract basis.
And then I also look for some photography options too, where I worked for a company that took photos of babies in the hospital for super contract part-time here and there just earned a little bit of extra income. You could look at second shooting for weddings, if that’s something that you like. So that really helped with that transition from going from a full-time salaried job to creating a photography business.
Because the first year, the first year is really rarely profitable. You have so many start-up expenses and it takes a little bit of time to get that going. And then, the second year I ended up at about $50,000 of revenue, and my third year is when I hit six figures of revenue and I mean my second full year really.
Those couple little things, took the pressure off of that needing to earn full-time income out of my business right off the gate, and that also allowed me to set my business up in a way that was good for the long term.
That I wasn’t setting it up as like this lower price thing where I’m getting these people in to pay me now, but when I raised my prices to be sustainable for the vision of the business and I wanted, I would have to get rid of all new clients. It allowed me to build my business in a way attracting the clients that I knew I wanted to serve over the long run.
Disadvantage of Going Full-Time with Your Photography Business Too Soon
Tavia: That’s really valuable. What I see so many photographers doing is they may be taking the jump a little bit too soon into full time when they are relying on the income.
What kind of energy does that create in your business? You turn desperate:
“I’m not booking. Oh no, something’s wrong.”
“I’ve got to do discounts, I’ve got to do a sale, I’ve got to lower my prices…”
because you need the income.
Versus what Nicole is saying is having some backup things:
- Maybe you go part-time at your job
- You find these extra little things like second shooting weddings (even if you don’t want to do weddings, right?)
You’re getting some photography experience, you’re making some extra income.
Doing something like that to where you have a little bit of income coming in different places while you’re building the business that you know you want to create long term, because so many people are like, “Oh, I do $250 all-inclusive digital files,” and then they raise their prices.
And Nicole said, you’re losing that whole group of people that were with you. Not always, but most of the time you’re going to lose 90% of them every time you raise your prices. So it’s almost like you’re completely starting over every time you raise your price and you’re like, “Why am I not hitting these goals? Why am I not building the business that I want to in the first year?” Maybe it’s because you’re recreating this business model every time you raise your prices.
Switching From All-Inclusive to In-Person Sales
So what was your business model then, if you don’t mind sharing?
Nicole: My first three clients, I did an all-inclusive, $175 for a mini session kind of thing. It’s funny, when I first started to think, “Oh, I’m going to be a photographer,” and then I looked, I’m like, “Oh, if I charge $200 for a session and I do a couple back to back, man, that’s making me what I made in a week at my normal job.”
And so you get this false sense of what profitability in this business actually is because you don’t know all the expenses that come into the business and you don’t know the time that’s involved in doing a full session and editing, delivering, and all of those things.
I did that for three sessions and then…
Tavia: And you’re like, “Nope, this is not working!”
Nicole: Not even that, I didn’t even get far enough into it to realize and hit the burnout.
Another friend of mine was going through the same kind of process where I think she just had her third or fourth child. She always loved photography and she was building her business over there on the side as something she could do part-time while she was home with her kids.
And she’s a sorority sister of mine and I called her and I’m like, “Hey, I just found out there’s this photography conference called Imaging USA. It’s down in Nashville. You want to go with me?” So we went to Imaging and I went to Allison Taylor Jones, she was a high end portrait artist, she did families and stuff like that. She was speaking at Imaging that year and it was all about in-person sales, projecting, ProSelect, and how to sell wall art and all of the things.
Right after that I immediately re-launched my business. The all-inclusive (model) was right before I had my son. And then I had my son, so I wasn’t shooting for that fall. And then I went to Imaging in January and I was like, “Boom, we’re back. We’re starting this way.” So I actually started my business with somewhat sustainable prices in an in-person sales, wall art-as-the-goal type setting, which looking back was just a total fluke.
But I think that’s one of the biggest reasons I was able to hit six figures so quickly is because I didn’t mess around with that low price, all-inclusive that we think is profitable. Because on paper it looks like it is. But it’s really not.
Can Beginner Photographer Do In-Person Sales?
Tavia: What you just said right there is so valuable, because that is where a lot of you guys are right now is you’re in this all-inclusive model and you’re thinking, “Someday my work will be good enough to charge more money and someday I’ll be able to do in-person sales and make more money.”
Nicole, was there any of that going on in your head to where you’re like, “I’m a new photographer, I’ve photographed three sessions for $175. How am I going to go from that to charging sustainable prices when I’m new?”
Nicole: I honestly don’t remember other than I had gone to the conference and I saw that this is how you’re supposed to do business. Of course I still had the, “Is this good enough?” And looking back, some of those images, and I’m like, “I can’t believe somebody paid me for those.” I felt terrible. Can I go back and reshoot it now? It’s really bad.
But I approached it from knowing this is my goal and this is what the business used to look like to get to my goal. And of course, always trying to improve my craft.
And I think one way to get over that hump of, “Am I good enough,” is that I was advertising with the images I was taking at the time, so the clients that were booking me like the images I was showing them, I was delivering images similar to that, they still love them. Even now that I look at them and I cringe because my craft has gotten so much better since then. So as long as you guys aren’t stealing somebody else’s images and advertising with those, it’s fine.
If you’re using your own images, people are seeing your images and they’re saying yes to that.
Tavia: Do you remember what your average sale was back then?
Nicole: Approximately. It was in the $1,500 to $2,000 range.
Tavia: Really? That’s so cool. That’s just inspiration, hopefully for you guys to hear that.
Setting your business up this way doesn’t mean that you have to have photographed 50 newborns or you have 50 births, or that you have to have five years of experience before you can charge $1,500.
Nicole said, if you’re showing the types of images that you’re going to be selling and this is the model that you set up, it’s totally possible for you too.
Nicole: I’m a firm believer that if you are producing technically sufficient work, like you know what exposure is, you know what should be in focus, and basic color correction – if it is technically sufficient, there is no reason you can’t have a four-figure average for portraits.
I’m a firm believer that if you are producing technically sufficient work, there is no reason you can’t have a four-figure average for portraits.
Time to Niche Down
Tavia: Thank you for taking us back there, because I think that was a really important piece of your story and valuable conversation. So you’re averaging $1,500, setting up your business this way, doing in-person sales, photographing families at this point, right?
It sounds like you were running a successful business. Were you at six figures when you were mainly a family photographer?
Tavia: And so you’re running a successful business, what made you think that you need or wanted to niche down even further?
Nicole: I started, friends of mine that had dogs, I’m like, “Hey, can I come photograph your dog?” I started volunteering with Our Humane Society, I was working with their calendar project. It was a weekly one, so all the pet photographers in Pittsburgh really were participating in this. So we’d each get 10 clients and go off and shoot for that.
And so it was just starting to shoot more and more animals and then realizing, “Man, this is what I love.” And here’s the kicker. I still liked my family session. I really enjoyed them. I love the clients. I liked interacting with the kids. I did do newborns for a hot minute and that was not my cup of tea. So, hats off to all of you newborn photographers out there.
Let me back up those kind of five years at the beginning of my business, I was just taking any opportunity to photograph dogs and horses – whatever I could get my hands on. I’m there, whether I was paid for it or not.
It got to the point where I was running out of time, I had my calendar full with my family clients and with raising my kids and all of these things, and with pet clients.
So I was having pet clients at the time, but I knew if I wanted to grow the pet side of my business, I needed to get more time somewhere. And the only place that I was willing to give up time was on the family side of things. So that’s when I made the decision that I was going to rebrand completely as a pet photographer, take all the families off my website.
Again, this is with making this transition easier. I did tell all my family clients that I enjoyed working with, which was 99% of them that I loved working with them and I will still photograph their family for however long they want me to. Because family photography, a lot of times, it is a yearly session, where pet photography is not. It’s often once in a lifetime of the dog session.
There’s a couple rare clients, rare unicorns that will have multiple sessions, but it’s usually more of a one and done until they have new pets. So that helped ease that transition a little bit and take a little bit of that financial pressure.
And I always made sure for both of those transitions that I had enough money in the bank. It’s like a fine line – if you have too much money in the bank, I think then you don’t have any pressure to make anything happen. But if you don’t have any money in the bank, then you’re coming from this place of desperation and fear, which is not going to help you attract the right clients.
Transitioning from a Generalist to a Niched-Down Photographer
Tavia: So looking back at that time when you were niching down, and you’re saying it was like a slower transition, so you took everything off of your website, like you took all families off of your website, your social media was like down to just showing pets – is that accurate?
What was that like? Did you have any fears around what if this doesn’t work out? Because it seems dramatic, I think, to people for whenever I say, “Only show birth images,” it’s like, “What if I don’t have enough birth images to consistently share,” is the question that I get quite often, as well as, “What if I want to continue to shoot other genres?”
And so you’re saying you went to your family clients and said, “Hey, I will continue to photograph your family as long as you’ll let me. But when it came outwardly facing, you wanted to be known as a pet photographer?
Nicole: A hundred percent. Also at that point is when I invested for the first time in professional graphic design for a rebrand. I had an actual graphic designer help me come up with my new brand identity. And of course it was pet focused.
Graphic designers are worth their weight in gold. However, if you’re just starting your business and you don’t know who you are, you don’t know who you’re serving, you don’t know what you want to shoot, what you want to niche down in, go to creative market, create yourself a text only based logo, pick some colors off of Pinterest, and go with it.
You don’t need all of that to be dialed in until you really know who you’re serving, what you’re offering, who you want to be attracting, what your images are going to look like. And then I think it’s really important to actually invest with somebody that can really help you create that brand identity that builds that value that then attracts those clients.
So that was the impotence to be like, “I’m investing all this money in this. Yeah, of course I’m going to go all in on this and.”
As far as if it didn’t work, actually let me back up a little bit. I just realized this, I had already split up my family and pet social channels prior. So probably in 2012 or 2013, it was still on one website, but back then it was a landing page. You go to that page and it was like families or pets. So I had two sub-domains. Because those target markets are totally different, my family clients don’t want to see a whole bunch of dogs. My pet clients don’t want to see a whole bunch of kids.
Especially my pet clients don’t have kids, my target client’s really the young professional that doesn’t have kids yet. I always had them separate. So when I made that transition, I just quietly took my family one away and rebranded the pet one.
And social media, that has never been a big marketing avenue for me. It’s always just been some icing, but it’s never been my main marketing.
Marketing Strategies for a Niched Photographer
Tavia: So what was your main marketing? If you’re niched down in pet photography, where are you finding those clients?
Nicole: Charitable marketing’s always been my go-to. So silent auction donations. And even with some of those, I still donated one of my best ones was a private school in the area. And I would get an awesome, usually equine client every year from like a high school senior that rode horses or someone in the school that rode horses and wanted a portrait session.
Also the symphony, the heart balls, of course, also the rescues and things like that, and their big events. So I would donate a session there.
I would also do charitable marketing with big rescues, small rescues where we would make a special offer to their followers that was a little bit better than what my public normal rates were or normal offers. And the rescue would promote it to their people. People would book it. There would be a donation from me when they book the session to the charity. Then I would get a great client.
And it was such a great way to build brand affinity to my brand because I’m supporting this rescue that all their supporters obviously love too. So right there, that gives you the connection of, “Oh, I like this brand, I like this person. I like what she’s doing.” So that was always my best way.
And then of course, referrals, because the momentum builds in any of these. If you’re doing a great job and you’re showing up and you’re over-delivering and exceeding client expectations, referrals will start coming in. Especially, if you ask! All you have to do is say, “Hey, I loved working with you. Please feel free to let anybody know, you know else.” And I didn’t have any fancy referral program.
Tips on How to Do Charitable Marketing for Baby Photographers
Tavia: So good. So I’m thinking about the baby photographers listening to this and thinking about like charitable donations that they can give or events. And I think that there’s probably a lot of similar organizations for babies as there would be for pets and dogs, like private schools for sure would be a place, but that might be a little bit older.
Because we have done expos, like natural parenting expos, where they’ll have giveaways, but it’s not really like a charity. Do you have any thoughts on charities that are baby…you do?
Nicole: I’m thinking like, “Okay, where does pregnant mom go?” She’s shopping maybe in some boutique or maternity stores. So could you partner with the for-profit business, but still pick a charity.
So you can do the charitable marketing with an actual for-profit business like doggy daycares or boutique maternity stores, and you guys could pick a charity that both businesses agree that they want to support and support that charity. And then that charity maybe can promote it, but if not, that for-profit business could promote it. And maybe there’s some sort of special coupon or offer that they get for the for-profit business plus you.
Or you can also touch base with that for-profit business and maybe gift their best clients your special offers or decorating the maternity stores.
28:07 – So it’s really about asking yourself, “All right, think of your target client – who they are, where they are, when they’re starting to think about needing baby photos or booking their sessions?”
The great thing about baby photography is it’s tied to an event, and that is the birth of a baby. Content marketing would work really well with that. “Hey, what do you need to know to book your photography session?” Or a lead magnet on “These best maternity _________” or hacks or tricks. And then you can have a little email sequence that makes a little offer to them because they do need to book ahead of time.
One of the most challenging pieces of pet photography is unless the dog is older or sick, or a puppy, there’s no timeframe. It’s really easy for people to say, “Oh, I really want to do that. I’ll call next week.”
You have that built-in urgency with the timing of newborns, which is nice.
Tavia: I love that. Thank you so much for those ideas. That’s really smart. And I have partnered with charities in the past. So whenever you do that, are you basically just like giving them a session fee and they order what they want afterwards?
Nicole: Yeah, back then I had just a regular session fee and I think my regular session fee was $220. So I offered for the charity a session fee of $175 and then it had a like $50 donation to the charity and it included that $175 is a product credit.
You can make it up however you want. It could be a little bit less of a session fee and it’s all donated to the charity. If you’re all inclusive, maybe it’s just $250 out of their all-inclusive package is donated. It can look like just about anything.
The important piece is to know your numbers. When I did this, I was confident in my average sale at the time when I started to do this was about $2200 to $2500.
And so I knew that I could give away a little bit more of a product credit, more so than what they were paying me because I knew my numbers, and I still took these clients that were interested through my normal education process to qualify them. They knew what they were going to spend, they knew what things cost, talked about the value, and they ended up being my ‘session-average-at-least’ client.
Tavia: Love it.
And I think that the key for the charity thing is thinking about, “Is this something that your ideal client would want to support?”
Because the type of people who go to these galas and to go to these charity events are the types of people who are going to spend $2,500 on pet photos or $2,500 on newborn photos. And so I think what Nicole said about really knowing your ideal client is so important here.
Nicole: Absolutely. And especially, you think about too, because people without disposable income are not going to shop at the more bespoke maternity baby stores. They might be at the big brand box stores just getting what they need. But if there’s those ones that are a little bit higher level, it’s a hundred percent your target market.
Tips on Niching Down as a Marketing Strategy
Tavia: So what tips would you maybe have for somebody listening to this who wants to niche down and maybe they’re thinking about using it as a marketing strategy?
Maybe they’re newer to photography and they know that they want to niche down to attract that ideal person instead of being known as a generalist photographer. But they’re like, “I don’t really have a ton of images. I’m doing 175 generalist sessions right now.”
After this incredible episode, what would be some next steps based on 2010 to now Nicole?
Nicole: It would start off with making sure I have enough images to procure a website and some basic social media stuff, so I would start with some model calls.
“Hey, I’m looking for specific ___________.” In the pet world, maybe I would say,
“I’m looking for some action dogs that love water.” “I’m looking for some mutt that are very limited edition, crazy-looking dogs.” “I’m looking for some purebred dogs of these breeds,” so you can curate what you want.
So in the baby world, maybe it’s, “I’m looking for someone that has a modern farmhouse home and is pregnant, due in the first quarter.” Or “I’m looking for someone that would like to do some outdoor,” think about what it is you want to curate and see on your feed and on your style, on your website, and put out actual model calls for those very specific things, and shoot them and then have those images.
You can still keep your generalist site up maybe, but then make yourself a specialized site and social media for what it is you want to eventually do. I teach this to a lot of my students, because I have quite a few students that maybe were that family, newborn, weddings, pets, but they’re like, “I really just want to do dogs.” And they’re already full time as a generalist and they’re really scared of getting rid of all that.
So take dogs off that generalist. Put an information on there of “Hey, looking to photograph your furry family? Go here.” Send them over and create the site for what you want your business to look like in two years and start working and focusing all of that there, but still having that place, so you can still put food on the table and still have money coming in and still do those other sessions.
And then you’ll get to the point, hopefully when you start to be like, “Oh man, I’m tapped out, not enough time.” Or like, “The dog stuff is taken over all of my things. Let’s shut this other one down.”
And you can again, do that soft exit and let your clients know that, “Hey, I’m transitioning to this, but for you guys, just let me know.” That’s really important.
And I do want to throw out one other thing too. When I made that decision in 2015 about focusing more on pets, at the time, my revenue was probably 60% families, 40% pets. So it wasn’t even to the point where my pets were like 80%, and I was still dabbling in families.
Families were still the bulk of my income, and it was easy. I did zero marketing for my families at that point. It was all word of mouth, it was all SEO, and it was $3,000 plus average of doing beautiful wall art.
So you look at it and you’re like, “Am I crazy?” But I knew in my heart where I wanted to focus. It was the right decision, even though at the time it seemed really scary.
Connect with Nicole!
Tavia: So good. Man, this has been such a good, just everything, from pricing, niching, transitioning, all of it. I love it so much. Where can people continue to learn from you and connect with you?
Nicole: Yeah, absolutely! They can follow me on Instagram @nicolebegleyofficial, or you can also find me at hairofthedogacademy.com. And if you want to start photographing more four-legged, furry critters, that’s the place to find out about that.
And we do have the Hair of The Dog Podcast as well, which actually has a lot of mindset stuff. We’d love to connect with you guys anywhere along there. But thanks so much for having me here. It was great chat with everybody today!
Tavia: This has been such a good episode. Thank you so much, Nicole.
Friend, I hope that you pulled out some awesome nuggets from this episode. Nicole’s story is so inspiring and I hope that you have taken away some things from this episode that are going to help you move closer and closer to pursuing photography full time.
And remember, if you have a passion, it is not an accident because not everyone loves the thing that you love. So whatever your passion is, it is there for a reason, and I hope that you will get out there and make it happen.
Have a great week!