The Differences Between A Commercial Animal Photographer and a Retail Pet Photographer

by | Sep 8, 2023 | commercial animal photography, behind the scenes, business tips

As a commercial animal photography specialist, I sometimes get shoot requests from pet brands who have done photo shoots, but have never worked with a commercial photographer before.

They have only worked with retail pet photographers who specialize in creating imagery for personal use for dog and cat owners.

Some of the pet photographers they’ve hired in the past may provide some commercial photography services on the side, but a very small percentage of those photographers are experienced in the creative, production, process, estimating, usage, legal side of commercial work. (The ‘production’ side being the most important part.)

I get more into that below.

First, the definitions of commercial animal photographer and retail pet photographer

A commercial animal photographer is a photographer who creates content of animals (dogs, cats, other small animals, farm animals, etc), exclusively for commercial use. They don’t create any content for personal or ‘retail’ use for private pet owners.

All of the content they create is used exclusively in advertising and marketing.

Many commercial photographers who photograph animals create other types of content as well, like lifestyle content of people, exclusively for marketing and/or advertising ‘commercial’ use.

You can see many different types of commercial photographers- including those who photograph dogs, cats and other animals- here.

A retail pet photographer is a photographer that creates content specifically for pet owners of their own pets to hang/display in their homes, e.g. for ‘personal’ use. They typically don’t create marketing and advertising photos, which are very different in quality, composition, and style, from retail personal use photos. (More on that below.)

A retail pet photographer may refer to themselves as a ‘pet photographer’, ‘dog photographer’, or ‘cat photographer’.

You can see examples of this style of work here.

Some retail pet photographers who specialize in creating content for pet owners but may also have measurable experience creating content for commercial clients may refer to themselves as a ‘pet photographer who also does ‘commercial work’, or they may refer to themselves as a ‘commercial pet photographer’.

The differences in verbiage are subtle, but important. ‘Commercial animal photographer’ vs. ‘commercial pet photographer’.

I’ll go over more of what all of this means below.

Style/photo differences

The style of a dog photo that gets printed and hung on a wall in someone’s home is often very different from a dog photo that is used in a printed magazine ad to sell a product or service.

As you can see in the table below, the differences in style between commercial and retail photos are numerous. I’ve had many clients hire me to do reshoots after not receiving what they needed from a retail pet photographer because the photos looked like what’s described in the left column, (which, by the way, is exactly what they a retail pet photographer is trained to do).

Animals often looking straight into cameraAnimals often looking away from camera
Backgrounds contain details; environment is key playerBackgrounds lack details; subject is main focus; simple is better
Little or no negative space with animals filling frame or centeredNegative space with room for text copy, animals usually off-center
Often static and posed, lacking specific animal behavior or movementOften dynamic and capturing specific animal behavior and movement
Animal engaged with the cameraFly on the wall, photojournalistic style, capturing natural animal behavior
Even lighting across frameFocused lighting to draw attention to animal
Captures a simple moment in time; doesn't tell any kind of storyTells a bigger story (a commercial photo *always* tells a story)
Has no conceptAlmost always has a concept, e.g. exploration, loneliness, excitement, youthful and healthy, etc.

Even when the content and environments are similar, small differences can make a huge difference in the split-second perception of a pet owner scrolling their feed and seeing advertising images.

Here’s an example of a classic retail pet photo on the left, and a classic commercial animal photo on the right.

retail pet photo vs commercial animal photo

The photo on the left is cute and will look great in a tabletop frame in the little boy’s grandma and grandpa’s den. The photo on the right tells a story of a little boy and his cat on an outdoor adventure, which will effectively sell health products designed to improve the health and well-being of feline pets.

Investment/cost differences

Retail pet photographers = a lower initial client investment in ‘commercial’ photos, but a much higher long-term client investment in ‘commercial’ photos over time.

Commercial animal photographers = a higher initial investment in commercial-use photos, but less money invested over time due.

So why would this be the case?

  1. Reshoots.

I’ve worked with many pet brands who have required re-shoots after doing a shoot with another photographer, due primarily to receiving content that may be cute, but isn’t effective at advertising or marketing.

2 shoots to create the same content = more money spent.

2. The cumulation of costs of low-budget shoots over time

The brands have hopped from retail photographer to retail photographer, expecting commercial-quality results, without really understanding the difference. On a per-shoot basis they may be saving money, but over time all of that money adds up, and still results in images that aren’t effective.

A company can either make an initial $15k investment into very high quality images that will be effective for 5/7/10 years to come, or a $30k total investment in many different shoots over the same time frame that all produce images that aren’t very effective or cohesive.

3. The effectiveness of the images to sell a product and/or service

Retail pet photographers aren’t given creative briefs by their personal pet owner clients. And often aren’t given creative briefs by pet brands who hire them to create ‘commercial’ use if those brands lack experience doing photo shoots.

So there are no target goals for the imagery beyond making a cute print. No marketing research, no focus groups, no competitor analysis, etc. All of these are critical components of commercial photography.

Our global pet brand clients often invest months of planning and research and decide media buys for shoots before they even contact us to book a shoot. This work is extremely important, because it determines whether or not the images will actually help them sell a product or service.

Advertising is very expensive, and the image used in an ad is the very first thing consumers look at when scrolling their feeds. That image needs to capture their attention and be relevant to the product or service while still being aspirational, within a fraction of a second. Otherwise the money the company invests in that ad is completely wasted. This point can’t possibly be overstated.

Commercial photography is only effective if you know the goals for the images, how they need to look specifically, what the placement is, and what the concept is for each image.

4. The quality of the imagery

Commercial photography is by it’s nature very high in quality. Typically substantially higher in quality than personal photos hung on a single individual’s wall, (with the exception of a small percentage of very talented photographers). This is because that quality needs to effectively sell a product or service. A retail photo isn’t selling anything. It just looks cute.

The quality from commercial photography comes from the high-end equipment and lighting used, all the ‘hands’ on set (the crew), the pre-planning that’s done by the creative team prior to the shoot, the retouching of the photos, and other factors.

Hiring a retail pet photographer for your commercial photo shoot is like hiring an ice cream cart operator to cater your wedding food, as opposed to hiring a catering company. Ice cream cart operators fulfill an important role (and who doesn’t like ice cream?!), and while they may be able to cobble some non-ice cream food together for your guests, the results are unlikely to meet your expectations.

Production experience

Finally, aside from the images themselves, the production itself is of critical importance when producing effective marketing and advertising images.

The production is everything that goes into the shoot from start to finish, aside from the actual making of the photos by the photographer.

Production includes but is not limited to:

  • Location scouting
  • Talent scouting
  • Talent casting
  • Finding crew (see below)
  • Scheduling crew
  • Creating call sheets
  • Picking up props
  • Getting permits to shoot in public places
  • Arranging no parking signs
  • Arranging trash pickup
  • Coordinating talent schedules and locations
  • Etc

Commercial photographers have experience doing all the above to produce commercial shoots. They can source talent, gather crew, know how to work with digitechs, location scouts, assistants, etc, get permits, talk usage with talent agents, source talent, and do all the other myriad of things involved in planning a successful commercial shoot. It’s a lot of work.

Good commercial photographers know that they can’t possibly do all of that work and have the creativity and mental focus to create great images for their client on shoot days. So they hire experienced producers to do most of that work for them, so they can focus on their job- creating beautiful, engaging photos that help their clients sell effectively,

The more days long the shoot is, the more locations, the more talent, and the longer the shot list is, the bigger the crew is. The majority of commercial photo shoots need a crew to make things happen.

Crew may include, but is not limited to:

  • Producer
  • Production assistant
  • Digitech
  • Camera assistants
  • Wardrobe
  • Wardrobe assistant
  • Hair & makeup
  • Talent agency representative
  • Dog/cat trainers
  • Set builder
  • Location scout

Here’s an example behind-the-scenes of a commercial advertising shoot.

Commercial photographers with more than a little experience have producers and crews they work with regularly. This is especially critical for working with animals, as animal shoots are very different from human shoots. And human + animal shoots are different even still.

Having a photographer, producer and crew (a.k.a. the ‘team’) who work really well together and already know what’s expected of everyone on set ensures a smooth production and a great final product.

To sum

If you are planning a photo shoot that needs to produce images that will be used to market and/or advertise a product or service that caters to pet owners, it’s best to hire a commercial animal photographer vs. a retail pet photographer due to:

  • The accuracy in the style of the photos created
  • The lower long-term costs due to avoiding re-shoots
  • The higher payoff of marketing and advertising dollars spent
  • The higher quality images
  • The experience with producing shoots
  • The team needed to do all the shoot-related tasks
  • The knowledge of ‘how it all works’, from start to finish

If you’re planning a commercial animal photo shoot, give me a shout. I’d love to see your creative brief!