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Steal this job: Pet photographer

Shelley Castle spent years learning to interact with animals, like Mason, from behind her camera. (Jason Hornick/For Express)
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NAME: Shelley Castle, 46

SALARY: $28,000

POSITION: Pet photographer

What she does

Castle captures animals’ personalities with her camera. The process begins with a pre-shoot consult, during which she’ll get to know your dog or cat or rat or horse; it ends with her hanging up your new work of art.

Having photographed hundreds of animals, Castle says she can almost predict each subject’s movements. Part of her job is understanding animal behavior — many dogs are frightened by the clicking camera, she says. Fortunately, most are motivated by treats or toys.

One scared terrier loved to play ball, for example. While holding the camera in one hand, “I would play, play, play, play, grab the ball, pull it over the lens, snap, snap, snap, snap, and that’s how we got pictures of the dog,” Castle says.

Fearless pets pose other challenges. “I was photographing a Boykin [spaniel] puppy,” Castle says. “It’s so funny, because when youíre up in their face, they’re like, ‘Oh my God! You’re taking pictures of me! I’m so happy!’ And then slurp. A big ol’ tongue goes right into your lens.”

Castle limits herself to one to two photography sessions — which cost from $150 to $250 — each weekend, so that she can devote ample time to editing (i.e. using Photoshop to remove leashes from pictures) and art selection/development (i.e. partnering with a gallery rep to produce a canvas photo print to hang over the fireplace). For every hour of picture taking, there is about six to 10 hours of behind-the-scenes work, Castle says.

How she got the job

Castle took photography classes in college, and about five years ago, while hard at work in a career in government relations, she got the photo bug again. “I started photographing anything I could to get up to speed with digital cameras versus what I used to do with film,” Castle says. “It was like 24/7, that’s all I wanted to do.”

Three years later, with a $6,000 camera and a few lenses worth about $1,500 each, Castle drew up a business plan and turned pro. It came after countless hours spent building her portfolio by photographing her dogs, Marley and Banjo, as well as her friends’ dogs and rescue dogs, cats, turtles, gerbils, you name it, at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria.

“At a certain point I just realized, you can’t do this for free,” Castle says. “I’ve always wanted something to do with a pet business all my life, so this was it.”

She continues her government relations career full-time, but logs at least 30 hours a week on the pet photography business.

Who would want this job? 

It almost goes without saying: You have to love photography and love animals. Those are key to doing the job well, because there are some lifestyle sacrifices.

“The hours that you are taking pictures are the golden hours,” Castle says, “and those are the prime times you’d be sitting on a boat with your friends.”

It helps to have tech savvy (or a desire to learn) and entrepreneurial spirit, too. And having animal magnetism of, say, Snow White is also a boon.

How you can get this job

Basic photography skills are a must, but you can take classes for that. At schools such as The Art League (105 N. Union St., Alexandria; 703-683-2323) and Northern Virginia Community College, you can learn how to take pictures and use the equipment, and also how to work with editing programs including Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.

Look for workshops and mentoring programs, too. Castle attended a workshop in Dallas and she was mentored by Illona Haus, a photographer in Canada.

Allow yourself the time to build your portfolio and your reflexes needed to work with animals, Castle says.

Volunteering helps, too. “Take the time to work with a rescue or shelter first,” Castle says. “You will get more experience working with a shelter dog than any dog in the world, and you’ll start realizing itís not as easy as you think.”

Of course, talent and skill can only get you so far. You also need to market the business. Castle gets most of her business through recommendations, but she also uses Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to showcase her work.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Shelley Castle was mentored by Illona Haus at a workshop in Dallas. Castle trained under Haus separately. 

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