Jennifer McCallum, who lives outside Detroit, turned 50 this year. For most Americans, that would mean she has 15 years left before retirement. But McCallum, the founder and sole employee of Firefly Pet Photography, can’t see herself ever leaving the dream job she’s created.
Firefly Pet Photography is the fulfillment of McCallum’s lifelong passion. From a converted shed in her backyard, she runs a full-service business specializing in portraits of pets—mostly dogs—and their families in bucolic settings in southeastern Michigan.
Fortune spoke with her about her approach to entrepreneurship, how she got to where she is, and what her ambitions are for the future. This conversation has been lightly condensed for clarity.
How did you get into pet photography?
I worked for a number of major wine, spirits, and beer companies, and I loved them. I’m a big wine geek, and I wanted to learn more, but my heart and soul has always been animals. A few years ago, my experience fostering and taking photos for a local rescue organization made me realize I could help them more as a business than as an individual. I started it on the side to raise money for animal rescues, and it just kind of took off.
I would kill to have more photos of me and my childhood dog. When I photograph kids and dogs, it’s a gift for the parents. Some day, the kids will be so happy they have these photos, and the parents get to enjoy them, too.
I don’t think I knew how much I’d enjoy the human element. The way pets look at us is just so magic, and I try to capture that. We’re so used to seeing dogs from our perspective. But I see different things: How they lean into you, how they look up to you. I don’t even want to think about all the things I’ve laid in for those photos.
What does a typical day look like?
There is no typical day. I have flexibility, which is fantastic. But typical tasks include following up with clients, writing a blog post, editing photos from a recent shoot, networking with another pet business owner or marketing group, or walking my own dogs in a park to scout a new location and see which flowers are in bloom so I know exactly where to take someone.
I just got orders from three clients, so I need to photograph those and schedule time to hand-deliver. Because then I get to see the dogs again.
I want to make sure a client and I are a good fit. I’m not for everybody; I have a very specific style. There’s a little bit of me in every picture I take. I want to hear about a client’s relationship with their pet, what they love about their pet, and what their quirks are, because that’s what makes them special and is what I want to capture.
I’ll ask them to describe their dog in three words and try to get pictures that represent those words for our shoot. I also ask what a perfect day for their pet would be. It helps me figure out what kind of park we want to go to, and at what time of year. If it’s a husky, we might do a snow photoshoot.
I get some clients whose dog, unfortunately, is older or got a bad diagnosis; if that’s the case, I want to get them on the calendar right away.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Working with pets who have limited time, because I get invested! I consider myself their Auntie Jen, and I have boxes of tissues by my desk because I sometimes get emotional while I’m editing. But other than that, it’s all fabulous.
What are people’s reactions when you tell them what you do?
Most of the time they’re like, you’re a what? We know all milestone photographers, like wedding photographers, newborn photographers, graduation photographers. Pet photography is still really new. I’ve been doing it for 10 or 12 years now, and it’s only now just taking off in the U.S.
My only rule is the dog can do no wrong. I’ve fostered over 100 dogs and cats; I have the ability to understand them. I’ve never had a problem with having to stop a shoot or cancel it. If a dog is super high-energy, for instance, I’ll ask them to take it on a walk or something, just so it’s in its best form for the shoot.
Animals don’t have to behave. I don’t need them to sit still. Let them be themselves.
What’s the office environment, so to speak? Do you have coworkers?
I am a solopreneur, or a pet-preneur. I’m looking to get more help, like by hiring a virtual assistant for some basic editing, because there’s a lot that goes into all these images. I make sure leashes are removed, and I get obsessive about removing stray hairs off of dogs.
I currently work in my former garden shed, which my husband converted into a studio. I do all my work outdoors, so the studio is super handy. I can work here quietly because I have two dogs of my own, and if I were in my house, they’d be barking and wanting all my attention.
What are the typical education requirements for a job like this? Are there any?
I don’t think you need a degree in photography to do it. I’m self-taught. It’s more about knowing animals than knowing the technical bits. But I do believe in furthering your education, so I invest a lot of my earnings back into the business.
Taking pictures of dogs is just 10% of the job. You have to love being an entrepreneur and be self-motivated with all the different hats you need to wear. Get educated on how to run a business, how to be profitable. There are a lot of costs to running the business. I have 30 subscriptions to different software programs to track—plus I spend a lot on dog treats alone!
How much do you make?
I made about $20,000 of take-home pay last year, but I chose to upgrade all of my camera gear, which ate all of that up. My goal this year is to net $50,000 for myself, and still give back to all the charities I work with. Last year, I raised over $6,000 for charity. This year I’m hoping for over $10,000. That’s always been one of my primary motivations.
I don’t work other jobs; this is my full-time job, and this is the first year where I’m really putting more pressure on myself to really support my family with this, and not invest it all back into the business. This year, I really want to pay for my own travel and also bring home a paycheck.
How do you hope your business grows in the coming year?
Shooting outdoors in Michigan, it’s hard to work year-round, so I’m looking at building different things into my business model. I’d like to work with brands and do more commercial work. That’s one way to expand opportunities.
I’m also adding in digital paintings. Those are at a higher price point, and I don’t need to take the original photo. Someone from California can send me a picture of a dog who’s passed away, and I can create art from that.
The business might take different turns. I’ve already changed my direction a little. I didn’t use to work with kids and dogs. Maybe one day it’ll be more horses than dogs.
What does a typical photography session look like?
On average, I spend 25 to 30 hours on each client. My photoshoots take place either at sunrise or sunset, because that’s when the light is the best. Each session takes between one and two hours, depending on the dog. When the dog is over it, there’s no point in continuing it.
I probably have two or three conversations with clients prior to the shoot. I’ve sent them guides on what to wear and I’ll go to their house to meet their dogs or kids in advance, so I’m not some stranger to them at the shoot.
The first few minutes are a taste test; I see what treats the dog likes best. Then, we wander around the park and see where the light is. I let the dog just walk and sniff, and maybe I’ll bring out blankets or chairs for people to sit on. For kids, I’ll bring a wagon or a bubble machine. I want to give a big variety of images—different backgrounds, action shots, close-ups. I’ll take an average of 2,000 images per shoot. I shoot really fast because I need everyone looking. Dogs blink, too!
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’d love to be living in Europe, hosting retreats for pet photographers, or photographing dogs all over Europe. If I’m still here in Michigan, I’d love to do some book projects. I also love working with brands to help them grow their businesses.
The whole pet industry is just filled with the best people, helping each other grow. Even outside of the pet business, pet images can help you connect with your clients. You could be a real estate agent, or insurance company. You see pets in ads for almost anything these days. I have stock images of pets businesses can purchase from me.
Do you want to retire from this job?
No! I can’t imagine retiring and not doing this. I do need to step back a little bit because I get obsessive and it’s all I think about. My husband and I were on this beautiful trip to Portugal, but I was like, ooh, look, there’s a dog!