Arica Dorff is having a good year. The 33-year-old owns a thriving pet photography business that last year doubled its square footage. She is happily married to risk manager John Dorff. Her Weimaraner dogs, Duke and Drake, and her guinea pig, Harley, bring great joy. A California firm "who loves her story" is interested in filming a sizzle reel for a possible reality show.
What is it about Dorff's story that so intrigues the filmmakers? Let's start with her name, Arica. Her mother's name is Anita and her father is Richard, so the first and last letters of her name are from Mom, the middle three letters are from Dad. Her mother is half Chinese, half Japanese. Dad is Caucasian. Dorff was born in Japan, grew up in Hawaii, started college in Hawaii and transferred to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to play softball.
Graduating from UNLV with her ukulele in hand (yes, she plays and sings) and a degree in psychology, Dorff tried job assignments in heath care and social services before taking a career left turn, accepting a job at a Las Vegas photo studio.
" My father was a photographer, but I had never even touched a camera," Dorff says. "I sold services and took photos at one of those mall-type photo studios with about one day of training."
While at the photo studio, several customers asked about bringing pets for pictures. Dorff's employer had a rule against pets, so she researched where to send people who had that request. At the time, she found no photographers in the Las Vegas Valley who specialized in pet photography.
Dorff had grown up with a variety of animals; she always felt a connection with them. An idea was born: She could open a photo studio specializing in pet photography herself. With her husband's blessing, she took a risk.
Though Dorff had taken lots of pictures in her former job, she was a novice at knowing the capabilities of cameras and lighting. She researched equipment online, then attended a Wedding and Portrait Photographers International trade show in Las Vegas.
She asked exhibitors for advice and bought all her equipment at the show. She then hired Montana master photographer Steve Winslow to come to her Eastern Avenue storefront studio and teach her how to use the equipment.
In 2006, Pet'ographique was born, and Dorff immediately fell in love with her business and its customers. Today the company has three additional employees, Amy Russell, Ashlee Erickson and Mandy Truax, all of whom, Dorff says, care as much about the business as she does. Pet'ographique also moved to a larger studio on Horizon Ridge Parkway in November.
At about the time Dorff opened her business, she adopted her second Weimaraner, Drake. She initially met Drake at a dog park. While thinking about adoption, she received a picture of the dog from Las Vegas Weimaraner Rescue. Dorff felt the picture didn't do the dog justice.
She volunteered to take photos of the group's rescue animals at no charge. Digital photos could then be available on the rescue organization's website. Word spread among rescue groups. Pet'ographique now takes 10 to 15 no-charge rescue photos each week.
"Professional photos are invaluable to us; they show the soul and personality of an animal. We have a running appointment with Arica every Tuesday. She has photographed dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, ducks, pot-bellied pigs and even goats," says Doug Duke, executive director of the Nevada Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
District Judge Kathleen Delaney, president of Las Vegas Basset Rescue, remembers when three young male basset hounds were available for adoption at the same time. One of the young dogs was taken for a Pet'ographique photo; pictures of the other two were taken by Delaney.
"You wouldn't believe how many more inquiries came for the dog in the professional photo," she says. "Having these photos has revolutionized the rescue process for us."
Most weekends, Delaney takes a rescued dog for his or her photograph. Ten photos of dogs involved with her organization decorate Delaney's courtroom.
Dorff promotes her fee-paying business by partnering with pet services, veterinary clinics, dog groomers and others. She says yes whenever a rescue group needs a gift certificate.
Peggy Ganopole won a Pet'ographique photo in a drawing at Legacy Animal Hospital. She and her Lhasa apso, Daisy, spent about an hour with Dorff for the photo.
"I was skeptical," Ganopole says, "but Arica made me, and Daisy, feel very comfortable. My husband had died earlier in the year, and Daisy saw me through it all, so she has an honored place among my photographs. I ordered extra small photos of Daisy and me and sent them with my holiday cards."
Like Ganopole, most of Dorff's customers have photos taken initially for display in their homes. Most photo sessions include a long pre-photo conversation about the customer's environment. The props and colors in the photos are then selected with the customer's plans for the photo in mind.
What do Pet'ographique photos cost? Creation fees start at $50. Average sales are $1,000-$2,000.
The company's website is one of its most effective selling tools, Dorff notes. Model releases are signed by all the owners, so several Pet'ographique photos become part of the website, "and people can see what we do."
Why pay for a professional photo? Because taking a photo of your own pet is not easy, says Dorff, whose experience is now sought by others. She was recently invited to speak on the psychology of pet photography at a conference in California. She also has had photographic classes at her studio, and recently she flew to Oregon to help another budding pet photographer set up her business.
Among Dorff's do's and don'ts:
Do make a connection with pet owners. That's even more important than a connection with the animals.
Don't groom a pet on the day of the shoot; animals often are tired by the grooming process. Have them groomed the day before.
When a pet comes to her studio (she makes house calls as well), the animals are purposely ignored and held in a rather boring area with nothing interesting to sniff or explore. Toys and treats are a definite no-no.
"I want the animal to see me as the most exciting thing that has happened during their time here," Dorff says. "If I make a noise with my mouth, or throw a toy in the air, I want the animal to be surprised and excited by me."
The challenges of pet photography are numerous. Dorff has had photos of multiple pets - all with different personalities - in one photo. She has photographed animals who are young, old, deaf, calm, excitable, ill.
She agrees with the California production company that her business is never dull. When the production company asked her for a memorable tale, she told them of one customer in Las Vegas who built a home in Arizona as an exact replica of her home in Nevada. The reason: She had a dog that was blind, and she wanted him to immediately know his way around the new home.
"If we were to be part of a reality show, we wouldn't be into conflicts," Dorff says. "We would be into great stories."