How I Started My Photography Business

July 9, 2019

I feel like once you know what you want to do in life, you can trace it way back. For me, I can remember my dad always bringing a camera on road trips and family vacations, and documenting the entire thing.

Or the sweet older ladies who took photos during family camp for the daily newsletter and let me shadow them around because I thought it looked like such a fun job.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I began really playing around with photography. One of the girls I’d gone to summer camp as a kid, started posting photos on Facebook from her 365 day project series. And she would get really creative with them! They were unlike any other photos I’d seen friends post before, and I was so intrigued.

I began to challenge myself, just for fun, to take one original photo each day – of whatever I wanted. And then I would play around with edits in PicMonkey and begin sharing them on Facebook, too.

It was so fun to me! Coming up with witty captions and playing with my creativity. It was the best outlet.

Around the same time, my high school started offering a photography class and I decided to join. I was having so much fun with this hobby and definitely wanted to learn more. That was when I began to learn little things in Photoshop and what a DSLR was. We even got to test out Canon equipment for a couple of weeks, which was the coolest experience.

At some point during this time, I was still sharing photos on Facebook, and a family from our church asked me if I could take their family photos. When they asked me how much I charged, I told them $30 – which felt like SO much money to me at the time. I can clearly remember thinking, “Who would pay $30 for photos?”.

We have come so far since then, ha.

This family was SO nice, and when it came time for them to pay me they tipped me so that I earned $50 total. I remember thinking, “They gave me $50?!?” – I was absolutely flabbergasted. It had such a profound effect on me. That was the moment when I began to realize that people saw value in what I was doing.

About a year later, I graduated and left for college where I decided to do a double-major in Photography and English. At the time, my 4-year goal was to start a magazine after graduating college. I’d created an online magazine while in high school and had really enjoyed it, and wanted to come back to that. But, didn’t have the time to focus on it right then.

I was still really enjoying photography, so I added that major on for no other reason than I thought it was fun. I continued to share photos on Facebook and started getting referred to others for graduation photos, campus events, and couple photos. Because I was having so much fun with it, I said yes to pretty much every request and started building up a side-hustle.

By my junior year of college, I was getting referred and booked for so many photography gigs that I didn’t know what to do. That same year I was also the Photo Editor for our campus newspaper and one night I was sitting on our office couch with Lyndon, feeling like I was at this fork in the road. It felt like I was being pulled in the direction of pursuing photography as an actual career, but that was so completely different from what my plan had been (to come back to running a magazine business).

Finally, I had this moment where I just said “Okay, God. I’m just going to completely trust you in this.” And I took the leap to truly pursue photography.

That night will always be special to me, because it was such a turning point. It was the night that made all of this possible.

In December 2014, I was asked to run a photo booth for my first wedding and then a couple of weeks later photographed my first wedding day alongside my friend Danielle Sergio. It was that wedding day that everything started to click for me. I was completely smitten by all of it. And, I knew I wanted to photograph more.

Up until that point, I had mostly been using the photo department’s equipment, since I had access to it. But, as spring semester was wrapping up in 2015, I knew I wanted a DSLR of my own to continue taking photos. Thankfully, I was asked to document an entire graduation weekend for one of the graduates at my college. I gave them an hourly rate, and I think I ended up quoting them something like 450-500 for the whole weekend.

They booked me, and the day after graduation I met up with her dad to collect payment. This is another moment that I’ll never ever ever forget. We sat at a table in one of the dorm lobbies, and he began to count out $100 bills. “How much was it again?” he asked. I sheepishly told him the amount. He looked at me, looked at the bills in his hand, and asked me again. “How much?” he asked. A little confused, I repeated the amount. Slowly, he began to shake his head. “One, two, three…” he said as he one-by-one laid the bills on the table, and he kept going past the amount I’d quoted him. Now I was really confused and trying to figure out what the hey was going on. “…seven.” He ended, and picked up $700 off of the table. He looked at me, these bills in his hand, and said, “$700. I want you to know how much your time is really worth.”

I was shocked. That was the highest amount of income I’d received for one event, yet. And a moment I’ll never forget.

I was able to take that money and make my first big investment in my business – buy a Canon 7D from one of my photography teachers. It was a crop sensor, not a full-frame, which basically means that everything is “cropped in” more when you’re taking photos. But, I loved it. It was mine. And I used it all the time.

I was coming up on my senior year at this point and one of the requirements for my department was to hold a senior exhibition. This was the perfect opportunity for me to announce to the world that I was going to be a wedding photographer!

I began to build up my portfolio over the course of 2015, and then debuted my series to the campus in April of 2016. I ordered glass prints of my best photos, set everything up to look as though it were a wedding reception (with cupcakes & flowers & a little display so people could see how it might feel to have the photos in their home). And I had a little corner with my business cards and a calendar where people could write their name & email down on their wedding date if they wanted to talk more about working together.

It was such a hit and I was on cloud 9.

The summer of 2016, I photographed 3 weddings as the lead photographer, and again, I was completely hooked. Absolutely enthralled with all of it.

That same summer, I made my first investment in educating myself. I booked a mentor session with Nicole Balsamo and that was another big turning point for me. It was proof to myself that I was taking this thing seriously, this was no longer just a hobby for me – I was running a business.

And then, in the fall of 2016, I attended my first workshop as an attendee and the entire game changed. I flew to Utah, it was the first time I’d ever been to Utah, first time I’d ever been to a workshop. And I spent the next 3 days with 10-12 other girls, learning from Nhiya Kaye Photo about everything you need to know to run a high quality photography business. It was game-changing.

I came back from that workshop with so much passion for photography and the resources to go full-time.

Just over 6 months later, in April of 2017 (one year after my senior exhibition!), I went full-time in my photography business and I’ve never looked back.

Now, flash forward to today and I am completely booked with weddings for the year, hosting multiple workshops a year for other photographers, hosting a podcast – doing what I love full-time and ahhh, it’s been amazing. Absolutely amazing.

This journey has been so much more than I ever meant for it to be. I didn’t set out to become a wedding photographer or an educator, but I can so clearly see God’s hand in every step. In every decision. And I wouldn’t change one single thing about it.

Now, just so we’re clear – this definitely hasn’t been easy. It’s been a process of taking time to learn, making mistakes and trying again, learning who needs to be in my corner and who doesn’t, being willing to invest in myself. I’ve reached points of burn-out, I’ve broken camera equipment and frantically tried to replace it a couple of days before another wedding, I’ve also invested my money in things that didn’t give me the return I’d hoped for.

And I still wouldn’t have it any other way. Those mess-ups, those cring-y moments? They make the rest of it so rewarding. They shaped me into the business owner that I am today, and I am so grateful for every piece of my story.

So there you have it! That’s how I started my photography business, ever so slowly, one piece at a time.

OKAY!! Now for some fun news. TOMORROW. I’m going to be announcing something very exciting for you guys. If you are wanting to start your own photography business, or if you’ve just started your photography business and you need a little extra help…then go find me on Instagram @JoelleElizabethPhoto because tomorrowwww, I’m going to be announcing something special just for you and I promise you do not want to miss it.

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