When I Grow Up…
It’s a funny thing, thinking about what you wanted to be when you grew up. For the first few years of my life, I wanted to be a dog. I eventually realized that wasn’t scientifically possible, so then naturally I wanted to be a vet. However, seeing animals in pain and administering injections wasn’t quite up my alley, so quickly that dream was squashed as well. But shortly after that, I began realizing one of my biggest passions… and suddenly all I wanted to do was be a photographer.
I was around twelve years old when I first started learning photography. I had a 2 megapixel point and shoot camera that I used to take horrific, low quality photos of my horse. I enjoyed it so much that my parents eventually decided it was worth it to get me something a bit more substantial, and I received my first SLR camera, a Canon Digital Rebel. Although I only had a basic kit lens, I absolutely loved that thing — I would bring it to the barn almost every day, and whenever I wasn’t there I was taking photos of nature or my dog. I taught myself slowly along the way, learning the ins and outs of the camera as well as how to edit in Photoshop.
Eventually my friends at the barn started asking me to take photos of them with their horses, and before I knew it I had created a business. I photographed portraits as well as horse shows, and as I needed to learn to showcase my work I continued teaching myself graphic design and how to build a website. I took one photography class in high school to learn how to shoot and develop film, but otherwise everything I learned was through trial and error.
Throughout high school my only job was doing photography, but as I started to think about college and what I wanted to do long-term I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to make a living photographing horses. I quite honestly never thought about weddings because I had never been a people-focused photographer before, and as much as I enjoyed fashion (in terms of buying clothes at the mall) high-fashion photography wasn’t for me either. So I decided it make the most sense to put photography on the back burner and pursue a degree in business, and eventually settled on marketing because it felt the most creative.
At that point, I really drifted away from photography. I did some portrait sessions for my friends in college, but beyond that I didn’t touch my camera for years. I thought about it all the time, about how much I missed creating. It wasn’t until my then-boyfriend, Matt, and I moved in together and I started taking photos of our apartment that I really started getting back into it. I loved interior design and would share our home on my Instagram, and picking up my camera again almost instantly reignited the flame. One day I randomly posted on Instagram something along the lines of, “Trying to get back into photography, who wants me to take their picture?”
Reigniting the Spark
Truthfully I didn’t expect to get any responses, but someone I went to high school with DMed me asking if I could take her engagement photos. Her fiancé had proposed a few weeks ago in Grand Central, but their photographer had cancelled last minute so they were looking for professional photos. I was beyond excited, but also nervous — I had never photographed a couple before, and shooting in a train station was going to be very different than at a barn. But I summoned the courage to say yes and charged her a whole $75.
Knowing her personally made the shoot much less intimidating, and I ended up having the best time. Looking back now I would have definitely done things very differently in terms of my shooting and editing style, but it was the first necessary step on the road to where I am today. After that, one of our friends who lived in our apartment building asked me to shoot his proposal — from there, my friend who he proposed to asked me to shoot her friend’s bridal shower.
That was when things really started to take shape. The bride posted about me in a New Jersey Bride Facebook group, and suddenly I was getting all sorts of emails to shoot other showers. I quickly realized I needed to get my marketing engine back in place and threw together a website and contact form. It was all still very Frankenstein-ed together — I was using my personal email address, delivering photos on GoogleDrive, editing in Photoshop. But we all start (or restart) somewhere! I booked anything and everything I could, from family sessions to branding to events to engagements. I was still working 9-5 in the city on weekdays, and on weekends I would take my parents’ car and drive to sessions all over NJ.
When people started asking me if I shot weddings, that’s when things felt very real. Imposter syndrome took over — sure, I was shooting sessions nearly every week and delivering a great experience (I had since significantly amped up my site and had much more structure in place) but to be in charge of capturing one of the most important days of someone’s life? I wasn’t sure I was ready for that.
I started by booking intimate weddings and elopements that were less pressure than a full-on, 150+ person wedding day. I took tons of online courses (lots of Katelyn James and Amy & Jordan), continued shooting nearly every weekend and in whatever free time I had on weekdays after work, and invested in better equipment. I had several small weddings booked, and I was excited to see what the following year had in store.
The Pandemic Effect
That year was 2020, and we all know how that went for weddings.
So many reschedules, cancellations, and scaling down. It was definitely a difficult time to be starting a business, and I am very fortunate that I did have my full-time job to pay the bills while I watched my entire year of bookings basically drift away. And although I initially thought that this was the beginning of the end for my photography career, it actually ended up being exactly what I needed for my business to thrive. With small weddings being pretty much the only option, I was suddenly booking so many elopements and intimate gatherings. With my 9-5 becoming 100% remote I had so much more time to hone my craft, curate my website, and create a strong social presence and personal brand. I dedicated all of my newfound free time into creating my dream job, and I truly don’t think I would have been able to go full-time as quickly as I did had that not been the case.
2021 was a crazy year for weddings, with all of the 2020 postponements as well as newly engaged couples looking to get married. I worked at my 9-5 for the entire year while shooting full-sized weddings and an innumerable amount of sessions and events. It was truly exhausting, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it up for much longer. Every second of my day I was working — I would wake up at 7 am and edit until 9 am, then I would start my full-time graphic design job and work until 6 pm. At that point I would usually take a break for dinner, then edit again from 7 pm until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. It was grueling, but it paid off.
Taking the Leap
Towards the end of 2021, I started seriously considering quitting my corporate job. I had 35 weddings booked for the following year, and tons of additional sessions. My business was growing exponentially, and I knew there was physically no way I could continue on working 24/7. I never had time to be with Matt, who was now my fiancé, and forget about maintaining friendships with anyone else. In November of 2021, I officially gave my notice to my company that my last day would be December 17th. I had been at that same company since before I graduated college, so while it was a difficult decision I truly have not regretted it once.
I feel so incredibly fortunate that I was able to take the leap to do photography full-time because my life absolutely changed for the better. They say do something you love and you won’t work a day in your life… well, while that is 100% false it definitely makes work far more rewarding and enjoyable. There are definitely parts of my job I don’t love (taxes, finances, insurance, accounting, taxes, taxes) but the parts I do love drastically outweigh those. I love capturing my couples’ wedding days, I love creating a personal brand, I love engaging with followers on social, I love maintaining and improving my website, I love being my own boss and making my own hours and approving my own time off (spoiler alert: it all gets approved). I love the freedom it allows and the responsibility it brings. I love knowing that I am working towards building something that is helping support my family. People always ask if it’s overwhelming, and it definitely can be — but in truth it is so much less overwhelming than when I was essentially working two full-time jobs!
My Two Cents
Here’s my advice to anyone thinking about going full-time with their creative side hustle, whether it be photography or something else:
1. Be confident in your craft. We will always be plagued by imposter syndrome to a degree, but I used to get SO nervous before wedding days to the point that I couldn’t eat or sleep beforehand. With time and experience, though, comes confidence. I would never recommend to someone at that stage of their business to go full-time because it truly wouldn’t be healthy. I needed to know I had my 9-5 salary to fall back on in case I failed, in case I wasn’t good enough, in case no one wanted to book me. When I felt I was ready to go full-time it was because I had the confidence to know I had a strong pipeline of weddings lined up, I had inquiries consistently coming in, and I felt sure about myself and my business.
2. Continue investing in yourself and your business. I think one of the hardest pills to swallow at the beginning was how expensive it would be. Between gear/equipment, lawyers, accountants, business insurance, many (many) subscriptions, federal taxes, state taxes, sales tax, client gifts, client albums, car lease, gas, parking, tolls, second shooters, associate shooters, editing, education… the list goes on and on. Running your own business is not for the faint of heart (or the disorganized, for that matter). What I will say is that I have never regretted investing in something, and usually wished I had bought it sooner, whether it be a new camera body, a new lens, a new laptop, a new course— anything that helps me operate more efficiently or create a higher quality end result is money well spent.
3. Start saving now. The first few years of my business, I actually didn’t touch any of the money I made from photography (beyond paying off my expenses). Basically, I didn’t pay myself — I relied solely on my 9-5 to pay for my life, and saved all of the money I made from weddings, sessions, and events. This set me up to have a strong nest egg to start out with so that when I quit my 9-5, I knew that if (God forbid) I couldn’t book anything I had enough money to pay my bills, mortgage, etc.
4. Start off broad, and then niche down. When I started out I was definitely operating in a very small market with equine photography, but it was basically all I knew. When I restarted years later, though, I said yes to everything — families, maternity, branding, engagement, anniversary, gender reveals, bat mitzvahs, baby shower, bridal showers… you name it, I did it. This helped me not only realize what I really liked shooting, but also what I didn’t really like shooting. Quite honestly, I am not great with kids, so I quickly learned that family photography was probably not for me. On the other hand, I really love the bonds I formed with my wedding couples — they are typically close in age to me, so we have similar interests and are in a similar stage of life. I learned that I most enjoyed shooting weddings and therefore was able to give the best experience to those clients as well. I do think it’s really important to try everything before you niche down to one thing, because then you can do so confidently without wondering, “But what if I like X, Y, Z better?”
5. Build a strong network. This was something I was so intimidated by early on when starting my business. First of all, I was worried I would feel really isolated no longer having coworkers. I’m an introvert at heart and generally very independent, but I still wondered if I would miss any of the camaraderie I experienced in an office setting. I also worried about not having anyone to talk to — what if I had a question about business insurance, who would I ask? My husband wouldn’t know, my parents wouldn’t know. Thankfully, I have since been able to grow a strong community of amazing, like-minded creative business owners through Instagram. People who started out as accounts I followed have become some of my closest friends. It is so wonderful having a network of people you trust to support each other. I truly don’t think I would be where I am today without many of these friendships.
Bonus for wedding photographers — second shoot. A LOT. This is advice I wish I had given myself, because I began lead shooting weddings on my own without ever having second shot with another photographer. This is stressful, and I don’t recommend it. The only reason I knew what to expect and how to successfully execute a wedding day as a lead photographer was thanks to watching (and rewatching) KJ All Access, a subscription service that releases behind the scenes footage of Katelyn lead shooting a wedding day every month. But learning from another photographer in-person makes so much more sense, and is much less stressful than putting the pressure on yourself right off the bat, so I highly recommend connecting with photographers in your area to assist and eventually second shoot with them.
And Finally, Thank You
If you’ve made it this far, I’m not only impressed but also SO appreciative that you have given so much of your time to reading my story. Bringing my business to life has been one of the most challenging, but rewarding, things I have ever done, and all of the support I receive from my husband, friends, family, clients, and followers truly means the world to me. If you are someone considering going full-time in your business, I assure you — if I can do it, you can do it. We all have the ability to follow our passions and make our dreams a reality, it’s just about having the drive to keep going in the moments when you feel like giving up.
You’ve got this, and know I will be cheering you on along the way!