Reflections on 10 Years in the Photography Industry
Ten years ago today I became a photographer.
You know, it’s really strange to write that. Especially after reading back through my journal entries from the weeks surrounding this significant shift in my life’s trajectory. I’m a planner by nature (I’ve written 5-year plans for myself since I was 15), but if you had been seated next to me ten years ago on the flight from Chicago to DC, you would’ve heard nothing more than nice, vague phrases from smiling lips, frantically trying to hide the terror and emotional confusion and dear God what is happening going on inside. I’m fairly certain my eyes looked as wild as a fresh-caged animal.
I had no idea what a gift I had been given.
WARNING: LONG POST
I spent most of 2006 working for a non-profit in Chicago. It was small, insular, and founded/run by an emotionally manipulative man who had very big ideas and high expectations for his underpaid, overworked staff. The work environment was oppressive, but we were made to feel so special we didn’t notice it. We honestly believed we were changing the world, and it was exhilarating. It’s amazing what hindsight does to memories. It was a hard season. But my department was amazing. My boss was the most encouraging, affirming person I’d ever met, and my coworkers became family within weeks of working there. I was living out my dream— I hoped to work there for decades, and couldn’t conceive of any “next step” that would give half as much joy or fulfillment.
But my dream crumbled. I butted heads once-too-often with our president and our department dissolved, leaving me utterly lost and confused (and out of a job). I had no idea what to do next.. except that photography sounded interesting. One of my coworkers/best friends was a photographer and lent me her camera a couple of times, and I discovered I had an eye for this thing, but I also knew I was broke (and oh right, out of a job), so couldn’t afford an expensive hobby. “If I’m going to do this, I need to have a reason for it.” I spent time a lot of time praying for wisdom and direction, and decided to just go for it. I bought a camera and a ticket home, moved in with my parents, and began a new chapter in life.
The funny thing is, I didn’t know I was about to become a photographer. Sure I bought a camera, but I was in a very dark place when I moved home and couldn’t see the potential of this new season. I had been living my dream in Chicago— it was an unhealthy dream, working in an unhealthy environment, and I paid a high price for it, both physically and emotionally. It took me years to physically recover from the abuse I put my body through during that year (ridiculously long workweeks + eating foods you don’t know you’re intolerant to will do that, just fyi). And working in an oppressive environment, for a manipulative person (even though my department was a wonderful and amazing) takes a toll on the emotions. I left Chicago with deep wounds, and pain affects vision. I couldn’t see. All I knew is that I was lost, and desperately afraid of the unknown, and fighting the change of season.
I don’t blog about this very often, but I’m a Christian. Not by background or culture or tradition or political affiliation, but because Jesus Christ captured my heart when I was a child, and my life is forever changed. My faith is the only thing that got me through that season. It wasn’t the darkest season of my life, but it certainly came close. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from an Christian writer from the 1600s named John Bunyan— “These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are not a sign that God has forsaken you. They are sent to test you, to see if you will call to mind what you have received of His goodness and live on Him in your distress… Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ makes you whole.”
Jesus Christ made me whole again. And photography was part of that healing process.
November in Virginia is a beautiful thing to see. Leaves change, the weather cools, and there’s almost a bit of spice in the air. It’s the South, so you don’t always need a coat, but it’s just chilly enough to make you want a hot drink in hand. Mornings and evenings are the best. I spent a lot of time outside that Fall with my camera. Mornings on the front porch with a cozy blanket, coffee, and journal. Afternoons wandering through historic Old Town Fredericksburg, sitting on garden benches and watching the wind in the trees. Thinking and feeling and processing. Words and pictures helped me heal, and I started dreaming new dreams and making new plans.
My goal was to pursue International non-profit photojournalism. I wanted to travel the world and tell good, hopeful stories of things happening in other places. I took classes, started a blog, and spent time photographing every single day. I even spent some time overseas, test-driving this dream of mine. I was obsessed with Esther Havens and Jeremy Cowart, went to humanitarian photography conferences, and frequently used phrases like “dreamer,” “wanderlust,” and “world-changer.”
But remember that part where I was broke? Yeah. I worked at Starbucks, trying to save enough for camera equipment and classes, but the more I pursued my (expensive) dream of photojournalism, the more I realized it would be years before I could make enough to support myself in that field. And the more I traveled, the more I realized that my personality needs stability and deep roots in order to thrive, both emotionally and relationally. Living out of a suitcase doesn’t really support that.
I randomly decided to pick up portraits and weddings to help bring in some extra cash. Initially I thought I would do weddings and portraits part-time to fund my International ventures, but by the time I second shot my 3rd wedding, I was in love. I officially went “full time” in January 2009, but it took until September of that year to shift my dreams from photojournalist to wedding photographer. Once that shift happened, I’ve never looked back.
It’s amazing to look back over the past ten years and see how my dreams and visions and desires and hopes have changed. Sometimes the changes happens because of circumstances (moving from Virginia to DC, getting married, and having a baby have certainly shifted things for me). Sometimes the changes come from within, from maturity, from healing, from greater wisdom, from a softer heart. I still write my five year plans every January, but I hold them much more loosely now (and don’t even ask where I’ll be 10 years from now. I have no idea.).
What I do know, is that I was created to be a wedding photographer. I can’t imagine any other occupation that so completely fits my unique background, gifting, interests, and strengths. Having six younger brothers means I can corral the rowdiest of wedding parties and still end the day in good favor. My type-A personality and experience in event planning means I pay close attention to timelines, I understand domino effect, and can “make up time” in the schedule when we stray. I’m an intuitive romantic, so I can care for my brides, and I’m a nerdy analyst, so I can connect with my grooms. My parents raised us to “consider the preciousness of others,” and I really do care, which means people trust me— a necessary trait for anyone working in the wedding industry. And I’m in love with love, I think marriage is the best gift on earth, and weddings have always made me giddy. I never, EVER grow tired of them.
Sometimes I imagine boarding that DC-bound airplane, sitting down next to my 21-year-old self, and telling her all about the upcoming decade. I think she would’ve freaked out, and probably wouldn’t like some of the things I would tell her about the future. 2006-Sarah didn’t want to be a full-time wedding photographer. She thought she could only find value and fulfillment working in the non-profit world. She didn’t want to get married, and certainly didn’t want to be home with her baby. She wanted to change the world, and would have assumed that a quiet, steady, faithful life meant she had “settled for mediocrity.” She may not have used those words, but that’s what she believed.
There’s a lot I would tell 2006-Sarah. But once I convinced her that her future was bright, sweet, and more full of joy than she could possibly imagine, I would give her some advice on photography.
Ten Years as a Photographer—
Advice I Would Give Myself in the Beginning
- If you want to learn photography, take pictures. There are benefits to reading books and blogs, watching videos, and asking other people for advice, but the best way to learn this craft is by doing it. No amount of explanation or tutorials or tips from friends, or even classes & workshops, can take the place of that eureka moment when aperture and shutter speed finally makes sense.
- Keep your camera with you all the time. Photography is the art of stopping time. If you want to capture truly great moments, learn to watch life unfold through a viewfinder.
- Become obsessed with light. Study it’s color, it’s intensity, it’s bounce rate, which surfaces reflect it and which surfaces absorb it. Study it all the time— in every room, at every time of day, with and without your camera.
- “Good art begets good art”— if you want to develop a good eye, look at good work.
- STOP LOOKING AT YOUR FRIENDS WORK. Looking at peer-level photography won’t make you better. It will only feed comparison and distract you. Sure, you can see what they’re doing and cheer them on, but don’t look to your peers to catapult you forward. (this primarily refers to training your artistic eye. by all means find friends and colleagues to link arms with in your journey. but when it comes to learning new things, learn from masters, not students).
- FOLLOW PEOPLE LIGHT-YEARS BETTER THAN YOU. Study people with true skill, both painters and photographers. Study Rembrandt. Study Vermeer. Study John Constable. Study Thomas Cole. And then look at masters of photography— Annie Leibovitz, Dorothea Lange, Rodney Smith. Set a steep learning curve for yourself, and you’ll progress faster.
- Learn to see beauty in every day life. Part of being a good photographer is capturing beauty that no one else sees. Practice this first in the heart— learn humility, thankfulness, and search hard for glimpses of grace in every part of life.
- Once you go full-time, it will take three years to feel like you have your business feet under you, and another three after that to hit your stride. Slow and steady wins the day— don’t get discouraged.
- There is no shame in earning an honest wage. It’s nice to gift people with your skill, and nice to use your talent to serve non-profits, but don’t be ashamed of making money.
- On the other hand, don’t be afraid of not making money. Be smart, be wise, know your numbers, learn Excel and Quickbooks, pay your taxes, and set financial goals, but remember that God is your provider. Trust Him.
- You’re going to fail. It happens to everyone, especially when you’re learning something new. It’s part of the growth process. The sooner you can get over your fear of failure, the better. Embrace it— every failure is a chance to grow.
- At some point, you will mistake your occupation for your identity. Yes, you are a photographer, but you are also SO MUCH MORE. Don’t get sucked into thinking that you and your camera share a soul. They don’t. It’s a tool that you use, not who you are.
- Photography for you is an art form as well as a business, and learning to balance the two will be a life-long challenge. Once you go full-time, you’ll spend 85% of your time running a business, and you will be surprised by how much you love it. But don’t forget to cultivate creativity and inspiration for the 15% of time that you spend on photography. Don’t let yourself fall out of love with your camera.
- Self-employment is hard. You are not prepared for the challenge, and some days the weight of it all will sit so heavy on your shoulders you will feel as if you’re drowning. On those days, remember why you started, why you keep going, and what you want to accomplish. Look back at your Core Beliefs, read over your business plan, and keep faithfulness in mind. Do the next right thing.
- You will often struggle with comparison. Others will grow their skills and businesses faster than you can, and you will one day cry when a newer photographer books one of your potential clients for a higher price point than you quoted them. Remember— the Lord gives, the Lord takes away, and He is both wise and kind in both the giving and the withholding. You are not “them,” so you can’t expect your business to look like “theirs.” Dream big, but be content.
- Speaking of dreaming… you can never dream big enough. The only thing holding you back is yourself. Equipment cannot limit you. Money cannot limit you. Time cannot limit you. Don’t let yourself say, “I can’t do that.” Because you can. Just try and see. You’ll shock yourself.
- The 50mm lens will change your life. Just a heads-up.
- Think about yourself, and your confidence dwindles. Worry about what others think of you, and your image quality slides downhill. Focus on loving your clients, your subjects, fellow vendors, and fellow photographers, and you’ll see a drastic increase in the quality of your work.
- Want to take nice pictures? Dress pretty. Sounds crazy, but it’s for real.
- People won’t understand your job. Don’t fault them for that. Just smile and be kind.
- Sometimes things look better in person than they do on camera. That’s okay— there are some moments that are meant to be experienced in real life and saved in our memories, and sometimes it’s more important to be present than to document.
- Never stop learning. You’ll reach a point where you feel like you’ve learned all you need to know. Perhaps you have. But if you’re not learning, you’re getting rusty, so keep learning new things. If for no other reason than to cultivate joy in your photography skills. The day you stop learning is the day you should sell your camera.
- You will find unexpected joy in helping others learn how to do photography, business, and life well. You never wanted to be a teacher, but it’s one of your giftings, so do it well.
- You’re going to marry a Nikon lover. It’s okay— he’ll learn. 🙂
Photography has been a wonderful gift in my life. It has provided healing and joy for me in times of pain and sorrow and loss. It has taken me all around the world (Thailand, Kenya, New Zealand, Fiji, St Lucia). I’ve photographed 150+ weddings in 17 States, and couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity to own a business that fits in with my other goals in life.
Shortly after I bought my camera, I read Psalm 36:9— For with You [God] is the fountain of life; in Your light do we see light. Photography hasn’t only provided me with a job, a creative outlet, and a means of connecting with other people. It has helped me to love and understand God and His Word. And the better I understand God, the more clearly I see beauty in every aspect of life, and the better I can capture it.
I don’t think I’ll always be a photographer. I’m in the middle of a wonderful career, and I take deep joy in my work. I can’t see the end date, but I know it’s there. Will I still be photographing weddings 10 years from now? I think probably. Will I still be photographing weddings 20 years from now? Hmmmmm. Perhaps. I do know that the lessons I’ve learned through photography will stay with me forever, and I am incredibly grateful for the privilege of working in a job that brings me so much joy. I don’t take it for granted.
Here’s to the next 10 years. I wonder what my 41-year-old self would tell me today…