I get asked lots about how I started out, what equipment I use and how someone new to photography can get into the world of Newborns. Here is a slightly adapted transcript of an article that was published in Professional Photographer Magazine November & December 2011. I warn you it’s long…. so pull up a chair with a cuppa!
“The story of my journey into professional photography isn’t shocking or even a bit dramatic but I think it is one that many professional photographers can probably relate to. I had always had an interest in photography and was very excited when a friend convinced me to buy a second hand Canon 350D, my first “proper” camera! So there I was, in my late 20s with my amazing new camera and no idea how to get it off of auto. I just knew I loved photography, I adored my professional looking camera and I wanted to learn more. I joined a Flickr group of local photographers who were invaluable at sharing their knowledge and teaching me the basics.
Lesson number 1 -Always look where you are going!
I did lots of free shoots for friends and family, and friends of friends and well
anyone who asked, what a great hobby! My first two experiences should probably have sent me running for the hills but I was determined to get as much experience as I could. A work colleague asked me to shoot a session at the park with their children, all 8 of them aged from 6 months to 17 years. A bit of a challenge for anyone I think, but surprisingly the session went well and taking a look at the back of the camera I was initially pleased with the results, unfortunately while doing this I wasn’t looking where I was going and walked straight into a tree, knocking myself unconscious and breaking my nose!
Next I was asked to shoot at a christening, I arrived in plenty of time, found the church and went to speak to the Vicar, I asked where I was best to place myself etc. I was told I couldn’t take any pictures during the service and under no circumstances must I use any flash photography on the premises in case any of the guests had a fit! I was unable to get many pictures as it was just too dark. They say things come in three’s but luckily that was where my run of disastrous sessions ended for a while.
An old school friend offered to pay me for my time to capture their new baby, stunned silence ensued, I didn’t even know where to begin but I of course said yes. I spent hours frantically searching the web for advice on getting good newborn baby images and ideas on nice poses. Thankfully the session passed without incident even though I had little idea about posing safely, again I was pleased with my images although looking at them now I want the ground to swallow me up of course! I also had the chance to be the paid wedding photographer for a friend of the family, I shamefully however forgot to actually take any pictures of the bride and groom together on their own!
The worst kind of weekend warrior
I told you my story would sound familiar, at this point I am one of THOSE people, I really didn’t appreciate what was involved in building a photography business at all. You could say I had all the gear and no idea, except I didn’t have that much gear either! I didn’t really know much of anything at all, but I suddenly realised that perhaps I could make more money out of my love for photography. How hard could it be? At this point I was of course the worst kind of “Weekend Warrior” photographer, charging next to nothing for my sessions as for me it was play money and I was just pleased to be getting paid for my hobby. (I know, I know! Stop giving me those looks).
I worked full time in education and there was no way I could give that up and make photography a career as I had the mortgage and bills to pay. I was also never as arrogant as it may seem here, I knew my images were not all that great, I wanted to improve, I wanted to take better images and provide a better service. I started reading books, forums and magazines to learn more, I watched YouTube tutorials and attended some free seminars. I took the decision that any money I earned from photography would go back into photography, helping me to upgrade my kit. I really wanted to get more lenses, I started out with the Canon 350D and a kit lens and my first purchase from proceeds of photography was a Canon 50mm 1.8 which cost under £100.
The roller coaster ride to reality begins here
I decided to put a small quarter page ad in one of those magazines that you get through the door every month, I had to pay out of my own money as I didn’t have enough in the pot, but I thought it would be worth it when the calls came flooding in. I even managed to negotiate a page of advertorial around my advert, what a coup! As the magazine dropped through my door, I eagerly opened it but instead of my carefully planned page, there was something quite different. My little advert was as it should be but they had changed the editorial, gone to my website and selected completely different images for which I had no model releases. One image was even printed the wrong way up! Well, that went well then. I got one call from that advert, someone who wanted passport photos.
My next marketing plan involved a day shooting pets in September for free, in exchange for delivery of my flyers to my local town just in time for Christmas shoppers. I got my kit covered in poop and the leaflets got delivered 5 months after Christmas…to a different town.
Business did trickle in from worth of mouth with the help of amazing friends and family but I didn’t want to attempt anymore advertisements as I really didn’t know what would work. Slowly I managed to keep on upgrading my kit and buy more equipment. I liked shooting portraits so I bought a basic Interfit home studio lighting kit and some backdrop cloths. My ever supportive boyfriend constructed me a backdrop support stand from plastic pipes using DIY instructions on the web. We quickly realised this wasn’t totally stable and it barely fitted in the car so my next purchase was of course a backdrop stand. After a few months I was able to afford to upgrade my kit lens to the Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 which was getting some great reviews.
For a while, like a lot of photographers, I was shooting anything and everything that I was asked to do from portraits and weddings through to commercial and events, all at weekends and edited in the evenings. After a few months I was very fed up. My passion for photography had fizzled out, I was tired and didn’t feel like I was progressing. I wasn’t sure why I was doing this anymore. It was time for a rethink or time to give up. It was time to re evaluate and give myself a serious talking to. This was the point where I decided I needed to figure out where I wanted to go with my photography, the point where I am guessing many semi pros burn out and give up- especially those with no training who are charging unrealistic prices for their time.
This first part of my journey taught me many lessons, the most valuable of which is that what all real pros will know…it takes more than a DSLR and being able to “take a good photo” to make a successful profitable photography business!
As you can see, so far my journey to becoming a pro photographer was not exactly meteoric. I had spent a couple of years getting paid small amounts to shoot anything and everything that came my way. I had had several attempts at marketing but nothing had been successful. I decided I needed to figure out what I wanted to get out of photography, did I want it to be a business and a career or did I want to step back and go back to it being a hobby? I opted for the former but knew I needed to improve in just about every area of business and photography to make it.
Standing out from the crowd
I dug out my dissertation from university, my degree was in business and marketing but I never thought it would actually be useful! The dissertation was on Porter’s Generic Marketing Strategies and while reading through, it occurred to me that, not only that I was far brainer back then, but that I was going about things in totally the wrong way. If I was serious about photography becoming a business and my career, if I wanted to be successful and stand out from the thousands of other photographers in the area, I needed to work out what my business was and where I wanted to be in the marketplace. Deciding which area to specialise in was easy, it had to be baby and child portraits. This was the subject I enjoyed working with most and having worked with children in my day job for years it was the obvious choice. I decided to take it one step further though and to specialise in Newborn Photography, a genre which was very popular in the USA at the time but only just emerging over here.
My name’s not Penny!
Having made these decisions I then sat down and re-evaluated every aspect of the business, I needed a new name, my own name or initials just didn’t work for me, they sounded a little hard, I wanted light, airy and something “ fluffy” so I opted for “Pennycress” a local street name. Perfect! Although I now get called Penny all the time and am thinking of changing my name by deed poll to save the mix ups!
Having settled on a name I commissioned a shiny new logo, the old basic website had to go too, if I was going to do this seriously I needed a professional looking site that matched my new branding. I had to once again stretch into my own pocket to pay for it, but this time I was sure it was worth it! I set up the Google place page and Facebook page to run alongside the website.
Next I started to look at training that specifically focused on newborns, I quickly discovered that at that time there was no one in the UK offering training specifically on newborn photography. I read as many blogs as I could, looked at online articles , watched Youtube videos and studied sites such as Flickr for inspiration and advice. I found guidance from the US on which poses were composites and which were safe to do and how, for me safety of the little one was key and always will be.
Stepping things up a gear
It was also time to review my equipment, I wasn’t happy at all with how my kit was working with babies. I wanted to use more diffused natural light as I feel it gives softer, more natural images. Of course here in the UK there is not always enough natural light coming in through a window, so I sold my studio kit and swapped it for the Interfit Coolite 9, it was a reasonable price, gave out a variable amount of continuous neutral light. It was also safe to have in a room with little ones as it stayed relatively cool compared to other lighting types. My own portable, bright window- Perfect!
I upgraded to a Canon 5D mark II when a friend in the local group was selling his, I got a loan to buy the Canon 24-70mm 2.8L as I realised my Tamron would be no good on the full frame 5D. Having sorted my insurances, invested in all the new equipment, the logo and the website it was of course also time for me to start charging a more realistic price for my sessions and images too. For me this was a new beginning. My eyes had been opened , my enthusiasm and passion were back and I was loving it again!
After my previous disastrous attempts at advertising and marketing I had to choose carefully where to advertise. I discovered that places where I could access pregnant ladies such as NHS doctors and hospitals were pretty much off limits. I had to focus instead on private clinics and toddler groups.
Fast forward three years….
My Facebook page now generates around 50% of the leads for my business. I try and ensure it is updated regularly with frequent postings of images from sessions, I really think that the social media are crucial for any business operating in the current climate. It does of course bring with it new challenges, such as how to prevent usage of your images without consent and also when everything is so public, how to discourage other local businesses from mimicking everything you do and poaching customers. I still do targeted advertising to specific baby related groups and publications but these are few and far between. Word of mouth is by far the best form of advertising and almost every customer who comes to me now has been referred by a previous customer whether through Facebook or in person.
The Transition into Training.
Two years ago I had an email from another photographer asking me if she could come and do some training on newborn posing with me, then a few days later I got another request for the same. I did some hunting on the internet and discovered there was still virtually no training on posing newborns safely in the UK. With a background in education and teaching I thought this might be a great way to grow my business. I was still working 4 days a week in the day job and longed to follow the dream of working for myself full time. I then had a bit of a crisis of confidence, did I really know enough to be able to share with others? I had completed over 80 newborn sessions at the time, my little routine was well tried and tested, and I did feel I was getting consistent results using natural light or my Coolite but I felt I still had so much to learn myself. I went ahead and did one mentoring session to test the water and see if what I knew was useful to other photographers. The session went fantastically well and I realised how much I did know, not just about posing safely but about how to best prepare the baby to ensure they are sleepy, how to transition between poses and possibly just as importantly, how to manage parents expectations and run the business. Since then I have trained over 130 professional photographers in newborn posing, from as far afield as Brazil!
I finished in my day job in November 2011 and have taken that leap to full time. For me there wasn’t a sudden moment of success or fame, it has been years of support from great friends, dedication, reflection, learning and working 80 hours a week in two jobs. I have new goals and so many areas I still want to improve in, I think this attitude is key to being a good photographer and a good business person. You can never get complacent or arrogant.”
So my advice to those starting out?
Work blummin hard and then work at it some more.
Be realistic about the costs involved, my first 3 years I invested upwards of £30k in the business to get going professionally.
GET TRAINING if you cannot use your camera on anything other than auto, if you do not know the relationships between ISO, Shutter speed and F stop then dont even think about calling yourself a pro! Learn the basics, learn your camera. And if you want to go anywhere near a newborn then training or mentoring with an experienced pro in this field is a must now. There are many training options in the UK now so use them, it is worth the investment. Check our www.banp.co.uk for trainers.
Charge realistically for your time and cover your costs and overheads. Doing a session and giving the clients all images on disc for £50 does not cover basic costs let alone make you any profit. It makes me question whether you are trained, whether you have insurance etc etc
My current kit
Canon 5D Mark II
Canon 50mm 1.8
Canon 40mm Pancake
Canon 100mm L Macro
Rosco Litepad Gold Kit
Large flat topped beanbag
Manfrotto backdrop stands, tripod and monopod
A big car and a lovely studio!
About a million hats, headbands, props and blankets!!