I've debated the idea of a blog going back to the LiveJournal and MySpace days. Anyone remember those sites?? I always struggled with trying to figure out what the point of my blog would be and what it was that I had to share. In reality, I was questioning the value I brought to the platform. But this was all before I discovered photography though, which actually just sort randomly happened by chance.
Fast forward 13 years and I've now been a professional photographer for just over a decade. A DECADE! So I figure it's been long enough and I will give this whole thing a try again. My new goal with blogging for my photography business will be storytelling with both words and photos. And the first story I shall tell is the story of me and photography... But I warn you, this is a long post (the only one of its length, I promise). Proceed if you dare!
Becoming a "professional photographer" just sort of fell into my lap in 2006. I had dabbled around in image processing with Photoshop just for fun here and there after taking a class at City College. At the time, I was working as a student assistant at CalPERS and shared a cubicle with an IT consultant. Who—by the way—is probably the most entrepreneurial person I will ever meet! Aside from owning her IT consulting business, she was also a wedding and portrait photographer. One day she happened to see one of these images I played around with and asked me if I'd be interested in learning photography in order to shoot weddings with her. I said yes and she taught me the basics. I took a few more classes at City College and then I was photographing weddings as a second shooter within a month or so!
Weddings... weddings became exhausting for me. And I was only a second shooter. I wasn't the primary photographer or the business owner who met with the clients ahead of time and created timelines to ensure all of the important shots were captured at the right moments. Basically, what I'm saying is wedding photographers are gods and goddesses because it's no small feat to successfully shoot a wedding! So much blood, sweat, and tears go into each and every single one of them. Each couple they photograph forever has a piece of their photographer's soul. In a good way of course! I had a lot of fun shooting weddings. And I get choked up at every single wedding I've shot. It's such an intimate event. And even though this may only be the first or second time I'm around the couple, when they do their vows, the tears start flowin'! Despite the fun and the happy water-works, I really felt like weddings drained some serious creativity from me. Maybe it's because I was still learning photography in general, yet needing to shoot and process the images in away that matched the company's style and therefore not getting to explore my own style? It's hard to say. I was also going to school, working the student assistant position, and coaching volleyball. Maybe it was straight up burnout. Who knows! So after a few seasons, I stopped shooting weddings for her company.
I didn't put the camera down though. I shot anything and everything I could. I lugged this huge camera body around with me everywhere I went and took photos. A margarita on the dinner table with the condensation glistening? *click* The dog laying on the floor with her eyes lit up from the natural light coming in from the window? *click* Oh, and a beer tasting flight at Brew it Up! in downtown Sacramento that I eventually sold (years after it was taken) to an ad agency in New York for a national VISA ad campaign? *click*
I was figuring myself out photography-wise. I was discovering my style, what I preferred, and what I was drawn to. During my break from weddings, I started doing family portraits here and there. I'm talkin' maybe once or twice a year for a friend or family member. I also partnered up with some local bloggers. I would photograph them showcasing an outfit or item they wanted to blog about. Like my friend Liz Franco (pictured below), who now blogs about mommy-hood. Those shoots were so much fun!
In 2011 I started a Facebook page for Tina Swain Photography where I could post photos from these sessions I had been doing. But it's also the first year I had a dissatisfied client who voiced her unhappiness with me. I have to be honest here; the images were technically fine. Faces and eyes were in focus. Everyone's faces were evenly lit (except for one shot; see the second bullet in lessons learned below). The parents and kids were smiling. The location was beautiful (Old Sugar Mill before the tasting room was built) and the colors were great. I felt like this session was a turning point in this "discovering myself" period. I felt rejuvenated and I was seriously proud of the images! So when I shared a sneak peek with my client and she informed me that they did not love the images as much as I did, I was heartbroken. But I stuck to my guns while on the phone with her. I told her that I wasn't sure what I could do the rectify the situation because the photos were completely acceptable. (I even sought feedback from the IT consultant/wedding photographer I worked for previously and she said the images were perfectly fine.) Looking back, I suppose I could have been more accommodating by redoing their photos for them. However, that would be establishing an expectation that I'm the type of photographer who would redo a session after taking photos that were completely acceptable. Which I didn't want to do.
All of the sudden I was so self-conscious of all my work. I started to wonder how many of my clients hadn't liked their photos, but just didn't say anything to me. I searched for reassurance from clients that they were happy with the images I produced for them. I sometimes wondered if they just told me small, white lies so as to not hurt my feelings. I was lost. I was stumped. Crippled. Literally paralyzed (although not for too long) when it came to photography. But I learned some very important things from this session:
• I can't please everyone. No matter how good the images are, some people will always be unhappy. This is a reflect of them, not me. This has been the biggest, most important lesson to date. It's not only applicable to photography, but to life in general. I cannot own other peoples' emotions or responses to me and my work. I can only own my emotions and my response to their emotions.
• If my client asks for a specific shot and I commit to it, I need to take steps to ensure that I can deliver, or at the least do all that I can to try and deliver. They had a motorcycle and wanted a shot of them on it in the middle of the road. I remember suggesting that we take it first thing since it was the one special request they made. But they wanted to wait till later towards the end of the sessions to take it. So we did it last. And when it came time to take the shot, they didn't want to move it to the road for the specific shot they had initially requested. The sun was really low and the shadows were getting harsh, especially through the trees. So there was splotchy light on their faces. She brought up these issues with me on this photo which I included in the sneak peek. I admit that I was defensive about this shot. And so I learned that I need to be in control of what gets done at certain times because I am the expert. I also learned that sometimes the specific shot they want won't be deliverable in the end. And if a photo doesn't meet my quality standards (like this one), it should not and does not get delivered to the client. After all, every photo I deliver is a reflection of me and my business!
• My time and photos are valuable; I need to require a deposit/sitting fee and won't deliver a product without being paid. I didn't get paid for any of the work I put into this session. Not the time I spent photographing them or the time I spent editing the photos. I didn't have any insurance for my time, had I potentially turned down another photo session during the same timeframe in order to do this one. That would have been a loss on not one, but two opportunities. I've invested my time, energy, effort, and money into my equipment, tools, and continuing education when it comes to photography. Session fees go back into these cycles so that I can continue to grow, learn, and produce better and better customer experiences as well as photographs.
• Patience and forgiveness; the second biggest lesson learned to date. These might seem like silly things to learn from running a photography business, but they need to be learned and taught in life. As I've done more and more sessions with children and newborns, I've had to learn patience. We are on their schedule after all. And I've had lots of really patient parents who I've worked with, as they've watched me be patient with their child or baby. Without patience, I wouldn't be able to get some of the shots and poses I achieve. And then there is forgiveness. Mostly forgiving myself when I make a mistake. Like the one time I did photos for a friend of mine and didn't pay attention to my settings and the previews. None of the images turned out. :( I apologized profusely and offered to redo their session. Thankfully she forgave me! And I happily redid their session free of charge of course. But it took me a long time to forgive myself for that. I still cringe to this day when I think about that experience. So I'm working on forgiving myself sooner and sooner after mistakes so that I can move on and keep creating!
In 2012, I received my first inquiry to do a newborn session. I really had no idea what I was getting into with that. I did a little bit of research beforehand, but the amount I would learn in the years to follow was even greater. I also started to receive inquiries on doing high school senior portrait sessions. I would doing maybe four to five sessions in a year, maybe six if I teamed up with a blogger. Over the next two years, the amount of sessions I would do a year increased minimally. I thought I wanted more work, but I was finding excuses to say "no" to inquiries. It started with saying "no" to inquiries for weddings, which I didn't want to do. And I think it was a fair boundary to set, but then it just became easy to say "no" to everything else.
In winter of 2015 it happened. I heard an interview on NPR with the AMAZING Shonda Rhimes. (If you don't know who she is, she basically owns Thursday night TV and is the creator of Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and other shows. None of which I watch personally, but know enough about to know how successful they've been!) You should go listen to to her NPR interview right here as soon as you're done reading this post. After that, go watch her Ted Talk. And then you should immediately go buy her book, Year of Yes, which is what her interview was about. Quick confession: I actually just started to read the book this year. I know! But I did read a bunch of other good stuff between hearing that interview and finally buying Year of Yes, like Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. To be honest though, her interview alone had a very profound impact on me. The gist: she committed (for one year) to saying yes to anything and everything that scared her after her sister called her out on saying "no" to basically every amazing event she was invited to.
I read Big Magic first. Which is basically about being open to creativity and not falling into the trap that you must be a tortured artist in order to be creative or feel worthy as an artist. It's about taking care of yourself and being open to creativity when she shows up knocking on your door with an opportunity. Clearly Shonda wasn't saying no to the writing ideas that showed up on her doorstep, but she was saying no to all of the amazing opportunities that came from the success of her writing. I wasn't even getting that far. I was saying "no, go away" to the Universe when she knocked on my door. Why? Because it was too easy to say "no". And the Universe stopped showing up. Just as Elizabeth said she would if I turned her away over and over again. Between Big Magic and Shonda's interview, I decided I needed to start saying "yes". Not necessarily to photography (which itself didn't scare me), but I needed to say "yes" to the part of it that did scare me.
Putting myself out there (i.e. my photographs) to be judged (i.e. client satisfaction) scares the living shit out of me. Saying "yes" to something I've never done before and being unsure if I'll succeed at it scares the shit out of me! Being unprepared (and others seeing this unpreparedness on my part) is one of my biggest fears. And when you say "yes" to doing something new, there's a chance something will come up that you're not prepared for. But that is life in general, right? Things happen every single day that people are not prepared to deal with. So I started to say "yes" to these moments of vulnerability. I started to put my trust in the Universe that she was sending clients my way who truly did like the images I took and my style of editing. I said "yes" to inquiries and suggestions (like Tiffany asking me if I would do Mini Sessions in 2016). And what I learned from saying "yes" to these ideas and opportunities is that I'm actually a lot more prepared than I ever gave myself credit for. And I'm creative enough to problem solve on the spot in a pinch. Saying "yes" to one opportunity has lead to SO many more opportunities. So for the last two years, the Universe has kept showing up, knocking on my door with ideas and opportunities asking me if I want to pursue them. Sometimes it's not a good time, and sometimes the climate is right. So I'm trying to find a balance between saying "yes" and politely asking her to come back again when things are better aligned.
With me saying yes to some of these opportunities, I've been able to really up my newborn session game. I invested in a new setup that's allowed me to start doing composite poses, like the one above. This is actually a composite of two photographs (done in Photoshop) where dad was supporting her chin in one shot and then her head in another shot. Because, duh, of course babies can't hold their own heads up! This past spring I was flown to Southern CA for a senior portrait session that I totally ROCKED (I'll blog about it later; which is better than never). I've even said "yes" to being a second shooter at not one, but TWO weddings this year. I've also decided to start exploring the idea of offering an iPad photo booth service at events, which I've already committed to doing for two events in 2018! Oh, and how can I forget... I started to do furbaby portraits! Because I love our dogs, which have all been rescued. And this year I reached out to a local animal rescue group 4 R Friends after I saw a heart-wrenching story of a pup named Jasmine who needed lots of care to recover from an infection that went neglected. I suggested the idea of doing portraits of other peoples' dogs in exchange for donations towards Jasmine and her care provided by 4 R Friends. The idea morphed into an event that was a huge success for them, The Real Rescue Dogs of 916 Puparazzi Party. And there's talk of this being an annual event! Which I'm all for because 4 R Friends has a mission I'm really connected to; they help families with low incomes keep their pets healthy, happy, and at home. Basically they try to prevent animals from being taken to the shelter because the family can't afford the medical care.
For the second half of 2017 and for the first time ever I had to start telling clients that I had a full schedule for the next eight weeks! I know this may not seem crazy to photogs who only do photography 100% of the time. But let's not forget that I work 40 hours a week for the State of California here! It's been such a rollercoaster, but in the fun, exciting way! I'm looking forward to where the next chapter takes me. I've really learned to let go and just go with the flow when it comes to photography.
So if you haven't figured it out, I've finally said "yes" to blogging and storytelling with my images. I hope you have fun along this journey with me!