From writing to blacksmithing, music to tarot reading, in Follow Your Arrow we talk a lot about the rollercoaster process of turning a beloved hobby into a sustainable business. Here’s one to inspire the photographers among us!
Five years ago, Michelle Davidson-Schapiro was a hobby photographer. Then a friend asked her to cover her wedding, and despite reservations, Michelle said yes. In this interview, Michelle tells us how that first experience of professional work was fraught and stressful…yet exciting enough that she knew she wanted to make it her career. Now at the stage of quitting her day-job and transitioning to full-time photography, Michelle shares with us her first steps, thoughts on juggling freelancing with motherhood, and explains how a combination of confidence and truly caring for her clients is what marks her out in her field.
Michelle Davidson-Schapiro, Photographer
Age 31, Jamaica Plain (Boston), MA
Hi Michelle! Can you tell us a little about your business?
I’m a queer portrait photographer trying to make beautiful images of all kinds of people. I photograph primarily families and weddings, and that focus informs a lot of my priorities. If I were to sum up my mission, I would say it’s to give people photographs that capture them looking like their best selves. Whether it’s of someone in a wedding dress or a winter hat, I want that person to look at a photograph I’ve taken and feel happy. I don’t want to force anything, I don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable. I simply strive to take naturally beautiful images of the people I’m lucky enough to meet.
As for deliverables, I always give clients digital files. That’s the base of all of my offerings. We’re living in an age where people have screens with them all the time; people want electronic images, so we start there. If clients are interested, I also offer really lush, gorgeous albums and prints. I can create anything from a leather-bound lay-flat album to a calendar printed on smooth matte paper that hangs in a wooden clipboard. I do album layouts, prints, matting and framing, canvas, you name it. But before any of that, what I offer is time, talent, and digital photos for clients to keep.
In terms of business structure, it’s just me, and I’m about to transition from a side-hustler to a full-time photographer. Sayonara, day job!
How would you describe your approach to business? What personal qualities inform your approach?
This is corny, but my approach to business comes from caring. I care so much about the quality of my work and my relationships with clients, so that really informs my approach. I want clients to, above all, have a good experience working with me, and I want the photos to capture something really special about them. I think that focus on the relationship is what makes me good at what I do. I don’t show up to a wedding or a family session thinking “what can I do today to create art for me.” I am always thinking about how I can create art that is specific to you, the client.
Because I care so much about creating a good product for my clients, I have to be organized and professional. I need to stay on top of my calendar, follow up with people, and go over edits with a fine-tooth comb to make sure you’re getting something awesome. I think my personality has an incredible influence on my business, because my business is me! It’s just me holding the camera and looking for smiles, it’s just me standing in front of my computer emailing clients. So the fact that I am funny, caring, and curious about the world really informs the way I do business.
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have a routine? What is your workspace like?
This is a tricky question for the moment because I’m about three weeks away from quitting my day job to take photos full-time. Here’s a combination of my current routines and best guesses for the future:
A typical day for me will involve a decent amount of balance. I have a one-year-old daughter at home and I’ll be hanging out with her during the week once I transition to photography as my sole professional pursuit. So my daytime routine will involve a lot of emails during naps and long walks to get the grumpies out. I’ve always done the bulk of my editing in the evening, so I expect that won’t change.
My basic workflow involves getting an inquiry from a client, sending them a message and information, then usually an in-person or phone meeting before we sign a contract. Once a date has been booked for an event or portraits, we take on a more casual communication strategy. Some clients will just go about their business in the time leading up to an event, and others will send me links to ideas on Pinterest, or want to chat often. Either approach is 100% cool with me. Then, as we get closer to the event, I check back in to make sure we’re on the same page and everyone has all the details they need.
During this sort of limbo time period, that’s when I’ll be doing prep work. That might be renting or buying equipment, or reading and viewing things that get me in the right frame of mind for a shoot. I gather a lot of inspiration from walking around in my neighborhood, watching how light is falling that time of year, and looking at the work of other photographers (some of my favorites include Richard Avedon, Mary Ellen Mark, and Gregory Crewdson, for totally different reasons).
In the evenings, I spend a couple of hours editing. I use Adobe Lightroom for that, and I’m usually working on a few projects at a time, which helps for a fresh set of eyes in between my two main editing passes. I would say I spend anywhere from 10-20 hours a week on my business right now, and that will be able to increase in 2016, probably to a more steady 30 or so hours each week. Portrait photography has a real seasonal aspect to it, so right now things are quiet and I’m spending my time working on blog posts and goals for the new year. When I’m in peak season, I could easily spend 50 hours in one week working.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do? And what were your early goals, your first steps?
I’ve loved taking photographs for a long time, but always saw it as a secondary thing or something I did just for fun. I didn’t go to art school; I majored in English and secondary education (fun fact: I used to be a teacher! That’s why no matter what happens at a wedding, I’m patient and go with the flow. Nothing you can do will top high school student levels of crazy.).
While in undergrad, I did manage to squeeze in a darkroom photography course, and it was an incredible experience. From that point on, making photographs was a priority. I shot a lot of film then, and continued to do my own work for years. In 2010, a friend really liked what I was doing and approached me to ask if I would photograph her wedding. It wasn’t a thing I had seriously considered before, but I went out on a limb and said yes. Shooting her wedding was hard, stressful, and fraught with the pressure of having just one chance to do a good job on an incredibly important day. But you know what? I loved it. I could see myself doing that on the regular, and knew that the work was powerful and worth it for me.
In the beginning, I had little idea what I was doing and no real goals for a business. I knew I was good at taking photos, and I wanted to do that. But I didn’t really see this as a career. I wished for it, deep down, but it didn’t seem realistic. So, while I worked full-time, I just took whatever work I could get by word of mouth, and really hustled in my personal network. The work I got led to more, and I started putting myself out there on social media and advertising on a few smaller blogs. I booked a good number of weddings each year, and took on a lot of smaller projects as well. Things grew and grew, and then I let them shrink a little while I was working on keeping a very tiny human alive, and now they’re growing again. Hopefully in the next five years, the volume of work will increase to an amount that will keep me busy all year. That’s the goal right now.
What’s the best thing about the work you do?
Oh man, there are so many best things. People’s smiles when they’re really and truly happy, hearing the stories of how families came to be, getting a little kid to trust that you’re not just some weirdo but just the best weirdo who makes them laugh and feel comfortable. Seeing kids grow up year after year. It’s all awesome. It’s the kind of work that makes me look forward to eight hours on my feet holding five pounds of camera in my hands with another seven pounds slung across my back. It’s wonderful to create not just art, but art that makes people feel special and good and beautiful.
And the worst?
The worst is when it’s raining and everyone is feeling stressed and you’re exhausted from the sheer physical nature of your job coupled with the constant tiredness that goes along with being a new parent. But even at its worst, being a photographer is the best job I’ve ever had. The rewards outweigh the negatives every time.
What are the key challenges you face in your work? And what are your tactics for overcoming these?
I think the challenges are similar any time you’re running your own hustle. You’ve got to work all the time to stay afloat, because you are the only person responsible for your success. That’s not entirely fair, because I have an incredibly supportive wife who listens and helps out and proofreads (hi Becky!) and is always the best sounding board. But it feels really solitary, running your own business, and you’re constantly having to make all the decisions. If something goes wrong, it’s on you. Plus, being in a highly competitive field, you’re always having to work hard to land clients. There are tons of good photographers out there, and even more enthusiasts. It’s challenging to set yourself apart and show that you are worth paying for.
As far as overcoming these challenges, I mostly stick to the Autostraddle wisdom and just do me. I work hard, I put myself out there, and I make the decisions I have to. I let my work speak for itself and I treat clients well. Sometimes I get bummed out if I lose a booking to someone who charges less, but then I remind myself that I have never had a bad client and I’ve done some really amazing work. So I just think about the good things and move on.
And what about work-life balance and the impact of self-employment on your parenting responsibilities?
Work-life balance is tough when you’re a sole proprietor. My smartphone allows me to be on my email all the time, and I am. It’s hard to take a break when you care so much about your work. But I also care deeply about my family, and I make time for them. When we go on vacation, I move the icon for my email to the farthest screen on my iPhone so that I don’t check it as much.
When I’m hanging out with my daughter I don’t respond to emails. But sometimes I have to miss things I would otherwise be able to do if I had a regular 9-5. Since a lot of my work occurs on weekends during the summer, I miss a lot of cookouts and I have to plan vacations way, way in advance. I’m not going to lie, sometimes that’s a real bummer. It would be amazing if somehow I could stop time at home when I’m working and never miss a thing. But that’s not real, not for me or anyone else. So I make choices about how much I’m going to work and I try really hard to stick to them. It’s difficult, because I want to book every single inquiry that comes in. But I’ve learned that I can only do so much before I burn out (hello, five weddings in a single month when I was six months pregnant!) It’s a tightrope, but I walk it pretty well most of the time.
Where would you like to see yourself in five, ten years time?
In five years I would like to be doing around 25 weddings a year and a good number of family sessions. In ten, I think I might be ready to cool it on the weddings and move into more studio portrait work. I have a weird dream assignment, which would be doing really cool school pictures. Like, instead of laser backgrounds, I would do stark, high contrast, Avedon-style black and whites of elementary school kids. Or portraits of them where they hold their favorite book. I think it would be really fantastic to combine my love of photography with my background in a school setting. Watch out Olan Mills—I’m coming for ya!
How do you market your business?
Up to this point I’ve had a pretty relaxed marketing strategy. I try to update my business Facebook page (I could definitely do better with this) and encourage clients to leave Yelp reviews if that’s something they do. I pay to have an ad up on A Bicycle Built for Two (very cool lesbian-centric wedding blog) and I just started paying to be a vendor on Offbeat Bride. I’ve tried other things in the past, including an actual newspaper ad, Google AdWords, paid Facebook posts, donating gift certificates to charitable auctions. But nothing has gotten me as many leads as my non-paid Yelp listing, Bicycle Built for Two, and plain old word of mouth.
What’s the most valuable tool in your kit?
How does being LGBTQ impact on your business (if at all)?
I think being a queer person impacts most of what I do. Being gay is something that has informed a lot of the important things in my life, and it’s a really key aspect in how I see myself. When I was planning my own wedding, I had a surprising number of interactions that were completely out of touch with the fact that my love might take a different shape than bride-groom. I went to this dress shop and had to tell the clerks three times that there simply was no groom. So as far as being a wedding photographer goes, I think I’m extra mindful that everyone’s celebration is unique to them and they just need to be seen and heard.
Also, if I’m being completely honest (and this is Autostraddle, so of course I am!), I really like taking on projects that feature LGBTQIA people. I love all of my wedding and portrait clients, but I take particular joy in creating work for LGBTQIA families. It warms my little homo heart to take photos of two women in love or a poly family who just want nice photos without someone getting weird. Don’t get me wrong, I also love creating work for straight, cis people! I do it the vast majority of the time, and I appreciate and respect all of my clients. But it’s extra nice to feel like I’m giving a member of my tribe a good experience through my work.
Last fall I was fortunate enough to be a part of a truly cool, somewhat revolutionary project where I worked with Bluestockings Boutique to create the company’s first queer-feminist-totally-rad lingerie look book to showcase the shop’s offerings. Jeanna (Kadlec, founder of Bluestockings) and I were connected through a mutual friend and we talked about what lingerie photos might look like in our idealistic, queer, representational dreams. And somehow between the two of us we made those dreams into reality. We had six models (none of whom had actually done any modeling before) spanning different sizes, gender, race, orientation, you name it, and with them we created a variety of images to show off the ethically-sourced (and totally gorgeous) undergarments Bluestockings offers. It was a dream project for me, working collaboratively with a team made up completely of queer-identified folks led by a badass lady boss on something I could really get behind ideologically. I’d love to do more work like this, because projects that focus on the LGBTQIA community and other under-represented groups are good for my heart and the world.
What’s your hot tip for queer women who want to start their own business?
My advice for anyone who wants to start their own business is the same as what I say to friends who want to start cutting their own hair: Confidence is key. If you believe you can do it, you can. And if you mess up the back a little, who cares? It’s behind you.
Are you a queer entrepreneur, freelancer or side-hustler? I’d love to hear your story! Drop a line to beth at autostraddle dot com and tell me a little about your business.