FAQ: my story (part 2)

(If you haven’t yet read the preface or part 1 of ‘my story’… go do that before you read this!  I left off last time, in August 2005, right as I was about to move from Madison to Chicago to start photography school. Hang in there and grab some coffee, because this is a long one. And I mean it this time!) 🙂
So – I somehow found two roommates via Craigslist (which was perhaps safer back then? I’m not sure… but looking back on this, I kind of think it was crazy of me!). We met up for one day in Chicago a month or so prior to our big move (they were both coming from out of state as well and didn’t know anyone in the city either) to find an apartment. By the way – I would never suggest to anyone… One short day is not much time to check out a bunch of apartments, find one you like, and sign a lease – but we did it anyway. Then a couple of weeks later, I packed up my life and headed to the windy city to start my new life as a photography student.  🙂
I spent the next 2 years in photo school (through summer semesters as well) and learned absolutely everything I could about photography. Homework didn’t feel like homework as it had prior in my life, because I was crazy about photography. (Much like how it doesn’t feel like work now… Apparently doing something you’re passionate about is pretty awesome… no duh?) Photography quickly became my life – it challenged me, but in a good way – not a frustrating, want to rip my hair out, way – which was nice. 🙂
Early on in school, there was no messing up and fixing it in Photoshop. Upon entry into photo school, we were required to buy a medium format film camera – a Mamiya 645. We used slide film, had it developed, cut it and put it in slides – and then the professor showed our unedited, untouched work to the entire class on a projector. (Talk about scary.) If you didn’t meter the light correctly or if you had a crappy composition – there was no fixing it in Photoshop. It was cropped the way you cropped it in camera. It was metered the way you metered in camera. I still believe to this day that learning photography this way has given me a step ahead of a lot of people who learned on digital and started out from the very beginning trying to correct their mistakes in Photoshop, rather than learning how to shoot correctly straight out of the camera in the first place. (Note to all up-and-coming photographers… do not use Photoshop as a crutch! It should be used to enhance your photos… but never to fix your photos. Learn how to use your camera and you will be so much better for it!)
Once we knew how to really use our cameras a few semesters in (and around the time when the digital age really started to take over), we were allowed to purchase digital SLR cameras. I bought the first camera I could afford, a Canon 20D. It was great because I was able to turn around projects more quickly and it saved me a ton of money not having to purchase and develop film. And by this time I knew how to use my camera, so I wasn’t relying on digital to save my pictures… just to take them.
We had classes like Studio Lighting, Lighting People, Commercial Photography, Photoshop, and Business 101… with projects like Flash at Sunset, Fashion Photography, Resting Athlete, Editorial Layout, Food Photography, Hollywood Glamour (above) and Environmental Portraits… to name a few. I designed a website (through Livebooks), my own logo (which is kind of cheesy, looking back on it), promotional materials (below) and a name for my business (C.A.B. Photography… my maiden name initials).
It was in photography school where I learned all the rules of the game from industry professionals – our professors, who were commercial photographers out there, shooting projects on a regular basis. In school there was no talk about portrait photographers or wedding photographers. If anything, those photographers weren’t spoken of much or were silently looked down upon (from what I recall anyway, unless that was just in my silly little mind). I had loftier goals (I thought)… I planned to be a commercial/editorial photographer, hired by big companies and big magazines for big money. (This mentality seems so silly to me now… Like all types of photographers aren’t valid and equally talented…?! Ugh.)
Then I graduated from school and realized becoming a photographer (no matter how much you know) doesn’t happen overnight. I switched to full-time at my job at a real estate tax law firm (where I had worked part-time while in school) in order to pay the bills, and my bosses offered to give me off whenever I had photo shoots. (They knew photography was my passion, and amazingly – respected that and have always encouraged me. And yes, I realize how fabulous and rare this is. They rock.)
Some of my professors that I had become friends with hired me as an assistant for shoots for magazines or charity events – where I got to meet people like David Axelrod in the middle of Obama’s campaign for president (thanks Bruce!). Then my roommate and friend, who worked as a graphic designer on the McDonald’s team, hooked me up with a couple gigs shooting photos of kids playing with Happy Meal toys for posters that would be hung in McDonald’s restaurants nationwide (a pretty huge deal for me!). Friends and acquaintances I had met along the way called to book me to take corporate head shots or shoot events for companies they worked for.
And while I was so happy to be working occasionally, I still really didn’t consider myself a photographer. This didn’t feel like what I thought it would be. I was happy to be shooting, but not really happy with the kind of work I was booking…. it didn’t feel creative, challenging or real enough for me. It was either too instructed via an art director, or too straight forward due to the corporate requirements. And in the meantime, I was working full-time at a law firm that started to feel like my “real” job instead of photography.
When people made small talk and asked me what I did, I usually said paralegal first, and threw in photographer second (if I thought the person might not judge me for it). I was embarrassed that I wasn’t doing it full time… I foolishly thought people would believe that I wasn’t any good for that reason. Because, after all, if I was talented – shouldn’t it be paying my bills? I pretty much felt like a phony and I’m not sure I really believed that I could do this.
And then – I met James. (Insert *sighs* and *awwws* here.) Something about falling in love totally distracts you from all other things in life. Am I right? I was still booking the occasional corporate shoot, but my energy was focused on “us.”
Then, somewhere in the middle of this – came a turning point (that I didn’t realize was a turning point at the time). The younger sister (Holly) of one of my best friends from high school contacted me. Holly had seen my personal photography work on facebook and was wondering if I’d consider shooting she and her fiance, Charlie’s wedding in September 2008. She said they were looking for something different and that they liked my personal work. I was reluctant (after all – I wasn’t trying or planning to be a wedding photographer), but agreed to do it.
The wedding day neared and all I had to my name was my Canon 20D, a 50mm 1.4 lens, a 28-135 zoom lens, and a rented 580 EX II flash (for the reception) – but I made it work. I was nervous as all get out, but completely loved the rush I got from the excitement of a fast-paced wedding day. I loved the freedom I had to shoot how I wanted, and to be as creative as I liked. I loved interacting with regular people and making them feel fabulous in front of the camera. I loved anticipating moments and catching spontaneous events. Not to mention, I loved weddings (I always have… I’m a sucker for romance and a good love story).
But even after all of that – when the day was all said and done – I still didn’t think this was something I could do for a living, or that I necessarily wanted to do. I’m not sure what I was thinking – to be honest. At that moment, I was so caught up planning my own wedding for the following May that I had nothing else on my mind but what font to use for our invites, what color papers to buy for the place mats, and what songs to put on the ‘must play list’.
Our wedding photos taken by Patrick Sablan and Jon Hamblin.
Immediately after our wedding in May (right around the time that I worried I may have to give up on photography all together, because I hadn’t really shot anything since Holly & Charlie’s wedding that past September), something amazing started to happen – I started getting random emails from people inquiring about my wedding photography. They (or a friend of theirs) had seen the photos I posted on facebook from Holly & Charlie’s wedding and wanted to know if I was available to shoot their wedding as well. I came up with a price scheme and realized, that it was okay to follow life as it came at me, even if this wasn’t my initial plan… That I would be happy to be shooting, no matter what it was. (I’m honestly not sure why I was in SUCH DENIAL about being a wedding photographer. It is so frustrating and difficult to look back on this time in my life and not want to shake myself!) That summer/fall (of 2009) I shot 4 more weddings that I booked through word-of-mouth referrals.
I posted my favorite pics from the weddings on facebook, and as the year went by – the next thing I knew I had booked 6 more weddings for the following year (2010). By spring 2010, I realized I should fully embrace this new role I had created for myself of “wedding/portrait photographer”. (Especially because I was totally crazy about it – and had loved every wedding I had shot thus far…) So I started to research other photographers and what they were doing and figuring out how to go about this whole ordeal. I designed and created a new logo, brand and website using my married name and I started writing a blog in April 2010 (but at the time only posted stories and photos now and then).
Shortly after that, my lovely cousin, Sara, told me about a fabulous wedding website that she read daily called – A Practical Wedding. She pointed me towards the Reclaiming Wife posts (since I was now a married lady) and suggested I look into becoming a sponsor on the site. So I checked out the blog – and started to read it daily (as well as caught up on all the millions of posts I had missed prior to then) and became pretty obsessed with it (ask James, I drove him crazy). But I couldn’t work up the guts to email the owner/founder/blogger, Meg, to find out about becoming a sponsor of the site. After all, it said right on the information page that she only accepted sponsors she would want for her own wedding and who were artists who happen to make their living doing weddings. Of course, my inner demons and doubts came through again and told me there was no way she would ever think I was good enough. So I sat by the wayside and read… and posted comments… and read… and posted… and completely loved the site from the afar on a daily basis – but I never got up the guts to contact Meg.
Then four months later, in July 2010, something hit me. I realized I needed to really give this my all if I wanted to do it this full-time. I finally began to truly believe in myself and realized this was something I could and WOULD do for my career. That this, and this alone, would someday pay our bills. And let me tell you, once I set my mind to something – I set my mind to something. 🙂
I started to look at photography as my real job. I told people first and foremost that this was who I was and what I did for a living, and started posting on my blog five days a week. I wanted potential clients to know the true me and I felt like sharing my personal stories and photos along side my professional work was a great way to do that. (Plus, I like writing and telling stories A LOT, can you tell?) 🙂
Then in August 2010 I finally got up the guts to email Meg about becoming a sponsor and much to my shock – she emailed me back nearly immediately and told me I’d be perfect for the site and that she absolutely wanted me to be a sponsor. (I did a happy dance right then and there in my living room. I kid you not. James was there. I jumped and screeched and danced… because I knew this moment would change the trajectory of my business.)
Since the very first day she introduced me to the community of fabulous women that read her blog back in September 2010 – just days after my 29th birthday – I’ve gotten emails from couples all over the place asking to meet up with me and chat about wedding photography. Up until that point I had always been contacted by people I previously knew or who knew someone that knew me, but now – people were contacting me out of the blue, just because they liked my work – and asking me to shoot their weddings. (It’s craziness!!!)
Alongside all of this – my name somehow also got thrown around on a Chicago parenting website. (Which is apparently where moms go to tell other moms about all things regarding children in Chicago…? And let me tell you, moms listen to other moms. Yes.They.Do.) And suddenly I started booking sessions with families in the city I’d never met before. So many people contacted me last fall that I had to turn 12 people down because I had no more available dates before Christmas and the next thing I knew – I’d shot 16 regular sessions (newborns/babies/children/families) in 2010.
At the moment, I have 17 weddings booked for 2011 (from St. Louis to Prairie du Chien – and Chicago to Zihuatanejo, Mexico) and 16 regular sessions in the next couple of months. I’m obviously incredibly excited, while also feeling incredibly overwhelmed at the moment (since I’m still working a demanding, 40-hour a week, full-time job at the same law firm besides all of this).
You’re probably wondering how on earth I’m not able to go full-time since business seems to be growing at a steady pace… yes? Well, first of all… I have a wish list a mile long for things I’d still like to get for my business… including a few more lenses, a 2nd camera for James (my 2nd shooter), computer programs and most importantly: a complete re-branding (new website, logo & print materials) that I’m currently in the process of doing with the uber-talented and creative Promise Tangeman. (Which will go live in May – Yeah!) So those things are taking up all of my photography income at the moment. (I have to remember, it’s times like these I am so lucky to have a day job to pay the regular bills – so I can invest my photo income back into making my business what I want it to be before I have to worry about it paying all my bills!)
Also – those of you who know me in ‘real life’ know that my husband, James, is currently back in school full-time and will be for the next four years (go James! xoxo!), which means that I am the main breadwinner in our family (and have been for the past two years – which the feminist in me absolutely loves and is all about, naturally). This however, also means that I need to make a pretty hefty amount of change from photography before I am able to go full-time, so that I’m still able to pay the rent, phone bill, (my) student loans (two degrees = ouch), car payments/insurance, health insurance (which I found today will be around $700/month for our little family of two!! Whaaaa?!?!), dental insurance, utilities, and on top of all of that – business expenses like insurance, taxes, website, web hosting, online galleries, new gear, and lens/camera/computer upkeep. (Because, you see, contrary to popular belief – running a photography business is far from easy and it’s far from cheap). And being the worry-wart that I am – I need to make sure we are absolutely capable of living without panicking about being able to pay the bills each month before I am able to give up the day job – (i.e. my steady, weekly paycheck and health insurance coverage).
So that, my friends – is where we stand currently. Nearly living my dream… nearly…

I can say that I finally see a very dim light far at the other end of the tunnel. I’ve punched the numbers over and over – and I know what I need to get there… and I’m making it – one step at a time… as I watch the dim light growing brighter and brighter. There are days when I’m not sure I can keep all the balls in the air… running my own business, working a day job, having time for myself (what’s that?), time for James (what?!) and my family and friends (I miss them!). But I know deep down that the harder I work – the sooner it will come. And I keep my chin up best I can. And I may be a little (or a lot) sleep deprived… but that’s okay. Because I still feel incredibly blessed that I’m doing this at all. And because the one thing I do know – is that I will get there. It may not be in a month… or 2 months… or even 6 months (unless some sort of miracle occurs) – but I will get there.
And like I said before, when it happens – there will be one. hell. of. a. party. And you’ll all be invited. And maybe we’ll even wear party hats… 🙂

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Christy & James are Chicago based but happily travel anywhere in the world that beautiful love stories take them!