How I Got Started In Photography
Q: How did you get started in photography? How did you get to where you are?
This might be the question that I’ve been asked the most throughout the years. I often feel like my quick answer isn’t sufficient. So I decided to write this article to give you my full answer. Fair warning though – it’s very long, and it’s not quite the riveting exciting story you might want to hear. In fact, I honestly think it’s kinda boring. But maybe it will show you that not everyone has an amazing overnight success story that you might be longing for. The more realistic expectation is that it takes a long time, a lot of hard work, and a little bit of luck.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND: KID KATCH
I had always been a very artistic and crafty child growing up. I was the kid that drew all over the walls, sat in a mud pile for hours on the farm making figurines and mud pies, and even attempted to make my own clothes when I was 10 years old (they were not pretty). When I was 9, my family moved to the US from Colombia, and that following summer I received an art scholarship from a local community summer camp. For the next few years I took drawing and painting classes. I loved it, and continued painting into my teens, but I always had this little voice in the back of my head that said, “This is just a hobby. You can’t have a successful career or make enough money as an artist.”
Little Katch, with so many hopes and dreams
HOW I FOUND PHOTOGRAPHY
My photo story begins at the University of Pennsylvania. I entered as a freshman in 2007, with the plan to study physics and math, in hopes of potentially transferring to the engineering school later on. I loved, and still love, math and science. “Why do you love math?” To quote Cady: “Because it’s the same in every country.”
The summer between my Sophomore and Junior year, I interned at PNC Bank, doing International Trade Finance. I had been taking some business classes and this was the best internship I could get that summer. Weird, I know. It feels like I was an entirely different person back then.
That summer was probably the loneliest summer of my life. I didn’t know anyone, I lived alone, and I was doing work I didn’t really care much about. I was surrounded by people that I had very little in common with. I was 19 and pretty lost in life.
Halfway through the summer, I made a new friend, Mike, who had a really nice digital camera, a Rebel XTi (dang!). That was by far the nicest camera I had ever held. He let me borrow it some mornings to take photos on my walk to and from work. I must have taken thousands of photos of bridges that summer. (this internship was in Pittsburgh, and if you know Pittsburgh, you know there are a LOT of bridges to photograph. I was in amateur photographer heaven). That was a huge turning point in my life, but back then I had no idea it would be.
Having the camera made my difficult summer a little bit easier, and it awakened a passion in me I didn’t have before. So when I went back to school in August, I enrolled in a class titled “Introduction to Black & White Film Photography”. After two years of pure math and science, I was going to take a fun artsy elective, and I was super excited.
That year, my Junior year, I probably spent 5 hours a day in the dark room. It felt like my second home. After that, I basically dropped my pursuit of engineering and took as many classes in the Fine Arts department as I could. Everything from self portraiture to photoshop classes. I didn’t have enough time to finish a full degree in Fine Arts, but I ended up with a minor in Photography. (As well as a minor in math and statistics. Oh, and my major? Psychology. It was the best way for me to use my science and business credits towards a major that really interested me).
A self portrait from a class project in college
My Senior year, I landed an internship at a local branding agency called 160over90, under their in-house photographer, Tom. At this point, I thought the only way to be successful in photography was to go into commercial photography, so this internship was perfect. Tom taught me everything I know now about commercial jobs, in-studio lighting, product shooting, agency processes, photo usage, etc. And I’ll always be super grateful for that.
At the same time, I spent my senior year busting my ass, trying everything I could to get into a graduate program to get a Masters in Fine Arts, but everything failed. I was accepted to a few good schools, but I didn’t have enough money, I couldn’t get a loan, and I had zero job prospects.
So, after I graduated, I ended up staying in Philadelphia and continuing to pursue photography through the branding agency. They were able to offer me a part-time position after my internship ended, and in addition to that, I kept my college job (I was basically doing cold-calling telemarketing for the university, asking alumni for money. Super glamorous, I know.)
This was an incredibly difficult time for me. I had graduated from an Ivy League, with a lot of student debt, but had nothing to show for it. My peers had gone on to amazing jobs, many were earning a 6 figure salary right out of college, or going on to amazing graduate programs. And I was still living on campus, working the same college telemarketing job, paying off my student loans, and trying to get somewhere with photography. It was really hard, and I almost gave up plenty of times. So to any of you out there feeling like a total failure, like you’re not getting anywhere, just know that I’ve been there, and can completely relate. You’re definitely not alone. But if this is truly what you want to do with your life, please don’t give up. You’ll get there.
2010 – AND THEN CAME WEDDINGS
Shorty after I graduated, Tom, the in-house photographer at my part-time job, asked if I was interested in helping him shoot his friend’s wedding. I had never shot a wedding, but I was intrigued, and was definitely interested in making a little more money, so I said sure, why not.
And so in late 2010 I second-shot my first wedding, and freaking loved it. A couple months later I second shot with Tom again, two more of his friend’s weddings.
My very first wedding – second shot for a friend
After that, I was hooked. I did everything I could to photograph anyone that would let me, to get better at it. I didn’t limit it to couples, I figured portrait photography was good practice too. I photographed my sister and her husband in her old wedding dress, my parents, my boyfriend’s parents, all my friends, and even strangers from Craigslist. I didn’t limit myself, I photographed portraits, families, and any random photo gig that came my way. Most of these were completely unpaid, and they all came from friends. I did them gladly for free, to get more practice.
2011 – $500 ON CRAIGSLIST
I put a ad up on Craigslist about wedding photography, and from there I booked my first official solo wedding. I charged $500 for 8 hours of coverage. Keep in mind, this was before I even had an Instagram account. Instagram was launched in Oct 2010, but didn’t become a business tool until a few years later. Craigslist, local advertising, and word of mouth were my only options to get my name out there.
My second wedding came a few months later, and I charged $1,200. I was having some success, but not nearly as much as I hoped. It might seem like I was taking off, but the reality was I had only shot 2 solo paid weddings in all of 2011, and made less than $2,000 total (in addition to still having my part-time telemarketing job to pay the bills). I still felt like a failure. I was no longer working steadily at the agency (my contract ran out), but from time to time Tom would hire me for a project here and there, for which I was super grateful. I really loved working the commercial jobs, but I knew that weddings were what I wanted to pursue going forward.
One of my first solo weddings in 2011, booked from Craigslist
I still felt like I was going nowhere. I felt incredibly lost and worthless. I would reach out to photographers I admired and never hear back, which was incredibly discouraging. I would leave business cards everywhere (and I mean, everywhere, even at my local bank), but was getting nowhere. I felt like I didn’t fit into the market in Philadelphia, but since my significant other would be based there for the next 4 years I had to stick with it somehow.
One of my ads on Craigslist. Very professional.
2012- CHUGGING ALONG
I had decided that this would be the year I gave it my all, 100%. I needed to change my strategy, since what I was doing was clearly not working. Wedding blogs were getting popular, and since I wasn’t getting accepted for features, I decided to do paid advertising. I put up a paid vendor listing on one of my favorite blogs, A Practical Wedding. I really believed in what they stood for (and still do). From that ad I received a few inquiries and ended up booking 6 weddings that year. I was still charging about $2,000.
2013 – A TURNING POINT
I started to feel more confident in my work and business. Early that year I paid for a sponsored post on a wedding blog (100 Layer Cake) to feature a promotional giveaway I was doing: A contest where one couple would be chosen to win free wedding coverage. The only thing they’ve have to cover would be travel if it was needed. From this promotion I ended up picking two couples as winners, and that’s how I shot my first non-local weddings: One was a wedding in Texas, the other was a wedding in Germany. And from the attention the post had received, I ended up booking another international wedding, at a slightly discounted price, in Italy, for the following year (I charged a total of $4,050 for wedding and rehearsal coverage, and I covered my own travel and accommodations from this rate. I didn’t make much profit, but it was a great opportunity for me back then.)
This year was a turning point for my business. I started to feel like I was worth something, like I was getting somewhere. I started raising my prices accordingly. By the end of 2013 I was charging around $3,000 for 10 hours, and feeling better about myself.
My first international wedding in Germany, 2013
2014 TO NOW
By 2014 I was booking more reliably, but due to a personal life change, I was now facing a huge move: I’d be moving to Los Angeles from Philadelphia. It was exciting but terrifying. I had worked so hard to build up my market on the east coast, but now I’d have to start all over again.
I often get asked how I made the move, so I’m writing a separate article with tips on how to move markets or expand your local market, and details on how I did. It’ll be on the site soon I promise!
Anyways, moving on.
The first year after my move was nuts. By now the bulk of my work was on the east coast, and I had booked most of the year before I even knew I was moving west. So naturally, I hadn’t charged a travel fee for most of these weddings. But now I was living on the west coast and had to fly east often, paying out of my own pocket for all the flights. It was an expensive year.
FOUR IMPORTANT THINGS
After that I just kept at it. Submitting to blogs, using social media, making friends in the industry, shooting personal work constantly to push my art forward, and always putting my clients first. I think if I had to give you a short answer on how to grow your business, those 4 things would be it. There’s no magic answer, no overnight solution, but if you continue to work hard and value your art, you’ll get there.
TIME FOR A LITTLE CHEESE
I can’t finish this article without including a (cheesy) thanks to my guy, Ben Sasso. He has helped me grow and pushed my art and business forward so much since the very first day we met. His pursuit of creating is incredibly inspiring. When I’m down on my work he pushes me forward and always encourages me. He has a talent for making me laugh no matter how down I am. I’m definitely lucky to have found him along my journey.
Ben and me, photo by my good friend Ryan Longnecker
Fast-forward to now. It’s kinda insane to look back on the last 8 years. Writing this article has actually turned out to be a therapeutic process, and has made me realize how glad I am that I didn’t give up, how grateful I am for everyone who helped me along the way, and how lucky I am to be where I am today. I hope that you were able to find at least a tiny bit of encouragement, knowledge, or hope in here. And if not, then here’s a gif of me being weird as your consolation prize. Thanks for reading!
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