There’s nothing more DIY than starting your own business. Here’s how one newborn photographer built her photography business from the ground up! (Written and photographed by CHAYA BRAUN | Part 1 of 3)
When people ask me how I became a newborn photographer, I think back to that beautiful morning in 2012. The sun was shining deceptively, as though it was a normal Tuesday. It wasn’t.
“That was the day Google updated their algorithm and wiped out 80% of my traffic and income.”
As a work-at-home mom expecting my 4th child, my gut told me it was time to sell my network of websites. Google’s newest changes were penalizing my sites for activities they rewarded in the past. I was an affiliate marketer, earning a comfortable living since 2005 with my laptop on my couch. Yet Google’s Penguin update tore through my business the way Waze had put TomTom out of business.
“As I spent all my postpartum free time researching various career options, the magic of photography penetrated my heart.”
Photography was an alluring foreign language to me at that point. I knew nothing about it, yet it intrigued my creative soul.
Shortly after our daughter’s first birthday, I registered her in a nearby daycare and began to dig into the business of photography. I added long lists of equipment to my wish list, and offered to assist local photographers. Also, I joined online forums to chat with other newborn photographers, and researched workshops I wanted to attend.
“Armed with the Nikon D700 camera and the 24-70 and 70-200 f/2.8 lenses, I was ready to conquer and capture the world in all its glorious color!”
As I memorized the exposure triangle, I photographed my children, the flowers in my garden, and the fruits on my dining room table. Suddenly, I got phone calls to photograph birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. Life was getting busier. My work/life balance came to a screeching halt, however, after I assisted at several weddings and my childcare arrangements fell through.
“The magic of wedding photography clashed jarringly with the reality of being a mom to a toddler.”
In June of 2014, newborn photographer Julia Keleher gave a workshop on CreativeLive. I was mesmerized by the beautiful images of innocent babies. Then something clicked in my brain: I could photograph babies on weekdays, when daycare was open!
Plowing forward at full speed, I arranged model calls and photographed over 20 infants free of charge. Using the natural light in my dining room, I pushed a table to the corner and set up blankets and baskets for all of the town’s new bundles of joy!
“Have you ever attempted to duplicate a complex feat someone on YouTube did easily, then fallen flat on your face?”
That was me, all through the summer and fall of 2014. Unlike the vast majority of humanity, newborn babies cannot hold their heads upright. Each limb needs to be posed and angled correctly for optimum portraits.
“There were plenty of days when I wanted to throw in the towel; yet I was determined to master this unique art.”
After several months, I graduated from offering free photo shoots to offering five free images, and upselling the rest of the gallery to all the new moms in my neighborhood. To my surprise, many of these new parents purchased additional photos. I reinvested the income into props and workshops.
Newborn photographer Facebook groups proved to be a goldmine of free information. I spent hours each day devouring words of wisdom from the experienced pros. Unabashedly requesting constructive criticism of my images, I made small improvements as I learned from each shoot.
At that point, I raised my pricing to $100 per shoot, which included five digital images. Each additional image was $25, or the entire gallery could be purchased for $250.
“Yes, I was aware that my pricing would not cover my costs of doing business. Yet I chose to view that time period as a season of education, rather than an opportunity to earn income.”
My low pricing enabled me to garner many clients and master the intricacies of newborn photography while purchasing seats at online workshops. Instead of investing in formal education at a local college, I mused, I would work for pennies while I honed my skills.
As my business bank account grew from a few nickels to several hundred dollars, I invested in studio lighting. To create studio space, I banished an informal synagogue in my home’s lower level to a neighbor’s basement. As good fortune would have it, our home is located on a corner. My studio has a street entrance, and I have no need to clean up the kitchen and living room when clients visit! A nearby bathroom is perfectly situated right outside the studio. My studio was prepared for business!
“Slowly, I raised my prices.”
“It took a lot of guts for me to charge money I would never have spent as a consumer.”
I grew up in a home that visited Sears or JC Penny with a $9.99 coupon every year. My mother made color photocopies of those portraits for my grandparents. (She had no clue that it was illegal; things were different when I was a kid in the 80’s!)
Each time I raised my prices, my heart would beat wildly in fear, and I felt terrified that there would be no bookings. To be honest, there were some slow weeks. Since I was continuously requesting feedback on my photos from my instructors, I regularly advertised model calls where I offered just 2-3 free images. Those models kept me busy, gave my social media the appearance of success, and many clients would upgrade and purchase more than their complementary images.
I often asked my clients to snap behind-the-scenes photos of me working with their baby in different setups, and I would save some of those to post on Facebook and Instagram for the days that business was slow.
“My marketing was effective, and everyone believed that I was constantly busy!”
Search engine optimization (SEO) was a game changer for my business, and I reaped the rewards of my intense efforts in Autumn of 2016. Finally, clients were calling who lived in other towns – clients who didn’t know my friends or neighbors! The diversity of my portfolio increased, which caused my local community to respect me further.
While my feet were up in stirrups at a yearly OBGYN checkup, I asked my doctor if I could decorate his waiting room with newborn artwork. He was amenable to the idea, and I created $100 gift voucher cards to display along with a grouping of canvases.
The owner of a local ultrasound clinic was pregnant at the time, and I offered her a free session in exchange for a display of my work in her waiting room. She loved my photos so much that she took down old photos from another photographer whose business had relocated.
“Then the fiancée of a Ravens player saw my images at her ultrasound and contacted me.”
My hometown of Baltimore is obsessed with football. Although, as I graciously explained to her, I do not follow or understand sports. Photographing the baby of an NFL player put my business in a new league, and gave me the confidence to further raise my prices.
As my business account grew, I constantly transferred 30% of the incoming money into my family account. The rest I saved for taxes, business expenses, and reinvested in education. Coming from a frugal background, I did my best to run my business in the most economical manner possible.
“While most photographers have a cool Mac, I researched and discovered that I could get far more for my money with a PC. Though many newborn photographers purchase props at specialized prop vendors, I discovered that scarves on sale at Target and TJ Maxx work well for wrapping babies at a quarter of the price.”
Anytime there was a newborn photographer hosting a de-stash sale in the state of Maryland, you could find me there, picking up second-hand props at a fraction of the price of new ones. I learned to knit and made several little blankets, (although I never did figure out how to make hats – with all those curved surfaces!)
Slowly, I upgraded my studio, getting newer furniture and even hiring an interior designer to advise me about making the most of my space. My desk, chairs, and couch were now white, courtesy of Wayfair, which made the room seem bigger and brighter. A mirror strategically placed across from the client sitting area also enhanced the sense of roominess.
“The snack bar was creatively designed to sit right on top of the mini refrigerator, easily accessible to hungry new moms.”
Last month I hosted my own personal de-stash sale, where I earned over a thousand dollars by selling piles of props that I no longer used. I’ve learned to discern which kinds of props will yield multiple uses and look timeless for years to come.
“Education is the where I continuously invest my resources.”
I take newborn photographer courses as well as classes on running a successful business. I’ve found that success in this industry is 20% photography skills and 80% business skills, so I constantly learn new things. This leads to improved photos and more efficient business systems.
“Each year I raise my pricing and make a commitment to stick with the new price list for at least 6 months.”
During that half a year, I do not allow myself to overthink my pricing, and stay confidently with my current system. At the end of six months, I write down potential revisions for the future. This alleviates the enormous burden of constantly renegotiating about my pricing. I still think about it, yet I know that I can’t change anything for a while. My self-imposed rule keeps my energy focused on doing the best I can each day.
“There is a vast sea of infinite information out there on succeeding as a newborn photographer.”
I comfort myself with the fact that I don’t need to know it all. Yet, learning and growing both the art and business as a newborn photographer is a process of joy and satisfaction.
Ultimately, there is nothing more pleasurable than reaping the rewards of the seeds that you have worked hard to sow!
Does Chaya’s journey sound like your own? What challenges did you overcome while building your business? What challenges are you still working to overcome?
Written and photographed by: CHAYA BRAUN