TURNING WANDERLUST INTO A PROFESSION
Photographer and world traveler Laura Grier, Founder and Owner of Beautiful Day Photography and Wanderlust, shares her expertise about turning your passion (in her case, for an Indiana Jones-like life of adventure) into a career.
How did your business evolve? My parents both worked for the CIA and we were stationed all over the world – Jakarta, Indonesia, Thailand. This early exposure to different languages and cultures gave me a wanderlust that has influenced my life and work ever since. Growing up, I wanted to be a zoologist or an archaeologist, but instead I’ve become a photo-anthropologist. I am a travel photographer specializing in destination weddings and adventure photography, and a thrill seeker who is obsessed with travel and documenting new experiences. I fell into weddings accidentally; I was working for a headshot studio and was asked to assist with weddings, and I completely fell in love with it. I loved that I felt like a photojournalist but that I was covering happy moments instead of war and death. I also loved that it was a steady, lucrative job for a photographer because there will never be a shortage of weddings. When I went out on my own and started Beautiful Day Photography, I had to ask myself what kind of business I wanted to have. If I truly wanted to be Indiana Jones and to have this life of adventure, I focusing on destination weddings was an obvious choice. That was over a decade ago and since then my photography has taken me to six continents, shooting weddings as well as fashion shoots for National Geographic. I have always felt an overwhelming need to tell the stories of the people and experiences I gather along the way, which inspired me to create Wanderlust, my personal blog focusing on travel and highlighting the “behind the scenes” of these shoots from around the world. It definitely felt like a natural progression to cross over from destination weddings to travel photography. The two coincide frequently and I find it very natural and easy to cross-market myself between the two genres. If you had asked me in art school 14 years ago if I would be a travel photographer or a wedding photographer, I would have had said no. I always thought I would be a celebrity or high-fashion photographer. But I love how my business has naturally evolved and it is exciting to NOT know exactly where it will be five years from now.
Typically someone trying to start a travel-related business has to deal with the question of funding. Has capitalization of your travel photography been an issue for you? Not really. In my 20’s, I was broke and I put most of my travel and living expenses on credit cards, banking on the fact that I would earn money and pay them off (which I was able to do in my first year of business). But my clients always pay for my travel, so that has never been an issue. I take advantage of being on these client-funded trips to do my own side fine art photography projects or inspiration shoots. I also contact coordinators or hotels in foreign locations when I am traveling and offer to do shoots or just connect with them to work there in the future. I often trade my photography for a free stay and that helps to start a professional relationship as well.
Have you actively sought out editorial or brands that want travel images or has the work arisen more organically from the many destination weddings that you shoot? I have actively sought out relationships with travel companies like Celestielle Travel, travel blogs like My Destination, The Honeymoonist, Jet Fete by Bridal Bar, and National Geographic, as well as destination-driven magazines like Destination I DO Magazine and Destination Weddings and Honeymoons Magazine. I submit imagery to them for weddings and exotic locales and I offer to be a guest blogger or write up interesting tips or articles for them to share, helping to establish myself as a travel expert.
More than ever, people are consuming images on outlets like Pinterest or Instagram and sharing them or even repurposing them for their own use. How do you track how your images are being used and protect them from being stolen? Aesthetically, I don’t like to watermark my images. I would rather have a hyperlink, but that has opened the door for my images to be more easily stolen. I track where my images live on the internet by dragging them into Google search, and I have discovered many times that my images have been reused on blogs. But if the person gives me credit or links to my site, I don’t mind it at all. I love the additional exposure and appreciate the admiration. And if someone is interested in buying one of my images to use for their own promotional purposes, they just have to contact me and we can work out a deal specific to whatever usage they intend.
If someone wants images for their website or blog but can’t yet work professional photography into their budget, what type of camera would you recommend for them? Any quick tips about lighting or lenses or anything else that could help them produce a blog-ready photograph? There are a few options here. First, there are so many reasonable stock images available for purchase. Or you can contact up and coming photographers (or even professionals) and ask to use their work in exchange for promoting them. If you’re doing it on your own, you should definitely buy an SLR camera with a macro lens. I’m a fan of Canon SLR cameras, but honestly any good camera with a good 24-70mm lens or even a 50mm lens where you can set the focus and exposure will produce photos that are lightyears better than an iPhone or point-and-shoot camera. Also, “finishing” the final images by making the contrast and colors more vibrant (by using an editing program like Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom) makes all the difference. There is not a single professional photo online or in a magazine that has come straight out of the camera or has not been enhanced in some way.
Did your former career/job prepare you for running your own business? Absolutely. Working for another photographer and photo studio was an invaluable experience for me. Back in 2000, I was 21 years old and I walked into a local photography studio and refused to leave until they gave me a job. They paid me $8 an hour to run the studio. Small salary, but a priceless education into how to start and run a business without having to make the expensive mistakes on my own. When they started getting wedding referrals, I helped them launch their wedding photography business and learned everything about how to shoot weddings, from the inquiries and consultations to the negotiation of the contracts to the delivery of the images. The experience gave me the blueprint for how to structure my own company and the confidence to do so.
How long were you in business before you started to see real growth? What do you attribute that to? It was about 3-4 years before I felt like things started really “running themselves” and I didn’t have to struggle to pay my bills or hustle to find work. Wedding clients book their weddings a year in advance. I started out targeting hotels and wedding coordinators to show them my work and build a rapport with them. Most of them have their own vendors and had already booked their weddings for the following year, so I didn’t start really seeing referrals until close to six months to a year after some of my initial meetings. Then those weddings would follow a year after that. If one of my brides sent me referrals of her friends who were engaged, they were planning their own weddings for a year after that. So it just took a while to build referrals and have that start snowballing into new work. But once I was shooting a lot the referrals started coming in exponentially and by the fourth year it got super busy.
Tell us about a time when you thought you should throw in the towel. What kept you going? When the retro/vintage craze hit about four years ago, it felt like my worst fears were coming true. Was I becoming a dinosaur to these new fresh faces with their faux-Holga filters and faded, desaturated vintage filters? Was Instagram taking over the photography world? I started doubting myself and my work and had a mini-meltdown one day. Harmony Walton, owner of The Bridal Barand a mentor of mine, gave me several pieces of great advice that got me out of my funk and gave me renewed inspiration. First, own your own style. Trends come and go, but your style should stand out and be your own. Second, be consistent. If you are constantly changing your style to match the newest trend or hiring people that don’t share your vision or style, your work will be disjointed. Third, create shareable content. We all want to have our work blogged, tweeted or featured. So when doing a shoot or any type of collaboration, have something to offer. Become a thought expert to further your brand – suggest story ideas or an interesting approach to a shoot. Finally, constantly be creating. This one is huge! Do inspiration shoots to hone your craft or stay relevant. If you are struggling with a trend, create a new one. So instead of copying the vintage faded wedding trend, I decided to put my own “Hypercolor Retro Glam” style on the map and create the next trend.
If you could have a one-on-one meeting with any woman, who would it be and why? What’s the first thing you would you ask her? That’s a tough one. Either Marilyn Monroe (to hear some good gossip and learn the truth about her death and affairs) or Anne Boleyn (to get the REAL story about Henry the VIII and her part in the royal scandals) or Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama (to ask them how they handle being in such powerful and visible positions in the world and whether they would do it all over again if they were given the choice) or Amelia Earhart (to absorb all she could share about being a true pioneer and ask her why she chose flying over love).
What is the most important lesson you have learned as a business owner? That all of the perks of owning a business – the freedom, flexibility, creative power and pride in seeing your work and business come to life – come with a price and a constant struggle to find balance between work and your personal life. It is such a fuzzy gray line as to where one begins and one ends. I am never able to turn my brain off or “clock out”, which is both a blessing and a curse at times. I have learned that I need to be OK with relaxing and turning off my work sometimes. That taking care of myself (even if it takes hours away from getting work done) in the long run makes me more successful and happy and ultimately a more well-rounded business owner.