Today we'll be getting up close and personal with Scottie and Breanna Chanson, a husband and wife photography team that comprise Radiant Photography. Radiant has made a big splash in the photography scene in Phoenix, particularly in the area of wedding and engagement photos.
The purpose of this interview is to give our readers some insight into what it's like to start a full-time photography business. Scottie and Breanna shared tons of great information and experience with us about trials of starting a new business, how they scraped by in the beginning stages, where they find work, how to leverage social media and how they manage to spend virtually all of their time together without killing each other. Along the way we'll see some of their recent work.
Q 1. Let's start by getting a little background. When and how did each of you take up photography as a hobby?
Breanna: I feel like I've spent most of my life in search of an artistic medium that fits me. I've tried everything from fingerpaints (yes, as an adult) and ceramics to dancing,singing, and acting. I always felt like I had creative visions in my head that I couldn't quite duplicate through any medium. When I took some of my first pictures, I started to think that it's possible I was never meant to create something entirely from scratch, but rather to capture things that already exist and just manipulate them in a way that expresses the creative explosions going off in my head.
I started taking pictures with my friends when I was 14 (we thought we were high fashion models and Scottie still likes to make fun of those photos to this day!). When I was 16 I took a photography class at school and that really opened up the world of photography to me... film photography! My parents did their own research and bought me a nice camera for Christmas so I could keep shooting after the class. I used that one for quite awhile working on naturally lit black and whites. I didn't start working with flash photography until Scottie started getting really good at it and I was jealous of the pictures he was getting!
I capture things that already exist and manipulate them in a way that expresses the creative explosions going off in my head.
Scottie: When I was a little kid I got it in my head that I wanted to be a professional photographer when I grew up. The only problem was that I'd never actually owned a camera to work with! My grandfather had an entire room of his house filled with magazines (I mean that quite literally!) so I found myself living vicariously through all the photos in his old National Geographics. My passion took a detour when I was told that I needed to get a real job so I never pursued my childhood dream.
The first time I got my hands on my own camera was when I discovered that marrying Breanna meant inheriting her cameras! I spent a ton of time on our honeymoon experimenting with her camera and I was SO excited about working with it more (well, actually I was excited about buying a much better camera to work with more!). By this time I had gotten over all that "real job" stuff, and I was working as a graphic/web designer. As I began taking photos for client websites, I gained more and more experience and I could feel my old love for photography returning.
Breanna: Yeah, that reminds me, I didn't get to take any pictures on our honeymoon because you were hogging my camera!! You owe me a trip where I get to take all the pictures!
Q 2. Can each of you tell us what you did before becoming full-time photographers?
Breanna: Scottie's answer to this one is the funniest so he gets to go first!
Scottie: I don't know if you can call it funny but I was definitely a “Jack of all trades”. I started out going to college to be a Doctor and I ended up switching over to animal science to be a veterinarian. The part that Breanna thinks is funny is how many jobs I had between then and now that are completely random and not at all related to each other.
So here's the list (or at least all that I can remember anyways): grocery bagger, vet tech, research assistant, pizza cook, sporting goods store manager, kayak guide/sailboat salesman, machinist, landscaper, pool table mechanic, youth pastor, and graphic/web designer. I definitely get bored easy and I love learning about new things. Even though I was able to learn a lot through such a myriad of different jobs and experiences, I never really felt satisfied with any of them. Photography is different. For one it's the longest "profession" I've ever had! I'd say it took me 28 years to find my calling in life!
Breanna: I on the other hand, am much more content to learn something and stick with it! Marrying Scottie has challenged me to be more open to change and growth. So while I love how good that is for me and how interesting it makes my life... it's definitely exhausting at times! What I'm trying to say is that my story is much simpler. I got my bachelors degree from Arizona State University in Family and Human Development. As much as I tried to get out of it, I was forced to go on and work towards my masters degree in counseling since almost everything in the field I wanted to go in required a Masters degree.
I still love Family studies, psychology, sociology, child development, etc. But I am also totally LOVING what we're doing right now so I decided to put the second half of my Masters degree on hold for now so I can focus on Radiant. Just for kicks, here's a list of all the jobs I've had in my life to compare with Scottie's: Record store employee, odd jobs in a "leadership development" program at a church, a makeup/skin care consultant, a barista at Starbucks, and a receptionist. That's it... all 5 of them! Actually that is a lot more than I thought I'd done... I'm catching up to you, Scottie!
Q 3. Tell us about the transition from viewing photography as a hobby to something that could actually provide income.
Scottie: I'm kind of the story of what not to do! I jumped in with both feet before I was ready, I was never part time, I went right to full time (my wife was a barista at Starbucks at this time... we weren't quite bringing in the big bucks!). I didn't even really spend much time as a hobbyist either.
Breanna: Let me interrupt to tell you something about Scottie that he'd never say about himself. Scottie has this incredibly ability to pick up a new skill faster than anyone else I know. He's self taught in everything he does (and he's also amazing at everything he does) which is made possible because he's a genius... don't argue with me, Scottie, it's true!
When you own a photography business you spend 90% of your time running your own business and about 10% of it actually taking/processing photos.
Scottie: Whatever, Breanna (*blush*). As I was saying, I had to learn a lot the hard way and suffered a lot because of the way I did it. The biggest wake up call is realizing that when you own a photography business you spend 90% of your time and energy on running your own business and only about 10% of that time is spent actually taking/processing photos. We got lucky because it turns out that I love running a business as much as I love photography.
Breanna: I was a little slower to just jump in like Scottie did because for one I was pretty happy with what I was doing. I was still in college and full of hopes and dreams about my future career. It wasn't until I got a 9-5 job that I went, "uh oh" and I started realizing this wasn't going quite the way I had hoped it would! Before the "uh oh" point, I had been helping Scottie shoot weddings on occasion, but I wasn't even doing enough photography to be considered part time and I wasn't involved in the actual running of the business. Hence, I did things what we call "the right way". I began shooting slowly and learning slowly. I didn't need my money from photography to survive so I could just take the time I needed to grow as a photographer and to learn the things I needed to before I got started (where as Scottie learned all that AFTER he got started and had to do things with a lot more frustration involved).
Q 4. How did you juggle your respective careers while taking on extra work as photographers?
Breanna: Once the "real world" hit me when I had my first full time job, I decided I wanted to back track and do what Scottie did as far as disregarding that whole "real job" idea and start doing something I loved! So I cut back at work to part time and started doing photography full time. I would work a full day at my job and come home and work on Radiant stuff until midnight and get up the next day to do the same thing (or to have a day off from my other job and spend that entire day working on our business). It was more than exhausting... I couldn't have kept it up for longer than I did. But thankfully, all that work paid off enough that after only a few months I was able to quit my real job and focus solely on photography along with Scottie who was already doing it full time.
So to answer your question, it wasn't as rough as it could've been since Scottie was already doing it full time (and he never did have to juggle another job with it) and I didn't have to juggle my part time job for very long. When we decided it was time for both of our incomes to rely solely on photography, it was a HUGE leap, but we were more than ready for it at that point.
Scottie: Um, a huge leap is definitely an understatement! It was freaking hard. We sacrificed a lot when both of us began doing it full time. But the good thing is, I think we were very realistic about those sacrifices and we were very ready to make them. Have you ever seen that movie "P.S. I Love You"? (yes, I've seen it and I'm man enough to admit it).
There's a scene in there where the couple is fighting because the woman is so exhausted and unhappy at her job and they just can't seem to figure out what to do about it. While watching that film, Breanna and I just turned to each other opened mouthed because we felt like someone had stuck a camera in our bedroom to film that scene. We'd had that same fight more times than we could count and we were sick of it. Sick enough to decide we wanted to sacrifice our comfortable lives for awhile and live off of whatever scraps (and meals Breanna's mom made for us) that we could!
We feel like we're still not caught up from the time we spent pouring ourselves into our business when it first started. Pulling all nighters, having mutual crying spells (again, I'm man enough to admit it), and nights where we were so stressed that we couldn't sleep even though we had the time. It was rough, but oh man, we wouldn't change it for the world! And most of what I described happened after Breanna quit her job and while I was already full time! I can't imagine how we would've done it if both of us had been working full time at other jobs while trying to start up Radiant!
Q 5. How do you find most of your clients? Has this changed from when you first began?
Scottie: When we first started, I was a college pastor at a large church. Putting tons of single college students in the same room together is bound to result in some love connections! So we had a very large base of people getting married when we first started out and that's a major reason that our company grew as fast as it did. For every wedding we shot, 100-200 people saw our work and heard about us... and a lot of those people were planning weddings themselves! We also did a lot of bridal shows in the very beginning which helped get our name out there. We are still shooting weddings for the friends of clients we met at some of our first bridal shows.
Breanna: Since the hubbub about Radiant in the college world died down some (most of the people we knew then are married now), a lot of our business has been coming through Facebook. What used to be word of mouth referrals from "friends of friends" has now transitioned to being indirect referrals from "friends of friends of friends"… and so on! Facebook has worked out so well for us that we are now beginning to speak to other business owners on how to use it. "Like" us on Facebook to learn more about how we use it as a marketing tool! (Radiant Facebook Link)
Scottie: Breanna has rocked the Facebook side of Radiant. She's my favorite... not just because she brings in business for us either!
Q 6. How and why did each of you make the decision to jump into photography as a full-time career?
Scottie: When we were dating I was working 80+ hours a week, missing every major holiday, sleeping 4-5 hours a night, falling asleep on our dates, and just generally hating life. I actually have huge memory lapses from that period of my life due to lack of sleep (it's a miracle she decided to marry me!). When we got engaged, we decided we wanted more out of our lives than money and security… we wanted freedom and beauty. We decided we could only accomplish that if we took a huge leap of faith. That was when I started doing graphic design independently, which eventually led to the start of Radiant.
Breanna: People thought we were crazy to have him quit his “good” job right before we got married. But that’s how we roll I guess! Our main goal in life (after loving people) is to live an extraordinary life and we knew we wouldn't get it without taking risks and without resisting many of the comforts that the norms around us provided. Even way back when we were newlyweds we chose freedom over security and we are continually pushing ourselves to make that choice on a daily basis. Yes, we were dirt poor for a long time, and yes, it was difficult.
But I wanted to have a husband to live life with, not just money to spend on trying to gain a life that made me happy. So he quit his job and eventually I quit mine so that we'd be free to discover something that made us feel alive and that gave us the opportunity to pursue deeper things in this world that are more important than the type of lifestyle we lead. If we've peaked your interest, I just published a blog about it called "To Live An Extraordinary Life".
Q 7. Have either of you ever questioned the decision to go full-time?
Breanna: Yes, when it’s 2am and we’re still working, all the while thinking about how we have to get up early and do the same thing the next day. Especially since we know that our to do list is going to, once again, magically grow by itself overnight! Other than that, NO!
Q 8. Approximately how many shoots did you do last year?
Breanna: We had about 60 portrait sessions (including engagement, family, high school senior, etc. sessions). And we had about 20 weddings. We believe that the more time we spend getting to know our couples the better their wedding photos turn out, so we spend a lot of time with our clients. We actually throw in engagement sessions for free with each wedding because we so strongly believe in spending quality time with our couples as often as possible. We don't believe in booking so many things that we have to sacrifice quality for quantity, so we limit ourselves on how many weddings and portrait sessions we book in a year.
Q 9. Scottie, how has a background in design helped you become a better photographer? Would you recommend that other designers expand their skill set to include photography?
I absolutely think designers should expand their skill set to include photography.
Scottie: There are SO many things I gained from my background in design. For one, I gained a better understanding of color and composition and those are obviously a huge deal in both design and photography. Of course my design work helped me learn Photoshop which is my entire world now. As I've mentioned before, I jumped into photography way too fast and I made a lot of mistakes. I am very grateful that I had all the time that I did working in graphic design for me to learn Photoshop a little bit slower than I did photography! Graphic design also helped me learn the ins and outs of computer/tech skills that I've needed to use a ton in the photo business (especially when things don’t work quite like you expect them to!).
Even with all of those things that helped me, I'd say the biggest thing that has carried over from my graphic design days is my ability as a creative professional to understand and deliver a client’s vision. That's quite a feat and graphic design prepared me very well for being able to accomplish that for my photography clients. I absolutely think designers should expand their skill set to include photography. They should at least be hobbyists in photography. The reason being is that designers work with photography so often that at the very least it would help them learn how to better communicate/collaborate with photographers to make things go smoother on both ends.
Q 10. Can you briefly describe a typical day of work on a non-shoot day?
Scottie: This happens to be our big project for 2010. We are working on being much more efficient than we currently are. There are a few programs that have really helped us improve our efficiency and have significantly changed what we do on an average day. One of those programs is Showit Sites that we used to create our website. Using Showit has significantly cut down on the amount of time we spend updating our website, but allows us to still maintain a flash website that reaches our clients. I can't even tell you how much time per week I used to spend on our site, now I spend more time focusing that energy into growing our business, rather than on just trying to maintain it. You can find our site here.
Breanna: The program we've adopted that I love the most is Shoot Q, which handles all of our studio management, and it's completely changed our lives! In other words, we now have time to actually have lives! But in general, here are the activities we do during an average non-shooting day in order of the amount of time they take: Photo processing, client communication, album design, blogging, Facebooking, reading/learning, accounting, marketing, and walking our dog (that's what gets us out of the house and into the land of the living on some of these days!).
Q 11. What's it like to work with your spouse?
Scottie: The good part is getting to spend all day with my best friend. The bad part is spending all day with my best friend. Ha ha!
Breanna: I would protest that, but I do agree!
Scottie: Really though, the bad part is that it's easy to forget that she's my best friend and not my boss. It's so easy to make our lives (even when we're away from our computers) all about Radiant. Sometimes it's hard to just live normal life together. We're working on spending time away from work and actually not talking about work when we are finally away from it!
Breanna: I definitely don't think working with your spouse is for everyone. It just happens to work well with us and our personalities. Ever since we've been working together I feel like we actually argue LESS than we used to! That was really surprising to me, considering we spend 95% of our lives now and we have a lot more major decisions to make then we used to. But whatever, I guess we're just the type of couple that does better when we spend more time together, where I think other people do better when they get more time away from one another. Hopefully I'll still agree to all I just said as we continue working together for the next however many years! Ha!
Scottie: You will, you know you need me! Seriously though, I'm constantly amazed at how well we work together, both when we're shooting and when we're sitting side by side for an entire day. When you think about it, the fact that we're always together and that we've worked really hard on our communication with one another, really pays off when we're shooting in the heat of the moment. I really think that having a constant teammate for life that is the same at home and at work, gives us an advantage over photographers who shoot with someone different all the time or with someone who they aren't that connected with.
My favorite thing about working with Breanna (other than the fact that she talks a lot so I don't have to!) is that she can take an idea that I have and communicate it well to others... so all that talking does pay off in the end! Her communication skills pick up where mine are lacking and our clients fall in love with her when they meet her where if it were just me by myself they'd probably be like "yeah, I could take him or leave him". I also love how we have differing artistic eyes that push us forward.
Breanna: So to make a long answer even longer, I have to make sure I add what I like about the fact that Scottie in particular is the one who is my teammate! Aside from his irresistible good looks, I love working with Scottie because he's such a great example to me. He's an incredibly hard worker who is never finished learning and who always wants to do better. And then there's me... sprawled on the couch watching him do all this stuff to better himself while I'm content to just lay there watching the E channel on TV! His quest for knowledge drives him and it really does mean that he will always be growing. Who can be around that without feeling the need to step up to the challenge as well?! He patiently pushes me to be a better person (very, VERY patiently!). He also takes care of some of the businessy junk that I hate so that I can be free to do the creative stuff that I adore... so I love him for that as well!
Scottie: See I told you that you need me... who would do your taxes?!
Q12. Any last advice for amateur photographers who are looking for a way to make the leap into full-time?
Scottie:Take your time, do it right, and learn from others mistakes instead of making your own. This is the biggest mistake I made! You need to have another source of income while you take the needed time to learn. If the only means you have to take care of yourself is photography and you are new to it, you're going to make mistakes that could've/should've been avoided.
Take your time, do it right, and learn from others mistakes instead of making your own. And also find a great network of other photographers who can support you!
The biggest thing I think everyone should consider is that starting your own photography company is running an actual, legit business. Just because you like photography, doesn't mean you like being a business person... there's an unbelievable amount of work that goes into a business that most people don't anticipate. If you don't think you'd enjoy running another kind of business, you probably won't enjoy running a photography company either. I totally respect people who decide they just want to get the opportunity to take pictures full time and that's the extent of what they want to do. If that happens to be you, consider that there are plenty of companies out there who are doing all the business work and want to hire you just to take pictures, so start looking into one of those.
Breanna: A lot of the horror stories we hear are from people who hired a "new" photographer who ended up just being bad on the business side and it screwed up the couple's wedding pictures. Of course more often than that, we hear of people who just ended up with wedding pictures they aren't happy with because they hired someone who wasn't experienced enough. We can't stress enough how much people need to second shoot with other photographers before jumping in (we can say that because we've experienced it both ways)! There's so much more to shooting a wedding than just walking around taking pictures. It's an entire process and it involves a lot of skills and knowledge on top of just knowing how to get a good shot.
Scottie: The final thing I would say is to join the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) and listen to just about everything they have to say.
Breanna: And also find a great network of other photographers who can support you! There's nothing better than to feel like you have a place to go when you need advice or you're at your wits end. Just knowing there are others out there like you is a huge comfort. Other photographers are also fun because they tend to be really, really cool people.... like us!
A huge thanks to Scottie and Brianna for taking the time to answer all of our questions. Be sure to stop by the Radiant website, blog, and Facebook page for more information and to get a look at their full portfolio.
Feel free to use the comments below to ask Scottie and Breanna your own questions about starting a photography business. Also be sure to share your own expereinces with making the jump to full-time!