10 Years of a Sustainable Business – From Fine Art to Photography with Toni Shaw
My Start and My Calling
By the time I was 1 ½ years old I was fatherless. A stranger in a Baltimore bar decided to end the life of my father and my uncle because his other brother—who was celebrating coming home from service—spilled beer on his shoes. In an instant, my life as well as my mother’s was changed forever.
Having a father figure stolen from me certainly altered my life. I do not know in what capacity, but I do know the feeling of loss and its effect on me has stayed with me through my adult life. I think that the emptiness has given me the drive I seem to have in this current day and time. Filling that void through creativity has truly been a gift.
For years as a teenager, I worked beside my grandmother and grandfather’s farms in acres of tobacco fields. My mother worked two and three jobs while simultaneously working towards her educational degrees. All I knew during that time was I loved comic books, drawing and painting. My love for the arts grew tremendously as I tried to out-draw my babysitter who was in my eyes an awesome artist.
As a teenager, I continued to draw and began making money selling my oil and acrylic portraits, but my first real job as an artist came when I was hired by the Alamance County School system to paint murals at various schools every summer.
My Pivotal Points
My journey into college, I started as a fine art student at Winston Salem State University. Painting and Color & Design were areas that I enjoyed tremendously. I would paint for hours, sometimes completing a portrait in one sitting. But the mandatory photography classes piqued my interest as well. Shooting film was the only option back then and without an understanding of the “exposure triangle” it was a pure guessing game for me. So, I did like most still do today. I picked up a camera and started shooting and prayed for the best.
I loved my classes, however, after some time I began to feel like my future was bleak. I did not see or have anyone in my circle that loved the arts (photography included) that looked like me or was willing to invest in me. All I had was “Uncle Doug” who was deemed the family photographer. He was the type of photographer that always took photos, but no one ever saw them. Without additional avenues or opportunities, I eventually stopped pursuing photography and continued focusing on my fine arts and graphic design.
I knew that I wanted to pursue art, but I still did not know exactly where all of this would fit in my future. Typically, during that era your family and friends expected you to be a doctor, lawyer, or nurse. Telling someone that you wanted to be an artist always came with a long deafening pause and responses such as “well how will you survive?” “artists don’t make any money” “oh, so you want to be like Van Gogh?”
So as years passed, I continued to paint and draw, which led me to many interesting jobs. But when I became a parent, I can say that this ignited my desire to take “pictures” of my daughter and I quickly recognized the images were more than just pictures, they were works of art. The creativity in me surged and I was obsessed with what I was accomplishing with my camera.
Little did I know that eventually I would be asked by my CEO of a Fortune 500 company to do a photo shoot for the entire company. All I had was a Nikon point and shoot and not one bit of knowledge as to how to shoot groups, edit, or how to light or compose my shots.
The company flew me to Georgia, not knowing that they based my expertise on images I had taken collectively of my daughter in middle school, all nicely presented in a cheap album. I was extremely nervous and felt like a scam artist. With lots of unspoken and internal doubt I pushed on and did my absolute best. I pushed through it and immediately decided that this scenario will never happen again. I knew I needed to be more prepared and needed to know more about this thing called photography. I promised myself that I would study the art of photography every day in some form or fashion so I would never feel so unprepared again.
The more I studied, the more I shot, the more people hired me. My approach to most of the work that came my way was with an attitude of certainty and determination. I did not know what it was to have a specific style in photography. I was not aware that I should stay in “one genre” as the industry seemed to have dictated. All I knew was I loved photography and I wanted to shoot every single opportunity that I could.
Juggling a Job and a Business
A few years had passed, and I was miserable at my full-time job. What I realized at that point in my life is that going to work crying and leaving work crying could no longer be the norm. I was sick of the confining rules and regulations of a company that could care less about me and my success. Yet during that time, with no real goal in mind, I continued to watch many videos and online classes geared toward photography.
One of the first photographers I began to follow was Sal Cincotta. Although I had no real client base, I was energized by the business acumen he was teaching.
My business began to grow, which became a problem; I now had to find a way to leave work and still make my new clients think I had enough flexibility to do their shoots for them. I juggled clients and work for two years just so I could continue to hold on to the clients I was quickly gaining.
Torn about my mental state, going to work at a job that I hated, I quit.
Building My Clients for my Business
After quitting my job, the only thing on my mind was, I had three months of salary and unemployment to survive. I knew I had to dig deep and make this thing called photography work. I would never suggest anyone quit their job. But we all have our breaking point and I had met mine head on. For the next few months, I used many guerilla marketing techniques that some still use today in combination with many of today’s marketing tools.
My main goal was to build my portfolio. I did not really have enough clients to make my website look like I had multiple clients. I also realized there were multiple genres of photography and I thought for me to stay afloat I had to show my versatility as well. By this time, I had deemed my daughter Nicole as my assistant. She also doubled as a model and a second shooter. It is funny as I look back on this now, but she gave me the courage to build the business I have today. As I continued to gain clients, I just continued to work at the areas of my business that I knew I needed help to make it stronger.
Then I stumbled onto the local parades. I have a love for them, because it is parades that gave me my first big job. All I could think about was “how can I get more clients?” The local parades were surprisingly my answer. I got up at 5 a.m. and walked two miles to the beginning of each parade. I would then take photos of various groups, organizations, and businesses that I felt could use my services. After the parade I would process the images and send one image to each company that I shot during the parade. I waited for a response and surprisingly one of the first companies that called me to discuss doing work for them was a dance studio.
10 years and counting, I am still working with that studio and I am now shooting for other dance studios locally as well as in different states.
I had to piece my photography business and knowledge together as a quilt maker would make a quilt. It was frustrating and very disheartening, yet I kept doing what I loved to do.
Trying to find someone to help answer my questions about handling clients, how to set up my lights, how to price my services, what equipment do I use or do I need, were always challenges and frustrating situations for me because on many occasions I had no one around to assist me with those looming questions and situations.
I would have loved to have been able to afford hands-on training during my early years but instead I found my way into the industry by attending as many shootouts as I could attend. When the shootouts became redundant, I focused on doing shoots of as many family members as I could photograph during a holiday dinner in my backyard. My family and friends were an integral part of helping me create my style.
I pushed myself, even during my cancer scare. I went back to work just weeks after major surgery because my clients were important to me. Maintaining my business was all I wanted to do and do well.
What I Have Learned in This Process
Having a Fine Art background from as far as elementary school has been a catalyst to helping me understand color, composition and concept. It has further assisted me in making a smooth transition in creating my style of photography today. I would advise any photographer today to take art classes to help you on your artistic journey.
I am a child of an educator who by example taught me the importance of hard work, the importance of education and the need to constantly educate yourself. If you have a desire to do something you love, you must dig in, use as many resources as you can find and do not wait on the support. The support will come, but it may come slowly and let the non-supporters be your fuel and driving point to be successful. I honestly think sometimes it’s OK to work alone.
Do not worry about the competition! You are your own competition. If you are professional, show and share your work, stay a professional behind and in front of the camera, and continue to study the craft, your clients will come.
My hope for other photographers: Start slow, build a foundation, surround yourself with photographers that are ever-evolving, practice like you are losing your mind, do not worry about trying to outdo one another. Learn to be allies for one another and build a solid support system around you. Stay focused on your goals and move with caution. Also do not forget to give back to your community. Many complain about the requests for doing sessions or events for free. I set a limit to how many I will shoot for the year and I use these opportunities to market my business.
Stay motivated and be persistent by continuing to satisfy not only yourself but your client. “Fame and fortune” will come in its own package designed especially for you. Ease into this process of your photography business and know that every mentor or professional in the industry may not be for you. Their vision should not necessarily be your vision, but you can watch at a distance and create your own.