How I Became a Photographer

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HAPPY 10 YEARS
BROOKE TOWNSEND PHOTOGRAPHY!!!

 

I’m sitting here completely beside myself because this month marks the 10 year anniversary of my business! 10 whole years! I honestly can’t even believe it’s been that long. It’s never felt that long. But when I really sit down and think about how much has really happened in these last 10 years, I can really start to feel it.

My journey into creative entrepreneurship has been like an intense roller coaster ride through a dark enclosed room that lost it’s power in a hurricane. And I say that because I never grew up with photography, had any formal training, mentors, and I never went to college either. I’ve had to learn everything either on my own or the really hard way through harsh realizations and life lessons that sometimes threw me for a total loop and took a long time to navigate through.

On top of that, I’ve always had a pretty close relationship with fear that I’ve truly grown to hate. But, I’ve also learned that I have a pretty uncompromising spirit that has manifested into a hardcore type A personality which, admittedly, has also made a lot of my journey probably harder than it ever needed to be.

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But, I want to be real with you too. This journey certainly isn’t for everyone. If you like riding new roller coasters in total darkness during a power outtage in the middle of a hurricane, then stop reading this now, throw your hands up, and just go for the leap into creative entrepreneurship.

But, if you’re anything like how I was in the beginning of my story, you might need to find a couple more pieces to your puzzle before you start chasing after dark rooms in life-threatening storms. And so, today, I wanted to go ahead and just spill the beans and share all the nitty gritties of my personal story into how I even started into photography to begin with. Because that is it’s own story before even building my business could even begin.

 
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10 years ago, I was 19. And that’s my 19 year old self above. I was driven (stubborn)… full of self belief (naive)… and feeling ready to find my place in the world by becoming a photographer. But I had no idea how to actually do that.

But, I thought, to start a business I needed to officially start the business right? So, I made my first step to be filing for my first official LLC on December 22, 2008.

Come January of 2009, all the documents came in the mail saying that I was an official business with a registered EIN. My uncompromising soul was so creatively inspired by all this that every single day I woke up during that period, the first thoughts on my mind were photography. All I could think about was how to become a real photographer with her real papers proving it.

I still didn’t really have any plans on how. Or any focus on what kind of photographer. I had no marketing strategies. Gear. Money. No client base. And honestly, I had very little friends all of whom I could count on one hand at the time.

But yet, I was still determined to be a photographer.

I created “I’m a photographer” messages and reminders for myself and put them up everywhere I could see. I even wrote it on the bathroom mirror of our apartment (**cough**my parent’s basement) in lipstick once and left it there as a reminder. I made little art pieces with the message written in various ways. Put up post it notes. And anything and everything I could use to convince myself that being a photographer was going to be what I was going to be.

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But where did my passion for photography come from? I certainly didn’t wake up one random morning as a 19 year old running around my parents basement writing these stabbing reminders of this random thing I wanted to be. It was something that ignited in me very randomly and very slowly 3 years earlier.

On Christmas day in 2006, I was freshly turned 16. And I opened the most surprising gift of all from my grandparents. They gifted me my very first camera which was this tiny little Kodak C-315.

Of course being a 16 year old teenage girl on the dawn of the digital photography age, it didn’t take long at all for my little soul to get completely consumed by it. Even though the little camera only had 2 modes…. “auto” and “video” (3 modes if you count on/off!) and barely managed to take the top quality photo of a whole 5 megapixels… I still ran around taking pictures of anything and everything completely loving it. And it didn’t take long for me to become known as “the picture person” amongst all my family and friends.

Pictured below are some of the very, very few of the very, very many taken by yours truly in 2006.

As 2006 rolled on by and into 2007, my parents recognized my deep and growing love for photography. I was working to graduate a year early because let’s be honest, my high school experience was far from anything I want to relive again. And my parents wanted to get me a really nice graduation present for all the hard work I was putting in to finish up my schooling.

They knew I had my eyes set on a new Sony camera that had just come out at the time. And so after I said my sayonara to high school and ate a celebratory dinner at Frisch’s with my parents, they gifted me then and there the Sony DSC H-7 which was a MAJOR upgrade for the time. I’m pretty sure I screamed in the restaurant.

The camera was a whole 8.1 Megapixels!!!! Had more modes than I could count. The video recording mode even had sound (hollaaaaa). And the colors were crisp and sharper than anything I ever got on my cheap Kodak.

And this my friends is when my photography expression went from taking fun and silly photos with my friends to really finding my vision and photography style.

So, thank you Mom and Dad for literally kindling the flame that was igniting in me. I often wonder how my different my life would have turned out had you not gifted me this camera.

Once I had graduated high school I was on a mission to do as many things as possible. I was SO EAGER to get life started. I jumped on any opportunity I could to explore. Practice photography. Go on adventures big and small. And just experience as much as I could.

I remember entering that black and white river photo above into a local photography contest and it ended up winning me my first ever earnings with photography - a whole $100 check in 2007.

Three more photos above ended up winning 2nd and 3rd place in another photography contest called “Shoot the Hills” in 2008 winning me my first awards.

And the sepia toned photo of the girl walking through the cave entrance ended up landing on the front page of National Geographic’s website in 2009. (Holy crap what?)

These achievements are what started the idea of becoming a real life photographer someday in my mind. Because they got me hungry for more and more spending all my days and nights daydreaming of all the possibilities.

I daydreamed about becoming a real National Geographic photographer and wondered what trips I’d get sent on telling stories about saving the world. I day dreamed of all the equipment and gear I ever wanted. I day dreamed about what things I could become amongst it all living a life full of creative expression and storytelling. Like, how does anything get better than that?

But, so much of that day dreaming was flighty and all over the place. I didn’t really find my place within it all until I took my first international trip to England in 2007.

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Instead of walking through the doors of my high school for my Senior Year, I walked into the airport and hopped onto a plane with my boyfriend and went jet setting 4000 miles to England where I spent 2 whole months living with him. We had been dating for 3 years up to this point and spent that dating long distance. And over those 3 years, he always came to me in the states. I had never had the opportunity to go out to him. And so, being free from school and any and all other obligations, I went. And it was completely life changing for me.

During that period I was 17 and about as impressionable as any one person could be. I learned about history that was completely different than my own American history. I heard people walk and talk differently than me. Food that forced me out of my very small comfort zones. And when I went to London for the first time, I can still remember being completely out of my element hearing and seeing more languages and cultures than I ever had before in my little town of West Chester, Ohio.

These new and captivating experiences enriched me in so many countless ways that changed me for the better. And I spent that fall time not only soaking it all up, but documented every step of the way with my little Sony camera (read the blog posts here). And that entire trip was spent living fully with so much love, happiness, and exploration in myself and my creativity. And honestly, there will never be another time in my life like this.

This is when I truly discovered my passion for photography and came home with a very specific vision of what I wanted my life to be filled with.

So, let’s go back to 2009. A year and a half after this wonderful, life-changing trip. Back to Baby Brooke decorating her parents basement with stabbing reminders of trying to become a photographer.

I reached a level with my photography after England where my Sony camera and it’s functions started to feel limiting. I knew that if I was going to be an official photographer, I needed to have an official camera.

So after getting my official LLC documents in the mail, I thought it was time to take a dive and get myself my first real camera. After a bunch of research and a super limited budget, I walked into a Best Buy in January of 2009 and bought my first real camera (a Canon 50D) on a Best Buy credit card determined that I was going to make enough money with this camera to pay it off within the year.

I was so determined about this, that I ended up quitting my full time daycare teacher job convinced that of my 14 students and all the relationships I built at that place over the 13 months I worked there would be the start of my client base into portrait photography. Dumb, right?

I printed out my first business cards. Wrote letters to all the parents and even gave them information about this new photography business I was starting and how excited I was to start this new chapter in my life. I remember saying that I hoped that we could continue a relationship past the daycare and wanted so badly to document for whatever events and milestones they needed.

But with absolutely no other business plan, strategy, or even marketing set up, all those potential job opportunities I could have gotten, I only got one person who called me for some photos.

One. Single. Person.

As you can imagine, I felt completely crushed. It was only a month into the start of my brand new business, February of 2009, and I was already completely devastated by my first failure feeling like my fire was already going out.

I made the mistake of putting all my eggs into one basket and banked on that one, single handout to completely revolutionize my business.

2019 Brooke sees soooo manyyyy things wrong with this approach. And I wish I could go back in time and tell baby Brooke how bad that whole mentality was. How unhealthy it was to expect so much in the beginning. But, alas, I haven’t figured out how to time travel yet, so… we’ll have to save that for another day.

After a few weeks of sitting in a deep, lonely pit of self-defeat, I came to the realization that I needed to start putting myself out there. Because I had no presence anywhere. I felt I really needed to start building a website and showcase some of the things I can do because how else was I ever going to find anyone that was going to hire me? Or better yet, have them find me?

But then, I came to another realization that I didn’t even have a portrait portfolio.

How was anyone supposed to hire me if they couldn’t see what I could do? But then, what could I do? I didn’t have any experience working with people. In fact, I was labeled as “the mute kid” in high school. And during this time, I was probably the shyest person you’d ever meet. I barely said any words around people.

How was I supposed to face all of this all at once?


The intensity and weight of how much I needed to change and grow became like an intense war with myself. I knew I needed to step out of my comfort zone(s) and start trying as many new things as I could. My entire portfolio was landscape and travel photography in 2009. So, I needed to start adding faces in there if I was going to start making any real money anywhere.

My spring and summer of 2009 was spent trying desperately to build that portrait portfolio. I did all sorts of portrait work and honestly did anything and everything I could to try and figure out what niche I liked most. I did creative shoots with models in the area. Including challenging myself to do a shoot at night time once. (so bad) I did shoots for family members. And I even did a couple of small weddings for people I worked with totaling in just barely enough money to officially pay off that camera I bought on credit. Woop Woop! And what a wonderful feeling that was.

But the worst part looking back on all this is that the entire time I was out there shooting, I was always so focused on the subject matter more than I did in how I was actually taking the photos. I was trying to build the business without building my skills and style. I never took the time to really learn how to use manual mode on my camera. Or what any of the settings meant or did. I just shot on auto and hoped for the best at every single shoot.

And so, despite all my desperate efforts to make something of myself, I still couldn’t help make ends meet and pay for everything that needed to be paid for consistently enough. So, I had to break down and get a day job while I was trying to build this business up on the side because I couldn’t handle the inconsistencies anymore.

But, I didn’t want to deviate from my photography path because I was still so incredibly eager to be a photographer (remember those notes? yeah.) So I started into a job working at Picture Me Portrait Studios (yes, the ones that used to be in Walmarts) thinking that maybe if I worked in a portrait studio I could learn how to really use a camera.

At that job orientation I can still hear the district manager saying,

“This job is way easier than any of you guys might be expecting right now. I know these cameras look intimidating, but you won’t ever have to adjust any camera settings because everything is already mounted, rigged, and set to auto for you! You just show up and take the photos!”

WHATTTTTT. Are you kidding me?!?!

I almost threw my clip board on the floor and walked out right there. But KNEW I couldn’t since there were no other jobs out there screaming for me (Hello 19 year old, never going to college, high school grad with no work or life experience) And honestly, I just wanted to be around photography one way or another. So, I buckled in for it anyway.

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But that job ended up being one of the worst jobs I’ll ever have. The pay sucked. The work was far from creatively challenging. Even one of the Walmarts I was working in got robbed at gunpoint once and I was so over everything that I didn’t even care (“Oh great, here’s something else to fix”). When the swat team arrived, I just peaced out and left my store as is

I was so stretched to the max there working between 60-70 hours a week (sometimes 80) in multiple locations in the entire Cincinnati area and was left with no time for my own photography. And because I had no time for my photography, I had no time for my soul work and wasn’t living in any of the directions I was wanting to go in whatsoever. It was like my full nightmare was realized and honestly, between that and everything else going on in my life, I cracked.

I was a 19 year old girl with the entire weight of the world on her shoulders.

After spending a couple of months in an almost hiatus, I found my way to (another) painful realization that I was the one that needed to change. I needed to leave the job that I hated so much and give myself time again for my own photography.

I left that portrait studio job in November of 2009 and actually went to Gamestop as a Senior Game Advisor. Yes, something completely separate from my photography. And I think I almost needed this step more than anything else. Video games were always another passion of mine so having a job in a totally different area of interest gave my photography the freedom to be a hobby again. The position cut my hours in half and I decided to spend my extra time dedicated to really learning the nitty gritty of photography and embrace a whole new attitude toward it all.

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That new attitude was me almost going to war with myself. So at the beginning of 2010, I embraced the almost extreme mentality of competing to starve my fear. Anything that made me feel afraid in photography, or life, I tried to do something to face it directly and get passed it. It was almost like an intense, internal game of truth or dare. And what was the biggest thing to fear at that time? Learning manual mode.

So, clearly, that was the first thing I needed to do. Before I ever decided to book paying clients and build a business, I needed to build my style and figure out the basics of photography.

Face it. Own it. And just do it already.

After researching some how to’s on the internet (AKA YouTube University) I dared myself to go to a nearby park in the freezing cold and told myself that I was not going home until I figured out what the heck F stop was. And Shutter speed. And whatever this thing ISO is. But I also wanted to learn how to use the timer on my camera. So I practiced all these things in another January snow and didn’t go home until the sun went down and my skin was almost frozen solid.

And even though I barely knew what any of it still was, I knew HOW to change the settings and where to go on the camera. And if I’m being honest, I still think back to this random January day as a pretty pivotal moment for me. Because really, it was the day I faced a relatively large fear of mine and figured out the basics of everything I never knew about photography.

From that random January day and through all of 2010, I really did continue to embrace that “starve my fear” mindset and began a true journey to figure out how to master the basics of photography. How to work with different lighting scenarios. What kind of work I loved shooting. And really just let myself slow down, relieve some pressure, and enjoy life the best way that I could.

For the years between 2010-2012 my only real focus was figuring how photography really worked. What things I could control and couldn’t. And my photo style amongst it all. And took the pressure of it having to make me money off my back so I could creatively learn, expand, and grow for however long I needed it to.

I still did some photoshoots to keep building a portfolio. And I still shot a few more weddings those years too. But, all of it was a time for me to just learn, challenge myself, and grow as much as I possibly could before I put the pressure of making it into a true, thriving business.

To continue on with that game of internal truth or dare, I challenged myself to start a 365 day project in September of 2010 (Which, if you don’t know, is where you take one photo a day for an entire year) I needed something that was going to force me to not only get creative with photography every single day, but also get more technical with it. A project where I could focus on these photography basics I was learning and almost carve it into my brain as a habit and not a forced thought that often resulted into me overthinking my process. But also, I wanted so badly to get back to the same feelings that photography brought me during my England trip in 2007. And all the times even before that when I first discovered it. Basically…..

I wanted to do photography for me again. And for no one else.

So, I started that project in September of 2010 and it ran everyday until September of 2011. To this day, some of the photos from that project are still some of my favorites I’ve ever taken. Because they capture a time for me where I was discovering myself. Rediscovering the true root of my passion for photography. And ones I’ve gone back to as a reminder of what to work from even in these later years of my photography journey.

Basically, I found my love for photography again during this project. And a lot of needed self love after such a difficult year for me. And I reveled in it’s freedom to create for no other reason than embracing creation itself.

I’m a firm believer that if we are doing anything in life, it should always be to remain true to who and what we are as people deep down inside. Or as close to it in as many different and little ways as we possibly can. And at the heart of all of it, I’m an artist who needs creativity as my expression. And this was my new period of new expression.

While I was about halfway through this 365 day project of mine, I wanted to dare myself to yet another thing. I wanted to attempt getting my work out there again.

I knew about this place in Newport on the Levee that featured local artists and their creations. And so, in the summer of 2011, I reached out to the Art on the Levee to see about getting my own display wall up to sell some of my work. And much to my surprise, they accepted me.

This little storefront is the kind of gallery space where artists could rent space and sell whatever work they wished in almost any manner they wished too. And again, being on a tight budget, I never was able to make my designated wall space the way I really wanted it to be. BUT, I still managed to get just enough in there and sell just enough to cover my total costs it took to get me featured there in the first place.

Even though the gallery feature wasn’t a total win win…. it was enough of a win. Because while I didn’t walk away from it racking in the cash, I did walk away from it all with a renewed sense of entrepreneurship. Wanting to explore that whole other side to running a photography business. Which, was something I was not expecting to run into at all.

But I truly believe the only reason I was able to really able to get to that point again was because I took the pressure off my business and allowed my photography to be my creative driving force. I spent these earliest years honing my craft. Figuring out what editing programs I liked most and how to actually use them. What styles I wanted to edit with. I nailed down my actual shooting style with all these random portrait sessions I was doing. I even figured out how to use real photography gear and all their crazy settings. I stepped SO MUCH out of my hermit shell. And just embraced myself more as I grew into my photography.

Without these crucial years of self exploration and intense games of personal truth or dare, I would have never been able to grow my business into what it is today. And growing that business is a whole other chapter that I’m going to share next for you. Because really, this little chapter has been long enough. And if you’ve made it even this far, I’m SUPER proud of you lol.

’Til next time <3

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