When I received my first professional DSLR camera as a graduation gift, I never dreamed that I would be a professional photographer. I really just wanted a better camera to document my artwork and my life. Little did I know that a camera would have such an impact on my life. After 10 years of working a full-time job AND a full-time photography business, I think it’s time to finally be just a full-time photographer. Today was my last day working in an office for someone else. It usually doesn’t take someone 10 years to decide to go full-time with their business, but everyone has their own journey. Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?
I was in the middle of my junior year of college when I received my first camera. It was a high school graduation gift, but it took that long for me to decide how to spend the money. Later that year, I had the opportunity to go on a mission trip to Belize. I saw where a local photographer was offering photo sessions to raise money for her mission trip and I decided that I could easily do the same thing with my fancy new camera. The multiple mistakes I made when I first started are cringe-worthy. I shot on auto and in jpeg. I didn’t edit the photos. And worst of all, I only charged $20 for hour-long sessions. Yikes – definitely not sustainable! Other than fully funding the cost of my mission trip, the main benefit was realizing that I loved taking pictures of other people. The month before we left for Belize, I officially launched Ashley Brooke Photography on Facebook and photographed my first wedding within the first few weeks of business.
Along with simultaneously working on my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I stayed pretty busy with multiple sessions each month and a few weddings sprinkled in. After starting my last year of grad school in the fall, I started getting more and more business and realized that I probably needed to take my business more seriously.
I was nominated for one of Mobile’s Top 20 Twenty-Somethings. It was an absolute honor to be chosen and featured in a magazine and online! Check out the article here!
Weston and I graduated in May with $72,000 of student loan debt combined – which accrued $20,000 in interest by the time we paid it off. One of our main goals after getting married in July 2013 was to get out of debt as quickly as possible. I knew full-time photography would not be in my near future. We spent the first 5 years of marriage working multiple side hustles to pay off our massive student loan and personal debt – a whopping $135,000. Read more about how we paid it off here!
The first job I landed in Selma was Tourism Director for Selma and Dallas County. My interview was literally the day after returning from our honeymoon and I moved to Selma.
After working in tourism for a full year, I finally felt like I was getting the hang of this job. I got to travel all over the Southeast. I did multiple interviews a week for TV stations and newspapers, sometimes even magazines. It was a fun job, but the demanding schedule interfered with my photography business. I started praying that God would open the door for me to do photography full-time or provide another job for me.
It was another full year before my prayer was answered. Peak Insurance was expanding. They created a new position and called Weston to see if I would be interested. I interviewed and immediately knew this was the next move for me. They hired me as their first Marketing Director to handle not only the marketing of their business, but also to handle marketing new accounts to underwriters. It was exciting and challenging and there were so many opportunities for growth!
This was also the year that I started my Instagram account and offered Christmas mini sessions for the first time!
I second shot a wedding for the first time, which is actually a little backwards. Usually photographers second shoot with experienced photographers to learn the ropes, but somehow I skipped that step.
This was the year I started sending annual Christmas cards to clients for the year. It’s one of my favorite traditions!
My business kind of exploded with growth this year. I was literally photographing someone every single weekend. I shot 20 weddings and countless photo sessions! Early in the year, I hired someone to design my first website. It was fantastic, but I quickly outgrew it when I discovered my photography style. I learned that my photos needed to look more consistent from each session so my clients would know what to expect their photos to look like. My photography style went from dark backgrounds and inconsistent editing to light, bright, and cohesive editing. I was also selected as one of Selma’s Top Twenty under Forty and featured on the magazine cover!
In the summer, I had to have double jaw surgery that took me out of commission for a few weeks. It was the worst pain of my life and it was over a month before I could physically smile again.
This was one of the most pivotal years in my business. My “side hustle” income had already exceeded my salary from my full-time job. We were debt-free. It would have been the perfect time to be a full-time photographer. I was scared to make the jump.
Even though I was still working full-time, I wanted my business to be better than the year before. My business had outgrown my logo and website. I hired a designer to create a logo that I still love to this day. I found a website company that made it possible for me to make changes to my website on my own, redesigned my website, and started blogging weekly. This was also the year that I promised to limit myself to 10 weddings a year and I committed to always taking off the entire month of December so that I could enjoy the holidays with my family.
In the summer, I started feeling overwhelming stress from working two jobs. Weston also wanted to start our family, so that added to my stress. How could I possibly fit a baby into my current schedule? I began praying that God would either open the door for me to do photography full-time or that He would lead me to a job with less hours and a more flexible schedule. In November, I interviewed for a ministry assistant position at our home church, Elkdale Baptist Church. I resigned from Peak Insurance in December and had some time at home before starting my new job. This was a very special month because I got pregnant with Camryn!
Reducing the number of weddings I accepted and taking off an entire month every year brought financial fears with my business. Would I be able to reach the financial goals I had set for 2019? Then, the next day I found out I was pregnant with Camryn! Would having a baby mean that my photography business would suffer? God silenced all my fears (even with multiple emotional breakdowns from me) and I ended the year with higher revenue than the year before and had exceeded our financial goals!
I had so many plans for expanding my business this year. The first couple of months were going great and actually better than I had expected. Then the global pandemic hit and it changed everything. It kept me from photographing anyone during one of my usual high grossing months of the year. But it also forced me to stay home with Camryn instead of going into an office everyday. I was pretty miserable at first because I felt like I needed to be on the go constantly. Being home with her for 6 weeks straight made me realize 2 things. First, that staying home wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Second, that I absolutely loved designing albums! All the extra time at home gave me the opportunity to catch up on our personal albums – including designing an album for our own wedding.
I searched high and low for the best album company to print our wedding album. I wanted something that would last for generations. Once I received our wedding album, I knew I had to offer heirloom albums to all my wedding clients. They NEEDED something this gorgeous to preserve their legacy. That’s when I changed my wedding packages to include an album in every wedding so they could have this special heirloom for their family.
We found out I was pregnant in September and I started rethinking the working two jobs thing. I missed Camryn all day and I seriously considered being a full-time photographer, but I was still scared to take that leap. I worried about being lonely at home since I wouldn’t get the same amount of social interaction. We planned for me to leave my position at Elkdale in April – a month before our baby was due.
After reading More or Less, I really felt convicted about the amount of stuff we had in our house. It made me rethink my entire 12 Days of Giveaways that I had already started planning. At the last minute, I changed it to a Week of Giving. Each day, I posted a category and encouraged my followers to donate items in that category.
As it turns out, I needed that week of giving more than my followers did. On December 4, I went to my OB for a routine checkup only to discover that our baby had died 3 weeks prior. I had to have a D&C that day. Definitely the most difficult emotional pain I have ever experienced. You can read about it here. Focusing on giving during this time helped me get through one of the worst weeks of my life. I was extra thankful that I had already taken the month of December off from photography.
The company that produces the heirloom albums recently began producing another line of albums that was a more affordable option for portraits. That’s when I decided to change my portrait pricing to include a keepsake album in the highest package. It made me realize that so many people WANT albums, they just don’t know where to start or how to design one themselves. Plus, this company is only accessible to photographers. Now my clients get the best albums and I design it for them!
Since I was no longer pregnant, I went ahead and rescheduled my jaw surgery to correct an issue with my upper jaw moving up and down. It wasn’t as terrible as the first jaw surgery, but it wasn’t exactly a picnic either. It ended up being a blessing to have the surgery in January because I recently learned that my surgeon is retiring this month!
Just a few days ago, I celebrated 10 years in business! What a journey it has been! To top it off, I am officially a full-time photographer as of today. It was such a difficult decision to leave my position at Elkdale, but I know it’s the right move. It is terrifying and exciting at the same time! I’m going to miss my work family at Elkdale, but I’m thankful they are my church family too 🙂