Chris Ellis shows us that necessity is the mother of invention. Within six months of picking up his first quality camera, he started his own photography business to help pay the bills. Chris shares a raw look at the journey of building his business and some of his learnings along the way, from the power of a strong support network to the meaning of staying true to your own voice.
Talentedly: When did your passion for photography start?
Chris Ellis: My passion for photography started late in high school. Many people start their passion for art at an incredibly early age, so compared to others in my field, I came in pretty late to the game. I picked up a camera when I was 17 and within six months I had formed my own photography company. I really had no idea what I was doing, and really had no right to start a company after only six months, but I figured I could learn what I needed to along the way. And luckily, that turned out to be mostly true.
TLY: What is it about photography that you enjoy the most?
CE: The thing I enjoy most about photography is getting the chance to know the most incredible people. Without them, I don’t have a clue where I would be today. For example, when I enrolled in college I knew that in addition to my own business, I wanted to work as a photographer somewhere on campus. I eventually applied to the yearbook as a last minute hire after another photographer had dropped out two weeks into the semester. I had never worked on a yearbook, but the woman who hired me gave me the chance to grow and experiment as a photographer and at the same time guided me though the process of managing a team, working with strict deadlines, how to manage a budget, and in turn, prepared me to be a better business owner. Then, she and her fiance asked me if I would be interested in shooting their wedding! It was the ultimate compliment, and I was honored to be able to share their special day with them.
TLY: What inspired you to create a business from your hobby?
CE: I’d like to say that there was some larger purpose to making photography into my business, but really, it was because I didn’t have much to offer potential employers. I was a young kid just leaving high school and I didn’t like the idea of working a weekend shift at the local Yogurtland to pay the bills. So I figured that since people had started coming to me to shoot their family photos and even a few weddings, I may be good enough to start charging. Granted, I had become obsessed with photography in the six months after picking up a camera, but I was still unsure if I was the entrepreneurial type. Luckily, I did a good enough job at the beginning that more and more people started asking me to shoot for them, and eventually I created a client base that is still with me today!
TLY: What has been the hardest part of running your own business?
CE: The hardest part of running my own business is the balancing act between personal life and work. When I started, my office was my dorm room. I worked by myself, on my own time, and didn’t know how to manage my time well. I would dive into editing, neglecting my schoolwork and my personal life, for days at a time before the world would pull me back into it. Most of my friends had no idea what it was like to run a business and even fewer knew much about commercial photography. Fortunately, I found a group of photographers who were in similar situations and we banded together to be each others’ creative outlet and support network. And while other parts of life inevitably have gone up and down, that support network has always kept me focused on becoming a better photographer and business owner.
TLY: What advice do you have for others trying to start their own business?
CE: Early on I had the chance to talk with someone who had just decided to leave the photography business. She had been shooting for some of the biggest magazines and clients in the world before she decided to leave it behind. Her work was amazing and she had done what so many had never accomplished–turned photography into a viable living. So when she sat me down, I asked her why she would ever leave it. She told me that she had reached a level where her art was no longer her own. She no longer controlled the photos she was creating, and instead was communicating someone else’s vision. And while her work was everywhere, it wasn’t hers. From that day on I never wanted my images to be anything but my own. Art is about expression, so I would tell anyone thinking of turning their art into a business to try and create your own voice, your own perspective in your art before turning it into a business. The best clients will hire you because they enjoy how you see the world, not because they want you to translate their vision into an image.
TLY: Do you have other hobbies that you would like to turn into businesses in the future?
CE: Eventually I would like to turn my passion for cars into a future business. Cars have always been my first passion, and I will always have a soft spot for hot rods and local tuning shops. Someday I hope to have a shop of my own, preferably with old American muscle cars. Currently, I don’t have a plan for how exactly to do that, but in the meantime, I could tell you every variant of the Porsche 911 since 1990. That may not seem like much, but trust me, there’s a lot.
TLY: At Talentedly, we talk about the importance of emotional intelligence. What’s the most challenging emotion to capture on camera?
TW: The most difficult emotion to capture on camera would be sadness. I sometimes struggle to take myself out of a situation where my subject is expressing sadness. My instinct is to help or to empathize, but in order to capture the shot I am looking for, I need to remove myself from the situation as much as possible. Creating that divide between yourself and the subject is taught to documentary photographers and photo-journalists early on in their careers. But as a lifestyle and wedding photographer I experience things alongside my clients rather than separate from them. Happiness pervades my commercial work while a lot of my personal work can be categorized as street photography, and it is difficult to divorce myself from the sadness that my subject is experiencing.
(This content was originally posted at Talentedly.)
Lydia Loizides is serial entrepreneur, technology provocateur and relentless challenger of the status quo. She spends her days as Founder & CEO of Talentedly, a technology company on a mission to help people grow from good to great at work (technology + people = amazing results). The rest of her waking moments are spent running, reading, learning, and trying to prove that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42. You can follow Lydia @lydiaNYC @GetTalentedly, on LinkedIn and the Huffington Post.