Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”
I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.
HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.
To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.
Name: Danielle Cohen
Location: Costa Mesa, California
You’re a photographer and you’ve done all kinds of photo shoots—weddings, engagement parties, portraits of families and kids, professional headshots, photos of books, jewelry, and food, and more. How did you become a professional photographer? Did you wake up one day, buy a camera, and start teaching yourself how to use it? Did you study photography at college? Walk us through the sequence of events.
My love affair with photography began sometime in the late ‘70s. I was about 5 years old and I’d watch my dad make magic with his Polaroid. From there, like many lifelong loves, my relationship with photography went through multiple phases and iterations.
There were years of avoiding, flinching, and even running and hiding anytime a camera was in my general vicinity. Also, there were years where I felt an insatiable need to document everything and everyone around me. There have been lots of moments of photographing myself in secret so I could catch glimpses of who I was or who I might be—using photographs to see my own curves, lines, and marks. There were the single mom years of self-timer family pictures in the kitchen, and bartering photography services for baseball team fees and private school.
And somehow, through all those years and all those expressions, it never dawned on me to declare photography as a “career path.”
I always thought of myself as a healer, not a photographer. Besides, I never saw myself as “creative,” and the idea of being in a studio all day long sounded suffocating at best. I simply didn’t “see” it. Oh, the irony—haha! And yet, I always had my camera near by. I was always documenting. And then “suddenly” (note the sarcastic quotation marks) after years of gestating, one day I realized, “It’s OK if I call myself a photographer. Because that’s what I am.” And my photography business was (officially) born.
You’ve been self-employed for quite a while. Let’s roll back to the very beginning of your career as a self-employed artist. How did it feel? Did you have clients right away, or was it difficult to find work? Did you feel excited and confident, or really scared? Or all of the above?
Here’s the truth: I’ve never seen myself as an “artist.” I see people as art, life as art, nature as art—and I am the voyeur, the documenter, the grateful witness.
As for how it felt in the beginning… I think the most challenging part was feeling so much doubt. Doubting my skills. Doubting my expertise. Doubting that I “have what it takes” to succeed. There’s always that whisper of doubt inside every human being, I think. It’s always there, but we learn how to manage it as we get older. At least, mostly.
The thing that always keeps me going is how good it feels to be with my clients—to connect with them, and see them, and reflect what I see back to them. It sounds hokey, but I’ve fallen in love with everyone I’ve ever photographed—and the love that I feel is so much bigger than all the doubt and mental chatter. Love is what keeps me showing up again and again.
Many self-employed photographers have busy seasons and then slower seasons. There can be a lot of uncertainty, at times, and intensity at others. Is that true for you, too?
In the last couple of years, I’ve had some very, very busy months that definitely pushed my energy limit. Since then, I’ve tried to shape the rhythm of my year more intentionally. So this year, for example, I cut back on how many photography sessions I put onto my calendar. I also raised my prices. I’m also teaching, mentoring and writing more, because I can do those things without needing to drive through traffic, haul my gear across town, or get on a plane. I do love to travel and see my clients in their spaces, so I certainly don’t want that piece to go away, I just need to balance it out with home-based work.
Self-care has to be a priority, always. If I’m completely worn out, then I can’t be fully present for my clients, my friends, or my family. It doesn’t feel good. That’s not how I want to live my life. Even though my heart often wants to say “Yes!” to every business opportunity that comes my way, I’m learning to say “Yes” to my own vibrancy first.
Imagine you could wave a magic wand and line up any type of client or project that you want. What would be your fantasy photography project?
My fantasy photography project would be a combination of documenting meaningful events happening in the world, photographing geographic romances, and writing well-loved books based on those adventures. Something involving international travel + love stories, basically.
What was one of the scariest, most stressful, or most humiliating moments of your career, and how did you get through it?
I mean really, it’s ALL scary! Whether I’m sending out a newsletter to my mailing list, inviting folks to check out a new project, or submitting an article for possible publication somewhere, it’s all pretty unnerving at times. And also it’s not. I mean, it’s all relative right?
But putting yourself out into the world can feel scary and vulnerable. This is one of the things I love so much about my clients. Most of my clients are creative entrepreneurs of one kind or another. The courage, intimacy and vulnerability of their work is so beautiful to me, and I know that part of my personal work is to try and grace myself with some of that same perspective. So, I don’t know if I actually do “get through it” but I am definitely devoted to staying in it.
If someone is interested in becoming a professional photographer like you, what are the first 3 things they should do?
1. Figure out why you want to do this.
Why do you love photography? Why do you think it’s important to document the world? Why are you drawn to this work? Are you passionate about animals, city landscapes, love stories, or…? Explore your “why” and then build your business around that theme. Figuring out why you want to be a photographer is wayyyy more important than defining your aesthetic, in my opinion. Knowing why you’re doing this work keeps you anchored.
2. Do the math.
When you’re figuring out what to charge for photo shoots, consider everything that goes into it: time spent scouting for locations, equipment, insurance, education, consulting, the actual photo session time, culling and editing and delivery. Figure out how much time goes into each client project, and charge accordingly. It’s dangerously easy to underestimate how much goes into a session. Then you wind up undercharging your clients, you get burnt out and resentful, and it’s not possible to sustain your business. Which ultimately serves no one.
3. Keep taking pictures for pleasure.
Never let photography become “just a business” or “just a way to make money.” Especially as you get busier and busier with client-related projects, it’s so important to make time to play and enjoy yourself. Take yourself on photo walks, or create still life’s, or self portraits. Let yourself continually be fed by the magic of your camera.
ONE MORE THING…
Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Danielle? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)
YOUR #1 CAREER GOAL: ACHIEVED
Do you need some encouragement to help you achieve a big, daunting career goal? Would you like to have a career coach/strategist in your corner—feeding you ideas that you’d never considered before, helping you figure out who to contact, and what to say, and checking in to make sure you don’t procrastinate? If so… click here to find out how we can work together. I’d love to coach you!