I first became acquainted with Heather Ryan of Heather Ryan Photography three years ago during the fun but overwhelming process of planning my wedding; one of my colleagues referred her to me as a potential wedding photographer. I remember my now husband and I meeting her at a Starbucks and her disarming smile placing me at ease. The wedding planning process requires deep scrutiny of vendors, especially a wedding photographer, given that photographs sometimes outlast your existence (who wants their great-grandchildren stuck with bad pictures of their wedding). For some reason without much discourse I immediately trusted Heather. Maybe it’s because back then I could sense wedding photography was more to her than a side hustle. Fast forward to the present, she confirms during our conversion that, “Growing up, I was always the kid with the camera.” Finding your passion is one thing, but developing a strategy to start a side business while maintaining a full-time job and sustaining a work-life balance personifies inspiration.
Transforming a passion into an income earning opportunity requires deliberation, hard work and most importantly for Heather, being open to circumstance. I’m sure individuals out there who knew exactly that they wanted to turn their craft into a mechanism for self-subsistence early on in life exist, but that’s not Heather, making her story all the more interesting. She says, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I kind of stumbled into the legal field as a secretary.” In hindsight, not having a determined path led her to discover wedding and family photography. “It was my path to go to the firm I had” because working at the firm not only allowed her to save money for purchasing a camera while living with her parents, but it also acquainted her with her first clients. Interestingly enough, the purpose of saving for a good camera was not to transform into a professional photographer initially. “I just a wanted to take pictures and create art; I always loved it!” she exclaims.
After working at the firm for two years, purchasing her first dSLR and not being able to withhold her excitement about her new acquisition at work, her co-workers learned of her love for photography and inquired about her services. About landing her first client Heather says, “One of my previous co-workers, named Melissa, she was engaged at the time I was running around the office saying I purchased a new camera and she asked, ‘Do you want to take pictures of me and my fiancé?’ I did it and I loved it.” As for getting started on charging for her services? Also seeded by a co-worker. After her first engagement photo session, another co-worker suggested that she start a blog. “That’s how it all started.” Heather had merely acquired the camera to pursue a hobby, but because she was open to ideas from others, she ended up on a path into something she loved. Without her co-workers’ suggestions she says that, “I would take pictures of my own personal life and be artistic about it…I found a way that I could be artistic, have fun with people, and make an income out of it.” Photographing her first wedding solidified that memorializing peoples’ significant events was indeed her calling. She describes the fear and satisfaction from the first wedding she shot 7 years ago. It was her “best friend’s brother and it was an at home farm wedding. I was young and scared shitless that they were trusting me with this day. Through their trust and faith in me, I came to realize I love capturing raw emotion during a wedding and how fulfilling it is for me. This is what I need to do with my life. I need to be taking pictures of people during one of the happiest days of their lives.”
Today with eighteen weddings already booked for the year and averaging three portrait sessions a weekend, Heather has made a lot of progress, but not without her share of challenges. She now tells me that she didn’t fully understand the complexity of running a business when she first started, something that she could have offset by taking business courses, seeking mentoring and workshops. One early career mishap was undervaluing her services. She says, “A few months in I started comparing myself to other photographers and realized I was on par,” but charging much lower prices; so she adjusted her rates based on the market. From that mishap and other experiences that showed her that lack of knowledge hampers the progress of her business, Heather has made it a priority to seek out workshops and classes that have not only enriched her business acumen, but also broadened her photography skills. With the knowledge acquired, she has been able to take advantage of digital marketing which is an additional tool for expanding her brand, given that she’s so far relied primarily on word of mouth marketing. She’s also streamlined her workflow in order to deliver images quicker than she did before. Thus her advice for aspiring professional photographers is not to underestimate the importance of entrepreneurship. “A lot of photographers when they go into the industry don’t think about the fact that they’ll be running a business. Many photographers, like me, go into the business to pursue their love of photography and art, but it’s much smaller in the grand scheme of things. Something I never knew in the beginning. In the last 7 years I’ve learned a lot as far as running a business. Business courses, mentoring, anything a new business owner can do at the onset should be done earlier instead of later.”
What’s next for Heather? She plans to turn Heather Ryan Photography into a full-time gig. This she admits will not be an easy feat given the competitive nature of the industry. But despite her fear of dropping the comfort associated with a predictable pay check, she asserts, “Nothing worth doing is ever easy. It has not been easy to build my business from the ground up while maintaining a full-time job but I know the payoff is there,” all while flashing that disarming smile and I couldn’t help but smile back.