Fourteen years ago this month, I walked into my first photography class at Brooks. I had just moved away from home, enrolled in college, and started a brand new season of life. I felt so free! But I also felt terrified. There was a wild world out there, totally unknown to me, and I had no clue how to navigate it. But even then, I had a deep sense that capturing beauty in the world around me was what I was made to do.
Since then, I’ve built a career as a fashion photographer, as well as creating a community for other photographers to learn, support one another, and root for each other. Over the last 14 years, I’ve learned what feels like a thousand lessons. From setting rates to learning technical aspects to valuing myself as a photographer, there’s just a lot to learn! (You know this!)
But when I look back at those early days, there are a few things I’d love to tell my past self – and none of them are about pricing, editing, or know-how. Nope – the advice I’d most like to give 14-years-ago me is all about the person I’ve grown into along the way.
I wish I could hug younger Nicole now and tell her how much her life would change. I wish I could see her face when I told her that following her passion would unlock a life more beautiful than she ever imagined. I wish I could promise her that better days are just around the corner. If I was starting this career all over again today, this is the advice I’d give myself. And if you’re on the brink of following your passion, I hope you know there’s so much beauty in your future if you let go of fear and follow your dream. This is my advice for you, too.
1. Fear will always be part of the equation.
When I first started pursuing photography, I kept waiting for the fear to go away. I dreamed about a day when major photo shoots would be a breeze. Now, I know that fear is just a little part of the job. You don’t get over fear – but you do get used to facing it. Those things that scared me in the beginning don’t scare me like they used to. That’s the beautiful thing about facing your fears – it expands your comfort zone! But as you keep pushing yourself, you’ll find new things that have you bumping up against the edge of what’s comfortable for you. There will always be a bigger dream, a more audacious challenge, or a new risk that has you sweating just a little bit. That’s normal. Just keep chasing your passion, and you’ll be amazed at how high you fly.
2. Embrace the unknown.
In the early days of my photography career, I worried that I had no idea what I was doing. Now, I realize that none of us have all of the answers! We are all doing our best, using the tools we have, and learning as we go. If anyone tells you they have all of the answers, don’t put too much trust in that person. You won’t always know what to do next, and you’ll never know where you might end up if you take a risk. But instead of letting that be scary, let it be beautiful! Embrace the unknown and trust your heart. It won’t lead you astray.
3. Stay true to yourself.
The world of photography can bring out insecurities in the best of us, trust me. It’s so easy to look over at someone else’s editing skills, social media prowess, or latest gig and think, “I have to be more like that!” But I truly believe that would be a huge mistake. Bringing your true self to the table is magic. It helps you to stand out from other photographers, of course – but it also helps you to create work that feels true to who you are, which brings you incredible joy! I’m a sensitive and emotional gal, and I used to really dislike that about myself. But one day, it clicked for me. I was supposed to bring that emotion into my work! Once I brought the soft, free, passionate side of myself into my photos, my career totally transformed. Don’t follow the crowd or the trends – create in a way that feels true to you! Your uniqueness is one of the most important things about you.
4. Community is everything.
I mentioned that the photography world can make us insecure and competitive. Thankfully, I found the antidote to all of that – and it’s a close-knit community. It’s so important to find other creatives who will cheer you on and celebrate your growth. I was a part of some really cutthroat circles when I first started, and I absolutely hated it. I determined really early on that I was going to be the woman who championed community, building it everywhere I could. In fact, my course, The Photographer’s Path, was designed for that very thing. If you want to discover who you were meant to be as a photographer in a community that will cheer you on all the way, join the waitlist for our next enrollment in Spring 2022.
5. Never stop learning.
Here’s the thing: no matter how many years you spend in this business… you’ll never know everything. Isn’t that freeing, and even exciting? There’s always more to learn – and you can learn things in really unlikely situations. Everyone can teach you something, so always be open to learning! The Photographer’s Path community has shown me just how true this is. I’ve been inspired by every single woman in that community! I learn things from them constantly. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times, and you’ll keep learning and growing in creativity for the rest of your life.
6. Always show up.
Showing up is the best currency – it’s more valuable than almost anything else in this industry. Show up for your clients. Be prepared, be on time, and be passionate about your work. Even in the early days, when those session payments may not feel like much, it’s worth it to give 1000%. When you treat every single client the same way, you’re building a brand that is consistent. And most importantly, you’re showing up for yourself. You’re investing into your passion. And when you do that, time after time, I promise success will follow!
7. Learn to say “no.”
Unfortunately, there are people in the photography industry who will take advantage of your time, your pricing, your edits, and your expertise if they get an opportunity. If you want to build a business you’re proud of, get comfortable with saying “no” when you need to. It’s never costly to do what is right in the long run. I’ve had many people ask me to shoot for free, even when I knew I had put in years of education and work, and I deserved to get paid. I’ve also had people ask me to edit someone’s body into a much smaller size, which I disagree with for a whole slew of reasons. Even though it was uncomfortable in the moment, I said no to those things – and looking back, I’m so proud that I did. I made a commitment to myself to be fairly compensated for my work and to produce photos that are gorgeous and honest. If you make a commitment to yourself, don’t break it for anyone else.
8. Your success isn’t tied to your worth.
I saved the best for last, because I’d like to shout this from the rooftops to every single photographer in the world. You are worthy of following your dreams! Regardless of the outcome, you are worthy and loved. When we get too attached to successful outcomes, we can lose our spark and our passion. Of course, I want us all to succeed! But we have to remember that who we are does not come from what we do. When my dreams started to come true, I didn’t feel worthy of them. My life is far from perfect, but it is beautiful – and I’ve decided to be thankful for every blessing in my work and my life instead of wondering if I deserve it. I was worthy when I took that first photography class, and I’m worthy now. And wherever you might find yourself right now, you’re worthy too! Don’t be afraid to admit your big dreams to yourself, and don’t be afraid to chase them. You were made to follow your purpose.
Those are the 8 lessons I’d love to share with younger me… What about you? If you have time, I’d encourage you to write a letter to your past self or your future self, telling them about all you’ve learned along the way.