From Film School to Pet Portraits: How I Found My Passion and Became A Professional Photographer

March 22, 2024

The road to me becoming a photographer has been a long, bumpy one with many detours, slow downs, and wrong turns.

In the beginning, I wasn't planning on becoming a photographer. I got accepted into film school in California (I'm from a small town in Minnesota- very different worlds). I had stars in my eyes thinking I was going to make movies and grand things would happen. But after going to film school for over a year, I realized I didn't want to be in the movie industry. I don't do well working in huge groups with tons of people and being a small part of a big project. I'm too much of a loner and control freak.

After that realization, I pivoted hard into photography.

I learned how to take a decent picture and was told I had a good eye. But I was also cripplingly shy. I didn't know much about how to become a professional photographer and was too afraid to ask, so after I graduated college, I bummed around. Moved from California to Colorado, worked menial jobs. Basically, did everything I could to put off trying to start a career.

When I moved to Charleston, SC in 2013 I knew something had to change. I knew it was time for me to build something of value instead of running away all the time.

But all I knew is I liked to take pictures. What kind of pictures did I want to take? How do I get paid to do it? How do I get clients?

I had no idea.

While I was asking myself these questions, I started a job at a doggy daycare in Charleston. For fun, I would bring in my camera while I was out in the yard with the dogs and play around with taking pictures of them. Occasionally I posted them on the daycare's Facebook page, but I mainly did it for myself. As most of us know, trying to take a picture of a dog is FREAKING difficult, especially when there are a lot of distractions around. But I loved the challenge and eventually (without realizing it) developed a certain style of taking pictures.

I took a lot at once. Like A LOT. Dogs move fast so I would pretty much hold my finger down on the shutter to capture them in motion. Most of these photos would be garbage, but out of a hundred photos I'd get at least one good one. This may seem irrelevant, but this style I stumbled on is actually the basis of how I still take photos. Even to this day, during a session with people, I still take a ton of photos. I like to capture all the spontaneity and the in- between of poses.

I'm not saying this is the best method, but it's mine.

Taking photos of dogs for enjoyment eventually turned into my doing Holiday Pet Portraits annually at the daycare. People would sign their dogs up for me to dress them in their Christmas best and take their portrait. It has become very popular and every year it gets bigger and bigger.

During this time I also started branching out and taking photos of my friends. Which then turned into doing an engagement session- my first real photo shoot. I got paid and everything. That shoot gave me a little more clarity on the path I could take as a photographer... I could take photos of people and get paid. Who knew?

I never really thought that this was something I would do. First of all, I'm an introvert. Second of all, I wasn't known for my people skills. I didn't think my personality type could build a thriving photography business based around networking and making people feel comfortable in front of the camera. But I also felt that I was meant for more. I wanted a career doing something creative but that also challenged me and made me grow as a person.

So what's your next step when you have no idea what you're doing?

I did any little thing I could think of toget my name out there. I offered people free photo sessions so I could practice. I rented booths at events and did a raffle for a free shoot. I passed out business cards, created a website, and placed flyers around town. I'm not much of a social media person, but I knew that was a big way to get my new business recognized. So I created socials under my new business name.

Little Runaway Photography

This was a name I came up with at a bar one random night when I was maybe 22. I was with a friend who asked me "What animal would you be if you could be anything?" to which I responded, " A wild horse". He followed that with "What would be your name?" and from somewhere unknown, it just came to me, "Little Runaway." It just felt right.

Above are photos I took during my travels before I came to Charleston. The photo of the horses is one I took in Colorado while I was working summers at a ranch. The other two are from the time I spent in New Zealand. I used to mainly focus on nature photography.

I wish I could say that building up my business and becoming a better photographer were my top priorities for the first few years after I decided to start Little Runaway Photography. But no, I was working full-time at the daycare and also working odd jobs to get by. And mostly I was struggling internally with a lot of self doubt and low self esteem.

I was kind of a mess, to be honest.

I knew I wanted to be a better photographer and I knew I didn't want to struggle to get by anymore. But getting my name out there just wasn't happening—at least not at a rate I was happy with. Which then made my self-esteem and frustration worse. What I see now that I didn't see then is that not only did I need to grow as a photographer and businesswoman, but I needed to grow as a person. That may seem obvious, but at the time, it wasn't.

All of the insecurities and doubts that kept me moving forward on a personal level are what were keeping me stuck on EVERY level. It wasn't until 2019, a year that humbled me on many levels (but that's a whole other story), that I finally started getting honest with myself about the fact that I was allowing my fear to keep me from truly thriving as a photographer.

I think fear is the main reason most people don't go after the things they truly want. Fear of rejection, failure, shame, embarrassment...we all have them. And they all come out in different ways, at different times, for different reasons. I thought I was brave because I moved all over the country by myself and "went after" a career in the arts that made me light up inside. But what I had to admit to myself was that—yes, I may have been brave in doing those things, but putting my work out there, truly being seen for who I am—that's where I was a big coward. That's where I had work to do on myself.

And so I did. Or at least I tried to. Healing your emotional wounds is a messy process. To be honest, I'll probably never stop trying to heal them, just like I'll never stop trying to grow as a photographer and a person. I won't say that I have it all together now, but I do think I'm on the right track and a lot closer than I used to be.

I did eventually raise my prices, quit all other jobs I had, and am now focusing all my attention on my future as a creative. Which also means setting a lot of boundaries with clients and my work. I used to accept any photography job someone would offer me and I would do it for cheap. Now, that I'm aware of my worth as an artist and person, I'm much more picky about what jobs I take and how much I get paid.

The top photos are from my very first paid session, with my two wonderful friends Ean and Sam for their engagement photos. I have done many sessions over the years with them since. My most recent being Sam's maternity photo shoot this winter, 7 years later.

I like to think that I have gotten a lot better since that first session. Of course, it helps that Sam and Ean are extremely photogenic and don't take a bad picture. But not only has my equipment been upgraded (which helps the quality of the images), but after working with hundreds of people and taking thousands of pictures, I've become so much more comfortable and confident. Something I was seriously lacking before.

I can't say how exactly I ended up here—what decision or action I took that led to me being much more comfortable with the uncertainty about where I'm headed. Before, the feeling of lack of control I had was one of the things smothering me. But I assume it was a combination of all the things, good and bad, that taught me something. I think I finally understand that we never really have control, even when we think we do. The best we can do is know who we are and what we want and make the best decisions we can with that.

Even when I wasn't sure which direction my photography career was gonna go, I always knew that I wanted to be the absolute best version of myself. Someone who fought for what they believed in, didn't give in to fear, and who could see all the beauty and adventures that life brings.

Putting in the effort to improve, practicing as much as possible, and always trying to take photos I'm proud of were what got me through the long stretches of no clients or the long hours of working a day job I wasn't happy at. Plus, the fact that I love photography and can't image doing anything else.

Now, what I'm working towards is adding more travel, adventure and authenticity into my photography. I've transitioned my photography focus towards authentic branding photography and retreats and have absolutely loved it. I've also gotten to keep my animal photography alive by working for the Charleston Animal Society taking photos of adoptable dogs.

As I grow and thrive, I want my photography to grow and thrive. What that's going to look like in a few years, I have no clue. If you had told me all those years ago when I went to film school that I'd end up being a photographer in Charleston, SC for a living I wouldn't have believed you. But I can't wait to find out what the future holds and I'm thankful to have been taken on this wild journey.