Taking Pictures, Taking Over

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

“I swear the lights weighed more than the baby and carriage put together,” she laughs, her eyes watering at the memory. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing!” She pauses, laughter overtaking the moment. “I didn’t know anything! But I was determined and I was excited.”

Morrissette had four children under the age of 9, a used camera, and a 30-year-old set of studio lighting that she didn’t know how to use or set up, hence her adventure to a camera store on Park Ave. She wanted to learn how to take good pictures of her kids, a desire that now, seven years later, has grown into a professional portrait photography business.

Her story is not unique. Thousands of women, here in Massachusetts and across the country, have walked the same path, one that less than a decade ago was barely visible, but today is practically paved. Their stories are amazingly similar: Fueled by a mix of necessity and creative desire, mothers have been picking up cameras, learning, studying, and practicing. Their actions have resulted in nothing short of a movement that has very quickly revolutionized the family and child photography business as we know it.

Many mothers, most of who set out with just the simple wish of taking better pictures of their children, have become professional photographers, opening their own busy, in-demand businesses (full- and part-time), and completely upending department stores, portrait studios and traditional professionals

“It has transformed the industry,” says Sarah Wilkerson, CEO of Clickin Moms, an online education, network, and support community of more than 16,000 professional photographers, aspiring professionals, and “women who are simply passionate about capturing the lives of their children.”

Studio Stress

Morrissette always loved photography, and from the moment her Godparents gave her a 110-film camera she never stopped taking pictures. By the time her fourth child arrived in 2007, she faced a reality many know well: trying to get the kids to a department store photo studio for a picture. For mothers, the drill has been the same for generations: a 20-minute session in front of the backdrop of your choice, the appointment made weeks in advance. Her mission: to get a 9-year-old, 7-year-old, 4-year-old and newborn dressed, fed, transported, clean and camera ready, all on time and ready to smile wide.

“It didn’t go well,” she recalls. “They were running behind schedule and I’m on a schedule, too, trying to keep four kids happy, clean, fed. It was a fiasco. I didn’t end up buying pictures and it was very disappointing. I’m, like, There’s gotta be a better way.”

When a friend suggested she hire a photographer to come to her, the Whitinsville mother had one reaction: “Who does that? I don’t have that kind of money.” Yet when a photographer was recommended, she gave it a try. The person came to her house toting backgrounds and lights, “everything you had in a studio.” She sat back and watched the photographer work, the experience leaving her with one exciting thought: “I can do that. I can totally do that.”

Necessity, Photography, and Motherhood

Necessity also opened the door 12 years ago for Worcester’s Lynn Quinlivan. She was 40 weeks pregnant with her first child when she showed up at her scheduled maternity photo shoot, only to have them refuse to take her picture.

“We can’t because you’re portrayed as nude,” they told her, despite the fact she had explained in advance that she wanted “artistic, beautiful, maternity images” with her pregnant stomach exposed, but the rest of her body tastefully draped and covered.

“I am not!” she recalls, still incredulous at how it all went down. “I am 40 weeks pregnant, you could have told me this before!” The clock ticking on her dream of maternity pictures, Quinlivan began searching for someone to fulfill her vision. “It was difficult to find a photographer back then.”

She called the only one she knew: the man who took her high school senior portrait. He referred her to another photographer, who accepted the job. “When I saw how they came out and I saw his setups I thought, I could definitely do that and I definitely like it.”

From childhood, Quinlivan was the family photographer thanks to a Pentax given to her by an aunt. “I was always the one behind the camera,” she says. “I’ve taken family pictures forever. Everybody thought I was annoying, at the dinner table, Thanksgiving, Christmas.”

Sparked by her maternity photo shoot, she soon began honing her skills on her children, now 11 and 7, in addition to working as an ICU nurse in Worcester. “I learned everything trial and error, Internet searches,” she says. “A very long learning process.”

“The Internet was my teacher,” Morrissette echoes. Other mothers turned pros cite online and in-person workshops, mentors, YouTube, tutorials, photography clubs and discussion forums as the building blocks for their new passion.

When family and friends began to see the results, Quinlivan said requests soon followed: family portraits, newborn shots, Christmas card pictures — a common side effect with budding photographers.

“At the time, Facebook was really growing,” says Morrissette, who owns Veronica Morrissette Photography. “[My kids’ pictures] weren’t awesome but they were better than what I used to take. It grew from taking pictures of my kids, to my nephews and nieces, to my friends because people were asking, ‘Would you take my kids’ pictures?’ This whole time it was a learning process, too. I’m taking kids’ pictures for free but I was learning at the same time: lighting, posing, how to deal with the parents, how to deal with the kids. There’s just so much.”

“After my first was born I was on maternity leave with nothing to do but take pictures of this little baby. They’re god-awful pictures,” laughs mother of three Laura Shachmut of Shachmut Photography in Newton. “They’re terrible. At that point I didn’t know a thing. We all thought those pictures were amazing, we’d post them on Facebook, and everybody says, ‘Oh, your pictures are amazing!’ even though they were terrible.”

The Decision To Go Pro

For many, this is a time of skill building, which leads to portfolio and equipment building, which leads to a decision when requests from family, friends, and friends of friends begin to mount: Do I want to open a business? Whether it’s full- or part-time, these pros say establishing a business was a major, wide-ranging decision and commitment that surprised them.

“A lot of moms want to become photographers. I’m also finding a few years after making that decision they’re realizing it’s more than they thought,” says Keri Gavin, a mother of two, owner of Keri Jeanne Photography in Essex, and a former first-grade teacher with a Masters in Education.

She began studying and improving her skills after the birth of her first son. The two things she always had with her: the baby and the camera. Like many, she began fueled by a love of photography, not a yearning to become a small business owner. The eventual growth into a full-time business? “It was by accident, very much.”

It may surprise clients but the actual photography is a criminally small part of a photography business, the women say.

“It’s 90% business, 10% shooting,” Gavin notes. “That was a huge shock to me. You get into it for the love of it, but you find out that’s not what you’re doing. It was a lot of 2 a.m. nights of editing, tired the next day. It was just so much of the business side I didn’t know. It’s harder than working for someone else at a 9 to 5 because you wear every hat. It was definitely a struggle initially.”

“You wear all the hats and you’ve got to figure it all out,” Morrissette adds.

In addition to the actual picture-taking, photographers/small business owners are responsible for editing the images, delivering them to clients, accounting, invoicing, banking, marketing, advertising, scheduling, responding to potential client queries, Website design and maintenance, continuing education and more.

To balance the demands with their full-time duties as “Mom” — or other full-time jobs — some, like Quinlivan and Gavin, hire assistants to handle specific duties and preserve work-life balance. Others, like Morrissette and Shachmut, a full-time school psychologist, limit their shooting to part-time or weekends.

“I went to school for nursing, that’s what I thought I would be,” Quinlivan says. “But now I’m a nurse-photographer. Nurse-ographer.” She pauses and chuckles. “Nurse-mom-ographer?”

“I see people doing it part time, most of them are moms with kids and they want to be home for certain things,” Morrissette says. “[This] gives you the flexibility to do that.”

‘Momarazzi’ & Other Misconceptions

Clickin Moms’s Wilkerson says a combination of factors merged at just the right time to spark the mother-turned-professional-photographer movement: improved technology, dropping camera prices, and the rise and now ubiquity of social media.

“There’s no denying it, there is this culture of image sharing,” she says. “Photography is central to your life whether you like it or not. There’s no getting around it and social media is almost totally responsible for that.”

This wave of new photographers also means more competition for long-standing photo studios and traditionally trained photographers.

“What we learned and saw very quickly was a lot of resentment,” Wilkerson notes. “What we were hearing, the industry message to these moms felt like, ‘You’re ruining the industry, you moms with your cameras! You’re putting studios out of business!’”

The dismissiveness of some lead to the derogatory MWAC acronym: Mom With A Camera, as well as “Momtographer” or “Momarazzi.”

“They use it to insult women, which is sad — that you attach the word ‘mom’ and now you’re something less,” she says.

While there were — and are — varying different levels of skills, styles, and price points, Wilkerson has a theory as to what exactly is rankling the traditionally trained.

“With a lot of the moms the work was very good and I think that’s where a lot of the real resentment came in,” she says. “It was very easy to point the finger at the moms who were shooting in Auto and didn’t understand white balance and exposure and were charging $30 for a disc of 200 images. It was very easy to make that person your scapegoat, but what’s not easy is the woman who has it down, who has a great eye for photography, who can really draw out emotions and connections, and she’s, dare I say it, better than the man in the photography studio. That’s the person who is elevating the industry but, yes, taking the jobs away and taking the money away from the people in the studio. That’s who they’re scared of.”

The Mother/Photographer Advantage

Mothers turned pros have not only affected the competitive landscape of family, portrait, and wedding photography, but also the styles of each.

“[Portrait] photography was so stagnant in style for a long time,” Morrissette says. [My now 7-year-old’s] newborn shot was a sea of teddy bears! That was the background, and I loved it because that was then. But I look back [now] and I think, I can’t even see the baby! But at the time…”

For years newborn photography was represented by whimsical Anne Geddes coffee table books featuring infants dressed up as bees or flowers. Today the next generation of newborn photography is available to all, not just restricted to those families lucky enough to have their child captured in print by a world-famous photographer.

Many families and photographers are eschewing the studio and its bright lights, taking the action outside to a variety of locations and crisp, natural lighting. Waning is the identically matched family posed in front of sand dunes in favor of casual, spontaneous, shots of families just being themselves.

“The stiff, typical, old-fashioned portraits? Nobody wants that anymore,” Morrissette says. “People want more natural. I think that’s what opened up the whole market for new photographers. You don’t need the expense of a studio, as far as lighting because people want more natural lights, more natural expressions — ‘Catch me doing this.’ Those are the pictures you end up loving. It’s often the in-between takes you end up loving because it really shows the personality of whoever you’re photographing.”

“That’s what got me into photography mostly — the emotional aspect of it,” Quinlivan adds. “I love capturing emotion: genuine emotion, no cheesy smiles. We do it so it’s fun for the families.”

Says Gavin: “I pour my heart into this time. It’s the most important thing you have and you’re never going to get it back. Whether it’s a newborn session or first birthday, I am so honored to be there that I want you to have these moments. For me, it’s looking through the camera as a mom and [thinking] ‘What would I want to remember?’”

Others say being a mother gives a good professional photographer an edge because she can, without words, instinctively deliver for the client, who most likely is also a mom.

“I think that they go into it with an eye of capturing the way they would capture their own kids,” Wilkerson says. “It’s very emotional and it’s very much about the connection and getting into the soul more than just what’s on their face. It’s moms selling to moms and I think that’s the big part of why this revolution has been so powerful because when you understand the kind of pictures they want to have, you can market to them more effectively. And you can sell to them more effectively, so there is a real advantage for the moms who are selling to moms.”

“It’s a whole new skill set you bring to the table,” she continues. “Putting ‘mom’ in your bio as a photographer, that should not be looked at as a downgrade. It’s what helps you to resonate with clients.”

“When you see a photograph, you feel emotion,” Quinlivan adds. “I feel like mothers connect with other mothers on that level because it’s the mother in you.”

Parents: Avoid This Critical Digital Photo Mistake

While digital technology has allowed parents to get amazing pictures of their children, either with their own camera or via a professional, the majority of parents are making one major mistake.

“Nobody prints anything anymore,” notes Keri Gavin of Keri Jeanne Photography in Essex. “I am so passionate about printing. [Digital photography is] convenient, it’s great, but I’m worried for our grandchildren — what are they going to have [to look at]?”

Today’s hard drives, memory cards, or smartphones have become the 21st century equivalent of your parents’ drawer full of photos. Your parents may not have put them all in albums, but at least they were printed out.

“Some of my favorite memories growing up is walking to the store, getting the roll of film back, and looking at all the outtakes and the blurry ones,” Gavin says. “Our kids are never going to have that. They have the picture-perfect image every time — and that’s even if it gets printed.”

Gavin urges parents to start printing out those pictures and holds the act in such high regard it’s something she covers with clients. “When clients come to me one of their first question is when can they get the digital files? And one of my next questions is, ‘But what are you going to do with them?’”

And she also encourages Moms to get out from behind the camera. “Whether you want to lose 10 pounds or get your haircut or whatever it is, get in your own photos so you can show your kids you’re in their life,” she urges.