Leah O'Connell

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6 shifts that helped me grow my family photography business | Photo Fuel Ep 05

I'm Leah!

I’m obsessed with stories of family, creativity, and simple joys.  A nostalgia nerd, educator, wife, and mom of 3, I believe life’s most fun when you’re dreaming big and having kitchen dance parties. 

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Over the 10+ years I’ve been in business, there are 6 shifts I can point to that significantly helped me grow my photography business.

A lot of times, when people share their business origin stories, we get the beginning hardship and grind then fastforward to the end when it all worked out and they have a happy healthy business. But there’s a lot of the story that gets skipped and it’s important to learn from both the hurdles and the shifts that helped that growth along the way. 

In this episode, I’ll share the 6 major shifts that have made an impact in the growth of my family photography business over the last decade. Walk away with fresh ideas for an open mindset and avenues that could support and accelerate your ability to love what you do and how you do it. 

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Links mentioned in this episode:

The Big Picture Workbook (10 prompts for better clarity and direction in your business)
Sprout Studio free month
The firefly letters
My school photography page
Episode 1 : Uncover your mission and values as a family photographer


Hey, and welcome to Photo Fuel.

I’m Leah O’Connell, and this is a podcast specifically for family photographers, all about the swirl of vision, art, and business.

Through stories, interviews, and 20 years of experience in the family photography industry, I want to help you pack your creative toolbox to work smarter and to build confidence that will fuel both your sessions and your life.

This podcast will help you fan your own flame towards doing more of what you love and loving how you do it.

Let’s get started.

Hi, hello, welcome.

Welcome back to Photo Fuel.

Today, I’m going to share a humongous packed episode of ideas and experiences.

And maybe I’m throwing the kitchen sink at you, but the heart behind this is that a lot of times I hear business owners share the origin story and then fast forward, skip, skip, skip, skip, skip.

I worked really hard and it started to snowball and now here we are.

And it’s like, whoa, wait a second, whiplash.

Or at the beginning, we get all of the origin story.

Then I worked really hard, hit massive burnout, almost quit, totally changed everything.

And now here we are.

And wow, there’s just so much in that middle ground that I feel like we miss and have questions about.

So that’s what we’re tackling today.

Something that I’m really proud of is that while my business has grown really slowly over what some might consider a long period of time, I have built a really strong, thriving business, and I’ve done it foundationally without burnout in almost 20 years of photographing families.

I have definitely experienced points of tension, and that’s where a lot of the shifts that I’m gonna share with you have come from.

But I’ve made it a point to recognize and be aware and part of the reason that it has worked is because I have been going slowly.

When you’re running so fast, you miss the tension and you just get sucked into it.

So when you’re growing slowly, you have the ability to notice when things aren’t working and to make changes.

So instead of stewing over the tensions and letting them build up and overwhelm and crash me down, I’ve been able to tune into my mistakes and to my shortcomings, and then I work to do something about it.

And honestly, if I could go back and do it again, I don’t think that I needed to grow as slowly as I have.

If I had been a little bit more quick to notice and act instead of sinking into the fear, that’s been a skill that I have really exercised, that muscle memory of, oh, that’s the fear, okay, and we’re not gonna sit here for very much longer.

I’ve been able to accelerate the growth curve because of that.

So hopefully the knowledge of these things that I’m gonna share with you will help kind of perk you up into the potential for some of those shifts in your business as well.

Over time, these shifts have built upon each other to not just help me get seen, but to get hired.

And they’ve helped me learn and grow as an artist and a business owner to refine my work and to refine my message to help me run a full-time profitable business in part-time hours while growing my family.

And that sounds like this unicorn dream, but it’s not.

And it’s also not like I’ve arrived, because spoiler alert, there’s no end to this if you want to be a growing, changing artist.

And that is the nature of artistry, is that as we grow and have experiences as human beings, our art and our businesses will evolve as well.

So I’m not standing here on a high horse telling you like, come on up, this is where the view is perfect and easy, because I’m always going to be in growth mode.

And I hope that for you too.

So I’m excited about this six shifts that I have made over the past decade that have been pivotal points in the exponential growth of my business.

Number one, okay, strategic blogging.

Eww, fine, yes, roll your eyes, hear me out.

Okay, this is something you can do that your future self will thank you for.

Yes, there are brilliant photographers who do not blog at all, but that does not mean that they have never blogged.

I have had blog sites.

My first blog was on, was it Blogspot that I would blog.

No one can get to that site anymore.

It doesn’t exist.

You can’t find those things.

Maybe if you’re a real sleuth, you could.

And now I’m gonna point you towards my earliest worst writing.

But if you’re slow, if you are trying to build in a new city, if you are trying to pull your SEO up to become an established business in your area or for a specific niche, blogging is not dead.

In fact, it is like the queen resource for search engines to find what you’re talking about and what you’re all about.

It’s how Google can like direct people who are interested in what you’re making towards what you’re making.

So that is one of the ways that I started because I just kept consistently blogging.

And some of those old blog posts that I have written years and years ago are still resources that I’m regularly referring leads and clients to from as far back as 2016 that I have recently updated.

That’s the thing.

Like it can be a living, growing resource.

It’s not like you write it and then you never talk about it again.

I view blogging as a way that I can establish a spot for this information within my larger sphere of influence.

So blog posts with a purpose, they can exist as a way to share your expertise, as a way to share your variety, as a way to help you connect with more people.

A couple of mine that have done really well are favorite locations for family photography sessions in my area, things to do in my area with kids.

So this is again, not even related to photography, but I’ll send this link to inquiries when they have reached out for extended family sessions or people who are traveling into my area.

I’ll add it as a post note, just be like, here’s all the information about my sessions.

But also if you’re traveling to the area, this might be a really helpful resource to you.

And it’s just a way of bridging the gap between like, hey, I know more about this.

So this is my heart.

You get to know me a little bit more.

Let’s kind of dig past the transaction a little bit.

And it creates a bit more of a bond with people and gives them more access to dig into my work for an ulterior motive.

And in doing so, they’re introduced more to my photos, to locations that I work in, to my methodology and the way that I work.

And it just has been really, really helpful.

I also have a post about taking family photos with your dog and tips for that, because a lot of times people will ask, do you photograph with pets?

Can we bring our family dog?

And I wanted to be really clear that, yeah, I’m into it.

So anything that you want more of, you can blog about.

And that has been such a foundational part of my business because it’s one of those longstanding pillars that you are not gonna see results from right away.

But when you’re in it for the long game, we’ll come back to serve you tenfold.

And yeah, not just in the search.

So take it away from that.

Like you’re also blogging for your clients who have hired you.

You’re supporting your client experience, the whole process, lead, preparation and delivery, ordering any of those pieces that you have in your business, you can blog about.

Not only does it help reduce the time that you’re spent and answering questions, because you can just direct people to a blog post, but it helps your clients understand your expertise in an area and have confidence in like, oh, she’s dealt with this before.

She has a quick answer for me.

I’m not waiting for her to figure out the answer.

She’s already thought about this before.

So I think that there’s a lot behind strategic blogging that is more than SEO, but the SEO is definitely a huge one for how my business has been able to grow in my area.

And that’s something that I started again, like way back 20.

I mean, I was blogging, not really for my business, but like way back in 2012 and writing on the internet.

But then more strategically, when I made that shift towards like, I’m gonna create resources that are helpful for the people that I wanna work with around 2016.

And I noticed that it really started to amplify both the people who were able to find me and the way that I worked with those people.

The second major shift that I did was entering into school photography as a marketing avenue.

So school photography was a major contributing factor towards the early snowball effect of my business, because I had started learning and thinking about it as an avenue for connecting with ideal clients.

How can I get in front of more families?

But I didn’t have any schools asking me for this service, and I wanted to be really particular.

I didn’t want to just photograph schools.

I didn’t want that to be my thing.

I just wanted to use it as a marketing avenue.

So I was kind of noodling around and what that would look like.

And maybe it was happens dance, or maybe it was simply the act of moving on the idea and putting my yes on the table to learn about it and begin creating a process for this type of thing before I really had answers for it.

But while I was learning about it and I was deciding how I could market and how I could implement it, a local branch of three daycares reached out for exactly this type of service.

And it was only because I had already started preparing for it that I was able to one, readily respond with a yes that was confident and clear, and two, to actually be able to communicate what I brought to the table for that service.

We’re gonna do it outside.

We are gonna be playful and no props or lighting or anything like that.

So I had a framework for how I wanted to do it, and that established me from the get-go as not a responder, but a tone setter.

We talk about this in the first episode as well, the mission and values about not being a waiter or waitress, but being the chef.

So because I had already started thinking about it and planning my process and my vision around it, I knew why I wanted to do it.

I was able to start off on a good foot and continue down that path with success.

So it was a lot of work in the first year or two to iron out the kinks and figure out the process and stuff.

But every season it has gotten easier and easier to execute and refine.

And for someone who loves photographing children, it’s really fun too, because I find it to be such a wonderful way to flex my muscles of connecting with children and get better equipped at seeing them clearly quickly and using the correct prompts, using the correct language, backing off when needed, finding ways to shoot in different light if the kid is not wanting to stand exactly where I want them to stand.

Finding ways to make beautiful portraits of every kid is a skill.

And I think that has served me really well as a photographer for families.

So since that initial branch, I am still working with them.

I’ve also taken on two other private schools and one larger Montessori school in different seasons through direct persistent marketing outreach, through email, through snail mail.

I’ve kind of puzzled these places together.

And the real kicker here is the connection that it opens up to so many families who I never would have reached otherwise.

Now I photograph families at a low volume, high price point.

So I’m not really looking for a hundred families from every school to say yes and want to hire me.

That’s okay.

Sometimes I just need to cast the net out a little wider and differentiate myself.

So it’s important that the school model isn’t so drastically different from my regular offerings that it’s misaligned and that takes some tweaking.

But these families get to have that direct contact to working with me, to my personality, to my level of service and relatability.

All the traffic for school photos drives directly through my website.

They get to see my face.

They get on my website.

Also bonus helps with SEO because they’re hanging out there and they’re reading things and they’re poking around.

They’re getting invited to my newsletter.

So they get that interaction with who I am as a person and what I can offer them that they might not have ever considered before.

It has been such a beautiful natural flow of lead generation because it’s marketing that’s based around shooting and connecting and serving versus showboating.

You know, like it’s just human connection, which is the main point.

That’s one of my core values is excellent service and more than just a transaction, but like seeing and honoring people.

So when I get to do that, I’m in alignment with my business marketing and with my larger offers.

Okay, the third shift that has helped me grow in my family photography business has been shifting from a in-person sales model to a virtual sales model.

So to me, it’s always been important to include printed product in my offerings.

So for the longest time, I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that in a way that was actually helpful and profitable for my time and business, because I wasn’t interested in going to people’s homes and measuring their walls and hanging large frames.

I didn’t really value that myself, and I just couldn’t get on board with it.

I didn’t want to spend the extra time walking people through their galleries one-on-one.

I knew as a consumer what my preferences were, and I felt like it was important to be in integrity with that.

It’s very hard to sell something.

It’s a selling experience or a product that you don’t 100% really get or align with that you wouldn’t be on board with yourself.

So when I decided to shift my workflow to a virtual sales model, it eliminated so much stress and extra steps for both me and my client.

It took my operation into such a more streamlined place.

Both my bookings and my sales increased.

Because there was less red tape, there was less friction in the whole process.

And people, I feel I could understand.

It was very clear what they were getting, what the process was.

There was familiarity there.

And so it just took the friction away.

And in my process, every client has a print credit included in their collection that they purchased.

So they can use it however they want.

There’s no packages, there’s no minimums.

There’s no red tape around what they’re allowed to get and not allowed to get.

As long as it’s within the shop, it’s available to them.

And I’ve curated my shop to finite amount of quality products.

So that feels good.

And it works well for everyone in this particular stage of my business.

A good CRM has really helped me do this.

I use Sprout Studio from beginning to end of my client experience.

So the moment somebody inquires through their contact form to the ordering of their products, they’re in the same system.

They view their photos in there.

They order their products in there.

And so everything, all that whole workflow lives in one place, which is incredibly helpful for streamlining things.

And yeah, it’s just made the amount of time that I’m required to spend per client way down, which increases your profits, because one way to give yourself an immediate raise is to spend less time working.

So I’ll add a link in the show notes for trying out Sprout.

If you’re interested, you can try it out for 21 days for free.

And if you love it, then you get 20% off of your annual subscription, which is a huge bonus.

I just really believe that when clients are happy with their experience, referrals go up, just by natural engagement, by natural law.

Like when people like something, they talk about it.

It’s a natural evolution.

So if you don’t have a ton of people yet, that’s actually an excellent time to get your systems and processes in place to figure out the foundations of what you’re building and why.

And then to really make that excellent for the few people that you do have because that ripple effect can really spread quickly when you’ve got it locked in.

Okay, moving on.

The fourth major shift that I did was to hire a designer.

And this is an interesting one because, okay, so a little history.

The first seven years of my business, I DIY-ed everything.

I tinkered with really shoddy logos and colors.

Nothing ever really fit the vibe I was going for because I’m not a designer.

I’m not particularly a stylish person to begin with.

I don’t really have a clear personal style, I’d say.

I just have never been that one who had a real eye for that side of things.

So I wanted something that felt professional but also approachable, and I was just really missing the mark.

And I realized that I wasn’t building any kind of brand awareness because I kept changing everything so often.

So when I finally made the move to invest in a simple brand package, I bit off a small chunk.

So it’s not like I invested in a huge overhaul or brand design or anything.

I went to Upwork and it was way less expensive than I expected.

It was like under $500.

It took one to two weeks total to walk through this process.

And I found someone who came up with colors and a logo and variations of that logo to use in different areas, font pairings that worked well together.

And honestly, it was really less about the actual brand assets and more about the clarity that it took me to communicate to someone else what I actually wanted my business to look like and feel like.

And that collaboration required me to do that and then to see someone else’s interpretation of it.

Letting someone else into your business seems like a scary thing at first, but it’s actually so incredibly eye-opening and wonderful because we just have such blind spots towards our own work and our own weaknesses.

And when someone can come in and say, this is my visual interpretation of what you were saying, it’s like, oh, okay, well, either yes, I’m very into it, or like, no, that wasn’t, this isn’t how I want my business to look and feel.

There’s a misalignment and that’s helpful too.

So I think that that shift ignited a little bit of a snowball in my web presence because up to this point, I was using free Squarespace plans.

I was spending a lot of time tinkering with my site and not really having any real path or plan for it or consistency like I mentioned.

So having that brand package gave me kind of a starting point for cohesiveness and almost made me like put my big girl pants on and say like, I am a business.

I am a brand.

I want my business to look and feel this way.

And it had some clarity and direction and that instigated an upleveling of my website and of my brand presence as a whole.

And I did not nail it right away.

It definitely started an understanding of the importance of that consistency and a brand look that you really jive with and that is speaking the same language.

I also think that it helped me gain some confidence in charging higher prices because you can’t hide behind flashy stuff and shiny things like logos and websites.

The work and the experience always shines through.

It’s always going to come through.

But that said, having a certain level of design and professionalism around that definitely helps make sure that people get to that stuff in the first place.

Because if the packaging is all disjointed and hard to navigate and unclear or messy or looks sort of amateur, they’re never gonna actually get to see the real work that you do, which is the photos.

And so it has to all sort of align.

And I think that that shift towards committing to a brand look and feel was incredibly helpful in leveling up my business.

All right, moving on.

I started communicating with my actual voice.

Hi, instead of my professional businessy voice.

Ultimately, this led to the start of my newsletter, the Firefly Letters.

And here’s how that evolution went.

I got tired of being so stuck up.

Early on, let me back up.

I was really desperate to be taken seriously.

I mentioned that I started my business very young.

I was 23 when I began my business officially, quote unquote.

And I had no idea what I was doing.

I was constantly over explaining and over rationalizing my work to compensate for that lack of experience.

Honestly, I should have waited.

I should have really tried to better my skills and tutored under people, mentored under some strong influences before starting my business at all.

But I didn’t, I just jumped right in.

So that’s another story.

But I thought that if I sounded put together, then people would trust me more.

That if I sounded older or more, I guess, professional, that people would trust me more.

And trust is such a big thing.

Striking the balance though between professional trust and personal trust is hard to do, especially as an artist and especially as a family photographer, because all of these lines are very blurry, and we need to have both.

We need to earn their trust as potentially a stranger stumbling upon your work via Google and someone who people can deeply align with, especially when you’re charging higher rates, because if you’re working in higher volume and you’re okay with more quick exchanges, then that doesn’t really require vulnerability as much, but it does require that professionalism that you demonstrate trust in your predictability and a clear offer and a deliverable.

But when you start moving into asking more of a commitment from your people personally, emotionally, financially, you also need to put that down.

And in my experience, that looks like building brand loyalty, building more than just pretty pictures.

And it often circles around your willingness to talk and write and share about more than pretty pictures.

So if you haven’t listened to that first episode on Mission and Values, go back and listen to that for more about the conversation around clarity and defining what you’re after.

Because building that business that fits with how you ultimately want to engage as a business owner, what your strengths are, what your heart is really after in all of this, that is just, that’s so crucial.

I have also created a little free workbook-ish thing for you with some of these clarifying questions.

There’s 10 prompts that you can journal about to help guide your thinking about what your next thing might be, and more importantly, what your drive is as you build a photography business around your inspirations and gifts.

You can grab that in the links in the description of this episode’s show notes.

Okay, but back to how that all spills into communicating.

Once I had that more professional brand block underneath of me with the design, with a big girl website, it’s almost like I kind of had the confidence to loosen up a little bit with the rest of it, because I was like, look, I’m professional in all of the logistics.

You can trust me on that because here’s the proof.

And now I’m gonna show you that I’m trustworthy as a human being in which we can pull the logistics into that.

And then also you can loosen up a little bit too.

And that I feel like was a hard shift to get to.

And one that is evolving.

This is something that is more nuanced and something that I’m still continually working on.

Like I said, my newsletter has been the way that I primarily do this.

And that was started just a year ago.

So I’ve been using email marketing for years, but it was only in 2023 that I started a real strategy of being more human, if that makes any sense.

Like I was trying to use that kind of copy on my website, but the newsletter is where it’s really hidden home, is where people are really able to sink in with me.

And I feel like my best leads and my real best conversions happen when people are coming from my newsletter.

Oh, okay, this is the last one.

This one is brief because we touched on it in the last episode, episode three, Betting on Yourself.

This one has been an enormous game changer, and that is investing in higher level education.

No surprise here.

We’re talking about going beyond PDFs and presets, beyond those quickie little resources, but like true mentorship with people I admire who are doing things that I aspire to in ways that I respect.

I am thorough, but I am not slow to the trigger of hiring when I know that someone has experience and depth of knowledge to help me, because those investments, they give me an avenue to talk through things.

And when you are a solopreneur, and the only person that you’re talking through your ideas with is your partner, or maybe a small business circle in your community or something like that, or a Facebook group, you’re not really getting that individualized support with somebody who knows the inner depths of your business and your industry.

And it is such a game changer.

It really is.

Until you have experienced what that collaboration can do in a healthy mentorship environment, there’s no real way to explain it other than it’s just so empowering and is one of the biggest shifts.

When I finally, like all of the early education that I did was also helpful.

And investing in any education, again, we talk about this in episode three, is productive towards the social proof of yourself.

But I would say that the major shift happened whenever I decided to invest larger commitments of both my time and investment into the betterment of my business, because the growth matched.

The growth matched the investment that I made.

So if you wanna see enormous leaps in your work and your efficiency and your artistry and all those things, it’s going to come from the larger container of support, community, influence and encouragement that comes from having somebody else in your corner.

Okay, so that’s the six major shifts that have helped me the most in growing my family photography business over the last decade.

Remember though, wherever you are in your journey, it is a process, and it’s just making one smart decision at a time.

It’s learning from your challenges and noticing that noticing your tensions and being willing to be open towards the shifts is what all of these shifts came from.

And when you are ready to make shifts in your own business, the openness and the growth mindset of being willing to make a shift in the first place is going to be pivotal towards your growth because that is really where people stop.

There’s like a ceiling when we’re not willing to go past the discomfort.

And whenever you’re willing to make a shift, no matter how small it is to take those little risks, that is where you’re gonna see reward and just learning.

Even if it fails, even if it’s a complete flop and didn’t go well, you’re moving and that matters.

Okay, that’s it.

That’s all six.

Let’s do a quick recap.

Those six major shifts for me were one, strategic blogging, two, exploring school photography as a marketing avenue, three, shifting my workflow to a virtual sales model, four, hiring my first designer, five, communicating with my real voice instead of my professional business-y one, and number six was investing in higher level education.

If you think that you might be ready for that leap, that shift in your own business, reach out about mentoring with me.

I would love to talk through some of the things that you journal on in your Big Picture Workbook that you can download from the show notes.

If you feel like you have more questions and answers after that, if you feel like you already have a starting point, but you’re a little stuck, if you feel like you need a shift, but you’re not quite sure what it is yet or how to get there, I am pumped.

I would just be so thrilled to help you get untangled and that that is what mentorship is all about.

The first step is a free 30 minute call and we’ll connect and see if there is a path towards working together that can help you get moving in a direction that feels exciting for you and your business.

Okay, that is it for this episode.

I hope this helped you fuel up till next time.

Happy creating and we will talk soon.EditDone

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Hi, I'm Leah.
Family photographer, writer, educator.

I’m  one of the first to meet your newborn baby, the one who won't judge your clothes baskets and unmade beds, and the one who can capture the way your husband looks at you with a twinkle in his eye after 12 years of marriage. I believe in honoring people and telling stories.

I believe art has the power to light up the world in dark places, starting at home.