Leah O'Connell

for photographers

Uncover your mission and values as a family photographer | Photo Fuel Ep 02

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. 

Education and articles for family photographers

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Why do you want to photograph families? What’s the point? What is the driving factor keeping you in this work? What keeps you coming back when it’s hard and you want to quit? This is where your uncovering your mission and values as a family photographer is so important.


In this episode, we’ll talk about

  • why it’s important to define your values
  • how it can help you influence decision-making 
  • a helpful exercise to drill down into what really matters and how you can use that knowledge to fuel more fun and excitement in all areas of your business

Show notes

The thing that will keep you going as a photographer (1:30)

Order takers vs the chef (2:15)

How to start figuring out your mission (6:15)

My experience shifting from IPS to virtual sales (7:30)

Exercise – The 5 Why’s (10:37)

The ways your values influence business decisions (13:10)

The side by-products of understanding your mission and values (16:30)

Questions to start uncovering (17:56)

Links mentioned:

Origins of The 5 Whys Concept

The Firefly Letters
Mentoring with Leah

Transcript:

If you talk to anyone who’s been in business for any length of time, they will tell you that it’s crucial to have a vision for your business.

But what does that even mean?

You probably started taking pictures because you liked taking pictures.

You liked families, you liked kids.

Maybe somebody told you that you had a good eye, or you just enjoyed doing it.

You enjoyed taking pictures of your own kids, and then people started asking you to take pictures of their kids because you had a nice camera.

Maybe you had a totally different entry point into the genre.

Like me, I started photographing families before I had a family of my own.

I was 16 when I started photographing families.

And so no matter how you come into this genre, no matter how you are drawn to it and what you’re drawn to it, the love of the art and the love of photography, the medium itself, is only one piece of the puzzle.

That is never going to be the thing that sustains you in business, the love of taking pictures itself.

Because if you want to make it a full-time career or even a part-time career, like you have to have more purpose behind your why, there are going to be times where you don’t like taking pictures or you don’t feel like it, and then what happens?

And that’s where mission and values come into play.

A couple reasons why taking some time to define your mission and values is so important.

The first is that it can be a really slippery slope into becoming order takers instead of the chef.

And let me explain what I mean by that.

Put yourself in a restaurant for a moment.

The waiter or waitress will receive your order.

They just hear what you want from the menu, and they relay the information to the chef.

The chef makes it, and the waiter or waitress just delivers it back to the table.

The waiter or waitress is not doing any of the creating, really, on their own or imagining.

They’re just delivering.

So the cool part is that we get to be both.

Yes, we have to be the one who is offering the deliverable, but we also get to be the visionary and the one who sets the menu.

And from the client’s perspective, like have you ever been to a restaurant where there’s like four well-crafted things on the menu?

You don’t ask for substitutions in a place like that.

You don’t ask for ketchup on the side.

You arrive with expectation and the trust in the creator that you’ve seen what this person can make, and you’ve heard about it and you want a piece of it.

You may not want a piece of it every single time you go out to dinner.

You might want to rotate that in with some favorites or a place where there’s a huge menu every now and then, and just to try lots of new things and get the best burger the way that you like it.

But it’s almost like the more you invest and put your yes on the table for someone else’s creation, the more you are likely to step back and let that creation be served to you in the way that the creator intended and not your way because you’re trusting they’re the expert, they’re the chef.

But when we’re starting out, we are getting our feelers out there.

We’re seeing what do people like, and when people respond to what we’ve made or they tell us like, I want this photo that I saw on Pinterest.

Can you make it?

And you’re like, yeah, I can.

And you start taking orders.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing because I think we all have that phase of experimentation and trying to simply put ourselves in different environments and pushing our own skills to create those different things.

Like I definitely did that for many years.

And there’s small instances where you’ll kind of inject your own vision, but like mostly you’re trying to get good at being consistent.

And that is important for building skills.

But eventually that’s gonna wear you down and it cannot be a sustainable model because it doesn’t have any of your inspiration in it.

So there’s skill and foundation, but like without the mission behind it, without your inspiration, you’re gonna just start to whittle out and get bored of the work.

Not to mention getting tired of being an order taker and just doing what everybody tells you all the time when you’re the business owner.

Another reason why defining your mission and values is so crucial is because it becomes like a compass for what you’re making.

And if there is not a sense of purpose beyond what you’re doing for yourself and your needs, that’s another surefire way to lead you into burning out and not wanting to do this anymore.

We’re always going to evolve.

We’re humans.

We’re going to evolve in how we do things.

Maybe even the genre that you’re working with, maybe the model of pricing that you’re doing or whatever it might be, that can evolve.

But the mission is what keeps you coming back when you don’t feel like it.

And it keeps you coming back past the daily tasks and the growing pains of figuring out how to shift your business and adjust when the market changes.

And it makes every piece of your business feel more exciting and worthwhile and helps you just find that joy in what you’re doing, regardless of the how.

It has to be deeper than that because the how is always going to change.

It’s part of a growing and evolving business.

So how do you tweeze out what that mission is?

Like, what is the point here?

What am I doing?

So step one would be what’s gonna sound really annoying, but noticing and listening a lot to yourself, to your community, to the families you work with.

And this is slow.

It is slow, deep, methodical work.

And it takes, it’s not just something that you can hash out and just know on a dime.

There might be some things that come up on the surface level, but I really challenge you to not just take that first answer that comes to mind, because that’s still surface, and there’s gonna be more.

Who do you love working with?

What context really inspires you?

What elements, visual elements inspire you?

What are your personal convictions, like outside of art and photography at all?

What makes you angry?

All of these things are like leading questions about how you can formulate your experience, what’s important and not important to you.

So a little aside as an example for this, when I was starting out, I was really pulled into trying to do things right, quote unquote, right?

I had no idea how to run a business.

I had no idea that being a family photographer was even a thing that existed outside of studios.

So there was all of this talk that I was finding online about how the only way to make money was with IPS.

And so that’s what I did.

That’s what I tried to learn.

It’s what I had been trained on in the mall studios where I started working.

And so I just figured, okay, I’m just gonna take that same model and apply it into like my own home or like my own business.

And after a while, I realized that that was totally in contradiction to everything that I was trying to make visually because I was promoting myself as this laid back photographer who created this really natural imagery for young families.

And I wanted things to be sort of like undone and loose.

And I was trying to sell this experience visually, but the bones behind it were so detailed with all of this process.

There were so many meetings.

I had an in-person consult before we even went to photograph together.

I required people to come to me, and we would have a meeting together and talk about the session.

I wasn’t styling them.

I wasn’t.

It was just like we had to meet in person.

I don’t know.

It doesn’t make sense.

And then after the session, we would schedule an in-person sales meeting.

They would come over to my home.

I would present the photos to them.

I would make them cookies.

And none of that was inherently wrong, per se.

It’s just that it became a real hassle for me as a young mom to coordinate.

And I started realizing like, oh, this is probably what they’re experiencing too.

And we would come together with this energy of frustration and like, oh, we gotta squeeze this in, but this is kind of inconvenient.

And it seemed like my dog was always barking at them, and everyone just kind of needed it to move faster so they could get their kids to bed.

And finally, it just dawned on me.

This isn’t working for the client’s hell that I’m serving at the price point that I’m serving.

And in this experience, in the type of photos that I’m trying to make, like none of this works, not to mention personally, I was trying to create a business model that didn’t fit into the life that I had in that season.

So I really had to take a step back and realize, like, my value is to build a business around my life and not the other way around.

So instead of being married to IPS, and this is the way that has to be done, I reevaluated what my values were and what I was trying to make and where I wanted to go, and it changed the whole direction of my business.

So as you are working on drilling down into your mission, one of the big questions you need to ask yourself is, is this aligned from start to finish?

And the second question you can ask yourself is, why art with families?

Why do you want to be a photographer for families?

And again, some of these basic things might rise to the top, like, well, I like kids, or I’m really inspired by motherhood since I became a mom.

And those are really valid and understandable reasons to enjoy photographing families.

But I really want to challenge you to go deeper than that.

And one of the ways that you can do that is through this process called the Five Whys, which you may have heard of before.

It’s a concept that was originally started in the 1930s by a Japanese inventor, Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyoda.

And he developed this concept that became popularized 50 years later, but it’s still used in companies and businesses all around the globe.

So why not take it into our small businesses as well?

The Five Whys is basically a concept that just requires you to dig deeper into the root of an answer by asking why five different times.

You can apply this in lots of different contexts from troubleshooting issues you might be having to improving the technique of your client experience, problem solving, that kind of thing.

But you can also use it on the zoomed out spectrum of defining your mission and figuring out what it is you actually care about.

So let’s take this into an example with that, you know, top level response.

So I like kids.

Why?

Well, I really love their energy, and I just feel so excited when I see how they play.

Well, I didn’t have that as a kid, and it’s always so interesting to me to watch how creative they are.

Why?

Because I don’t always feel creative, and I want to capture a piece of that that they can remember and remind themselves of as they get older.

See how we’re drilling down, like I’m completely making this example up off the top of my head, but we’re drilling down with that why question until we get to a root of, oh, it isn’t just because I like photographing kids, it’s because I want children to grow up understanding the joy of freedom and creativity.

And that is a whole message.

Like that’s a whole value system that you can write on, you can share on, you can talk to people about, you can expand upon, whereas I like photographing kids is simply just something that is very basic.

It’s just something you enjoy.

But when we drill down, we’re able to find the value system there, and that is something that can be a real connection point with clients who understand that importance more than they might understand, like I want pictures.

They might not come to you thinking that pictures can be anything more than this is how my kid is growing up, this is what he looks like.

And when you position it with that deeper value system of like, no, no, no, we’re not just taking pictures of what they look like, we’re helping create something that is going to fuel them as they grow up and remind them of their importance and their creativity and the ways that we delight in them.

It’s so different.

And having that understanding of the value system is going to influence decisions that you make and make those decisions so much easier.

So it could influence everything from the way that you create your client experience, like I was mentioning in my business earlier.

It could influence whether or not you do mini sessions and how or how and where to market your offers.

It could influence how the environments that you shoot in.

Is it homes?

Are you working in only scenic views?

Those are very different, and they’re very different marketing aspects, probably aligned with very different artistic goals.

So your value system is going to influence your style, your actual artistic style.

It’s going to help influence the structure of your workflows.

Are you very high touch?

Are you low touch?

Are you kind of in the middle?

Do you do virtual sales, in-person sales?

Do you do no sales at all?

Do you offer styling?

Is it important to you to have a specific wardrobe look?

Or are you completely the opposite?

Do you want a tailored, more preppy look?

Or are you loose and undone?

It’s going to influence also like the general vibe of your marketing, your brand colors, your wording.

Are you quick and casual?

Are you luxury?

The copy aligns with your mission and values.

The way that you speak is going to have to line up there.

It can influence the demographics that you photograph, the gear you use, if and when you outsource or scale.

So this can really help touch every part of your business.

And like I said, it’s going to help make those decisions about each of those aspects as you grow.

So much easier not to say that you won’t be revisiting these things, and you should.

I’ll keep saying that over and over again.

It’s not like you just say, like, this is it, and then you are just the same, because you’re a human being and what you care about is going to change.

So it’s important to reevaluate this as you grow.

But it’s uncommon or unlikely that who you are and what you care about will change so drastically that you’ll make a really hard pivot.

It’s just going to influence the smaller decisions as you develop as a photographer, as an artist, as a human being, maybe as a parent even, like what you care about and what you are empathetic to, what you want to create, and having an understanding of those roots just make building the foundation of your business a treat.

It makes it more fun.

So you can see hopefully from all those examples that your strategy then gets molded around just as much of what you say no to as what you say yes to.

And having an understanding of what’s important to you and the bones behind your work is going to make decisions about how you craft your business, for lack of a better word, more authentic, more genuine, and yeah, just more fun.

It has all of these things.

We all want those things, right?

We want our business to not feel so stuffy and to feel like something that we can really get behind.

And it’s got to be that, or else, like I mentioned before, you have to get behind it for other people to get behind it.

Another cool thing that will happen as you start to really think through this and journal about it and spend some time uncovering, you might find things that are more tangible, like things that you aspire to happen from the outpouring of this value system and the direction that it will lead your business.

So that could be things like supporting your community with quarterly service projects or paying your mortgage entirely from your salary or meeting a certain income from a previous job while working less hours or whatever.

It could be something very specific, like I want to be able to give away one shoot a month or work with a specific foundation once a quarter.

Whatever it is, these can be charitable, they can be financial, they can be also just artistic.

Do you want to incorporate a self-portrait project once a month or a 365 project or things like that, that align with the bigger picture and message that you’re trying to share?

These goals can evolve and they will likely change over time, but they themselves are not the mission.

The mission is the underlying purpose.

That’s what you ask those five whys to get to.

That’s the mission.

But these are goals, these things that I just mentioned are more like the branches off of that mission tree.

Okay, so that’s a lot to think about.

I want you to take some time to really ask yourself, what’s the point?

What am I building?

Why am I building it?

Enter into this dialogue without judgment about what could happen or what you feel capable of.

What would it be like if you just stepped back and dreamed about it?

Maybe it’s been a while since you did that.

Name it, define the vision that you have for your business in the long term, and you can slowly work your way backwards.

The results will make investment easier.

They’ll make decisions easier and more exciting when you have clarity around how it connects to bigger aspirations for your business and for the people who you serve.

I am so excited for you guys to dig into this.

I hope that this gave you some ideas and more oomph to actually do this, because it can be intimidating, and we just get on the wheel, and we’re going, and we’re doing, and we’re working, and we start to get overwhelmed sometimes.

Maybe you’re in a place where you haven’t thought about this stuff for a little while, or ever.

And I just really, really encourage you that if you feel overwhelmed or you feel confused about the direction of your business, take it back and slow it down and ask yourself some of these questions to define your mission and values and see where it takes you.

If you’re interested in seeing some of my own mission and values and the way that I implement that into my marketing for client sessions, all of that is weaved into my weekly newsletter, the Firefly Letter.

So I’d love to have you hop on board.

Even if you just want to observe, this is how I’m mostly marketing these days.

It’s a weekly letter around topics of family, creativity, and simple joys.

I share stories and lessons that I’m learning through my everyday life.

And I would love to have you as part of the family.

You can also reach out if you are really struggling with this, if you have more questions at the end of doing some of these exercises than you had at the beginning, reach out about mentoring with me.

I have a two-part mentoring package.

It’s two calls with Voxer Access in between, so we can kind of hash out all the things that come up as you’re working between the calls.

You know, like you, a lot of times you’ll have a call, you get so excited, you work through some stuff, and then you want to be able to have those follow up as you’re working.

So the Voxer Access is great for that.

It’s like a pocket coach to encourage you and also just like give you some ideas and help you ask questions that you may not have thought of.

That perspective is so valuable.

I would love to work with you on helping to define your mission and values and dig into the purpose and direction of your business.

Just reach out if you’re even remotely interested.

The first step is a free 30-minute coffee chat.

We’ll just hang out, talk about your business, talk about your pain points and see if and how I can help.

And there’s absolutely zero obligation to book anything from there.

It’s just a great touch point to get to know each other.

I hope this conversation helped you fuel up, friend.

We’ll talk soon.

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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.