Leah O'Connell

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The Key Ingredient to your (family photography) success | Photo Fuel Ep. 06

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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85% of photographers quit within the first 2 years and a lot of those people don’t actually want to quit. I believe there’s one key factor that you’ve gotta have to succeed as a family photographer and it’s totally possible for everyone.

It can’t be taught and you can’t buy it and you can’t make it… yet it’s the real bones behind your success in this field.

In this episode we’ll touch on comparison, the real reason why we share our work, and how to build something you’re actually proud of – slowly but surely and purposefully over time.



success as a family photographer

SHOW NOTES / Links mentioned

Episode 5 – 6 shifts that helped me grow my photography business
The Firefly Letters https://www.lofirefly.com/newsletter
Lessons in Chemistry TV series
Big picture workbook (free)


Today’s episode is a little different in that I’m coming to you with a little spice in the form of, I don’t know, call it a business pep talk or a hot take or however you want to see it.

85% of photographers quit within the first two years, and a lot of those people don’t actually want to quit, and there’s a difference.

They love photography, they’re interested in making it their career, but they get stuck and discouraged and defeated, and it sucks because yeah, there’s a lot of competition out there, but there’s also a lot of families and a lot of art to be made that will fuel all kinds of things, from private family memories to creative expression to positive self-image to warmth and connection with a new baby to all kinds of potential purpose greater than nice pictures for a Christmas card.

And not like that’s a bad thing, but I feel like so many of you are eliminating yourselves by living under some perceived expectation and trying to copy and compare.

And I want you to be able to rise above that.

You are in charge.

This is one of the perks of being the boss.

You get to pave your own path.

But there’s one key factor that you’ve got to have that no one can really teach you.

And you can’t buy it and you can’t make it.

And it’s what I believe is the real bones behind your success in this field.

It’s something that has to be worked and learned and practiced over and over and over again.

And that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Let’s get into it.

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.

When you’re new in business, there is inevitably a season of grind.

And whether you’ve eased into photographing other families for work because people have asked you to without really having to do much marketing, or you are wanting to make significant income as your main career or a strong side job, getting momentum as a new business owner can feel really daunting.

In episode five, I shared a few things that have helped me gain momentum over the years, including some alternative marketing avenues outside of shouting on social media.

But there’s another element here that we need to address if you want to be successful as a family photographer.

Before we even get to that, we need to make sure that you are defining what successful means to you year by year.

And let me give you an example.

Last year, my income decreased by about 10%.

So in 2023, I took about a 10% hit from what I made in 2022.

But I also had a baby, and I took about three months off of paid maternity leave.

And I didn’t focus a lot on strategy or what I was going to do to get clients or anything like that.

I just let it be and took a rest.

And then when I returned, quote, officially, it was only kind of officially, I came back very, very part time over the summer with all three kids home, including a newborn and no dedicated childcare.

So I took a couple sessions, but it was very slow going.

So along with that, I took on 10% less clients over the total year.

And the real kicker is I saw an 11% increase in my profit margins.

So basically that’s like a whole hell of a lot less time working with clients, less clients to begin with.

Yeah, a little bit less money overall.

But the amount that I made per client and per time spent overall felt like a huge win.

It felt like a success to me because those numbers show that I honored my values in a really important season for my family.

And I made improvements in the amount that I’m making per client.

And because of that season of rest, I came up with the idea for The Firefly Letters, which is my weekly newsletter that has been the most life-giving way of marketing for clients, and nurturing my clients, and getting clients booked that I have had in a decade.

And I’m content with a little bit of a lesser income and less work because it wasn’t a building or a grinding year for me.


Yeah, yeah, you better believe I’m working to get back into the range where I can better contribute to our family’s financial goals, but that’s just part of the ebb and flow.

Some years are going to be more, some years are going to be less.

Success can change from year to year.

And that kind of leads us into the elephant in the room here that I want to address in today’s episode.

And it’s the idea of stamina.

When you are taking your business month by month, season by season, you’ve got to get clients now kind of mentality, you’re missing this key differentiating factor that makes our work as entrepreneurs with small businesses very unique.

And that is the long game.

I know that it is discouraging to have waves of crickets in your inbox, like wondering where the inquiries are, where are my leads?

I know it’s so disheartening.

I’ve been there, you’re eager to make work and you feel like you’re ready and you’re equipped but you’re just not seeing the traction.

Maybe it’s because you’re in a new state or a new city or maybe you’ve been planted for a little while but you still just feel kind of invisible.

Where are the people knocking down my door and filling my books?

It’s so easy to use that silence to beat yourself down and to fall into this comparison.

We see other people so much more clearly because of the accessibility of our world in today’s society with social media and not to put any blame on that because it’s also equally amazing way to reach and connect and inspire.

But we have the ability to see inside a small piece of other people’s world just enough so that it makes us wonder if we’re doing it right.

And the thing is, there is no right way to do this.

You might see people’s spring minis or their motherhood sessions filling up, which honestly, like side note, you don’t even actually know what that means.

So let’s just pause and acknowledge that filling up can mean that they opened up four spots or 40, and we have no idea.

So just be real about that.

You can admire other photographers’ work, but then it leads to that slippery, cruel language of I’m just as good as them.

Why does it seem like everyone’s going to them and not me?

I should be getting that work, not them.

And it’s got this very middle school cafeteria vibe.

And we suddenly become self-conscious.

Maybe then that leads to getting more quiet because you feel really silly or ridiculous talking about your work when no one’s really paying attention.

And then you find that your snowball is rolling down the wrong side of the hill.

For the first two years of my business, I worked part time in a baby boutique selling retail strollers and overpriced clothing.

I peddled myself around all the local public schools as a substitute teacher to bring an extra income while I built and I learned.

And I say this because I want to share that just like any business, you can’t make it explode.

Sometimes you might have to do a little bit of other things to get it rolling.

And whether that’s photography related or not, it’s okay.

There’s no judgment.

A lot of people will start with a full time job and they build their photography business simultaneously.

That is hard, brave work.

You cannot force a flower to bloom and you cannot will the snow to melt.

But if you want it badly enough, if you are delighting in the making part, you can find and create and share work that sets your soul on fire.

And when you’re actually sharing with enthusiasm and pride and with a larger mission of bringing beauty and meaning to the world, you’re building your own table.

Who cares?

When you have an attitude of, who cares if anyone pays me for this or not?

I am living grounded in my purpose.

It might be quiet for a little while, but eventually people will take notice because they want to be a part of something that feels exciting.

And that doesn’t mean you have to start a movement, but it does mean you have to love what you do and how you do it regardless of if people are paying you for it or not, or how many people are paying you for it or not.

And you should be paid for your work.

I believe that you should be paid for it and you should be paid well for it.

But what I’m getting at is that your stamina is the thing that’s going to make trying new marketing ideas and working on your newsletter and creating your dream portfolio and building sessions and submitting to publications that part of building the business.

That is where stamina is going to make that work thrilling versus exhausting and defeating.

And when you want it badly enough, sure, you’re going to have days when you’re really fed up and you don’t really feel like figuring out how to organize your backup drives, but you are going to push through because it’s worth it.

And you stop being embarrassed when things don’t go as planned and you get back on the horse because you want to make pictures with families and you see yourself as an artist and you see yourself years down the road doing this work.

And if you don’t see yourself in that role, then that’s okay too.

Guess what?

Naming that means that you can let go of the pressure of building a business and put your focus somewhere else.

And you can still photograph families here and there.

You can make amazing artwork that fuels your life and the world in lots of different ways.

You can still share it.

You can submit it.

You can develop your skills and you can connect with other photographers if you like, but you can let go of the pressure of making it a living with it, if it’s only dragging you into a deep hole.

If you don’t really care about the business, then let it go.

But if you do, then care about it deeply.

And you can make a sustainable income as a family photographer, but it’s not going to happen by being the cheapest or the fastest.

It’s not going to happen by making work that looks like everyone else is in your area.

And it’s not going to happen by posting every day on social media.

Those things might contribute to some version of success in the short term, but the root of it is so much deeper than the things that you try and the trends that you participate in.

Those are just icing on the cake.

The heart of it has to have roots, and you have to be willing to push through and show up and show your work and share it proudly and boldly.

Whether it’s good or not, whether you are the best that you’re ever going to be or you’re just starting out because the act of sharing and continually raising your hand and saying, I want to make photos with families and I have dedicated myself to it.

There’s an attraction level to that, and it’s going to help you get a thicker skin.

It’s going to help you find ways to fine tune if it’s not working well or if the work isn’t up to a standard that you like.

You can see, you can work on it.

You can’t get better if you’re always hiding because yeah, it takes some guts to do that.

It really does.

And you need stamina to keep you going through all of that messy growth.

It’s the stamina that will help you keep going when things are slow and to get support when things are full.

Your stamina will help protect your energy and your inspiration, your stamina to re-evaluate how you’re treating yourself as a boss and an employee financially, emotionally, creatively, your stamina to forget about the rules that maybe you have learned before and just be honest with yourself and with the world and wave it as a proud flag.

There’s this scene at the end of the show, Lessons in Chemistry, where the main character has suffered trauma and struggle over many years.

And she’s had to fight really hard for her ability to be treated fairly and do her work as a mother and a chemist.

And in this scene, we find her serving a Thanksgiving meal.

And the camera follows her setting down food amongst a full table full of individuals from different walks of life.

The camera follows through several other rooms of the house where more people from different circumstances, from several years and different phases of her life are all gathered and laughing.

And there they are around this table where she once cried out alone.

And because she persisted and built her own way, the view became not only full, but rich with variety and experience and love.

That might seem like a bit of a cheesy example, but I want you to just see that it might take time.

It might take some trial and error.

It’s definitely going to take some trial and error.

But have patience with yourself and the process, because that is where you’re going to find the people around your table.

I have had clients who have stuck with me for the last eight years.

The first time they hired me, I was charging $350 for a session.

And now they’re paying me four times as much to capture their family memories.

And it’s because we have grown together.

And that wouldn’t have been possible if I waited until I was at the skill level that I am now before I started trying to get these clients in my circle to begin with.

So just forget about what other people are doing.

Yes, you can admire it.

Yes, you can learn from it.

But the purpose of community and sharing our work is not so we can copy or model our exact paths after each other without any context.

Photographers are not sharing their images, so other photographers can be jealous or rave about how awesome they are.

And if that is what you are doing, if that’s why you’re sharing, then you need to re-evaluate here.

But we share to attract the people who we want to work with.

We share because that’s how we propel our work and the act of sharing, whether it’s on your website, in a publication, in a private newsletter.

Wherever you share isn’t the point.

It’s the act of sharing that propels both your excitement about the work and the work itself, because people are going to catch that bug.

And it doesn’t matter if 10 people like your post.

You keep sharing because it lights you up.

And the logistics become more like a game.

I wonder if I post every day at 9 p.m.

if I’ll see more interaction and if it will increase my leads.

I wonder if I take two months completely off from social media and focus on a weekly newsletter instead, if I’ll see any traction.

These become interesting experiments.

Instead of desperate attempts.

And they are not tied to the approval of others because you’re building your own table on purpose, remember?

Those reactions of others, they become just signals and information to build upon.

But more than that, you’re building on the principle of buyer psychology around the idea of reciprocity.

Giving and giving with enthusiasm often leads to loyalty, to relationship, and to connection.

And yeah, bookings to clients.

So don’t give your sessions away, but do give images to the world that speak to you.

And those images over a long period of time have the power to contribute to a shifting culture, to feed gratitude, to represent people well, to say something powerful about family and love and childhood.

All of those things are possible, whether 10 people like the post or the work or a thousand people like it.

If you do this, if you share with a heart on fire for your work from a place of purpose beyond getting your next quick client, I guarantee you will start to see a snowball effect in time that leads you to the kind of business you actually want, not just the kind that you look back on after five years and wonder, wait a second, how did I get here?

Don’t be the cheapest.

Don’t try to fit in or beat the system.

Just build your table and stand on top of it with pride and delight for as long as you possibly can.

And eventually, you’re gonna look around and see that you built something you’re proud of, and that matters.

Thanks for listening to the episode today.

If you loved it, please take a screenshot and share it on Instagram.

You can tag me at fireflyphoto underscore leah.

And it really means so much to know that you’re listening and getting something valuable from this.

Don’t forget that if you are looking to dig deeper into the mission and values of your business, if you’re looking to find some deeper clarity around what you’re bringing to the world with your family photography, the Big Picture Workbook is free for you.

You can download it at the link in the description of this episode.

It’s a series of 10 prompts.

You can print it out and journal right in the workbook itself, or copy and type out your thoughts in a Word document to reference later.

But these questions and prompts will help you think bigger about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

And you can revisit them year after year after year and reevaluate, because this is not goal setting, it’s more like vision casting.

And if you haven’t had a chance or made the effort to do that kind of work, it can really change so much for you.

Again, download the Big Picture Workbook right from the link in this description.

Show notes.

And let me know if you have any aha moments.

I am here to support you, to cheer you on.

You can do this.

I know you can.

I hope this episode helped you fuel up and we’ll talk soon.

You may also like:

Is it possible? Family photos in small dark homes

How I use trello for my photography business

Marketing, Privacy, and Social Media with Morgan Miles

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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.