Building a Photo Business that Brings You Joy with Jenna Noelle

Natalie Jennings: Let's start with a little bit about what you do.

Jenna Noelle: I'm a photographer. I do primarily weddings. I've been doing it for about 15 years before social media is a thing which is kind of a strange dinosaur to be. And like I said, primarily weddings, but I'm trying to segue into doing some more philanthropic photo journalism for some international nonprofits.

And I recently launched an education brand where I'm selling my presets and album templates and doing webinars and mentorship options. 

Natalie Jennings: Well, I can certainly relate to the social media that the last couple of years being weird, all of that stuff is there's been a lot of changes since, since you started for sure.

And I I'm a couple of years behind you. I started 12 years ago and it's, it's been kind of fun to watch all of it grow and change. And, and here we are, what is one thing that is working really well for you right now in your business? 

Jenna Noelle: COVID really made me. I was kind of rethinking my business structure right before COVID 2019, but COVID really made me look long and hard at some business choices I had made, which were to essentially undercut the market by being like the “best cheap option”, if that makes sense.

So I was working really hard and it was really, really hard on my body. It was really hard for me to provide the type of service that I wanted to for clients. And then when 2020 rolled around, I realized I had, and I had, you know, 25 clients to take care of in that situation.

I realized I was taking on a little bit too much. So right now, I've chosen to really restructure my business, my brand and what I'm offering to be more in line with my priorities, which are to bring a much more elevated experience to the customer and not tear my body apart and make more time for these photojournalistic philanthropic things that I would like to do.

Natalie Jennings: I love that you brought that up and this may or may not be totally in line with the way your thinking was working. But I was chatting with a good friend of mine, who's also a photographer. We were chatting yesterday about how we both do mentorships and education and stuff, and she ran across someone who doesn't need the financial support of the photo job, and is just doing it because they like it. They want to make photography available to people that can't afford it or can't afford the higher rates of a lot of photographers. They were trying to figure out if pricing really, really low was worth it.

So she was asking me what I thought and I said, well, first of all, there's no guarantee that folks that “really need the break” are going to be the folks that you attract. But at some point you're going to get completely burnt out by doing so, so, so much work for not really the proper rate.

And then also, you know, there's so many business models. It sounds like this is kind of where you've restructured, but there's so many ways to be of service. Either volunteering photos, giving away sessions, donating things, doing help, portrait or other things.

And there's so many ways to reach folks that really can't afford higher rates without undercutting the market and exhausting yourself.

So I just want to kind of hear your thoughts on that. 

Jenna Noelle: I agree, I get it. But ultimately it does cost money to own camera equipment, and own the software and the computers and everything that it takes to do this job.

And to even reach the people who have a lower budget, you have to do some sort of outreach for them to know you exist.

And I think when people set unrealistically really low prices, it undercuts the market in a way that's damaging to all creators. Because it sets an expectation that that's what this should cost and that everyone else is just charging fluff, which is not true.

So when people do destination work just for travel, cause they don't need the money to consistently do that. Or if someone charges $500 for something that everyone else is starting at 2500, 3500, it just sends really mixed messages into the market that undermines trust with consumers and same thing to your point.

I think it's really hard on your body, I think it's really hard on your creativity. You end up working a lot of projects that aren't inspiring and require a lot of troubleshooting and that you don't get the creative opportunity that you want to need to develop. Like you said, I think there's other ways to do it.

You can do giveaways. And that's a good look, and feels good, but just charging very little…there's a lot of negative effects of that.

Natalie Jennings: I think too, I'm reflecting on this a little bit as you're talking, and I think you also end up in a situation where you're not going to attract the folks that you really love to work with.

I'm not talking about lower income folks that can't afford higher rates. I'm talking about budget shoppers that are trying to get a deal any which way they can for often no reason, just because like getting a deal is what we did try to do. I mean, when we're shopping for something, but it becomes kind of a culture in your clientele, which I think is really frustrating. 

Jenna Noelle: Yeah. We're not commenting on anyone's income level, but we are saying that… I can say this is 100% true. Some of the worst clients I've ever had were the ones I gave a discount to. Because if you give someone a dime, they want a quarter.

If you're like, “I want to charge you $4,000” and someone says, “I can't pay that.” And then you give it to them for $3000, what you're immediately telling them is that price that I was going to charge you wasn't real. So you're undermining your own trust right away.

And then that just goes further. Well, “oh, if you could knock a thousand off, why are you charging me this?” You start to expect that you can create this look of a hundred thousand dollar wedding on a $20,000 budget, and it's not true. So I have found that the clients that have nickel and dimed me are ultimately the ones I've bent over backwards the most for. They are ultimately the ones that get upset with me, which seems ironic, but it's 100% of the time been the case.

I've met really lovely people that I really, really wanted to work with and wanted to give a discount to and chosen not to do it because, it has never not come back together. 

Natalie Jennings: That's so interesting, but it's also fairly true for me as well. I want to speak to folks that are kind of just getting started because I think it's so tempting to want to just get the work and get the experience and get the clients.

What would you say to folks in that boat that are like first year or two and it's just so tempting to want to give discounts, just to get people in the door. Is that something that people should always avoid or is there room for building your business with a little bit of discount leeway.

Jenna Noelle: I think when you first start your business, just give some stuff away. You know, like I volunteer shot all my friends and family and coworkers just to get that experience. And then I started advertising on some event platforms.

I think the important thing is to never negotiate on price–negotiate on services. So if you're going to come down on price is going to be because you're going to give them less.

It's not going to be because like, “oh, I guess I can wiggle.” So, cause that's the thing that undermines trust. So you can say, “Hey, I'm going to charge you a thousand dollars. You're not going to get a really nice custom gallery or prints or an album or eight hours of my time or a second shooter. You're going to get a bare bones package and maybe not even edited photos.” (which I would never condone). I would never sit out unfinished work, but if you're charging someone like $500, don't give him 2,500 4,500, $10,000 worth of work.

Natalie Jennings: That's so something I want to highlight, but yes, don't discount your price, cut back on services because that's ultimately you giving yourself a break and not working as hard for less money.

Jenna Noelle: Think about it. When you walk into a mechanic, do you walk into the mechanic and tell them how much you're going to pay them? No. Would you trust that mechanic if you could do that? So I always say I'm the professional. These people have probably never gotten married before, you know, or they're taking their parents' advice.

You got married in the seventies. It's a very different business now. And if they're coming to me and they're telling me my terms and my prices, they're not treating me like a professional and I can expect them to continue to not treat me like a professional. So I would expect if I walked into a doctor's office or mechanics or any kind of professionals' office and told them, “this is what I'm going to pay you, and these are my terms”, that I would get kicked right out. Think of the kind of person that that would do that, and don't take on that client.

Natalie Jennings: Absolutely. I think that's a super smart thing to do. I just want to reiterate this idea that we touched on earlier about if you really feel called to serve folks that can't access higher rates, there are so many ways to build that into your business without undermining the rest of the industry. So there's a couple of things we're touching on here.

If you need to cut back on something it's services, not the price for the same amount of stuff.

Jenna Noelle: For example, like I have in my heart that I want to do charity work and philanthropic work, and I straight do not want to charge them anything. To do that, that means I need to charge more for the work I am getting paid for like weddings and portraits and stuff like that, so that I can fund being able to give away work.

Natalie Jennings: That's exactly how I felt in the past too. I've done a lot of volunteer work for different organizations, and I know that just volunteer work, but you know, it's also time.

So I appreciate all that you're saying here. I do have a question though. That's like probably on other people's minds that are hearing this, what do you say to clients that are like. “Oh, God. Why are you so expensive like that? Why is this costing so much?” Well, what would you say to particularly wedding clients for that type of question?

Jenna Noelle: First of all, never apologize for your prices. First thing's first. Secondly, I don't get into that. To be honest, I don't get into that conversation at all. Anyone that's going to be asking that question hasn't done their research going into it, and it's kind of a disrespectful question to ask, to be honest. Tell me why you're worth this exactly. You know, puts you in a really uncomfortable position.

I really vet my clients ahead of time. So I have a contact form. I ask them what their budget is and if I can see that budget is nowhere near what I'm charging, I send them a response. It has my minimum.

So you should do the math and figure out what your minimum is. And if that's too high for them, they usually just go away immediately. But if I could see that their budget's way, way below mine, sometimes, you know, I'll just tell them that I'm not available on that date because that's an easier conversation to have than “you can't afford me.”

Natalie Jennings: I think it's so important also that you're bringing up all the good points, but vetting when you have a high ticket offer in a wedding as a high ticket offer, whether you're a coach or a photographer, whatever the high ticket is, vetting your potential client ahead of time, especially for what their budget is can alleviate so many pain points. I know on my contact form just for my family photography stuff it's like, “have you checked out the pricing? And do you understand? Are you familiar?” If they say yes, then I assume that they aren't going to be like, whoa.

You know, cause they've looked at it. And I think that that's really. 

Jenna Noelle: Yeah. I mean, I don't expect anyone who's never planned a wedding before to just come in and know what it costs. But I would think before shopping vendors, they're doing a little research to see where people are falling on a spectrum and there's a million articles about what those brackets should be charging.

I would expect them to come in with just like a bare minimum of, of knowledge, you know? 

Natalie Jennings: Yeah, of course. And it is a good point. To reiterate that most people are getting married for the first time. Uh, not all but most. And so being mindful of that, just that they may say something or not understand something that can easily be clarified in a conversation like good communication, I think is always really helpful in this situation.

People often don't really know they haven't done. Maybe they've done a little research, but they're still not as familiar by a long shot as, as someone like you or me that's been in the industry for a long time. 

Jenna Noelle: Well, for example, I recently had someone reach out to me and our budgets were pretty far apart as far as what they listed and what I charge.

And, but I really, really liked him. So I got back to him and I was like, Hey, you know, maybe there's a way we could meet in the middle. And I wasn't offering to give them a discount. I was offering to like, figure out what they actually need and see if there was a way I could put together a package that would meet that.

Because they weren't getting married on like a peak season Saturday. So I thought I could put together something for them that was lower for both of us. And she was like, “you know what? Your work is incredible. And I respect you. And I think you deserve to get paid what you are asking. It's just our budget to this. So thank you so much for even offering, but we're going to let you book someone who's able to pay you.”

Natalie Jennings: Yeah, I've had that experience myself. And again, that's a great example of being accommodating with service, not with price. It also falls into the price bracket, but it's not the only thing that you're juggling around to kind of help someone out. So I appreciate you mentioning that.

What do you think is something you wish you would've known going into weddings when you were kind of starting out? Is there, is there kind of something outside of this pricing thing and service thing that sticks in your head about like, “gosh, I wish I would have done that back when I first started.”

Is there anything that comes to mind?

Jenna Noelle: Everything we've talked about is kind of the biggest ones, vetting clients, charging what you're worth, figuring out what it costs you to run this business.

When I started, it was like, you're going to join a company with a bunch of photographers and you're going to crank out weddings. Now the culture is so much more like this is your passion. We kind of like live in a little bit more hyperbole on social media where it's like, this was the best day ever. This is the cutest couple ever. This is the most beautiful bouquet I've ever seen. We're just getting inundated with that. And I think that with that being the narrative, it's a little bit hard to keep track of what your own personal narrative is.

So my advice to photographers today, which is very different than what it would have been a decade ago, a decade ago, it would have been much more pragmatic, but today it's just like, Keep in check with yourself, keep in check with what kind of photography you actually want to be doing. Don't try to be someone else because if you succeed at that, you're just going to be the highest you can attain if you do that is to be a second rate version of that person.

So keep in tune with what you want to do. Try not to look too much at other people's work, because it's going to get into your subconscious and then you're going to create really referential work.

Really think about your own messaging. Go to therapy and do self care because it is a very emotionally intensive industry to be an and physically attentive, you know, like take care of your body, take care of your mind.

Cause this is, this is a tough field to be in 

Natalie Jennings: today. I'm just like a thousand percent in my head when you said that. But I, you know, a huge cornerstone of all of the work I do if as far as education goes, is, is that is self care is recognizing the toll. It can take on your body on your mind.

Jenna Noelle: There's a photographer in Colorado that really does like really adventurous elopements and she books the hell out of it.

Her work is incredible. She has such a big name. I remember being like, oh my gosh, how do I catch up to her? What do I do? How do I get this in my portfolio? And then I was like, shit, I don't want to wake up at 3:00 AM and hike a fourteener with all my gear on my back. Like, I don't want to advertise that because then someone's going to ask me to do it and I'll want to do that.

You know? So like that helped me let go of like running a race. I don't want to win, you know.

Natalie Jennings: It's so important. And like I said, like all of that. I think what pulls you in is that it is beautiful. And so if it's not for you, it's recognizing like, am I just appreciating this because it's beautiful and I'm a photographer and I like it.

Or am I like thinking that I have to do this because someone else is doing it. That's a huge distinction. For me it was like a really big release and relief to be like, oh, Nope, I can just stick with the Minnesota lakes and cabins and stuff that I love to do. It doesn't mean that it's any less.

You know, exciting adventurous or whatever, but I I'm glad that you brought that up. Yeah. And 

Jenna Noelle: I think in the beginning of my career, I mean, for most of my career, I've defined success based on how many people were booking me. And that's been a major shift over the last four years. It's not, that's not my version of success anymore.

It's how many of my ideal clients are booking me. Am I sustaining myself, am I doing work that's inspiring to me. Am I working with under other vendors that are also doing their job and we're supporting each other. So really retooling your definition of success is. It's an ongoing project, but it's important from the outset. 

Jenna Noelle: There's a lot of pressure to be an influencer. And I know a lot of photographers that charge like $25,000 a wedding that don't have a lot of followers or engagement and post next to never. So you don't have to. I also avoided submitting to be published or going for awards or networking and all that for a very, very long time.

And then when I realized I wanted to switch to a more luxury market, I was like, oh, you know, I really should do that. Maybe the reason I wasn't doing it is because I didn't want to put myself out there because I was being insecure about my own work. So that is some self-reflection to get to, and it's something I'm looking at more now.

So yeah, you could also ask yourself, okay, why don't I want to do this? But you know, like to this day I don't enjoy social media. And so it's like, I'm not going to put $5,000 into a social media push. That's going to make me miserable, you know? 

Natalie Jennings: Yeah, absolutely. And I think what you said about just re-evaluating.

Awards and submitting this stuff, it all comes down for me, at least to like, are the actions that I'm taking in alignment with my goal. And so if your goal is changed, like you're like, okay, let me remark it. Then it's like, as you said, re-evaluating, you know, reevaluating, like what I'm doing, how I'm doing it.

Just really being in alignment with like, what feels good to you. Do you feel like you're getting to where you want to go? For me before I kind of exited the wedding industry, I felt really good about where I was at. You know, had I kind of shifted my goal, like luxury market, for example, I would probably have reevaluated some of the things I I did.

So I think it's good to just remind folks, like it's okay to not do stuff that maybe you think everyone's doing, and it's also okay. To change your mind and do it down the road.

Jenna Noelle: I've kind of went on like a spiritual journey in the last five years and I realized like my overarching goal in life is to make my words and actions as much in line with my values as possible. And if I look back retrospectively, you know, for a long time, I've been very insecure about myself and my actions and my words show that like negotiating on prices and not wanting to put my work out there and now I feel differently.

And so I've changed my actions and my words to promote where I am and where I want to be now. 

Natalie Jennings: I love that. Do you have any. Tips or strategies for people, I guess strategy's a little much, but any advice for people that are trying to understand their own values, therapy,

Jenna Noelle: therapy? Yeah, that's I mean, I think the. You know, we can do a lot of yoga and self-reflection, and there's certainly a place for that, but you're kind of working with your own framework in those situations. And sometimes you just need to talk to someone that isn't your friend and isn't invested and can just stand from an outside perspective and normalize your feelings and help you channel the better and into being more aligned with where you want to be.

So, yeah, therapy. 

Natalie Jennings: A thousand percent, I am a big fan of therapy as well. And I think that you just nailed all the reasons why it's helpful. What's one value that you have that you're thinking about when you're acting and trying to be in alignment with your actions. What's one that pops into your mind. The most, 

Jenna Noelle: I try to check in with myself if my stomach is coming from instinct or if it's coming from fear and I find that usually it's coming from fear and I'm like, oh, well then what am I afraid of? Like, for example, I didn't do styled shoots for a really long time. And I told myself like, oh, it's just because I, I don't like them and that's not me.

But I realized like, oh no, I'm intimidated because I'm worried I'm going to do it. Not to do well, or I'm going to let someone down or I'm not creative enough, or, you know, so I realized that that little voice was coming from a place of fear and I chose to get out of it. And now I love doing style shoots.

Like it's so fun working with models.

So just check in with your gut.

Natalie Jennings: Yeah. And I think that the deeper sort of value there is just like, I would like to act from a place that isn't fear, that like really recognizing what that is. 

Jenna Noelle: That was more concise. You're right. Good job. No, I was like, how could I put that into five words?

You did it.

Natalie Jennings: Everything that you said we could chat forever, because I think it's all super relevant and I hope that it's hitting home for early stage photographers because it really, these are huge roadblocks that I think I wish I would have thought more about back in the day. But yeah, what's one final piece of advice that you can give folks just starting out, particularly in the wedding industry right now?

Jenna Noelle: To not get too caught up in the rat race of social media, unless you enjoy it.

If you like making reels, make reels, if you like, you know, styling things and submitting it, do that. You know, really think about what you like and then devote all your energies towards that. Don't think about what someone else is and try to be them. I mean, if someone has like a business model that you admire or a style that you admire, you can get a mentorship, you can look at how they succeeded, but don't think you have to be everything to everyone.

Natalie Jennings: That's such good advice. I just, just checking in with what you like to do. I've revamped Jennings Photo myself, and brought it back to sort of square one again, because I'm like, I ultimately just like telling a story. I like being a fly on a wall and that's what I love to do. I don't say, yeah, I don't want to do.

Jenna Noelle: Yeah. I realized pretty early on in my career that I don't really like doing babies, maternity family portraits. So I just pulled that from my website completely.

And guess what? It hasn't affected my business at all. So yeah. Show showed you want to sell.



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