How I Started from Zero to Build a Full-Time Photo Biz

Part One | The Photo Spark

Deciding to start my photography business was an exhilarating mixture of risky decisions (I had just graduated from an expensive masters program unrelated to photography) and sheer magnetism. 

I was kinda obsessed.

The imagery online was stunning and never ending. Plus, I was teaching high schoolers full-time in a position that wasn’t well supported. This meant that even though my go-getter personality invented projects to improve the school (hello student-built library!), I still had an unusual amount of down time during the middle of my day. Once I caught up on everything, I looked at photography websites.

photo biz roadmap cover image photo of natalie jennings

In retrospect, this daily void seems a little like divine intervention.

This was in 2009, so the online world was still shiny and awkward and new. It was incredible to me that having a website was so accessible. Anyone could now have a storefront and from anywhere in the world.

Years earlier, I dismissed photography as a career I’d enjoy. Visual art (drawing and painting in particular) has always been a central hobby in my life, even as early as two or three years old. Thanks, Mom, for all the cool art supplies and support.

Another Mom win: she recently gifted me a letter scrawled by six-year-old me in red crayon asking Santa for a camera.

I loved photography, but I disliked the idea of being locked in a studio day in and day out. It wasn’t a style I was drawn to, but it was all I knew. I wanted to travel. Having a variety of locations felt inspiring to me. I liked the idea of new spaces every time. 

A whole new world of opportunity was collectively being birthed right in front of me.

Being my own boss sounded pretty rad, too. Especially when the teaching projects I felt energetically aligned with, and excited about, weren’t recognized. 

It was a crappy feeling.

But that feeling served me well. I learned that it was incredibly important to my well-being to spend my energy doing things that felt good and came naturally. Flow—or finding a space where work doesn’t feel like work—became a top priority for me.

That, and never working for someone else again unless it was as Oprah’s private photographer or something.

The dream was born.

I began devouring the new photo industry. Following people, learning about equipment, software, business plans, and marketing. I put myself through a makeshift graduate program that was part visual art and part business. 

I bought a DSLR, something my analog sensibilities fought against. But it soon became apparent that my camera served as a key to a whole new life.

A year passed, and after shooting everything I could, I felt ready to launch my website. I practiced blogging. My students were wonderful subjects, too.

On a side note, most of my early images were shot near Minneapolis’s (now famous and completely destroyed) Minnehaha Liquors, as well as the surrounding neighborhood since the high school was located on the adjacent corner. 

Definitely a trip to look back on things from a 2020 vantage point.

The beginning of this journey had a few very important ingredients: a clear why (my own boss, travel, flow-state work), inherent interest in creating visual art, and an obsessive drive to make it work that included practice, research, practice, and more research. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I looked ahead and thoughtfully considered the lifestyle I wanted five, eight, and ten years down the road. This difficult and risky choice would often be labeled as luck later on. But I assure you, it was calculated, assessed, and regularly reassessed. 

My drive to make my photo dream work would be magnified even further when an unexpected obstacle left me newly married, unemployed, and back home with my parents at the end of that year.

To be continued…



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