How trashing my best work made my business stronger

I worked at a music video shoot last week and noticed something really interesting about the artist. While in hair & makeup, she was trying to center herself and focus inward before performing. She was listening to music that inspired her even though the music she was listening to wasn’t anything like her own personal style.

You know what us photographers have a tendency to do? Question our personal style when we see the work of photographers we admire. And then beat ourselves up because our work doesn’t look like theirs. Haven’t you ever sat down at your computer to gain a bit of inspiration before shooting and, instead of gleaning the essence of the photography, you focus on the style?

The singer from the music video didn’t change her style or voice or the way she moved because of the music that inspired her. And I don’t know what she was actually getting from it, but watching the process from afar was a beautiful experience.

I’ve been struggling since day one to establish my own personal style. I’ve been inspired by so many photographers over these years and each time I find a new one who makes my heart leap, I sink down in my chair and groan and think “grrrrreat. Now I have to change again.” This wishy-washyness has made it really difficult to generate steady work because, although they might have admired all the work on my website, potential clients couldn’t really tell what they were actually going to get if they hired me. There were so many styles to wade through that I think I became a photographer people would always admire, but never hire.

I tried some things to escape the reality that I had to buckle down and sort myself out. One of the things was a page on my site called ‘Your Options’ to show different styles I could produce for clients. I’d never seen a successful photographer do that before and you know why? Because it doesn’t work.

So one evening after opening my studio, I was crying allover my keyboard after editing a disaster family session shot in my too-small-for-families studio on a backdrop I hadn’t yet tested. I cried to my husband that I “haaaate (sniffle) shooting (hyperventilating) families!!!!!” At that moment, my close friend and assistant messaged me on Facebook and said “you have to see this photographer”. At first, I cried some more because the last thing I wanted to see when I was ready to throw in the towel was someone doing it better.

I kept going back to that website and found that the photographer, Skye Hardwick, had a blog for photographers with a workbook and posing guide. I bought them both and they put me back on center, gave me direction, inspiration and freedom to be ME and not anyone else. In her bio, Skye makes it very clear that she’s not the photographer for everyone. She only photographs children and she largely photographs them alone which is exactly what I wanted to do.

I saw a status from a fellow photographer on Facebook that said something like “what do you photograph when you’re doing it just for you?” And Skye answered, “Even my paid work is for me.” (clearly, I’m stalking the woman).

Finding her website and soaking in all of the materials she had to offer made me certain of the things I needed to do to change the face of my business:

  • Stop taking photos just to pay the bills.
  • Stop shooting things that aren’t in my heart to shoot.
  • Decide once and for all on my style. Admire others, yes…copy them? No way.
  • Pose more. I bought the posing guide and if you are wondering why you’d pay for that instead of just ripping out magazine pages, just know this: there’s a big difference. Back when I was haphazard, I took pride in being the anti-posed photographer. And then, I learned that you can pose without being static and looking like posing. You can use poses as a foundation to build on for beautiful, calculated and precise portraits that look exactly how I wanted them to look.
  • Charge more and work less

The realizations above caused a huge dilemma for me. The best work I’ve ever produced didn’t fit this mould. For example, the maternity session that blew my mind and made me really truly believe in myself as an artist. I sat before my website, watching the slideshow roll before me and felt the pain of knowing that those images which formed me as an artist just had to go. And then I began to cry. I knew that this moment for me was do or die. All or nothing. Change what I was doing or give up.

And like with anything that needs doing, I buckled down and did it. I spent two entire nights building a new website which. I did away with the stark, white branding and warmed things up to match the feeling I wanted to evoke with my work. And -hardest of all- I made a folder on my computer and only dropped the images in that I felt were pure me and nothing else. The ones that still move me. And, moreover, the ones that fit my newly tailored business strategy.

Some tips for maintaining and providing a consistent product:

  • Use the same locations
  • Remain consistent in your editing style
  • Be very calculated with what you display on your website. Don’t roll too many photos in your galleries. Just enough to show what you do. You don’t have to keep adding new stuff. Show the best of the best and nothing less.
  • Don’t start offering yourself as a professional until you are getting consistent results in your work. You can’t be a luck or haphazard shooting-spree photographer and produce the results that your clients expect.
  • Don’t publicly display the kind of work your business isn’t built on.

Other things I’ve decided are helpful:

  • Stop looking at other photographers for inspiration more than you look at yourself. Before a session, I’m now looking at a folder of MY best work.
  • Listen to more music. On my way to a session, I listen to music that gets me in ‘the zone’ for my session. For country locations, I love listening to Priscilla Ahn, Mumford and Sons or Norah Jones. For urban and edgy, I get in the zone with Pink or the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack. And I now listen to music while I edit more than ever before.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for such a long time and I feel so relieved and cleansed now that I have. I feel that sharing my decisions with you all has actually made it even more final than when I made all those changes in the first place!

Now read part 2 one year later

  • OMG.  I am so happy and glad you posted this.  I have been going back and forth trying to find Jackie Spellen Photography, Picture Me 2, or Jackie’s Camera for the longest.  I find myself taking pictures just for the money and not enjoying photography as I once did. 
    I lost all the joy in taking pictures that I had to stop and find me, my photography.  I was the go-to person in my town for event photography, photo shoots, portraits, kids portraits, weddings, clubs, and headshots.  I made sure I read every book or watch every video that inspired me to do what other photographers were doing.  NO MORE!  I was being unfair to myself and to my clients.  I now know what I want to do and it’s strictly Headshots and Portrait Photography.Elizabeth, your points are dead on and I have a lot to take away from this post.  I am now subscribed and a regular on this site.  You really hit home –>straight here in NYC as I sit in front of my Mac reading this article.  You really hit home.My photography is me and my camera, capturing and controlling what I love.Thank you.  Thank you.

  • Everyone tells me I need to shoot weddings. That I’ll never make a living NOT shooting weddings. That if I try to make boudoir my main line, the fad will run out and I’ll be back in my just-retired-from full-time gig lickety split. I also don’t love shooting families and have yet to come back from a session revved up.

    I don’t want to shoot weddings or families, but apparently I “have to.” (oddly, I rarely hear about wedding-only photographers getting bullied into shooting portraits, or pet photography.) I love photographing women, newborns to kindergartners and couples. That’s what fills me up. And that’s what I want to do. When these are my subjects, my work is great. It looks like me and feels like me. When I shoot weddings or families, it feels derivative and doesn’t feel like me.

    Since I am just now full time in this career after 20+ years in my previous public relations/journalism career, I’m terrified that if I don’t do what “they” say I’ll fail. It’s a matter of experience and self-confidence. Any yet, I know that if I would have followed the advice I got straight out of journalism school (PR is evil) I wouldn’t have had a very successful and fulfilling career in nonprofit communications, where I did a lot of good.

    So maybe instead of listening to “them” I could listen to my own experience. I’ve never failed when following my heart. This blog is a great reminder about that. Thank you, Elizabeth.

  • Michelle


    I have been following your posts now for a few months and have to say this article has hit the nail on the head!  I am a budding photographer, early in setting up my business but very aware of what image I want to portray when I am ready to ‘put myself out there’!  So many others are rushing me to go live with marketing and my website but finding my style has been more important to me than compromise.  I struggle most days thinking I can’t do this, i’m not talented enough, today I read your blog and it gives me so much inspiration to keep going, Elizabeth ta v much for doing what you do, Michelle x

  • elizabethhalford

     Hi Michelle! Thank you so much for getting in touch :) You’re absolutely doing the right thing. Don’t be rushed because the people who rush you…where would they be if the whole thing fell apart? Do what YOU think is right.

  • Amanda Reynaert

    So. I LOVE THIS! This is SO where I am at, and have just come through. So. Flipping excited to have read this. I’m now bookmarking and will come back once I’ve got my work done for the day! AWESOME post! 

  • Andrea

    This is fabulous and just what I needed to read and understand! Thank you for finally putting into words what I have been trying to figure out for some time now. It all makes perfect sense. Thanks for the push to get me going again in the right direction. I was feeling like giving it all up and now I just feel like I need a good purging…a cleansing.

  • Lyndianimages

    Gosh I needed this post….. thanks so much for helping me to get my act together.  I started a folder of my work & was using it as inspiration before a shoot, but then I went on holidays, got out of the routine & forgot all about it – & checked out other photographers before my last few shoots….. big mistake. Thanks for reminding me. Also, less is more is now my motto, not only in showing my images to the public, but in style.   I quite weddings 6 months ago because I really disliked the post production section, but recently was offered a retail outlet for a very cheap price to show my work with the wedding planner. Opportunity was there, I was so tempted, but realised after a couple of days that I was stressing about it. I love shooting kids… & seniors – thats my plan now.   thankyou, thankyou thankyou. best wishes Lyndal

  • Michelle Nicole

    i would be dancing too. :-) getting nothing done.

  • Kristen Lawecki

    I just came across your blog today and want to thank you. My goal is to eventually start a small photography business and I’ve felt stuck lately on what my style is (okay, well a lot of things). I feel like I could do nothing but read your blog all day and try to absorb as much as possible. I’ve read a lot of photography blogs that are good, but sometimes it feels as though everyone else is on such a different playing level. You make it sound attainable. Your humor and honest is refreshing. Thank you.