“Don’t Be Afraid” – Emily Soto On What It Takes To Succeed As A Photographer Today

“Don’t Be Afraid” – Emily Soto On What It Takes To Succeed As A Photographer Today

Everything starts from nothing. Thousands dream of being full time photographers, but knowing how to start a business - and how to grow it - are really tricky parts of a complex equation. Emily Soto today celebrates 4 years of full time professional photography. In this exclusive interview, she shares insights on how she has grown her business, as well as the struggles, hardships and rewards she's encountered along the way. If you're curious about what it takes to make it as a successful photographer today, this might just provide the answers you've been looking for.

For many of us, the lives we live are often set in self-imposed stone. The thought of changing career paths and living out our dream job is almost unfathomable, especially after some time on one particular path. But it can be done.

This article is about telling the story of one such photographer, Emily Soto, and how her story of journey and growth and development can help those who might be looking at photography as a career choice (or those who are photographers but are trying to grow their business). Throughout this article, I'll post up images that show Emily's progression as a photographer and artist, so you can see how her work has developed over the years, alongside the growth in her business skills.  

Something that fascinates me is career path changes because so few of us make them, thinking they aren't possible. Fear can trap us doing jobs we don't like, or aren't fulfilled by, because we worry we risk losing what we have if we change track. Emily's career as a professional photographer has certainly not always been easy, but she has persevered, and I think many of us could do it, if we too just embraced the idea and took the plunge. 

Like Emily, I was doing something very different a few years ago. I was a project manager and worked in a very different industry and had spent many years doing that job. This year I celebrate two years in business and I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the top industry professionals like Lindsay Adler, Peter Hurley, Vincent Laforet and Emily herself, who I've interviewed today. I've been making a living working on fashion, commercial, music and lifestyle stills and video shoots in one of the most competitive cities in the world. I even get enough free time to shoot what I love, documenting the streets, sighs and sounds of daily life in New York City. 

The reason I mention this is, like Emily, I knew no one here, and hardly anything about the industry just a few years ago. The thoughts of setting out on a different career path was terrifying, but getting over our fear is key if we want to embrace change. 

This article is really aimed at demonstrating the power of what you can achieve when you set your heart and mind to do something. 

Making career path changes, and the idea behind getting over our fears to go out there and make that change, is something I find fascinating. As I scrolled through my Facebook feed this morning, I noticed a post from Emily, which sparked this article. Like my own experience, Emily was living out quite a different life just a few years ago.

I grew up in a small town in North Carolina and later moved to California. I never thought I’d be living in New York four years later, making a living as a full time fashion photographer.

Today, Emily celebrates her 4th year anniversary as a full time fashion photographer. She has over 600,000 fans who follow her work on Facebook and is living out her dream job as a fashion photographer in New York, one of the most competitive markets in the world, traveling across the world to shoot for clients and to host workshops. Since deciding to go full time 4 years ago (she was doing photography as a side business a year before that), she has grown a substantial business and carved out a name for herself.

But like everything, she started from nothing.

 

Everything Big Starts From Something Small

Emily didn’t grow up knowing she would even be a photographer let alone a fashion photographer.

I really only started playing around with photography towards the end of 2010. Vic, my husband, who had learnt a lot from a good friend about wedding photography and had actually shot weddings himself, taught me the basics.

Soon, a friend who had started modeling became Emily’s first model and test shoot subject. If there was a decisive moment in her new career path, this was undoubtedly it. That started the ball rolling for shooting fashion and really sparked a desire to make photography her career (she had previously been working within healthcare administration). 

Emily's very early work in 2010. A very different look, feel and style to the progression you'll see throughout this article.

More of Emily's early work in late 2010

The creativity of fashion photography was really more of what I liked – the fact you can create a story and be more whimsical was what really appealed.

I was curious to know how she had developed and grown, and some of the challenges she had faced along the way.

The biggest learning curve and initial challenge has been learning good time management, and working on projects that are beneficial and well organized instead of just saying yes to anything.

I asked Emily if she had a system for how she approaches work now.

“If it’s financially beneficial, or, if they are hiring me for my style and I have a lot of creative control but the budget isn’t as big then I’m still open to it. Selecting the model, location, and approach provides creative control, and then I’m much more willing to be flexible. Every project is assessed individually, but because my time is much more precious now, I can afford to be more selective about the work I take up, but this is always tricky when starting out and trying to either earn money or, work out which projects might lead to something creatively fulfilling”.

I basically had no plan at all when I stared. Four years ago I really knew nothing about fashion photography. I didn’t know who the big names were, or who the masters were – all I had was Flickr and social media for inspiration. I basically grew up in a really small town in North Carolina, and never even thought I’d live in a big city, and had no contacts in the industry.

2011 starts to become more whimsical, with more shallow depth of field and lots of attention to the behavior of natural light

More work from 2011

From 2012, as Emily goes full time, we start to see further refinement in her vision and style, with attention paid to framing, depth of image within the frame (using shallow depth of field to play with layers) and lots of soft natural light and retouching

The Flip Side

For those who were thinking about their own move to being full time photographers, we often imagine it’s about shooting all day every day and seeing only one small facet of the profession. Emily agreed her friends and family often think the same thing but she understands why:

One thing I didn’t quite appreciate when I started out was the amount of work involved. The first year I really didn’t make very much. It’s more than a full time job. Friends and family think I just shoot and ^ have fun but sometimes I work nonstop – from early in the morning through to whenever I go to sleep.

And then there are the aspects that aren’t that glamorous to deal with. The “necessary evils” of managing your own business:

Emailing is the worst. The business side can be a little overwhelming. I often have tons of emails to read at night which means I don’t sleep until late. Working on Fashion Actions (Emily’s LR and PS actions based off of her retouching workflow) is also part of this love of retouching, and I don’t want to stop doing this entirely.   

My business has required a lot of dedication. The first year I was working a regular job and doing photography on the side and in 2012 I went full time. It’s not always glamorous - there have been catalog jobs and look books that have been a lot of work and not necessarily people hiring me just for my creative style and input. But in a small way, I think I’ve grown with each job.

The rewards though clearly far outweigh the hardships of running her own business.

If you’re doing something you’re passionate about, it doesn’t really feel like work most of the time. The creativity and shooting aspects are definitely the best part. You’re creating new work and working with new models, stylists and teams. I’m also very lucky to be able to meet so many people around the world through my workshops. I never imagined I’d be doing that especially as I was very shy growing up.

 

Developing (And Growing) Her Own Style

With hindsight being a beautiful thing, I was curious to know if there was anything Emily wish she would have done differently.

I wish I’d discovered the “masters” earlier. It really would have helped me with finding my style and direction sooner rather than just doing my own thing. Figuring out my style over the last four years has been an evolving process. Finding the work of [fashion photographer] Paolo Roversi has been very influential in my style as his work has so much emotion. I realized I wanted to do more in studio and focus on developing my studio lighting, and finding lighting set ups that I was passionate about.

Emily’s images throughout this article are indicative of the change in style as Emily has developed and refined her vision and approach. We all start from nowhere and grow as our photographic journey evolves and changes.

Very soft light and color, with natural light and attention to posing and overall look starts to become evident as Emily continues to refine her vision

2012 image that really focuses on body language (and emotional message) being communicated from the subject

The Importance Of Being Social

There have been other, huge changes since Emily started four years ago. “Social media has become a huge thing  even since I first started. When starting out, I would spend hours a day updating, commenting on work and getting social media traction. Today, I would estimate 80% of my jobs are from people that find me through social media. It’s importance to my business is huge”.

But we all start from somewhere, and I was curious to know more about how Emily had successfully grown her social media presence to what it is today.

Everyone starts with zero followers, I remember when I started too. But I’ve always been very goal orientated. When I started on Flickr and Facebook I remember saying stuff like “My aim is to get 7 followers a day, or 70 a week”. Simple goals like that. I’d go to Flickr and really try to engage with other photographers and this started to grow my social network. The business today is not just about photography but social networks, and connecting with others is so important too.

This interaction has been instrumental early on about setting her approach to social media. If you look on her page now, you’ll see she often comments directly to questions on posts that might have hundreds of comments.

I was curious as to know whether she had a way of working out if participating in social networking activity was worth her time and her response was very telling about her approach and view of networking:

Even now, I just try to update things often. I’m not consciously looking to see if it’s worth my time. Google+ for instance – I might get 10 likes on something, but to me it’s always worth my time because if only one person clicks on a link or checks out my work, if it’s inspiring to them, then it’s worth my time.

While it might place massive pressure on her time to manage all of her social network activity, it has undoubtedly been this full-on approach that has won the hearts and minds of her supporters, who feel they can connect with her directly.

This networking and relationship management skill set is obviously incredibly important today, outside of just social networks, but with her clients too.

Building the relationships with model agencies and clients is really important. The more you work with them and the more they like the work, the more they’ll trust you to work with their models, or hire you for future jobs. They get to know you and your work and get you back for more.

More soft natural light on location, with play on color and layering with the frame

2013 image that shows a further development toward a much cleaner, starker and refined approach to capturing emotion, with more of a classic portraiture approach to fashion and beauty work

More strong fashion portrait work from 2013

2013 film and Polaroid usage really starts to take hold, as Emily begins to enjoy experimenting with the look and qualities that this medium provides

Images from 2014 show a further refinement in style, that hints far more at almost classical painterly style fashion and beauty work, influenced by classic masters like Roversi, yet realized in her own distinct style

Is It Worth It?

Making the decision to become a full time photographer (or videographer or creative) isn’t easy, especially when transitioning from an unrelated job outside of the industry, when you’re married and have responsibilities. 

But it can be done. Emily’s four year journey is evidence of that. Nothing good comes easy and the rewards for Emily are clearly worth it.

Your path might be different. Take what you can form the good advice here, apply what is relevant, but the most important thing to do is go out and do it, do something, anything.

Emily summarized this thinking perfectly when we closed out today and I asked her what one thing she would say to others who are thinking about starting out, or growing as a photographer.

A friend recently challenged me to collect ‘no’s’. What I mean is, I generally like to play things safe. But I’ve learned you can’t grow without trying and the inevitable rejection that comes with that. Whether it’s reaching out to a new magazine, client, model agency don’t be afraid to ask as you never know who might say yes and where it could lead you.

Shape and form and simple but classic style begins to dominate the frame in this 2014 image. Again, less is more and this reflects the ongoing refinement in Emily's style and approach to her photography

2014 Polaroid that shows an almost haunting, natural beauty, quite far removed from the images that were being shot when she first started out

Special thanks: Emily Soto

For more info on Emily, check out:

Emily Soto's website

Emily Soto on Facebook

Emily’s Twitter

Emily’s Instagram

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22 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

Great article. Emily is one of my faves and an inspiration to myself and my fellow students.

David Geffin's picture

thanks Nick, glad you enjoyed it

Chip Kalback's picture

Awesome story and beautiful images!

Jason Ranalli's picture

Thank you David for writing this....I really needed this today. Completely burnt in my current line of work.

David Geffin's picture

Thanks Jason, a comment like this is seriously all it takes to make the 4-5 hours of work for these articles completely worthwhile. Best of luck with getting out of that rut, the first step is always the hardest and hopefully this piece greases the cogs a little for you :)

Jason Ranalli's picture

Thank you David...this article hit me like a ton of bricks this morning and was so inspirational.

David Geffin's picture

Very welcome amigo :)

James Lewis's picture

David... I can't tell you how much I enjoyed (and needed) this article. I really appreciate the discussion on the evolution of figuring out "what the hell you're doing" on both the creative and business side. I feel like a style nomad right now and struggle with this lack of a creative identity. This article was informative and inspiring. Thank you.

David Geffin's picture

Thanks James, and as i mentioned to Jason above, comments like this really help continue to motivate to put work into creating this sort of content, so thank you for the positive feedback, very much appreciate it.

As for feeling like a style nomad - i honestly think that we all go through this, to greater or lesser degrees, constantly. Evolution of our style and where we go changes as our knowledge, confidence, passion and vision changes - try to embrace the process (and journey) of discovery and look for the small facets or elements in your work (or those who inspire you) and try to articulate what those are - and then seek to create and foster that. I think Emily, myself and many others I have spoken with all try to do that in our own way, which helps. Style takes time to develop and while it can be frustrating, try to enjoy the journey of self discovery :)

BTW you might want to check out some of my earlier posts as a writer here from 2013 where i talk about this sort of stuff in more depth:

https://fstoppers.com/originals/best-way-improve-your-images-free-2667

James Lewis's picture

Thanks of taking the time to reply David; I really appreciate it. I'l be sure to read all your earlier work. ;)

Simon Dyjas's picture

Very concise and good flow, I enjoyed it. I'm planning on cutting the cord soon. I'm gonna make 2015 my bitch.

Denis Girard's picture

David, this article has been one of the most inspiring one I've read on this site ...and I'm here everyday! lol I am personally going through this process myself and all the growing pains that come with it! Thank you for giving me a little bit more strength in the process! :)

David Geffin's picture

thanks Denis, sincerely appreciate your nice words and feedback, and really really glad I managed to give you a little shot in the arm as you work through the growing pains! Keep at it - it never gets easy but it does get easier (at least in my experience) ;)

Denis Girard's picture

thanks again David!

Colleen Farrell's picture

I really really really needed to read this. I've been starting to slip into the mindset that I'll never make it and I'm wasting my time yada yada yada. Basically, I let fear hold me back completely. I've written myself a little note that says "don't be afraid" to carry around with me. Thank you for this interview and article!

David Geffin's picture

You're very welcome Colleen. Fear of the unknown holds ALL of us back, never think you're alone in that struggle :)

Brooke Shaden has a great tattoo that i love - not sure if you know her, she's a wonderful fine art photographer. I've posted a pic of it here (sorry not sure who took this so can't credit them)

Kelsey Campion's picture

Thank you so much for taking the time to write these... I find myself searching for articles like this when dealing with self-doubt. In the middle of a career change (from forensic psychology to fine art/fashion photography) and while it is so exciting thinking about the possibilities I definitely question my ability to pull it off... so thank you for sharing your story and Emily's story. Feel a little better knowing others have taken the same path!

Kelsey

David Geffin's picture

Thanks Kelsey, really appreciate your comment and nice words. Self doubt is something most of us deal with, whether we think of ourselves as 'artists' or not, but it's particularly apparent in the creative world because benchmarking your success (however you wish to define that) is so much less tangible (hence why many of us gravitate to social media "likes/follows" as ways to determine or measure our own self worth - IMHO anyway).

Questioning our ability is what keeps us grounded - but be sure to temper that questioning with an equal part of "f**K it, i'm going for it, no one will stop me" attitude. Trust me, that part is just as important, if not more so, than wondering whether or not we're "good enough" or capable of making the transition. Once you get the ball rolling fast enough, the momentum can't be stopped :)

Sophie Guillemette's picture

Très inspirant ! Merci !

J D's picture

Fear is a hard thing to overcome. I am in that boat right now. I am tired of being a "pinterest" photographer with clients bringing me images they wish to copy and am trying to find MY style, not imitate someone else's work. My fear of people not liking or wanting the style I come up with, is holding me back and it sucks.

Zaid Izzuddin's picture

You know what, I really needed to hear this as hearing about her and how she began, just sparked an drive in me to keep pushing it and I will be after this GREAT article!! Love her work and her vision <3

Kendra Paige's picture

I've long admired Emily Soto and her photography. Her work ethic and dedication to the craft seems boundless. Thank you for this article!