Interview with Nicole Mason

Part 3 in the How to Start a Photography Business series.

In the last two posts in this series, I started out with more of the visionary and legal aspects of starting your own photography business. If you’re new here, I would highly encourage you to go check those out. They might not be as fun as this one and the ones I have planned to follow, but they have lots of important info that you need to know.

We’ve been using the analogy of board game squares as a way of ordering our steps to make the business start up process flow in a way that makes sense. We’re imagining that there are two board games being played simultaneously – a creative board and a business board. This is because we’re trying to run a business as an artist. Business and art are two very different fields of their own and each requires its own set of knowledge and skills. The fun part for us as creatives, is that business success also requires a high level of creative thinking, just in a different way.

Here’s a brief recap of the series so far:

Creative Board

  • Square 1: Find your niche and strive to be the best. Define for yourself WHO and WHAT you want to be in your market. What type of client do you want to attract and how will you make yourself stand out from the rest?

Business Board

  • Square 1: Find and register your business name. That is, if you’re NOT using your own personal name. Find something that’s available that you think adequately describes your brand and get it registered with a web host server ASAP.
  • Square 2: DBA. Register your business name Doing Business As with your state. Read Part 2 in this series to learn more. Learn from the mistake I made!
  • Square 3: Liability insurance and contracts: These definitely don’t sound like fun for us creative types, but they are absolutely necessary. You MUST protect yourself and your clients from unforeseen accidents and situations where you may need to enforce the terms of your contract.

Ok, now let’s move on the stuff that artists really want to talk about – making art…


Square 2 on the Creative Board – Build a portfolio

Now that your niche is defined, your name is established and your legalities are set in place, now you need to start booking clients. Advertising is a big part of that, but we’ll talk more about that later. Let’s assume you’re starting out the way most people do – you have a fancy camera and you love taking pictures. You don’t necessarily have an advertising budget because you don’t have any paying clients yet. How do you get clients with out money to advertise? The answer is: you give it away. Give away free photos to anyone you can get in front of your camera. The goal is portfolio building. Talk to your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, people you see on the street and get them to let you photograph them. And make every shot count. THIS is where you start building a reputation for excellence. Take awesome photos, GIVE them to the client free of charge, put them on your website, get the clients to post them on their social media and build up some reputation and online media buzz. Get people talking about your work. I would suggest doing this for at least 6 months before you take any money. Yeah that’s what I said. Being a professional is not a get rich quick scheme. It takes time, but the reputation you establish will last a long time.

Once you’re consistently receiving requests instead being the one asking, is the time to start charging money for your service. We’ll talk more about pricing later, but for now, let’s learn from the example of a serious up-and-comer in this business.

Interview with Nicole Mason


I discovered the work of Nicole Mason in 2014 when I was searching for someone to 2nd shoot for me while my wife was near the due date of our second child. I was looking for someone I could trust to do a great job and who’s style would mesh with my own. Ultimately, I didn’t actually get the opportunity to work with Nicole because she was in the process of relocating to Portland, Oregon, but I have continued to follow her work since then. She’s a fresh young talent and I thought it would be very appropriate to bring in someone who is producing amazing photography and has built up an audience of over 63K on instagram in just a few years.

Here’s my conversation with Nicole.


Q. You’ve come a long way in a pretty short time. Tell us how you got started.

I’ve taken photos pretty much all my life. As I went into college, I decided to major in Art and gradually began to concentrate in photography. Before that, I had never taken a formal class in photography, just took a camera with me everywhere I went. By my second year of college, I was sick of having part-time jobs in restaurants and retail so I started second-shooting weddings and began my own business too.

Since I was born, my parents have been documenting the lives of my older sister and I. I remember watching home videos on VHS when I was younger and flipping through albums of photos of everyday moments and family vacations. My sister and I both had these chunky, primary-colored 35mm film cameras that we took with us on trips and I occasionally would take pictures of the TV while my favorite movie was playing. I’m pretty sure I got in trouble for “wasting film” doing that.


Q. How did you learn photography and what makes you love it?

As I grew up, I was extremely interested in technology and its advancement. I was always excited about the next iPod or digital camera coming out. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a camera and there were not many places that I didn’t take it. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I got a DSLR though. That changed a lot for me. I was able to take better quality photos, use different lenses, and I think that’s when I realized how much I really loved taking photos.


Q. What were some of the most crucial tools for you (besides your camera) in getting started?

In college, I took all the photography classes that were offered, and repeated some with a different curriculum. I took all-manual film images with a Canon AE-1 and developed my own film in the darkroom for a couple of years. I’d say this experience was one of the most important in my education of photography; to learn and understand the original processes (from the photographers that took images on wet-plates, to daguerrotypes, to medium & large format, to 35mm film). Everything in the digital world now comes from these processes and I find the knowledge of them to be extremely valuable to how I shoot today.

Getting started, I had a T1i and a 50mm 1.8. I think I also used iPhoto to edit. Once I started getting more professional shoots I was able to afford better equipment and better software. In the process, I upgraded to a 5D Mark II and eventually a 5D Mark III with a few other lenses, the 50 1.2 being my go-to. I use Lightroom pri- marily to edit all my images; I honestly kind of hate photoshop, so if there’s anything I can avoid or change in the real-life setting of an image, I do.


Q. Who or what have been your biggest inspirations?

My inspirations come from various places. As I got into the wedding photography scene, one of the most inspiring photographers I came across was Sean Flanigan (now A Fist Full of Bolts). I am not even sure how I came across his work, but I followed it closely since I discovered it.


Q. You have a large audience on your social media sites like Facebook and instagram. What has been your approach to social media and leveraging those tools to grow your business?

With starting my business while still in school ( I went to a small, private school where everybody knew everybody) I found that word-of-mouth was one of the most crucial ways to gain a following. As I grew in my work and business, I realized that I needed to get my work out for more people to see, so I started posting a lot more on Facebook, started a website and blog, and got involved with Instagram. I also joined some groups on Facebook that are full of thousands of other photographers and began to post there regularly. The thing about social media, is that if you stay within its boundaries of the internet, it’s probably not going to get you too far. For me personally, a huge step was taking interactions on social media, into real life, and using it to connect with people face-to-face in real conversations and real connections.


Q. Getting lots of likes and comments is great PR, but has social media produced clients for you?

Social media has not yet produced too many clients for me, however it has made me some of the most im- portant connections that I have, which have led me to some big jobs & shoots. Having it as a networking tool is so important, and though it may not give you direct clients, the relationships you can form through it can be more powerful than you know.


Q. You started out in your home town in NY, but you recently relocated to Portland, OR. How has that affected your business as well as your art? Any pointers for someone moving their own business?

Relocating has been a major transition, but definitley a positive change and a lot of hard work. I think that for me, timing was everything. I graduated from school in May, shot 20 weddings around the Buffalo area that summer, and didn’t book any weddings for the following year, as I was planning the move at the end of the season. Social media also came into play for the move, as Instagram provided me with a lot of initial connections and the community that I now have in Portland.

The relocation has definitely affected my business and my art. The first thing is, I don’t have a client base here, so that whole word-of-mouth thing wasn’t really an approach that I could take. However, I did decide that I would have to be brave and just try to shoot as much as I could when I made the move, reaching out to people I didn’t know or who I happened to meet in a coffee shop. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to fall into out here, though, and through that, I’ve found one of the greatest changes is the creative community. I live with 4 other artists in an apartment that we are constantly using as a studio. That alone keeps me inspired and motivated – having daily access to a creative space and other creative minds.


Q. I know that for myself, it’s a heavy load to juggle being a creative and trying to run an orderly business. Fortunately, I have my very capable wife who handles most of our admin work, but when she has her hands full with the kids, it’s up to me. I get stressed out sometimes with all of it. How do you handle that stuff for yourself?

I can relate to the complexity of running a business and trying to balance that with being an artist. It’s not always the best duo, as I find that being a creative mind is not at all the mind of a business-person. I was brought up in an environment of hard work though, and I think that has really affected my entrepreneurship and the momentum of my business. I’ve had a job since I was 16 and many jobs in between, played sports, and always knew I wanted to do something I loved with my life, and had the amazing support of my parents in that as well. My mom has been there along the way to help me deal with taxes and setting up my business, so I haven’t been in it completely alone.


Q. What were some of your biggest struggles in getting started?

Some of the biggest struggles getting started was finding the time to balance all of the work, and figuring out how to price, and find value in my work etc. Since I started out among a community of people that I knew, I did a lot of work for free or very little pay, which I think is good and necessary when you’re first starting and haven’t had a lot of experience. However, making the transition, as I grew and got better, was difficult. I had many frustrating times where I felt that I was underpaid and that the value of my work was not appreciated.


Q. Photography is such a saturated market and there’s tons of amazing talent out there. How do you try to make yourself stand out from the crowd?

I hear this all the time. There are tons of photographers, but for some reason I’ve never really felt like I’m competing. I think that there are plenty of jobs to go around, and so many different types of photography out there. It does seem pretty crazy that most of us can make a living from this art. Finding my voice/style within photography is a process that I’d say I’m still going through, but have definitely come a long way from the beginning. The more I learn and the more I shoot, the more I realize what I like to shoot and how I like to edit, but there will always be more ways to change and develop your style. For me, “standing out” is just producing what I find to be the highest quality work and creative visions that I have, and the way I see things will be different from the way the next person sees them.


Q. You’ve been doing a project of taking a self portrait every week for year and publishing it. Did you learn anything that you would like to share?

There is so much that I could share about the 52 week project… It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself and my work to grow as an artist and photographer.

Q. Do you have any photography tips and tricks or online resources you want to share?

I honestly use Pinterest a lot, even if I don’t find the greatest photos on it, I use other art as inspiration. I also look in the Facebook group VSCO Film Users a lot.

Q. What are some of your goals for 2015?

Goals for 2015 include traveling for more weddings, really defining my style to attract the type of clients that I want. Doing more work that I love and less that I call “work”.


Q. Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

5 years from now I have NO IDEA where I see myself. I’m not sure if I want to continue shooting weddings or not, so we’ll see how that goes these next couple of years. I think the direction I’m heading is to work for a creative agency or firm and really be in an environment of creativity and a team that has a passsion to work on projects and make some awesome content.


Q. What message do you want your photography to say to the world?

Man, the message I want my photography to say to the world… I think that that varies and comes more into play in my personal work. I think that there are many moments that we take for granted, for some of us, most moments. The fact that photography captures a “moment” is one of the most beautiful things about it to me. A moment does not freeze in the real pace of life, and to have those slivers of time captured in frames, is to me, something magical. I think that I want my photographs to have that sense of mystery and reality combined. I want people to appreciate the little moments more and through photography, I think that message can be shared.


Connect with Nicole Mason: | Facebook | Instagram

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