Melanie Taylor is a local photographer from the Chicago, IL area who’s passionate about capturing stories on camera. She specializes primarily in event photography, but her talents and experience also span commercial and residential photography, candid and portrait photography, wedding photography, photojournalism, styled interior architectural photography, and beyond. We sat down with Melanie to pick her brain about what it takes to be a successful professional photographer. We’re excited to share her tips and tricks learned over her 20+ years of experience with you!
Tell me about your journey to becoming a freelance photographer.
I started shooting in high school. It was back in the days of wet labs and film. My first camera was a Canon AE1 with a 50mm 1.8. I had a big crush on Georgia O’Keeffe and my early work had a lot of flowers. When I started incorporating people, I loved it. I’ve never been much with a brush and paper, so photography gave me creative freedom. I put in years and years of wedding photography for bigger companies before I was comfortable shooting on my own. I got to mentor under lots of different photographers as a second shooter and with that experience, you start to see how to work on the fly.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a photographer?
It’s as much about the images as it is about how you make someone feel about themselves. I once worked with a wedding photographer who had a really big, over the top personality. He’d exude positivity and enthusiasm, and knew exactly how to make people feel confident and relaxed. He’d be shooting a bride and groom and he’d say “OH MY GOD– these look so good, you look so amazing,” and just kept the praise going. He did it so well that they believed it, and they felt more confident all day, without even seeing the shots he’d taken. Half of it is making someone feel like they look really good, and then they’re going to do better for you during the shoot. I tried to absorb that and it’s definitely one of my stronger aspects.
I’ve photographed a lot of families – and sometimes the men can get weird and awkward. They do this tense smile, and turtle themselves (rigid shoulders and neck) so it’s really important to help them relax and get them into a more natural pose, with the shoulders out, neck back, and a slight turn of the head. To help them feel more comfortable, it sometimes helps to touch them gently and give them eye contact, which boosts their confidence. Don’t be afraid to say, “You look so good!” and tell them how beautiful their wife and children are. Bring some jokes into it, softly feel out their interests. 95% of the time it’s the women who are booking the shoot, so it’s helpful to quiz them a little bit. Ask what her husband is into, take note of any special interests, ask about his cars, favorite sports, just to have something to talk about. “Oh, I hear you have this really big truck,” you say — then you can see when someone cracks and you break past that uncomfortable barrier.
What’s your favorite subject matter to photograph and why?
I really enjoy photographing events and the people enjoying them. It’s super rewarding to see people interacting and capture their feelings toward each other and the space where it’s all taking place. My favorite event last year was the 4th of July celebration at Rolling Green Country Club. So many happy people, amazing food, beautiful decor, and a huge firework display!
What’s the biggest challenge you face as a professional photographer?
It can be a highly competitive field. I’m very fortunate to be part of the Happy Tog group. They are like minded photographers who enjoy sharing knowledge and resources. With wedding photography, the biggest challenge is usually managing the client’s expectations and talking them down from anything that’s unrealistic.
How do you prepare for a wedding shoot? Any rituals or special techniques to get to know the bride and groom beforehand?
When a couple inquires about a wedding, we always meet for coffee first. I want to get to know who they are and if we are a good match. We usually hang for an hour and talk about their priorities for the day. If they have a Pinterest board already, we look at it together. About a month before the date we spend another hour on the phone talking about the timeline and what are realistic expectations within it. The week before the wedding, we confirm addresses. On the wedding day, we relax and have fun!
Any advice for other photographers just starting out on their entrepreneurial journey?
Find good mentors and DON’T work for free! There’s nothing like tons of experience to make you better. Just putting those hours under your belt will help you learn to work on the fly and adapt to the environment.
Can you tell me about the most fun photo shoot you’ve ever done?
Last fall I had the opportunity to take pictures for an engagement. We had so many rainy weekends in a row that scheduling had been a problem. Finally, we had a 2-hour window on a Saturday morning. We tromped through the woods to a spot that had some colorful graffiti I had scouted earlier in the year. Well…now there was a raging stream halfway into it due to the rains. It was unexpected and I have to hand it to the guy, he kneeled down right in it and proposed. The water soaked his pants and shoes and made for an amazing image. It was so beautiful, I couldn’t help but let a couple tears flow!
How do you market your photography business? Can you talk about your social media strategy and what works to secure new clients?
I have my website, MelClicks.com and my Facebook business page. I use social media to tag photos of my clients, and request if they post that they also tag me. I also tag the venue in my posts which helps me build great relationships with the facility coordinators and gives the venue some exposure, too. I find that sharing amazing GIF images works really well for high engagement on social media! Posts with just text, not so much. Also, I have redundancy with my Facebook and blog posts. Jimdo is my website provider and it’s been eye-opening watching the flow of traffic and that 99% of the time it’s being viewed on a mobile device. As always, the best advertising is referrals from former clients.
How do you stay inspired?
I stay creative by being involved with the local photo community. Sometimes it’s a photo shoot that has nothing to do with my genre that gives me a burst of new ideas. Sure it can be tough to walk into an event where you might not know anyone, but the payoff can be a great new contact!