My Photography Journey | Part One

My photography love story begins fifteen years ago.

After months of trying, an uneventful pregnancy, a failed induction, and a c-section, my oldest child was born 11 days past my due date in October 2006.

Eight days later, I pulled out my tiny Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot camera to take photos for a birth announcement. I was not a photographer, had never studied photography, and newborn photography wasn’t really a “thing.”

But I knew I wanted something soft and sweet to announce our new addition to friends and family, so I turned off the flash on the camera and laid my precious new baby on a hand-knit white blanket. Then I opened the blinds and started shooting away.

2006 Newborn | Christy Johnson Photography
My heart, living and breathing outside of my body.

Even though these are just snapshots, it’s funny to look back and see how my soft, simple style was always in me, even when I didn’t know it.

This child, since birth, has been non-stop motion. Most of the photos I got that day were unusable – without the flash, the little camera couldn’t freeze the actions of a wiggy, wide awake baby. But I never liked overly flashy photos. “I need a faster camera to keep up with this kid!” I declared to my husband.

Two months later, he surprised me with my first DSLR camera for Christmas. It was a Canon Rebel, complete with a kit lens and all the accessories.

I eagerly started playing around with my new camera, but every photo I took was awful. I tried reading the manual, but it may as well have been written in Greek. I couldn’t understand any of it!

Around that same time, I was forced to cut my maternity leave short by two weeks and return early to my full-time job as an onsite sales agent for a national homebuilder. Working full-time with a newborn didn’t leave a lot of time for a new hobby, so I just dabbled a bit here and there over the next year.

2007 Christy Johnson Photography
Playing with my new camera was fun and frustrating throughout 2007.

Back then, internet forums were just starting to become popular. I happened on to one called ilovephotography.com, and I was immediately hooked.

The people on ILP, as it was known, held nothing back when critiquing photos. They called it hard hat constructive criticism (HHCC), and it could be brutal. Many a budding photographer was reduced to tears after posting a photo she’d worked hard for, only to have it torn to bits.

I loved it. Not that I posted any photos myself, nope nope nope – I was way too chicken for that! Instead, I would soak up every word they rained down on some poor soul’s image. I’d dissect what went wrong, what went right, and what could be improved. I photographed my baby, I photographed our pets. And when they got sick of the camera in their faces, I photographed stuffed animals on the back porch.

I practiced, I read, and I absorbed everything I could in the free time I had. The results were terrible.

2008 Christy Johnson Photography
Fall of 2008. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, but I was too afraid to ask.

By the fall of 2008, the real estate market was crashing around us. I was the main income-earner in our family, earning 100% commission. I was also pregnant. Scared and stressed out, photography became my refuge.

In January 2009, my business, Christy Johnson Photography, was born. Baby number two came the very next month.

2009 Newborn | Christy Johnson Photography
My newborn photography changed quite a bit from baby #1 to baby #2.

Twelve weeks of maternity leave flew by, part newborn haze, part bouncy toddler, and part the start of a photography website. By the time I went back to work, I was ready to take on clients.

(I’ve marveled to many clients over the years about how much energy I must have had back then! A two-year old, a newborn, a full-time job, and starting a new business on the side. No one can tell me that mothers aren’t superheroes.)

Like a lot of beginning photographers, I struggled. As a former preschool teacher, interacting with the children was the easy part, but there was just so much to learn! Lighting. White balance, my long-time nemesis. And Photoshop, the biggest beast of them all.

2010 Christy Johnson Photography
The earliest client photos I could find. I know there’s more somewhere, because I photographed the sweet girl top left as a newborn.

Beyond the struggles with photography was the business side of things. Branding, pricing, sales, marketing, bookkeeping, taxes and more. So much more.

In early 2010, I hired my friend, Kathleen O’Grady, of Raleigh Coaching. It was my first experience with coaching, and it was wonderful. She helped me come up with a new brand that felt true to me as an artist and an entrepreneur. I called it Be True Image Design. (Because Be True Photography was taken, of course.)

2010 Be True Image Design
The first logo for Be True Image Design, circa 2010.

By the fall of 2010, I was excited about the direction of my business. At the same time, I was miserable. The real estate market had not yet recovered. Sales were down, which meant commissions were down. And as we all know, shit rolls downhill. The higher ups in our company squeezed us sales people as hard as they could, but we couldn’t sell what people weren’t willing to buy. They put the pressure on even harder, cutting bonuses on top of our already thinning paychecks. And then they reduced us from one weekend off per month to one weekend off per quarter.

That broke the last f%*& I had left to give. Before the change to my weekends, I barely got to see my husband as it was; we were ships crossing in the night, passing off childcare duties for two very young children at home. We treasured our one weekend a month together as a family. To rip that family time away was a deal-breaker for me, and I began plotting my exit.

I was ready to become a full-time photographer.

2010 Christy Johnson Photography
By the fall of 2010, my photography skills had come a long way.

But that was a problem. My husband worked for a tiny company, and he didn’t earn enough to support us if I quit. His company also didn’t offer health benefits at the time.

I was stuck. I’d sit glumly at my desk, playing with the numbers, over and over. As the daughter of an entrepreneur, being my own boss and calling all the shots was in my makeup. And I desperately wanted to be home with my kids, who were growing so fast. I knew I could do both – be home with my kids and run a business on the side. It would be hard, but I could see the dream so clearly in my head.

I concocted a plan to quit my job in January 2011. But the numbers just wouldn’t add up. The dream was destined to remain a dream.

I was beyond frustrated and angry at the world. It was hell.

And then, just before noon on a bright, sunny day in November of 2010, I called my husband at work. “I just got fired,” I told him through my tears.

Shell-shocked, we went to lunch to talk things through, and by the end of his lunch hour, we had a plan.

I was free.

This is part one of a short series about my photography journey. Stay tuned to read more!

Christy Johnson is a newborn, child, and family photographer in Raleigh, NC, specializing in capturing the milestones of baby’s first year. Christy is also a coach and mentor for portrait photographers, teaching all aspects of a profitable photography business, including photography, photo editing, branding, marketing, pricing, sales, service, and more to photographers around the world.

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