I know this is a line that’s probably really expected from me, but I’m gonna say it anyway:
I am so EXCITED!!!
Why, you ask?! Because I just recently got back from spending an amazing week down in Tampa, Florida with the KelbyOne crew filming my new class, and somehow, by the power of the god of lightning and those little greek shoes with the wings on them that make things go really fast, the video has already been edited, made into magic and released!!!
We designed this new class around the one question that I get asked most often when people see my images:
“How are all the dogs you photograph so incredibly well-behaved?”
You want to know the big secret? They’re not. :)
We thought – what a brilliant idea it would be to take a look behind-the-scenes, to pull back the veil and show you what it’s truly like to photograph dogs in real world situations. (And not just any dogs – no, we’re talking extra challenging, extra wild, extra wacky dogs!) The class was an absolute blast to make and, harkening back to my earlier sentiment, I am SO excited to share it with you! Here’s a quick way to get there if you’re dying to see!
I thought – before I get into telling you about all the things I really want to tell you about today – it would be fun to share a few behind-the-scenes shots from the class filming. (forgive the quality of these photos, they’re just iPhone snaps. Because, you know, why would you use one of the 6 or 7 high end DSLRs that were just hanging around within a 10 foot radius of you when you could use a cell phone? HA!!) Oh, and you should be especially excited about that puppy. Because I am.
Now let me get in to what I’m here to talk to you about today:
The Immeasurable Importance of Personal Work
This is a really, really good time for me to be writing this blog post and I’ll tell you why.
In January, everything feels new. I get to start again, wipe away the slate and build everything even bigger and better than I ever have before (of course, I could do this at any time, during any month or any day of the year – but like the rest of society, seeing January 1st pop up on my calendar usually kicks my butt into gear in a way that any other date on the calendar could only dream of). So all of this being said, in January, I tend to do a lot of dreaming. I do a lot of thinking up big ideas, of making tremendous plans and setting goals that are so high they scrape across the sky. I have all these wild schemes to travel here, to journey there, to chase the last bits of yellow light across faraway landscapes, to follow my heart to shelter dogs across the world. I want to share more stories and give a voice to countless more voiceless.
I guess what I’m trying to say is; I have a heck of a lot of things I want to do. :)
So what’s my point here? When I think about all of these big dreams and adventures, I realize that almost every single one of them wouldn’t fall under the category of ‘commercial’ or paid client work. I suppose that’s the thing about chasing down that flickering light that’s causing such a burning in your heart – its intentions come from a place unmotivated by money or material things.
So, I have this great big pie-in-the-sky dream for this year. And that is to do more personal work.
And when I say ‘personal work,’ I’m talking about the kind of work that sets my soul on fire. The kind that makes my heart beat just a little bit faster. The kind that fills my stomach with little yellow butterflies just thinking about it.
See, here’s the thing about commercial and private, commissioned work. That stuff is great. Brilliant, actually – and I’m endlessly grateful for it. It pays the bills, keeps me sheltered and warm during these miserable New England winters, and keeps my favorite little four-legged dude’s bowl full of food.
However, commercial work can be creatively limiting. Commercial work means having a client that you have to please and whose preferences and opinions must be considered. There are deadlines and invoices and approvals. And most times, this translates to creativity and vision being controlled and ultimately, compromised.
But personal work? You know what’s so impossibly beautiful about personal work? It’s all up to me. I can make magic as big and as colorful and as absolutely unapologetically ‘me’ as possible. It’s limitless.
I have had the lucky privilege of traveling quite a lot and working all over the world. Throughout my adventures, I’ve been blessed to have met a lot of talented photographers. But here’s one thing I’ve found quite commonly in a lot of the creatives that I meet: It strikes me to discover that a lot of photographers seem to forget the immeasurable, unmatched value of personal work – only shooting for their clients, but never for themselves.
So here’s my secret for you: You don’t have to be being paid to be shooting. Just go outside and shoot.
When I was sitting in my studio today, thinking about all of the things I wanted to say in this blog post – something really big hit me. But don’t worry, I’m okay. …
(That was a joke. How’d I do?)
I realized that I have built my entire career on a foundation of personal work. It is at the very core of how I got to where I am today.
It’s the truth. I got my start in photography by volunteering my time at my local animal shelter. There was no motivation for money. There was no end game or specific intention to do anything other than share the stories of the animals that I loved so much. I watched them as they patiently waited for their families to come find them and I was fueled by passion. I was fueled by the way I felt when I looked through the bars of those cages and saw the big, round eyes of the forgotten looking up at me. Nothing more, nothing less.
If you have enough passion for the thing you’re photographing – for the moments that you’re capturing – being paid or not being paid to make those images is an irrelevant detail. Because you can’t fake passion. You can’t change it. You can’t control it. And that is what’s so brilliant about it. That kind of authenticity brings people from miles. When you’re shooting personal work – you’re shooting something you’re passionate about – no rules or restrictions or regulations. It’s the closest you’ll ever come to your one true voice as an artist. And thats why it’s just so damn important.
So you’re reading this and you’re probably saying — “well, this is all well and good Kaylee, but I’m a professional photographer, and I need money to live, I can’t just be shooting personal work all the time.”
But here’s the thing. Personal work pays off in a huge, huge way. It’s the magic in your body of work that moves the hearts and minds of clients.
It’s the icon – the face – that defines you and what you stand for. It’s the visual representation of exactly what it looks like on the inside of your heart, and it will very likely be the most moving reason that a client will dig into their wallets and hire you.
You know when you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea? And that idea is so big it fills your head and spills over the edges of the piece of paper you’re furiously scribbling on to document every last detail? And you think of it for days and days and it makes your heart beat faster and it makes your head buzz with the feeling of possibility? That’s where the magic is! Put your finger on it and hold it right there!!! That’s exactly the thing that you need to be shooting! Money or no money. You go, you chase that idea down and grab it by its tail and you create it. You breathe life into it. JUST SHOOT.
So, getting back to that whole ‘extreme value in personal work thing…’ I thought, sure, I could write this blog post and rattle off all my thoughts and feelings and leave you with a million pretty adjectives about why I think personal work is important, but maybe I should put my money where my mouth is and actually show you some real life examples of what personal work has done for me.
This sweet girl here is Abby. I met Abby last year when I was visiting a friend’s ranch property down in Southern California. We were there to relax. Hike. Have campfires. Walk under the stars. You know, just generally get away from the madness of business and emails and deadlines, etc. We were there to be simple. To ‘vacation’.
Here’s the thing though — a funny little thing I’ve found throughout the years — you can’t take a vacation from passion.
I saw Abby happily chasing the rancher’s tractor as she was transporting bails of hay out of the barn. I looked up and saw that fairytale sky – those sweeping clouds, dancing through the deep blues of the late afternoon. The California sun was sparkling overhead, swirling through Abby’s fur and warming our skin. When I have moments like this — moments where inspiration strikes me like a dagger in the chest – they feel so familiar. My heart begins to slam against my rib cage in a syncopated rhythm – reminding me that moments like this don’t come twice. So I shoot. I just need to shoot. That’s passion. There’s no rhyme or reason or formula that can make any sense of it. No. It’s nonsense of the absolute best kind. It’s actual magic. So, I did what I needed to do and was suddenly on a mad chase back to my cabin as quickly as my feet would carry me to grab everything I needed to make Abby’s photo.
I spent about 20, maybe 30 minutes, photographing Abby that day. The resulting images brought me no money, no fame, no special awards or accolades — they just brought me joy in my heart. They simply brought me pride and satisfaction for bringing and idea to life and capturing that spirit of canine that I love so much. That’s all.
Well, fast forward a few months later – I got a call from the editor of one the biggest dog magazines in the industry. My heart skipped a beat when they told me they had seen Abby’s photo and wanted it on their cover. Not only did that opportunity bring me a paycheck – but it also brought me that unbelievable feeling of walking into a Barnes and Noble and seeing my work staring back at me from the shelf.
How about this next one? This is my own dog Joshua. That basically means that every photo I take of this magical little creature is really just personal work. It’s me wanting to document every moment of silliness and joy that he so selflessly brings me on a daily basis, just as one would want to document their wedding or vacation. No one is paying me to photograph my own dog. When I create his images, all I know for sure is that, while not getting paid in dollars, I’m getting paid in beautiful, tangible memories that I’ll be able to put in my pocket and hold close to my heart for the rest of my life. And that’s all I need for motivation.
Well, one hot Summer day, I took Joshua to his favorite lake for a swim. We got into the water and started splashing around, playing fetch and just being generally silly and carefree, as we like to do. But then, minutes in – I got that familiar feeling again — that pang in my heart and that pounding in my chest when I know I absolutely must capture a moment. So right then and there, I left Joshua with his Dad and I hopped in the car, wet bathing suit and all, and went flying back home to grab my gear just as quickly as I could so I could return and make this image.
Since then? Not only has this image brought me countless smiles on a personal level – but it’s also been featured in multiple commercial ad campaigns across the world – – bringing me a sum of well over 5 figures in licensing fees to date.
If you’re not convinced on personal work yet, hang tight, I have a few more for you…
Here’s Joshua again. It was another one of those times – the kind of vision that would wake me in the middle of the night. An idea that brewed in my head, taunting me in every quiet moment, until I took the time to give it life. I took Joshua to a local park, bought a comical amount of balloons from the local party store on the way, and with the help of one of my best friends – made this image. (If you’re thinking ‘it cant be that simple’ – you’re right — don’t let me fool you – this image was an absolute marathon of frustration and obstacles and audible cuss words to make. ha! But I suppose that’s another post for another day.)
Now, I have this photo of Joshua as a 40 x 40 piece of artwork hanging in my studio. I look at it everyday and his joy and spirit infiltrate and inspire me like absolutely nothing else does. But, what has this image done for me, professionally, you ask? Fair Question.
Last year, it was featured in an ad campaign by a large pet food company bringing me income and brand awareness. It was also the cover image on The Unexpected Pit Bull calendar — an organization whose work I care very deeply about.
It was an interior image in my 2016 calendar ‘Pawsitive Thinking’, it’s in circulation on the front of a Birthday greeting card, and it’s printed on the new Dog Breath Photography clothing line that was just released this past Fall. WHEW! (oh, and shameless clothing line plug: BOOM!)
Okay. As I said above – what’s all this personal work talk without real life examples, right? Right. So, I saved the best for last, because here’s my favorite one ever.
A little while back, I took a special trip down to a quiet little city in Florida called St. Augustine to visit my grandmother. When I was in town, I got in touch with an old friend of mine who I knew lived in the area and we made time to meet. This friend of mine has 4 beautiful dogs and we decided to take them on a walk. I casually brought my camera along, thinking I might be able to do a little practicing of photographing multiple dogs together while we were out there. I snapped this photo on the forest path just as we started walking in. I delighted in the image as I looked at the back of my camera, but then counted that moment as nothing more than a documentation of a special afternoon with a dear, old friend and 4 beautiful canine souls. And that was all I needed.
I never, in a million years, would have imagined that this image from our walk in the forest would soon be solely responsible for making one of my longest-standing, most surreal dreams come true. Earlier this year, I was contacted by National Geographic who had seen this image and wanted it as their cover photo for the premiere issue of their brand new magazine – Nat Geo Wild. (hang on a second while I go sob joyfully and uncontrollably for like 30 or 40 minutes..…)
So, here’s the thing. Personal work MATTERS. It matters more than I can ever say. It creates untold opportunities. What is inside your heart is far more important than any client plan or commercial call sheet for any shoot that could ever happen. So, that’s why, this year, I plan to do a heck of a lot more of it.
If I could recommend one thing, it’s this: Don’t sit back and watch your email inbox, waiting for something big to happen to you. You go happen to IT. Go make yourself opportunities. Go find those dreams.
‘Cause heres the thing about dreams; they can be elusive, sneaky little devils — but take it from me, if you chase them down with every last breath in your chest – you can catch them,
…and they do come true.
Now that I’ve inundated you with some of my favorite images, I would LOVE to see some of the personal work that you’re most proud of. Post away in the comments and I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for your work! I’m excited to see what you’re all up to!! :)
From the very bottom of my heart, thank you for reading this and for filling this world up with color and creativity. Grateful to be living, breathing and creating alongside all of you!