Episode 210 – Massive Debt Left This 18-Year Career Photographer Ready to Quit. Her Inspiring Turnaround Story

Episode 210 - Massive Debt Left This 18-Year Career Photographer Ready to Quit. Her Inspiring Turnaround Story

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Photography Business Institute
Photography Business Institute

Sarah Petty: If you are an exhausted portrait photographer who is wondering if it’s time for you to throw in the towel and leave your photography business, this is for you. I’m talking to Georgia photographer, Angela Hopper Lee, a full-time photographer for 18 years. Life changes, market shifts and the pandemic left Angela in massive debt and wondering if she should quit photography altogether. And yet, something stopped her from doing that. Her story is a turnaround story for the ages and one that needs to be told.

Welcome, Angela. Share about your family and where you’re from.

Angela Hopper Lee: I am in Savannah, Georgia, have a husband and a 13-year-old daughter, and a house full of animals. I’ve been living in Savannah for 21 years. It’s a beautiful place to live and has lots of tourism.

Sarah Petty: You went to one of the top design schools in the country in Savannah? Can you talk about that?

Angela Hopper Lee: I went to Savannah College of Art and Design, and majored in photography and minored in illustration. 

Sarah Petty: Did they teach you any business there? 

Angela Hopper Lee: They touch on it a little bit. They basically teach you how to do an estimate or a quote, but it’s really geared towards commercial photography. I will say that I am one of few people from my class that are still doing photography.

Sarah Petty: Wow, that is shocking. But digital entering the market is what changed everything, because all of a sudden, there was so much competition. And if you don’t have the skills to know how to price, market and do all the things, then you don’t survive. What did your photography business journey look?

Angela Hopper Lee: I started out as an associate photographer for another photographer. Then, I got to a point where I was ready to break out on my own. I started my business around 2001 and did primarily weddings and some family photography. I really loved pet photography, and I was really trying to make that work. I was a print photographer back then, before digital was huge. I opened a studio in downtown Savannah and had a couple employees. I was busy and thought I was thriving, until I discovered that I was not making any money, so I closed my studio.

Sarah Petty: How did you discover that? 

Angela Hopper Lee: I was constantly worried about paying everyone else. When I was looking at my numbers, I realized I couldn’t have employees. So, I let everybody go, closed my studio and moved home, and my daughter was born that year. So, I did everything from home from 2010 till last year.  I felt like I failed. I love working with other people, so it was really hard for me to go from having a group of people to work with to doing it 100% by myself.

Sarah Petty: What did the future look like for you at that point?

Angela Hopper Lee: I still thought I could continue doing business this way. I tried to be a stay-at-home mom and work from home and eventually, I hired someone to come in and do my office work here at that house. I had somebody here because I needed help for about 2 years. It was too hard to do all by myself and try to be a mom. 

Sarah Petty: How did those next few years go? 

Angela Hopper Lee: Just plugging along. I was still working as a wedding photographer, and that was the biggest source of my income. I was also working for some of the local magazines and I picked up work from them. I was surviving. Just before the pandemic, I noticed a real downward slope, super-fast. I think it was when people started doing this shoot and burn and all of a sudden there were so many more photographers and I couldn’t compete. I had a couple regular clients that would always come back to me every year, but I wasn’t getting a lot of new clients and I didn’t know how to find them. 

Sarah Petty: So, you found me and jumped into Boutique Breakthrough, my program that teaches beginners to advanced photographers how to be boutique and profitable. What was that like for someone like you who had been doing it for so long? 

Angela Hopper Lee: I found myself being a vacation photographer. People came in for a vacation and didn’t want to buy prints. I knew there was a way I could do it, but I was exhausted from trying on my own. I turned myself into a shoot-and-burn photographer for the last five years and I was slowly losing money. I joined Boutique Breakthrough because I needed something to change or I was going to quit. I wanted to learn how to provide value to people. 

Sarah Petty: What opened up for you? 

Angela Hopper Lee: It terrified me not to sell digital files because I thought that’s what everybody wanted.  I didn’t realize that people would pay for artwork. I learned that I could call myself an artist and not just a photographer, and I needed to see value in myself. 

Sarah Petty: What were the pieces that you found in this program that you had been missing in your business?

Angela Hopper Lee: The first phone call was a big one. I never got to know my clients before working with them. I think that was the most terrifying thing to learn because I hadn’t ever done that before. 

Sarah Petty: And we showed you exactly what to say during that phone call and you mastered it. What about marketing? 

Angela Hopper Lee: I didn’t realize that I could go to different networking events to try to get portrait clients, talk about my business or ask questions that get other people talking about photography. You gave us lots of tips on how to start a conversation. I have always been very shy and introverted so it was huge to have those tips. 

Sarah Petty: So great. Can you tell us about your first Julie, $1k or more client order. What was going through your mind? 

Angela Hopper Lee: I was very nervous about the whole thing. My client was doing a session for her dog who had cancer. They came in and we did everything in the studio. When I did her sales presentation, I showed her a potential album layout. And she wanted it. She ordered the album and a series of three. It added up to just over $1,000. I wrote up the invoice and she paid a deposit. Then, she hired me for another photo shoot just a few months later and spent $700. I couldn’t believe that a pet client would pay me that. I don’t think I made more than maybe $300 off a client most of the time.

Sarah Petty: Wow. So, that was the first one. Your second and third Julies were $2,107 and $1,261. Over $4,300 in your first three clients.

Angela Hopper Lee: My sales have tripled since then.

Sarah Petty: Whoa. Did you get those three during Boutique Breakthrough in that eight-week time period?

Angela Hopper Lee: Yes.

Sarah Petty: What are your sales averages now?

Angela Hopper Lee: My averages are closer to $3,000.

Sarah Petty: Wow! And you gave up offering digital files. Were you terrified of that?

Angela Hopper Lee: Yes. The more I have the conversation, the easier it is to say no, because I can still offer that shareable digital image. People just want to have it on their phones. There’s all sorts of reasons why they want them. But I feel really good about what I provide for the client now because they’re going to have something to look at every day and bring them joy. It makes me feel good that I am serving them more.

Sarah Petty: Wow. Thank you for sharing your story.

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