Episode 98 – From Creative to Career: How a Single Woman with a Painting Degree Fell Into an Accidental Career as a Portrait Photographer

How a Single Woman with a Painting Degree Fell Into an Accidental Career as a Portrait Photographer


Photography Business Institute
Photography Business Institute

After earning a degree in painting from Northwestern University, Jill Liebhaber accidentally fell into a career as a portrait photographer.

What started as a job working in a portrait studio turned into a love for photographing kids.

Jill opened her own boutique portrait studio in Chicago called Jookie 16 years ago.

Today, we’re going to talk about Jill’s journey as a single woman who supports herself on her income from her portrait photography business. 

Sarah Petty:

Jill, I’m so excited to have you here and to be talking with you.

So photography wasn’t the plan when you were going to Northwestern?

What did you think your path was going to be in life for a career?

Jill Liebhaber:

I’m excited to be here.


And even when I opened up my studio, Jookie, I didn’t realize I don’t love photography itself.

I love working with kids and use photography as a medium to create artwork.

I studied art.

I have a very interesting story, we don’t have enough time for all this.

Long story short, I graduated and planned to be an artist.

I wanted to create art, and find a job in the arts. 

Portrait Photography Is Not A Straight Line Success

Sarah Petty:

When you’re in art, a lot of times you have to find something to be creative with.

I think it’s interesting that it’s never a straight line and those curves, twists, and turns are what get you here.

So at what point did you realize that you could make some money with your camera?

Jill Liebhaber:

I answered an ad for a kid photographer with great starting pay and benefits.

For me, it was fun and lucrative.

I was not planning on it becoming my career.

I had the talent and skill set for it and it was a way to not be a starving artist.

I love working with kids and making art.

Sarah Petty:

Did you have to sell or market or were you just a photographer? 

Jill Liebhaber:

I became the manager four years in and it was a high-end, volume studio.

Generally, I helped the client that I photographed purchase artwork and I had very high sales.

I worked there for five years and the owner ended up selling it in the fifth year.

I was at a point where this has been fun, but now it’s time for me to go do the next thing. 

Two things happened.

In January 2006, I went to Imaging USA and I saw Vicky Taufer speak.

I was really inspired by her because what she taught was so different from what I had been doing.

Then, two of my brothers and their partners became pregnant with my second and third nieces and I decided I wasn’t moving away with nieces on the way.

I wanted to be there with my family.

So those things happened and I was like, I guess I’m writing a business plan.

It just kind of happened after that.

I found the studio space, got the money from the bank, and thought maybe I can do this.

Then, I got to speak with you through studio management services and that was one of the times we talked first where you helped me see I had some money blocks.

Seeing The Answers So You Can Make A Change In Business

Sarah Petty:


I watched you realize you were very underpriced and I remember having a conversation with you and you told me you knew where you needed to be, but you weren’t ready yet.

Some people just want to rip off the bandaid and you were like, I need to get there a little more slowly and you did.

It’s like having the answer to the test.

I’m going to work it out now, I know where I need to be, which is a big part of it don’t you think?

Seeing the answers to the test?

Jill Liebhaber:

My brain could not transform that quickly and now I understand more of that better.

I didn’t know what the scarcity mindset was back then.

And again, if you don’t know these things, you’re going to stay stuck in those thoughts.

You showed me something that was possible that I did not even think of.

I knew I wanted to do this and I was basing my pricing off of what the other studio did.

My journey has been transforming my brain over the years to be able to get my numbers to a place as soon as I could each year.  

Sarah Petty:

This is what’s so fascinating because now in the Peak Performance program, you are our sort of head coach helping people see their limiting beliefs and their blocks.

Talk about that journey for you because I think a lot of people listening have those same stories they’re telling themselves.

Because realizing you’re having that block and then doing something about it are two different things kind of.

Believing In Yourself Enough So You Can Grow

Jill Liebhaber:

First, I had to understand what a money block was.

I had to become aware of it and then take the information you were offering me and try to see how I could step into it.

There’s just a lot of fear.

The growth is believing in yourself that you will get what you need by paying for that help. 

Sarah Petty:

That’s a really hard thing for people to learn because especially now with the internet, there’s so much free stuff out there and you can get stuck in that free stuff learning mode.

Now, you have a studio which you’ve had pretty much the whole time, right?

You’re not afraid of answering the questions about digital files?

Jill Liebhaber:

Same space!

16 years are coming in May.

And yes.

My background gave me my passion for creating the artwork.

My passion isn’t taking photos and giving it to you.

My passion is working with your kids, getting the expressions that you aren’t able to get for yourself that captures who they are and creating the actual artwork.

Sarah Petty:

You are so good at marketing and you really value the lifestyle benefit of being a boutique portrait photographer.

You love to go and do and you don’t want to sit in this studio for your whole life and work yourself to death.

Does that help motivate you, too?

Jill Liebhaber:

Yes, for sure.

I want to do some creative things that speak to my heart and that don’t matter if it makes me money.

If I’m making enough money from my business, then I don’t have to worry about bringing in a certain amount of money all the time.

I want to have room and freedom to take time to learn, to go snowboarding, go on a trip but more importantly though, be creative.

I want to be able to do creative things that aren’t related to making money if that makes sense.

Sarah Petty:

I’ve spent this whole career creating these systems to help portrait photographers.

I’m so proud of what you’ve done and what you’ve become.

I also love your growth mindset.

Will you talk about that?

Because I think the people that are succeeding are succeeding because they are investing in themselves in a lot of different ways. 

The More You Give To Yourself The More You Can Give Back

Jill Liebhaber:

Yeah, it’s huge.

I grew up in a way that there weren’t as many resources and opportunities available for me.

I’m very lucky for what I did have that got me to a point where I could see there was even more.

It made me realize how much people don’t even know what’s available.

When you know that there’s more out there than you know, you start to look for it.

I wanted to give myself the things I didn’t have when I was younger.

Then what I learn, I take and I’m able to be a role model to my family and my community.

The more I give to myself, the more I feel like I can give back.

Sarah Petty:

You’ve had such an impact on this community of photographers and I’m so grateful.

Jill, thank you for being here with us.

I’ve known Jill for many years and I admire what she does so much that I brought her on as one of our coaches in our Peak Performance coaching program.

This year, she was voted Peak Performance coach of the year by our community of photographers.

What an honor and testament to the legacy she has built as a photographer.

From Creative to Career: How a Single Woman with a Painting Degree Fell Into an Accidental Career as a Portrait Photographer
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