This week we speak with Stephanie Stewart, who started her own photography business after graduating from Indiana University in 2002. She shares her experience as a wedding and portrait photographer, which skills have been most helpful to her as an entrepreneur, and what surprised her the most about being her own boss.
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MOLLY: Hey Hoosiers! Welcome back to another episode of All Careers Considered. This podcast is produced by the Walter Center for Career Achievement, which is the Career Services Center that specifically serves students and alumni in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. We’re on a mission to help you achieve career success by supporting you and your pursuit of impactful experiences. designing your life, sharing your story and building meaningful connections. My name is Molly and I’m the Assistant Director of Strategic Alumni Engagement for the Walter Center. And I’m also the host of this podcast. You may have heard that you can do anything with the College of Arts and Sciences degree, and I’m here to show you that that really is the case by interviewing alumni from all over to ask them how they got to where they are now.
Next up is my interview with Stephanie Stewart, Wedding and Portrait Photographer and owner of her own photography business, Stuart Imagery, Stephanie graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences with a degree in French. And we had a great conversation about how she decided to do photography full-time, what foundational skills have been most helpful to her as a business owner in this industry and what surprised her the most about being her own boss. Enjoy the episode!
MOLLY: Alrighty. Thanks for being here. Stephanie.
STEPHANIE: Thank you for asking me, Molly. It’s an honor.
MOLLY: Yeah. So I know that you own your own photography business and you’re a pretty well-known photographer in central Indiana, but for the sake of the podcast, I’d love to hear a little bit more kind of starting from square one with your experience at IU, when you were a student, and your major.
So maybe you could tell me a little bit about your time at IU. Maybe what your experience was like with your French classes and maybe what you were involved with when you were a student.
STEPHANIE: Of course. Well, I think I’ll back up a little bit before for that. So you had asked, you know, how I got into studying French at IU? My mom studied French in high school and I thought it just sounded fun. So I took four years of high school, French, and I also took like two years of Latin. And I just kind of fell in love with language and how it sounded. I just thought it was a beautiful thing. And so I thought, well, why not keep on pursuing that?
And I remember like testing into third level French. So right away, I started at the 300 level as a freshman. So I was with a lot of upperclassmen. So I don’t know, it was just fun. I loved, I thought it was a challenge. I ended up reading novels with friends and writing papers. And so I don’t know, it was just kind of, not truly what I imagined and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I just kept studying it along with other things and decided to major in it.
MOLLY: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a perfect answer there. And I also am someone who didn’t like French, but I wasn’t very good at it. I took it in middle school and high school. Um, but it wasn’t my area of expertise.
So it sounds like you’re pretty smart if you were able to major in French. So when you were getting ready to graduate, you know, or maybe when you’re an upperclassmen junior, senior, I’m curious. Did you do any internships or what was your kind of career exploration? Like were you starting to think that you wanted to do photography or what was your kind of plan for when you graduated?
STEPHANIE: Good question. Yeah, at that point I still had no clue that I would be doing photography, looking back. I kind of wished I would’ve taken it in high school. We had this awesome dark room in the basement. I remember seeing that but not really thinking anything of it and then my time at IU, I was just into studying all kinds of things. So I love art history classes, different regular history classes I just thought were so cool. I also liked math quite a bit, which was strange. Like, I took a year or so of calculus, which is kind of off topic, but, I forget, where are we going with this question? How, oh, so I really, at that time I had no clue that I wanted to do photography. It wasn’t actually, until after graduating, meeting my husband, like through wedding planning is kind of how I discovered like, oh, could this be a really a way to make a living? So yeah, kind of snowballed afterward. I wish I had known earlier that that’s what I wanted to do, but yeah.
MOLLY: Yeah. If you don’t mind me asking, what were you doing professionally before you kind of made that switch into the wedding industry? Were you doing something related to French or working in business or what was the album?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, so, okay. I think to answer your earlier question, and I thought maybe I would want to teach French. So I took an introductory introduction to teaching, and they placed me at a daycare. So I was with like toddlers. And I’m like, I don’t know that this is what I want to do either. And it wasn’t like I was going to be teaching toddlers how to speak French. So from there I thought, Oh, I don’t think teaching is for me. And I thought maybe I could be a translator and work internationally, but I never really connected with anyone to sort of go that route. So I just thought I’m just going to keep doing this. I also got a business minor, while I was there and looking back, I wish I kind of would have double majored in business, cause it may have helped me more afterward, but, upon graduating, I got an administrative assistant job with a local like apartment development company. So I really learned computer skills and communicating with people within a different office. So I had like several various duties that I had for people there, but again, it didn’t really so much pertain to my French degree. Although in high school I did travel abroad, stayed with an exchange student, and then she stayed with me the next year. We still keep in touch. We used to write letters, now thanks to the internet, we have Facebook and we can chat that way. So I’ve kind of kept up with that in that regard, but I don’t really use it like on a day-to-day basis.
MOLLY: No, I think that makes sense. And it sounds like when you’re in your, you know, your French degree and then those experiences you just mentioned, after graduating, you’re developing some really great skills that allowed you to kind of start your own business. So that’s when you were kind of going through your own process, it sounds like getting married, you kind of, it sounds like you realize this wedding industry was, you know, such a big industry. And as someone who recently got married, I also was in awe of, you know, all the different wedding vendors and everything that goes into event planning. Especially weddings. So tell me what it’s like kind of working in that industry. I know you do some other photography as well, not just weddings, but, who does that, like kind of managing your clients and kind of the business side of working in the wedding industry.
STEPHANIE: Well, it’s actually, it’s quite a bit, yeah. Behind the scenes, we’re communicating with clients, planning timelines for their day and just kind of educating them about all the different options they have. I’m sure, like, as you were planning your wedding, you learned about different aspects that you could use, like as far as photography opportunities, like a first look or, first look with parents and all that kind of thing. So right away, I try to educate my clients about the different options they have throughout the course of the wedding day. And then with portrait clients, it’s educating them on finding them a good location and what to wear, time of day, so it’s a lot of communication behind the scenes that goes into planning a wedding day, or just a portrait session of any kind or I also do some like lifestyle and product photography along with card photography. So it’s just kind of a mix of several things that keeps it interesting.
MOLLY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that’s really cool. And I feel like another thing that interests me about kind of your work as a small, like a business owner of a photography business, is that, you know, when you get on Instagram or online, there’s so many photographers in, especially in central Indiana. So what is kind of your strategy there? How do you, you know, make your business kind of stand out and what do you think, you know, makes your business kind of stand out amongst the other photographers?
STEPHANIE: Well, I think there is a photography style that suits almost anybody. Some people like dark and moody, some like light and airy. For my style, I kind of stay true to like skin tones and true colors. So I just keep a consistent editing style throughout and hope that that attracts the kind of people that want those types of photos. So I think in just showing what I want to shoot, how it will look and what they can expect when they have photographs done with me, I think that attracts people that want that look for themselves. I also just share a little bit here and there about my personal life. I’m a mom of two little boys. So they keep me very busy throughout the day and in my free time. So I just share snippets of my life and my work and the different kinds of work that I do, in hopes that it attracts people that want that for themselves.
MOLLY: Yeah. I love that. And your pictures are gorgeous too. So obviously you have those skills, and I love that you mentioned that, you know, being a mom of two is also an important part of your life. And I think that for a lot of students, that’s really important. They want a job that they can have while also starting a family or just managing, you know, other things at home.
So would you say that that’s true having that flexibility of, you know, being your own business owner while being a mom has kind of been nice too?
STEPHANIE: That has been really nice. It does have its perks like having a flexible schedule. But it also does have drawbacks that I think it’s important to share about working at home like right now, my second graders on a virtual Spanish club meeting with a neighbor for school. And then my five-year-old is watching a show about Knight Writer and Kit from the eighties. So, it’s all about like, keeping them busy with things to do. If I am doing something like this or having a little bit of work to do, but I can really plan my day based on their needs. And so it is good. Or they can be in the same room as me working on something on their own like puzzles or games or something. If I have a time-sensitive project, so it does have its perks with flexibility. And then other times it’s like you have a village of people, you have family and friends, that can help watch the kids when you need them to. So on wedding days, obviously my children aren’t are not with me. So it’s finding childcare for them, but yes. I mean, it definitely has its perks of working from home and being flexible.
MOLLY: Yeah. And I can imagine, too, especially in your industry, it would be also working some evenings and weekends and things like that. So that’s definitely somebody to consider. Right. What would you say is something that has surprised you the most about being kind of your own being your own boss, per se? Like, is there anything that you weren’t expecting maybe in a good way or something that’s been challenging about it?
STEPHANIE: Um, that’s a great question. I think one of the challenges is by being on my own and working from home, it does present like time management skills. So I could be doing laundry or cleaning my house or doing work. So it’s prioritizing your time, however if you can, it’s nice to be able to jump back and forth. You can throw in laundry, but then come back and do whatever editing or emailing that you need to do. Another thing that has surprised me is just the variety of skills I need to have to do this job. So first it was learning how to use a DSLR camera. I had never had one growing up, like my dad always took pictures on vacation. I still remember like having my first little film camera that I would take pictures on vacation.
But through wedding planning, like my husband now, like had signed me up for a class back. When I had my old job and from the very first class, I knew like, that’s what I wanted to do. So it was learning how to use this thing that was going to get me where I wanted to be. And then it was learning different programs like Photoshop and Lightroom of how to edit the photos. And I mean, you can edit one photo, a million ways. You can spend two minutes on it changing various aspects, or you could spend as many hours as you’re willing to commit to make the photo exactly how you want. So just learning different things of photography and bringing them all together as well as the business side. So there’s marketing and communication and the numbers and everything that goes into that. So it’s kind of been like a huge learning process and putting all of that together as one person has, it’s been a challenge, but also like I’m never bored.
There’s always something to learn. And so that’s something I really love about it.
MOLLY: Yeah. Yeah, it sounds like it’d be awesome. And one small follow up question to that. I think something that I know for me, if I thought about starting a business, the number side of everything, and kind of having a budget and kind of the logistics of making a livelihood for yourself, you know, as your own business, um, what has that been like? Kind of doing that, you know, managing all your finances and your budget for your business, has that been something that you feel like, has come easy to you or is it something you feel like you’ve kind of had to learn as you’ve done?
STEPHANIE: I definitely have to learn as I go. Like I said, looking back, I kind of wish I would have taken more of the business courses. I just had like one intro to accounting course, through the Kelly business school. So I didn’t really dive too deep into that. But at the time, like when my husband and I were dating and then planning our wedding, he has been an entrepreneur since I met him. So he had already begun his own business, and I was trying to help him with the financial side of his, and I learned early on that it was not my strong suit. So we quickly got me out of that role. And I actually started taking photographs of what he was doing and started a blog for him and his business. So I was learning skills for my work.
Yeah. And also kind of learning the behind the scenes of having your own business. So to be totally honest, I don’t do a whole lot with the numbers. That’s why I have an accountant to help with that aspect. But, it’s definitely a challenge. I think if I had a team of people to help out more with that, I don’t know, but so I’m not the best person to talk about that aspect.
MOLLY: That was a great answer. And it’s also helpful to know that, you know, you use an accountant for those types of things, because for students, if they’re trying to figure out how to start a business, that might be a question they have. So I think that was, and it sounds like you’re also, you know, pretty smart. You were a French major, are you, it sounds like you took some math classes, so that also helped that you had those foundational skills and then you could go take some business classes and kind of the strategy there. So that is kind of the question that I had. This is really interesting, kind of learning about your career and everything and just to kind of wrap things up, I was curious if you have any kind of words of advice for students that maybe want to start their own photography business, or a similar type of, kind of creative business. If you have any kind of words of advice for them?
STEPHANIE: Sure. I’d say, find something that you’re passionate about and even if it takes a few different internships to discover, like what you love to do, you know, right away, I knew that I did not want to be in the administrative assistant field forever. And so it took something external to push me, to go for that. And my husband was a big supporter and is my biggest cheerleader along with my parents and family to say like, Hey, give it a try. So I just recommend like trying different things. If you liked something, dive a little deeper into it, study, read books about it. Like ask people if you can help them. If you think you want to be a photographer, I’ve gotten several emails over the years like to ask about shooting alongside me or to, you know, shadow me for a day.
And so I have worked with a few people in that regard, you know, to see if that is something that really interests them. So I just say like, go for it. And as long as you have people to support you go for it.
MOLLY: Yeah, I think that’s great advice. Well, thank you so much, Stephanie. And if students have any questions or maybe they would be curious about maybe shadowing you for a day or something like that, would they be able to maybe reach out to you?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, sure. They can email me. My email address is email@example.com.You can also find me on Facebook and Instagram @Stuart imageries. So yes, definitely.
MOLLY: All right. Perfect. Well, thank you so much, Stephanie. It was great talking to you today and take care.
STEPHANIE: Thanks Molly. Have a great day.
MOLLY: Bye. Thanks so much for listening today and thanks to my fantastic colleagues for providing production assistance and inspiration for the podcast each week. Those folks include Ian Sory, Camryn Schreiner, Maureen Langley. Amy Cornell and my entire Walter center team to learn more about the Walter center at IU and the services, resources, and events we offer.
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Thanks again, everyone. And we’ll see you next time.