As a photographer, Stephanie Gilmore creates gorgeous heirloom portraiture that can be passed down through the generations. We spoke exclusively with Stephanie about her career, how budding photographers can launch their own businesses, and why taking a hiatus from photography to raise her two daughters, Carlyle and Annabelle, ultimately made her work more popular than ever.
How did you get into photography?
I’ve been shooting for 16 years. I started when my younger daughter was a year old. I was a stay-at-home mom for about 5 years. I didn’t even have a dedicated digital camera. I had taken photography classes in college, but those were with film. My ex-husband’s parents gave us a video camera one year and it could take digital pictures as well. I became obsessed with it! Then, I had a brand new subject that was less than a year old, so it worked out. I would photograph them, and then my friends’ children, and then their friends, and their friends.
I was spending all of my time editing, and my husband said, “You should make a business out of it.” That was the catalyst for starting the studio. I did it from the third floor of my house. I shot there for about a year, and then converted a detached garage into my studio for about a year. Eventually, we wound up buying a 17,000 square foot mansion, and the first floor was dedicated to my studio. It was beautiful and an amazing place to work.
Around the same time I wound up competing in the National Photographers Association in Kentucky and I became Photographer of the Year. During the convention, one of the judges approached me and asked me if I would be interested in presenting at other conventions all over the country. I was traveling all over giving this program, and it kicked my butt, to be quite honest. Not only were my kids young and I was running a very busy studio, and traveling for these conventions. I did it for several years and finally decided I had to cut back. I felt the energy being sucked out of me. It was a complete drain to my system. I felt like I wasn’t giving my best to any one thing. I wasn’t being the best mom I could be; I wasn’t being the best photographer I could be, or the best wife I could be, and so on.
What steps did you decide to take?
I cut back on the speaking and focused on the photography instead as well as my family. I always made the effort about being there for the school pickups. Things were chugging along, and then I realized that there were so many things for the girls that I was still missing out on. Class Christmas parties that I would get the treat bags for but couldn’t attend, or a ballgame that I missed. Things I was missing that my parents, as educators, never missed. I definitely experienced feelings of guilt that I was missing out on too much.
I’ve always been a boutique type of studio, but I was still overwhelmed by the amount of work that I had. My husband and I had a come-to-Jesus talk to see how I could spend more time with the girls. I took a hiatus from shooting for a few years and I let my two employees go, and the girls were still in grade school and middle school aged. I knew that those were such pivotal ages that I would never get back. I didn’t want them raised by the babysitter, who was such a blessing, but that was my responsibility. It was a blessing that I was able to take a step back.
How did you feel about taking a step back?
I didn’t miss the shooting so much as I missed making people feel good. Ultimately, that’s where I get my greatest joy is what I’m able to do for people. I didn’t miss the shooting, and I definitely didn’t miss the editing, or miss the studio. What I missed was what I could do for their self-image and their self-worth. During the time I took the break, I was able to fully immerse myself with the kids, and in that time, I realized how miserable I was in my marriage. I got married too young, and it was an immaturity. I became busy with work and he was very focused with his own work that our lives veered off in separate directions. We ended up divorcing 6 years ago, and he stayed at the mansion.
After the divorce, I realized it was time to find my purpose again. I had a lot of clients who were ready for me to get ready to get back to work. I rented a space in downtown Ashland that is perfect for me. I work on a part-time basis for now, and that’s my plan as long as my daughter Annabelle is still in school. After she graduates, I’ll probably ramp it back up. Right now, I shoot about 2 sessions a week, which is ideal for me. It allows me to be fully present for my daughter. I don’t want to look back and think, “Why did I work so much?” So I want to enjoy this last year with her and not bog myself down with work.
How long was your actual hiatus?
It was about 3-4 years. The one thing that sets me apart is that I am very laid-back and chill, but I have enough OCD in me to want to perfect something. When I was learning photography, I wanted to master high key photography. My work is very simple; it’s very clean. It was important to me to nail high key and exposure, and I have.
With smart phones getting better and better, do you find that there are clients who prefer to shoot with their iPhones rather than hiring a photographer?
I definitely can see that, and there are some people that just don’t place a high value on professional photography. They’re content with smart phone pictures, but there are just as many who are appreciative of fine art portraiture. I used to carry a small point-and-shoot in my purse at all times, because my camera on my cell phone wasn’t adequate enough. That way, I could take pictures whenever I needed to. Now, I use my phone to take pictures. It’s funny because when my two girls see me take my phone out and wipe the lens with my shirt, it drives them crazy! They know that I’m getting ready to take their picture.
What do you shoot with?
I shoot with a Nikon D3X, which is probably due for an upgrade. I use the 28-70mm lens in the studio, and outside I use the 70-200, and I have an 85 prime that is a 1.4, which I enjoy. Those are my three go-to lenses, but I’ve got 6-8 other lenses that I use too. As far as lighting, I have a huge 5×7 soft box and I use a reflector as fill. It’s a pretty simple setup. I try to nail lighting in-camera so that I have to spend less time on retouching. My favorite part of the whole process is when my client sees the images and the final product.
Do you have a favorite subject?
Babies and children is what I do the most of. I do high school seniors, which I did a lot of before my hiatus. If I had to choose just one, I would just shoot 6-month old babies. They are able to sit up but they can’t get away from you yet. They just basically sit there and are easy to make laugh.
What would you tell new photographers who are looking to launch their business?
They have to find something to offer them that other people aren’t offering. For me, I started a Baby Collection, which is sessions for newborns, 6 month-olds, and 1 year-olds, and I still do that to this day. At the end of the year, they receive a panel from each session.
I also do a lot of custom cards, so I incorporate design elements into their custom cards. I always include the logo and have my website address on it.
It’s so important to price yourself well. It’s not only good for you, but if you’re not charging enough, you’re just bringing photography in general down. It lowers all of us. If people are only charging $100 for the session plus all the images retouched, it hurts all of us. You should also include prints, even if you’re including digital files. Finding a good lab that produces a good product—and making sure that your monitor is calibrated to the lab so that the colors match up—is so important.
And above all, you have to do what you love!