We were lucky to catch up with Savannah Conley recently and have shared our conversation below.
Hi Savannah, thanks for joining us today. So, folks often look at a successful business and think it became a success overnight – but that often obscures all the nitty, gritty details of everything that went into the growth phase of your business. We’d love to hear about your scaling story and how you scaled up?
I first started photographing when I was in high school, under the wing of my photography teacher. She showed me the ropes, taught me the ins and outs of lighting, composition, and how to properly use my camera. She graciously allowed me to second shoot a few weddings with her to get some real life client experience and I began to build a portfolio. Within about a year I was recruiting all of my friends, begging them to let me take their senior portraits. I grew up in a pretty small town, and word spread quickly among my younger sisters class that I could take some pretty decent portraits at a really decent price. By the time I graduated high school I had a substantial senior portfolio and had shot a couple of weddings as the lead photographer. I decided to pursue photojournalism in college, and took every opportunity paid or not, to shoot. Several of my friends from high school attended the same college and supported me by hiring me for graduation photos, headshots, etc. By this point I had several return clients who trusted me to do their family photos and I was trying to network and market any way I could. I took an internship at D Magazine, and then another one out of state with From The Hip Photo in Colorado. That was a really big opportunity for me and a great resume booster. I fell in love with Colorado and was more inspired than I had been in a long time, so I decided to take the leap and move there permanently. My intention was to build a portrait and elopement business, but something that many people gloss over when regaling their friends and families with tales of adventure, is that all of a sudden you have no friends, no connections, no clients. There is an extremely competitive photography market in the Denver metro area and I felt myself flailing. I was completely discouraged, booking maybe one or two shoots every 6 months, and ended up flying back home every fall just to shoot for my old clients. I had pursued photography for so long, and so hard at this point that I felt totally burnt out. I didn’t want to put in the effort anymore. It felt like such an uphill battle that I just wanted to turn around and find a new passion. Photography sat on the back-burner for about 2-3 years. I would still go home and work with my return clients, and shoot photos for friends when they asked, but I had lost a lot of confidence and drive. Flash forward to 2020, I was newly married with a baby and we decided to move to a smaller, more rural area of Colorado. I was staying at home with my son and trying to find ways to integrate into the community. I decided to advertise for an Easter mini session. I booked one client, but that one client was enough to stoke the dying flame. I decided to really give it my all, recruiting my Gen Z sister to help beef up my social media presence. I spent hours working on SEO for my website, enlisted past clients and friends to review me on Google, and finally held a giveaway. Up until this point I would never work for free. I valued my education and experience too much to offer free work, but this one giveaway booked me several senior clients that fall. My visibility increased, I started making friends in my community and telling them I was a photographer. I was working a very part time job at a coffee shop when I met the owner of a local art gallery, he liked my work and offered me my first ever exhibition. I gained visibility in my community, and in a small town word of mouth is everything. The following year I sold out (and then some) my Christmas minis, this year I was able to start a senior rep team, and I have booked out into July for family and elopement sessions. So what changed exactly? First I got to know my community and my target market. I was able to connect with business owners, teachers, etc. in a real and genuine way by working a customer service job and using it as basically free self promotion. I posted on Instagram every day for a month, and now post 3-5 times a week. Even if they are old sessions, projecting an image of success goes a long way. I update my website weekly and ensure every client has a review worthy experience. I send thank you cards and small gifts to every single client to show my appreciation. More than anything though I show up for myself, my clients, and my business every day. I genuinely care, and I pour my all into every aspect. I make sure every step of the way looks professional and is organized and I have invested in mentorships and education with photographers I look up to. Content days and shootouts are an amazing way to shoot the images you want to be shooting. Say you want to be an adventure elopement photographer but no one will hire you to shoot their Yosemite elopement, find a styled shoot with a photographer whose work you love and get those images for your portfolio. Investing time, money, and energy day in and day out is the best way to grow your business.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers
My name is Savannah, and I’m based in Montrose, Colorado, where I live with my husband and baby boy. I went to school for photojournalism, I devour books almost as quickly as I can scarf a good taco, and I love to dance (in the rain, at a concert, at the summit of a hike).
I started photography as a high school sophomore, under the wing of my photography teacher, Debra Helmberger. I had a mild interest in photography before signing up for that elective class and I knew I wanted a creative outlet but had no drawing, painting, or sculpting skills to speak of. She taught me everything I needed to know about lighting, composition, posing, how to operate my camera, the basics of editing, you name it. She became a full on mentor for me and is to this day one of the most inspiring people I have met in my life. I went on to pursue every type of portrait photography I could shoot. I loved working with people, I loved preserving memories, and I loved the creativity of posing and directing. I went on to pursue a photojournalism degree and learned how to be a fly on the wall, how to capture those split second glances, how to read body language, and how to see and capture all of the in between moments. I have been shooting professionally for 6 years now, and in those 6 years I have have photographed almost everything in the book. From weddings to landscapes, coffee mugs to babies, you name it- I got it. But, full disclosure here, senior portraits and families are my favorite. Excitement in the air, giggles, and big smiles…that’s my jam.
Stiff poses and studio lighting are not what you’ll get from a session with me. I live for stunning natural light, gorgeous scenery, laughs, genuine smiles, and connection. My style is true to my training, photojournalistic. I am here to capture raw, true moments. I am not here to capture perfect, shiny, staged moments…because life is not perfect, shiny or staged. It is beautiful, emotional, messy, raw and wild. Adventure portrait sessions are my specialty. I love nothing more than taking a client to a jaw dropping location in the mountains and exploring together, creating portraits that capture the stunning landscapes and my client as they are in that moment.
Honestly, I am most proud of my ability to connect with people. I have a knack for making even the most camera shy person feel comfortable and relaxed. I end up becoming friend with a lot of my clients. I have cried at almost every wedding I have been to, and just really, truly love connecting with all kinds of people. I am honored to be a small part in so many paths and it is a true joy for me to capture so many special moments for people. At a recent elopement I shot the mother of the bride came up to me and said “wow it must be really special to have a job that allows you to be a part of so much joy” and that really struck a chord with me. That’s really what it feels like. To be a part of so many joyous, beautiful, messy moments is pretty spectacular.
Any stories or insights that might help us understand how you’ve built such a strong reputation?
Being genuine. Making real, honest connections with people in the community and in your niche. I have become really close friends with another photographer in my market, valuing community over competition goes such a long way. She has offered me absolutely invaluable advice and even sends me clients! Also getting to know small business owners by supporting their businesses and offering free services for community events/charities/festivals. Word of mouth is huge for any creative business so making sure you have a presence in your community and that your clients have a really personal experience is crucial. Something I recently implemented are handwritten thank you cards and client gifts. Small, personal touches go such a long way in a world where we are often disconnected and so much of our interaction is digital.
Any insights you can share with us about how you built up your social media presence?
I had virtually no social media presence when I decided to pursue my business full time, and I’m primarily a senior portrait photographer so that’s a pretty big problem. I enlisted the help of my younger (Gen Z) sister to help me strategize. I started by following as many people as I could in my target market. I went to the local high school’s Instagram page and followed just about everyone who followed their page. Then I followed their friends. I found location tags and hashtags local to me and followed the people who posted. Basically, I went on a huge following spree and then started engaging. Liking, commenting, responding to stories- all while posting every single day. Getting your work in front of potential clients every day is really important when you’re first building a following and a brand. You want to be using stories for engagement as well, polls are a really fun and easy way to get people to spend a little more time on your story. Also important is building your image. People want authenticity and connection on social media these days. Getting on your stories and showing your face, chatting to your audience goes a long way. Before I stepped up my social media game I had two separate clients totally surprised that I was a young, mid-twenties woman. They were expecting, and I quote, “a middle-aged farm lady with 3 kids.” Clearly I was not getting my brand across!
- Website: www.savannahhphoto.com
- Instagram: @savannahhphoto
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/savannahhphotography
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/savannah-hubbard-953005bb/
- Other: https://www.tiktok.com/@savannahhphoto
Savannah H. Photography