Featured Photographer: Amy Cook Photography

Hi, my name is Amy and I’m addicted to babies, canvases, junk food, Biggby Coffee, Mountain Dew, my iPhone, good jams, and Facebook. I have a hunky husband and 4 little girls that rock my world. I love what I do and feel at home in this crazy world of photographers! I also sniff babies when I photograph them. And I sometimes nibble on their cheeks. Shh. I like pizza, Scandal, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Beavis & Butthead, rock music, and the GRUMPY CAT!!
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When did you first realize you wanted to be a photographer?
My journey into photography (as a paid job!) began in 2009 when I had just one daughter, Madalyn. She had just turned 1. This story doesn’t end how you think, it’s just a coincidence in timing 😉 I didn’t become a photographer simply because I had a child and wanted to document them (although it’s a great reason!)  I  was working toward my college degree, but constantly changing majors because I just couldn’t find anything that actually made me happy. I took on a part time job at the hospital with Our 365 (the newborn company) thinking it would be great to get out of the house a few hours a week, and I couldn’t help but think “how fun would taking pictures of BABIES be?” After having the camera in my hands, and getting really into the job, I fell in love with the photography aspect of it- but not so much the “job” part of it. It was all sales, and rushing in and out of rooms, and none of the enjoyment that I get now personally working with clients who WANT to be at my studio- and not feeling like their privacy has been invaded because I’m barging into their hospital room as they are trying to rest and recover 🙂 I also resisted strongly against their strict “rules” about the 8 required poses. I didn’t care for them, and I hated photographing babies in baggy outfits on tacky patterned blankets. In the end, I did my research, kept practicing, and went out on my own. I ventured beyond newborns, but was also able to stick with newborns along the way and do my own thing with them- not what some big company told me to do. I began my own business venture in September of 2009.
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When and how did you start out in photography?
Well I rambled long enough that I already answered that! LOL. Story of my life 🙂 I’m a talker.
How would you describe your style?
I like to keep my style clean and simple, but with a punch of fun and edgy. I love love LOVE color, but in the end I’m always drawn to the creamy neutrals and like to add that punch of color in here and there instead of overwhelming a whole session with it (with newborns). With other sessions, it’s all fair game. The more color (within reason!) the better! My photographic style is relaxed yet controlled. I don’t call myself a “lifestyle photographer” because I’m not- my sessions are controlled (by me) but at the same time I like to give my clients room to breathe and act naturally too. I’ll direct them how I want them to sit/stand etc, and then encourage them with words, to interact naturally.
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What’s in your gear bag?
How things have changed since I last answered this question! I’m now a Canon girl- I shoot with a 1DX, 50mm 1.2L, 85mm 1.2L II, 16-35mm 2.8L II, 70-200mm 2.8L II, 100mm 2.8 macro, 35mm 1.4L, and keep a 5d Classic as a backup body.
One lens you can’t live without?
My 50mm 1.2L
How did you know when the right time to start charging was?
When I knew I was producing consistent work to clients and knew how to use my camera in manual (of course!). No guess work when someone is paying you.
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How much did you charge for your first session and how much are you charging for the same type of session now?
Okay to be fair…I only charged $20 for my first session. But it wasn’t REALLY a paid session…I charged her enough to cover my gas and the CD..etc. It was just for a friend. When I was charging for real, I started at a session fee ($50) plus prints model. I quickly became overwhelmed with that and went to the shoot and burn because it was so popular and I thought it was “the” way to do things. I ended there charging $125 for a session including a cd of digital files. I almost quit in the fall of 2010.
I got smarter and raised my prices in April 2011 to a higher session fee ($200) and prints separately. Back where I started funny enough, but I was charging to compensate for my time and business expenses now. I had various a la carte items and a few collections, the highest of which included digital files- but in the end, I came back down to a more simplistic way of pricing- something I could quickly explain over the phone when someone called to ask for my pricing. I am currently at a flat rate of $650 which includes the session and edited digital files. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the “same type of session” now though- because my entire approach, skill set, etc has changed SO much, that they are definitely paying a lot more now, but getting their money’s worth! (Or at least I feel so!)
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How did you market yourself when you started out?
All of the cliche stuff- I tacked business cards to bulletin boards, I put up flyers with the little phone numbers you could pull off (no really, I did!) and I used Facebook- which I was actually quite new to, to market myself with a business page. I live in a small town, but surrounded by several other towns and cities. So when I would post “sneak peeks” of sessions and tagged my clients in them, it would show up for their friends in their newsfeed and word of mouth spread my name very rapidly. I was very active and didn’t just wait for clients to fall into my lap. I had to put myself in front of them. I also put an ad in the yellow pages. I only drew one client from it (that I know of) but it was something I tried in the beginning 🙂
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First person that comes to mind when hearing..
Newborn Photographer- Lindsey Scholz
Wedding Photographer- Laura Enright
Lifestyle Photographer- Kelly West Mars
Most Inspirational Person- Rachel Brenke. She put herself through law school while living apart from her military husband, raising 2 kids while pregnant with a third, and graduated with that law degree. She’s used her degree to help better the photography industry (and offers her expertise to others as well, but she’s HUGE in the photo industry!) and has published a book, teaches webcourses, has written and sells multiple legal contracts, operates a successful photography business AND consulting business, and recently opened a studio called Snap Space, AND is currently expecting their 5th child. Rachel is my hero. She’s the very definition of ambitious in my eyes. I love you girl!
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Did you go to school for photography or were you self taught? if self taught, what helped you the most?
I was self taught. What helped me the most, and take this with a grain of salt- was comparing myself to the photographers I admired. I didn’t want to COPY them. But I wanted to be that good. I wanted to be that respected because I was able to produce a quality of work like that. I wanted to make people and myself, go “wow”. By comparing myself to them, I was constantly going okay- what do they have that I don’t? What am I doing wrong? HOW CAN I GET BETTER? Yes I put that in all caps 🙂 But it’s important. I wasn’t comparing myself to them to BE like them. DON’T DO THAT! I was comparing myself to them so that I had a goal. Because if I had only my blinders on and was only seeing my work and what I was doing, I wouldn’t have really known that what I was doing wasn’t good enough. That this image wasn’t quite as riveting because it had a super large depth of field and there were so many distractions in focus. That this baby’s fingers were curled tightly and the background was too close to them, and that’s why my image didn’t look as peaceful and distraction-free and theirs, where the fingers were smooth and the background was pulled back and away to create a natural shallow depth of field. I’m talking about in the beginning, when I was new to custom photography, and learning what set a quality image apart from the rest. Things like that. Do I continue to compare myself to them now? No. I’m on a path for myself and only myself. I compare myself to my last session and improve upon that. I’m always getting better. At this point, I already know what I need to do, what my images need to look like in technical terms. But in the beginning it helped me, because I wasn’t quite sure what I was needing to improve on without seeing what others who DID have it all together, were doing.
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What have been some of the hardest things to overcome in your business?
Negative people. You have to realize that not everybody will like everything you produce. Not everybody will even like YOU. They just won’t. Some people are trolls, and as long as you are using social media to market yourself, you will expose yourself to their pointless criticisms. I’m not saying that you don’t deserve constructive criticism at times- of course we all have things to work on- no matter how “awesome” you may think you are 🙂 But social media can make the industry an ugly place, full of ugly (on the inside) people that do nothing but troll the interwebs, looking for people to bring down. As long as you are happy and your clients are happy, that should be your main priority. Also budgeting my time. If I’m honest, I still struggle with this. I’ve molded my business in to a model which is higher pricing and lower volume- but it still doesn’t take away the times that I just HAVE to sit here and edit a sneak peek because I WANT to 🙂 It’s great to come home from a session and be pumped to start editing right away, but not so much when your family is waiting on you to give them attention. I’m still trying to come up with a schedule that I can live with but my family can too. The trials of loving your job so much! It’s hard when your work never really leaves you. You can’t just “clock out.” 🙂 But you have to discipline yourself to mentally clock out. One thing that HAS really helped me, was getting a separate phone line from business. Instead of using my personal cell as my business line, I finally broke down and got a separate cell line and it’s been amazing. It’s also nice simply to answer the phone “Amy Cook” and knowing that it’s a professional call, and not guessing whether it’s a personal or professional call coming in 🙂 Helpful when you have 4 littles at home who are loud! Lol.
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Do you have any tips for photographers just starting out?
Learn everything you can. Be respectful when asking other photographers for help. That doesn’t mean to be afraid to ask others because there are so many willing to help you. They want to see the industry be held with high regard and be respected. It’s NOT an easy profession! But also remember that Google is your friend. I love helping people, but even I myself can say that the number one reason I get annoyed with people that ask questions is because it is something they could have easily Googled- the way I did. It’s not “where did you get that blanket” it’s “where do you buy Alien Bees?”- chances are if you Google those exact words, you’ll get your answer. It’s easy to think of photographers as just a business page on a computer- but they are people. People with businesses, families, lives outside of Facebook- and we like to “clock out” just like everyone else 🙂 I’ve gently nudged people toward Google before, but tried to be polite about it. I don’t want to turn people off and be that “photographer who never answers messages” because I’m flattered that ANYONE would ever want to ask me anything! But there also has to be a line to be drawn. Nobody spoon fed me anything. When I started out, things were very negative. So I had to find most of what I know myself. And I used and abused Google. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that people who come across as entitled for answers (no please, thank you, or kind words to go along with a demand”) turn photographers away from wanting to take time out of their busy day to give them the answers they want. And please, if you’re going to ask a photographer something, give them time. Don’t come back in an hour with “did you get my message?? I sent you a message! Can’t wait to pick your brain!” Let them breathe. Also if you ask for advice/criticism, take it gracefully 🙂 Oh and don’t say anything about people that you wouldn’t say to their face, because it will get around and back to them. It’s a bummer that things like that even have to be said, but as AMAZING as an industry this is, it’s still kind of cut-throat in other ways too 🙁 People get what I like to call “Keyboard Courage.” You have to rise above 🙂 Also, don’t expect to have everything in the beginning. I hear so many people complain that it “must be nice” etc to have a studio, so many props, etc. I have to remind them that just because I have a lot of stuff, doesn’t make me rich-I worked and saved for everything I own, including building my studio! I’ve been in business for 5 YEARS and have built up what I have over that time. I didn’t do it all at once. Also, you have to charge what you need to sustain a business if you ever want to consider owning props, new gear, etc- if you’re charging pennies, you’ll never have money to buy things like that!
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If for some reason you couldn’t be a photographer, what do you think you would be?
That’s tough. I suppose if I HAD to choose something, I’d go back go school for nursing and be a NICU nurse. Or a famous singer 🙂 Haha!!
What’s the best lesson in photography you’ve learned so far?
Charge what you are worth- this is a business that needs to profit. A business that has overhead and unexpected costs. It’s not a hobby. Get your pricing right in the beginning so you don’t sticker shock clients later on who are used to your dirt cheap prices (because you didn’t know any better in the beginning, like me!) It’s more practical to start with correct pricing and then offer “portfolio building” or “introductory” discounts of 75% off, then 50% off, then 25% off, then up to full price eventually- etc. Network with people and make friends. Be genuine. And don’t ever let your family and loved ones take the back burner, as easy as it may be. It’s a very demanding profession so you need to be prepared to budget your time. It’s easy to let it take over your life 🙂 Many ladies become photographers because they think it will give them more free time as well- but instead, they end up working their lives away and having zero free time. YOU are your boss! Learn to say no.
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What are your thoughts on props?
I love props! I prefer more wooden, vintage type stuff. I love textures and warm colors. I’m extremely picky on the newborn props that I use- and sometimes I feel terrible telling someone that I can’t photograph their props- but they are simply not always my style. I want to photograph props that I LOVE, and props that are made with materials that I know photograph well. Not all yarns are equal 🙂 When I work with a vendor (whether they want me to photograph something for them, or I have simply purchased from them, which is most of the time!) I love being able to truly PROMOTE them because I love what I have used from them. I want to stay true to myself, and my style, and genuinely guide those that care about my opinion (which is just crazy to think of!) toward vendors that I myself love and would vouch for in terms of quality and customer service. When it comes to child sessions, I try to keep props more minimal. I don’t like having to carry stuff around with me, but I appreciate props and how well they can set an image apart. I like wagons, crates, balloons, bubbles, and of course, an awesome vintage quilt! 🙂 I think that a great prop can make or break your images, but you should always be careful not to make the props the focus of your image by overdoing it.
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