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The young photographer, part 1: Building a photography business as a millennial

Sunday - 7/14/2013, 10:44am  ET

Heather Brady, special to

WASHINGTON - When Mary Alice Jackson started taking pictures at age 6, she wasn't dreaming of one day starting her own business behind the lens.

But she never lost her passion for photography, and today the 25-year-old photographer owns Shot With A Bow, a company she started herself.

Jackson lives in Mechanicsville, Va., a small town just outside of Richmond, where she grew up.

With her husband, Andrew, who is in the military, her young son, Beckham, and her full-time job working for the Astyra Corp., her life is more established than that of the average millennial. But despite her demanding schedule, she has set herself apart by setting aside time to jump-start her career in photography.

This is the first in a two-part Q&A series where Jackson reveals the way her dedication and passion led her to start a small business and how she has mixed her 20-something technical and social media sensibilities into her work.

Did the name of your photography business come from your style of wearing bows all the time? It seems to be your signature thing.

Yes. I guess it's been a couple years now where I've decided I'm going to have a bow every day with every outfit. It doesn't matter how formal or informal it is. If you go into my bathroom, there's like 40 bows on each side of my mirror. In photography, in the business, everyone tells you to go by your name and I don't really like my name all that much, so Shot With A Bow was cutesy, I thought.

What kind of photography did you start with when you began your business?

I first started with kids or families. Weddings actually made me really nervous, but I had somebody come up and she was like, "I wouldn't have anybody else in the world but you shoot my wedding." So she actually ended up being my second wedding, but I would like to do more weddings ‘cause they're awesome. I like taking pictures that capture that day and that experience and I'm a huge picture fan, so I want pictures of everything. But I love portraits also.

Did you start with kids because of Beckham and because of everything that you had been doing already as a mom?

Yeah, I think Beckham helped because I knew what to say and what to do and the noises to make to get him to look at me. That helped ‘cause apparently a lot of people have a hard time taking pictures of their kids. First-time parents, they want tons of pictures, so [it] was really easy to get into that market and do kids.

Did the recession hit your business at all? Do people have less money to spend on professional portraits?

My prices are pretty low because I am just starting out. I find that a lot of people have started with me because they can't afford to go have $100 portraits done and pay a hundred more dollars for print, so it hasn't hit too hard yet. People are still coming even though prices have changed since I started. You would think people wouldn't want to spend the money on pictures because they have bills and everything to go. But I guess they see what's important and they know this is the only time you're going to have to take pictures like this. So it's been pretty good.

Is it mostly weddings and families where people are really spending money on photography?

Newborn [photo shoots are] a big thing that I've been doing. And boudoir pictures [where female subjects are in suggestive poses].


Really. They are like the No. 1 gift for grooms the day of the wedding. I did a ton near Valentine's Day. I've had a lot of girls who've had weight struggles be like, "When I get to this point, I really want to do these pictures just for me." That has really impressed me, the number of people that really want to do it and are willing to get in front of the camera.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a photo editor for Playboy, because I'm a girl, I have a very critical eye and I can look at it and not be like, "Wow, look at her, she's so pretty." I could look at it and be like, "She needs to put her chin up," or that I wanted to lighten this area or darken this area. In a way, that's what I'm doing now. I've had grooms cry. I've had grooms come up to me at the wedding the next day and be like, "I'm so excited. Thank you so much." I've had a lot of really good feedback from boudoir pictures.

Are they pricey? Is it an expensive gift?

It can be as expensive as you want it to be. I have a professional makeup artist that will come if you want. If not, they are probably around $50 for the shoot and then prints [are] anywhere from $1 up to however much money you want to spend. It doesn't have to be an expensive gift, but if you want it to be, it can be very expensive. I've done [ones] where they've put them in bound, printed books and given that to them. I've done little swatch books that they can have, and then some people just want to do a slideshow and give them the disk. Any different number of ways which you can see them.

With the economy as bad as it was, did you find it really daunting or intimidating when you were first starting up your business?

It was, just because photography is a really expensive thing to get into. The costs up front were daunting to me, because I do work full-time, but I have Beckham and life in general. It's been a lot of picking and choosing and where do I start, what do I need to start with. I didn't really know how the business world was going to take Shot With A Bow, but I knew I was going to do photography, regardless. So if it was awesome, then great. And if it wasn't, then I would still have had the camera and everything to do what I wanted to do. But I've been very, very lucky that it's taken off.

Is it sustainable in terms of what you're getting back for the business costs that you're spending?

I think so. Numbers are not my forte, but my little brother is into finance. He's taking everything that I use and the time that I spend and recalculating everything. For now, I'm doing pretty well. I'm able to put away enough every month to save for the camera, but everything else is already paid for, so I think it's finally turning a profit.

Have people with higher price ranges felt the hit of hard times?

I think so. I've known a lot of really good photographers that have lost their businesses or not had as many clients as they could have had if their prices had been a little bit lower. Some people are very willing to spend $5,000 to $10,000 on pictures. Some people just can't afford [that].

How do you balance it all? You're working at Astyra, you've got Beckham and Andrew when he is home, you've got your business. How does that work?

It's really hard with Beckham because when I'm not shooting, all of my business is on the computer. I really have to make myself stay away from the computer when he wants to go outside and do stuff, but I think if you keep the roles separate, they all fit together. I know not to do anything photography-related when I'm at work. And when it's Beckham, it's Beckham. When it's Andrew, it's Andrew. When it's all of us, it's all of us. But it's definitely been a struggle to try and figure it out. [You] take some time for you and manicures and all that when you can, and that helps. But it's been tough.

You said you'd like to do it full-time someday. Do you think that's in the near future, or will it take some time to get there?

It probably will be in the future. Astyra is not doing wonderfully, so it's nice to have this to fall back on. I know a lot of my coworkers don't have that. I'm going to have to invest a lot more money with the camera and with hiring someone else, so I want to make sure I'm making enough to justify being here all the time. But I think that's the plan in the next year or two, to go full-time.

Is it hard having friends in the same field?

It's not as hard as you would think. Yes, they're my competition, but at the same time, when I have an emergency or they have an emergency, I can go and help them if they need to, or they can come help me. A lot of us have very different price ranges, so [for] the clients that want something super-fancy, I know I have somebody I can recommend. Or if they have somebody that doesn't really have the same budget, they can send them to me. It's more of a community.

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