Run the World: Laura, the Photographer

Laura Metzler

Career day was always one of my favorite days of school growing up. I’m still fascinated to hear about what people do. What motivates them? How did they choose their career paths? How do they spend their days? Whether we like them or not, our professions define us in a lot of ways. After all, most Americans spend about half of their waking hours at work, if not more, according to the American Bureau of Labor Statistics.

I’m particularly inspired by women in the workforce as of late. That may be in part because of the recent historic nomination of the first woman president, or maybe just because women are career badasses in general. I won’t get into the disgrace that is the gender pay gap (it’s 2016!), but I know, or have read about, countless hardworking, intelligent, deserving, and creative women who deserve recognition. I wanted to share some of their inspiring stories with you here.

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I’m starting with Laura Metzler, a DC-based photographer who took the gorgeous photos of me for my blog. I never feel beautiful in pictures, and she nailed it.

I met Laura on my first day of classes at RIT. We had the same class schedule, and she declared that day that we’d be best friends. That’s exactly what happened. Since college, we’ve not only maintained our friendship, but we’ve become even closer, despite living about 6 or 7 hours apart. She has been so supportive of me in life and career, and I try to be a support for her as well. And let me tell you, the girl is rocking it. I’m extremely proud of the business she is growing. I don’t even think I’m biased, she’s just killin’ it! (West Elm thinks so too!)

I recently sat down with Laura to ask her some questions about her career and business.

What do you do?

I am an advertising photographer. I do a variety of photo work, primarily working with small businesses and brands who are looking to create content for social media and websites. Since I have experience in a variety of types of photography, I am able to cover all photography needs for a business. A lot of the small businesses I work with sell products, so I can photograph those and am also able to photograph their founders, for example. I do a lot of still life shots, like flat lays, which are super popular on Instagram. I love to do interior photography as well, working with interior designers to show off their beautifully designed spaces. I also work with fashion and lifestyle bloggers doing outfit posts, and I shoot food too. I do basically everything except for weddings and babies.

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How would you describe your style?

I think I do a good job of adapting to whatever my clients need. If I had to nail down a style, I would say crisp and clean, very light and bright. In college, I gravitated toward a darker style, but since I’ve been freelancing, I’ve realized that bright, clean photography for websites and Instagram performs really well for my clients. I think people come to me for those bright and clean type images, like what’s on my website and Instagram.

Usually, when I’m in the beginning stages of working with a client, I’ll have them send over examples of imagery they like. I try and follow the style that they need, and I think that’s a strength of mine, that I’m able to work in a lot of different types of styles to get the clients exactly what they need and want.

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What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I wanted to be an artist, but I thought that meant being a painter, and I can’t paint for shit. In first grade or kindergarten, we had a career day, and I showed up wearing an apron and a beret and carrying around a paint brush and palette all day.  

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Have you always done this or did you have another career/JOB before this?

I went to college at Rochester Institute of Technology and studied advertising photography. There, I focused on fashion and photographing people. After school, I came back to DC and didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, so I assisted three photographers in the DC area for the summer. It was a lot of real estate and corporate photography, and it just wasn’t something that interested me. I knew that if I had to do that kind of thing every day, it wasn’t going to be what I needed.

An old co-worker from RIT had recently moved to the DC area as well, and she started working as a photo editor at LivingSocial. They were still hiring, so I applied, interviewed, got the job, and started about three months after I graduated. I started out as an Assistant Photo Editor and was gradually promoted to Photo Editor and then Senior Photo Editor. They primarily hired graphic designers before I was hired, and I begged encouraged them to start letting me shoot everything I could get my hands on. I was able to help them build out a studio in-house, so we could photograph products.

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WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO GO FREELANCE?

After about a year and a half at LivingSocial, I was doing a lot of photography and photo editing for them, but I started getting a little antsy and felt like I needed to do something other than this 9-6 job. I wanted to be able to be more creative but also have something else to rely on.

I met with a friend who was running a company that was basically a PR company that represented a bunch of different creatives—designers, wedding professionals, makeup artists, quite a variety of different creative entrepreneurs—so, I listed with her site, Fortique, which was brand new at the time. I did a promotional shoot with her and after that started getting a bunch of hits. I got four different hits in one week from different businesses who needed photography.

At that point, I started doing freelance. I like to say that it spiraled out of control in a good way. Each client had another client to recommend me to, so I was able to steadily grow each month for the next two years. I really haven’t done a ton of marketing, other than that first listing with Fortique and networking whenever possible.

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After my job, I would get home around 7pm and work from about 7-11pm every night. Luckily I had a very supportive boyfriend, now husband, who would cook dinners and clean up. I would just work all the time. I gave up my weekends to be able to do this and for the most part, I was working 60-70 hours weeks for about two years. I loved working with new people, doing different things, and I just really wanted to grow my business.

I didn’t necessarily know whether or not it would mean leaving my job or doing freelance full-time at any point. I think I was working toward that subconsciously, but I never knew it was sustainable. I thought it was a good side job, and I really liked the hustle; I didn’t mind working both jobs. But, at a certain point, it does start to burn you out, and after planning a wedding while working two jobs, it was a little intense.

So, in June of 2015, my same friend who started Fortique started another business and needed help locally with photography and managing inventory. It was a 20-hour-per-week job for 3-4 months. This was the perfect opportunity to leave LivingSocial and grow/scale the business while still having some sort of guaranteed income.

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LivingSocial was a great company to work for; it was scary to leave after almost 4 years. I learned and grew so much and was able to photograph really cool people and products and a lot of yummy food. I got a lot of experience and was able to build a great base. It was the best first job I could’ve ever imagined, so it was hard for me to leave.

But, it was such an exciting moment too. For the longest time, I was working with all these entrepreneurs, and I was telling them, “I want to do freelance eventually, I think, but it’s so hard.” Everyone always said, “You’ll know when the time is right. It’ll feel right.” And I would wonder, “I don’t know, have I missed the time? When is it coming?” And you know, when the opportunity to leave LivingSocial came up, I was on the phone with my mom telling her about it, and I started crying when I realized, “This is it! This is what  everyone said would happen!”

It was really exciting and scary as shit. I had some really serious talks with my husband about whether or not this was the right choice for our family. It has turned out to be the best choice I have ever made. I left my job, and I’m never looking back. Freelance is so amazing, so rewarding, and I get to do so many different things. It keeps every day exciting.

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How do you find work/life balance while running your business?

Work/life balance is definitely a very difficult thing to manage, especially when you’re running your own business and it’s just you. You feel like you have to be 100% available to your clients at all times.

I think that I manage that a lot better now than when I was working at LivingSocial. When I was working that 9-6 job, I would plan meetings during my lunch hour, before or after work, and I would only shoot on the weekends and an occasional evening. I really did not have good work/life balance; my husband rarely saw me, we didn’t cook dinners together or spend time with friends on the weekends. I tried to save Friday nights to have one date night because I knew I was going to be working Saturdays and Sundays a lot of the time.

Now that I don’t have to work mostly on the weekends, I do a much better job of balancing work and my personal life. I try to plan my shoots primarily between 10am-4pm on weekdays because I live outside the city and, traffic-wise, it makes sense to go in a little later and leave a little bit earlier. My husband tends to work late, so I usually continue working at home until he gets home. That allows me to be able to not work on weekends. If there’s an urgent email, or if someone really needs something, I am flexible and will take care of it for them. But, for the most part, I do not work on weekends. I value that time so much now, and clients can live without me for the weekend. I need the ability to hang out with my husband, sleep in on Saturdays, and work on making our beautiful house even more beautiful. It’s so important to me to save that time.

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What is a typical week like for you?

Generally, in a week, I do three to seven shoots. Weeks with seven shoots are exhausting, but it’s super exciting, and I really love the hustle. It’s extremely rewarding to do a week like that. The weeks when I only have three shoots, I feel antsy. Luckily those are less common.

I try to shoot between 10am-4pm, so I’m home by 5pm and can work for another couple of hours. That time is devoted to editing. With so much going on, I really need a day at home to work on editing all the projects from the week. So, when possible, I try to save one day a week at home to devote strictly to editing and taking care of any business needs, invoicing, expenses, etc. When I don’t have that, I feel so crazy.

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What is a typical day like?

If I’m doing a photoshoot, I’ll get up around 7 or 8am and have a quick breakfast with my husband. I head into the city around 9am to get ready for a 10am shoot. If the shoot is at my studio, I try to get there around 9:30 or 9:45am to set up, and we’ll start at 10am. Usually, I have a shoot from 10am-noon, then I’ll grab lunch somewhere. I might have another shoot at 2pm for another hour or two. Then, I’ll head out of the city as fast as possible, so I don’t sit in traffic, and usually sit in traffic anyways. When I’m finally home, I’ll do a couple hours of editing. Sometimes I zone out in front of my computer trying to edit, but really end up watching TV because I’m so burnt out from the day. My job is very demanding of my body because most days include lifting lots of heavy equipment or standing on a ladder leaning over a photo set.

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How do you stay inspired in a creative field?

I’m really inspired by all of the different businesses that I work with. One day I could be photographing a gorgeous home, the next day I could be photographing a fashion blogger, and then the following day, beauty products. It’s all totally different, and I learn so much working directly with business owners.

I learn a lot about business in general, as well, just talking to these entrepreneurs—for example, learning how to interact with clients, invoicing, contracts, and all these different business-focused things. That’s so exciting to me, and I’m really inspired by business ideas and getting to do different things every day.

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If you could do anything else for work, no skills or experience required, what would it be?

I don’t think I’d want to do anything else, which I feel is pretty cool. Maybe I just can’t think of anything else, but I really, really love my job. Does this mean I’ve peaked? Haha!

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If you had to give one piece of advice to an aspiring photographer, what would it be?

I’ve had a few interns on and off, and I like to sit down and talk to them about how I run my business. As the type of photographer that I am, it’s a little bit about creativity, even more so about technical skill, but the most important aspect is business. RIT did a good job of telling us that, but I don’t think that’s really something that you can experience in school. Learning about interacting with people and talking to other entrepreneurs about how they run their businesses is super important.

The other thing that I think is so, so important as a photographer is flexibility. I feel that the biggest thing that keeps people coming back to me is that I’m flexible. Of course, I can take a good picture, but I think being easy to work with, being flexible, and doing exactly what the client wants is key. If you can accomplish a request, do it for them. If they need something the next day and you can do it, do it. That is going to keep them coming back to you and wanting to work with you; you make it easy for them. I want it to be so easy for people that they’ll say, “Oh yeah, just call Laura, she’ll do it for us.” That is the biggest thing for me.

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Thanks, Laura!

{All photos courtesy of Laura Metzler. You can see more of her work on her website and Instagram.}