Two years riding the Coronacoaster. What it was like to be a newly self-employed photographer in the face of a global pandemic.
This week on the blog we’re joined by specialist wedding photographer Hannah Brooke, from Hannah Brooke Photography. Hannah is going to share the highs and lows of setting up a business during Covid.
Over to Hannah…
I’ve spent my entire life holding a few firm beliefs, some of which are totally cliché, but here they are:
- Everything happening for a reason
- Gut instincts are to be trusted
- What goes around comes around
And I had built a business and quit my day job based on my gut instincts. I hadn’t spotted the pandemic coming. Well I did – I just didn’t think it would affect ME. How naïve I was back then. Here’s my story of the last two crazy years.
16th March 2020
I felt like my world was crashing down around me, and I seriously questioned the everything happening for a reason part.
And no, I haven’t got my dates muddled. Our son had been sent home from school with a cough and told not to return and every single one of the weddings I was due to photograph that year had asked if they could postpone to 2021. And that January, I had just resigned from my nice, secure day job to pursue my dream of becoming a full-time photographer.
I had been building my business super cautiously around a part-time HR role at a law firm in Leeds since September 2017. At first, I was just taking the occasional booking for a family shoot on weekends, but my business, passion and skill all grew quicker than expected and bearing in mind I had two small children to care for as well, something had to give. I had written my business plan, done an intense financial forecast and risk assessment and made the decision to take that giant leap into self-employment.
It was a tough decision
I enjoyed my day job. I’d taken it as a 12-month maternity cover after a bad experience returning from maternity leave at the one before. Things there went better than expected, I was treated as an adult capable of making my own decisions and offered a permanent role. I really enjoyed it. And it was safe with lots of lovely employee benefits. BUT it didn’t fill my heart with as much joy as being a photographer and photographing weddings did, and so that was the thing that had to give.
Doom, gloom and kicks in the teeth
Lockdown was announced when I still had three weeks notice to work. And every single one of the weddings I had booked and was relying on the income from, was postponed.
I panicked. And I cried, lots. All whilst trying my hardest to keep the (very unsettled) kids feeling safe and happy. My husband’s boss had phoned him and told him there’d be a 40% reduction in salary until further notice. And suddenly we realised we didn’t have a very big financial safety cushion in case on global pandemics.
I made a plea for furlough from the company I worked for, after all, they were legally allowed to, and it wouldn’t have cost them anything. But it was a flat no. But then a glimmer of hope was raised in the form of Rishi Sunak announcing his measures for the self-employed. I sat glued to the TV screen and the penny dropped that I wasn’t eligible for any of that either.
I think the official term is STUCK BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE.
When the going gets tough….
The tough wanted to curl up in her bed and cry for days. But instead I got creative with the skills I had and created an online Smartphone Photography Masterclass. It cost £20 and I published it on my Facebook page.
The first person bought it within minutes and I sat and cried tears of relief. That evening a further 30 people had signed up and it was the first time I thought I might just survive this, both as a business and a highly emotional, recently self-employed person.
But I missed taking photos of people
I’d taken hundreds of pics of my kids during those first few weeks of lockdown, but I missed capturing moments for other people. So, I had another idea – I’d seen this idea online called “doorstep photos” where you literally take a photo of a family… on their doorstep because none of us were allowed to go anywhere. I asked on the School Mums WhatsApp chat if anyone would like one and a few people said yes. So off I toddled on my daily exercise with the dog and my camera in tow.
I spotted an opportunity
At first, I did these for free. It was something for me to do and it brought me a little bit of happiness. But suddenly I was getting messages from people in the next village, saying they’d just had a baby and were desperate for some photographs, was there any chance I could get there? And I realised that I had a bike, sitting in that garage. So, I started charging a small amount and getting on my bike to the local towns and villages… and by the end of May 2020, I’d photographed 270 families on their doorsteps.
I became known for it
It was a really heart-warming thing to do. It gave me purpose when everything I thought I’d known was pulled from under me. And the people I was photographing were delighted with their pictures too – I wanted their family portraits to be happy and joyful and a reminder of this crazy time. You can see some of my favourites here.
The local paper published my story and a journalist from Yorkshire Life Magazine got in touch to see if she could create a story out of key workers that I had photographed. Of course, I said yes, and here is the article.
Restrictions started to ease
As the restrictions started to ease and people could leave their homes, the demand eased and I had to pivot my thinking again. So, I offered mini shoots on location, feeling confident that these would be a great success. They weren’t. Two people signed up, and I realised that I’d probably overdone it on the doorstep shoots.
Despite that things were starting to look up – I photographed loads of full family shoots, three micro weddings that autumn and I was feeling pretty optimistic. I even brought back the doorstep shoots for a fun festive edition in the run up to Christmas.
The worst January in the history of January’s
I’ll never forget Tuesday 5th January. The kids had returned to school and I had gone to my Nana’s funeral (not a covid death) where I wasn’t allowed to hug my Dad, who I hadn’t seen for a year. And then the winter lockdown was announced that evening.
It was cold, it was dark, it was hard. I had a 6 and a 4-year-old to home school and I felt out of my depth. They didn’t want to, I didn’t want to. I nearly had a nervous breakdown.
But I battled on
Somehow in the midst of that I managed to create and sell a few places on my Beginners DSLR course. And OF COURSE, I carried on trudging around doing doorstep shoots taking my total to 370. But it was getting harder and harder to stay cheerful and optimistic. I was super cold all the time and I was so, so tired.
And one day, the police paid me a visit as they’d had a report of me “leaving my area to go take photographs.” I explained that it was my only means to an income and that I couldn’t see anything in the rules that said I couldn’t travel for work. And I was OUTSIDE PEOPLE’S HOMES THE ENTIRE TIME. The report had come from another photographer, I never found out who. I was just trying to keep the wheels of my business turning.
Weddings came back!
There was a flurry of Micro Weddings in the spring but lots of people, understandably, wanted to hold out for the big parties. And between April and December 2021, I was the photographer for 28 weddings. It was my first full wedding season, but a double season.
And there were a lot of families, newborn babies and brand shoots too.
Oh hello, Omicron
Things were officially looking up. Business was booming. And then a new variant reared its ugly and spiky little head. I had a business shoot cancel the minute it was announced and that familiar sinking feeling came back, convinced that further restrictions would be announced. But they weren’t and here we are in January 2022.
Almost TWO years on the Coronacoaster later…
It’s been an absolute whirlwind at times. It’s been mainly about survival, continuous pivoting and thinking of new ways to scrape an income together. At one point my business had changed so much I was unsure if I’d ever get back to what I’d set out to do. But I have.
And when I think about it now… I genuinely think that if I hadn’t resigned pre-pandemic, I don’t think I’d have dared to now. I certainly wouldn’t have taken all the photographs that I took and I’d have been trapped in a cycle of endless Zoom calls and Teams meetings.
So for all I’ve been through, I actually think it did my business some kind of good. But now I’d really, REALLY love a couple of calmer years please!
Another 27 (and counting!) weddings in the diary for this year and I’ll continue to offer family and brand shoots.
I’m also planning to launch a course for new photographers who want to create their dream business but don’t know how.
Head to my website to find out more about my photography.
Join the waitlist for info on the course.
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