I have known and worked with Shannon McGowan Wells of Leigh Photography for almost 24 years now. When you meet her, she is all smiles and as sweet as “mom’s apple pie”. Her welcoming personality makes you feel like you have known her forever, and you just want to sit and become her bestie.
Shannon has been one of Louisville’s most sought after wedding photographers for almost a quarter of a century! But after shooting high stress weddings for most of her professional career, Shannon is now making her mark in a different arena other than weddings. That’s the beauty of being self-employed – unlimited opportunities to recreate yourself by redefining what is most important to you.
When asked how she felt about no longer shooting weddings, she said, “It feels really good!” Stress can certainly take its toll, shooting 50 plus weddings a year. “It was just me (shooting). A lot of weekends, it was both Friday and Saturday. And other weekends, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And then you have all that editing afterwards. I felt like I was always working and missing out on parties, family get-togethers, and time with my husband. And it got to be where it wasn’t fun anymore. And I have always said that I don’t want to become one of those grumpy photographers at a wedding.”
Picture This! Craziest Wedding Story
Being that I know Shannon from the wedding industry, I just had to ask what her craziest wedding story was. We all have one! I had to know hers. And boy was I surprised!
Shannon assisted a photographer from Lexington who shot Heather French Henry’s wedding to the Lt. Governor Steve Henry at the Cathedral of the Assumption in front of 1,200 guests. No stress shooting Miss America’s wedding, right? It was a huge media event with more press there than anything. Shannon remembers being “literally elbowed in the face trying to get the cake cutting. It was all in all out combat (laughing).”
The masses of guests were spread on several levels of the Seelbach Hotel throughout the Medallion Ballroom and the Rathskeller. She remembers that “they had a first dance and cake cutting on every floor so no one felt left out. It was total chaos.”
I jokingly asked her why this didn’t deter her from doing weddings altogether. A smile crossed her face, but her answer was clear. “I certainly didn’t want to do celebrity weddings any more (laughing).” But she admits, that photographing weddings certainly prepared her to “shoot anything.”
After redefining what is most important to her, Shannon has successfully transitioned away from high stress weddings into shooting mostly corporate work, portraits, and seniors. From the outside looking in, it may seem as if she easily changed gears. But trust me, it’s not easy! You have to be a pretty savvy business person to totally transform your business into something new – and remain successful!
Restructuring her business and her clientele called for a smaller space, so she downsized to a charming studio near Story Avenue in March of this year. This change has obviously been a positive force for Shannon, as she says she “feels lighter overall.” Wells really loves how she has restructured her business to fit her needs. She has much more time to spend with her family and friends and remains in total control of her destiny. I guess you can say she has had years of experience editing other people’s lives, so now she has now done it for herself.
Corporate Head Shots
Wells now focuses more on doing corporate work, portraits, and seniors. She speaks so lovingly of her work and the opportunities she has had to branch out and shoot on location with her corporate clients. “Large companies will call me and say ‘Hey, we need 50 employee head shots.’ Others call me because a they are in town for a corporate event or a conference in a hotel downtown, and they want to shoot everyone while together on location.”
“I have these really cool corporate clients that I have been traveling with. And thinking back years ago, I used to say ‘I have the best job in the world shooting weddings.’ And I did at the time! Now I REALLY think I have the best job.”
Every couple of months, her clients book BUCKET LIST trips. These are CEO’s and retired CEO’s that go all over the world. She says, “I have the pleasure of going with them and get to do cool stuff that I would’ve never gotten to do before. Last year, I did a train trip with them. We started in San Francisco and traveled to LA, the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, and ended up in Kansas City.” She shoots from about 9:00 in the morning for about 12 hours, documenting the trip with memorable photos.
Besides her corporate work, she also has calls for portraits for professional networking sites like LinkedIn and business websites. “Everyone has a website and needs a head shot. Even dating sites! Someone will call and say, ‘You know, I need a new profile picture for my dating site.’ And they don’t want it to look like a crazy selfie! (laughing)”
Wells also has a rather extensive portfolio of senior portraits, where she shoots in her studio and on location.
What Sets You Apart from Competition
Wells says her wedding experience sets her apart and makes her a better photographer “because when you are shooting a wedding, anything can happen. You have to be prepared to roll with the punches – literally! You don’t get a second chance to make it right. This alone has taught me a lot!”
She found her niche – personality, talent, and ready-for-anything mentality. As I previously mentioned, Shannon has a charisma and grace not often seen in the crazy photography business. She instantly puts you at ease, which helps her get the best possible response from her client. Be it a smile or a more relaxed pose, she is sure to make her clients look their very best.
Love/Hate Relationship with Self-Employment
The love of being your own boss? Her answer is unanimous with every entrepreneur I interview – “definitely more freedom!” She laughs as she recalls telling people that she sought after photography because she didn’t want a real job. “I knew I wasn’t going to be the type of person to sit behind a desk 9 – 5. I knew I wanted some sort of freedom. Being self-employed gives you that freedom. But on the same token, you have to realize that if you don’t get it done, there’s nobody else to do it.”
Worst aspect of being self-employed? “Time” – or lack thereof. Shannon claims that, “There have been many a night where it’s 9:00 at night and I’m still working on the computer. Or a Sunday afternoon, and I have to edit. You are always at work it seems like. If you’re not at work (physically), you’re still at work (mentally).”
Shannon has a bit of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. You have to be self-disciplined enough to do the jobs that you don’t necessarily want to do. “My husband and I both are self-employed. Now that gives us a lot of freedom. For example, we can pick up on a Wednesday and go out of town if we wanted to. But then there are times when we have to take care of stuff on a holiday or a weekend.”
Best Marketing Tools
Wells says that the internet, her website, Facebook, and Instagram are really good marketing tools for her. “And I have really found that the more you are on top of that, the more that your Google listing goes up.” At the beginning of the year, she was posting head shots and seniors on Instagram at least once or twice a day. And when you do that, your Google listing goes up in the rankings. Before long, people were calling her saying, “Hey, I saw your website (because it moved me further up).”
A tried and true marketing tool is always “word-of-mouth,” she says. It really adds credibility when “you have people to stand up and say ‘I had a great experience, and she was really fun to work with,” she adds. This reinforcement of a job well done certainly propels you forward to continue doing good work.
Developing a Photography Business
Prior to starting her own business, Shannon had an interest in taking pictures. In junior high, she got her first camera as a Christmas present. In high school, she shot for the yearbook and high school newspaper and went on to major in photography at Atlanta Art Institute.
When asked how her art degree helped her in her business, she explains that this experience exposed her to a lot of different types of photography. “Most times when you think of a photographer, you think of portraits or a commercial product. But there’s also fashion, architectural, real estate, and all different kinds of things. Even in portraits, you can break it down to seniors, babies, kids, families, and boudoir.”
Shannon’s story of her mere beginnings probably ring true with most small business owners just starting out. She said, “I spent the last $250 in my bank account to get into my first bridal show. I had a day job and was scraping by, but this was my last $250 in my account. I knew I had to book some weddings or I couldn’t afford to pay my rent. I did the wedding show, booked 2 that day and had several the following week. I had my day jobs for the first 3 ½ – 4 years until I built the business up enough until I could say I was comfortable.”
Passion Meets Determination
Starting a new business is not easy for sure. Most entrepreneurs will have a similar story of what sacrifices they made to pursue their dream. If you’re thinking about making your passion into a small business, just remember that anything is possible. Will you have to maybe work a few crappy jobs until you have built up your business? Sure.
There is a universal thread that runs through each story – passion and determination. Pursue your passion for “passion’s sake” and not the money. If you’re good at what you do and are honest in your trade, the money will follow.
“For me now, it’s freedom,” Shannon says. She goes on to say, “And it’s not just of your time, it’s finances too. My husband’s favorite saying is, ‘It’s not how much you make, it’s what you keep.’”
She says they live their lives a certain way so that they don’t have a lot of things hanging over our head. “I think that we are very successful in that way. We may not live in the biggest house on the block, but as you get older and with time, you learn what’s important and what’s not.”
The Golden Rule of Success
When asked what trait or habit she has that makes her successful, Shannon remarks, “I think that I try to treat my clients the way that I like to be treated – being on time, being respectful of their time, and not making them pay for things before they’ve seen good work from me.”
My father and grandfathers have a really high work ethic, and I think they instilled that in me. You shouldn’t half ass anything! If you’re going to do it, do it right the first time. Because I am the only one that has to answer to anything. It’s my name on the door.”
Contact Leigh Photography, LLC at (502) 266-5504. Her studio is located at 120 Webster St. Suite #324.
About Today’s Author
I am happily married with one daughter and two step-sons. I have owned and operated a small wedding cake business for over 25 years (Stir Crazy Cakes, LLC) and most recently started a new company handcrafting carved egg shells (Christi Murphy, LLC). A truly unique talent.
In owning and operating small businesses, I have personally experienced many successes and failures along the way that have made me a seasoned DIY entrepreneur. I don’t claim to be a professional marketer or consultant. Just consider me your new best friend that is sharing my personal knowledge and experience.
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