Laura Jennings Photographer

Laura Jennings

Photographer  •  Panama City Beach, Florida, USA

  • Interviewed by Emma Koi
  • Edited by Alissa Zimmerman-Exley

Photographer Laura Jennings and her husband Chris are setting a shining example for their three children that it is more than possible to do what you love for a living. Laura became a mother for the first time at the age of 17, raising her daughter as a single mom for the first four years of her life. Through years of hard work, she’s created a new life, building a successful photography business out of her home. She spends her evenings taking photographs on the beach at sunset, and her days editing, marketing, and running her photography business, often with a toddler on her lap! Laura attributes her success to a former career in marketing, and shares some really great tips for anyone wanting to form a business from their art. Her love for motherhood is palpable, and she has a captivating ability to capture the natural beauty of the place she calls home. Thanks for reading. Love, Emma.

Where did you grow up? I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and my family moved to central Florida when I was 10. My dad took a job in Orlando, and we lived near Cocoa Beach for 20 years. That’s where I met my husband, and we moved to Panama City Beach about five years ago.

Laura Jennings with her husband Chris, daughter Alexis (17), and sons Connor (8) and Ascher (2).

Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer? No, I didn’t. When I was young, we would go to SeaWorld a lot. I wanted to be a marine biologist, like everybody, and train the dolphins. My dad wanted me to be an architect because I was always artsy and crafty, and I was always drawing. He told me, “Go be an architect. Go to school and get a good job that pays a lot of money.” But I knew I didn’t want to do that.

For me, photography didn’t start until about eight years ago. I’ve always had a camera and always loved taking pictures, but I never wanted to be a photographer.

"I just wanted [my kids] to have something so that they could see themselves growing up, and to share with their kids and grandchildren someday."

What was the spark that made you decide to become a photographer? Part of it was cliche. I had kids and I wanted to document it. A lot of that stemmed from the fact that I don’t have anything from my childhood to show my kids. I’ve got less than a handful of pictures. I just wanted them to have something so that they could see themselves growing up, and to share with their kids and grandchildren someday.

You became a mother at 17. Is your daughter’s father the same partner you have now? He is not. My daughter is 17 now, and her dad and I were high school sweethearts. I got pregnant and he decided to join the military. He thought that was the best option.

It didn’t work out for the two of us, so I raised her by myself until she was about four, when I met my husband that I’m married to now. He stepped right in. She doesn’t remember much from before him being around. We’ve got two boys now as well.

Laura Jennings' three children, Alexis (17), Connor (8) and Ascher (2). Photo: Laura Jennings

What were your dreams and goals when you were 17 and you became pregnant? What were you planning for your life at that time? I had no idea what was going to happen, to be honest. Ever since I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a mother. I didn’t want to be a mother at 17, but I always wanted to be a mom. I love kids. I would keep having children if my husband would let me! At the time, I really just wanted to make ends meet. I was going to school to be a pharmacist, and it just got put on the back burner. There wasn’t time. It was more about her, making sure she had everything she needed.

I have a bit of a background in marketing and advertising so that was where I was going. I really did love it. I actually wanted to work for the Publix marketing department. I loved the old Publix commercials!

When I was 17 I had no idea. It wasn’t until my early-to-mid twenties when I got heavily into marketing that I was really happy doing that. But work like that takes you away from your kids an awful lot, and from your family.

What kind of a support system did you have in place as a new mom? It sounds terrible, but almost none. My parents didn’t help me out. I moved out when I was 17, and lived on my own with Alexis. Her dad was stationed in Guam, and I had no idea where that even was until he told me that’s where he would be stationed. His family lived in my area, so his mother was extremely helpful and doting. She is the best grandmother in the world, and accepted our boys as well. They call her grandma. Other than her, honestly, I was on my own.

Client photo: Laura Jennings Photography

What was the difference with your second and third child, having a better grounding for yourself? I was married, for one. I was 25 when we had our second, so our daughter was seven or eight at that point. I have two younger brothers, and one of them is nine years younger than me, so when I had Alexis I kind of had an idea of what to do. I helped raise my brother with my mom and dad.

Still, when we had Connor (our second) it was a little bit of a shock to start all over. It was my husband’s first so there was a little bit of a learning curve there, but it felt like night and day. It felt so easy, because I had my husband and his family, and we had Alexis who could help get a diaper, or make herself cereal in the morning. It was total night and day.

"Without any background in marketing I would have had no idea what to do outside of taking a couple of pictures."

How did your career in marketing help you with your photography business? Without any business knowledge, it would be almost impossible to be a successful photographer, because only 10 percent of it is actual photography. The rest of it is marketing yourself, getting yourself in front of your ideal client, customer service, and all of the back end: editing, bookkeeping, making yourself profitable. Without any background in marketing I would have had no idea what to do outside of taking a couple of pictures.

Do you have any tips for people wanting to start their own businesses in photography? Yes! I actually wrote a book about that very thing last year. It’s called “Taking the Leap” and it’s about starting a profitable photography business.

When you see new photographers starting out, they often have sessions that are so cheap, charging $40 or $50. They’re not making any money charging that. You’ve got to think about your equipment, your time, the cost of materials. You’ve got to think about making money or you’re doing yourself an injustice. One of the very first things you need to do is to make sure that you know what your cost of doing business is. Figure out what you want to make for the year and how much you can or want to work. Then do the math to figure out how much you actually need to be charging your clients.

Laura's home office space in Panama City Beach, Florida. Photo: Laura Jennings

Also, in this day and age, word of mouth is great, but the internet is where it’s at. The internet is how people are finding you. For me, Panama City Beach is a small town. When everybody is gone, we’ve got about 12,000 locals, and we get about 14 million visitors every year. Because of that, most of my business is tourist driven. If it weren’t for the internet, I would have very low visibility. You can be the best photographer in the world, but if people can’t find you, then it doesn’t do you any good. Make sure you have a website and professional headshots, branding and social media accounts. Make sure that your website can be found on Google.

It can be frustrating sometimes, because I wish it was more about photography. That’s why we do this. But I really think that anybody doing this needs to understand the business end of it. I mean, if one of my children decided one day they wanted to be photographers, I would tell them to get a degree in business. It’s also something that they can take with them if their passion for photography ever dies.

It can be hard to think about business when you’re artistically driven. And it was for me too. My first session paid me $50. But it wasn’t long before I realized I was spending an hour with the client taking pictures, and five or six hours editing the pictures. I was putting the pictures on a disc at the time. I had to buy a computer. I had to buy new equipment. It all adds up, and I realized I was actually paying them to take their pictures, not the other way around.

Laura Jennings, with her son Ascher, age two. Photo: Laura Jennings

Take us through a typical day in your life. The kids get up anywhere between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. Alexis gets up the earliest; I do not get up at that time. We wake up once we hear the boys start rumbling around the living room, and the kids are off to school by 7:15 or 7:20. I usually dig right in and start sending emails and getting my to-do list ready for the day. I snuggle on the couch with the baby, have a little bit of breakfast, and I take off to go to the gym around 10:00 every morning.

I’m back at my desk by noon and that’s where I really start work and do all my editing. I shoot about 300 family sessions a year, so I shoot at night and literally edit the next day, because otherwise I would get behind. Every day I edit the previous night’s sessions until about 2:30, 3:00 when the kids start coming home. I still try to work through that, but not always.

Sometimes I remember to stop and cook dinner. Sometimes I run out the door for a session, which really depends on what time the sunset is. Right now the sunset is at 5:30. In the summertime it’s at 7:45. I used to come home after a session at 8:30 p.m. and start downloading pictures and editing, but I stopped. That was a line I drew. I’ll download the pictures and make sure they’re saved, but I’m not editing. Now when I get home at night I sit down and have a little bit of family time.

Do you have childcare for your two year old when you’re working? No. He has been sitting on my lap while I edit since the day he was born.

And he does that? When I put my son in my lap at the computer, he needs to watch all the YouTube videos and then I feel guilty about letting him watch too much TV! He’s usually pretty good. He plays really well by himself. He does love Mickey Mouse, so I’ll put Mickey on, but he plays really well by himself. He’ll hang out right in my office and play. My husband works from home too for the most part, and I can see the whole house from my office. But he’ll happily sit in my lap and push buttons while I’m trying to edit. I get sad thinking that he’s not going to do that much longer, because I love it. I know he’s not going to get into trouble on my lap.

This is your third kid, so maybe you’re not having all the thoughts that I’m having, like “Am I doing the wrong thing letting him look at a screen all day?” It’s so funny how you progress from the first baby to the third baby. With the first baby, everything was sanitized, and you do everything by the book. And then with the second baby, you drop the pacifier and you dip it in your drink. And then with the third baby, you just give it to them off the ground. Last week, my two year old was dropping cereal all over the soccer field and one of the moms was getting nervous. I was like, just eat it. It’s fine. Just pick it up and eat it. You realize that it’s just not worth stressing about some things. You can’t control them, and ultimately it’s not going to change how your kids turn out.

"It’s so funny how you progress from the first baby to the third baby…You realize that it’s just not worth stressing about some things. You can’t control them, and ultimately it’s not going to change how your kids turn out."

What do your kids think of mom being a photographer? I think it’s torn. They love it and I think they get annoyed with me. They love when I take new pictures of them, because it usually involves, for my daughter, wearing my clothes. Or for my boys, they get to jump on the beds or jump off the couch and see how high they can get. But at the same time, just two days ago my son was sitting on the chair behind me and I looked over at him and he goes, “Stop taking pictures of me!” So I think if they get to do cool things it’s great, otherwise they’re annoyed.

Do they have any interest in photography at all? Every single one of them does; it’s so cute to see. We took a trip to Cuba last year, and Alexis bought a camera to take with her. She tried to learn as much as she could before we left. Our eight year old is interested. And the two year old has a little disposable camera that he plays with. He takes pictures with my phone all the time. I have random pictures of feet and foreheads and cars and food, my wine glass.

What inspires you in your work as a photographer? Light, mainly light. We live about a mile from the beach, which is where I shoot almost every night, out on the beach at sunset. The nights that I’m not out there I am constantly watching those back windows looking for the light. I love seeing the way it hits people as it comes through the house. Anywhere outdoors I am always looking for the best light.

Client photo: Laura Jennings Photography

Do you have any formal training in photography? I am completely self taught. When I first started out I did take one class from a local photographer when we lived down south. There was a little camera shop and one of the owners would teach classes. I took a night photography class, and we went to the bridge that went over the river and learned long exposure and how to compensate for darkness. That was a two hour class, but otherwise everything has been trial and error for me.

I always tell people when you buy a camera, don’t read the manual. Go out, take pictures, fiddle around with it, figure out what you want to change. Then go to the manual and see how to fix it. Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to you, because you don’t know what you’re trying to do. You want that blurry background. Ok, now let’s go search and see how to get that blurry background. Or your kids are moving and they’re out of focus. What do we do to fix that so that they are in focus? I like to work backwards.

What’s your favorite thing about being a mother? I love all of it. I mean, except for the laundry, and the tantrums, and the talking back, and the cooking! But I really do love being a mother. I always wanted to be a mother, and I like all of it. I like taking them to sports, snuggling on the couch, seeing their little faces light up when they get excited about everyday things.

"I love all of it. I mean, except for the laundry, and the tantrums, and the talking back, and the cooking! But I really do love being a mother."

Is your stress level different with your two year old now than it was with your two year old 15 years ago? Yeah. You just learn what is normal. Right now my son is in a phase where he gets mad at his socks every day. I’m like, yeah, I remember this. We’ve done this two times before. My husband’s like, I don’t remember this phase. But they all do it. They all get mad at their socks because they don’t feel right. The things that irritated me when I was 20 years old, or 25 years old, don’t irritate me now as much as they did then. You also learn how fast that time goes by. Someday I’m going to miss having a two year old crying about his socks, I really am. I am going to miss having toys everywhere, even though I complain that they don’t pick up after themselves. You really see how fast it goes by.

Laura Jennings' son Connor, age eight. Photo: Laura Jennings

Tell us about the work that you do with Magic Hour Foundation. Magic Hour Foundation is a nonprofit organization that offers free photo sessions to families that are battling terminal cancer or who are survivors of cancer. Photographers from all over the country can apply to work for them. When they get an inquiry for a session, they’ll reach out to a local photographer near the client. And then you set it up just like a regular session, going out and shooting the pictures, editing them, and giving them back to Magic Hour. Then they provide the client with a digital download and the printed images in a box. It’s a really nice company and what they are doing is definitely needed.

What has it meant to you to be able to do work for Magic Hour Foundation? It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I know that I’m helping create a piece of a legacy that someone is leaving behind. It is really sad to see that this is potentially the end of life for a family member. But I think it’s so important to take these pictures, not only for those that are living right now, but for future generations as well. The man that I worked with most recently had two teenage girls. Their children will never know their grandfather, so it’s important to be able to have some professional photos.

"…your work can always wait. Your kids will never be this small again."

Do you have any advice for other Mother Makers? I know balance is never going to be found, but realize that your work can always wait. Your kids will never be this small again. The emails can wait. The editing can wait. The phone calls can even wait. You can return a phone call. There’s just absolutely no way to do it all, and trying to do it all and be everything to everybody is just setting yourself up for failure.

I just read “Grace Not Perfection” by Emily Ley. She talks about giving yourself some grace. You can’t do it all. The work stuff can wait. Being a work-at-home mom obviously makes it that much harder, because I don’t get to escape and go to an office for eight hours, then come home and just be a mom. Sometimes an email comes in at 7:30 at night that I feel like I have to respond to right away. It’ll pull you away from your family, and this is something my husband and I have been working on. Where does work end, and where does home start? That’s the most important thing, otherwise you are going to work yourself too hard, and what’s the point of that?

Photo: Laura Jennings

  • Published February 22, 2018
  • Interviewed by Emma Koi on February 20, 2018
  • Edited by Alissa Zimmerman-Exley
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