Embracing the Madness: An Interview with Kate Combs, Family Photographer
Welcome to Time Out with Tanya, where I’ve put my fast paced graphic design career on hold in favor of adventures in motherhood. I’m capturing every moment on camera and you can come along, if you’d like. Sign up for my weekly email here so you’ll never miss a Time Out.
Since I joined the portrait photography community several years ago, I often hear full-time pros complain about or even bash the part-time “mom” photographers out there who are supposedly “ruining the industry” and driving down prices, yada-yada-yada. While I agree that the over abundance of people grabbing a DSLR at Costco, setting up a Facebook page and calling themselves a pro photographer is not doing our industry any favors, I also see many women who have pursued a legitimate photography education and are simply working on the side while they raise their families.
Kate Combs, who’s story is very similar to my own, is one of those ambitious moms who is slowly moving forward, spending an hour or so, late at night, on her business. Knowing I’m not alone in this stage of my career and life is helpful. I hope it inspires you, too.
Hi Kate. Tell me about your journey to becoming a portrait artist.
I majored in photography at University of Cincinnati’s School of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). Actually, it was a Fine Art major with an emphasis on photography and electronic media arts. My goal was to graduate there in December 2005, move out west with my then-boyfriend, get my masters in Fine Art, become a professor of Fine Art Photography at the college level (which would lend me ample time to work on my personal work when I wasn’t teaching). But life has a tendency to not work out according to plan!
Instead I found myself pregnant just before graduating. So, my boyfriend and I got hitched and started raising our family here in Cincinnati, where my family is. My personal artwork took a turn toward my own family, my daughter, and my day-to-day life. I never stopped taking photographs. It wasn’t until just after my daughter turned 2 that I took the step out of my own bubble to photograph someone else’s children.
Eventually, while pregnant with child #2, I quit my part-time job as a substitute teacher to devote myself more fully to developing a portrait photography business. My husband and I are about to celebrate our 8 year anniversary, my daughter will be 7 this month, my son is 4 and 1/2, and I am now looking at my 5 year anniversary of Katy C Photography!
How did you make the transition from Fine Art Photographer and Teacher to Portrait Photographer?
I’m a textbook introvert. I find interacting with people to be exhausting! I never dreamed I would or could be a portrait photographer. I always thought portrait photographers had to be bubbly, energetic, and most of all extroverted. They had to be people-persons who shine brightest when they are with others. I fell in love with photography after being in the darkroom; being alone, in the calm of the dim safelight, surrounded by my choice of music and the aroma of fixer, quietly coaxing the ghosts of my images out of the liquid. Alone. I went into fine art photography because it was self sufficient, in a way.
Portrait photographers, I thought, had to be spunky and engaging people who thrive being around people; I was way too socially awkward for that. I prefer intimate, laid back, less in-your-face sort of interacting. But I gained confidence after photographing children; they don’t care how socially awkward I am. That confidence encouraged me to continue with portrait photography. I could do this. Mothering my own children helped me connect with other young families and gave me more strength just to be myself and not worry so much about social situations.
And I found that not everyone is looking for a photographer who is an outgoing, extroverted, perky social butterfly shouting at them to “SMILE!”. I know I personally find that to be off-putting when I have my picture taken. So while being an introvert is still a stumbling block in some ways (I need to retreat into solitude to “recover” from portrait sessions, and meeting new people can be nerve-wracking), I find I am able to better connect with my ideal client and capture real honest moments with them by just being me.
So, you’ve finally found your personal style in your portraiture work?
YES. And I am very excited about it. Starting out in portrait photography, I thought I could do it all: seniors, newborns, families, children, engagement, events, head shots. Bring it! Moreover, I thought I had to do it all, because I couldn’t afford to turn down opportunities and income. I quickly learned that weddings and events were a definite NO for my personality. However, up until this past year, I’ve been doing a little bit of everything else, but finding myself feeling so very uninspired.
I had a long stretch of sessions that I just dreaded and totally drug my feet in post production; they were all heavily posed sessions with primarily adults or teens and older children who were expecting to be told what to do in front of the camera. I got some great images and all my clients were very pleased with the results, but I was feeling empty. Just blah about the whole thing and thankful after each order was fulfilled and I could move on! That slump this summer helped me to discover what my real niche is in this industry: capturing honest moments for families with young children. People like me, as it turns out. This stage of life is so fleeting and overwhelming.
My personal style is to document this transient stage of life for young families. It’s an overwhelming time and it is so easy to just want to rush through it; but it’s also a magical time of innocence; it’s a stage of life that will be nostalgically remembered in the years to come. And for most people it will be a blur! My photographic style is to bring this stage of life into focus, to be cherished into the next generation, which is why I don’t just give clients a disc and send them on their way; I preserve their memories in print so they will truly last.
I adore the honest nature of childhood. Children won’t put on airs to impress and they are unafraid to be themselves in any situation. So often when the camera comes out, people’s personalities hide. We become so self-aware, uncomfortable even. Children tend to break those barriers down by just being themselves. I realized my passion for portrait photography lies in capturing honest glimpses of the relationships between the individuals that make up a family. While the adults in the family may rely on being posed, the kids will tend do their own thing and the adults will then react—it’s fun, it’s unpredictable, it’s intimate. It’s why I do what I do. My tagline is “Your life is your story; your photographs tell the tale.” Who’s story is being told to smile and tilt their head a bit to the right? Not mine, that’s for sure.
Which obstacles have you had to overcome to pursue a career doing what you love?
Being a full time mom has forced my business to progress more slowly than others. I have to put work on hold until after bedtime. This fall my son finally started preschool which gave me 4 glorious hours of uninterrupted time to focus on networking, marketing, and organization during the day—unheard of! Housework is always put on the back burner (but I don’t think that would be any different no matter what field I were in!) and meals are take-out several nights a week… It’s a teeter totter that never seems balanced, but such is life with young kids. I just try my best to embrace the madness with a light heart, and pass that lightness on to those I come in contact with.
You know I have to ask it. Canon or Nikon? What’s in your camera bag?
I shoot with a Nikon D300 and my Nikon 50mm f/1.4 basically lives on there. I have a Tamron 10-24mm that will sometimes make an appearance, but I prefer to keep things simple. That said, I am not gadget heavy.
As a busy mom, have you had a chance to complete any personal photography projects?
Since finishing college it’s been hard to focus my attention on a well-defined personal project. The direction I was heading in my fine art photography was quite scientific and observational; I was drawn to time-based work centering around the fringes of our human condition. My senior thesis work was about consumption, waste, and what we can learn about an individual based on their trash. It was weird LOL! I suppose that has a correlation to what I am photographing now—the metamorphosis of children growing up. This year I am trying to commit to a 365 project just using my phone and Instagram (because if it wasn’t kept simple and convenient, I would probably let it fall by the wayside in the day to day craziness!).
What are your tips for getting business done as a stay at home mom?
Finding a network of other stay at home moms has been invaluable. During my busiest times, when work just can’t wait until after bedtime, I have been able to rely on other mothers to do a childcare swap (they keep my kids for a few hours and I’ll return the favor another day). I have posted my “hours of operation” on my website, primarily so my clients know when to expect to communicate with me—so when they try to contact me via Facebook at 10pm, they know I won’t be responding right away despite the fact that I am online! I can tell you I have definitely not been able to stick to it religiously. But, yeah, it’s primarily for my client’s benefit so they have a rough idea for when it’s best to book a session and best times to get in touch with me.
That’s brilliant! I totally need to find myself some childcare swaps. Any other advice you would offer to all the part-time mom photogs out there?
Part of my evolving business model is to incorporate giving back to the community by donating a portion of the proceeds from each session to local non-profits; I believe part of our stories should be leaving a legacy of generosity and improving the world around us. All of this is what I feel I have learned over the course of 2013 and what is propelling me forward into the new year and beyond.
CREDITS: All photographs by Kate Combs are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.