I put this together for a recent lecture at GAIN Music Arts Festival and thought it would be worth sharing with you. This is the story of how I became a professional photographer. Many of you may already know, I’m Brandon Marsh, owner and photographer of Brandon Marsh Photography. I am a Guelph Based Commercial Photographer specializing in Portraits, Events & Editorial Photography. This is only a portion of my story, as it is a long one…
I’m currently in my second year of business as a full-time photographer. It hasn’t been very easy to get started but I feel I have built my business fairly quick. I first picked up a camera about 3 years ago as a hobby. That being said, photography has been with me since I was a kid. My Father was a hobbyist photographer and my Mother ran a photo lab for about 35+ years. I always had a point and shoot camera and took a lot of photos. I always enjoyed photographing my trips, hikes, and special moments with friends. Never put much thought into what I was doing, mostly just aimed the camera at something and pushed a button. Like many others, I was simply documenting my life.
I’m not a big fan of astrology but I should mention, I am a Gemini. The reason I feel this is important is that the description of a Gemini is almost to a “T”, who I am. The main thing is, I get bored quick, and I’ve always changed my interests and career paths very quickly. Like any high school teen, I had a dream of being a rock star. A touring musician was the main goal in life. I promoted shows so my band could perform, and learned every aspect of the business to help us succeed. I was a self-taught Audio engineer with a bit of help from a Friend who ran a studio in Toronto. I also worked as a sound tech for Club Shadow, I worked a co-op doing lighting maintenance which led to me working as a lighting tech as well. Then I moved to Toronto and became a Sous Chef, moved to Vancouver and became a pattern designer working with automotive interiors, then I wanted to build furniture…. And the list goes on and on. You could say I was all over the map with my decision making. After a few years of living in Vancouver, I moved back to Guelph to be closer to my family when my dad became very ill. I was completely lost as to what I wanted in life and who I was. I took a break from everything, started to spend more time hiking and cleared my head. I’d go for 3+ hour hikes, ride my bike for half a day and just walk everywhere, sometimes listening to music or just the sounds around me. I started to see some incredible sights, things I had taken for granted while growing up in Guelph.
I had always wanted a nice camera, but could never afford one. By this point in time, most of the photo labs in the area had closed down and could no longer use my Dad’s film camera because it was just too costly to develop the film as I was learning. While I was on the trail one day using my point and shoot camera that had stains all over the lens, I decided it was time to finally spend the money and get a nice camera. My cousin allowed me borrow his camera for a bit to play around with and see what I wanted out of a camera. I think it was about a week of shooting with his and I had fallen so in love with photography that I went and spent all the money I had on a camera. It was nothing but a hobby for me but for the first time in many years, I finally felt happy. But, like I said before, I get bored quick. Landscapes just wasn’t enough and I missed the music industry. I started shooting concerts at jimmy jazz for fun and needed to get back into the world of interacting with people. I figured why not learn how to take good photos in the most difficult atmosphere possible. I couldn’t think of a harder place than the jazz. After a few nights of shooting, I actually walked away with some pretty decent photos of a local rockabilly band called “The Greasemarks”… At least, I thought they were decent.
I was hooked, addicted to the camera and wanted to photograph everything all the time. I was online one day and stumbled across a call for photographers to volunteer for a local free press magazine called Velvet Rope Magazine. I contacted them and met the guy in charge who saw some potential in me, maybe my photos weren’t all that great but he could tell I was ambitious. So I filled out all the paperwork and started shooting. After about 3 months working with, Velvet Rope Magazine, I had shot 50+ concerts and bought a new camera, a Nikon D600. I was having so much fun learning about photography, meeting new people, attending show after show. Around 6 months of shooting, I had started to get a few small paying gigs. Only 50$ a night but hey I was actually getting paid to do something I loved and by the end of the year I had easily made more than I ever had within a band. Through the magazine I met a lot of promoters, one of them being Nik Weaver, Owner of GAIN Music and that’s how I landed the opportunity to work as GAIN Music’s resident photographer. My dad always used to say “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I finally realized how true that statement actually was.
Fast forward a bit, After my first year of photography, I had made about 10,000$ in 6 months. I had worked an insane amount of hours between photography at night and working a 50 hour a week job. I realized that I could actually make a career out of this but concerts were not going to be enough. I started investing all my time and money into photography. Mostly on equipment and training. I made a lot of mistakes at this point. I spent almost all my money on that and completely neglected business education or any sort of marketing plan beyond Social Media. The photography industry is very hush hush, you can find a lot of tips online on how to actually compose and shoot photos, but there is very little advice on the business and pricing. I even purchased several books and training videos that I just couldn’t actually apply to my area.
A family member who is a part of the Guelph business community recommended a program at the Guelph-Wellington Enterprise Center which had a free starter business program. I went in for a meeting, found out there was a 5000$ grant at the end of the program and signed myself up immediately. For the next 8 months, I worked as much as I could shooting, working on my business plan and trying to learn as much as possible about business, still working a part-time job. After all the seminars, networking events, online training and educational DVD’s, I started to feel like I was getting a grasp on business. I completed my 2-year business plan and applied for the grant which I was first denied for. Apparently, you can’t be a photographer that doesn’t do weddings. This is a complete lie but the investors felt there was only money in shooting weddings. But I didn’t like shooting weddings and just didn’t feel I connected with the environment. I tried to convince them that you can make money without shooting weddings. But they wanted it apart of the business plan… so, I bit the bullet and added it to the business plan, knowing I was probably never going to book any of those weddings. And I never did, even though I tried. My heart just wasn’t there… I finally received approval for the grant a couple months later. 5 grand isn’t a lot in this business but it was something, I put all the money towards my business but of course, bought some new equipment as well. After taking the time to get some marketing together with a NYC Agency and spending more of my time working on the business end then shooting. I felt I had finally proved them wrong. I have been working regularly with businesses, movies, actors & entertainers and haven’t shot any weddings. I surpassed my first-year goals in business and now in my second full-time year and quickly achieving the goals I have mapped out. It definitely hasn’t been easy, I had to sacrifice a lot of my social life to move as quickly as I have. But when you love something so much, you don’t feel like you are actually working. Like any other job, there are days that are not so exciting and you are always riding a rollercoaster. But, for me, all that matters is that every day and every job is a little bit different.
I know it’s cliché to say it but it’s true, “when you put your mind to it, you can do anything”. More importantly, when you love something you can never let it go. I have been lucky to of had a supportive family, girlfriend, and friends. Most of my friends are also building their own business so we all tend to feed off each other’s energy and when we can, we share advice, what works for them or what not to do. I’ve never been told, “Maybe you should get a real job.” Because this is a real job, playing music is a real job, being an artist is a real job. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, because those that do are just jealous of the way you view things. Surround yourself with positive and supportive people. Those are your real friends.
So here I am today, on my second studio space which is located here in downtown Guelph on Essex St. and twice the size of what I had in downtown Kitchener. I work for myself and I have never been happier with where I am at. I still have a long way to go but I continue to grow, educate myself, and work with photography 7 days a week.
I had a lot of fun putting this piece together, and hope you have enjoyed it or found a hint of inspiration. I owe some big thanks to some people in my life who’ve helped me get my business going, Dave Power, Adam Dee, Nik Weaver, CF Benner, Chad Archibald, Troy Caplan, Cailey Bradshaw, Andria DiPanfilo, Elizabeth Catherine, Art Keating, Olga George-Cosh, Guelph-Wellington Business Enterprise Center, my friends, family and loving girlfriend and of course everyone throughout my life who has helped me become who I am today. I could write pages of people to thank so just know you’ve all helped me in some way or another even if you had nothing nice to say 😉
Last thing, the thing I love most about what I do is getting to meet and work with new people. Feel free to contact me anytime even if you just want to talk about photography and don’t hesitate to ask me any questions. I hope that one day I can help someone as much as some of the people in my life have helped me.
– Brandon Marsh