Amber Marlow is a professional photographer and blogger living in New York City. Read on for her awesome advice on finding and folowing your passion, and practical tips for those who want to pursue a creative career or open their own business.
Q: What do you do?
I am a professional photographer living in New York City and specialize in portraits, elopements, and intimate weddings – basically, I take photos of very happy people! In addition, I have been a life blogger for the past nine years.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your interests growing up.
I was always interested in visual beauty. Even as a pre-schooler, patterns and shapes were fascinating, as was my grandmother’s collection of silk scarves and bright pink lipsticks, and my mother’s collection of rings. Around age 22 there was a brief stint as a makeup artist, which fostered a fascination with the other side of the camera. In 2009, at age 27, I really started to fall in love with portrait photography. It was then that someone asked me what my rates were for head shots.
Q: Tell us about your career path to becoming a photographer.
In 2010, I met my friend Meg who encouraged me to pursue my dreams of being a wedding photographer. I advertised my services on her website and gave away two photo sessions to get started. One was to a same-sex couple who had just gotten married, and declined to hire a wedding photographer because they were nervous about hiring someone who would disapprove of them being gay. Having them in my portfolio was a good opportunity for me to show I was an ally.
Six months later, as we celebrated marriage equality in New York, I gave away another photo shoot to a same-sex couple that was having an intimate wedding ceremony in Manhattan. That sparked my elopement and intimate wedding photography career, as hundreds of same-sex couples flocked here to get married in the greatest city on earth. Now I photograph family portraits, elopements and intimate weddings full-time, and have been enjoying a successful dream career for two years.
Q: How do you think someone can identify their dream job or passion?
The answer is probably in what you daydream about doing, what you do in your spare time as a hobby, and what your friends know you’re good at. If a “casual dinner” means whipping up four courses on a Tuesday evening with little advance planning, maybe you’re destined to be a chef (and, hey, invite me over for dinner!) If all of your friends turn to you for help at tax time, maybe your path is accounting. That thing you think about at night right before you drift off: that’s your passion.
Think about who you are on a fundamental level, too, but be open-minded when taking that into consideration. For instance, I always thought my personality was too laid back for the “high pressure” job of wedding photographer, but it is precisely because I’m a mellow person that it’s a good fit. When families are stressed out and worried about things going wrong I’m able to put them at ease. My tendency to never panic means I handle wedding disasters with aplomb.
Q: Tell us about your blog.
My blog, The Amber Show, is about my life. I started writing it in 2004, at age 22 and it quickly became one of the most important parts of my life. One of the big elements of my blog is my Life List, which is a list of things I would like to do at some point in my lifetime. The theme is an obvious one if you read it: I want to have an epic life!
Q: How does someone make their own Life List?
If you would like to start a Life List, too, sit down and think of all of the things that have ever made you say, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do that!” Then, write them down. Writing them down puts them in a safe place, so instead of using energy remembering them, you can get to planning.
List items can be as small or as large as you’d like. On my list are both “learn to cook a fish” which I organized in an afternoon, and “jump off a cliff in Hawaii” which required plane tickets and months of planning. It doesn’t have to be a huge, epic thing to make it on the list. Just something you really want to do.
Also, let it be a living document. As I’ve grown and changed, things have come on or gotten deleted. This is absolutely allowed; your list should always only contain things that will bring you joy.
Q: What are some challenges you face as a creative professional?
The biggest challenge of being a creative professional was not feeling good enough. This is not at all unique to me, and was cleverly addressed by Ira Glass in a now-iconic quote:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Q: What’s your advice for people who are worried about failure or rejection?
As the years have gone on, I’ve noticed myself getting better and better, and it’s been thrilling to feel myself improve as a photographer, an entrepreneur, and as a person. I’ve had epic fails: the key moment I missed photographing, the day I deleted important files, the time I tripped and blurted out the “F word” in front of the bride’s 90 year old grandma (who laughed, actually – phew!)
The important thing is when crummy things happen, learn what you can and then brush your shoulders off. Failure isn’t messing up – you are going to mess up for sure. Failure is messing up and then giving up. And success isn’t something you eventually reach, and then you’re done. It’s not a moment or a line crossed. Success is choosing to keep moving forward, and you have to make that choice every day.
Q: What’s your advice for someone who wants to start and run their own business?
Just start. You’ll learn along the way; don’t get caught up in this or that, just do. You’ll figure it out. Some steps:
1. Say “Yes!”
Take every opportunity to work your dream job that comes your way, even if it’s hard, even if it’s underpaid. I worked for free with an established photographer who had me take care of some office work for her. In exchange, I got a good look at how she organizes her files, overheard her speaking to clients on the phone, learned how to provide excellent customer service, and had her show me tricks of the trade. These lessons were invaluable.
2. Be prepared.
Be ready for opportunity! Build your portfolio in your spare time if you’re a creative professional; do the first everything (first wedding, first web site, first whatever) for free just to gain experience, and in exchange take complete creative control. You’ll learn what you like and don’t like quickly.
3. Get a mentor.
Find someone you admire and learn what you can from them. Be helpful and respectful. Show up on time if you’re interning for them. Smile. Do the grunt work. Learn everything you can, including what you like and don’t like.
Q: What’s your advice to someone who wants to make a living from their art?
Making a living from art is HARD, so make sure that your savings in place, or do your current job with your dream until you can cross all the way over to creative work full-time. This transition is really hard, and trips a lot of people up, but if you get through it, you’ll be golden. Have a good website, and be mindful of your SEO.Look at what others you are admiring are doing, and pay attention to what works for you and what doesn’t.Don’t worry about getting rejected or messing up. It’s inevitable; just learn and keep moving forward. Look at you go!
Q: Where can we learn more about you and your work?
You can see my professional website at AmberMarlow.com and visit my blog where I talk about my life, my Life List and my two dogs at TheAmberShow.net.