Anyone who shoots weddings knows that wedding photography is never “just” wedding photography. A great wedding photographer has to be great at shooting interiors, landscapes, food, kids, families, and, of course, portraits. A look at wedding photographer Leah Kelley’s portfolio shows that she’s a pro at all of the above—but portraits are her real passion.
Leah first got started with photography in high school. She’d stay after school to snap portraits of friends on their picturesque campus. Once the Dayton, Ohio-based photographer graduated, she started taking high school senior portraits, and then landed her first wedding gig age 18. She’s now a full-time photographer. We called up Leah to get her advice on shooting weddings, making portrait subjects feel comfortable, and finding inspiration anywhere you look.
What was it like to start doing photography full time, how did you decide to make that leap?
I was in a job that I didn’t like. Doing photography on the side while working a full time job is a lot. And I firmly believe that if you have a safety net, it’s hard to jump into your dream, if you just keep relying on what’s safe. So I dropped my job. When you don’t have anything to rely on any more, you have to put all of yourself into it.
It’s just been a wild ride. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I absolutely love the freedom that you get with being your own boss, setting your own schedule, not having to check somebody for vacation days — I can just go.
How did you get into weddings?
That’s where the money is! I had a lot of people when I was first starting out ask me if I would shoot their wedding. Weddings were the first moneymakers I ever worked on. And I love them! They’re dramatic and exciting and stressful and you meet a lot of really, really awesome people.
Would you have any tips for someone who’s interested in shooting weddings or engagements but hasn’t done it before?
My only piece of advice would be, don’t charge for your first wedding. You need to have some experience under your belt before you start asking for money. Bring a friend to shoot with you; don’t shoot it by yourself. Research the heck out of what to expect as a wedding photographer, the kinds of shots that you need.
Be as professional as you possibly can but still be friendly and flexible. Have a contract that states on paper exactly what you will deliver and exactly what they can expect from you, and also what you expect from them.
That’s really good advice. I was wondering, how do you find people to shoot for your portrait work — is it a lot of people you’re friends with?
It started that way, actually. I’d be like, “Hey, wanna shoot? Bring some friends!” Now Instagram is my key way of finding people. I’ve started working with the same people over and over, because there’s a trust there. I know it’s risky finding people on Instagram to work with — you don’t know who they really are on the other end. Especially for models working with photographers, there’s so much risk there. So I always tell people to bring a friend.
I usually will search Dayton model, Columbus model, Cincinnati model, Ohio model. Or if I’m out of town I’ll try to find somebody using hashtags. I have worked with honestly dozens of people this way, and doing that has lead to paid business! So that’s something really awesome I think people don’t tap into. I’ve had boutiques and bloggers reach out to me to do sessions just because I had worked with a model for free and they saw the pictures. And I just love the creativity and the freedom of working with models. Whatever the heck comes up, we just go for it.
Do you have any advice for shooting a portrait of someone you’re just meeting for the first time?
Be friendly, be positive, ask them a lot of questions about themselves. Don’t let there be any awkward pauses. That’s just my general philosophy for talking with anybody. Definitely ask them, “What do you do when you’re not modelling?” Try through conversation to find something that you guys have in common and start talking about that.
I also, when I meet with somebody for the first time, show them a mood board that I’ve created, and that will show them the kinds of photos that I hope we get. I’m not like, hard and fast, if we don’t achieve the exact mood of this mood board then it’s over. You want the shoot to kind of organically become its own thing. But that also gives them some comfort, knowing exactly what you’re looking for.
I tell them, I want you to just do whatever you want, and if you want direction I will give it. But I want you to be free to model however you want and I’ll capture that. When we’re shooting I do try to constantly give models feedback. I gush a lot. I’m like, “Oh my goodness, these look amazing; you look great; look at the sun on your hair; I need to call Tyra Banks, we need to get you on America’s Next Top Model ASAP!” And it’s actually a really positive experience for people. You’re hyping them up, and they walk away feeling, oh my gosh, that was so much fun, I feel really good about myself. Those would be my tips for people who are working with models for the first time.
Do you find it’s different if you’re working with someone who’s not a model and isn’t used to having their photo taken?
My tips for people who don’t feel comfortable in front of the camera are: wear something that you’re comfortable in, first off. Do your hair in a way that feels comfortable. If you’re in something that you’re comfortable in and you feel confident in the way that you look, that will show in the photo.
I also tell people, be yourself. Let your personality do all the work. I want to bring out you and your spirit in your photos. If you’re quiet, maybe your photos will look softer and not as loud and boisterous as somebody who’s always laughing. Just be yourself and I’ll try and do the rest.
Everybody looks good in front of the camera, is my philosophy. Even the most nervous person usually will walk away feeling pretty comfortable. That’s my goal, at least.
I’m looking at the family shots in your portfolio and I totally get that feel. It just looks like they’re having a lot of fun.
People come in to family sessions really nervous, like, “Little Johnny’s been in a bad mood all day, he didn’t take his nap,” blah blah blah. And I’m like, I hear you, I understand. You just wanted him to be happy for the shoot. Usually I can always coax a smile out of a kid. But I do like documenting how it really is. If Baby’s crying, let’s get pictures of Mom and Dad trying to cheer him up, and the actual moments that are happening — so that it doesn’t look like, oh, we went to this field and everything is fake.
Do you have anything that you would say that inspires your work?
I love bright color. I love sunshine. I am driving down the road and I see a field and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I have to bring somebody back here.” I’ve been inspired by a patch of wildflowers at the side of a building.
I love to get a picture somewhere unexpected — in the picture it looks gorgeous, like they could be anywhere in the world, they could be by the Seine in Paris, you just don’t know. A picture where you step back and you show, oh, there’s construction immediately to the left, and there’s a crane in the background to the right, and it’s actually just in Dayton, Ohio. You can make anything gorgeous if you have a person and some beautiful light.
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