Grace Willis is a fine art wedding photographer in the Chicago area. She is an explorer and a homebody; a lover of quiet indie ballads and a Bear down football fan; a Sagittarius and a Christian. Grace has been described as “the calm photographer” and although she doesn’t quite know how she earned that reputation, she likes it. Read our interview with the lovely Grace below…
What motivated and inspired you to start your own business?
To be honest, I started True Grace Photography at a broken time in my life. I had just survived the difficult end of a bad marriage. A divorce (at whatever age or circumstance) takes away all known quantities and forces you to redefine your identity, your relationships, your future.
Photography has always been a way for me to communicate when I didn’t know my own heart myself. I had photographed weddings as a weekend job in college, but I’d never considered making it a full-time vocation. I had studied media and communication and had figured I should get a “real job” in marketing or advertising. The 9-5 I had was hardly inspiring, and I was foundering emotionally and financially.
Starting my own photography business was a colossal gamble, but I didn’t have anything to lose. It was an opportunity to create a fresh life and a new future for myself, and it demanded all of my time, energy, passion and devotion. To succeed, I had to show confidence and decisiveness when I didn’t have much of either. I had to fake it until I made it. I’m so glad I did!
Tell us about your business.
True Grace Photography is a luxury boutique studio that books only 20 weddings per season. My style is honest, clean and timeless. I shoot both digital and film and do not provide video services. I aspire to deliver a finished gallery of photographs for each client that contains a selection of documented spontaneous moments as well as styled portraits and vignettes. The 2017 season is closed, but 2018 bookings are available, starting at $3400.
The greatest accomplishment I have achieved is consistently happy clients.
Where is your business based?
My office is located in the Chicago suburbs in downtown Downers Grove; however, I enjoy traveling often for my clients and for inspiration. I’ve particularly enjoyed shooting in Portland, Brooklyn and Scottsdale this year. My office address is 5121 Main Street, Downers Grove, IL 60515.
What were the first few steps you took to get your business up and running?
The biggest and best step I took was to quit all other side-jobs that took my attention away from my own business. It was terrifying, but it set a fire under me. There is no motivation like desperation. When you start a business, you must say “Yes” to everything. My dad always says that showing up is 99% of success. So I did that – I took every inquiry that came my way and treated each one like it was the most important booking I’d ever had.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness of your business and getting new customers?
Referrals have been my biggest ally. I’m deeply grateful to my clients for sharing my info with their friends and family. Instagram has also proven to be invaluable for meeting other talented folks in this industry – makeup artists, models, bridal boutiques, florists and other photographers!
What have been your biggest challenges so far?
Finding a work-life balance has eluded me so far. During the first two years, I lived on my own and could work all day and night if I wanted. Now, I live with my boyfriend and a cat who both somehow don’t love photography quite as much as I do and want to live life beyond True Grace Photography.
The hard part about loving what you do is that you never want to stop, and before you know it !!poof!! you’re burned out. For those I love and my own sanity, I’ve had to try to prioritize life outside of the business.
How did you overcome these challenges?
When I figure it out, I’ll write back.
How do you keep motivated through difficult times?
The desire to keep my clients happy is a strong motivator. However, when I feel like I’m struggling creatively, I schedule “styled shoots” that I create for my own vision and delight. These remind me of why I love photography.
How do you distinguish yourself from your competitors?
I remember that I’m not just a photographer; I’m a person, and my clients are people. Being a successful photographer is about being creatively consistent, providing satisfying and effective communication and meeting deadlines. To me, being a successful person is being a decent and kind human being. One could be the most talented genius of an artist, but rude or inconsiderate. One could be the quickest at replying to emails, but creatively dull. The key is to be the best person-who-does-photography I personally can be.
My competitors, for the most part, are actually some of my best friends. We’re all serving the same goals and purpose, and when you’re working at a certain level, there is more than enough work to go around.
What is the best advice you have received recently?
Do what comes next.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
Commit. Hardcore, 100%, chips-all-in commit.
Give yourself a time limit if you have to: say, “I’ll give this everything I’ve got for 2 years, and then at the end of that time, if it’s still not sustainable, I’ll let the dream go.”
What is your favorite business tool or resource?
What social media outlets do you use? List them below.
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
“The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield (I read this every year in the off-season).
What are you currently learning about for your business or looking for help with?
There are 52 million photographs uploaded to Instagram every day. Most images are considered disposable. As a wedding photographer, my photographs already have inherent value as documenting a landmark in life – but what ultimately makes a photograph meaningful in today’s world? During the off-season, I’ll be exploring the philosophy of the created photograph as a shaper of identity and creator of memory.
What are your goals for the next few months and how are you striving to achieve them?
Rest. I had the busiest season of my career this year, with 28 weddings. I owe it to my 2017 clients to rest and recover.