How I Got Here {Then & Now}

This is Part 2 of a blog post I did a post titled “Why you should hire a professional wedding photographer” – it gathered a lot of attention and a lot of hits. But really, it’s more about why you should hire a professional photographer in general, not just your wedding. Memories are forever, and photographs are the physical and tangible way to remember those memories. It’s seriously one of those cringe-worthy posts where I did a side-by-side comparison of some of my very first sessions next to my most current ones. The difference is shocking, humbling, and will make you laugh until you cry. Those before photos are Just.That.Bad. Someone commented asking if I’d follow up with a post on how I got from Point A to B – from a newbie photography student to a full-time professional wedding photographer. So here it is! Settle in, because this is going to be a long post.

We’ll start with a little refresher:

Senior Portraits…..Then & Now

Engagement Photos……Then & Now :  Nothing says “I love you” like a stiff and awkward formal photo by the beach…ha!


I took a photography class in high school, your basic black-and-white film class where we developed our own negatives and made our own enlargements (prints). There wasn’t much advancement, nor real instruction, it was more an elective credit and something to do that didn’t require cooking or woodworking. My first camera was a Nikon N65 film camera…..which I shot totally on automatic because I had no clue about photography, and again, no real instruction.

After graduation I headed off to college as an Elementary Ed major, figuring I’d just be a teacher. During that freshman year a family friend was getting married in a simple low-key backyard wedding. At the last minute her “friend photographer” bailed. Just another reason why you hire a pro, with experience and a contract.  It was decided I’d photograph the wedding. I’m cringing now as I think back to that, and what a dumb idea it was! I shot the entire thing on film, in automatic, and handed it over to the bride and groom. I laugh when I remember that moment and want to scream “what the hell were they thinking??”. I couldn’t even tell you how they looked, I remember seeing the finished product at the time and thinking they were awesome..haha.

Less than a year later, on a whim, I changed my major to photography when I saw it was an option at the college I was transferring to. Just like that! I met some of the best friends and I learned the basis of photography….finding the direction I wanted to go with my photography. Our school’s photography building was brand spanking new and state-of-the-art. We have every kind of shooting bay/studio you could imagine and an arsenal of equipment at our disposal. We quickly transitioned from film to shooting all digital, and that’s when I acquired my first DSLR – the Canon 20D. At the time I had no brand loyalty, but everyone in my program went Canon because our school had a fully-stocked “stockroom” of (Canon) lenses and accessories we could check out.

We did endless amounts of shooting for class assignments. We were all “models” for each other basically around the clock. Not even our loved ones were safe, and I think I have more photos of my friends than they have of themselves!

Lyn, Vanessa & Mitzi….bless their hearts. I did not do their beauty justice with my poorly exposed and out of focus photos!

The biggest thing a newbie photographer hates to hear – you should not be charging people for your work until you are proficient and can deliver them a properly exposed and in focus photo. There, I said it.

Charging money for your services before you’re ready does two things:

1.) It slows down your desire to improve your work. When people start paying you for your work you get in a comfortable place and sometimes lose the push to continue growth in your skill set.

2.) You’ll get yourself into a pricing structure that it’s hard to dig yourself out of. As your skills grow and your work improves, so should your pricing. By starting your pricing too low, you’ll find you quickly price yourself out of your current clients, and that’s something that can cause your confidence to stumble. The biggest advantage you can have in the industry is being a proficient shooter before starting your business.

Practice! Practice! Practice! Practice on anyone and everyone who will let you take their photos…..for FREE.  Seek feedback and critique from those who are qualified to give it! When you put photos on Facebook of your adorable baby niece, no matter how bad they are your friends will tell you they’re great. A pat on the back won’t help you improve. For that you need a tough skin. I once had a professor tell me a set of maternity photos I took made him want to vomit. Partly because they weren’t that great, and partly because he was a lifestyle/street photographer and they were too “sweet” for him. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried y’all!! DO NOT PRACTICE ON SOMEONE’S WEDDING. Don’t be me kids, don’t be me!


Upon my graduation from college we moved back to the Outer Banks, and right away I went to work for an established local photographer. I spent three seasons with him as one of his staff photographers and during that time shot hundreds of family portraits and several weddings. I 100% attribute my success and where I am today for that job I had then. My growth as a photographer, my experience, my confidence – all because of that job. He taught me so much about photography, and just as important, the basics in posing, client interaction, etc.

I mean….COME ON NOW….the cannon?? Really??? No clue why I thought that would even be a remotely flattering photo!!!


My friend Lyn is going to kill me when she reads this! She’s one of the first friends I met when classes started. We were each other’s main models, and you’ve seen her and her hubby featured a lot between the last post and this one. I’m embarrassed enough for both of us right now!


After my third season working for the studio, I felt a pull to start my own business. They focused heavily on formal family portraits, and my heart desired to be in weddings. I was also starting to find my style and niche, and it was straying more towards a modern/editorial style and less of the traditional beach portraiture. I knew that I needed to be free to shoot creatively in a style that suited me and with that I finished out the season and embarked on the craziest adventure yet….opening Courtney Hathaway Photography. Those first few years in business I still photographed families on the beach (because really, when you’re a new business you tend to shoot anything people will pay you for!) but it was important to me that I could do it in MY style….a little less stiff with mostly natural light (as opposed to formally posed and blasting them with a flash). Even still, it took me a good year in business to retrain my brain to shoot how *I* wanted, because I was so used to shooting in a certain style.


An asset your business is investing back into it, in the way of new equipment, education, etc. But, equipment isn’t enough – you have to know how to properly use it. Some of the “then” photos were taken using a Canon 20D and 70-200 2.8L IS lens. Great gear, and not enough experience to know how to use it to it’s full potential. It’s the reason we say just because your Uncle Bob uses a professional camera doesn’t mean he will get professional results. You can read a blog post HERE that talks about that very topic! New photographers these days have it E.A.S.Y. Remember, when I started it was pre-Facebook, pre-Lightroom, pre – basically every resource we have these days!!! Pinterest didn’t exist, and networking with your competition was basically unheard of!

One of the best changes I’ve seen has been in the shift in the photography industry . When I was coming up there was very much an old school mentality of “keep things to yourself, don’t talk to others”. Talking shop with your fellow photographers? Forget about it, because you wouldn’t have ever been in the same place at the same time! Not too long after I launched my business, myself and a few other young (wait? am I still considered young? ha!) photographers started getting together once a week for coffee. It took a little while for everyone to really get to know each other, but soon our coffee group grew. Sometimes we’re talking shop, sometimes it’s about nothing related to photography. No topics are off limits and we generally share info with each other freely. The second someone buys a new piece of gear or finds an awesome new thing – they bring it right to our coffee meeting for everyone to check out! We enjoy our time together, and genuinely like each other. There’s a strong community within the photographers here on the OBX, and it’s one of the reasons you shouldn’t be surprised if you see us pop up at each others weddings to shoot. It’s not uncommon for you to see Kristi Midgette or another local pro at one of my weddings and vice versa.

We share info, we help each other out, we step in when there’s a crisis. There was a time very early in my wedding career I knew *nothing* about lighting a reception (outside of an on-camera speedlite). Light is the #1 priority when it comes to photography, and being able to work with off-camera lighting in both portrait and reception settings is crucial. I’d done plenty of studio lighting over the years, but studios are a controlled environment that never changes! My reception coverage would not be what it is without the help of Rich Coleman & Ryan Moser, who are lighting gurus and really took the time to share their favorite triggers and flash alternatives with me. Those kinds of relationships would have never been possible 6, 8, 10 years ago. I’m forever grateful for the amazing network of photographers we have locally.


Here we all are at one of my favorite events of the year, Help Portrait, where we come together as a group to offer free photography to those who couldn’t otherwise afford professional photos.


And no, these “then” photos were not stolen from the internet. Sadly, they’re all actual photos that I took before being a full-time professional. Scary, I know! It’s taken a lot of hard work, a lot of education, and a lot of constantly learning to get where I am…..and I am by no means done learning. The day any of us quit learning and getting better, it’s the day we should put the camera down for good. So you’re thinking you want to be a wedding photographer? Before jumping in head first and taking on a wedding, spend a year (or more!) as a second shoot for an experienced pro. Just because you’re an amazing portrait photographer, doesn’t mean you’ll be an amazing wedding photographer. They are hectic, fast-paced, stressful, once in a lifetime events.


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