Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tomme Hilton - A Photographer's Life Interview Series

A Photographer's Life Interview Series features photographers who have been working as a professional photographer for five or more years.  We are so grateful that these photographers are willing to share an intimate and candid look at their life behind the camera. =========== 

Let me introduce:  Tomme Hilton Gallery - - a Charleston, SC Wedding, Boudoir, and Family photographer since 2005.

Sneak peek of Tomme's current website: 
 Can you share 3 of your recent favorite images?


How did you learn the craft of photography?
I always had a love/enchantment with photography from a young age. A friend of mine begged me to shoot her lower-budget wedding for her wedding gift and I drug my feet, kicking and screaming.  Well, 35 rolls of film later she pretty much talked me into doing this as a full time business venture. I guess that meant she liked her pics but I never really got clarification on that. ;)

How did you learn the business of photography?
I wrote local photographers and pleaded with someone to mentor me. I couldn't seem to make the right connections so I READ and PRACTICED, and READ and PRACTICED over and over again. I would randomly steal people as subjects when my own kids objected after a while. I had such a thirst for learning and I didn't want to wait until someone decided to teach me, I HAD to learn for myself. So, I enrolled in a photography class and was let down by not really learning as much as I had hoped. I learned more on my own than I had in that class and discovered that once you know the basics, you pretty much have to figure out your style, your preferences, the way YOU see the world all on your own. No one can do that for you so the discovery process ensued.

Do you work from home, a studio, or something else? 
Most of my work is location shooting and I was using my studio solely for my Boudoir sessions. I decided to resume the home business instead and we now use other great locations for Boudoirs when I shoot them.

Can you share photos of your workspace (or describe it for us)?
I have an old vintage desk complete with metal pulls and painted shabby chic white with peeling paint. It reminds me that in order for something to be beautiful it doesn't have to be perfect. I have a frilly lamp with fringe to the left of my workspace that really lends a feminine mystique. It's a soft yellow and I love how girly it is. On my desktop you will find carbonated mineral water, a handmade pottery mug that houses tea or coffee, my MacBook Pro sits on the desk as does the 21" iMac that is relief for my tired eyes after looking at small figures on the MacBook for hours on end.  I currently have sticky notes (REAL paper sticky notes) with notes to myself of all my to-do's.. that somehow seem to still get overlooked in the scheme of it all. I have a yankee candle on my desk too. I'm ultra sensory so having something smell good around me helps put me in a better frame of mind.  My current scent is 'Fireside'.

Do you have regular employees, associates, or other people who help you in your business?
Erica is my second shooter slash assistant. She helps second shoot weddings with me and we take turns updating our blog and Facebook pages. She lives in Columbia which is about 100 miles from me so we provide coverage for not only my area (Charleston, SC) but she is also providing and retaining clients in the Columbia, SC market as well.

What do you outsource, and who do you outsource it to?
I'm currently not outsourcing.

How many weekly hours would you say is spent working in your photography business?
40 plus

What percentage of your working time is spent shooting vs. working behind the scenes?
10% shooting and 100% behind the scenes. That equals 110%, but yep, that's pretty much correct. Even on a shoot, I'm using Instagram and posting pics to Social Media for clients to see and share with their friends and family.

How did your last five clients find you and what did they hire you for?
Word of Mouth Referrals. Weddings and Boudoirs.

What do you consider to be your most effective marketing efforts for your business? Networking. Keeping a presence and making sure you aren't forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind mentality.

What other careers or jobs did you have before (or while) you started your photography business? I am educated in Medicine so that's where I got my start. Medicine is an interesting industry with a lot of bureaucracy and red-tape instead of just the relationship aspect that I had assumed it would be: Helping People. I was itching for a creative outlet and photography was my answer.

How do you spend your time when you aren't working?  I shoot for me. I love to explore and take pictures of things I consider beautiful and artistic. I love to document the world around me.
I love spending time w my friends and family and that is what grounds me and keeps me humble.

What hobbies or interests outside of photography are fulfilling for you? Nutrition and Science interest me. Since google came along, I consider myself a research analyst.. aka google-nazi so I'm consistently researching modes to help people live their most optimal lives. I firmly believe health is the first and foremost means to a superb life. 

Do you feel like you have a good balance between your personal and working life?  I'm working on that. Having a home business means those thoughts that wake you in the middle of the night.........'OH NO, DID I EMAIL THAT CLIENT BACK??' at 3 am is a little too easy when your laptop is a few inches from you and too easily accessible.
- If not, how would you like to change it in the next few years? Outsource. Find a rich business person who can give me a solid business foundation! ;) Oh, they have that. It's, EWWWW

Who else is in your household with you?  A husband, son, uncle, two boston terriers (Huck and Brooklyn) and three hens (Agnes, Agnes II and Red).

What percentage of your household income is derived from your photography business?  40% is from photography the rest is another day job and my husband's employment.

What have been the most challenging personal aspects of being a creative small business owner?  For me, personally the Business side is challenging. When you become a photographer, you just want to SHOOT and be CREATIVE. Spend all your time MAKING ART. No one pulls you aside to let you know what a challenge the business aspects are. How much time is dedicated to behind the scenes work.. graphics.. website updates... blogging... Facebook updates... tweeting... accounting... editing......the list goes on and on. All the things most of us don't like doing, we spend ALL our time doing. That is the most difficult part of this business - is that it IS a business.

What do you love about being a creative small business?  I love being my own boss and having my own creative thought process. I love not having to report to anyone every day but my clients. The relationship aspect with my client is fulfilling. I love getting to know them from their engagements to their wedding, their maternity pics and then annually for family photographs. That is extremely fulfilling and the most gratifying job I could ever see myself doing.

Where should starting photographers invest their money?  Initially when I started, my money went toward equipment and gear... being a photographer has turned me into a techie that ooh's and aaah's over the latest greatests.. but I'm disciplined enough to know that there will soon be something to replace even that.  The majority of my budget hands down goes to marketing. Even if I have to drive to a Planner's office to talk shop, that's an expense for fuel. There will never be 'ENOUGH' of a budget for marketing... branding materials, trips to Starbucks, the little things quickly turn into a huge budget monster. 

Equipment  - early on what was your most valuable piece?  What altered my business (IMO) is learning how to use off camera lighting. I think most women photographers were a little apprehensive so it was really unusual for a chick to pull out all her lights. It was rather expected of male photographers but a little unusual for women photogs. I really needed to be that girl that wasn't afraid of lighting nor a slave to sundown. 

What do you think the number one thing was that grew your business?  I become a legitimate FRIEND of my clients. I become real and I keep the relationship aspect alive and burning throughout all life's milestones. I am genuinely interested in their families and their joys and triumphs. I was a cheerleader of their lives on the side and Facebook allows me to keep in touch and stay involved with them. That's really the reason I love(d) photography from the minute I developed my first photo.

What do you do to continue to grow as a photographer and grow your business?  There will be hills and valleys, understand that and it will make your life much easier. There will be times you just want to throw in the towel and say 'The hell with it'. It's normal. It will pass. When I go through these periods, I initially thought something was wrong with me.. "Is photography REALLY my calling or am I crazy for even trying?" when I seemed to be swimming upstream. I'm hard on myself and my own worst critic. The good thing about it is - every photographer I've talked to in biz over 5 yrs has BEEN THERE before. Whenever you get to your own boiling points, understand we've all pretty much been down that road and blazed the asphalt for you.

Being a photographer can also be a very lonely business. There are times you feel alone, on your own with little support. You need someone to bounce ideas, thoughts and maybe just need to vent about a situation - sometimes there is no one but yourself. Find a group you feel welcomed in and not judged. When I'm feeling down on my luck, and ready to throw the white flag I have a group that talks me down off the ledge and I find that's crucial. That support is so good for your psyche.  

If you could share any other advice with a photographer getting ready to start their business today, what would it be?  Remember, it's a business first and foremost. Hobbyists shoot for the pleasure of their imagery. Clients hire you for profit. Gear, Education, Time and Expertise all factor into our rates.  Be conscientious of the industry and do us all a favor,  Charge accordingly to your area so you aren't diminishing another photographer's income based solely on price. Experienced photographers charge more because they are worth it. It does nothing for our industry nor a client's education of photography value when you undercharge and de-value the art. We all have a responsibility to teach and educate clients continually on photography worth.  Always attempt to pay it forward by remembering the industry you came into. If you want a great, independent creative job then you will need to make sure there is an industry left for us to thrive in. Even us older loons who have been here a while - you may need to learn a thing or two from us or borrow a light every now and again.  Always attempt to make our industry better than when you entered it. Set industry standards don't just follow them. Set the bar high.  - Tomme Hilton


Additional questions for Tomme, or just want to leave a note of thanks?  Leave a comment so she can continue to share her wisdom with you!  Want to keep up with Tomme elsewhere online?
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Want to recommend a photographer we should interview?  Let us know in the comments!


  1. Oh gosh I am so glad I'm not the only one that wakes up in the middle of the night going CRAP! Did I email so and so back!?!?

  2. You have no idea how many times I wanted to quit because I was overwhelmed, felt unappreciated, or like a total failure. It was only through continuing to move forward and overcome my own fears and setbacks that I finally got to a place where I really love what I do. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Tomme!!

  3. Thanks for the rich and revealing interview! True to real life.


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