Episode 20: Evolving with Shelley Paulson

Shelley Paulson on her Minnesota farm. 

Shelley Paulson on her Minnesota farm. 

Shelley Paulson is an accomplished equine photographer based in Minnesota. A horse lover herself, Shelley’s unconventional background includes studying to be an opera singer, an Apple support technician, a web designer and now a photographer and filmmaker. Today, she captures beautiful images for portraits and commercial use—and she’s begun using a drone for innovative film and photography. Shelley has 13 years of experience as a professional photographer, and we’re so excited to have her on our show.

You were named one of the top 50 wedding photographers in the US in 2014, but you don’t shoot weddings as much anymore in favor of equine subjects. How has your path in photography changed over the years?

The wedding photographer honor came right before Shelley quit wedding photography altogether. She first swiveled in photography due to health reasons - a traumatic brain injury. Recovery was difficult, and stress from wedding photography exacerbated her conditions. Her next chapter was equine photography, and she completely focused on that, as well as video and filmmaking.

Shelley went to a workshop early on in her videography journey called Storytelling with Heart from Stillmotion. She said it was the best workshop for her to start with. Videography is much more challenging than photography, but telling stories that move people have the greatest impact. She learned to tell stories first, and learned the technical side later, by mostly trial and error. Video with DSLR video is tough to learn, and she is still learning, but she loves the challenge.

Even since you have focused on equine photography, you have evolved from portrait sessions with horses, to commercial and stock photography – even working with drones. Tell us about that evolution, and why it is happening?

Shelley enjoys portraits, but photography is her full-time living. She is seeing a shift in portrait photography thanks to technology, the learning curve is shorter because we can see more beautiful work and emulate it. The business model she has for portraits does not work with entry level photographer price points. Competing against photographers that are shooting at hobby rates was not going to sustain her financially. So she started learning video, and began moving into the commercial realm, which marries her talents developed in wedding photography with equine photography. It gives her more variety and challenges. 

She does some editorial, commercial for businesses and stock photography. She also submits photos to Adobe's Premium Library. She is working to add images magazines will need throughout the year, and she has done photography for company campaigns.

Why did you decide to build a stock library?

Shelley had an online library for about 5 years, in response to company's requesting images. She keywords her photos to make them searchable. This year, she changed her platform to Photoshelter. Her goal is to add as much to her stock library as possible for an additional revenue stream. It gives her creative freedom to create the images she wants, without a specific client in mind. Her commercial brand is Ride The Sky Media

Stock library - how do you handle editorial images?

It depends on the magazine's requirements. When a magazine has exclusivity requirements, she'll pull the image from her stock library for that time period. But those licenses are expensive, so most companies and magazines don't ask for exclusivity. She typically offers inside the industry exclusivity, but a client outside the same industry could use the photo. She will keep tabs on when photos have been published, so she can suggest a different image if one has been published recently. 

Shelley uses Blinkbid to do her licenses and invoices. It lets her know when a license is up and ready to be renewed, or when a photo can be recirculated. She says this BlinkBid is a game changer.

Shelley decided to change her focus to commercial at the beginning of 2017. She listened to podcasts, read books, articles - she dug in to figure out the best and most efficient way to pursue this avenue.

Shelley's e-book The Lazy Photographer's Guide to Workflow shares her workflow from start to finish--both Abigail and Kate bought it and love it!

Podcasts: Shelley listens to marketing and business shows - from 5 Minute Marketing Makeover, Storybrand and Unemployable with Brian Clark.  

What are some challenges you’ve encountered with your change in focus?

Juggling social media for her various brands. 

Where do you see drone photography going in the future, and with your business?

It seemed like a good perspective to offer for her video projects, and she is exploring other uses for her stock photography library. But it has been a challenge to master flying the drone. Like a crash! She learned a lot about air space, weather and other factors affect flying a drone through studying for her FAA license. There are a lot of classes and costs associated with working with drones.

Subscribe to our newsletter to get our BONUS interview with Shelley talking about using drones around livestock!

What advice can you give someone thinking about breaking into equine photography?

Focus on the business side of things. Treat your photography as a business, and price yourself accordingly so you can sustain yourself. So many artists are not interested in accounting, taxes and operating legally--but there are big penalties if you do not operate legally. Get informed about the laws on taxes, charge proper taxes, use contracts. If you want to be in business, bite the bullet and do it right.

Why do you share your wisdom and knowledge so freely?

Permission marketing - if you build trust and relationship by giving away knowledge or product, people are more like to buy from you. Author and pool specialist Marcus Sheridan wrote They Ask, You Answer. He saved and built his business by giving away knowledge about pools. Giving away knowledge sets you up as an expert, it builds trust because you're giving something away for free, and it will help when it IS time for you to sell something. But it started with her just trying to get comfortable with vlogging. 

But she doesn't give away her best knowledge. There's plenty behind the curtain. But the info she is offering is valuable to many, but it isn't all her photography secrets. And it has increased her mentoring business, which is something she really enjoys. 

What made you decide to create a mentorship program? And tell us about it!

Shelley has been conducting workshops since 2010, because a workshop she attended completely transformed her business. She wanted to do that for other people. Her mentorship program has evolved from small workshops to one-on-one mentorships, both in person and on the phone. It's a good way for her clients to learn exactly what they want to learn.

What do you find is the most common issue your mentorship clients encounter?

People choosing location over light. For Shelley, the light always comes first, and then the location. A good background doesn't matter if the light is bad. Confidence, not charging enough.

Do you have any advice for photographers wanting to level up their business? What is the greatest thing someone can do to improve their photography business?

Don't be afraid to try new things. Failure is a big part of success. Anytime you want to grow your business, you have to be willing to take risks and step outside your comfort zone. Which can be scary when you rely on your business for income. Shelley and her husband are both freelancers, with no steady predictable income, and lots of animals. But evolving, for Shelley, has helped her business stay sustainable.

How can people find you online?

Portrait photography: shelleypaulson.com

Commercial site: Ridetheskymedia.com

Mentorship site: Growtographer.com







Abigail Boatwright