Success Stories: Emily Kelly – From Branding to Photography

In partnership with Careershifters we’re profiling some of our fab mentors who have successfully changed career themselves and want to share their experience.

Here’s Emily Kelly’s story of how she was able to leave a corporate career and turn a creative hobby she was passionate about into a successful photography business.

Emily Kelly


What work were you doing previously?

I used to work in brand consultancy at a consumer insight agency called Flamingo. I was there for 5 years, and before that I was on the DAS Accelerate graduate scheme (part of the wider group), specialising in Brand Management. I studied English at Exeter University, followed by a Masters and when I left I went down a traditional graduate scheme route – 10 years ago that’s what people did but I think that’s changed now.


What are you doing now?

Now I work full time as a commercial photographer – I predominantly shoot portraiture, lifestyle and interiors work.


How did you feel in your work before you decided to make a change?

I enjoyed my previous role intellectually and culturally. I really liked the people I worked with and the job was interesting, however I noticed that I didn’t actively want to progress and get a promotion! I didn’t visualise myself running my own agency or going higher up the ladder and I thought that was quite revealing. I thought ‘this isn’t where I want to be’. So in my twenties I nurtured my hobbies. I was drawn to photography; I was inspired by it and it came to me quite naturally. There was a natural draw to a more creative, tangible profession.


Why did you change?      

I felt that something was lacking. I’d gone down an academic route at school and was in a career that was quite demanding – the role was very analytical. I gradually learnt that I’m more of a visual person so the disconnect became increasingly apparent. Photography just clicked! How I see the world, how I exist in it, all these things came together for me – so it started to feel like a more natural career path.


When was the moment you decided to make the change?

After I returned from my sabbatical, having completed a photography course in the US. Having distance from my old world really helped me to appraise it – it gave me a bird’s eye view of my life and my work – I was able to look at things more objectively for the first time and this gave me the confidence to leave. I also had a certain degree of momentum off the back of my sabbatical and it felt natural to follow through. I’d been so inspired by the people I’d met in the US – they were super encouraging – and I started to feel like ‘I can do this too!’


How did you choose your new career?                

I guess through pursuing it as a hobby and realising how much I connected with it – there was a synergy with my interests, skills and aspirations.


Are you happy with the change?

Yes I’m very happy with the change. I feel extremely lucky to be able to pursue something that was a pipedream. Things that I couldn’t even contemplate when I was in a full time job. I’m really enjoying being in control of my time and the clients I work with. Having that freedom where people trust me. People book me because they like what they see – I’m not trying to be anything else for them. Though I think it would be misleading not to caveat this with the reality that there will still be tough jobs and tough days – that’s the nature of work. The sentiment of ‘following your passion’ is a challenging one – I think it’s a bit of a myth. I’m producing work to my client’s brief and timings, not my own – I’m servicing them, not my own agenda. Though I feel a much greater sense of contentment in my work, it’s useful to remember that it’s not just about me.


What do you miss and what don’t you miss?    

I really miss my colleagues and network – I had many good friends at Flamingo and I miss the camaraderie of office life. I miss going into that dynamic agency environment everyday. I tried to compensate for this by getting a shared office space – finding colleagues of my own! I also try to be collaborative with my clients. I love the freedom that photography brings me – I have more flexibility in choosing the clients I work with, I have creative input and my client’s trust this.


How did you go about making the shift?

Throughout my time at the agency we did quite a lot of travel and that was how I discovered photography. Everyone had a training budget as a staff incentive and I asked if I could do a photography course. Then a couple of years later I took a sabbatical and did a super intense 3 month photography course in Montana. I didn’t anticipate leaving my job but I wanted to do something worthwhile with my time. The course was vocational, extremely hands-on, I learnt an immense amount about photography and about myself. When I came back from the US I was a completely different person – I wanted to be a photographer! My employers’ at Flamingo were incredibly supportive about my decision, I was lucky in that respect.


What didn’t go well? What ‘wrong turns’ did you take?         

I don’t think I have taken any wrong turns per se, However, I do think I could have been more efficient in getting things going. In my case when starting out there was a lot of faffing; I spent a lot of time thinking about the business strategy and target… trying to answer all these questions about what kind of business I wanted to have before actually doing it. Business is not an intellectual challenge – it’s practical – and there comes a point where you just need to crack on!


How did you handle your finances to make your change possible?

I was in a very fortunate position as I had the option to do a bit of freelancing for my former agency – this helped me to financially make that transition. I also had some savings. In life you ultimately have to make choices too – many of my peers are on the housing ladder, getting mortgages etc – that’s something I won’t be doing any time soon! If you want it I believe you can do it, it’s just that you have to be prepared to make sacrifices.


What was the most difficult thing about changing?    

Having the confidence to charge for what I was doing. I think it’s quite typical for young women not to believe in themselves… to undersell themselves. So, becoming more confident in charging a fair price for my time and valuing what I offer was something I really needed to learn .


What help did you get?

I reached out to lots of different photographers and asked to assist them. Initially I volunteered and as I built up my skills started to charge for my time. I also had a lot of support from my husband who was very encouraging. Having a supportive partner was incredibly helpful on my own journey.


What resources would you recommend to others?

I read a really good book: ‘How to find fulfilling work’ (the School of Life) – by Alain de Botton. It was full of useful exercises!

Also, real life experience is important which is why I’ve agreed to become a mentor on ViewVo.  I know what it’s like when you are starting out and all the questions you have.  I know I would have appreciated this opportunity when I was starting out so it seemed natural to agree.  I also think you have to conquer any fear of networking.  It’s important to get out there and meet people.


What have you learnt in the process?

I know myself so much better than I did before. I’ve learnt what I like, what I don’t like, what I avoid, what I embrace. You get a more intuitive understanding of yourself: what makes you tick and what makes you anxious. Because of this you become better at managing your choices and happiness.


What would you advise others to do in the same situation?

Start nurturing your interests as early as you can. You might not know what you want to do, but you can see what type of person you are, what you’re inspired by and what you gravitate towards. It’s a slow burn – but you’ll get a better understanding of yourself which will be invaluable later.


If you have a passion for photography and are interested in learning more about how you could turn your hobby into a successful career, you can view Emily’s mentor profile and connect with her here.

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