Episode Recap:

Cassie and I had a great conversation about…

  • Wearing all the business hats at once (1:30)
  • A day in the life of a wedding photographer (6:05)
  • Finding her own voice as a photographer (10:40)
  • Helping clients find their true vision beyond Pinterest boards and Instagram inspo (14:51)
  • How she prepared to leave her corporate job and do photography full-time (26:02)
  • Her advice for aspiring wedding photographers (30:29)

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Transcript:

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Jennifer Fultz  0:54  

Hey everyone, welcome to the show. My guest today is Cassie Valente, owner of Cassie Valente Photography, a wedding photography studio based in San Francisco. Cassie grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and her work covering the wedding of Cody Williams and Maria Flores was recently featured in People Magazine. Welcome to the show, Cassie. 

Cassie Valente  1:13  

Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.

Jennifer Fultz  1:16  

So tell us a little bit about your typical work day. What is it that you really do? And I understand that there’s probably a difference between days when you’re shooting weddings and days when you’re not so kind of walk us through that.

Cassie Valente  1:30  

Yeah, I think the most important thing to remember is that my business is just me. So I am my own copywriter, accountant, marketing strategist, advertising agent, developer, SEO expert. And really including that one is more of a joke, but you totally get the point. And I think a lot of people that I meet when I first introduce myself as a wedding photographer, they jumped to the conclusion that I edit and photograph all day, but my days are actually pretty busy with a lot of different tasks. I typically work up to six full days a week and sometimes more. So a typical day for me, I do have my own studio space, which I go to, it’s been really helpful for me to separate that from my home and personal space. And that’s where I do a lot of my admin tasks, or I do a lot of my marketing and planning and accounting. And then yes, also I’m editing as well.

Jennifer Fultz  2:29  

I was gonna say, I meant to say, I connected with you, I think, through Asian Creative Network, and I saw your website and I thought, “This is the most impressive copy and branding…and just the whole shebang of your website is probably the best photography website I’ve ever seen. So you’re doing a really good job with all of those hats!”

Cassie Valente  2:52  

Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. I’ve definitely, you know, as I’ve grown in my business and thought about what I could potentially outsource. I’ve tried working with other contractors to help me with little tasks on the side. But ultimately, I’ve always come back to thinking, you know, I do really love wearing all these little side hats, even if people don’t typically immediately associate them with the role of being a photographer. So yeah, I’m very lucky to say I love what I do. So maybe I do a little too much on my own, but it’s very enjoyable.

Jennifer Fultz  3:25  

Well, you do it very well. Could you estimate like how much of your time you spend doing, you know, photography, the shooting and the editing part, and how much you spend on the admin side? Just ballpark percentage.

Cassie Valente  3:40  

Yeah, so I photograph about 20 to 25 weddings a year and all over the country. My weddings are on average anywhere from eight to 10 hours. I do photograph smaller weddings as well. But let’s say an average about eight hours a wedding and about half the weekends of the year I’m photographing a wedding. And then each wedding in turn probably takes me about eight to 10 hours to edit as well.

Jennifer Fultz  4:08  

That’s pretty impressive. I feel like I’ve heard a lot of photographers say they spend more time editing than they spend shooting, but yours is about 50-50 It seems like

Cassie Valente  4:17  

Yeah, it actually used to be faster. I used to edit and keep a timer running as I did so, which I think was really important and just kind of understanding where my time was going and how to put a quantifiable value on my own time when I charge. So I actually used to edit a lot quicker, but I’ve slowed down considerably in the past year.

Jennifer Fultz  4:41  

I’ve seen on your Instagram your before and afters. You actually edit people out…not the bride and groom, but like the background people. I’ve seen you actually do very heavy, you know, I don’t know if that’s retouching or whatever you want to call it. Is that something you started doing recently that has made the editing go longer?

Cassie Valente  5:00  

Yeah, so overall, I am a self taught photographer. I never had any formal photography training. And as my business has grown, I’ve realized and learn little parts and tricks of the trade that I just genuinely really enjoy. And retouching is one of those aspects. And that’s not to say that I do a lot of extensive retouching on my clients themselves. But anything in the background or environment that can be potentially distracting like a light pole, that’s maybe in the background growing out of someone’s head, or passersby in a space that traditionally feels very empty and solemn and epic. Those are little distractions that I definitely don’t mind removing for my clients.

Jennifer Fultz  5:42  

Yeah, I find that so incredibly impressive and it’s seamless. I can never, you know, I can never tell between one and the other So, you’re very good at that! What does a typical wedding shooting day look like? If there is such thing? I guess every wedding is kind of different, but do you have certain preparation things that you do every time, rituals or anything like that?

Cassie Valente  6:05  

Yeah, for sure. So I would say that my couples in general hire me because of the unique perspective and storytelling abilities that I offer. And that’s what distinguishes me from other photographers in the wedding photography industry. And because of that my process with them begins far before the actual wedding day. So I work very closely with my couples and their entire vendor team on understanding their vision for the day, their feelings for their day. Really like what the greatest takeaway they would like for their guests experience and how they want to look back on their album and remember the day so there’s a lot of planning that goes into that ahead of the wedding day. On the actual wedding day itself, very rarely do I work alone. I typically have second photographers. I also have non-shooting assistants to help with my gear and with lighting situations. So usually the day starts with just syncing up with my team, making sure we are all on the same page with details and exactly where we’re going to go and be, exactly when we move through the day. I typically start off with getting ready moments, we tell a very full cohesive story. We never just show up at the ceremony, we always kind of build into it. My favorite, some of my favorite parts of the day are the couple portraits. I think those are the very easy-to-love pictures from a wedding gallery, probably what you think of most when you think of the wedding. I love doing these kind of romantic or artful portraits. Again, making sure that my couples’ personalities and their unique story really comes through in the photos but also putting my own lens and my own perspective over how I interpret their story. And we move through the ceremony, the reception and that’s also when I hear parts too, just seeing how all of the family and friends interact and meet each other and how they kind of like thrive in the space and environment that the couple has created for their guests. And that’s my wedding day. When I get home, and I think this is also important to mention, I never go home and go straight to sleep. I do back up all of my images right away on multiple sources to so everything is safe and secure for my clients. And then I also go ahead and edit anywhere from five to ten images just as the same day sneak peek and deliver those right away to the vendor team and to the couple. So most flooding days for me probably begin around eight or 9am and typically in around 3am. 

Jennifer Fultz  8:38  

Wow. And do you, I don’t know, get a massage or anything the next day? 

Cassie Valente  8:45  

You know, I thought about it. It’s a reoccurring joke with a bunch of my friends in the industry that whenever we do talk about raising our prices, we think, “What if we just raised it by the price of a massage?” but we never go and actually get that massage.

Jennifer Fultz  9:00  

That sounds like a such an intense day, but it seems like it’s really worth it for you. It sounds like, it definitely sounds like you really love what you do. How did you get started in wedding photography?

Cassie Valente  9:11  

Yeah, I have to tell you a funny story with that. I’ve always loved photographing. I started doing portrait sessions for friends back in high school, and then friends of friends and then slowly people outside my immediate network. I think the big breakthrough came in college when I happened to attend a magazine launch party where I felt horribly, horribly out of place. And the only person that I could relate to and talk to was the photographer at the event. He happened to be looking for an intern, and I ended up photographing nightlife for the rest of my college experience. So a very different sort of thing. But I learned so much about lighting and big gear setups, things that we don’t typically use on the wedding day when we’re looking to be very nimble and versatile, but still really, really fun exposure into the photography world. And then shortly after that a sorority sister of mine asked me to photograph her wedding. That was the first one. That was almost nine, almost ten years ago now.

Jennifer Fultz  10:26  

How has your…would you say your style has changed? I’m sure your process has probably changed in the last ten years. But how have you evolved as an artist in that time?

Cassie Valente  10:40  

Yes, so much has changed, and it continues to change even month to month. Now, I can personally look at my work and track growth, differences, things that I focus on more at one time, things that I kind of let go and then revisit later on in the coming months. It’s really fascinating. I’d say the biggest change that I’ve noticed in my work when I was first starting out, I was definitely heavily influenced by the work of others. I was constantly looking to emulate things that I saw online through wedding fads, trends that are running on in the industry. And because of that, I felt like my work was very scattered. And there were so many different styles I saw out there that I wanted to try. And I constantly felt like I was kind of losing myself in the chase of other people’s ideas. And as time evolved, as I got more experience and just simply photographed more weddings, I started to feel things that felt right for me, ways I could direct or guide or even just offer advice to my clients in a way that would provide a very streamlined product. And I recognize also over time that my voice comes out even unconsciously in my work, just how I choose to curate my images, how I choose what to post and share, that all ultimately decides the voice and the brand that I’m putting out there with my work. So I’d say that’s the biggest growth point. And that’s something that a lot of artists I know struggle with in the beginning or even anywhere along in their career. It’s very easy to just kind of feel the influences of everything going on around you. But ultimately, if you take some time, if you disconnect, you stop scrolling through Instagram, you return to your own voice, you remember what’s important to you and how you storytell, and I think that’s when you really make your best work.

Jennifer Fultz  12:38  

Yeah, I actually kind of have gone through that process myself. You know, I think the first two years of my freelance career, I think, you know, I was kind of doing a little bit of everything and I think, I’m not sorry about that. I think that was a very useful period for me to just experiment, but in the last year or so, I finally kind of found my audience and what it is that I want to do. So, yeah, that laboratory phase is so important, but eventually you kind of have to find your own space. Do you ban yourself from Pinterest?

Cassie Valente  13:11  

Definitely. Actually, I don’t really use Pinterest. I do occasionally to pull together mood boards or vision boards if I’m putting together some kind of editorial shoot or doing something kind of outside the scope of real weddings, but I find Pinterest very, very interpretive and loose. So for example, if a couple is planning their wedding and has put together a Pinterest board, it’s very difficult to say, right off the bat, why they chose a certain image for their collection. Was it the feeling in the image, was it the shoes that the model was wearing in this image, was it the flowers or hairstyle, and because of that, sometimes I receive boards that are really scattered and it’s difficult telling what it is exactly what they want. I think it’s better to have a conversation either in person or over the phone, where we can really talk through what it is they’re looking for in these images that they love.

Jennifer Fultz  14:08  

Yeah, that’s a really good point about Pinterest because there’s, you know, all you get is an image. And there’s so many things going on in that image that it could be any number of things. I’m part of an online group of creatives that has a lot of photographers in it. And I feel like every day somebody, you know, will post a screencap of a Pinterest board that a client sent them and they’re like, “Where do I get this kind of look?” Do you try to push back on that a little bit? Like when somebody, if somebody comes in with like, “I have 17 different concepts, and I want all of them.” Like how do you…not push back, but how do you guide clients through that process of actually finding their vision?

Cassie Valente  14:51  

I look through the images and I speak to my clients and I try and, again, like understand what it is about this image that they really love. And sometimes it can be very surprising. Say we’re photographing at this venue. And my client has pulled 17 photos of couples posing in this venue and all sorts of different ways. And to me, visually, the styles look very different. The editing styles are just all over the map. But maybe my couple will tell me, “I just really love her expression in this one, just how relaxed she looks. This one actually, I don’t really love the posing, but I just thought the space was captured in a beautiful way.” So having that conversation, hearing exactly what it is that they love about the photographs, is something that’s really important to do. Overall, I do have to say that most of my clients, when they, after they’ve reached out to me, if they’ve decided to move forward and book, by then, they’ve already seen full galleries of my work. I make sure to share entire full real wedding galleries right off the bat, with anybody who inquires. That’s something that’s really important to me as well. I want them to really know my work and exactly what that end product will be like before they decide to book and move forward. So very rarely do my clients actually send me inspiration images or just things from Pinterest that don’t look like the visuals of my work. I think we have a pretty good understanding once we move forward of what I can provide and what I don’t provide.

Jennifer Fultz  16:23  

Yeah, it sounds like you have a really good handle on the kind of client that will appreciate your work and is hiring you specifically, not just the photographer that fits in my budget or the photographer that’s available. They want Cassie, which is really really cool. I think that’s a great place to be. Have you ever had to turn anybody away who wasn’t a good fit?

Cassie Valente  16:48  

I’ve been asked that a lot. And it’s always something, I think it’s funny to think about. I get asked that a lot by other artists and by other creatives. And I think it’s just kind of our headscape, how we think about situations and client experiences. And to be honest, I personally have never turned down a client because I thought things wouldn’t be a good match or that I wouldn’t be able to provide the right service. It’s always been a mutual decision where ultimately, they found that they were looking for something different that I didn’t provide. Or maybe they wanted things in a very different style, or just needed someone who offered a kind of service that I didn’t do. Maybe they were looking for a photo and video team, maybe they were looking for someone who could hand them off all the raw digital files the next day. So I don’t think I’ve ever personally turned down a client and said, “I cannot do the work you’re looking for.” It’s always been a mutual discussion and conversation about what they’re looking for and what I can provide.

Jennifer Fultz  18:01  

I think it’s really beautiful that it’s a mutual decision. And I think you’re right. I think creatives, we…I know I do this I get, I take it, I take things personally, you know, when somebody comes in, they’re like, “Hi, can you build a website for $300?” And I, I take it personally, even though I try not to. Yeah, I think that’s really beautiful that it’s a, that you provide enough information, and you’re willing to have that dialogue with them. So that it’s not just a rejection, but it’s just a mutual like, “Hey, okay, this is not going to work for both of us.” I think that’s really wonderful.

Cassie Valente  18:39  

Yeah, I think we begin to grow a lot as artists when we recognize exactly what it is that we provide and what we specialize in that differs us or differentiates us from our peers in the industry. That being said, if a client ever came to me with a request that was slightly outside my comfort zone, I try not to label those as red flags. I think that’s a mistake that many in our industry too, when we share in our private creative Facebook groups, or when we seek with others in the industry, and we say, “Oh, I just got this inquiry. The couple doesn’t want me to share any of their photos for privacy concerns. That’s such a huge red flag to me, because I can’t use any of the images.” To me, I think, granted, I can’t control how other people run their businesses. And it’s, again, this is just my opinion. But I think it’s important to remember to go back to the beginning and the core of what it is that we’re doing. Ultimately, I am a wedding photographer, very service oriented industry that I’m in. It’s all about their wedding day, and it’s about their enjoyment of the images to capture this big momentous thing and how they’re just going to remember this day for the rest of their lives. So to me if a client came to me and said, “I don’t want any of my images shared.” I think that’s totally fine. I do want to have a conversation with them and ask exactly what it is that’s motivating this desire. For me and my business, I want them to understand how important these images are for me to be able to share them. After all, they booked me from looking at prior images that I have shared. And is there any way could I share images of the details for the venue? Could I share images where their faces aren’t visible? Where are these privacy concerns coming from? And oftentimes, when you have this conversation with your clients, you understand so much more of where they’re coming from, what their motivations are, and it does make you both a better photographer and a service provider overall. So I really, I tried to refrain from calling out any situations are slightly outside the norm. I try and refrain from labeling those immediately as red flags. Instead it’s always a situation that I can learn from and I can evaluate and we can kind of make the decision together from there. 

Jennifer Fultz  20:57  

Yeah, and it sounds like you have a wonderful balance between being a service provider and being attentive to your clients but also still staying in control of the process so that you don’t end up, you know, burnt out and tired and bitter. I think that’s a really tricky balance to find. But it sounds like you’ve got a good handle on it. Kind of going back to your sort of origin story. Did you start right after college? Did you start doing photography full time?

Cassie Valente  21:27  

After graduating college, I worked full time as a headhunter for several years. I did creative recruiting, which is a very different thing. I continue to do photos on the side. But I never thought about pursuing photography full time seriously until I moved out of Georgia to California. Growing up, I think just based on what my parents taught me what I saw from other Asian American kids my age, pursuing a creative hobby as a full time career just was not in the realm of things that were possible. I never, I never thought about it. And again, it wasn’t until I moved to California and I met many, many other freelance creatives, many of them Asian American, that I thought for the first time, “Hmm, maybe this is something I can do.” And even then it did take some convincing on my behalf, to my parents, for them to trust me on this and kind of give me the room to grow with it.

Jennifer Fultz  22:31  

Yeah. How did your parents how did your parents react when you said “Hey, Mom and Dad, I want to be a photographer.” Or if you had that kind of conversation.

Cassie Valente  22:42  

Yeah, by that time….So again, I had photographed weddings really all through college and for the first three years after college. So that seven years by then I think they were…resigned is a good word. They were resigned to the fact that it was going to happen. But it definitely wasn’t always that way. It was pretty difficult in high school. I had secretly applied to an art school and I remember very clearly my dad found my application and tore it up in front of me. And that was a really tough time growing up. I felt like I didn’t have a lot of direction and what I actually wanted to do. I went to college where my dad went to college back at Georgia Tech. And for some time there and a little afterwards, I really just kind of struggled with my position in life. Again, I never thought about pursuing photography as a full time career. The way I was taught a career was something that you just had to do to support your family and make your way through life. The fact that you would enjoy your career was never a factor for consideration. So again, it wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco where these other like minded Asian American creatives are successfully running their own business and not living on the streets that I began to seriously think about what it would take for me to pursue this hobby as a lifelong career. And I think, by then, my parents understood that this was something that I had kept up for many years. That wasn’t a passing kind of thing for my youth or thing that I just kind of love to do for fun. I was serious about turning it into a profitable business.

Jennifer Fultz  24:30  

Yeah, I think…I had a similar conversation with another photographer and, you know, their parents were, his parents were kind of like, “What are you doing?” And I’m starting to realize that I think a lot of times Asian parents, they’re not, they’re not supportive of creative careers, not necessarily out of malice, or like, “Oh, I don’t think you should do this. I don’t think you can do this.” I think they just don’t know they don’t… They’ve never met an Asian photographer. They’ve never met an Asian copywriter. That’s just, and you know, and then by extension, neither did I until….I didn’t meet an Asian writer until I was like 30. So, so I think, I feel like I used to burn a lot of energy being mad at my parents for not being more “supportive,” but I think realizing that it wasn’t like, oh, they were just being mean, they just didn’t know. I think that’s helped me be a little bit more forgiving, I guess. What steps did you take before you left full time headhunting? You know, what did you do before you left your full time job to transition into full time creative career?

Cassie Valente  25:42  

So here I can really think my Asian parents for raising me the way they did. Because I have and I will probably always have an immensely strong money-focused mentality.

Jennifer Fultz  25:59  

Yes, mine too!

Cassie Valente  26:02  

Oh my gosh, I’m mostly thankful for it, most days. So before I quit my full time job, when I was just starting to consider maybe leaving it to pursue photography full time. The first thing I did was sit down and look at my finances overall. I think this is something wonderful that anybody who’s even thinking about it, just the remotest possibility of changing jobs or just thinking about leaving their full time career, this is something they can do. So I made a list of all my reoccurring costs. So things like my rent and the subscriptions I had, just things that I was paying regularly, like what would I need to make in order to just cover my everyday living costs for three months or for six months or for a year? And after I understood that I could look at, again, I was already doing photography on the side, look at my packages that I offered and think, “Okay, realistically, how many weddings would I have to photograph at my current price point in order to just break even, like literally not make a single dollar in profit? Just cover groceries and rent and emergency money? Like, is this a realistic thing at my current pricing with photographing 15 weddings a year? Or is it going to be like photographing 75? Like, is this even in the realm of possibility?” And you know, it seemed possible. So that’s kind of where I started just making this plan and again, thinking okay, I have enough money saved up, I am priced where I want to be, where even if I made no money, I could at least try this for six months and it would be totally okay. And I think that’s kind of what gave me the confidence to go out and try it because I have a lot of ego and I do have a lot of confidence. I couldn’t imagine like, worst case scenario,here’s no way I wasn’t gonna be any money in six months. So that’s how I decided to start. 

Jennifer Fultz  28:05  

Yeah, and especially because you had already done it for quite some time on the side. So it wasn’t like you were just going in there cold like, “Okay, I’m a wedding photographer now.” Like you had a portfolio you had a process. Oh, you are an A plus student. I feel like…I don’t know, at least on like, online business Instagram, everyone’s like, “Yeah, just quit your day job. It’ll be great.” And I’m like, “No, do your budget have savings, like have a backup plan.” Like none of that is romantic or sexy, but it’s, I don’t know. I feel a lot better. I am able to create better when I’m, like, secure in everything else. If I’m like, you know, and I actually attempted to have a wedding photography business back in 2012. Mostly to impress a boy but That didn’t work out either. And, and that, you know, and I was working part, I was working part time and then trying to do this photography thing on the side and the desperation that I felt just killed it completely for me. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t like any of it because, because I was like, Oh, my, just the fear was too much for me. So I think…I feel like we create better when we feel safe, and we feel secure. I don’t know. That’s just been my experience, at least.

Cassie Valente  29:29  

Yeah, I think that’s really fascinating to hear. And I think that’s really, yeah, really important to just kind of consider all those other factors that are going into what it is, what it’s like to run your own business and be an artist. I did want to say that no matter how much preparation you do, it can still be horrifyingly scary and that’s totally normal. I don’t want to give off the impression that like, “Oh, because I had, I was really lucky and privileged to have this emergency fund saved up but that doesn’t..it didn’t make that leap any less scary.

Jennifer Fultz  30:02  

Yeah. But there is, I think, yeah, I think there’s a difference though between, like, terrifying just because it’s new and terrifying because I have no backup plan. I think there’s a difference between those two kinds of terror. I know you’ve kind of already touched on some things. But what other advice would you give to Asian Americans who want to be a wedding photographer, a very successful one like you are?

Cassie Valente  30:29  

I think my favorite piece of advice that I’ve gotten pretty recently actually. It’s very straightforward. It is simply do the hard work. And I think it’s sometimes these pursuits, it’s very easy to get focused on the glamorous side of things, the sharing of great work and the accolades you receive and the immediate feedback of having these great, amazing visuals. But again, behind the scenes, the 90% of it all, is the grueling everyday admin work, worrying about your next source of income, thinking about how am I going to do this, you know, in the future in my 40s and 50s and 60s, what’s my retirement plan? So all these like very unsexy things I think about constantly because of the way I was raised. I think, ultimately, we must not be afraid to do the hard work. And I think that is what distinguishes a really great professional, from everyday professionals. So, again, when you’re faced with all these tasks, when you have to wear all these hats, or even when you catch yourself saying something like, “Oh, I should do that. I’ve been meaning to do that. I should do that.” Instead of just constantly repeating that, turning it into, “I am going to do that. At this time. I will do that.” So yeah, just not being afraid to do the hard work, I think will pay off in ways that you will never even imagine.

Jennifer Fultz  32:06  

I love that. Thank you so much Cassie for sharing your experience, your wisdom. You’ve totally got it together. Where can people find you?

Cassie Valente  32:17  

People can find me on my website, that’s www.cassievalente.com or on Instagram and it’s probably my favorite mode of communication currently. And that’s @cassievalentephoto.

Jennifer Fultz  32:31  

Cool. I will drop those in the show links. So thank you so much, Cassie. 

Cassie Valente  32:35  

Thank you so much, Jennifer. I loved being here.

Jennifer Fultz  32:39  

Wasn’t Cassie amazing? I love that she acknowledged her parents’ practicality as an asset rather than a liability. I think it’s very easy to complain about our parents not understanding or supporting our creative goals, but…I know I spent a lot of time in my 20s being annoyed with my parents. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely come to appreciate their practical mindedness. And that’s, you know, that’s just how Asian parents show concern, right? Show that they care about you is by worrying and stressing you out. But that’s okay. Cassie mentioned running her numbers, checking out her living expenses, and cost of doing business, and kind of adding all that up before making the leap to full time photography. That is a super smart move, and I highly recommend it. In fact, I even made a spreadsheet to help make it easy, which you can download on my website chiefexecutiveauntie.com – check it out.

Guest Bio:

Cassie Valente is the owner of Cassie Valente Photography, a wedding photography studio based in San Francisco. Cassie grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and her work covering the wedding of Cody Williams and Maria Flores was recently featured in People Magazine.

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