Photographer Spotlight: Christy Pacanowski

Sometimes, photography is about more than just creating beautiful images–it’s also about helping people see themselves in a new way. Embolden means “to inspire confidence in,” and that’s exactly what happens at Embolden Studio. High school seniors are empowered to make a difference in the world, families press “pause” for a moment on the happy blur of life, and busy moms rediscover their own beauty.

Christy Pacanowski, photographer and owner of Embolden Studio in Zeeland, Michigan, talks with us this month about how she connects with her clients on a deeper level, the benefits of working with a team, and why it’s so important to properly value your work.

We are so inspired by Christy’s approach to photography, and we think you will be, too!

Please tell us a little about yourself. How did you become interested in photography, and how did you get started in the professional photography world?

I studied art education in college and taught middle school art for 10 years, so I had some background in the creative side of photography and composition. In 2004, there was not one photographer in our area shooting anything “candid” or with a photojournalistic flair. I wanted to photograph my kids in their elements, playing, running, and just being themselves. So I started taking pictures of my kids and my friends’ kids, and before I knew it, I had turned my passion into a profession.

What types of services do you offer?

I photograph seniors, kids, and families and I have a photographer on my team who shoots newborns.

I see that you work as part of a studio. What other types of professionals are a part of Embolden Studio? As a photographer, what are some of the advantages of being part of a studio/offering these other services?

I have all kinds of help! My fabulous assistant does all the booking, correspondence, ordering sessions, uploading to galleries, and accounting. She has the brain for all the things that took energy from me when I initially started the business and was trying to do it all myself. I also have contracted hair and makeup stylists, two amazing set designer creatives, and an adorable wardrobe consultant. I love working alongside a team because we make each other more creative and each of us contributes our gifts to the photo sessions. When people have help choosing outfits that will photograph well and coordinate with family members’ outfits, professional hairstyling and makeup, and an awesome set, it not only takes the stress out, but they are bound to fall in love with the images.

Do you have a guiding philosophy as a photographer? Or maybe just for life in general? 🙂

YES! My personal core value is living a life of purpose–and empowering others to do so, as well–and that value has definitely seeped into my photography business. I knew I didn’t just want to photograph people and hand over the images, so at my studio, we are intentional about creating experiences that build relationships with our clients. Embolden means “to inspire confidence in,” and my desire is to help my clients see themselves in all their beauty, in order to inspire confidence in them for a greater purpose–to discover their own core values. When getting to know my clients, I often ask them what they are passionate about, or what breaks their heart, so they can be EMBOLDENED to impact change in that area. I LOVE teenagers, and my senior model team gives me a platform to be a positive influence in their lives. I love to have that voice. Our model team meets for multiple gatherings, service projects, makeup and hair lessons, and coffee dates, so I get to know them a lot better than if I just took their senior pictures. The same is true with our families. Most of the families I work with come back every year so I really get to know the moms and I love being in relationship with so many of them!

When you were just getting started as a photographer, was there anything that you had trouble finding good information about or wished that you knew more about?

I had tons of questions and invested thousands of dollars and traveled around the country to go to workshops and be mentored by a variety of photographers whose styles I loved. I wasn’t afraid to ask questions or invest my time and money into learning all I could.

How has ProPhoto helped with your business?

As soon as ProPhoto started creating blog/sites I bought one! The templates make it so easy to customize your site so it doesn’t look like everyone else’s, and the customer service has always been amazing! Updating your website can be a daunting task, but with ProPhoto’s support team, you always feel like you have a helper working alongside you and there are so many training videos to guide you!

Lots of newer photographers struggle with deciding on how to set their pricing. Would you be willing to share a little about your experience with deciding on that, and advice for others who are trying to make those decisions?

Oh man, this is so hard. Since I had three young kids at home when I started my business, I knew that in order for me to leave them while I worked, I needed to make it valuable for our family. I have learned that free is not valued, even if I wouldn’t mind doing the work at no charge. The more you charge, the more your clients value you, their photo shoot, and their experience. So I’ve always preferred charging more and creating an amazing experience that produces excellent images for my clients.

What is one of the most memorable sessions you’ve gotten to shoot?

Oh, I have so many! I think the most adventurous one was when my clients hired me to photograph their family on Mackinac Island, Michigan and they flew us all out there on their own private jet. I also got to visit Denver recently, when a client flew me out to photograph her newborn grand baby. Closer to home, I’ve loved capturing images of my family and my dear friends. Our annual two-day “Share the Love” event is always memorable, too. We photograph over 200 kids and make each of them Valentine’s Day bookmarks in exchange for a donation to whichever charity we are supporting that year. By the end of it, we are all exhausted, but feel incredibly blessed to be a part of something that results in so many donations for organizations in need.

What inspires your photography?

I try not to spend too much time looking at other photographers’ work because the comparison game can really stifle me if I get sucked into that trap. I love to be inspired by magazine layouts or store window displays, and I spend time on Pinterest looking at fun ideas too.

Do you have any new projects/ventures in the works that you’d like to tell us about?

Every year, we create three sets for our senior model team, and this year I am taking the 17 girls on the team to Chicago for a day to do a “street style” theme downtown, followed by a set on Navy Pier called “girls’ weekend away.” We also are doing a set the following weekend with some alpacas!

We love your positive outlook and the way you bring out the best in your clients, Christy! Thanks so much for sharing and inspiring us.

Readers, we want to cover the topics that matter to you! Is there something you’d like to hear other photographers’ perspectives on in upcoming Spotlight interviews? Or maybe you’d like to be featured? 🙂 Drop us a note or leave a comment below!

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