Nikki Closser: First Years in Business

October 26, 2016 Uncategorized

(Nikki and I shot together on Saturday, we discussed the Mentors on creativeLIVE Startup Portrait and how a few people commented that “Yeah but, the Mentors were privileged” and NIKKI HIT THE ROOF The perception you see when you are struggling is that it’s easy for everyone else but not for you. This is the biggest Lie you can tell yourself. I asked Nikki to write about her first few years in business the truth of Income and how she left her job as a Social Worker. This makes me so happy, to watch someone work my business model and succeed at it fills me with JOY Here is Nikki’s Story. If you need hope READ IT if you need HELP read it any thing is possible when you make a goal and make it happen step by step every day run towards it. I will say one thing though about Nikki she was driven and she hit many walls through this time of building this business but she just kept at it and I am so incredibly proud of her. Sue)

Nikki Closser: First Years in Business

Four years ago, I found myself becoming depressed. Feeling this way really scared me because it is not normally in my nature to be so down. You see, I had a career that I was no longer happy doing. I began living for the weekends, dreading the walk into the building where I worked, and counting down the days until I had time off. I was anxious and not sleeping or eating well and my irritability was at an all time high. I knew this was not AT ALL how I wanted to live my life and that it was time to make some big changes.

I had been a social worker for 12 years. I got both my undergrad and graduate degrees in social work, I had been volunteering since I was a kid, and I started my own nonprofit. Social work was my identity. Helping others was all I knew how to do. In reality, the person I really needed to be helping was myself. I needed to be focusing on my own happiness.

So, there I was, at 34 years old, deciding I needed to change my career. I’m a firm believer that if you aren’t happy with something, change it. No one is going to do it for you. So, I said to my husband, “I don’t want to be a social worker anymore. I’m going to be a professional photographer”. My husband is extremely supportive and wants me to do anything that makes me happy and I am incredibly grateful for him. The money, on the other hand, was the biggest most terrifying challenge. He has a great job, but he did not make enough money for me to take time off to start a business. That just wasn’t an option. I had to work full time while starting my business.

I bought a camera and my friend Frank Blau taught me about exposure and ISO and aperture and just the basics in general. I am forever grateful to Frank for spending hours with me (he even helped me at my first wedding). I started shooting anyone who would let me. Babies, families, couples — you name it, I tried it. Shooting babies made me want to wail louder than they were, so I knew right away that wasn’t my thing and I decided I was going to go the wedding, seniors, & family route. I did several family shoots for free while getting some practice in and then started charging a whopping $75. For my first wedding, I charged $750. I found myself sweating and needing a nap after photographing families, so I quickly realized that also was not my thing. So, that left me with weddings and seniors, both of which I really enjoyed, but I still didn’t really know what I was doing. My business card was a 3×5 inch magnet if that tells you anything. And I wasn’t making much money, certainly not enough to quit my job.

After almost a year of this, I saw the light. Meaning, I discovered Sue Bryce on Creativelive. (I have learned way more from Sue Bryce than from my 7 years of going to college.) This was it. I was going to shoot glamour. And make a great living doing it. I set a goal for myself. One goal. I was going to spend one more year as a social worker and then I was D.O.N.E. I honestly didn’t have much of a plan, I just knew I had X amount of time to make it happen.

Then, something really amazing happened. I found myself in Paris with Sue Bryce. Sue generously and wholeheartedly told the story of my friend Jill through The Light That Shines. Both Jill and I can never ever even come close to thanking her enough. It was truly life-changing in every way.

After coming home from Paris, I was utterly inspired. I continued to watch Sue’s course and I asked friends, coworkers, even neighbors, if I could practice on them. I did their hair & makeup myself (which I sucked at) or I had them go to the Nordstrom makeup counter. I set up a little 6×5 feet shooting corner in our family room and I fumbled my way through shoots. I painted polyboards and my husband (lovingly) complained about having them in the house. I shot in that little corner for 8 months and I took some of my most favorite photos there. And I was still at my social work job at that point, so I was shooting and editing during evenings and weekends. I built the foundation for my business right there on that crappy old carpet with no assistant while holding a hair dryer and my camera at the same time.

One of my first Images in my family room

During that 8 months, I began not only learning from Sue how to shoot women, but following her business model. Everything from marketing to posing to painting backdrops to pricing. I listened intently to what she said and I took the steps one at a time. I did a ton of shoots for free to build my portfolio and once I became confident enough, I started charging. Not a whole lot, but I was actually getting paid shoots. I was posting a ton on facebook and tagging the people I shot and getting more and more inquiries. Then, after gaining even more confidence because of working through 28 Days, I started charging full price (starting at $1200). During this time, I was incredibly fortunate to have Sue as a mentor. Even though everything I learned from her was right there in her courses (which is all now on her education website) for all to hear, to have her tell me I was ready for this jump in price is really what pushed me over. I booked a client and I knew that starting at $1200, I needed a studio space. I rented a space for $150 and she bought all of the photos. That is when I made the decision to get my own studio.

I got my first leased studio in October 2013 and I was finally able to quit my job. (Woo hoo! I will never forget that feeling!) My studio was $1100 per month, which scared the hell out of me, but I honestly didn’t think too much about it. I just kept moving forward because I knew I would make it work. I knew failure was NOT an option and I had 5 weddings booked for the coming year.

While the studio itself was 700 square feet, I only had a 6×9 feet cubby to shoot in. The studio had slanted walls and the light was minimal in the rest of the studio other than in the cubby. I won’t sugar coat it. Wrangling around big v-flats and maneuvering my clients and assistant (I hired one at that point) and everything else in such a small space was challenging. But, the bottom line is that I made it work. I built a successful business in less than desirable spaces by following Sue’s business model. I think one of the most important pieces for me was to go in each day with a positive attitude. I didn’t think about the limitations, but I went in with the attitude that I had an amazing space and I found a way to push my confidence to the surface when I started freaking out. I brought it back to gratitude that I was able to do this for a living in the first place. And I practiced, practiced, practiced so that I knew how to rock my little space.

The corner in our old family room on the left and my first studio (the cubby where I shot) on the right

My sales average started creeping up. It started at $1200 and stayed there for a little while. I was very happy with being able to sell $1200 in photos!! At the same time, $1200 was my smallest package, so I knew I needed to switch things up. My smallest package at that time was 12 photos, so I brought it down to 8 photos. Slowly, but surely, my average started creeping up and I started booking more shoots. I joined networking groups and had a booth at the Northwest Women’s Show and I kept sharing on facebook. Clients started referring their friends to me and things were really starting to pick up and I was averaging 3 glamour shoots per month. (I was also shooting 15-17 weddings and several seniors per year). I use the “package only, with options to add on” approach to selling, so the smallest package clients can buy for glamour is $1200 and I was also making the session fee complimentary back then. I have learned so much from Sue about how closely linked that is to self-value and I am working on that every day. I love love love the new content she has posted around this in convocation on her website.

On a side note, one thing I absolutely love about Sue, is that she genuinely wants to see you succeed. I have watched her get so excited when someone posts about a successful shoot or that their average increased or that they created something they love just for fun when my average goes UP she is the first person I text and is the first to scream with happiness for me. I see how much she loves when people post their images in Critique on her website because that means they are pushing forward and wanting to learn more and become more successful. I have experienced her support and encouragement first hand and she is my biggest cheerleader. She comes from a place of love and support instead of competition and she has been an insanely amazing role model who I am ridiculously grateful for.

So, here 3 years after discovering Sue. I moved into a different studio in January 2015 that is big and full of light with huge windows and I love it. My average sale is $1900 (gross) and I average 6 shoots per month. I LOVE doing Reveal Wall sales and market myself with confidence. I have the huge honor of being a mentor to other photographers, which I absolutely love because I still have that social worker in me who wants to help others 😉

My new studio

Seeing my dreams come to fruition is indescribable. Sometimes I want to pinch myself. But, then I have visions from the last few years of my blood, sweat, tears, excitement, and happiness and I know that I worked so hard for this. When I feel old thoughts of money fear come up I confront it and reset my value and I remember it is a business, an exchange of my passion and dedication to service. It is no longer a dream, by my reality. I am Nikki Closser and I am a portrait photographer. I feel so proud to say that. Thank you, Sue Bryce, from the bottom of my heart, for providing me with the tools I needed to make this happen. xx


  1. Holy frijoles does this speak to me. I’m a 34 year old social worker in need of a career change. Photography has been my self-care tool, and now it has become my passion. Reading how you created a new career path for yourself as portrait photographer increased my confidence, that I will be able to transition from a hobbyist to a professional. Thank you for taking the time to create this blog, it is very appreciated!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing!
    Your home corner cubby looks almost identical to mine >.>. Your story hits me in the gut, its so close to mine. I literally stall even getting ready for work every day because its killing my body and soul. My hubs also sounds like yours. I feel like I am just in my own way, my blocks are keeping me from actually DOING the thing. ;o( Its way past time for me to “embrace that discomfort” and do it anyway.
    Also thinking its time to make feet for my polys, children get antsy too quickly. ;oP

  3. This is an amazingly inspiring story. Thank you to Nikki for sharing it. I’ve been at my job for 18 years, and I’ve hated it for at least 10 years. Like Nikki, I’ve declared to myself and my husband that I am done. I can’t justify giving up a good salary to start my business though (at least not to my husband), so I’m going to get started while keeping the job. This time next year though, I hope to be able to say, “I am Debbie Packer. I am a portrait photographer.” That would be nothing short of amazing for me.

  4. Sharing is huge. Huge. Thanks Nikki for your honesty and inspiring words.
    I’m so ready to be better and to learn. Its amazing to be in such a positive place with you