Photographer Profile: Anna Zajac - Chicago
Hi Anna! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm a full-time wedding photographer with a background in graphic design. I shoot a handful of my weddings in New York and LA every year as well as a few around the Midwest, but Chicago is home base for me and most of my weddings are there. My cat, Isaiah and my husband, Matt are my two greatest gifts!! Matt and I love any chance we can get to walk around our neighborhood, eat tacos and check out our favorite book store, Open Books. We are both self-employed and wouldn't have it any other way!
What is your background?
I went to school for design in Ohio and was really passionate about graphic design. Wedding photography was just something I did as a college job. I worked for this terrible studio while I was a student and learned a lot from these two guys that ran the wedding photography studio near Cleveland. I did all their dirty work for them; I carried their equipment and would upload images for them.
Eventually I turned into a second shooter, and then it came to the point where they offered me a full time position and I said no.
For one, I thought I would just be a graphic designer, and two, I thought I could just do it myself. I could just shoot weddings on my own, have a much better time, and get way cooler clients. That’s kind of what I did the last two years of college. I had a lot of fun doing that, but always in the back of my mind I just thought that this was for while I was a student and I’ll just be doing graphic design for the rest of my life.
My dream job at the end of school was to work for a branding and marketing agency, so I applied all over Ohio and heard nothing back and was really disappointed. Then I started applying out of state, and ended up applying at a company called VSA Partners in Chicago, thinking that this huge agency probably wouldn’t even get back to me. Little did I know, a guy I had gone to school with was a creative director at this agency. When my application came through, he said he knew me and the interview process was very fast. I submitted the application, two days later they called me, and then I had a follow up interview about a week later. Then about a day after that second interview, I was offered a job and I hadn’t even graduated school yet. I was getting my dream job and I was freaking out and I was moving to Chicago, which I had never visited. I came to Chicago the week I was supposed to walk at graduation and found an apartment, then moved two weeks later.
I got to the agency and was really happy and thankful, and kind of just forgot about wedding photography for awhile. It wasn’t until I was at the design job for six months when I had a shift in perspective and this ah-ha moment of "wow, I’m actually way more passionate about photography than I am design." It was very eye-opening for me because I thought I landed my dream job, but this was not what I’m that passionate about compared to my peers. If I’m looking at my skillset and who I am as a person, then maybe being a designer doesn’t match up with who I really am.
When did you decide to pursue photography as your career?
I stayed at the agency for awhile, and after about a year, I made a plan to leave. I wanted to try booking a full season of weddings and thought I would freelance design if I needed to. That following year, I did social collaborations with friends on weekends and photographed events trying to meet people and learn about the city. I worked hard on my website, releasing a new portfolio. I tried to save three months of living expenses, which was really hard to do. By the time that year was over, I was ready to leave, and it was so hard saying goodbye to this great job. I felt foolish and stressed out thinking about if I would fail.
That first season after leaving my job, I only had 18 weddings booked, which if you’re looking at the wedding world, most people shoot between 20-35 weddings a year. So 18 was good but not great; it was a little risky. I feel very grateful that right after I left my job I was really busy because I had those weddings booked, but there were some very scary moments being self-employed. Thankfully I had amazing clients that referred me to their friends. Every year since, this is my fourth season now being full-time, has gotten better. Now I take about 30 weddings on per year, and I have to close my doors at 30. I’m very grateful for the journey and I don’t want to forget the hard work that went into laying the foundation of it. People don’t realize that when they see a brand or a business, they just see the outward picture, but there’s so much unglamorous hard work.
Where did your interest in photography stem from?
I was interested in photography before I shot weddings. I fell in love with photography when I was 16 years old and that was when I got my first SLR camera. This was back in the MySpace/Flickr days. I followed photographers there and was part of an online photographers community that way. I started taking photos of friends and did a lot of weird stuff, like weird photoshoots in the woods, but I had so much fun. That time was really important because I learned how to use a camera. I learned all the ins and outs of cameras and lenses before I did weddings.
I never thought I would do weddings. It was a friend’s mom who said I would be really good at shooting weddings. Her brother was getting married, so I ended up shooting his wedding. I did about 2-3 hours of coverage and they paid me $200 and I thought woah that’s a lot of money. I was helping these people capture these memories on a really special day in their lives. I think with my personality and just who I am, that I love love.
Do you have any gear advice?
If you’re full time, it’s really important to have multiple camera bodies. I shoot Canon because I’ve always shot Canon, and that’s just a personal preference. For weddings, I really love the 85mm. I think it’s a really versatile and important lens if you’re going to shoot weddings. My personal favorite lens for when I travel and shoot for fun is the 35mm, but recently I really love the 50mm. If photography is really something you’re interested in, I’d say invest in your less early on. That’s my pro tip. New versions of camera bodies will come out every other year, instead of spending all of your money on that, I’d say invest in some really great lenses and you will have them for years. A great lens is way easier to fix if it gets old than a camera body. Also, get business liability insurance and get your gear covered.
Do you have a most memorable shoot?
I can think of 3-4 weddings in my whole career, that weren’t necessarily the coolest wedding or the most expensive, but it was more that they changed the game for me as a photographer and business owner. The one that comes to mind, and it happened very early on in my career, I was still living in Ohio and was just a student. I shot this wedding in Cleveland, but the couple was just so special. They had the kind of wedding that was meaningful and intimate. They rented this giant Victorian home that was painted key lime green. It was right on the waterfront and such a beautiful wedding with heartfelt vows. For me, it was the first wedding that I experienced where I thought “woah, this is how a wedding can be”. Before that, I just thought that it would be cheesy people loading up in busses with ugly flowers and dancing to a Black Eyed Peas song. Seeing this wedding was different. They didn’t have cake, they had pie (which I know now everyone does that), but in that time in my career and in the wedding world, it was very different. From that point on, I wanted every couple I worked with to be like that couple.
Do you do anything to mentally prepare before a shoot?
What I’ve found with taking photos, a lot of it is the emotional energy that you bring to a shoot. If you do not bring energy, your couple will mimic that or whoever you’re working with. When I shoot, I’m exhausted after. The emotional energy it takes out of me is exhausting, but worth it. The night before a shoot, I have a document where I learn everyone’s names and learn about the family and the timeline. In the morning of, I make sure that I’m rested and that I’ve eaten well, so that I can make sure that my couples have a very positive experience where they can feel present with each other and savor the heck out of the moment.
What makes you passionate about the work you do?
This is going to be a really cheesy wedding photography thing to say, but I think it’s so special and magical and wonderful that people really do meet somebody. The wonder it is to actually meet someone who is willing to choose you and love you, and the wonder of marriage and the wonder of love. You’ve met someone in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and you’re chasing them and loving them, that to me as always been intriguing. Learning how couples meet and how they’ve been together for forever, that’s really special and inspiring. Now being in love myself and being engaged and getting married in a month [now it's this week!], that is really cool how it has come full circle for me. I can understand my clients better than ever.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Now that I’m a little more established in my business and I’m around weddings so much, I’m most inspired by anything unrelated to the wedding industry. It’s so important to bring those other aspects back into the industry. Instead of looking at shoots or other photographers, I try to look at art or what other people are doing through ceramics or textiles or other creative business owners and seeing how they approach their business, and try to translate that back into what I do. It makes me feel more refreshed and keeps me fresh in my work. I really love looking at the work of Vivian Maier or Julie Pointer Adams.
What challenges do you face in your business?
Through this whole time, it’s so easy to compare. Personally, whenever you’re doing anything, it’s so easy to begin to have these peers around you and compare, especially on social media. I struggle with that to this day. Being more concerned with the work you’re making and less concerned with how many people are liking it and who’s seeing it is so important. The more you can have your own awareness of what you are doing, especially if it’s honest and moving you forward, is important.
Early on, finances were a huge risk. I’m very grateful for what I had saved from my full-time job. Having those three months of living expenses was tremendous help in the beginning. Every year has gotten easier, because I know how to prepare for the next year, but in the very beginning money was a huge concern.
Being a first time business owner, there are expenses that come up that you don't think about. If you're a registered LLC in the state of Illinois, you have to pay about $500 every year just to have that. Those things that come at the beginning of every year that you might not factor in in the first year. The more you save, the more you have freedom. It's so important early on to have additional sources of income, whether that be dog walking or working in a coffee shop or driving for Uber. Having those additional sources of income do help because it gives you the freedom to say no to work that might not make sense to your brand.
Do you have any resources that have been helpful to you that we should know of?
Early on, for me, going to workshops was really big. Workshops can be annoying if they cost a lot of money, but I'm really grateful that I went to workshops like Yeah Field Trip and even local workshops. That's something I would recommend for any wedding photographer, it's a lot of money, but it's a huge tax write off for your business.
I learned about the industry and workflow. People don't go to school to become a wedding photographer, and so the more you can surround yourself with your peers and people who are learning and striving to be better, that's really helpful. I could definitely see a change in the quality of my work and how I approached my work after going to Yeah Field Trip.
Another resource that brought me huge success in my business was reaching out to blogs that I was afraid to reach out to and asking them if they needed any photo work in Chicago. I made a list the first year of scary things that I wanted to do. Surprisingly, two out of three of those blogs got back to me and said yes. That not only got my work showcased on those big blogs, but it brought more work in. It proved to me that these are also just businesses that are looking to collaborate. When people said yes to my work, it gave me the self-confidence and fearlessness to tell stories.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
Women are just rad. I think women need to support each other because with how competitive the world is these days, we need a community of women as our sounding board. Someone to say you're not alone in this. I'm a very independent person, too independent most of the time, but the more I've asked for help or asked questions to other women business owners, it has only enhanced who I am as a person and a business owner. We need those people in certain times to tell us to keep going or tell us that it's okay to not have all the answers or to just help us grow and flourish.
There's power in numbers. Most of the time, if you ever think you're alone in something, you're most likely not.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
I'm really into all these desert babes. I made a vision board that stays on my desktop of women who own businesses and moms who own businesses. When I think of my career, I hope I'm able to be a mom and still work, so that's really important for me to surround myself with.
Aleksandra Zee - she's a woodworked who lives in the Bay Area. She just bought some property in Joshua Tree and I just love her vibe and independence. She sees something and goes after it.
Alison Carroll - she owns Wonder Valley Olive Oil in Joshua Tree. She lives out there with her husband and cute dog. She just hosted these dinners for Bon Appetit Magazine. She's doing some really great self-promotion work, and I'm inspired by not only her product and brand, but how she tells the world about her product and brand.
Courtney Adamo - she's a mom of five kids in Australia and she owns a children clothing line.
The Blockshop Textiles sisters - I freaking love them. I love their positive vibes.
What are you trying to learn right now?
That I can't do it all, and it's really, really hard. I'm learning to find ways to ask others to help me. Now that I'm established in my career, how do I help other women and teach other women, and at the same time, benefit from teaching them. Right now, I have two girls that help me with my website and help with second shooting, but I'm hoping to transfer more of that work over to them.
I'm trying to find ways of training and teaching people benefit from my knowledge, while also letting myself have a little more time.
What are some of your favorite places in Chicago?
I love the desert and I'm most inspired by California vibes. I decorate my home like that. I try to be Cali in Chicago.