Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
We are Stephan & Adriana, and we are Elopement Photographers. We specialize in elopements and intimate weddings in the places we love and know well - Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, Big Sur, and other California locations.
Our customers are couples who are looking for a wedding day that reflects who they are. A day that doesn’t necessarily follow the “traditional way” society sees a wedding, but it’s a day full of experiences and a day that will create memories they will talk about for the rest of their lives.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
We have a bit of a crazy story! I’m (Adriana) originally from Brazil. Stephan and I met while we were skating for Disney On Ice. We were both professional ice skaters and we ended up on the same show. Stephan wacthed my audition in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and I joined the show 2 weeks later when they were in Argentina! We toured the world together for 6 years and dated for the last 2 years. I visited 47 countries, and Stephan visited 75 (he was on tour for 11 years!).
Stephan had already been a photographer for about 10 years, but it was always a hobby. He doesn’t do anything halfway, so he quickly became obsessed with photography. He learned a lot on his own, through books and magazines! Any time we went sightseeing he had a camera and several lenses with him. We would always wake up early for sunrise and always stay late to watch sunsets. He loved photography, but it had never crossed his mind that this could be his next career.
In 2018, we decided to retire from the show business life. I moved to the US, and we got married. The plan was that Stephan was going to coach skating, and go back to college to finish a degree. Well, he missed his deadline and would have to wait the whole next year to apply again. So he decided he was going to give photography a chance. He started shooting houses for real estate agents, selling some landscape prints, and also second shooting (which means assisting a photographer) a lot of weddings. He worked a lot with Ellie Kolleen, who was our wedding photographer, and he learned a LOT from her!
In the meantime, I couldn’t work while waiting for my green card, so I started learning photography from him. I also learned how to design a website, and started taking online courses for marketing as well. By the time my green card arrived and I was able to get a job, I decided I didn’t want one. The thought of getting a “normal” job was very depressing to me, and I came back from each job interview crying (seriously). Stephan convinced me we should just go for it and work together and have our own wedding photography business, and I couldn’t be happier.
We had saved a lot of money from our years with Disney On Ice, which we used to invest in our business. In 2019 we made pretty much no money because everything was being reinvested into what we wanted to do! 2020 was shapping up to be a great year, and then… the pandemic happened. All of the weddings we had booked were either canceled or rescheduled.
We had been wanting to focus our business less on traditional weddings, and more on adventurous, outdoor weddings. The mountains are our happy place, and the idea of working there was what we were passionate about. We were just afraid there wasn’t a huge market for what we wanted to offer. Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. The pandemic showed us that a LOT of people crave smaller, intimate weddings. A lot of couples reached out to us wondering how they could get married in a beautiful place like Yosemite. Once Yosemite opened up, our business exploded. We worked mainly in the Park for the remainder of 2020 and now couldn’t imagine ourselves doing anything else!
Take us through the process of developing your editing style.
It was a process! The only thing we knew when we started our business is that we wanted a clean editing style. We wanted the images we created to be true to color, so our clients could look at them years down the road and be taken back to the moment that they happened. We wanted them to be able to look at the photo and remember how they felt at that moment.
I don’t know how fast we achieved that, but that was our goal from the beginning. It was a process, and it was much longer than just adding a “preset” on all of the images and going from there - which a lot of educators recommend. We have always tried to emphasize good, flattering lighting first, making sure to get it right in the camera before bringing it to the computer. Then we can add a little “sparkle” and make it an image that we are proud to call our own.
A lot of our clients mention that our editing style is one of the reasons they hired us! They always say they love the fact that our photos don’t have a heavy look to them. So I believe it was worth taking the time to develop what we did.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I realized that the more I shared on our social media about these outdoor weddings, the better. Couples would see our photos and read our captions and think “this is what I want”. So in just a couple of months, our focus completely changed.
We were primarily sharing elopements and intimate weddings on our social media platforms. I redesigned our whole website to speak to those couples, the ones who wanted to get married outdoors. I started writing more and more blogs about elopements and focused more on developing our SEO so we could be found through Google.
It took maybe 3-4 months until I started seeing the results of all of those blog posts I spent so much time writing. But I can’t tell you how rewarding it was getting an inquiry from a couple that said “I found you on the first page of Google!”
As I mentioned before, we had a good amount of money saved from all of our years on tour with Disney On Ice, so we did not have to take out any loans, thankfully.
I also need to mention that it was very helpful that we were a team of two. While Stephan was focusing on the technical sides of photography, and just really learning everything he could about lighting, posing, etc, I had time to focus on the marketing side. I can’t imagine doing everything on my own, or vice-versa. We both love the way we contribute to the business, and wouldn’t change it.
We didn’t have a launch date or anything like that. Our business just kept changing and growing as we were already all in!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Keeping my main focus on our website and our blog, and being found through Google, has brought us some amazing couples!
I’m not so great with social media, and even though I do enjoy it, it’s another full-time job on its own. I do believe social media can be such a great avenue for marketing and for connecting with potential clients, but I just chose to put most of my time somewhere else. I still use Instagram for fun, and I love sharing our couple's stories, but if it doesn’t get the reach I expect, I also don’t stress about it! I think it’s a good way to approach it (at least it’s good for my mental health).
For me, our website is one of our most powerful tools, so that’s where I spend most of my time. I’ve played around with Google and Facebook ads, and we’ve had a good conversion rate with Google Ads, but this year we’ve been getting all of our inquiries organically = through our website and blogs I write that people find on Google!
Networking is also a great tool! Not just for marketing, but for us to connect with other adventure photographers out there. This year we had so much fun hosting a little wine & cheese happy hour with our photographer friend Lisa. We worked together in 2020 in Big Sur and, since then, we both refer clients to each other whenever we are already booked!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our business is in a good place, and I think by the end of this year we will have photographed 30 weddings. We also shoot engagement sessions and anniversaries!
Between our photography business and our Airbnb side hustle, we bring in an average of 12-18k per month.
This is also the first year we accomplished our goal to spend more time in my home (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) while renting out our California home on Airbnb, near Yosemite National Park. We’ve been working to be able to spend quality time with both of our families since 2018, and it feels pretty unreal that we get to live the life we had in mind so long ago. Now, we spend summers and winters in Rio (July, August, December, and January), since that’s the low season for weddings. The rest of the months we’re here in California, doing what we love, and shooting in beautiful places with really cool couples.
After traveling full-time for so many years touring the world, we didn’t want to settle for a “normal life”. Because being outdoors, traveling to other countries, and getting to know other cultures was our normal, and we never wanted that part of our lives to end. We’re really happy with where we’re at because both of our businesses allow us to live the life we wanted to. So, to be honest, I don’t want too much to change right now, haha!
Our main focus is quite simple, and it's just to keep growing and keep improving. How can we serve our clients better? How can their experience be even more unique? How can we make the whole process easier for them? These questions are what keep us motivated!
I honestly have no idea what the future looks like, but I hope we continue to travel, meet new awesome people, spend time with our families, and work with what we love! It’s hard to wish for anything else.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think one of the most important things that we overlooked at the beginning was not even thinking about having a work/life balance. We were just trying to work and do what we love as much as possible. But even a job that you love can exhaust you and cause burnout.
This year we wanted to make sure we could have time off, time for ourselves, for our adventures, and time to travel. So we booked fewer weddings and left more open days on our calendar. This is not only important for our mental health (and physical health too), but it’s also beneficial to our clients. With a better balance, we’re able to serve them better, to give plenty of attention and help to each one of them.
Do your research and invest in a good course. There are tons of courses online nowadays, so it’s important to make sure you’re spending your money on something that will be beneficial to you. Don’t rush this process, and know that these coaches are out there to help you where you are struggling.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
For our CRM we use 17Hats.
Our contracts are from The Legal Paige.
To store and share final galleries with the couples we use Pixieset
Our printing lab for photo prints and albums is Millers Lab.
Our website host is ShowIt, and I designed it myself.
I also use Canva to make guides for our clients.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
There have been a lot of people who have influenced and inspired us. Roberto Valenzuela is a big one. His books have changed the way Stephan photographs, and after reading just one of them, we started going to his workshops in Los Angeles and Tucson, Arizona. He’s an incredible artist, photographer, person, teacher, and businessman.
Roberto has such a massive understanding of every single element that turns a good photo into an amazing, breathtaking photo. Learning from him has allowed us to create beautiful images for our clients, images that do not need heavy editing or heavy filters. Images that feel timeless and that do reflect the moment in which the photos were created.
Learning from Roberto has fundamentally changed the way we photograph people and his influence is reflected in every photo that we take.. I’ll list his books here and you can check them out for yourself:
We also get daily inspiration from other photographers who are out there shooting weddings in the outdoors, creating awesome experiences for their couples. I love following The Hearnes, Adventure Instead, and The Foxes. Not only they’re amazing photographers, but they’re also very committed to educating their clients and other photographers about LNT (Leave No Trace), which is a subject that’s super important to us. Working outdoors and bringing more and more people to these beautiful National Parks and National Forests means we also have a huge responsibility. We need to educate ourselves and our clients on how to get married in these beautiful places while leaving no trace. We need to comply with Park and Wedding Permit Regulations. We need to lead by example if we want to continue to have the privilege of having such beautiful places as our “wedding venues”. So not only do they inspire us with their images, but also with their work ethic and care for the planet we live in.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I think the biggest turning point for me was realizing I could not do or learn everything on my own. I needed to learn from people that had been doing this longer than me and were experienced in what I wanted to do.
The photographers I mentioned in the question above were crucial to getting inspiration and knowing that the sky was the limit. I still follow their adventures on Instagram and always love seeing the beautiful images they post!
Another absolutely crucial thing was investing in online courses. I took a business course that focused on website design, SEO, workflow, client experience, and a lot more elements that make a successful business. Kyle Goldie was the man behind this course, and I ended up having him as my business coach for 3 months during the pandemic. Everything I learned from him changed our business and our lives.
So I guess my biggest advice (on the business side) would be to seek help and invest in yourself. Do your research and invest in a good course. There are tons of courses online nowadays, so it’s important to make sure you’re spending your money on something that will be beneficial to you. Don’t rush this process, and know that these coaches are out there to help you where you are struggling. They’ve already been through what you’re going through, so you can skip certain mistakes by listening to them!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
As of right now, no. We do love working as a team, and having control over every step of the process. I am a little bit of a control freak, so it would be very hard for me to let go and delegate certain areas of our job.
There have been situations where I did recognize that I could use extra help, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up expanding our team in the near future!
Where can we go to learn more?
All of the images shared in this article are owned by Stephan & Adriana.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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