After experiencing a quarter-life crisis, Emily courageously left her career in audio engineering to pursue her real passion – photography. Check out her beautiful story and work below.
Say hello to Emily:
My name is Emily McGonigle, and I am a fashion-inspired portrait photographer, located in Nashville, TN. I’ve always loved the look of commercial and fashion photography, but had little desire to actually pursue the fashion industry. So instead, I’ve decided to bring that style and quality of photography, as well as the experience that comes with it, to everyday people through portraiture.
Where are you from? Where have you been?
I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I went to college in Lebanon, PA, moved to Allentown, PA after getting married in 2010, and then moved to Bethlehem, PA for a year right before moving to Nashville, TN in 2013.
I used to be an audio engineer, so I went on a few tours with a small production company based out of Nashville that took me all over. I honestly don’t remember all of the places I’ve been (most of them were really small towns in various states), but I’ve gone from Pennsylvania, to California, and a bunch of places in between.
What’s your favorite place in the world?
I know it sounds cliché, but in all honesty, Nashville is my favorite place in the world. I haven’t been outside the country, so maybe that answer would change if that ever happened in the future, but I have such a love for Nashville. My business has improved since moving here, even though I had to start from scratch. I’m surrounded by so much incredible talent here – it’s inspiring. There’s always something to do, shows to see, parks to walk, bars to hang out in (if that’s your thing…I’m more of a homebody, myself). The people who live here are friendly and it’s just a great place to cultivate community and creativity.
What’s on your “bucket list” of ideas to create?
You know, I don’t really have a bucket list of ideas. If I come up with an idea, I usually just go out and do it. The only thing that keeps me from shooting an idea right away would be time or finances, but I don’t generally keep a list of things in my mind. There’s usually just one shoot I think about until it gets done. And once I shoot it, I just go about doing my usual thing, until I have another idea for a personal project.
How would you describe your visual style?
I always have trouble describing my own work, but things that others have said about my style are that it’s clean, bright, and sharp. I’ve had people tell me that a shoot “looks like it came straight out of a magazine,” so I suppose that means it’s a bit commercial/fashion…which is good, because that’s my goal.
What advice would you offer to those starting their own photography business?
Don’t get discouraged. A time will come when you will FEEL discouraged, but don’t allow yourself to stay in that place too long. Photography isn’t as easy as a pursuit as people would like to make it out to be. It takes a LOT of hard work, and a ton of persistence.
Never stop learning. The problem I see with a lot of people who go into business is that they reach a point where they think they’re “good enough”, because people are paying them to shoot, so they stop growing. Or WORSE, they already think they’re the best at what they do, and stay stagnant and never get better. Don’t make photography just about money. Remember why you got into in the first place. Remember what you love about it, remember the thrill of learning something new and growing into a better artist. When work slows down, take that time to push yourself past your comfort level with personal work you haven’t tried before. Make sure you’re doing personal work once in a while to keep things from getting stale for yourself.
That being said, when you do start charging, make sure you charge what you’re worth. Undercutting the industry doesn’t help anyone. You won’t make enough money to support your business long term, and you’ll pull the overall value of the industry down with you. It’s okay to charge what’s fair for you first starting out, but know when it’s time to raise your rates, and know what it *costs* you to run your business, pay your personal bills, etc. and charge accordingly so that you can actually make a living and cover your expenses.
Tell us about your career. How did you get into it?
I had a quarter-life crisis.
That sounds funny, but it’s true. I was previously an audio engineer who hated doing live audio, but that’s all I was getting work in. I preferred a recording studio setting, but there aren’t many of those in Pennsylvania. Not reputable ones, anyway. I was starting to lose hope of ever making a career in audio – I was working a receptionist job that I hated, and I wasn’t very happy with anything going on in my life. The *only* good thing that had happened to me that year was getting married to my husband. At one point, I got my first DSLR because I wanted to take better photos than my Nikon point and shoot could handle at my husband’s shows (he’s a musician). I started using photography as a way to escape my terrible day job. I was shooting at all my husband’s shows, and after about a year, I decided that I might try to make a career out of photography.
I shifted from shooting live music to photographing local, aspiring models. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to photograph for a living, but I was exploring my options.
What types of photography do you do?
I shoot mostly portraiture. I also second shoot weddings with other photographers, but I don’t shoot them on my own as the main photographer. Once in a while, I’ll do head shots or promo work for musicians and other artists.
My favorite thing to photograph, and the thing that my brand is geared towards, is portraiture. I love the feeling of giving a client their photos back and their reaction to how they look in their images. A lot of people come into the studio telling me that they’re “awkward,” “not a model,” or “don’t know what to do,” but when they get their images back, they’re amazed at how great they look. Being able to show everyday people how beautiful they are and helping them to love themselves a little bit more is so fulfilling to me. It’s the whole reason I do what I do.
What is the strangest situation you’ve ever faced as a photographer?
Oh man. I have had a handful of things that immediately stick out to me. I’ve gotten inquiries from dudes wanting “erotic” photos of themselves.… I’ll spare you the details, but one in particular wanted “close-ups,” if you know what I mean.
In another instance, I was assisting a friend of mine on his shoot – it was done at an underpass where some homeless people apparently hang out. One guy in particular came up to me while my friend was shooting and was criticizing the way he was shooting (he hadn’t even seen the photos) and was criticizing the way the band was dressed, heckling them the whole time. At one point, he picked up a railroad spike (there were old railroad materials piled up behind us…for what reason, I have no idea), and said something threatening so we peaced out of there pretty quickly.
At a wedding I second shot at recently, one of the guests was VERY drunk. I tend to be friendly with guests during the reception and will sometimes dance with them. This guy, who was five times my size, (I’m a small girl) came up behind me and LIFTED me up onto his shoulders. Before I knew what was happening, he was dancing, holding me up there for a full 30 seconds.
What has been your biggest setback as a photographer?
I struggle with anxiety, so every day is a battle with myself over whether or not I’m good enough, an image is good enough, an idea is good enough, whether or not I really know what I’m doing, etc. It also keeps me from always being as forward with my marketing as I should. I’ve definitely gotten much better at dealing with this over time, but it’s definitely still something I struggle with. I think I always will.
Photography is competitive. How do you stand out?
I try to stand out by offering a unique client experience. Each client’s session is completely customized to them and their vision. We meet for a pre-shoot consultation to discuss what they are hoping to get out of their photo shoot and from there, we move into the planning stage which is very hands-on for me. I take their ideas and meld them with my fashion-inspired style of photography. For my portraits, I also always have a hair and makeup artist stay on set during the entirety of my client’s shoot to make changes and do touch-ups.
What is the best thing a model can do to make the most of a photoshoot?
Come in with confidence. Even if you’re new to the game and you don’t have much (or any) experience – if you are going to call yourself a model, then do that to the best of your ability. My biggest pet peeve is when I book with a model and he/she comes in and the first thing they say is, “I’m going to need you to give me lots of direction,” or ask, “What do you want me to do?” That’s your job. Have some idea of what you’re doing, even if that idea is just an educated guess at best.
I can work with new and inexperienced talent, but I need to see how they work first before I can get a decent vibe off them and can start guiding them, directing and collaborating with them.
What was your most memorable photoshoot?
My most memorable photoshoot was one a friend and I did with a little girl named Desi. I wrote an entire blog about the experience. The basic gist of it was that I discovered her at a wedding my friend and I were shooting together. She was the flower girl and I asked her mother if she would allow us to do a photoshoot with her daughter at another time. She said yes, but before the session date, I found out that Desi had an extremely low self-view of herself and we worked really hard that day to make her feel special. Apparently, it worked because following her shoot, she was more outgoing, more confident, making more friends, and couldn’t wait for another shoot!
If you could photograph anyone in the world, who would it be?
Ruby Rose. I love her look and am mildly obsessed with her.
What’s your favorite aspect of photography?
I love being able to make people look and feel beautiful. Most of my clients come in and say in one way or another, “I’m not a model,” but by the time I’m finished with their images and they see them for the first time, they see themselves in a whole new light and have a new appreciation for themselves, and that’s super rewarding.
Who do you want to give a shoutout to?
I for sure want to shout out to my good friend, Matthew Simmons. He’s an incredible photographer in the Nashville area – he’s the reason I’ve grown as much as I have in the way that I shoot, light, and approach post-production. You should check him out at: www.matthewsimmonsphoto.com.
I’d also love to shout out to my friend Jamie Morales, who is a growing videographer and aspiring director who just moved to Nashville not too long ago. She’s really great at what she does and has helped me out by creating two promo videos for my brand. Check her out at: www.jamiesuzannemedia.com.
What’s a deal breaker for you when deciding to do a shoot?
I don’t have a very high tolerance for flaky people or unprofessional behavior.
How do you bring out your model’s personality in a shoot?
I try and get to know them as best as I can. I reference stories they’ve told me, or tell my own, and we listen to music that they like to help get them pumped about creating great photos.
What do you think is the biggest thing holding you back in your photography?
My incessant, crippling self-doubt. It’s something I have to fight through often.
How do you express yourself through your photography?
I try to create imagery that I enjoy. I am not a concept photographer, so there usually isn’t a ton of “hidden meaning” in my work, but it is reflective of my personal tastes.
What are the top 3 tips you have for aspiring photographers?
Surround yourself with like-minded individuals whose work you respect, and then ask them to critique yours.
Be OPEN to critique. Don’t be defensive or angry if someone tells you that you can improve upon something. The only way to grow and get better is to have people point out what you can improve.
Find a focus. Too many photographers “shoot everything” and their work shows it. You won’t know what you love to shoot right away – while you’re starting out you will by default, shoot “everything.” However, pay special attention to what you like photographing and what you don’t like, and then start to cut out the things you don’t like until you have a focus for your work.
What are the top 3 tips you have for aspiring models?
Don’t ever walk on set declaring that you “don’t know what you’re doing,” “need lots of direction,” or asking the photographer over and over what they want you to do. Come on to a set with confidence, ready to model, and know that if a photographer feels the need to give some direction, they will. Otherwise, we’re expecting you to have some idea of what you’re doing. Even if you’re new and don’t have a lot (or any) experience, showing a readiness in front of the camera will go a long way, even if we do end up having to direct you a little more than with an experienced model.
Have some personality on set. Even if you’re a new model and needed a little more guidance, most photographers will be more willing to work with you again if you were fun, energetic, and motivated.
Be reliable. No one likes dealing with flaky, late, or otherwise, unreliable models. If you show professionalism and dependability, people will want to work with you more and more.
What’s one post-processing tip you’d like to share with other photographers?
Less is more. I know how to REALLY blow away a person’s skin and make them look super fake and plasticky, but just because I know how, doesn’t mean I should or do. Learn the techniques, but then once you’ve learned them, learn when it’s appropriate to apply certain ones and when not to. Also, layer opacity is your best friend. It helps you to make everything look clean, but more natural.
What is your most life-changing event?
I had what I like to call my “quarter-life crisis” at the age of 24. I was dealing with some inner turmoil about the fact that I was working dead-end temp jobs and not doing anything that I had set out to do with music and recording. I got a random audio tour gig out of nowhere, and I took it…and I hated it.
All I did on that tour was stay up all night in my hotel room and edit, and sleep in my bunk on the bus while we traveled during the day. We’d get to our destination, do a show, and then as soon as I got back to my hotel room, I was editing photos literally all night again.
I wasn’t into the people I was on tour with, I wasn’t into the places we were going, I couldn’t afford to go out anywhere after our gigs, so I just did what made me happy, which was editing photos.
I needed to take that tour, because it was closure for me. It helped me realize I didn’t want to do audio anymore, and I was actually okay with the fact that I didn’t want to do audio anymore and that I wanted to do photography instead. That tour was a turning point for me and helped launch me into full-focus on a path to becoming a professional photographer.
What’s one of your biggest fears?
What will you be doing five years from now?
Hopefully what I’m doing now, but with a more established brand and more clientele.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Jump from a 40 ft. cliff into the water below. For fun. I’m afraid of heights.
For anyone wants to get in touch with Emily, here’s some contact information:
Emily, thanks for taking the time to interview with us!
If any artists out there want to collaborate with FStop, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.