MOUNT VERNON – Being a professional photographer in 2020 requires a mix of confidence, patience and humility.
Kelley Davis would know.
She recalls pulling out her DSLR camera recently to take pictures before one of her childs’ homecoming dances. As parents jostled for position, all trying to capture the perfect glamour shot, one glanced at Davis.
“My phone takes just as good of pictures,” they said.
Davis had no choice but to respond.
“No, it doesn’t,” she said.
This is the biggest battle for modern day time-freezers, the everyday hill to climb: in 2020, everyone thinks they’re a photographer.
“I know a lot of people think they can pick up a camera and take a picture just the same,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of technicality that goes into it.”
Fortunately for Davis, however, she’s found a way to fight that perception – and win. Through savvy social media marketing and newfound storefront exposure, the ultra-talented Davis is thriving in the smartphone age.
Since opening her studio in downtown Mount Vernon last November, she’s doubled her business from the year before.
“It was crazy,” she said with a smile.
Making the leap
Though Davis now works full-time as a photographer – she owns Kelley Davis Photography on 316 S. Main St. – this wasn’t always the end-goal.
After graduating from Mount Vernon High School in 2005, Davis earned a nursing degree from the Knox County Career Center. She spent 10 years working full-time as a nurse at the Mount Vernon Developmental Center.
Three years ago, she began getting into photography in her off-time.
“I am pretty much self-taught,” said Davis, before acknowledging that isn’t completely true. She learned plenty from her brother, a special-effects artist living in Australia. They’d Facetime and text about all things photography, which allowed her to pick up the craft in a short period of time.
“He’s two years older than me in school and he was always the artist of the family, and I kind of went into nursing,” Davis said. “So I kind of had this underdeveloped talent that he and I worked together with. He’s taught me almost everything I know.”
She started out taking pictures of her kids, then her friends’ kids, then her friends’ families, and her passion grew from there. Davis soon found her calling – high school senior photography – and she independently booked clients in her off-time.
“I just think there’s nobody that wants their picture more than a 17-year-old girl,” Davis said with a laugh. “They’re my favorite, they’re so easy to work with… And just hearing their stories and who they’re going to become as an adult, it’s just fun.”
Davis started working out of her living room in Centerburg, then her garage when the family moved back to Mount Vernon.
As she became more passionate about photography, a conflict emerged: there are only 24 hours in a day. She would ultimately have to choose between photography and nursing as a full-time occupation.
“I couldn’t go part-time where I was working, that was the big factor,” she said. “I was like, you know, if I could do part-time, I could still work out of my home. But if I’m gonna quit, then I’m gonna do this full-time.”
Around the same time, Davis saw potential for growth in her photography business. While taking her daughter to TaVaci performing arts classes downtown, she noticed something. TaVaci shared an entryway with a vacant storefront.
“One of my friends said, ‘Just call them and see what the rent would be and if you could do it,’” Davids recalled. “So I went home and I crunched numbers and I’m like, ‘I think I could do it.’”
Davis was intrigued by the idea of being downtown. Not only would the cozy 2,000-square-foot space suit her needs, but the thought of contributing to the neighborhood excited her. She’s seen how far the area has come.
“It’s so different than when I went to high school down here…” Davis said. “I feel like small businesses really thrive down here, and it’s just totally changing… We’re not Delaware yet, but it’s kind of like a music-and-arts kind of district. I just felt like I really fit in the groove of the way that Main Street is going.”
In October, Davis made the leap. She quit nursing to start photography full-time.
“It was like, I’m gonna have to figure out a whole new lifestyle of being a small business owner,” she recalled. “Because I was a nurse – I really didn’t know how to run a business until I did all of this.”
Growing her brand
The renovation process wasn’t easy. Before 316 South Main was a shiny new photography studio, it was a gym.
Fortunately for Davis, she had the resources to pull it off. Her husband, Josh, works in the construction business.
“We did everything except for the floors and the ceilings…” she said with a laugh. “I say ‘we,’ meaning my husband.”
The Davis’s installed drywall, renovated the bathrooms, and painted the entire space. They added doors and put up trim. They put carpet in the back room, installed signage and hauled in furniture.
“We did everything,” Kelley reiterated. “Everything you can see, we did.”
Davis and her husband worked tirelessly for three straight weeks to complete the renovation. They were up until midnight before opening day, cleaning and putting on the finishing touches.
“It was crazy,” Davis said. “It was a crazy month.”
The studio, which officially opened Nov. 8, does not have office hours. Davis schedules photo shoots by appointment only. But it does grant her far more versatility than she had before, working from home.
Davis has the ability to schedule high school senior, family and wedding photo shoots in her new space. She also shoots corporate headshots, maternity photos, family/pet photos, and toddler cake-smashes (which are, literally, photos of toddlers smashing cakes). The back room serves as a seasonal setting, changing year-round based on the holiday schedule.
“I kind of do a little bit of everything,” she said.
Since opening her downtown storefront in November, Davis said her photography business has doubled. She’s grown her clientele through word-of-mouth and a strategic approach to social media.
Davis still considers high school senior photography her studio’s cornerstone, and she uses Instagram to reach the teenage audience. She works with “senior reps,” or local seniors who essentially serve as brand ambassadors, to help grow her clientele. They’ll do various photo shoots throughout the year to showcase her studio’s work.
“There’s a totally different market that I kind of speak to Facebook different than I speak to Instagram,” Davis said. “So they kind of reach the teenage market a little bit different than I do.”
Davis uses Facebook to showcase the rest of her work – everything from senior portraits to weddings to family shoots. She posts regularly, about once a day, using creative captions and storytelling methods to grow her brand.
“It’s like, every time I post something – you know, I post a senior photo and then I’ll get a couple more bookings. It always branches out further, which is great…” Davis said. “That’s what I like about small towns.”
Davis believes having a downtown storefront has helped her studio gain visibility. Not everyone’s on social media, she explained, so having a brick-and-mortar base is essential to reaching the entire community.
Sharing an entryway with TaVaci hasn’t hurt business, either. The performing arts studio attracts 150 families every week, Davis said, and all see her studio when they walk in the door.
According to Davis, this relationship has been mutual. Both she and TaVaci director Deanne Groom have benefited from sharing an entryway.
“We share a lot of the same clients – I’ve sent people her way and she’s sent people my way,” Davis said. “So for marketing, it was just so smart.”
Creating memories that will last a lifetime
After a hectic November and December – the holiday season is typically a photographer’s busiest time, Davis explained – things have settled down in the studio.
On Monday, Davis prepared for her senior reps’ Valentine’s Day photo shoot. She reflected on the trials and tribulations of her first three months as a business owner.
“It was crazy…” she said. “It’s kind of slowed down now because January-March really isn’t big photography season. But it’s given me time to kind of really just get in my groove here and work on the business side.”
The challenge she’s faced – and will continue to face as technology evolves – is convincing people of the importance of professional photography.
“I think a lot of people really feel like they can do photography themselves,” she said.
Seemingly all smartphones are equipped with cameras. The recently launched iPhone 11 has two.
Davis understands this. Just as she’s embraced the power of social media, she’s embraced the opportunity to educate people on the difference between smartphone and professional photography – and the long-term value of the latter.
“One thing I like to do in some of my shoots is I’ll take a picture with my cell phone and I’ll take a picture with my camera, and I’ll kind of show what you see versus what I see...” she said.
“Learning the details behind taking a manual photograph and then editing a raw image into a final product, it isn’t just a point-and-shoot [process]. So that’s kind of a myth – I think a lot of people think, ‘She just points and shoots.’”
Most people don’t understand the value of professionally made, framed photos until it’s too late, Davis said. She experienced this herself three years ago.
“I was actually preparing my grandma’s funeral and we were going through photos. And we had all these candid snapshots, which I think are just as important, but we didn’t do enough professional photos as a family,” Davis recalled.
“And I think once it’s too late, that’s a big regret. You know, that’s the only thing you have afterwards besides memories.”
Having experienced this feeling herself, Davis felt compelled to tell others. It’s part of her mission as a photographer – not just to take good pictures, but to preserve memories for families that will last a lifetime.
“I really feel like it does not hit you until you lose someone in your family, until you really value the importance of it...” Davis said. “I think people just don’t understand until it’s too late, so I try to really push that it’s important to capture those memories and those pictures while your kids are still young, before their baby teeth fall out, and before they grow into teenagers and they have acne and they just look totally different from their cute little toddler selves.
“I just think it’s so important to document not only your kids’ lives, but also your life with your parents, and while your parents become grandparents. That has been a challenge, trying to show people how important it is.”
Davis also stresses the importance of printed photos. Living in the information age, people often have albums and albums of digital photos – Davis said she’s guilty of it herself – but few take the time to have them professionally printed. Davis offers those services at her studio.
“That’s kind of what’s getting lost in translation with the new-age photography, because everything’s stuck in digital. I am guilty of it; I literally have 19,000 photos on my phone and maybe five pictures in my house,” Davis said with a laugh.
“So I’m trying to transition into talking about the importance of prints, just to have photography, having pictures of your family, while they’re still here and while they’re growing. They grow up so fast.”
To Davis, it all comes back to this concept. As a mother, her professional photography skills blend seamlessly with her mission: to give families a way to remember, forever.
“I just love creating that portrait picture,” she said, “that people can’t necessarily get on their own with a cell phone.”