PPD Master Series: Laura Hicks On the Art (and Business) of People Photography

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday January 6, 2016

On her website, Laura Hicks describes herself as a “keep-it-simple kind of girl” with a love of nature — including bugs, frogs and spiders — as well as a passionate traveler, a collector of shoes who prefers going barefoot and an avid reader who often stays up far too late in the night. She is also a wife, a mother to four energetic boys (ages 9-14), a foster parent, and a professional photographer who believes that perfection is unattainable, though it’s a goal she strives for on a daily basis.

Hicks is one of Cincinnati, Ohio’s most talented, successful and prolific high-school senior portrait  and wedding  photographers. “When I first started shooting weddings, I averaged about 40 a year for the first few years. One year I even photographed 52 weddings. That was insane, and I wouldn’t recommend it,” she says. Her senior portraits have a distinctively honest quality that has kept her skills in constant demand for more than 14 years.

Hicks’s decision to become a people photographer surfaced very early in her photo career. “My evolution to becoming a portrait/wedding photographer was a quick one,” she says. “While on maternity leave with my first son, I was laid off of a job that I really loved. At that point, I began to rethink what I wanted to do with my life. Photography had always been a passion of mine, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I decided to upgrade my camera gear and began taking photography classes at a local school.” Within a couple of months she landed a job working under a local wedding photographer who taught the essentials of shooting and running a business. Her boss quickly promoted her to being the studio’s primary photographer.

“I actually think he realized that I had a knack for being direct, decisive and focused while still wearing a smile and remaining calm — in other words, I’m bossy with a smile,” she says. “I was good at moving quickly through a shot list and keeping my brides happy. As it turns out, those are important characteristics for a successful wedding photographer, so I flourished.”

Hicks is also a member of the Olympus Visionary Program  (one of only 13 photographers across North America in the program) and an Olympus Trailblazer. She recently paused in her busy schedule to speak with writer Jeff Wignall  about how she manages to juggle her career, her family and her many other passions.

PPD: Your assignment work includes weddings, high school seniors, families, children, and newborns. Is there one particular type of photography you enjoy the most?

LH: My favorite assignment is the one I just finished. But if I have to pick, I would say that tween/teen/high-school-senior photography, ages 11 to 18, is my favorite. I have a huge passion for building genuine self-esteem in others. I truly believe that everyone is beautiful. The tween/teen group is in a unique situation. They exude youth, energy, a thirst for freedom and a yearning to be accepted, but they lack the understanding of their own beauty. They don’t realize that their own unique set of characteristics is what makes them each so amazing. Outwardly, they act like they own the world, but inwardly, many of them struggle intensely with loving themselves for who they are.

As their photographer, it is my job to showcase my subject’s most beautiful features. As soon as I meet them, I hone in on what I love about them. I photograph that aspect of them in as many different ways as possible. I compliment them throughout the session, making sure they leave feeling absolutely fabulous about themselves.

PPD: Do you try to use their shyness or lack of confidence as a personality quality when you’re shooting?

LH: I don’t want my images to look cookie cutter. I use any character trait they enter the studio with. Every person that walks into my studio is unique and I treat them as such. I try my hardest to represent each client as exactly who they are — be it shy, outgoing, reserved, overt, silly, loving, or mysterious. I don’t want them all to look the same. I want my clients and their parents to look back at these photographs in five, 10, or 20 years from now and say, “Wow. She really captured my or my child’s personality, character, and beauty.”

PPD: You obviously also enjoy photographing weddings, yes?

LH: Weddings are my other passion. I absolutely love them. I enjoy being able to capture the excitement, joy, and beauty of the day. A wedding signifies a new beginning, a future imagined. I love being a part of that process. I am a sucker for watching people begin new journeys. I enjoy seeing how a couple interacts with each other and watching their dreams unfold. I have great relationships with my couples because I genuinely enjoy being a part of their lives. Most of my clients are friends of mine on Facebook. We interact on social media and in person before, during and after their weddings.

PPD: You have two boys of your own and you’re a foster mom to several other kids — you’ve had up to six boys living in your house at one time. How do you manage to run a business and take care of such a big family?

LH: I’ll let you know when I figure it out. Seriously. I’m not one of those people that claim to have it all figured out. My daily life is just a series of balancing acts. I do the best I can every day. Some days I’m super accomplished at that and other days, not so much. Some nights I’m up until 3 am getting work done because I took a break in the middle of the day to run kids around. I never keep a traditional 9-to-5 work day. I love what I do and that includes being a mom, a foster parent, a photographer, an entrepreneur and a wife. I have a great husband who helps me with all of it. And I have a good relationship with my clients, who I care about deeply. They become a part of my life and are willing to give me grace when I need it.

PPD: What is the toughest part of photographing a wedding?

LH: I think the toughest part of photographing a wedding is herding all of the extended family together for pictures after the ceremony is over. I like to get those pictures done quickly. I try my best to make that a seamless process, but invariably someone important is in the bathroom. Before switching over to the Olympus OM-D system I lugged around a full-frame DSLR, and the hardest part was carrying my gear around all day. By the end of the evening I was exhausted, my finger had a callus, and my wrist was sore. Now, the only part of me that’s sore is my back from wearing the wrong shoes.

PPD: Is shooting a wedding as long and exhausting a process as it seems? In terms of your hours and schedule, describe a typical wedding day shoot from start to finish.

LH: I get a huge adrenaline rush from shooting weddings. So most of the time goes by really fast. My weddings usually last about seven to eight hours. My typical schedule, excluding travel time, looks like the following: First, I photograph the bride getting ready. It’s usually just the finishing touches and it takes about an hour. After that is finished, I photograph the first look. This is when the bride and groom see each other for the first time. It usually takes about 10 minutes. Next, I shoot the posed, fun, and candid pictures of the bride, groom, bridal party, and immediate family. That generally takes about two hours. I like to spend at least a half hour with the bride and groom alone, capturing as many different styles of them together as possible. We break for a few minutes before the ceremony starts to allow the guests to arrive while the bride gets a few last-minute touch ups to her makeup. The ceremony begins soon after this. It usually lasts from 15 minutes to one hour depending on the type of wedding.

After the ceremony is finished, I photograph any extended family members or anyone who was not able to be there before the start of the ceremony. This takes about a half hour or less. Finally, we head off to the reception, where I take a bit of a back seat in comparison to the earlier, posed pictures. Instead of posing most of the images, I become more documentary in my style of photography. The reception takes about two to three hours to photograph, including the introductions, dinner, toast, cake cutting, first dance, parent dances, and pictures of the first few open-floor dances.

PPD: Lighting is always a tough issue with weddings since you’re often changing venues several times during the day. Do you have a system for handling lighting changes?

LH: I just go with the flow. I try to find the best light paired with the best background, and I choose that area to photograph in. I love open shade, diffused light, and the golden hour. If I can shoot in natural light, I will. If I can’t, I use my studio lighting.

PPD: Do you use a lot of flash?

LH: I rarely use on-camera flash. I use it only for the processionals in a dimly lit churches. Otherwise, I carry my studio lighting to capture images at the reception or during formals in a church or venue. I’m a big fan of my Alien Bees paired with my PocketWizard Transceiver. They have been a staple in my camera bag and studio since I purchased them 10 years ago. Those things have been through the wringer and still keep going!

PPD: Were you an early convert to mirrorless cameras? What was it that made you switch to mirrorless bodies and to Olympus cameras in particular?

LH: I switched over to solely using mirrorless cameras after the launch of the Olympus E-M1. That camera is simply amazing and I fell in love with it right away. I loved the camera’s compact size, 5-axis image stabilization, and lens system.

Before becoming an Olympus Trailblazer, I was the editor for a digital-camera-review website. I had access to all of the newest cameras. I tested compact cameras, DSLRs, and mirrorless cameras from many different systems. I tested an Olympus PEN camera and was astounded by the low-light focusing capability. Then I tested the Olympus TG-2 and was amazed by the macro capability. I was floored by how much technology Olympus put into their entry-level cameras. I kept thinking, “If those cameras had that much capability, how much would their top model have?” Finally, I tested the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and knew that Olympus had created one fantastic camera system. It was jam-packed with one feature after another. I was sold. After 15 years of shooting with Nikon, I unloaded my gear and bought into the Olympus OM-D system.

PPD: What Olympus gear do you use?

LH: Well, the list is pretty long. My primary camera is the OM-D E-M1. I also use the OM-D E-M5 Mark II and the OM-D E-M10 Mark II. For my super-macro work, I use the Olympus TG-4. It has the most amazing macro functionality and is the best rugged point-and-shoot camera on the market—hands down, no contest!

My lens collection includes the Olympus 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO, the 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO, the 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO, the 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO, the 25mm f/1.8 lens, the 45mm f/1.8, the 75mm f/1.8, and the 60mm f/2.8 macro. They all serve their own purpose.

PPD: Do you have any favorite lenses for weddings?

LH: My favorite lenses for wedding are the 75mm f/1.8, the 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO, and the 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO. I pair these lenses with my E-M1 for all of my wedding and portrait work.

PPD: Have you had to make any adjustments when it comes to using the electronic viewfinders in mirrorless cameras, versus the optical viewfinders of DSLRs? Are there advantages to using an EVF?

LH: When I first switched over from a DSLR and started using Olympus cameras with an EVF and an LCD screen, I was a little concerned that it would have some drawbacks, but it was quite the opposite. I really love having the live-viewing capability on at all times. I love the tilt screen on the E-M1. It allows me to raise my camera over my head and hold it on the ground without having to guess at what image I am getting. I was not able to do this on my DSLR without having a huge lag time. The switch to Olympus allowed me to get some creative shots that would have been much harder with a DSLR.  

PPD: On your website it says that you shoot a lot in your own natural-light studio. What type of space is it?

LH: I have a first-floor studio located in a historic building just north of Cincinnati. It’s about 1,300 square feet. It has large windows, neutral decor, and lots of large canvas images hanging in it. I have several areas dedicated to shooting and for presentation of the final images. I also utilize the outdoor area around my building. It has a covered back porch that helps me create beautiful imagery. I also use the sidewalks, lampposts and the outdoor areas of neighboring shops as backdrops. It’s a perfect space for me.

PPD: What is your favorite lens for portraits?

LH: In terms of rendering the most beautiful bokeh with the sharpest image quality, I would have to say my favorite lens is the 75mm f/1.8, followed by the 40-150mm f/2.8. The 75mm lens is simply amazing. It has a smooth, buttery quality that I adore. Plus, it makes a person’s eyes so sharp and bright. It’s just magic. The 40-150mm lens creates nearly the same look, with the benefit and flexibility of a zoom lens, so I have it married to one of my E-M1s at all times.

PPD: You also do quite a bit of macro work, correct? What types of subjects do you like to choose, and what gear do you use for macro work?

LH: My personal passion is macro photography. It’s my way to escape the hustle of portrait photography. Shooting macro forces you to slow down and get lost in the miniature world so very few people actually notice. I will photograph almost anything that stays still long enough for me to click the shutter. Most of the time my subjects include snowflakes, bugs, flowers, and other small creatures. For those pictures I use either the Olympus TG-4 or the OM-D E-M1 paired with the 60mm f2.8 macro lens. Add to that, the newest firmware release on the E-M1 includes the most amazing focus-stacking and focus-bracketing software you have ever seen. Macro photography with Olympus just became that much easier!

PPD: Do you think that shooting weddings and portraits is a good career direction for someone that is just entering the photography business?

LH: Sure! Why not? Take the time to work under a seasoned photographer, become a member of a local or national professional photographer’s association, and get connected with other photographers and businesses in your area. Understand that the business side of photography is actually more important than the image-making side of photography. Obviously, you have to be able to create good imagery, but if you aren’t aware of your numbers — the cost of goods, number of clients needed to sustain your business and overall pricing — you will fail before you even get the chance to soar.

PPD: Looking back, what has been the most rewarding part of having people as your main subjects?

LH: I love the relationships that I have formed through the last 14 years of my professional photography career. I am blessed that I am able to give my clients the ability to freeze time, capture emotions, and visually display cherished memories. I take great pleasure in the fact that my clients value the importance of documenting their families’ important moments.

PPD: Do you have any thoughts on where you’d like to take your business in the future?

LH:  Great question! I would love to be able to invest more money into my teen clients by adding more backdrops, more props, and more fun seating for them to use during their session. I would love to be able to expand my studio space in order provide more options for my clients.   

In addition to that, I am in the process of creating a part of my business that is solely dedicated to giving back to the community. I’m excited about the idea, but I am still in the process of refining my goals about the program. I love being a part of something that is bigger than myself. I love giving back to the community. I love giving to those that would otherwise not have.   

Through Olympus, I plan to do more teaching at venues like WPPI, PIX and camera stores throughout the United States. I have a huge passion for sharing knowledge and building up the photographic community.


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