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Headshot Photographer Talk with Jeanette Sesay
Jeanette Sesay is the owner of a high-end headshot business where she photographs anyone from top executives to dental assistants and young actors. She has been working as a photographer since graduating from the NAIT Photographic Technology program in 2010. Her careers with both NAIT and the University of Alberta have brought her photography onto billboards, buses, magazines and promotional materials across the country. She’s volunteered as a photographer for an NGO in Uganda, photographed an event in Paris and captured countless weddings and family sessions.
After her time in the spotlight she started a family and as a mom she was looking for a career that she was able to do while also parenting three young boys. While she was working in the corporate world she dreamed of owning her own business capturing headshots for professionals but it was so hard to leave a secure position with regular pay and benefits for the unknown. Finally, while pregnant with her third son she and her husband decided it was time to get that dream started and in the height of COVID she perfected her lighting style and built up a portfolio of images to be used for her promo materials. Since then the business has taken on a life of its own and it’s almost impossible to keep up with both the business and life at home with the boys.
When she first studied photography she had no intention whatsoever to make it a career so the direction her life has taken still surprises her all the time!
Photographers operate still cameras to photograph people, events, scenes, materials, products and other subjects. They are employed by photographic studios, newspapers, magazines, museums and government, or they may be self-employed.
In order to determine the expected outlook of an occupation, the magnitude of the difference between the projected total numbers of new job seekers and job openings over the whole projection period (2019-2028) is analyzed in conjunction with an assessment of labour market conditions in recent years. The intention is to determine if recent labour market conditions (surplus, balance or shortage) are expected to persist or change over the period 2019-2028. For instance, if the analysis of key labour market indicators suggests that the number of job seekers was insufficient to fill the job openings (a shortage of workers) in an occupational group in recent years, the projections are used to assess if this situation will continue over the projection period or if the occupation will move towards balanced conditions.
The analysis of key labour market indicators such as job vacancies and employment growth as well as the unemployment rate suggests that the number of job seekers was sufficient to fill the job openings in this occupational group over the 2016-2018 period.
For Photographers, over the period 2019-2028, new job openings (arising from expansion demand and replacement demand) are expected to total 5,800 , while 6,300 new job seekers (arising from school leavers, immigration and mobility) are expected to be available to fill them.
As job openings and job seekers are projected to be at relatively similar levels over the 2019-2028 period, the balance between labour supply and demand seen in recent years is expected to continue over the projection period.
This is what you typically need for the job:
A bachelor’s degree in visual arts with specialization in photography or Completion of specialized training in photography in high school, college or specialized training schools or Extensive on-the-job training under the supervision of a photographer is required.
Experience in, or knowledge of computerized photography or digital imaging may be required.
Creative and technical ability, as demonstrated by a portfolio of work, are required.
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Complete Episode Transcript
It’s just it’s cool to be able to show people that they can look great and like, a lot of times people say, oh, I just I’m not photogenic.
I’m like, Well, you just haven’t had the right photographer.
Like, you’ve got to have great lighting and just knowledge about how to pose and get people to smile naturally instead of like awkward and uncomfortable.
The Job Talk Podcast shares stories from people who are passionate and love what they do in their careers through conversation, we explore their careers, past work experiences and the education that got them to where they are now.
We are putting together a Career Crisis Ultimate Interview series.
We are asking experts to give their best advice and guidance around work anxiety career pressures, career goal setting, and ultimately career transformation.
To learn more about this special interview series and get notified when it’s available, please visit our web page at thejobtalk.com/help Today’s guest is Jeanette Sesay.
Here’s our Job Talk with a Headshot Photographer.
Jeanette, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
My first question for you would be when did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career as a photographer? Probably the first time was it actually stands out in my memory.
I was taking photos with a little Canon point and shoot of a flower or doing like macro photos.
When I was in Australia for a year and people would tease me for like crouching down on the ground and taking pictures of little tiny things all the time.
But I think that’s when I realized that I really love this and it’s something that I would love to study and learn more about, like how to use this camera and how to make it work.
How old were you when you were doing that? I think 18 or 19.
So you were making your decision while you were leaving high school.
What was your first post-secondary experience? It was at NAIT.
So I studied photographic technology at NAIT, and that’s the only post-secondary I did.
I was actually I had good grades in high school and my parents both thought that I’d do something a little bit more I more high level, like go to university or something.
But I did.
I really enjoyed my time at NAIT and found it was super practical and not all just book smarts.
Like we had hardly any exams or had knowledge.
It was more just like, take a picture and we’ll critique it after more of that kind of thing, which I wanted.
You followed your passion, which I think is great, and any parent should appreciate.
Was the course at NAIT when you were studying to become a photographer.
Was it stressful in any way? Yeah, I think it was stressful in that I didn’t well, I never liked the show and I don’t understand something.
So if I didn’t understand something in class, I would try and figure it out all by myself instead of asking questions.
And lots of times it was just I would fail something like doing something and then have to try it again or reschedule with models. And but I feel like the the workload wasn’t overwhelming or anything. No.
And when you’re going through the program to become a photographer, what what are your hopes for your future? Are you thinking like I hear a lot of photographers say, I want to be a National Geographic photographer.
Did you did you have any dreams like that? I think so, yeah.
And one of our instructors, he actually asked the class, he said, who of you in this class want to change the world with photography? And there was only a few people that put their hands up and that was something that I did want to do with my photography.
And I still think it is possible to do.
But I, I had a real heart for social justice and wanted to use my photography to help the NGOs or that kind of thing.
And people who were underprivileged.
It’s something I wanted to do with my photography, and I’m still looking for ways to do that now as a photographer.
When you left NAIT, what was your first professional experience? It wasn’t like a paid position or anything, but I went to Uganda for three months to volunteer at an NGO.
There was called Work Total, and so I was working in the marketing department and taking photos for their marketing materials and also the kids who were getting sponsored.
I would take their photos, which is pretty cute.
And how did you get on that trip? What what circumstances brought you to have that opportunity? Well, I went with the organization as a volunteer just in.
They have a babies home.
And so I work there for a month.
And then I actually almost missed my flight.
My driver never showed up to pick me up.
And somebody came to pick me up and we were chatting and he was like, Oh, did you know that we actually have photographer positions for volunteers? And I had no idea. So that’s what I.
The next summer I went back and was there as one of the photographers and it was an awesome experience and I was able to get into different villages and locations that I wouldn’t normally.
It’s not something you could do as a tourist, really.
So it was a really awesome experience. Yeah.
And you were building your portfolio.
Do you do you have some photos from from that trip that you’re still proud of? Yeah, there’s a few from my travels and obviously, like my editing style has changed a lot now.
So I think if I went back to the raw photos, I would probably do it a lot differently.
But yeah, know, be kind of cool to revisit those.
There is a few that I’m really proud of that would be, I don’t know, more on the artsy side that you could print and sell as art.
So that was your experience coming out of post-secondary.
You you went to Uganda quite early in your career.
What happened after that trip? After that trip, I got hired at NAIT.
It was they actually offered me the position before I went to Uganda, but my trip was all booked and everything and I had lots of other places I was going to as well.
And so it didn’t work out.
But then when I came back they actually had the position open up again and they offered it to me and I, I worked there for five years after that.
And for our listeners that don’t know, NAIT is a polytechnic post-secondary institute in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
What kind of work were you doing for for the institute? A little bit of everything.
We took photos for curriculum.
We took photos for marketing.
There was a bunch of large canvas prints that went up around campus that we took just kind of like commercial shots of the students doing different things, capturing what’s happening in the program.
So we covered a lot of different things that we went to different job sites and training facility years.
So I had my steel toed boots and my hardhat and safety glasses and we did a lot of different things.
It was pretty cool.
Yeah, I imagine a school like NAIT would open you up to a lot of different types of photography while you were there, so you were continuing to build your portfolio.
You spent five years, I think you said at NAIT, what was your next step after you left? After I left NAIT, I wanted to start my own business because we were like all because of budget cuts and that kind of thing.
And I was like, okay, here’s my chance.
I’ve wanted to do my own business and this is my chance.
And then I had actually two different people let me know that there was a job opening at the university for a photographer and videographer.
And I had absolutely no experience in video, and I had no intention of applying for this position.
And then I think shortly after somebody let me know and I kind of wrote it off.
I read an article about how quite a lot of men I don’t remember the statistics specifically, but a lot of men will apply for a job that they are not qualified for.
And whereas women, very few will apply for a job, they’re not 100% qualified for it.
And after reading, I was like, I didn’t even know that you could apply for a job.
You are qualified for.
I just assumed, like if you don’t meet every single checkbox, then you can’t apply.
So I applied and I did end up getting the job while I was actually did the interview at the campus while I was still working.
So I went from one job immediately to the next one and yeah, did photo and video there.
They let me learn on the spot.
So I would sit there and watch YouTube videos on how to do videography.
We bought a whole bunch of new gear.
They they really were very generous with letting me learn on the job as I went.
And I made a lot of mistakes as I go and like some decisions they we would have to redo some things.
But overall the product that we were I was really proud of, the videos was a huge learning curve and it was something I resisted for a long time.
When I worked at NAIT, but it was really fun learning and I would definitely like to learn more about it too.
Was the work very similar to NAIT at the University of Alberta? So in a way, somewhat so.
I worked in like honestly, it’s so funny.
I can never remember the name of the department that I worked in, even though I was there for two years.
It was for recruiting students.
So we did a lot of photography for student life, which we didn’t do a ton of at NAIT.
So different events. And yeah, we had an Instagram account.
So we do profile features on different students.
So I’d be in touch with students and do a little photo shoot with them for their Instagram account and for brochures that the recruiters would take across the country.
And I think even into different countries like internationally, they have booklets and pamphlets and they’d need kind of like stock photos for those things with all the university branding on them.
And you spent two years at the university.
Why did you leave that position? Because I got pregnant.
Did you? Okay.
That’s that’s a very good reason.
And, yeah, I didn’t want to go back to the university.
Well, what happened was I went on my leave and then I got pregnant first.
My second child, well, I was on my leave, so I couldn’t go back.
I ended up sending in my resignation when I found out I was pregnant.
So, yeah, I’m not coming back. Okay.
And then while I was pregnant with the third child, that’s when we started doing the headshot business.
It was actually like the height of COVID, and I’m pregnant and there’s like very few people working at the time.
And we thought, okay, well, this is better, the best time as any we might as well start.
It’s not like I was bored or anything with two kids, but, you know, it was something we wanted to do.
Let’s let’s talk about your business now.
If you could tell us the name of the business and what what is your main focus for? For your business? Yeah.
So my business name is JSP Photography, which stands for Jeanette Sesay Professional Photography.
And I focus on I guess like a high end headshot.
So it’s not like on location with using natural light and that kind of thing.
Even though I have the skills for that, it’s just I wanted to do something that I can do at home with the little studio here.
So yeah, it’s for, it’s mainly for the employees, for businesses, and they want to have consistent headshots on their website.
And when they get new employees, they can just send them to my studio.
It’s not like a lot of businesses where they have that little silhouette on their website of the headshot where they or they just take it with their camera or their their phone, that kind of thing.
So just keep things consistent and professional and looking really high end it.
It improves people’s perception of a business a lot.
I think, for sure.
How are you finding being a entrepreneur and owning your own business as opposed to being an employee of a large university or a technical institute like NAIT? How are you finding that? How did you find that transition? Hmm.
I found it very like because I have a lot of ownership on it.
It’s all on me.
And so I found it very exciting and I had a hard time falling asleep at night when I was designing my website and building my portfolio, coming up with different ideas and trying to find new models and people who would pose for my portfolio.
That was just so fun.
I found like, I don’t know, I just got so much energy from it and it was very motivating.
I think, whereas this is kind of like people tell you what to do or at the university people, other people have ideas and you just fulfill the vision.
Whereas for me, I have the vision that I can come up with my ideas and research different equipment that’s out there.
I found it really fun.
Well, for people listening and wanting to become a freelance photographer, let’s talk about what are the must haves as far as equipment is concerned when you’re going out on your own. Hmm.
Well, for headshots specifically, you definitely need a good camera, but you don’t need something that can print billboards like.
So people like the camera that I have is so it’s very expensive.
The capabilities are huge.
Like when I zoom in on people’s faces, you can see every individual hair and pore.
And like most people don’t even want to see that much of your face. But yeah, like an entry level mirrorless cameras, they’re awesome, they’re small, they’re compact.
Prime lenses are like, in my opinion, prime lenses are the way to go where it’s not a zoom.
You can get like my absolute favorite lens for family photography is just a canon.
It’s an 85, 1.8, I think it was three or $400 and it’s still the same price and it’s still my favorite.
Like I’ve got thousands of dollars for lenses and they still that’s my go to lens and I don’t know something about it.
I just love and just learning natural light like you don’t have to have the big soft box and all of the triggers and the receivers and all this stuff.
Like if you know how to use a really nice software, no light or yeah, like even overhead shot like garage lighting is awesome if there’s lots you can do with just natural light.
And how are you finding finding clients what? What success have you found in landing interest from from the public for your business? Oh, I do a lot of it.
I mean, like any business, it’s word of mouth.
So if people have friends or coworkers and it spreads that way, and a lot of my clients that I’m getting now are from connections that I built while I was building my portfolio.
So I was doing free headshots for people who would come and pose for me, and they’ve referred a lot of their friends.
There’s a realtor specifically who was one of my first headshots, and I’ve honestly got so many clients from him.
I own so much.
How do you handle constructive criticism from your client if they’re not necessarily happy with something that you’ve you’ve given them? It doesn’t happen too often, but mostly because I did learn this from doing headshots at NAIT as well, like a lot of people are super critical, but it’s of themselves. It’s not me.
It’s not like my abilities as a photographer were also critical of ourselves or don’t like the way our one eye is smaller than the other or whatever.
And there are a lot of things that I can do in retouching, and you don’t want to take it too far, otherwise it just looks unnatural. But lots of times it’s just if people want me to adjust something with their face, which I feel kind of terrible because I feel like everyone is beautiful the way they are, they don’t need their face squished in in Photoshop.
But I can do it. But I did have a lady I don’t know if you know the the trend where it was like the whole picture is black and white except for the eyes or the lips or something.
And she sent in the inquiry and that’s what she was looking for.
And I was like, I just I don’t think it’s it’s not my style.
I can do it, but it’s not my style.
And I think there’s other photographers who will do it better or something like that.
You have to come up with something gentle.
Yeah, I was going to say I get caught up in the trends in video production as well, and there was a long stretch where people really liked the very flat gray looking video, which personally I wasn’t in favor of because I always thought we have these beautiful cameras, you know, they can capture all of the beautiful colors in the world.
Why would you want to put out a gray video? But yeah.
That’s for another discussion.
How do you stay up on trends in photography? And I guess we were just talking about a trend that maybe you didn’t necessarily like, but I’m sure there are things that come along that you do.
How do you keep up to date with with the change in photography? Oh, a lot of it is being on Instagram.
I follow quite a lot of headshot photographers.
There’s a a well-known headshot photographer who has like his little minions that’s his name is Peter Hurley and he has like basically his crew.
So it’s like hundreds of photographers all over the world to follow his style.
So I’ve followed a few of them on Instagram and not everything I’m on board with.
Like a lot of them they’ll crop right about here through the head.
And I was doing it at the beginning and then I was like, Why am I doing this? I don’t like this.
And I remember when I was at NAIT, one of the designers on the for a billboard or a bus, they cropped through the head and I was like, Why would anyone do that? Like, it just didn’t like it.
So sometimes there’s trends of like high end headshot photographers, but if I don’t like it and if it doesn’t, and a lot of my clients would be like, Why are you cutting through my head? So I’m like, you know, why am I doing this just because it’s a trend? Like, I should just stick with what I know exactly.
Can you tell me something that you struggle with as a photographer, and how do you work to overcome it? Well, I think one of the big things is keeping on top.
On top of Photoshop like editing techniques, because I studied in I graduated in 2010.
So it’s been a long time and a lot of changes with technology since then.
So every now and then I’ll go on YouTube to look up something specific like, say, I had a realtor team and I needed to learn how to select out their bodies off of the backgrounds.
They can just put it onto all their marketing stuff.
And so I was looking that up was like, I had no idea this tech like Photoshop is so advanced now.
Like, you can just click a button instead of like doing these long hourlong selections.
So yeah, there is a very good YouTuber out there who has amazing instructions on so much in Photoshop.
So I think I just need to like set aside time every week to just watch a couple of videos and keep on top of things.
Because honestly, it’s such a timesaver.
All the technology that they have now in Photoshop.
Is that one of the things you wish she knew going into starting your business, or is there anything else that you wish you knew day one of when you were starting out? Well, I remember when I this is back when I started at NAIT, and I was kind of shocked or disappointed with how much time we spent in front of the computer.
I was like, in my head, it would be like every day, all day taking pictures.
And then I got to work and it was maybe two or three shoots a week.
And then the rest of the time, like emails and cataloging and keywords and planning and meetings and committees, like I don’t want to do any of this.
I just want to take pictures.
But as a, as an entrepreneur, yeah, it was a lot of computer time and staying on top of invoicing and all your scheduling, it’s a lot that I just I didn’t expect, I think and a lot of photographers will outsource their editing because they’re like, I just want to sit in front of a computer.
I want to do more shooting.
Like, I’d rather not do that myself. Yeah.
And what do you love about photography? Well, I think my favorite part of my job right now is when people see their first image on the monitor, like when they’re in the studio and they see their photo pop up, a lot of them will just be like, put their hands to them.
Like, that’s not me.
Like, I don’t even look like myself, like they are so happy.
And one lady, she almost started crying.
She’s like, my dad would be so proud of me.
So, so I don’t know.
It’s just it’s cool to be able to show people that they can look great It’s just it’s cool to be able to show people that they can look great and like, a lot of times people say, oh, I just I’m not photogenic.
I’m like, Well, you just haven’t had the right photographer.
Like, you’ve got to have great lighting and just knowledge about how to pose and get people to smile naturally instead of like awkward and uncomfortable.
I was recently at a photo shoot where I walked into the studio and he was shooting professional photographer.
He was shooting many people and had been doing it for hours and he had formatted his card somehow and had lost.
I don’t even want to know how many he had lost, but when I walked into the studio, his hands, his face was in his hands and he was quite upset.
Have you had any experiences? And I don’t think you seem like you wouldn’t format a card with the footage on it.
But have you had any failures on any of your shoots? Oh, I mean, there’s like.
Yeah, there’s been I had a close call when I did a wedding.
It was just a small wedding, but a wedding still a wedding regardless of how small it is.
But I had those, the straps, the two straps on my on my shoulders.
And I was like the cameras were swinging on my hips.
And so I was walking back to the car and they were just jostling around.
And I went to load it into the car and I looked at the back of the camera and it said, Format card.
Are you sure? So I hips must have pushed buttons.
Oh man, I, I very much panicked.
But you did.
There’s wedding. Oh, thankfully, you have two cameras.
You’ve got something. But it’s.
It was my more dominant one, so I would have lost the majority of their wedding photos.
So now I turn them off when I’m walking.
That was a near, near miss.
But looking back over your career, can you think of a very stressful shoot you were on and how did it turn out? I remember at NAIT There was just I mean, there was a lot of stressful shoots or like high stakes where there’s a lot of moving parts and people’s schedules and the lighting.
Like, it’s hard to think of a specific one.
I remember the they were installing solar panels on the top of the building and this was at NAIT and I was getting really annoyed because they made us go up there every day on the roof to take pictures.
And I was like, This is such a waste of time.
And the weather was not fun.
And I got this shot.
I think it was like on the third day of going there.
And I knew the instant they took it, I was like, This is going to be like the money shot.
And it turned out it got used on the billboards that was used by the company on their vehicles and a lot of their ads.
And even, I think something in the states for the U.S.
voting like getting people out to vote.
That was one of the photos they use.
They stole our photo and didn’t give us credit.
But yeah, it was used for a lot of things.
So I sometimes, yeah, you think it’s like a waste of time or you’re not going to get a good shot.
But sometimes the stars align and you get the money shots.
And when when you got married, did you hire a wedding photographer? We did, yeah.
It was actually a girl I went to school with at NAIT and I think her daughter was under a year old or something.
She was still nursing.
I know she had to take a break when we were taking our other photos and her grandma was there with the baby the whole day and she had to take breaks to nurse the baby.
But I really wanted her to be my photographer.
I couldn’t imagine the stress being the photographer for a professional photographer on their wedding day, but since actually shooting photography for a wedding sounds like a nightmare anyways, because the stakes are quite high.
Yeah, that’s why I’m kind of getting out of that.
It’s just too stressful.
I can’t sleep the night before and yeah, I don’t know.
There’s just a lot of pressure now with all of the social media out there.
They want every single shot to be amazing.
What’s the best advice that you could give that freelance photographer that’s thinking about running their own photography business? Do you have any advice that you could give that person? Well, if they’re just getting into photography, it’s all about practice.
Like you can’t just watch the YouTube videos and follow photographers online and look at their shots like you.
Really, it’s all down to getting your hands on the camera, getting your friends and family in for the practice.
It’s honestly just practice and practice and practice and learning how light behaves.
I remember this was like a very, very long time before I started learning photography.
I was taking photos of my flowers at home when I was like a teenager and I was like, Oh, it’s kind of dark on that side.
And then I tried putting something white on the side.
Oh, that bounces light in.
And then I want all a little bit of dark on that side.
So I put a little white board, and this is before I learned about reflectors and get things in between the light like is I just kind of learn hands on them through experience and then when I learned later like, oh, I kind of learn that by discovering it on my own.
So that’s, it’s, you just have to practice and it sucks sometimes and it’s hard getting someone in front of your camera obviously, and making mistakes, but it’s you. That’s the only way you can learn.
Do you have tricks where you make the person in front of the camera more comfortable? Yeah, I think one of the biggest ones is to talk about something that they love and something that makes them happy.
Like recently I photographed a realtor and I could tell he was kind of stiff and I’d seen those previous photos.
It looked kind of like a forced smile.
And then so I asked him if he had kids or pets, and he talked to his kids, but I think they’re a little bit older.
And when kids are older, they’re not just like they don’t bring out the smiles as much as like the little ones that make people laugh. But he was talking about his dog and just telling you some stories and just the smile that came out of it.
It was so it was real.
Like you could tell that he was really smiling and then I could, while I’m shooting and trying to get his natural smile, he’s not talking.
I can talk about my experience with my dog and that makes him laugh.
So it’s sometimes it’s just the little things.
It’s not so much like cracking jokes, but it’s more so just find something that they’re interested in and then get them talking about it. Loosen them up.
Okay, well, we did this podcast while your youngest was napping, so I don’t think I’m going to push my luck any further.
Jeanette, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
They’re really appreciate the time you gave us.
Yeah, you’re welcome. Thank you so much for having me.
This is really fun and I do enjoy doing stuff like this, so I appreciate you having me on.
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For more information, please visit us at thejobtalk.com Our podcast music was created by our friend Mike Malone in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.