461: Building a Career as a Photographer and Storytelling Through Visuals with Alanna O’Neil

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This episode is sponsored by Clariti and Memberful.

Welcome to episode 461 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Alanna O’Neil.

Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Yasmin Henley. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

Building a Career as a Photographer and Storytelling Through Visuals

Alanna O’Neil has been a photographer for almost as long as she can remember. Despite starting her career in fashion, she took a risk and moved to Hawaii to start a career as a photographer and hasn’t looked back.

In this interview, Alanna shares more about building a career as a freelance photographer, developing your skills as a photographer, building a portfolio, and the importance of storytelling through visuals.

She has an incredibly calming and inspiring energy, and this interview will give you a lot to think about as an entrepreneur, creative, and photographer. Don’t miss it!

A photograph of someone scooping a stew into a bowl with a quote from Alanna O'Neil's episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast that reads: "Storytelling makes a photo come alive."

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How Alanna first got into photography (spoiler: it involves a horse barn and a dark room in her childhood home)!
  • How she makes time and space to make big life decisions (like moving to Hawaii and changing careers).
  • How she started her career in food photography.
  • How she built her photography portfolio and why working for free is underrated.
  • More about the program she is developing for new photographers.
  • Her actionable tips within business, mindset, and photography for someone trying to build a photography business.
  • Her recommendations for improving your photography.
  • Why you should think about telling a story with your food photos.
  • How she minimizes comparing herself to other creators.


Thank you to our sponsors!

This episode is sponsored by Clariti and Memberful.

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If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].

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Transcript (click to expand):

Bjork Ostrom: This episode is sponsored by Memberful. Looking to find sustainable sources of income from your blog this year that don’t include fighting against changing search engines and social media algorithms? With exclusive membership content, you can create a new source of income by turning your food blog into a membership business while creating the content you’re passionate about. Memberful has everything you need to quickly get your membership program up and running with content gating, paid newsletters, private podcasts, and much more. Plus, Memberful seamlessly integrates with your existing WordPress website, or you can use Memberful to create your own member home within minutes using their in-house tools. And with Memberful, you can create multiple membership tiers, limiting access to certain recipes, meal plans, and cooking tutorials to better connect with your most devoted followers and monetize the content you’re already producing.

By using Memberful, you’ll have access to a world-class support team ready to help you set up your membership and grow your revenue. They’re passionate about your success, and you’ll always have access to a real human when you need help. Food creators are already using Memberful to foster community within their audiences and monetize their content. And listeners to the Food Blogger Pro Podcast can go to memberful.com/food to learn more about Memberful solutions for food creators and create an account for free. That’s M-E-M-B-E-R-F-U-L.com/food. Thanks again to Memberful for sponsoring this episode.

Emily Walker: Hey there, this is Emily from the Food Blogger Pro team, and you are listening to the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. This week on the podcast, Bjork is chatting with Alanna O’Neil. Alanna is a photographer who also does some food photography and has actually written two beautiful cookbooks. She’s on the podcast this week to chat more about her career in food photography, how she transitioned from working in fashion to photography, how she moved to Hawaii, and how she’s built her career as a photographer. She also shares more about how you can develop your skills as a photographer and build your portfolio and has a really beautiful way of describing the importance of storytelling through your visuals.

I really enjoyed editing this interview. She has a really calming energy about her and just a really thoughtful way of describing a lot of things that will really make you think about how you approach your career and how you approach your photography. It’s an awesome interview, so I’ll let Bjork take it away.

Bjork Ostrom: Alanna, welcome to the podcast.

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here and chat.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, we’re going to talk about something. This was actually one of my first loves, was photography. So when I was in 7th grade, I would bike to the library in our hometown, it was two blocks away, and I would check out books on photography. I just was super fascinated by photography. I got a SLR camera for my birthday. Actually, my wife has a food website called Pinch of Yum. The first three posts we did, I was the one taking the pictures, and then very quickly we were like, “Maybe Lindsay should just figure out how to do the photography for it.”

But I love photography and it’s one of the most important parts of what we do in the world of publishing, especially for people who are publishing food and recipe content. But also just if you are going to be a creator in general, one of the most important mediums is photography. There’s photography, there’s video. And generally speaking, there’s also this idea of storytelling through visuals, which we’re going to talk about today. But before we do that, I want to hear about your journey into photography. What did it look like for you to build this into what is now a career? How did that start? And were you always pursuing photography kind of as the end goal?

Alanna O’Neil: Sure. It’s always kind of been in my background. And then slowly it’s come to the forefront. So my mother, she just was a hobbyist, so we had a dark room in our horse barn.

Bjork Ostrom: Whoa.

Alanna O’Neil: So I’m from Vermont, so we had a horse barn and lived on a farm. So our dark room is in the tack room.

Bjork Ostrom: Do you like awesome things?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Like, to be a kid and to grow up with a horse barn and a dark room just feels very magical.

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah, it was very idyllic. And so in the tack room where we kept all the horses things, then she transformed it into a dark room. So I was just always at her hips, just watching her develop film and stuff. And then I always just kind of love, I was very shy and introverted person, but I was always very perceptive and I just was always looking and just taking in information. So I think I kind of developed an eye early on.

And then I’ve always just loved taking photos, whether it’s landscape, nature, animals. And then I actually then went into fashion design in New York City where I worked for three years for Calvin Klein. I was in that timeframe where I realized this hustle just wasn’t for me. It was creatively enjoyable because the love for photography really came through is because I was choosing the images that would be used for the collections that would be on the runway. So I would kind of be doing the mood board and sourcing of the creative design for it. So that was really fun, but I just didn’t match up with this lifestyle that I grew up with. I love being outside in nature and just being in this concrete jungle on Times Square every day where you see the sunlight maybe 10 minutes a day. It just didn’t work out.

So I slowly then transitioned focusing more on just on me and what brought me fulfillment. And I ended up in Hawaii where I really took photography seriously as a, “I really want to do this,” as a career. So it was a complete pivot, but it’s kind of always been in the background. And now I’ve really felt like I’ve come into my own following that intuition that was always there.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. You knew that there’s this pull. It feels like there’s a lot that we could look at in the space where you talk about leaving New York, coming to Hawaii and building a career around photography. Those are some pretty significant changes. I think anybody listening to this, maybe it’s not a move to Hawaii, but there is an interest in evolving and becoming more towards following your intuition to get to a place where you feel like you are more of who you really are. Some of us, I feel like we know who we are, we want to pursue that, but we maybe feel kind of stuck. How did you navigate that? You mentioned it quickly, moving to Hawaii, that’s a really big deal. Once you get there, you know, kind of want to do photography, but how do you actually take those steps into doing it? Can you talk more about that?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah, so it was kind of like a soft jump, like a soft leap of faith because I was like, “Okay, I have this degree in fashion design. It’s like I have to use it somehow, but I want this healthy lifestyle, like a balance of being in nature.” So I found a company that did activewear design in Maui, and they were like, “Okay, well, you can come and do the job and you can move to Maui and you’ve got the job.” So it was a soft jump from taking my skillset and then moving to Hawaii. So it wasn’t just like I went cold Turkey. But then I was in that job for several years and I just kind of reached a ceiling of like, “This isn’t really calling me. It’s not fulfilling me anymore.” So then I really took that leap of, “Okay, I know what I’m good at, and I know that my skillset can be… I’m much more than where I’m at right now,” if that makes sense.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally.

Alanna O’Neil: And it take so much self-awareness.

Bjork Ostrom: What does that look like when you say self-awareness? Is that intentional structured time that you have to reflect?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Or is it just naturally who you are? For anybody else who’s looking to be more aware of themselves, what would your advise be?

Alanna O’Neil: I think for creative people in general, and especially for photography, we’re so sensitive to our environments. The more we can actually take space and take some time away to just think and reflect, that’s when our answers I find really come to the surface. So for me, I am a runner. I run every day early in the morning, and that’s my time of an hour just thinking. And so it was really a quiet time for me to just reflect. I knew there was just something in my bones. I was like, “This is not a line for you anymore.”

And it was almost like you had to hit a point where you can’t avoid it anymore. And that was me watching my colleagues in New York City eat lunch, hunched over their computer, sleeping at work, shaving a fur skin or a handbag, $3,000 handbag that no one on this planet needs anymore of. And you’re like… So you just have those moments and it’s just like sometimes they’re subtle, sometimes they’re really loud and in your face. I think the more we can stay tuned to those little quiet moments of… Because I feel like the answers we already have within us, it’s just a matter of getting quiet.

Bjork Ostrom: And hearing what those are.

Alanna O’Neil: And hearing what those are.

Bjork Ostrom: And for everybody, that’s going to be different. For you, it’s running. But almost to look back and say, for anybody listening to have this, think back to when were those times that you felt like answers did come or things felt more clear, and then try to recreate those moments. For some people, it might be going for a walk or running, or maybe it’s meditating or maybe it’s talking with a friend. For some people, that’s how you start to get clear on your own position and thoughts. But essentially, just recreating the thing that has worked in the past, I feel like there’s something to be said about that.

Alanna O’Neil: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: And I think this is also an important point when you talk about your story and getting closer to what feels like the place that you want to be in, is partial evolutions. And I think sometimes we think in full evolutions, like, “I’m here and I want to be here. How do I get from A to B?” But a lot of times I think it’s better if we place that as F or E. And in order to get to F or E, we got to go A, B, C, D, E, F.

And for you, the transition being, “Hey, I have this work in the world of fashion design. I know I also want to be living somewhere else.” And so you figure out the living somewhere else equation while maintaining a similar work environment. And then once you did that, it sounds like what you did is you said, “Okay, I’ve partially evolved kind of location. I’m in a place that feels inspiring and a good fit for who I am. Now what does it look like to evolve the work or career portion of the equation?” Is that kind of, when you look back at it, how it played out?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah, it definitely was a slow evolution, like a snowball or something just kind of unfolding because I think some people maybe who are listening just are totally black and white. They just cut everything off completely, like, “Okay, I did photography and now I do graphic design.” It’s just for me, I like to do things a little bit slowly and more intentionally rather than just cut something off completely. So I worked backwards of like, “Okay, I know these factors, A, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, all these are kind of my parameters of what makes me happy and fulfilled. How can I make my lifestyle, my career fit into that?” And for me, it was a slow evolution. But once I started actually thinking about them, the easier was for me to come to terms with, “Okay, this is my next step that I’m on.”

Bjork Ostrom: Mm-hmm. What did that look like then when you knew photography was kind of the path forward, or at least what you wanted to focus on and you had a traditional W2 job, but you wanted to evolve into this world of photography? How did you start to introduce the thing that you were passionate about and interested in into your life in a way that was career-oriented? Like, “Okay, I’m going to figure out how to do this as a thing.”

Alanna O’Neil: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So it started with food photography because I love cooking and I love food and just the stories that are around food because it’s such a human thing that we all have connected to. And so it started by just capturing things locally at my farmer’s market. Or I would reach out to brands or companies on the island and offer a free shoot or something and just say, “Hey, I’m just interested to build my portfolio up.” That way I had just some hands-on experience working with people. And then once I felt like I had a solid portfolio of a variety of different things, that’s when I had the confidence to actually email brands and say, “Hey, look, I can create this in this sort of way, tell this sort of story with your product,” and then it kind of just grew from that point.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, I think it’s one of the things that people don’t give enough credit to, which is doing work for free especially in the early stages. And I think so often we are coached on like, “Get paid what you’re worth.” And all of it is really true. And that’s the hard part, is like it’s not that it’s not true. It’s just that in some instances, there is other truth. And that other truth is what you are trying to do, the exchange that you have in that relationship isn’t one where you’re like, “I’m going to give you something and then you’re going to give me money.” The exchange is, I’m going to give you something. And what you’re going to get is something that builds your portfolio,” which then allows you to sell more confidently or in just an easier way. And so it’s almost like you compress the length of time it would take for you to close a deal because you’re creating a more compelling workbook or portfolio that you are then able to put in front of people.

Did you find in those early stages when you were reaching out to people and saying, maybe it was a restaurant or something or a brand, “Hey, I would love to document your stuff for free”? Did you hear back from people quite a bi? And generally where they’re like, “Great!”?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah, but I think that’s maybe just a switch that doesn’t work in my mind because I sent out hundreds of emails and so many of them never replied and never responded. I think it’s having that resiliency and maybe a little bit of shamelessness where you’re just like, “I don’t care. I’m just going to keep emailing and reaching out.” And then eventually, they’ll reply and then you’ll connect and it falls through. But I think if you’re just starting out, I think you really have to have thick skin and just put yourself out there and continually just ask and think outside of the box.

Even just two days ago, I shot for free for this bakery here. And I was actually the one to reach out and be like, “Hey, I’d love to just shoot for you just because I want to have that aspect for me and my own portfolio.” And by doing so, it creates a really wonderful relationship because now they see your value, they see the work that you’ve put in. You have something really wonderful to now include in your portfolio that wasn’t there before. And in the future, they’ll maybe share it with their friends, they’ll tell people, they’ll maybe come back to you in the future and be like, “We’d love to do another shoot with you.” So it’s you have to give something in order to get something back I think in the early days, but I think being resilient and consistent and persistent are just so critical when you’re just beginning.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And so much of what I think about in those relationships is like, take anything outside of the context of a business relationship and think about it in that way, like, okay, you’re meeting a new friend for the first time, how do you be a good friend? Well, you go out to dinner and you pay for it, or you come over and you bring bars. I don’t know. You do some type of exchange where you are giving before you’re asking. And relationally, that’s how we’re built. We exchange these things. We establish trust, especially in a situation where you’re not known. Over time as you become somebody who does, and this would be in the world of a portfolio building, but also as you start to establish that trust and those relationships, what can happen then is like you said, somebody can say, “Hey, I worked with this person. They were really great. If you need a photographer, here’s who you can reach and who you can connect with.”

So much of it comes back to these foundational behaviors of how we interact in the real world. Those transfer over into business relationships, but sometimes we forget about that and think that it’s all transactional. But all of it is just people interacting with other people and it’s relationships. And at its best, it’s all about trust and people feeling comfortable with who you are and whether that be in a regular relationship or a business relationship. For you now, what does day-to-day look like? Is the majority of the work that you’re doing working with restaurants? Is it branded photography for different brands? How do things look for you now day to day or week-to-week?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah, so I do some branding right now, but what I’m actually really focusing on is developing a program for new photographers. It’s going to be a monthly program where it helps people in three different categories of mindset, business and photography. So every month there’ll be a new module that is released. So that’s kind of my baby of the moment that I’ve been focusing on. And I’m hoping it’s going to be a really nurturing space to support people within their photography journey. Essentially, it’s a program I wish I had when I started out, because I was so in the dark. Because I came from a different background, I don’t have formal training in photography, so I learned all these things as I went. So that’s kind of what I’ve been focusing on in the moment, yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. So why those three things? You said it was mindset, business, and photography?

Alanna O’Neil: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Talk to me about the value of each of those things and why you created those as the three segments of the program.

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah, so I think they all are related. It’s almost like the camera, like ISO, aperture and shutter speed. It’s just like they’re all interconnected. And the more you play with one, it affects the other. So business training, I think creatives, and I’m so guilty of this, we are not the most business savvy when it comes to starting our own business. So the trainings will include how to market yourself, how to price yourself, how to reach out to brands, how to structure your business, that the business foundations, your values for your business. So all of these things that we sometimes neglect because we’re so focused on that creative portion.

And then the photography will be really nitty-gritty trainings in terms of how to find your visual voice, shooting in natural light, portraiture, how to editing. Different types of sessions for photography topics in general. And then mindset is a big one. And I’m really glad that I am including this because I think especially for beginners, we can get really stuck in our own way and we compare ourselves. We don’t feel like we’re good enough, we are wondering why we’re not there yet. We’re wondering how we stack up against others. And having that confidence and self-belief and self-worth really goes hand in hand with putting out your best work and feeling confident and knowing that there’s more for you. Even though you may be just on this one spot right now, there’s so much potential ahead of you.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great.

Alanna O’Neil: So I think all of those complement each other nicely.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. If we could, obviously we don’t want… It’s not like we’re going to go through the whole course or whatever.

Alanna O’Neil: That’s okay.

Bjork Ostrom: But let’s pull out one from each of those. So in the business category, for somebody who’s… And my guess is this is for people who want to build a photography business, like build a business of photography, is that more or less accurate for the-

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: And/or become a better photographer? That probably would also apply.

Alanna O’Neil: Mm-hmm.

Bjork Ostrom: But let’s say in the business section, what’s one actionable thing that you could put in front of people who are listening to this podcast and say like, “Here’s something from a business standpoint that you should consider valuable insight, a tool, like a tactic, a way to go about things”? Just to get a sample of what that might look like and to hear from you a little bit about side of things.

Alanna O’Neil: Sure. Yeah, I think for photographers, one thing that’s really important to consider is just what is your offerings? Are you service-based? Are you product-based? I mean, do you sell prints? Do you sell packages? Or do you actually just work as a service by control, like freelancing? So I think you have to really think about these two distinct categories of which one you want to fall in, because if you’re product-based, that could be online courses, that could be an e-book, that could be prints, that could be YouTube things, like anything digital that you would sell online or physical print products or things like that.

Or if it’s more service-based where you’re actually working with clients and brands and freelancing and maybe publications or shooting for cookbooks, it’s really just kind of thinking of what avenue do you want to go down? Do you want to do both? Do you want to do a merger of both things? But I think the more we can really fine tune what we actually offer. Because sometimes you’re like, “Oh, I’m just a photographer.” We’re like, “Okay, well, what do you do? What do you offer? Do you offer branded shoots? Do you offer portraits? Do you offer food? Just restaurant food photography?” It’s being really clear on what are your offerings.

Bjork Ostrom: Mm-hmm. Yeah. It’s almost like imagining somebody coming to your site and thinking, seeing it hitting a landing page and being like, “Is this for me or is this not for me?” And I imagine in the world where you have decided that you’re going to do restaurant photography and you’re going to help restaurants build really compelling images or create really compelling images for their menu or their menu board or their restaurant or social media. Or somebody who owns a restaurant that comes to your site and they see, “Oh, this person does restaurant photography. Here’s some testimonials,” it’s a very quick yes.

It’s also a quick no for somebody who has product and they want to sell quinoa chocolate crisps, and they’re like, “Oh, this person probably could do it, but I see they’re specialized in restaurant photography.” And so very quickly you’re able to filter out yes or no. It seems like sometimes the temptation would be like, “I kind of do everything. I’m a photographer.” You can speak to this, but it feels like what happens then is then you kind of don’t do anything. And so even though it’s like there’s a thousand different yeses, but they’re all kind of watered down yeses where people aren’t like, “Oh, this is exactly what I need.” Does that feel accurate?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah, definitely. I think if you know want to do restaurant photography and that’s what you want to focus on, it’s helping restaurants build their brand and create their menus, that shouldn’t be solely your focus for your website and your branding and your social media, your story, who you are as a person, as a photographer. Because I think the more we infiltrate other things… We do restaurant photography, but then we also post a picture of a family portrait we shot last weekend. It is not cohesive and it’s not like a hell yes to that person, that restaurant that’s looking for that service. So I think the clear we can be on what we offer, it just makes it so obvious because if you say, “I’m a photographer.” Well, okay, but what does that mean and what do you offer? Because I think it’s wonderful to have all these interests in different types of photography, but in terms of actually making money and selling a service, we have to be super distinct and deliberate of what we share and show.

Bjork Ostrom: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And part of it too, we’ve talked about this in podcasts before, but it’s what do you want to do? What are you excited about? But also what’s the need? There has to be a market pull in order for there to be potential for you to build a business around that. So do you have any thoughts on that or advice for people who don’t really know what’s needed within the market? Or even I imagine family portraits is one of those where there’s always going to be a need, but there’s probably also a lot of competition, there’s a lot of other people doing it. Any advice for people who are trying to figure out what that is?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah, I think it’s an intersection between what’s needed and what you enjoy. Because personally, I don’t want to shoot weddings, even though I know there’s a market here for it in Maui and it’s very infiltrated. Because I know if I don’t personally enjoy, I know I’m probably not going to be very good at it either. I’m not going to enjoy it. So I think it’s this need of looking, “Okay, well what do I enjoy? What do I enjoy shooting? What do I enjoy doing? And then what else out there that is needed?” Maybe it’s photographing a blogger’s food recipes or something, and you reach out to a food blogger and be like, “Hey, your photos are not so great. I mean, the recipes are good, but I could help you with your photos.” So it’s kind of finding this cross balance across intersection, I guess, of what you enjoy versus what you feel like you could give some value to that’s out there.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I think there’s this quote that I think of Frederick Buchner, who is I think kind of a theologian and an author, he says, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And I think of-

Alanna O’Neil: I like that.

Bjork Ostrom: … what a great exercise for us as creative people to think about what is our deep gladness and where does… It’s essentially exactly what you’re saying. Where does the world’s deep hunger, where is that intersection? And I think of Humans of New York. For people who aren’t familiar with that, the channel, and I don’t even know his name, but he’s a photographer and he goes out and photographs people, but then he also asks them questions. And he rolls that all into a story that he tells that really resonates with people. And there’s an obvious, like, the world has a hunger to hear the story of other people, and it seems like for this photographer, it brings him deep gladness it seems like. And so it’s for us as creators, it’s thinking where do those things overlap and how can we find that. So I love that.

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How about switching into the photography side of things?

Alanna O’Neil: Sure.

Bjork Ostrom: So my guess is, in some capacity, everybody who listens to this has either at some period done the photography for their business, probably still do photography to some level. Maybe they work with a photographer, so they need to understand what good photography looks like. But it’s a really big broad question. But for somebody who wants to get better at photography, how do you do that? What are the steps you need to take and skills you need to develop?

Alanna O’Neil: Sure. That’s a broad question, but I think it can just be whittled down to people are like, “Well, what’s your style?” Well, your style is how you interpret the world, how you see the world. So thinking about how you interpret what you see and how is there a pattern within all your images, how does that reflect who you are? And also I think it’s not just about conveying information like, “Oh, this is a piece of bread on a board.” There’s something deeper there that we have to convey something else. It’s like creating a photo that’s about something, not of something. Does that make sense?

Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain more on that? Double click on that thought.

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah, so it’s like, okay, I could take a picture, let’s say, of a house on a lake and it’s just a house right on the lake, right? And that’s just a picture of a house on a lake. There’s nothing there. There’s nothing telling me anything more about it. But if I backed up and I included other elements that were a part of that scene, maybe it’s the dog that was running by or the birds that were flying across the sky, there’s something subtle. It’s actually about this place. And maybe it’s the old man that’s walking around the corner with his buckets of grain because he’s feeding his ducks, whatever, it’s like a belt’s place. So I think it’s not just conveying what you see, but what’s the story of this place or subject.

Bjork Ostrom: This is a really specific example, but Lindsay, my wife Lindsay, just published a post. It’s like a chocolate chip cookie recipe, which isn’t novel. It’s a little bit unique in that she calls it two huge chocolate chip cookies. The idea being it’s like for two people. But the first, or I guess it’s the second image in the post is that it’s a plate and it’s the cookies and it’s Lindsay holding one up, and then it’s our three-year-old, Lena’s hand, reaching in for the cookie that’s on the plate. And it’s like, I know the moment, but it also tells a story that’s so different than if it was just two cookies on a plate.

Alanna O’Neil: Two cookies on a plate, yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Is that a little bit of what you’re getting at, is figuring out how to tell the story with the image?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean. It’s just like you have two cookies in a plate, and okay, that’s all it is. It’s two cookies on a plate. But what if you cut up the chocolate chip cookie and it was melted, and then the chocolate was smeared on the plate, and then your daughter’s hand was coming over and her hands are all stained with chocolate? There’s so much more interesting and intriguing. There’s a story there. And it’s not just of these cookies, it’s about what’s happening in a moment. And I think that’s how to improve your photography, is really thinking about a moment, not just simple information in front of you, if that makes sense.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And you talked a little bit about it. You talked about it being interesting or unique. Is that what we’re trying to get at? Are we trying to get at novel? And if so, why? What is the purpose behind wanting to tell a story with an image?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah. Well, I think it so goes back to who we are as humans. Storytelling is such a part of our DNA and who we are as people. I mean, it’s passed down through generations just orally. But visually, it’s like why would a brand want to work with someone if there’s no life or something that’s going to call this potential buyer to purchase this product? So I think visual storing is a way to engage the viewer and evoke a sense of emotion and really tap into our humanness. And that could be done through color or composition or how we frame the photo or the subjects within it.

So for me, I think storytelling really makes a photo come alive and it brings this humanness to it. And even if there’s no humanness or human in the frame, you can tell something was there. It feels lived in and authentic and real rather than some of these images you see on Instagram or Facebook or wherever that are just so perfectly styled, everything’s just curated to a tee. But to me, that just feels so sterile and I can’t connect to that because it doesn’t feel real.

I relate to your daughter’s chocolate chip cookie hand stains on the white tablecloth because it feels like life. So I think the more we can embody life into our images, it pulls at you instantly and it engages you within the scene and the product if you’re a brand.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s almost like trying to understand who we are and how we operate as people and then thinking about in the different mediums that we interact, what does it look like to recreate that in some way? We talked about it in the instance of trading emails back and forth or reaching out to a brand and giving before asking. In this case, it’s like, what are some of the things that we are most drawn to? Story is one of them. And that comes out in our desire to watch a TV show or go to a movie or listen to a book or something like that. All of those are just us watching stories. What does that then look like to tell a story through a static image? It’s interesting to hear you talk about like, “Here are the ways that you can do that. You can introduce humanity. You can introduce something that is imperfect because we as people are imperfect people. When we see that imperfection, we resonate with it to some degree.” So it’s inspiring to hear you talk about that.

I almost think about in an iPhone, you can set it to be a live photo. And it’s like, what does it look like to try and make a live photo in a static image? What are the elements of that thing being alive that could then be in a static photo? So that’s great.

And then what about in the world of mindset? That’s such an important thing. You talked about just briefly this idea of comparison, how difficult that is. We talk about this idea of compare and despair. No matter where you are in your career, that always seems to be true. But what’s one thing, whether it’s comparison or something else, that you would communicate as an important consideration for creators, or in this case photographers, what’s a mindset that’s been most helpful for you as you’ve built your career?

Alanna O’Neil: Yes, definitely. I think it’s having a conversation with myself, but in three different versions. It’s like the past me, the present me, and the future me. So when I feel insecure or I’m afraid or I’m feel like I want to compare myself to someone else, or I scroll through Instagram and I get triggered by something because I see someone book this major client and there’s that pain, you get the jealous, we’re human and it’s so natural to be on top of our game and then just be thrown off completely by something we see or someone, or something someone says.

But I think it’s like we can have this take a step back and be like, “Okay, well what would the past me say of where I’m now? And what would my future say to me today? What words of encouragement or support do I need to hear from both of them?” Because I think, for instance, if we take a comparison to other people as an example, it’s just such a trap that I think so many people fall into as photographers and just creatives in general because we live in this world of social media and there’s so many images that we see in flux every day, and it’s natural to compare yourself to someone else.

I think if we actually just stay tuned to the path we’re on and the vision of where we’re going and the business we want to create, and we just can’t compare ourselves to someone who has 20 years under their belt versus where we are right now. And it’s like having compassion and grace with ourselves and reconnecting to your why and why you’re doing this, why do you love photography and just coming back to those questions. But I think talking to your past self and your future self to support you in the moment has been so helpful for me.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s this book we’ve talked about a couple of times called The Gap and the Gain, but the basic premise of it… Are you familiar with it? Yeah?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: I think of the idea of… Well, the basic premise being like, oftentimes on any given day, for all of us, anybody listening to this podcast or for you and I right now, we are at this point in our lives. And if we look backwards, there’s a lot of ground that we have gained. And if we talked to the version of ourself that was at the very beginning of whatever that journey is and they were to connect with this person that is here today, they might say, “Wow, look at you. This is really incredible that you have done this and you’ve learned a lot and you’re a different person and you have these skills and abilities.” Maybe this acknowledgement of this ground that you’ve covered. And in the book, they talk about this idea of the gap being us looking at the ground that we haven’t covered.

But it’s fun to think about what would it look like for that person to look backwards at where we are today, the person who’s at the other end of that gap, and to say like, “Hey, you know what? Stick with it. You’re going to get through it. You’re going to figure it out. It’s going to be good.” And I love that idea of having a conversation with both of those personas, the ones your persona from the past and your persona from the future. Just kind of the reassurance that each of those personas would give you as you’re on your journey makes a lot of sense.

So you’ve done a lot in the world of photography. When we talk about the gain, you have covered a lot of that ground. What would your advice be for that person who is just starting out? Like, it’s not you, you’re not looking back and having that conversation with you, but it’s that person who’s just at the beginning and in the early stages and they might be listening to this podcast. What would your advice be for them?

Alanna O’Neil: Yeah, I would say to stay open and just explore and experiment and develop a real visual literacy of trying and shooting so many different things. Whatever piques your interest, follow it. I always say just follow your curiosity of maybe sometimes if you go traveling and then for whatever reason you feel like, “I should shoot that,” just shoot it. Don’t even second guess, just shoot it. Because I think the more you just follow your intuition and that curiosity of be it food photography, street photography, whatever, the more you can really find who you are as a photographer and maybe then say no to something completely like, “I’ll never do this again or I’ll never do that again.” But the more you can explore and experiment and just be open to learn and just have this curiosity to just keep shooting and practicing, I think, is my best advice.

Bjork Ostrom: I don’t remember. So this is going to be a terrible story. Speaking of stories, I’m going to set it up by saying this is going to be a terrible one because I don’t remember a lot of the details. But it was like the premise was this. They were doing a study and they asked people to go in. I don’t even remember, I would give credit to whoever shared this story originally, but I don’t remember who it is, so it’s going to be a really flimsy story. But hopefully the purpose of it will be clear.

The study was like, “We want to see who’s going to have the best pots.” It was a pottery experiment. They had two groups and they said, “Okay, with one group…” They set it up as, “We want you to be as careful as possible with making each one of these pots. Your goal is perfection. Your goal is quality.” And then they told the other group of people, “We want you to just make as many as you can, and your goal is quantity. The goal is to get as many out there, to create as many pots as possible, to throw as many pots as possible.” What they found was the group who they had instructed to not care about quality but to care about quantity ended up with higher quality, because naturally what happened is they went in not being precious about what the outcome would be, and they had repetition. And that repetition is what allowed them to evolve and to funnel into the things that we’re working.

Ed Sheeran talks a lot about how the most important thing for him as a songwriter was writing in thousands of songs in order to get the bad songs out in order to then have good songs. I think part of what I hear you saying is like, do it. Don’t be precious about it. Get out there, shoot all the different things you think you might want to shoot and get after it because that’s going to be the thing that helps you refine your process, understand what you do, evolve your skills, and it’s going to help accelerate you towards the place that you want to get. Does that feel accurate?

Alanna O’Neil: I totally agree, yeah. Because I think there was a quote, another quote by a photographer that said like, “Your first 100,000 photographs will be terrible or something.”

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, right.

Alanna O’Neil: Or maybe it’s 10,000. It’s just like you have to get through. There’s a growing time and you have to just get through all those bad ones and then until you really fine tune what you like and what you are good at. And even now when I approach a shoot, it’s usually takes me a while to really like these photos. It’s like the last few. When I start editing, sometimes I’ll start from the end because I know that’s when I’m most warmed up to my subject and my scene. Those are the ones I end up liking. It took me some time to just kind of get there and then warm up. But there is, you just have to get through this point. And then all that is not useless, so productive. It’s not a waste of time, what I’m saying. You have to do it.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes, right. Even if the images are bad or they’re not what you want.

Alanna O’Neil: Oh, yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s in service, yeah.

Alanna O’Neil: I have so many bad images.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s in service of getting closer to where you want to be and kind of compressing. If you take 100,000 photos over 20 years, that’s one thing. You could also take 100,000 photos in a year maybe. And the idea being you’re going to have to do it one way or the other, and so just accept it and to move through it, yeah, I think that’s great.

So Alanna, there’s going to be a lot of people who are interested following along with what you’re up to. I know you’ve also published some books. And my guess is there’s also people who’d be interested in learning from you and seeing what you’re up to with the content that you’re going to be creating and the education in the course.

Alanna O’Neil: Sure.

Bjork Ostrom: So where can people follow along with you and what you’re up to? Point us in all the right directions and we’ll include those in the show notes.

Alanna O’Neil: Okay, sure. So you can see my website, it’s just alannaoneil.com. And then Instagram, everyone’s favorite. It’s alannaoneilphoto. And I offer a mentorship program for new photographers. The program that I’m talking about that covers business and mindset and photography training is called Visual Voices Collective, and I’m hoping to launch this autumn. So I’m still being in the works and being developed. So stay tuned for that.

Bjork Ostrom: Cool. That’s great. Alanna, thanks so much for coming on.

Alanna O’Neil: Thank you so much for having me.

Emily Walker: Hey, there. This is Emily from the Food Blogger Pro team, and thank you so much for listening to that episode. We really appreciate it. If you liked this episode or enjoy the show, we would really appreciate you leaving a review or rating wherever you listen to your podcast episodes. Ratings and reviews help get the show in front of new listeners and help us grow our little show into something even bigger. We read each and every review and it makes us so happy to hear when you’re enjoying the podcast or what you would like us to improve or change in upcoming episodes. All you have to do is find the Food Blogger Pro Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts, whether it’s on Apple or Spotify or another player, and enter a rating and review. While you’re there, make sure to subscribe to the podcast so that you never miss a new episode. We really appreciate it so much and it makes such a huge difference for our show, so thanks in advance. And that’s all we have for you today. So have a great week.

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