Family focus - Photographer James Melia
James should be used to a family business. Before he went freelance as a photographer, he worked for his dad. Now he's partnered with his wife - working from home with the three kids not far away.
Juggling the needs of his customers alongside those of his family. Where your business itself is like another child constantly after your attention as it grows.
More from James Melia
Who the hell is Steve Folland?
Steve's a freelancer helping businesses use and make video & audio content in much better ways. Find out more at stevefolland.com, track him down on Twitter @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.
In 2015 is decided to create the freelance podcast (well, there weren't any others doing this then) where freelancers could learn from each other via their stories.
Check out Steve's Being Freelance Vlog that documents his weekly wanderings and wonderings as a freelancer.
Transcription of freelance podcast interview - Photographer James Melia and Steve Folland
Steve Folland: Freelance photographer James Melia. Hey, James.
James Melia: Hello, hello.
Steve Folland: Okay. So, as ever, how about we get started hearing how you got started being freelance?
James Melia: Do you want the long version or the short version?
Steve Folland: Well, I don't mind the long version, especially it's always intriguing how people have ended up doing what they're doing.
James Melia: Yeah. The short version is that I was working in a funeral home, and I wanted to get into photography, so I started shooting weddings. The longer version is I traveled quite a bit before that. I worked in film in Vancouver. Just I fell into it, and the first sort of film that I worked on, just a PA, was Final Destination 3, and so I got to watch a car park for sort of 16 hours a day, and that was my first intro to the sort of photographic side of all this.
James Melia: Worked in the film industry over there a little bit and traveled a bit more, went to work on a cruise ship, end up in South Africa. Worked in TV and film out there, and then one of the producer's wives was a fashion photographer, and she needed a hand, and this part I didn't know anything about what was what. So, I worked with her anyway, and just got going from one thing to the other. She passed me on to another fashion photographer, a guy named Jack.
James Melia: And I think I just about bought my first camera then. I was getting into sort of the more fashion-y side of it. It was good. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. It was just very, very different over there to what it is in the UK.
James Melia: So, when I decided to come back to the UK, I worked for this big fashion photographer. I'm not a big fashion photographer, but I wanted to do well in the fashion industry first because I just loved it, but photographing people in the Indian Ocean vs. photographing people in Manchester and Leeds is a lot bit different.
James Melia: So, yeah, I had to switch that up and, fortunately, my dad took me on, which my dad ... Our family business is a funeral home so I've worked for them for quite a few years while doing bits on the side, and eventually, took the plunge and the quickest ... Well, not the quickest way. One of the best ways to take the plunge was to start shooting weddings and went from one thing after the other with weddings.
Steve Folland: Wow. That is a great long story. Even the long story felt like you must've left a lot out. When was that moment? Can you remember like when it was that you thought, "You know what? No, I'm just going to go for this. I'm going to-"
James Melia: Yeah. It was just a really surreal moment, just working ... Obviously, a real massive passion for photography. I always liked it. It just drives me completely, but getting to that point where I was working full-time. I was so busy on the weekends and in the evening just staying up late, doing this, that and the other, and I just thought, "I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it," and yeah, and I thought if I can hand my notice in with my own dad, I guess I'll do it. My family being very, very supportive, and I'm very lucky in that sense, and they helped me out with the job.
Steve Folland: And did you have kids then?
James Melia: No, no. No kids then. No kids, and it was easy. Looking back now, I shouldn't have complained at anything because having kids just makes things ... Do you have children yourself?
Steve Folland: I do, yeah.
James Melia: Yeah. It's just ... Everything's like ten times harder when you have ... I'm constantly looking back going, "It was so easy then," but now, it's just a lot harder. I love it, but it's just so much harder, but I wouldn't change anything for the world. It is brilliant, but I'm just exhausted all the time, but there's more humor in life now.
Steve Folland: So, you struck out as a wedding photographer. Did that mean that you'd let the fashion side go? Like, how did your business evolve? Did you stick with wedding photography?
James Melia: So, my wife is a make-up artist and she sort of suggested that I go into weddings because she said, "You should shoot this wedding," and she had the wedding of this local couple and she said, "Oh, you should just come along and shoot it and see what you think and like go put it down." Because I just thought you had to be a certain type of a person to shoot wedding when, in reality, you don't anymore and it's changed massively over the years, and we know lots and lots different wedding photographers and we all get along and it's a lovely sort of industry to be in.
James Melia: For me, it was just one of those industries that it never really sat well with me. Like, I never felt ... Well, I always felt comfortable with it because you're photographing people, but I kind of wanted to sort of progress.
Steve Folland: So, how did your business evolve from there? So, you didn't quite feel like you fitted in doing weddings?
James Melia: Yeah. Well, to a certain degree. I had this dream of sort of working in high end fashion and stuff like that, but obviously, it didn't come to pass straight away, and I'm not saying that it wasn't possible, but obviously, started having to pay bills and things like that, and weddings just sort of fit the bill, but evolution, I guess, with it all. It's just something naturally progressed from weddings into something else now.
Steve Folland: And what is that something else?
James Melia: It's more of the portrait side of things. So, we've taken a step back on weddings, but we're still shooting them because we love them and it's sort of a fabulous thing to be involved in, but just, again, with three children ... It's not an excuse by any means, but we want that really good work-life balance. It's just with having the three kids because being freelance, you have got advantages and disadvantages. We'll be working at 12:00 at night or 4:00 in the morning, but, at the same time, we get to take the kids to school. Like, if we want to spend a bit of extra time with them, and that's really important to both of us.
Steve Folland: Yeah. So, does your wife now work with you within-
James Melia: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, my wife, I think it's about four years ago, started shooting weddings. We shot weddings together for about, yeah, the last sort of three or four years, and then Margo came along who's the youngest, and since then I've been shooting weddings on my own, but Jo's always been involved in the business, but at the moment, she's just taken on all the marketing side of things, which just, yeah, a massive, massive thing for me because it's just a real big help because it's trying to shoot and market and do all of this these days. There's too many social media apps to update, which is great. It's great, but yeah, it can be a bit misleading sometimes.
Steve Folland: Yeah. So, what does marketing look like? How do you find your clients? How do they find you?
James Melia: Well, it was mainly we started out on social media. So, six years ago on Facebook, I just really, really hammered it. I put everything out there that I could, but, yeah, it's just sort of ... With Facebook and social media, it's changed so much these days. We still don't know.
James Melia: So, we're trying different ways. Like, so we started to write them more blogs. We still put stuff out on Facebook and Instagram. We use Instagram a hell of a lot more. It's really positive. We've got a friend, Sara, who helps us out every now and again. She sort of gives us little bits of advice and stuff like that, which is quite helpful, which I think you know of her.
Steve Folland: Yes. So, this is Sara Tasker of Me & Orla fame who's on the ... She was on this podcast just before she started her own podcast, which seems to have done huge things for her. So, had you known for some time?
James Melia: We've known Sara for about four or five years, photographed her wedding last year, which was lovely, Sara and Rory and their little daughter, Olive, and they're just really genuinely ... Like, they'll just give and give and give. They're really genuinely nice people and good friends to have so it's lovely to have people like that around you, especially when you can sort of just ping them a quick message and just say, "Am I doing the right thing on social media?" Because we all have those questions.
Steve Folland: So, there's obviously sort of a business kind of ... You can help each other out business wise as well. Are there other people who you have around you?
James Melia: There is a community. We speak to a lot of other photographers around us, which is always helpful and we can always ping each other messages, and if we can help others, we like to. Yeah, every time everyone's ever messaged us, I always try and give as much as I can because when I starting out, there was a couple of photographers that really helped me out for no reason. They weren't going to gain anything, and I just think that's really important.
James Melia: So, yeah, other photographers, obviously, really, really helpful. Sara is phenomenally helpful and then just odd people and stuff like that. Like, Instagram is fantastic for really good connections within the industry and people who are really like-minded, which is, yeah, it's lovely.
Steve Folland: How did you go about, especially as you sort of perhaps went from weddings into doing portrait photography, into sorting out your pricing, for example? Did you ever have any trouble with that?
James Melia: Yeah. Everything's sort of tried and tested, and with weddings, it took ... We started off low and then sort of slowly built it up, the more experience we got and did it like that, but with portraiture, it's almost a bit like starting again.
James Melia: So, we've rejigged everything, but with weddings, we sort of did it on you would inquire, then we'd give you a price and stuff like that whereas now everything's ... We just wanted to make it nice and clear. There's no hidden costs or anything like that. Everything's up there on our website to be seen, really. We've just recently redone all that, and in the sense that we don't want any hidden costs by any means.
Steve Folland: Yeah. So, like doing packages?
James Melia: Yeah. So, doing packages. It's just like one set price and then three packages that you can pick from, or if you want something bespoke, it's all there and if not ... We just want to work with people.
James Melia: So, obviously, with the wedding, it's sort of one solid package and you can add little bits on and that's it, but with the portraits stuff, especially working with families, there's quite a lot of more variables, but we just work with the clients. We like to get to know them as much as possible. It's more of a personal thing and figuring out what they want and then just going from there.
Steve Folland: Cool. So, when was it that, after you started being a photographer as your main business, that your wife joined you?
James Melia: Probably about after a year or two years of being on as a make-up artist, and we work alongside each other when we're doing shoots as well. Like, just test shoots, and she was doing the make-up for it. She still does that now when we need to do it and stuff, but, yeah, it was about sort of two years into so like four, four and a half years I'd say roughly, and, again, blurry because of all the children.
Steve Folland: Yeah, because you mentioned work-life balance, and, as you say, you can end up working funny hours, but it's kind of like a privilege as well, but like how did you find the best ways to kind of like figure that out amongst you, especially when you're both working on the business?
James Melia: Yeah. It was massive. We used to live in a tiny, tiny cottage before. So, Jo's ... There's the two older boys and then the younger girl, and two older boys from Jo's previous relationship. So, they came, and they were only little, but we lived in this cottage. It was small to say the least. It wasn't really well planned out so we needed to move, but then work got busy and, yeah, it was just crazy and we sort of tried and tested it out really for a stretch at a time, trying to make a balance of it all.
James Melia: But I guess, now, we're in a bit more of a calmer place because we know whatever you plan, especially around children and around family, there's something that throws a spanner in the works all the time, whether it's the baby throwing food all down the shelf, or one of the boys got an extra class later tonight, or one of them is off for winning the awards at school or something like that, and you've got to do these things, but it's part of being freelance, I guess. Obviously, we just take things now a lot more humorously just because you've got to laugh at these things, really.
Steve Folland: I see. So, like yeah. So, try not to let it get to you?
James Melia: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Like, we've got a plan. Like, at the moment, Jo will work on a Tuesday, a Thursday and Friday. I'll have Margo on the Tuesday, and we've got a plan in structure and we know what's happening most days, but anything could happen and we don't know. So, if something changes last minute, it's not the beyond end all, and we just try to see the lighter side of it, and if we have to work, I'm quite happily to be an early riser. I'll get up at 4:00, 3:00 in the morning and work that, and that's sort of the quietest time and the best time for me, but whereas I know some people could just stay up all night. I can't keep my eyes open.
Steve Folland: Wow. So, you might get up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning and start work?
James Melia: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Steve Folland: When would you have gone to bed?
James Melia: Well, it's not so much for going to bed. It's usually just collapsing. Yeah, it's just whenever. So, when the kids go to bed, it's usually about 9:30 to 10:30, and then I'll be out. I just can't keep my eyes and same for my wife, but then I'll quite happily get up at 4:00 in the morning and start working if stuff needs to be done, but I've always been an early riser so I guess it's just you work with what you most feel comfortable with.
Steve Folland: Yeah, that's good. Yes, so it feels natural for you to be working at that time. Plus, the house is actually quiet for once.
James Melia: Yeah, yeah. Nice quiet house is always a good thing, sometimes.
Steve Folland: Do you have a separate work space within where you live now?
James Melia: Yeah. We've moved recently. When we lived in the cottage, we actually had a little office space down the road in the village, which we've still got, but we use it for a studio now, but the new house that we've moved to, there's a separate annex building, which the previous tenants used as a bedroom, but it's just perfect, which is where I am now. It's perfect for a bit of an office so we work down from here. So, it's separated from the home, but I am at home all the time, which is lovely.
Steve Folland: And do you then stay out the way if you see what I mean like-
James Melia: Well, on certain days, I stay here to sort of a set time and then I'll go and help with tea and then bath time, bed times and stuff like that, and then if more stuff needs to be done, I'll come down here until I can't keep my eyes open anymore and then do that, but it's just ...
James Melia: Yeah, we try and take the kids to school. We want to be both involved. Like, it's one of the most important points about being freelance for us that ... I think we'd struggle going back into a 9-5 job in that sense.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Yeah, that flexibility around your family.
James Melia: Yeah, but, at the same time, I find it really hard to shut off from the work because we love it, and it's like another child so you're always thinking about it.
Steve Folland: That's a nice way of putting it, yeah, and how about taking time off?
James Melia: Yeah. I'm just sort of realizing six years in how important it is to take time off. I'm not great at it. Even when I do, I'm still thinking about work. I don't really sort of switch off that much about it, and then it's not particularly healthy, either. It's a blessing and a curse. That's sort of the biggest challenge and the biggest buzz for us.
Steve Folland: You mentioned that Jo helps you out. Well, Jo does the marketing for the business. Like, who does the ... I don't know. I guess, the admin side of photography? As in, there's a lot that must come before and after a shoot beyond just taking the photos.
James Melia: Yeah. We use a lot of software to ... We just started using Studio Ninja. I don't know if you've heard it, but it's-
Steve Folland: It's a good name.
James Melia: Yeah, yeah. I think it's an Australian company, a couple of guys out there that designed it. It's mainly for photographers, but I know other people that are using it and it's absolutely brilliant.
James Melia: So, we just started using it and that's a cloud based thing. So, we've got that on our phones and on our Macs and things like that. So, I use that mainly and then Jo can keep up to date with it if and when she needs to.
Steve Folland: So, what does it do?
James Melia: Yeah, it's like studio based software. So, every time we have a new job or an inquiry, it comes straight through to there. It sort of inputs data. It keeps important information there and then gives us like a work flow for each job.
James Melia: So, it's brilliant, really, in the sense that it sort of helps keep me on track of things, just if we need to like do certain things in a certain time. Like, if I have to edit images, it can remind me when to do them and it's all pre-programmed, but it's fantastic and it updates Google Calendar, which is on our phones and runs our life at the moment.
Steve Folland: Awesome. Does it do invoicing as well?
James Melia: Yeah, yeah. Invoicing, quotes, the rest of it, and it's all ... It's really, really sort of user friendly as well, and we've used some other stuff before and they're brilliant software and fantastic, but not as user friendly, and so, starting to use Studio Ninja, yeah, it's been fantastic.
Steve Folland: That's brilliant. So, it's like a project management tool, customer database, invoicing, it's all in one, especially when there's two of you working on the business as well. So, with all that data that you've then have ... Obviously, you have customers taking effect. It's like do you re-market them to those customers again if you see what I mean? So, beyond just putting stuff out on Instagram, are you targeting to people who you've already worked with?
James Melia: I guess so, and in the sense that we'll tag them in pictures and stuff like that, but we don't directly market to them unless they want to. We've got a newsletter that we sort of send out every now and again, and we just started building that, signing things up, and we do mention it to couples and sort of people who ... Because a lot of the people who come to us have a genuine interest in photography, even if it's a mom and they just want to take better pictures with a phone.
James Melia: So, a lot of people will sign up for that, but, yeah, we don't directly market to people sort of after the fact at the moment, but I'm not saying it's ... Never say never.
Steve Folland: Cool. So, you're saying that you do courses, do you?
James Melia: Yeah, yeah. We've done sort of a couple of one-on-one courses and mentoring and things like that at our place, and it's all custom where people have just really wanted it, and we've put it out there at the same time and they've come along and we've taught them as much as we can. We don't really hold anything back and it's just nice to watch people learn, and you get real buzz out of teaching as well. I didn't realize how much of a buzz, but you do, and, yeah, it's really lovely.
Steve Folland: That's cool, yeah. Putting on those courses came out simply out of recognizing the fact that people were asking you those kind of things?
James Melia: Yeah, yeah. People are asking us, and then I just sort of said, "Well, if you want to come round, we can work something out," and it's just organically grown from there. It's not been a conscious thing, just to go, "Right, we're going to do workshops to make X amount of money." We probably should've done ... It just sort of organically happened, and then we've been working on this stuff.
James Melia: So, yeah, we still do them, and we love them as well. It's really nice because a lot of the people that come along, they've got real passion for photography and it's just lovely to speak to people like that because everyone is like-minded in that sense.
Steve Folland: Yeah. You can tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
James Melia: Yeah, that you work longer hours and find it hard to shut off. Just the fact that the more the love you put into something, the more you will get out of it. That's it, and then just spending more time about figuring out what it is that you're really passionate about. Like, how I fell into weddings and we've fallen into a lot of stuff, and we're very, very grateful for what we're doing, both me and Jo, and it's got us to where we are today, but I think by sitting down, not recently, over the last sort of two or three years, sitting down and really sort of looking at things and really figuring out what it is that we're drawn to and what we love, it just gives you such more of a clearer view, and I kind of wish that I've done that to start with, but then I know by making mistakes, it sort of helps you grow as well, so yeah. I'd just say like really figure out what it is you're drawn to.
Steve Folland: Yeah. So, it was taking that time to actually sit down and kind of treat it like a business and think, "What is it that we want to do?"
James Melia: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think obviously we looked at portraiture and we looked at the weddings and we're trying to figure out, because we're shooting so many weddings and obviously, the children ... Obviously, the bulk of weddings is in some whole days and time wise and just juggling everything. It was quite tough because it's not just a wedding day. It's all the editing and things like that that go with it, but it was a fine balance and we all like our sleep in our house. So, it was just sort of balancing it all out.
James Melia: We sort of looked at the portrait side, and we just started looking at the weddings, and what in each image we were sort of drawn to, and whether it's like a blown out background or a lens flare or something like that, and then just looking at other people's images and figuring it out and then just really honing that in, which has really helped and we've got a really sort of clear view of our portfolio if you want to put it that way.
Steve Folland: For that, James, thanks so much and all the best being freelance.
James Melia: Thank you ever so much.