Sweet Pea Studios photographer, Krystal Culpepper and I met five years ago when our sons were placed in the same second grade class. We volunteered in the classroom together a lot that year. Our families began spending more time together at the local Tae Kwon Do school, which just solidified the friendship between Krystal and me. I have been fortunate enough to watch her business and talent blossom.
In college, Krystal earned her degree in exercise sport and education leading her to a career in the commercial fitness industry as a gym manager. Being a newlywed at that time, she found that the two did not mix, so she moved to teaching physical education until her first child was born. Shifting again, she began working for McLean Bible Church (MBC) in McLean, VA, where she spent eight years as an admin for their children’s ministry. By the time she left MBC, she had worked her way up to the Assistant Director of Operations for the children’s ministry, managing a staff of ten. She hated it and decided to scale down to part time, moving into coordinating their Preparing for Marriage class for their marriage ministry. (Which she loved!) But, she explains, “With everything, specifically with [working for the] church, you get to a point when it was just time to walk away. On Sundays, I couldn’t go to church without someone needing something. And it got hard. AND, I was commuting.” She walked away to be a stay-at-home mom. Three years prior, she had begun her photography career on the side and says, “I haven’t regretted it or looked back since. I don’t like being in an office unless it’s my own office. I don’t like having meetings about meetings.”
During the beginnings of her photography career, Krystal was the “second shot” for another photographer for a few weddings. She found herself gravitating toward the kids, hence Krystal is a newborn, child, and family photographer (with some maternity thrown in). She says, “I am a hard no for events and a hard no for weddings. I love the babies.” Sweet Pea is the name that Krystal’s dad calls her daughter. She laughs, “Krystal Culpepper Photography was just too long.” So Sweet Pea Studios was born in 2009.
Krystal grew up in the photography industry. Her mother, grandmother, father and sister all worked for Lifetouch Portrait Studios. Her mother worked for Lifetouch for 30 years retouching senior portraits…BY HAND! (There was no Photoshop back then.) Krystal reminisces, “I remember the smell of the factory. I remember going to mom’s work and running around with camera equipment and the big machines.” Because she had been exposed to the industry so early and for so long, she never imagined being a professional within it. She shares, “But then you have children, good cameras come out and you’re thinking, well, maybe I can do that.”
And that’s what she did. She got a camera and learned about photography on her own, but then decided to go back to school to take college photography courses and workshops. She explains, “I wanted to be able to say [to clients] this is why I’m doing this with my camera, this is why I’m positioning you here, here’s what this means. When I put my camera on this setting, it means this.” Before pursuing her formal education in photography, she could pick a setting and the camera would do everything for her, but it wasn’t necessarily what she wanted. She would then have to do a lot of post-production work. She explains, “At that point I didn’t know Photoshop all that well. It was a lot of slapping on actions and filters. For my friends, starting out, it was fine. They weren’t paying me.” But once she learned how to really use her camera, take it off auto and do everything manually, it decreased the amount of time needed for the post-production editing.
Krystal shares, “I’m very much a minimalist. I don’t want to spend a lot of time [in post production]. You want your photos. I want to give you your photos. The longer I have to spend editing, the longer it takes me to complete a job. So the more I know; the less I have to do; the faster the finished product is available to my clients.”
When Krystal first started Sweet Pea Studios, she had no expectations. Social media wasn’t what it is today. The hardest part for her was that people would buy cameras, they would put it on auto, they would take a decent photo, and decide, “I can do that”. She shares, “Having to reinvent myself, to set myself apart from other photographers was the biggest punch in the face because I felt like I’m good at what I do. I’ve worked hard to be good at what I do. And it took me a long time to say that I was good at what I do; a really long time.” She’s confident in that now, but says that it still sounds weird when she hears herself saying that she’s a good photographer. She struggles with the fact that potential clients can go on Facebook asking for a photographer and there’s a list of 50 within two miles. She says, “For me, I have to turn that off. As a creative, it’s very easy to go [sigh], well she’s better than me, or he’s better than me, or they aren’t going to choose me. And that’s fine.” She reminds herself that there actually is enough business to go around and has learned that people will keep coming back. She says, “They see something in my work and keep coming back. They see something, so I must be doing something right.”
Admittedly Krystal feels that the hardest thing about her job is lack of opportunities to be creative. She finds that sometimes she gets hired based on what clients have seen in her portfolio or on Pinterest. She says, “Hire me for me. Don’t hire me for someone else’s work that you’ve seen on Pinterest.” She doesn’t enjoy the feeling that she’s doing the same things over and over again. (Trust me, creative people hate that.) Currently her studio is getting revamped with a new additional feature wall and new baskets. She says, “I’m inspired by photographers that I love and follow. We all do the same “stuff”, we just have different editing styles.”
Krystal gets inspiration from her clients. She sends them a questionnaire to complete before they come for their photo session that includes information about what colors and style they like. It’s appreciated when a client sends inspiration photos as well. For example, she had a client who sent a picture of a crocheted mermaid outfit for her newborn to wear during the photo session. (OMG! Adorbz.) That information became a great jumping off point for Krystal to shop for props to be used to make her own set up for the photo “vignette”. The downfall is investing in items that she might never use again. There is a danger in using the same props over and over. She doesn’t want every client to get the same shot, understanding the clients’ desire for freshness and uniqueness. And although clients often view portraits in her studio and say, “I want that canvas, that one and that one,” Krystal cannot and will not force a brand new baby into a position the baby does not want to go into. She states, “If I try once or twice and the baby is not comfortable, I will not force it.” She goes on, “The cool thing is, you can put them all in a white onsie; put them on a blanket and they’re all so different. To just watch them squirm around…. No two are alike. So I do that at the end, which I love. I do all of the posed pictures and then I put the baby, in a onsie on a blanket and snap away. Those end up being my favorite; every time.”
Her hottest professional goal right now involves hiring an admin to help her keep up with all of the email correspondence. Moving forward she says she just wants to continue to build enough newborn and family work to be able to do more “fun things”. For example, to be able to say to her friends, “Hey bring your daughter, bring your wedding dress; let’s take some fun pictures.” She says, “That type of work is no sweat off my back, because it’s going to fuel me, but it’s not taking away the time that I could be doing another shoot.”
But she’s content with where she is. She loves that her job allows her to afford the extras for her family, where her husband’s job pays for the necessities. She would like to grow a little bit so that she can do more of the projects that will inspire her creatively. She says, “They may not make the money because there’s not much of a market for it, but if not, I’m going to stale out. I need to have something else that will fuel me.”
I asked Krystal what she was most proud of professionally. Said almost reluctantly, “This is going to sound so superficial, because it is monetary, but I am most proud of the fact that I made almost as much as my husband for the first time ever, last year. I don’t know if I’ll do it again. I’m not on the same track to do it again this year, but I did it last year. I bought myself a cute little Louie Vuitton to celebrate. That’s what I always told myself; if I ever “make it”, that’s what I’m going to get.” She says apologetically, “It’s so silly. It killed me at tax time, but I am very proud of that.”
Personally, and more than everything, she is most proud that she gets to stay home and be with her kids. Whether their dad is traveling or not, her kids get to come home to a parent. Growing up, Krystal didn’t have that. Her grandmother lived with them until she passed away when Krystal was 12, so she was who she saw every day. She shares, “We were very close, but my parents worked a lot. My dad worked nights. (She adds, “My dad STILL works nights!”) I would come home from school and whatever activities we had, and he would leave for work at 9 at night. So I saw him for a couple of hours and that would be it.” She can’t ever have a job where she cannot be home. And now that she has that dynamic in place, she says that she’s trying to not rush her kids to grow up. Another advantage to having a job like hers, when her kids ARE grown, she’ll be able to travel with her husband. She says, “I can edit on the road. I can answer emails on the road. It’s perfect.”
If you are interested in a session with Sweet Pea Studios and are not outgoing, well be warned, Krystal is. She says, “I might talk your ear off. I love what I do, even when I don’t love it at the time. I feel like a go above and beyond to make things right. I want it to be a fun experience with me. I don’t want it to be stressful. I’m patient. They’re babies. They’re kids!”
*Photo by Green and Grey Photography.