How a 23-year-old built a lucrative career as a wedding photographer

Grace Torres’ photography business is more than a passion project that turned into a career. To the 23-year-old, it represents financial freedom.

After falling in love with photography at age 13, Torres spent years documenting Sweet 16 parties in New Jersey for little pay and working at Chick-Fil-A to afford a $500 set of camera equipment. While attending Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, she earned some clients and cash – but wasn’t confident that photography could pay the bills after college.

Then, she learned that successful freelance photographers often start by investing in high-quality equipment. So, after graduating college in December 2020, Torres invested in new cameras and lenses, and gradually took her photography side-hustle full time.

All told, Torres says she’s spent roughly $45,000 getting her business off the ground. It’s paying off: In 2021, she made $177,000 in revenue — and today, she grosses more than $10,000 per month, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.

Torres says she’s sometimes underestimated as a young entrepreneur, but doing what she loves is worth it: “Being a 23-year-old female Asian American entrepreneur with a six-figure business … definitely comes with its highs and lows.”

Jonathan Cortizo for CNBC Make It

“I always worked multiple jobs throughout college, and so being able to just have one job that is my own setting, my own hours, making my own schedule has been such a blessing for me,” Torres tells CNBC Make It. “I wake up every morning so excited to work with the clients that I work with and to do what I love.”

Here’s how Torres turned a hobby into a side hustle, and then into a six-figure full-time business.

From hobby to side hustle

Torres bought herself her first camera – a Canon Rebel T3 – in 2012, ahead of a family road trip from New Jersey to Colorado. Along the way, the family stopped at several national parks, and Torres fell in love with capturing nature from behind the lens.

“Even as a 13-year-old, I saw it as an investment,” Torres says. “I bought [it] with the money I had saved up from birthdays and Christmases.”

Torres fell in love with photography at age 13 on a family road trip. Last year, her photography business brought in $177,000 in revenue.

Courtesy of Grace Torres

Initially, her plan was to pursue science in life after college. So in high school, she geared her focus toward academics, carving out time to photograph portraits and birthday parties for fun – occasionally earning $100 for four hours of work.

Then, in college, her side hustle gained traction: In 2019, at age 20, she made roughly $2,000 through freelance photography and graphic design. She started to consider what a full-time photography gig would look like.

Investing in a passion

At first, Torres says, the outlook seemed bleak: She already worked two to three other jobs throughout college, largely to help her afford her camera equipment. But after following other photographers on Instagram, she realized that if she balanced her equipment costs with more shoots, she had a chance of making a full-time living at it.

She increased her availability, and started booking gigs every other week instead of every other month. Roughly a year later, she graduated from Southeastern University and took a paid, part-time internship with a nonprofit to help supplement her finances until she could get her bearings as a full-time freelance photographer.

This year, Torres plans to shoot 34 weddings. Next year, she wants to dial that number down to 27.

Jonathan Cortizo for CNBC Make It

“I’m not a huge risk taker, especially when it comes to finances,” Torres says. “Having that part time job really just gave me the stability and the confidence that I needed to put more time into photography.”

Torres spent a couple months researching sustainable business practices and working on client acquisition through social media. In May 2021, five months after graduating college, she took her photography business full-time.

Combating burnout

Over the past year and a half, Torres has delegated some of her responsibilities. She invested in legal service to help with contracts, hired a CPA to teach her how to file her fledgling business’ taxes and has a contractor who helps her edit photos.

Most days, she says, she feels like she’s living a dream. Other days, however, remind her of the challenges of being a young entrepreneur.

Last year was a banner year for weddings, following the nationwide Covid-19 restrictions of 2020 – and Torres says certainly felt the pressure. She shot 46 weddings in one year, 10 of which were in a single month.

To combat burnout, she’s learned to schedule fewer weddings, even though that means sacrificing income. This year, she’s committed to 34. She plans to cap off next year’s count around 27. She also started outsourcing some of her services from her home office in Lakeland, Florida, paying contractors to edit her photos and manage bookkeeping.

The more of a work-life balance she can build, Torres says, the better.

“I want to continue building my company and growing and scaling, so that I just have more opportunities to work with more couples who I really connect with, and to travel to places that I’ve always wanted to go,” she says.

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