Owner, Ashley Smith Photo LLC
Selected to be part of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Enterprising Women of Color Business Center’s Small Business Marketing Bootcamp and Accounting Software Troubleshooting Lab
Commercial photographer Ashley Smith is living her dream of operating a commercial studio in Honolulu and empowering women through her work.
Ashley’s photography career began as a hobby after she became a parent and started taking photos of her sons. Combining her professional expertise in film/TV production with her husband’s expertise as a gaffer (chief lighting technician), she realized she wanted to be in a studio creating magazine-style images.
“To own a commercial space in Hawaii is really difficult, but I knew this was my passion,” Ashley explained. “When our studio space opened up, I begged my husband and said I needed it. It was a regular office space, but we (my husband and I) raised the roof, and he created the studio set that’s super functional in a small space.”
In 2018, she opened her very own Ashley Smith Photo LLC studio, and she spent the next two years building her business from the ground up. Then when the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, she took time to pause and reevaluate her business model. “I was trying to hustle and show that the studio was going to be profitable,” Ashley reflected. “The pandemic allowed me to come back to what I was about and focus on women. I was getting burnt out doing every photography job that I was offered, but I went back to what I wanted to do.”
It was during this period that Ashley decided to concentrate on photographing women over 40 because of the stigma that “after 40, it’s all downhill” and to shift the focus from celebrating women under 40 to those over 40 who have sacrificed for their families and then gone on to do amazing things after their children have graduated. Ashley’s “Fabulous 40 Over 40” project involves pampering clients and taking portraits of them in the way they dreamed of seeing themselves photographed, but the highlight for her is watching them walk away after their shoot with confidence.
Ashley sets herself apart from other photographers by first doing consultations with each client to make sure both of their expectations are in alignment and they’re a good fit for each other. She creates a mood board so the clients and her team can be on the same page on what looks they’ll be shooting.
She also requires each client to get their hair and makeup by a professional artist that she hires to provide services in-studio and remain present throughout the photoshoot for touchups. Moreover, Ashley and her team set and steam each client’s clothes to make sure everything is perfect. “I take the approach from my producing and coordinating background,” she said. “Everything is planned out and I can concentrate on making my client feel comfortable and focus on them having fun. My clients love their headshots. Why? Because they’re taken care of during the whole process.”
When asked what her biggest challenge as a woman entrepreneur has been, Ashley responded: “Getting over myself saying I would never make it as a commercial photographer, that I would never be able to match up to the guys who just kill it with lighting. I’ve joined great photography groups locally and abroad and I now know that women can kill it in the studio too. It’s really about your self-confidence. Once I was confident, I was able to say no to the clients that don’t fit. Once I started to say no, that helped me and made my business way better. I was happy to be working with clients who really wanted to work with me.
Today, Ashley’s studio is profitable, and she continues to make a difference in the lives of those she photographs. She’s now looking into hiring her first employee and hopes to develop a teaching or coaching program to help other photographers learn how to build a profitable business. She’s also proud of her ability to say, with confidence, that she’s really good at what she does. “I think women are so quick to say no and downplay who they are and what they stand for. At this point in my career, I’m so confident in saying, ‘I’m really a damn good photographer.’ I’m here to embolden women and remind them of who they were prior to getting married and having children, tell them how amazing they are, and show them what a shining light they are because sometimes they do forget.”
Ashley was introduced to the MBDA Enterprising Women of Color Business Center by another client and participated in the Small Business Marketing Bootcamp and Accounting Software Troubleshooting Lab. “We’re on the same journey and I look at what other people are doing, and I think, ‘How can we team up?’” she said. “It’s not only what we learned, it’s who we met along the way in these groups. Women want to partner up and collaborate. We’re always thinking of new business ideas together and applying a lot of what we’re learning and doing.”
To her fellow woman entrepreneurs and small business owners, Ashley offers the following advice: “One, you’re worth it. Two, you started it (your business), or you want to start it because it’s your passion. Yes, it’s going to be tough, but find a way to make it something that provides for you and your family. Don’t give up. If you need, there’s always someone to help you. Women have a hard time asking for help. People want to see you succeed and don’t forget that. Be confident. I can’t wait to read about your success story soon.”