Down-to-earth, adventurous, and fun-loving photographer, Kirsten Cunningham puts her success down to 3 things; mentors, 10,000 hours, and the universe. And even though she got a lot of ‘no’s' when starting out, it’s strikingly clear that that one ‘yes’ changed everything.
Tell us a little bit about your photography business; Kirsten Cunningham Photography.
I’m a photographer based in Orange, NSW. I photograph weddings, commercial work, family portraits, businesses, and architecture in and around the Central West.
My photography is definitely an extension of me. My style is candid, relaxed, and very natural. I love being outside and photographing in beautiful spaces!
What inspired you to develop/start your photography business?
I was really lost after finishing school in Coffs Harbour. I got good grades and enrolled in International Business and Law at uni but just couldn’t go through with it. My mum pushed me kindly to take a gap year instead and I travelled for a few years working in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
When I came back to Australia I had the worst reverse culture shock! The world seemed so small until I went to uni and studied Media and Communications and was able to throw myself into politics, art, culture, and writing. I always thought I’d become a journalist or work in the NGO sector overseas in some kind of media role after studying, but I fell in love, stayed in Australia, and started focusing on the most beautiful things in life, not the most heartbreaking.
So I quit my adventure travel office job, enrolled in a Masters of Fine Arts in Photography, and cold-called a few photographers in my area to get some experience. I got a lot of no’s but one yes changed everything.
Kylie Roberts, a kid's portrait and family photographer in Sydney took me on and became my boss and mentor for five years. I learnt more about light, small business, and working with people than I ever could at uni or figuring it out myself. I spent five years photographing kids and families and now working with children is one of my superpowers!
That was 12 years ago, and as soon as I moved out of Sydney I took the leap and set up my own business and I’ve been almost fully booked ever since!
As a photographer, what’s one of your most memorable shoots?
The crazy thing is I learnt how to use an SLR camera off the back of a safari truck I worked on in Africa using film. I’d have to wait weeks to see what the images were like when we stayed somewhere long enough to get the film developed in Zimbabwe or South Africa. So my baseline is very weird and exotic! I’ve done some cool stuff!!
Then the first wedding I ever booked that was my own was in Tuscany in an Italian Villa. It was so epic.
I also lived in Central Queensland before I moved to Orange where one of my clients was a lifestyle clothing brand. We’d do content shoots on Great Keppel Island and just hang out in the middle of the day in between shooting on the beach - it was so fun. Elopements on the Blue Mountains escarpment are some of my current faves and also doing really fun events like the Huddle in Orange and networking with other women top the list these days and have replaced lions.
What would you say is your greatest accomplishment?
Professionally, being published in major newspapers and magazines felt so far away when I studied journalism at uni. After I moved to Orange, the Australian published my images a few times but then I stopped answering the phone because it wasn’t the type of work I wanted to do. My 22-year-old self was very proud.
Being on the cover of Gourmet Traveler Wine last year with shots of Printhie’s new cellar door was so cool.
I won a top 20 and a top 30 award in the Australia’s Best Wedding Photographer by Capture Magazine recently - that was really cool. It’s the highest I’ve ever placed and the photographers that were also on the list are world-renowned.
There are so many little moments I never take for granted, but being published alongside very talented creatives is always a highlight.
What advice would you give another woman who’s looking to start her own business?
Google imposter syndrome and sort that shit out first up! Not believing in yourself cripples your business and you.
Find good mentors. Really good ones. Women you can trust, who support you and are 10 steps ahead of you in their business. They will help you set up your processes from the start to prevent a whole bunch of hard mistakes. It doesn’t have to be brutal starting out - you don’t need to make every mistake.
Trust yourself - have goals and be open to things that you’ve never even thought of. You already have a skill set - everything you did at school, studying, your first job, your current career, parenting - everything adds up. You are already strong, resilient, and capable. Don’t wait to feel that way before you do anything because you already have everything you need to get started.
What is your personal definition of success?
It took a long time to reconcile that just because I wasn’t a journalist for ABC or Reuters, that I hadn't somehow failed. I was so miserable following a corporate career path. It’s just not me.
I feel like I was prepped at school to ‘do great things’. And then spent 10 years trying to achieve success without knowing who I was or what I wanted to do.
Now I run my own business that celebrates creativity, love, and joy. I document moments in people’s lives that become part of their family history. It’s the macro stories I love.
I have flexibility, freedom, and opportunities for creative and business growth, and I can be outside just as much as I’m in the office. I genuinely love what I do. My business suits me. It is me. And I’m really damn happy!
I’ve realised that creating the life I want to lead is success for me. My business and my personal life are intertwined. They exist together. If I thrive, I give the best to my clients and my kids and they thrive too. I don’t need to be on the world scale - I’m quite happy being at a local level.
What’s on the horizon for you in 2023?
My business ebbs and flows so much. After covid, I was photographing a lot of weddings as three years worth of weddings were jammed into one!
This year is already quite different. Slightly fewer weddings, more lifestyle, Airbnbs, branding, and headshots photography.
I’m loving smaller-scale branding and business shoots - like the ones I’ve done for this edition of Downtown. They are such an amazing way to collaborate and connect with other amazing local women. I want to spend some time submitting for awards and publications because they push me creatively too.
Location: ORANGE | NSW Website: kirstencunningham.com