The South 40 Creative Spotlight showcases creative talent we love to work with! Discover some of our favorite photographers, videographers and more!

This month’s Creative Spotlight features Dalena Watson, an imaginative children, family, and fine art photographer. Discovering photography in her desire to capture her own child’s milestones, Dalena has developed a sense of whimsy and fantasy which shine through in all aspects of her photography style. She exhibits a softness which displays tenderness and bonds between her subjects, and she strives to reveal the love in families through the lens. Her method shows tenderness and bonds between her subjects, and she strives to reveal the love in families through the lens. As her fine art photography and growing use of cosplay has evolved, she has provided clients with fun memories of their families that they can share for generations to come.

Adults may not always want to have their photos taken, but they all want pictures of their children. What are some of the most rewarding (and most challenging) aspects to photographing children?

As a parent witnessing firsthand how quickly children grow, I can tell you the most rewarding thing about photographing them is being there to capture the details that we all want to preserve and remember the most. The little hands and toes, the chubby cheeks, their eyelashes and hair, the way their eyes sparkle when they see mommy and daddy, and just witnessing their exploration of the world. Everything is so new, interesting, and magical through a child’s eye and it is absolutely beautiful to me. In the beginning of my photography journey, I tried so hard to get the “perfectly posed” and “facing the camera” shots; that was extremely challenging. I wanted kids to conform to what I wanted the photographs to look like. Now I embrace every aspect of who they are individually and by photographing with more of a storytelling approach I get those cherished details, the smiles, and the magic, while still focusing on creating beautiful imagery.

There remains a portion of the population who think that anyone can take photos with an expensive camera. Can you share with me some of the realities you have learned on your path to becoming a photographer?

I love this question because I do believe anyone can take a photo with their phone or camera, no matter how expensive it is. However, my journey with photography has taught me that being a photographer is so much more than just the picture. A great photograph has the elements of beautiful lighting, emotions, connection, composition, color theory, and creativity. That is why as a photographer, my job is so much more than just clicking a button on a camera. I help my clients bring out the feelings to capture a memory for them. When they look at their photographs, I want them to remember and feel those emotions and their connection to each other. I need to understand lighting and color theory, because even the smallest details like the colors in our images can evoke certain moods and reactions. So, although anyone can take a photo, it takes even more to be a photographer.

Your FINE ART photographs capture children in some of our favorite childhood stories. What was the inspiration to starting this type of photography and where do you get your ideas (and great props!)?

I started photographing families in 2019, and I was prepared to make 2020 the grand opening of my photography business. Instead, the pandemic forced me to postpone it. I had been dabbling in fine art photography, but I was truly sold on the idea when I realized I loved editing just as much as capturing the pictures. I started with simple head-swapping during family sessions or adding in a pretty overlay here and there. When I capture an outstanding image of a child with all smiles, while the rest of the family is smiling in another image, I can combine the two to create a better overall image. I started playing around with different overlays and experimenting with Photoshop in images of my son. Although I haven’t seen a lot of cosplay photography involving kids, I knew that is what I wanted to create for them. I find inspiration in storybooks, fairy tales, movies, mythical creatures, toys, and just the magic of a child’s imagination. Nowadays I use mostly my own photographs in my work, but I do also subscribe to Adobe Stock and other stock resources to create my images. Sometimes I will take photos of random items I think might look good in a future photo, so my stock collection just keeps growing!

New photographers often find the early part of their education is in simply learning how to master the equipment. Do you have any specific advice (or caveats) in speeding that process up?

Learning the equipment is crucial and can only come with time and practice. The best advice I can give to new photographers is to practice constantly and try to shoot as much as you can. Shooting in several types of light, locations, and subjects will help you learn those settings on your camera much faster, improving your ability to adapt to different situations. I learn a lot from YouTube and from participating in online social communities like Summerana, Click Community and Hello Storyteller. Although sharing your work online can be intimidating, I believe that getting outside opinions and constructive criticism is the fastest way to improve.

Although you are a professional, it is often said that art can be therapy. Has photography even been a source of comfort during a challenging time? How were you inspired by your grief, either during the process or in reflection?

Photography has been therapeutic for me in several different ways. I began my journey to become a photographer for the same reason many people do—to take better pictures of my child. My husband and I have been together for over a decade and have experienced loss in our journey of becoming parents. We have one son and recognizing the blessing of having children is the main reason I started taking photos.  Another experience came after I purchased my first camera in 2018. My beloved Mammaw passed away a month before my son’s first birthday. I dove into learning photography with such intensity because it relieved my grief. I was really close to her—even talking on the phone several times a day. She never got the chance to see any of my photos, but she has been a big inspiration and appears in so much of my work. Her favorite color was blue, and I am motivated to feature a variety of different shades of blue in my work, as well as in all my celestial themed photos.

For many photographers, one of the hardest parts of building the business is purchasing equipment. One cannot take photos without the equipment and cannot buy the equipment without taking photos! What is your advice for newcomers looking to make the best equipment investment decisions?

Equipment was a struggle for me as well. I started out with a crop sensor Nikon camera with a 50mm f1.8 lens, taking all my pictures in 2019 with that one camera and lens. I began by taking photos for friends, family, and co-workers; they supported me when they saw the photos I took of my son and wanted me to create the same for their families. I pinched every penny to upgrade my camera body to a full frame mirrorless Sony, but I still use a 50mm lens. That “nifty fifty” has been with me from the beginning, and I highly recommend it as the best starting lens. I have now branched out to include an 85 (my favorite), a 35 and a 135. What helped me early in my career, when the process was so overwhelming, was paying attention to other photographers’ work which liked and paying attention to the equipment they used to shoot with. My favorite photographer (Iwona Podlasinska) shoots most often with both an 85 and 135, so it became my goal to get those lenses, while using my 50mm to slowly reach that goal.

Creativity comes naturally to photographers like you; however, many photographers tell me that the financial and organizational duties of being a professional photographer have prevented them from growing their businesses. How have you learned to balance what you LOVE to do with what you HAVE to do with your business?

I am just now starting my professional photography business, but what has helped me the most in transitioning from hobby to professional is investing in a great studio management system. Both Dubsado and Pixieset Studio Manager are excellent, and another great tool is an easy booking manager like Session. This allows me to easily keep track of the business essentials like contracts and invoices while being free to focus on the part I love the most—which is creating beautiful pictures!

The photos you have taken at South 40 not only highlight your clients but could be used to advertise the location—the lighting, the textures, the details found throughout the grounds. How did you discover South 40 and what makes it a photography goldmine in the Franklin area?

I discovered South 40 by simply searching online for photography venues in the area. I was excited to see other family photographers like me (and not just wedding photographers) using the area. I love to scout locations for photos, but what makes South 40 so unique is the variety in one place which also provides privacy for photographers and their clients. So far, I have visited the sunflower fields and the White Room, both of which are gorgeous! I love having a safe place I can go to for seasonal flowers and setups like the sunflowers without having to jump through hoops to get to shoot in them. I cannot wait to visit again and explore some more!

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