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

In this month’s Creative Spotlight, family photographer Misty Westebbe shares the space with an organization dear to her heart, Professional Photographers of Middle Tennessee, explaining how photographers are always growing and learning through each other and organizations like PPMT. Misty shares her journey of becoming a professional photographer, complete with indoor and outdoor home studios, gorgeous surroundings, and a cute little Hobbit house!

PPMT (Professional Photographers of Middle Tennessee) is an affiliate of the PPA (Professional Photographers of America), a national organization of professional photographers. Can you tell me why being a member of this organization is so meaningful to you?

Both the PPMT and PPA are communities of photographers which offer education, networking, and resources to support the photography industry. The PPMT meets monthly, the TNPPA meets twice a year with 3-4 days of speakers, while the PPA hosts a large annual event each January, set for Nashville in 2023. It is a wonderful opportunity to gain experience from photographers of all styles (portrait, landscape, even videographers), expand your knowledge of both the creative and technical side of photography, and build friendships. I joined shortly after I began my photography business and have found so much value in my membership. I have also been honored to speak at a few meetings, both inside and outside of Tennessee, and will receive my craftsman degree from PPA in Nashville at Imaging USA in January. 

The next monthly PPMT meeting will be held on November 8th, 2022, at South 40. We will have models and shooting locations set up around the property so members can discover all that South 40 has to offer. After sunset, we will hold a traditional meeting, sharing the benefits of PPMT membership. It is a wonderful opportunity to join our organization, establish new connections and both develop and build on your photography skills! We meet every second Tuesday of the month, moving the locations so we can explore different places in the area. In December we will have a Christmas party and will share details with PPMT members and interested photographers on our website. If you are interested in learning about what PPMT has to offer, I encourage you to JOIN US.

Can you share an example of how your PPMT membership has improved your photography business?

One neat skill I learned was cyanotype photography, where the pictures are developed in the sun. It was rewarding to share the experience with my grandkids and watch them share their new skill in an art show. Another example was my very first PPMT meeting. The photographer discussed in-person sales and printing vs. online and digital downloads. I took the information to heart and started my business as a print studio right from the beginning!

Even during COVID, the organization found ways to continue supporting photographers in Tennessee, moving to Zoom meetings to help members earn achievements through education, teaching, and print competitions. I took advantage of this time by learning about Facebook ads and email marketing. I also joined the Business Success Academy, an international group, where I learned more about marketing my business. The summer of 2019 I entered a marketing contest, with first prize being a paid trip to their annual conference in Ireland. I won the contest and now that COVID is behind us, Bruce and I will be attending this coming May. 

How did your journey to becoming a photographer begin and what were a few notable stepping stones on the path to success?

It all began on a farm in rural Arkansas; when I was eight, my aunt gave me a little camera. I would save money to buy film and the little flash cubes, setting up photo shoots on the farm with the animals, siblings, and anything else I could find on grandpa’s farm. Flash forward to adulthood—I went through a major life change and decided that I wouldn’t let my dream sit idle anymore. I rented a studio and began the task of learning the photography business. I attended every photography group meeting I could find, learning from other photographers, and absorbing more than just pointing the camera and shooting.

How did you tackle the “professional” part of being a photographer, from running a business to learning how to purchase and run all the complicated equipment involved?

For the first few years, I attended monthly meetings with the Texarkana Guild of Photographers to learn the ropes of being a professional and understanding the rules. My theory is that you learn the rules, become comfortable with them, and THEN break them!  In 2008, I went to the Texas School of Photography for a week, where instructors taught about everything related to having a photography business—from how to take photos to organizing your business. When they covered the mass of equipment used by professionals, I nearly choked thinking about the amount of money needed, but the very next day we learned that you can take professional photos with a much smaller capital investment. Two years later, I ordered equipment on eBay and slowly built my business, adding new(er) equipment as I made money. It was a slow process, but I avoided the huge capital investment many believe is necessary to start your own business.

Your husband Bruce is your business partner. What led to his leaving his office job to join you in the photography business?

I moved from Arkansas to Tennessee and met Bruce, who immediately supported me in continuing my photography business, although he only heard my words and didn’t fully appreciate the possibilities at first. He had been working in sales from a tiny cubicle for 6 years and wanted to get away from the office environment. Seven years later, Bruce’s contributions are obvious—he exhibits his creativity in finding and renovating props like the old pickup and the Hobbit house, he maintains the 2.5 acre property so it looks beautiful for our shoots, and even manages small tasks like running errands so I can focus on the shoots. After 10 years of marriage and business here in Tennessee, I truly would not have such a gorgeous space without his help and expertise.

Tell me the story of how you established your private studio space, and why South 40 is the perfect location for all photographers.

Although a private studio with indoor and outdoor options is a real blessing, it’s not required to be a successful photographer. From the start, our goal was to find a place we could both live in and run our photography business from. Having grown up with access to land, I had ideas of what I would like, but when we found this property, it was instantly THE PLACE! It did come with some challenges, but the roadblocks fell away and I knew it was God’s way of telling me this was right. We experienced a little bump in the road when a zoning issue came up, and it was a long 7 months waiting for a change in zoning laws. That is how I found South 40, which today complements what my own property offers. In fact, South 40 is just what photographers need as they begin their careers and even now, a place I truly adore working at!

When I look at what we have here, I think of the word “reclaimed” and how it really narrates our lives. Both Bruce and I were starting over in our journeys when we met, and our marriage is proof that our lives are reclaimed. We love filling our place with reclaimed antiques, breathing new life into them with purpose. We built the cabin with reclaimed wood and the little Hobbit house with rocks and timber from the property. These additions help to make our property and the photoshoots we do here a memorable adventure, especially for children having their picture taken. So often we look back at photos of our childhood and seeing the surroundings in the picture remind us of the events that took place there. 

You photograph a wide variety of subjects throughout their lives: from newborn to families, senior pictures to professional headshots, and everything in between. What has helped you to develop such an aptitude for capturing subjects in so many stages? 

I began my career taking senior pictures in Arkansas. My kids and their friends were in high school, and it seemed natural to take those kinds of photos. As my own family entered distinct stages of their lives—growing up and having children—I simply delved into that type of photography. I consider myself a “Family Photographer,” taking pictures of all stages and types of families. As I have built relationships with families over the years, some children whose newborn pictures I took reach out to me to take their senior photos. That means a lot to me—I simply love people!

In your family photos, every member of the family has that SPARK—how do you find and capture it? 

I strive to ensure photo shoots are fun and stress-free. I find that if I am irritable or rush the family members, it will show in their reactions. I have learned to “go with the flow” and be patient with my subjects, especially infants and children.  I try to make conversation and work to ensure everyone is having a good time.  And when all else fails, Bruce has the secret weapon—he has this Donald Duck voice that sends every adult laughing, and that laughter is contagious!

You focus on offering print services and not just a digital download of the pictures you have taken. What is the purpose for this traditional approach?

Clients can be overwhelmed with as many as 150 images, and they often struggle to reduce them to a manageable amount.  I don’t want them to go back later and try to choose one they would display in their homes. When we sit down together and discuss the photos, it is much easier for them to choose the specific pictures they want to hang in their homes.  Some clients think a digital photo is the answer, but they aren’t accessible, and clients may neglect to turn those gorgeous photos into wall portraits to show others.  Everything 11×14 or larger is framed and installed in my client’s home—another one of Bruce’s contributions! It is so rewarding, especially for the kids, to see their faces shining in their home. 

South 40 is a special place which allows all photographers the opportunity to experience all types of shoots. Although you have your own studio, why do you come back to South 40? 

I regularly have requests for two things I can’t offer: fields of tall grass and access to a creek or a river and South 40 has both!

What piece of sage advice would you give new photographers?

Whether or not you plan to have your own studio, you need a support team! For example, 8 years ago I wanted to do a unicorn shoot with ponies. I simply could not do that on my own! If you are a one-person operation, you need to either hire help or enlist family and friends to keep the shoot going. If you are looking to set up a studio, utilize props, or build something on your property like I did, start slowly. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Even your ideas may take a while to come to mind or to become a reality.

Another aspect of a “support team” comes through fellowship with other photographers. This is where membership in your local PPA is so valuable. The industry is always changing, and you learn so much from your friends, who are also your competitors! Forget trends—focus on what your clients want and what you are proud to display. There is nothing new under the sun in the photography business. For example, I have used an old sofa in some of my photos. Once while visiting a historic home in Nashville, I came across a photo taken in the 1800’s where a sofa is displayed in an outdoor setting in the photo—just like we are doing today! Photographs have always shown off the subjects’ personalities. In most instances, these ideas simply haven’t reached people due to the lack of digital technology and social media. My great-grandmother took many of my family’s pictures, and even had a dark room in her farmhouse.  While researching my family genealogy, I came across photos which could have been taken today—but they were taken in the 1900’s. We aren’t discovering anything new; we are simply exhibiting the beauty of people which we have been celebrating for thousands of years.

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