This week we’re welcoming the lovely Carla Thomas to the podcast, who’s sharing her creative journey and side hustle stories.
We were very excited to get Carla on because we’re really keen on talking about all the different ways to run a business, including full time, portfolio careers and side hustles. The right balance is different for every person.
And she’s another Carla! (Carla was very excited about this.)
Carla is a wedding and branding photographer, originally from London and now based in Cambridgeshire. She fell in love with photography in school, and loved computers at the same time, and early on was faced with the dilemma of which route to go down.
After graduation and a photography course punctuated by heart surgery (!), she helped a family friend with photographing a wedding. She found the behind the scenes of a wedding really interesting, she’s a people watcher and she didn’t mind the 12 hour days – and her wedding photography side hustle was born!
As she tells us, wedding photography needs some serious people skills – it’s often the photographer who makes sure things run to time, who herds people between places for photos, and who can anticipate mood changes and needs.
And after 18 years, she still has a smile on her face as she talks about it – which made us both smile as well! Happy work is the best!
Taking the leap
After a couple of years, Carla did the odd wedding for friends or acquaintances if asked, and it wasn’t until 2010ish that, with encouragement from her other half, she set up a company and started doing it properly. Like many of us, she was dealing with a fear of “what if it doesn’t work”. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
All three of us have experienced the industry’s unwillingness to share information and “secrets”, and how hard it can be to learn what you need to progress. It was not a supportive community!
Carla’s work journey started with an Information Systems with European Studies degree, and then working a normal 9-5 type job in a healthcare company, doing the training in a company that created & maintained software for hospitals.
She describes it as a “baptism of fire in some ways”, but also met one of her oldest friends there, and learned a lot from her clients and her colleagues. She stayed working in healthcare, on the implementation side, starting new teams, working in marketing and starting an events team.
So in her 9-5 role, she’s always been telling stories, sharing client stories, how they’re using the systems, and she’s able to use her degree and do something she loves. And then she also gets to do photography, which she’s always been into.
Happy work & common sense
That’s the common sense we expect people to have and then often they just… don’t.
Carla talks about balancing the 9-5 with her photography business as a side hustle, and how having a supportive boss in the day job definitely makes it easier to juggle – and means she never felt like she had to choose between the two.
Fast forward to the end of 2019, redundancy, and a perfect opportunity to focus more on photography.
And then there was a pandemic…
2020 started well, with a residential retreat with the Wedding Breakfast Club, a group of wedding suppliers who support, learn from and inspire each other. And then shortly after that, March happened and the pandemic threw her plans into disarray.
(I wonder how long we’ll be talking about March 2020? Making a mental note to come back at the end of season 25 and check… 😂)
We were struck by how amazingly Carla was able to support her clients with emotional energy, while also juggling the pandemic impact on her own business. As she says, all the rescheduling and uncertainty sucked the joy out of wedding planning for so many couples, and to be able to return that sense of joy to them is wonderful.
While not really wanting to pick up her camera between March and May, she then decided to go back to her first love, of landscapes and travel photography. Inspired by other photographers during the pandemic doing things like photographing every item in their house, and missing her travels, she created an elephant safari scene with some models and also started experimenting with photographing coloured liquids, food, macro closeups of flowers and veg and fruit. You can see some of the results over on her Instagram highlights and they are fabulous!
Decisions and choices and plans, oh my!
It turns out when you’ve been doing two things you love for 14 years, having one of them taken away makes you feel a bit lost. Deciding whether to go full time with photography at this point was, for Carla, entwined with her love of healthcare and a craving to be around people too.
Having had a heart condition since birth, healthcare is super important to her (and while she wasn’t put off by witnessing open heart surgery, she’s chosen not to pursue any job which involves hurting people, even temporarily with a cannula or injection).
We had a really interesting chat about whether Carla views these two things she does as parts of an overall portfolio career, or as two essential halves of a whole.
There is, or at least there used to be, a weird stigma around photography, a perception by some people that if you didn’t do it full time, or you shot clients at weekends while working a day job, then you weren’t doing it “properly”.
Obviously, this is not an opinion we tolerate and, as Carla puts it, if you’re doing both things, you enjoy them, it’s working and your clients and your boss are all happy – why the hell not?
She does touch on the recurring theme of not wanting something you love to become a chore, which holds some creatives back from turning what they love to do into a business. We have definitely also both experienced this at various times in our businesses and careers.
Not being dependent on one single income stream is part of the equation here too – for Carla and Sarah and Carla, but also more widely – if you have income that isn’t from your creative thing, it takes some pressure off and means you’re more likely to still view your creative thing with joy and purpose.
Clearing your mind & mental health
Things that Carla does to help with good mental health (particularly during the pandemic lockdowns, but also just generally): walking at least an hour a day by herself, looking at things in new ways, getting her 10,000 steps in in a way that very few of us did when we were moving from the kitchen to the sofa and back in the first lockdown. And taking her camera out to photograph things on her own time, not for a client, just to try things out.
Glorious exhibition moment
The “glorious moment” question is our absolute favourite, and Carla’s answer was epic! Following the death of George Floyd, she discovered a new community of black female photographers in the UK, worried about whether her work was good enough (it is! But we love her for her honesty), entered some of her stunning series from Iceland, and eventually exhibited alongside the other members in Warsaw.
The We Are Here exhibition is touring, and you can see the virtual exhibition over on the UKBFTOG website.
Virtual high five – isn’t this a great answer?
We LOVE Carla’s candid approach to doing two things she loves – and juggling a day job and a side hustle business is still complex, even when you enjoy them both. She’s an inspiration and you definitely need to see more of her work, so:
Get more Carla Thomas in your life
Find her at carlathomasphoto.com for weddings, portraits, travel and branding.
Find her brilliant prints here.
Connect on Instagram – @carlathomasphoto