Fear can be a powerful force, a crippling roadblock to success. But it can also be a powerful motivator, an energizing stimulus for growth. For Lisa Rhinehart, it was what set her free. “The biggest thing that changed for me over the years was letting go of fear,” says the wedding photographer.
In addition to her wedding work, Rhinehart also takes on a fair number of high school senior, family, and commercial sessions from her base in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. Her work is bold, adventurous, and playful—an interpretive reflection of clients’ unique personalities and interests. It’s the style that she started out with, and that hasn’t changed much over the 12 years she’s been plying her trade. What has changed is the way she presents herself to the world. She’s no longer afraid to let her personality shine.
“If you looked at my website when I started, you’d see something very different from what’s out there today,” says Rhinehart. “I used to think you should just show your photography and not yourself. Even in my About section, I literally didn’t talk about myself but my ideal client instead. I just didn’t think who I was as a person would matter, that it was just about the work.”
Starting a business is stressful, and Rhinehart, like many cautiously optimistic new business owners, wanted to do everything right. She knew the statistics about how many businesses failed within the first year, so she was methodical from the outset. She didn’t go full time until she had the gear she needed and knew she could replace her income as a children’s librarian. And that was smart. Fear of failing helped keep her from failing. But her caution eventually became a handicap. She had self-censored so much that her online persona was a bit bland. It didn’t match the vibrant personality clients enjoyed in their personal interactions with her. The epiphany came when Rhinehart saw how well her behind-the-scenes and personal Instagram posts were resonating with her audience.
“That was when I realized I needed to be out there,” she says. “I finally recognized that these couples are spending a lot of time with me, so it’s important for them to feel comfortable with who I am, not just the work I do.” It was also when she saw that her work, though entirely focused on clients, was also an extension of her personality. Though inspired by her clients, the images represented her vision, her creative interpretation.
So Rhinehart course-corrected her marketing. Along with her client images, she began posting more personal and behind-the-scenes images to Instagram, which created a true-to-life online persona. She hired a photographer to take profile pictures of her to use on her site and social profiles. And she not only made her About page about her, she also infused her entire site with her bright voice and vision while still providing all the information prospective clients were looking for. She covered what it’s like to work with her, explained the process from beginning to end, and added testimonials.
“I used to think that if people wanted to know more about me, they could Google me and read the reviews,” she says. “But that’s a lot of work for people. You want to make the job of hiring you as easy as possible—everything they need in one place.”
“It’s a much easier sell now that I changed my approach because I get clients that want exactly what I’m doing. I’ve had incredible clients the entire time, and I’ve been so lucky. But now it’s even easier because I don’t have to sell the ideas so much. They’ve seen how I work and what I do.”Lisa Rhinehart
Rhinehart focuses on being a personalized and personable photographer. She zeroes in on clients’ individual stories to create portraits that feel true to them. That might put her up a tree, knee-deep in a stream, braving a ski slope, or setting up in a CrossFit gym to create the experience she knows a client will value most. Putting behind-the-scenes moments out as part of her branding cements her reputation for delivering personalized experiences and images. Clients know she’s willing to enter their world, customize their time together, and capture portraits that feel unique to them.
“It’s a much easier sell now that I changed my approach because I get clients that want exactly what I’m doing,” says Rhinehart. “I’ve had incredible clients the entire time, and I’ve been so lucky. But now it’s even easier because I don’t have to sell the ideas so much. They’ve seen how I work and what I do.”
Rhinehart says another important fear she was able to jettison was of making mistakes. With the way she shoots, she’s always trying something new and, she says, “It’s often a little crazy.” Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s just how it is when you keep pushing the envelope.
“I’m not afraid to try big ideas and think outside of the box,” she says. “Putting clients first is really important to me. I’m not at their wedding to get portfolio images, I’m there to do exactly what they want me to do. Even if it’s something I’m not that excited about, like the detail shots or an empty dress hanging on the door, I always try to make it fun.”
Simply put, Rhinehart loves connecting with people. With her wedding and engagement couples, she starts out with big questions in her first getting-to-know-you emails, asking what makes them unique and to give some fun facts about themselves. Next comes an hour-long video chat to dive in even deeper and uncover the details that will make their portraits and wedding photos look like no others.
“We brainstorm together. They might mention being Star Wars fans, and I’ll say ‘Can you bring light sabers?’ Or we’re on their farm and I’m like, ‘Let’s get in there will all the baby turkeys,’” says Rhinehart. “Once I know their interests, who they are, and what’s important to them, I create a plan that blends who they are and what they want with my expertise.”
An important part of that plan is flexibility for play and experimentation.
“I always build in plenty of time so that no one feels rushed, and the couple can emote in an authentic way,” she says. “We can play around, and I can make mistakes. I’m always trying things even if I don’t know they’re possible.”
Making room for the creative process is integral to Rhinehart’s workflow because it’s how most of her award-winning images came to life. Like the silhouette of a couple on a hill that’s actually a reflection captured on the back of her iPhone, or the photo of the flower girl finally getting a taste of the chocolate fountain while the dance floor pulses behind her.
“I set my clients’ expectations from the beginning,” she says. “I tell them we’re going to get some wild shots, and that some will be terrible but not to worry because we can always lose them. I tell them not to be afraid to make mistakes but to be goofy and be themselves. That’s what their loved ones are going to want. These photos are often for people who haven’t even been born yet. These are the photos that show who they really are.”
Embracing the idea that creating great images can be a little messy and that it’s OK to play and experiment has rewarded Rhinehart with more than just happy clients. It’s given her the confidence to enter print competitions and put her work under the judging microscope. And that confidence, coupled with determination, led her to earn 16 Lifetime Fearless Awards to date and to be named among the Top 25 Fearless Photographers in the United States in 2019.
“This is what gives me energy, doing this crazy stuff with my couples,” she says. “Meeting unique people and doing things I haven’t done before—basically letting go of all that fear I had and not holding back—that’s what’s kept me energized and excited about what I do.”
Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.