I Quit Taking “Safe” Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life.

Spanki Mills spent years making pretty pictures. Then a wave of photography burnout prompted her to stop playing it safe and start creating art…


I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Senior photographer Spanki Mills. Avoid photography burnout when you quit playing it safe.

Photography Burnout.

That’s what Spanki Mills was experiencing two years into a very successful stretch of photographing high-school seniors in Austin, Texas.

“I did everything right. I followed the rules. I thought that’s what the industry wanted from me.” – SPANKI MILLS

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Senior photographer Spanki Mills. Avoid photography burnout when you quit playing it safe.
Portrait of Spanki Mills

Late one night, as she stared numbly at a beautiful senior session she was editing, she asked herself, “Why do I hate this?”

It took a year-and-a-half of soul-searching to find her answer.

For one-and-a-half years Spanki took a break from photography to find her WHY.

“I was taking a beautiful girl with the perfect makeup and the perfect hair and the perfect outfit, and I was putting her in the perfect light. But I don’t perceive the world that way. The world is not perfect to me – because of my insecurities, because of my childhood, because of the way I feel my emotions… I was giving my clients perfect images, but I was taking away the emotion and the raw.” – SPANKI MILLS

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Avoid photography burnout when you quit playing it safe. Classicly beautiful red-haired teen poses in front of white brick wall.
Photos by Spanki Mills

Photography Burnout Can Look Like Success. It Feels Like Despair.

When we think of burnout and business we often think of overflowing inboxes and jam-packed calendars.

But photography burnout can masquerade as something desirable, like that expensive shirt that looked incredible on the hanger, but leaves you itchy and uncomfortable, tugging at the neck every time you wear it.

Though Spanki was booking a steady stream of clients who raved about her work, she was feeling more and more disconnected from the images she was making. They felt uncomfortable. They didn’t fit.

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Avoid photography burnout when you quit playing it safe.

Remember Why You Picked Up A Camera In the First Place

Was it just to make money? Or – like Spanki – did you want to create? Did you want to connect with people and tell their stories? The moment your why for doing the work vanishes from your process, photography burnout sets in.

“By keeping my photos very safe and very surface, not only was I not being fed, but I was doing my clients an injustice. I wasn’t telling their stories.” – SPANKI MILLS

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Avoid photography burnout when you quit playing it safe. Senior boy stands on a wharf.
Photo by Spanki Mills

The Spiritual Rebranding of Spanki Mills

It took nearly two years, but during that time Spanki found her why, and picked up her camera with a renewed vision for her senior photography. She would reemerge with a style that was exquisite in it’s honest imperfection. Her young clients loved it. Their parents, Spanki would learn, would come to love it even more.

“I tell my seniors, you know, sometimes I leave out your face. Sometimes it’s not in focus. Sometimes I use shadows to hide things and to allow mood to creep in, because I don’t know what you’ve gone through for the first 18 years, but most likely you’ve gone through some junk. If you haven’t gone through some junk, then in next 18, 20, 40, or 50 years, you’re going to go through some junk.

“I want you to aways remember that who you are without the perfect makeup and the perfect light is beautiful. You in your raw state is beautiful.” – SPANKI MILLS

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. Senior girl with wheelchair photographed in color and black-and-white.
Photos by Spanki Mills

Forget Logos. Let’s Talk Soul.

Visit Spanki’s website, and you’ll see: her branding is lovely, but it isn’t center-stage. Her stories are.

Spanki reveals herself with an open authenticity one rarely finds in photographers’ websites, whose bios often read like an online dating profile or one of those chain email surveys from the 90s that asked you 20 questions then instructed you to forward your answers to five friends so you’d have shiny hair that week.

Even Spanki’s portfolio was re-crafted to reflect her complete devotion to telling true stories through her lens.

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Avoid photography burnout when you quit playing it safe. You man smiling in a white t-shirt and vintage hat.
Photos by Spanki Mills

“I only show the work I’ve pushed the furthest to get. I still take the pretty shots, the ones for Mom, but then I start using light and shadow and movement and wind. People hire me for that work.” – SPANKI MILLS

“You sell what you show,” any good salesperson will say. And Spanki doesn’t want to sell her services based on photos she doesn’t want to be making. So she doesn’t show them.

A few of those “safe” photos exist, tucked away in each senior’s ShootProof gallery for a less adventurous family member to order and enjoy. But the photographs Spanki doesn’t find revealing in some way – the “photography burnout images”? They never get showcased.

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Senior girl frolicking in a sunlit field.
Photos by Spanki Mills

“I’m Doing What I’m Meant To Do.”

These days, Spanki doesn’t aim to please the masses. She knows the stories she wants to tell, and she’s ready to tell them when the right people reach out to her.

“I want to photograph people who need to see the beauty inside themselves.” – SPANKI MILLS

In 2017, one young woman in particular stood out to Spanki. She was shy and uncomfortable being photographed, but she was beautiful, and Spanki fought to draw her out of her discomfort. The result was a series of striking portraits delivered as Spanki always does: in a private ShootProof gallery, accompanied by a delicate glass box of square proofs from White House Custom Colour.

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - WHCC prints, albums, and photography products
Photo of WHCC: White House Custom Colour proof prints by Spanki Mills

Also included in the young woman’s package was a product credit, which most seniors use to purchase one of Spanki’s custom WHCC albums. Months had passed, however, and the girl hadn’t placed her product order.

Life gets busy. Students often wait until after graduation. Spanki wasn’t worried.

Then she got a phone call. It was the young woman’s mom.

The day after graduation, the shy senior had been tragically killed in an accident. Her parents had never seen her photographs, and her laptop was password protected. Could Spanki help them with obtaining a photograph for the young woman’s memorial service?

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Avoid photography burnout when you quit playing it safe. Beautiful blonde looking haunted in a black-and-white portrait.
Photo by Spanki Mills

“So I went to the mom’s house and sat in her living room as we went through the ShootProof gallery and selected a photograph for her daughter’s funeral. As we scrolled through the gallery, she gasped and said, ‘I could hear her laughter right then.’ That sent chills through me because I knew: I’m doing what I’m meant to do.” – SPANKI MILLS

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Avoid photography burnout when you quit playing it safe. Shy senior girl photographed in a sunlit field.
Photos by Spanki Mills

If 2017 Spanki had been shooting like 2008 Spanki, the photographs that so moved a young woman’s mother would never have existed. There would have been pretty pictures, but the story would have been a mere memory. Spanki made a shy senior’s laughter live through the pure determination to make photographs that mattered.

When you conquer photography burnout, you don’t just become a happier photographer. You change the photographic experience of every individual who steps in front of your camera. Now your photographs pack a punch. They’re rich with story, and embossed with your creative thumbprint.

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - WHCC prints, albums, and photography products
Photo of WHCC: White House Custom Colour album by Spanki Mills

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Avoid photography burnout when you quit playing it safe.

“I Had To Come To Terms With My Own Junk Before I Could Deal With Anyone Else’s.”

When she looks back, Spanki knows why her initial work was distant and disconnected. During her break from photography, she leaned hard into her own growth, facing down the kinds of demons most of us prefer to flick off our shoulders repeatedly rather than address.

Was it tough work? Absolutely. But she did it. After all: she’s a Texan.

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Avoid photography burnout when you quit playing it safe. Teen drives pauses to stand in the sun and absorb some vitamin D.
Photos by Spanki Mills

Photography Burnout Isn’t For Pansies. Find Your Tribe.

Now, years removed from the struggle, Spanki embraces her scars and bruises. One might argue that, if you haven’t experienced some form of photography burnout, you haven’t really lived.

Spanki pairs with vendor partners who understand her struggle and support her growth. Though she serves Austin, Spanki lives nearly two hours away from her ideal client. In-person sales isn’t a viable sales method for her, and she relies heavily on ShootProof to manage her digital delivery, as well as all of her print and product orders through WHCC, her favorite lab.

“Everyone gets my next-to-biggest package, which includes digital downloading through ShootProof and a product credit. Then everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – chooses a WHCC album!” – SPANKI MILLS

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Senior photographer Spanki Mills
Portrait of Spanki Mills and her son Baylen Mills

Outside of work, Spanki’s tribe is her family. Her oldest son graduates from high school himself in a few short months, and Spanki is glad her “business ball” is at a place where it can roll along without too much tending.

But she knows she has to keep one eye open for the ever-ready photography burnout demons. This time, at least, she’ll know what to do. And she won’t be intimidated.

I Quit Taking "Safe" Photos. It Was the Best Decision of My Life. - Senior photographer Spanki Mills. Avoid photography burnout when you quit playing it safe.

What’s YOUR photography burnout story?

How did it transform your work?

Comment below!


Written by: ANNE SIMONE | Photographed by: SPANKI MILLS | Video by: CASSIA REYNOLDS | Featuring: WHCC – White House Custom Colour | Images prepped with: FUNDY DESIGNER


ShootProof Online Galleries. Client Contracts. Easy Invoices.

 

Find YOUR Brand of Success...