Sean Odette began to devote himself to photography by chance, almost for free.
It was 2016 and this haute cuisine chef ran a pop-up restaurant two nights a week and did culinary research at Red River College in Winnipeg, Canada. While developing new recipes for the school’s clients, small and medium restaurants, he had an idea: he and his students could compile and photograph food to help those clients advertise their business.
It didn’t take long for Audet to realize he was good at the job, and two years later he started working with his clients as a food photographer. Use the school’s cameras, lights, and money to keep costs down.
By 2020, he had acquired enough business to invest about $20,000 Canadian dollars, or about $15,200 in the United States, in new equipment. He quit his job and became a full-time photographer.
Last year, Audet earned about $133,900 in the United States, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It—more than she ever earned in higher education or as a chef, she says. He adds that most of this work came from clients of the Fiverr freelance platform.
Leaving a steady 9-to-5 job to become self-employed was risky, but Odette says she had to try.
“Once in a while, I come across something that gets me excited,” Audet, 30, told CNBC Make It. And without anyone asking me, I start working another 12-14 hours a day on something that interests me. And when that happens, I feel like you should pay attention.”
Here’s how Audet turned her side job into a full-time job and how she plans to use her interest in AI to make more money.
Prioritize passion over fear, and double your income
Odette studied biochemistry at the University of Winnipeg. His plan after graduation was to study medicine, until during college he got a job at a nearby restaurant and fell in love with cooking.
So after graduating in 2013, Audet went to culinary school instead. He became sous chef and founded the pop-up restaurant, with a seven-course tasting menu, with a friend in Winnipeg.
His friend-turned-partner also had connections at Red River College, and suggested he study “pastry arts” in 2016. He was making about $56,500 a day, he says.
She loved teaching and became involved in the school’s research department, where she first learned how to “marry cooking and photography”.
“Spending nearly a decade in haute cuisine, making beautiful dishes, helped me break into this niche,” he says. “It helped me a lot and I started signing up with bigger clients almost immediately.”
Those big clients didn’t translate into a bigger paycheck, or at least not to begin with. Audet estimates that she only made $19,000 her first year, which isn’t even enough to quit her full-time job.
In 2019, he raised his prices and his reputation got him more work, mostly from returning clients who offered him regular projects. As a result, his income doubled.
Pursuing photography while co-directing Pop-Up and working at university was exhausting, costing Audet almost all of her free time, she says. He often worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, juggling all three tasks and striving to learn new photography skills.
In 2020, he left his temporary job and research position at the university. At the time, he was earning around $76,000 from photography.
As your business has grown, so have your costs. Now, Audet estimates she’s spending up to $23,000 hiring lighting professionals, models, makeup artists, and other workers for the photoshoot. But even with those expenses, Audet still earned six figures, double what she was earning from two jobs.
Automation ‘key to reducing workload’
Audet has no plans to change careers again, though she is already learning new skills to keep her interested. Use AI tools like ChatGPT to compose customer emails and create individual business plans.
“I think automation is the key to reducing the workload,” says Odette. “When a client first contacts me, I should be able to quickly give them lots of information about services and costs, but I have to be able to do it in a nice, concise, and personal way. I think that’s how it goes and they stay really good clients.”
Audet says she can’t rely on these tools yet to do cutting-edge work. I’ve tried editing photos with other AI software, like Midjourney, but the technology still doesn’t allow you to use it in professional projects.
“If technology can do like 90% of the work, it’s not enough when you’re working with high-paying clients,” he says. “So its impact on my work is still relatively low.”
Conversions from Canadian dollars to US dollars were made using OANDA’s conversion rate of 1 Canadian dollar for $0.75422 on July 14, 2023. All amounts have been rounded to the nearest dollar.