From the Lab to Labradors: Finding Fulfillment Behind the Lens

Jenny KarlssonJenny Karlsson is a pet photographer based in Pittsburgh. She shared her professional and personal journey from scientific research to photography with Career 2.0.

I’ve always loved nature and animals. It’s not surprising I guess as I was born and raised in a small village not far from Bjurholm, in northern Sweden, where I spent my weekends and summers working on my family’s dairy and potato farm. I left the farm for the lab when I went to study Biomedical Laboratory Science at Umea University and worked as a medical technologist analyzing patient samples in hospitals.

But my heart was pulling more towards the path of research and exploration and so, when I was invitedDog Running to spend the summer after graduation at the Center for Biologic Imaging at the University of Pittsburgh, I simply couldn’t refuse. Once in Pittsburgh, I was offered a full-time position as a research specialist taking images, making movies of cells and tissues, and quantitating the response to different compounds.

While working full-time in the lab, I enrolled in a part-time MBA program at Katz Graduate School of Business with the idea that I would work for a microscope manufacturer or software company once I graduated, as others in the lab had previously done. I took up photography as a much-needed creative outlet when I wasn’t working or studying. I was mostly photographing still life and participating in photography forums such as Flickr until I came across a lifestyle dog photographer in Seattle … it blew my mind that pet photography could be a career.  When I told my boss I had found my dream job, unsurprisingly she looked at me skeptically. And, even though I shelved the idea for a while, my dream remained constant.

Hugging a DogInitially I started assisting local wedding photographers on weekends, becoming increasingly stronger in my technical abilities as a photographer and developing my vision as an artist and storyteller. About four years ago, I began volunteering at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, taking photos of dogs for their adoption profiles. It felt amazing to use my skills to give back while gaining valuable experience.

When I wasn’t working or studying, all my free time was given over to photography and building a client base. The demands on my time were hard as I also had just met my husband-to-be. After graduation, I spent most evenings and weekends working on my photography business. I continued working at the lab, where I’d happily been for a decade, until last year when I finally made the leap to photography full-time.

“No matter how much you plan and prepare for it, you’ll never be completely ready or find the perfect moment to quit your job. At some point you just have to jump and trust that you’ve put in place a good foundation.”

In the months before quitting, my husband and I went over all our personal expenses and reduced our spending, treating my salary as if it didn’t exist. We saved as much as possible so that, when I finally left, we had at least four months of living expenses in the bank. This really gave me confidence to make the move.

Although my ultimate dream was to become a pet photographer, I didn’t believe it would be possible to Couple with Dogsmake a living if I specialized in animals. Talk about mental roadblock. Although I photographed pets, I also took family portraits and covered weddings and bar mitzvahs. Eventually I ended up with a pinched nerve, and the joint in my thumb was so out of alignment that I couldn’t even lift my Shepherd-Akita Alice’s water bowl. The business I had created allowed no time for photographing pets, and my body was literally screaming at me that something needed to change.

With the help of an amazing business coach (shout out to Emily Levenson of Propelle), I started re-shaping my business, changing my message, and aligning my passion with why I had started my business in the first place. It was incredibly liberating to narrow my focus and truly speak to my target client. At the same time, it was very difficult to let go of my beliefs of what it would take to make the jump. In the end, I did it. It was almost a harder thing to do than leaving the lab.

Jenny KarlssonFollowing my passion rather than others’ expectations of what I should do was definitely the right decision. It can be challenging to have to self-promote constantly (this goes against the Scandinavian in me), but it’s so much fun when you find your “tribe” who value what you do. I love being in the driver’s seat, deciding how to run my business, what to say yes and no to, and how I grow as an individual, artist, and entrepreneur. It’s also hard work. Even though I have more time to devote to my business, I never feel like I’ve done enough in a day. I try not to work at night and don’t always succeed, but I live more intentionally now to make life more than work.

And in the end, saying I’m a pet photographer always results in interesting conversations. People want to know whether I’ve photographed snakes, spiders or the like. For the record, I hate snakes and only photograph dogs, cats, and rabbits … well at least for now as I recently discovered that one of my neighbors has a pet pig, and I am working up the courage to ask if I can photograph it. Liz if you are reading this, what do you say?

Check out Jenny’s awesome website: Jenny Karlsson, Pet Photography.

Tips from Jenny Karlsson
  • Design a life and business that makes you happy. Choose to do the things that are aligned with who you are as a person, and what excites you. If you’re not having fun in your business, why do it in the first place?
  • Run the numbers and figure out how much you need to cover your personal and business expenses for a certain amount of time. Equipped with this knowledge you can more confidently make the jump and go for your dream. The day may be closer than you think.
  • No matter how much you plan and prepare for it, you’ll never be completely ready or find the perfect moment to quit your job. At some point you just have to jump and trust that you’ve put in place a good foundation.
  • Don’t get caught in the comparison trap, everyone has their own struggles. Look at the big picture and be happy with what you’ve created.
  • Surround yourself with a diverse group of driven women in different industries and form a mastermind. Create an environment that fosters honest conversations, allows for vulnerability, and provides support and accountability. It’s hard to be a business owner, and it is immensely important to have a sounding board to share the wins, struggles and question marks with. Your spouse/partner will thank you!
  • Schedule regular self-care dates in whatever form you prefer. The body has a tendency to hold a lot of stress, and it is important to be kind to it and take care of it, otherwise burnout is just around the corner.
  • There is always more to do, and it is easy to sink into the “not enough” trap. Focus on celebrating the wins, and build momentum one day at a time.

One thought on “From the Lab to Labradors: Finding Fulfillment Behind the Lens

  1. This is such a good story! Actually really a sunshine story of hard work and perseverance.
    I still remember when Jenny first reached out to the (her?) Swedish community, asking for advice on what DSLR to buy, lenses etc. That must have been some 10 years ago 🙂

Leave a Reply