Saturday, August 15, 2009

Meet {and greet} Kelly McMahon Willette

I had the pleasure of meeting Kelly McMahon Willette {and her lovely family} in her home this week. Kelly is from Norfolk's Historic Ghent area, in Virginia.

She's a master at marketing...ideas that are genius...
and she will share them with us this week!

She is expecting her second child in December and maintains a busy schedule while being a full time mommy.

She's also the creator of The Portrait Cookbook {recipes for success}...which is fabulous!

Tell us about your style of photography?

I like to refer to it as “classic children’s portraiture…with a twist.” My processing style is very clean (I don’t do a ton to my photos in photoshop or lightroom…just a couple little things), and the children are typically dressed in classic children’s clothing (smocking, etc). If a client wants more casual clothes, I usually refer to another photographer who better fits the client’s needs. Kiddos are also typically super happy in my photos….i’m a complete clown while at a photo shoot, and I think this is conveyed in the facial expressions that come out!

How long have been a photographer?

4 years. 3 years in full-fledged business. Prior to this, I was a graphic designer and a high school English teacher (totally random, but WAY fun) and a momma.

When you're not photographing, where can we find you?

ALL over the west side of Norfolk…LOL! I hit Starbucks just about every morning, and during the school year, I do a lot of volunteering at my son’s school. Summers are typically spent at the pool (and on vacation). I also spend a ton of time on iTunes setting up my precious iMixes (this is one of my fav and only hobbies).

What inspires you as a photographer?

Being around town (at starbucks or the grocery store) and seeing the kiddos I have photographed and have them give me a “pound, dawg,” or have them smile at me with a HUGE grin
and point to me as I’m in the store, or to hear them repeat something silly I taught them while at a shoot.

Or hearing the parents rave about how “Sally couldn’t stop talking about how much fun she had with you.” THIS is what keeps me going. I also LOVE to have a parent tell me that they aren’t sure their child will cooperate…they’ve never gotten a good photo of him or her, so they don’t have their hopes up…..because I usually get the shot (and make a photo session FUN for a kid…isn’t that what it is all about?).

Any books that inspired you {or helped you} in your business?

I don’t think any book in actual print helped me, but I get a ton of inspiration from catalogs and magazines.
I love to check out the graphic design ideas I see and the composition ideas I see in magazines and catalogs.
I’m also the type that reads the camera manual cover to cover…yes….tis true! You should try it if you haven’t!

I did learn a lot from various workshops
(Audrey Woulard’s, The Secret Workshop, Skye Hardwick’s, etc.).
I’m super excited to teach a workshop next month here in Norfolk, VA…
the response to the workshop has been overwhelming, so we’ll have one in the spring as well.

I LOVE what I do, and I love teaching what I do even more.
I see so many wonderful, talented photographers who just need a little push in the business department – I’m happy to inspire others to do what I do….just do it is what I say!

Best marketing idea?

I don’t think it is a secret that I’m not the best photographer around town, I just have a knack for marketing and networking! Being involved with several organizations helped me grow my business and expand my network.

I joined the Junior League several years ago before having my son, and this was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I literally volunteered and worked for free for several non-profits for years prior to launching a biz.
This helped me grow my network and show people that I had a great work ethic and that I was involved (and wanted to give back to the community).

You have to give a lot to get a little is my motto.
Another thing that was huge for me was hosting a show (thanks to the inspiration from my photographer friend, Susan Lowe) called the BIG willette Show…..she inspired me with the idea you have to show it to sell it, so we had a large showing in an art gallery featuring all the large portraits clients had ordered from me since my business’ inception.
The buzz this generated was awesome…I highly recommend doing this once you’ve been in biz for a bit.
I actually won the Design Aglow Best Marketing Idea Grand Prize for the BIG Willette show (it was featured in their summer 2008 issue). I’ll share more of my marketing ideas throughout the week for you.

Why do you feel you are so successful?

I think the answer to this is three-fold….i have the unique and awesome situation where I photograph in the same neighborhood that I grew up in (and the same area in which my parents and fraternal grandparents grew up).

This helps a lot because I really never had to do a ton of marketing or networking… was all done just by living here (high school friends/college friends).

I also only work in about 4 neighborhoods here on the west side of Norfolk….if I get a client inquiry from another neighborhood or area, I literally will refer the work out.

This may seem bizarre to photographers who want business, but it was one of the smartest things I did.

I’m kinda the “neighborhood” photographer.
I love this. I also love being out and about…being involved in the community is SUPER important.

I hear so many new photographers talking about
how to get “into their target market,” and I cringe at this.
Your target market is probably right around you…
you just need to open your eyes and get out there.
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there…
and don’t skip over your neighbors for
what you think may be a better client base.

I think the other factor that has been huge for me is
that I am a total clown with the kids.
I have NO problem acting silly – I’ve been known
to lay my head/hair in a fountain (while photographing)
JUST to get the kiddos to laugh.
I get a ton of bizarre looks from bystanders, but I seriously do not care what anyone says or thinks about me while I’m photographing. I pretend to fart for the kids, I use potty humor, WHATEVER it takes to get that laugh.
My silliness works best with kids before they hit the preteens, so I tend to photograph children under the age of 12.
Once again, if I get inquiries for older kids,
I will refer the work to someone else.

And lastly, don’t be afraid to specialize.
Don’t be afraid to turn away clients that aren’t a good fit for your biz vision…if you don’t want to do seniors, then don’t.
And if you don’t want to photograph kiddos with large hairbows or smocking, then don’t.
You have to be clear with what you want to do….
your clients will appreciate to see a photographer who has a style rather than seeing several different styles represented in your portfolio. And I think this applies to post processing as well….pick a style…keep your work consistent in your portfolio. Use your portfolio building phase to experiment (or experiment with your family photos…NOT on client photos).

What’s your weakness in this business?

Hands down the SEO (search engine optimization) category. I have NO idea what I’m doing with this, and I have never explored how to do it. Business has been going strong without it, so I guess it is okay. I also haven’t jumped on the custom blog site bandwagon yet, but it is something I’m interested in exploring while on maternity leave.

Do you twitter? Facebook?

Ummmm…..kinda ;) I’m actually all over facebook (Kelly McMahon Willette is my user name), and my twitter user name is mommairish (I’m still learning what twitter is all about)

Savvy indulgence?

Lamps…..REALLY good lamps from serendip in Norfolk, Virginia. This is actually my savvy ILLNESS!!! I have to stay away from this place usually because I know I’ll be coming home with a new fabulous piece of lighting (and a smaller checking account balance).

Ideal getaway?

Getting a massage. Do you think it is over the top to have two in one week??? Hmmm… that I’m typing this, I am DYING for another one.

Favorite thing in your closet?

Turtlenecks…if it were socially acceptable (and not so darn hot) I’d be rocking a turtleneck EVERYDAY! I’ve even been known to sleep in turtlenecks. I’m not sure what this says about me…..but I LOVE them! I also LOVE my Hunter bright yellow rain boots. I may have to wear them tomorrow if it rains!

Favorite family ritual?

I don’t know that we are cool (or organized)
enough to have rituals.
We LOVE to have brinner (breakfast for dinner) often,
and we’re known to sneak over to Doumar’s for
milkshakes on a whim.
I think that “family whims” are a better description
of how we roll. I’m not the most disciplined
person around the house….
so we do a lot of things by the seat of our pants around here.
Max and I do LOVE to have dance parties in the kitchen….
that is actually dance moves have been likened to Ellen DeGeneres’ dance moves…LOL
(would LOVE to dance with her on her show before I die).
We LOVE to set up a kitchen disco with my iPod playlist.
Also, Willette (this is what I call my husband) and I are committed to attending all of max’s sports practices and games together….so after practice or a game we all go out to eat together….this is so nice!

Current reading material?
All the fall/winter children’s clothing catalogs.
I’m such a dork, I keep them all in a special folder and practically memorize all the clothing lines!
Most of the time, I see kids walking down the street and
I can tell you where the clothes came from.
I also just read The Happiest Baby on the Block
(getting ready for baby #2, Bridget, to make her debut in December…I think I’m a bit rusty at being a baby momma!

favorite drink? cocktail?

You can usually find me with a glass of chocolate milk at any given time of the day. And when I’m not pregnant, I LOVE a glass of pinot noir.
Do you blog stalk?

Of course! I love ali edwards’ blog
( ,
the Savvy Photographer,
Ask your son to describe you…and tell us what he really says?

She’s a good mom…she makes silly faces. (thanks….i think….)

What are doing on a typical Sunday afternoon?

Usually, nothing! We don’t do much on the weekends. We have the occasional birthday party for my son’s pals, but usually the weekends are spent chillin’ chez Willette. My family tries to get together for family dinner on Sundays; this is a great way to start the week together.

Where did you meet your husband?

Through mutual friends…..we met at a baseball game (I was still in college…he was older and already in the “real” world). I believe my pick up line was “I like your shirt.” Apparently it worked! We were married three summers later, and we just celebrated 10 years of marriage!

As a parent, what do you wish you had more time for?
I wish I had the patience to take my son on a bike ride. We live in a pretty urban section, and having him on a bike with all the cars and busy streets literally stresses me right out. Perhaps I should take a valium or something so I can actually relax and take the poor kiddo out on his bike!

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

I would be annoying EVERYONE around me….i tend to have a lot of time on my hands most of the time (and I have incredible amounts of energy)…so my business keeps me busy and from stalking my family members and friends. The workload is enough to occupy my mind and keep me from bugging everyone!!!! I’m just the type of person who LOVES to know what is going on with my peeps and kin!

Tell us your proudest moment of your career~
Making the Hampton Roads, Virginia, Inside Business 2008’s “Top 40 under 40” list at age 32 {as a children’s photographer}! Practically unheard of, and I was super excited to be honored with this designation. It validated for me that I AM a business woman and that people take me (and what I do) seriously.

Along with her portrait business, she creates beautiful silhouettes. Check out her work here traditions by willette .

Will we see lots more from kelly during the week...stayed tuned for a great week!



  1. What a wonderful interview! Really interesting to read how other photographers work - loved it! :)

  2. are awesome! thank you again!!!!

  3. Amazing interview....amazing photographer. SO proud of you, Kel!!

  4. Great interview! Thanks so much for turning us unto Kelly! I had never seen her work but now I'm hooked! I can't wait to see what else is in store!

  5. Kel, you are awesome!!!! GREAT interview! I'm showing you off to everyone here in Florida!