Alexandra Vanotti’s transformation from a BBC journalist to the proud owner of ‘Light by Lexi‘ is nothing short of inspiring. Her initial curiosity led her to our beginners course, where she began to unravel the intricacies of photography. This newfound passion soon became an integral part of her life, driving her to establish her own successful photography venture.
In this interview, Alexandra delves into her experiences, the challenges she faced, and the joy she finds in capturing life’s beautiful moments.
For those contemplating a shift in their career or nurturing a budding interest in photography, Alexandra’s story offers valuable insights and motivation.
Starting from Scratch
Alexandra, can you share your journey from attending your first beginner’s class in 2016 to now running your own successful photography business, Light by Lexi?
I’ve always loved photographs and taking them but never dreamt I could make it as a professional.
My husband was much more into the technicalities of photography than me although his passion was for landscapes whereas mine was people and faces. When we had our first baby he bought a Canon DSLR. I was amazed at the quality of the photos and was an instant convert. The camera unsurprisingly got a lot of use those first few years, which also coincided with me joining Instagram and comparing my photos to professionals. I got curious and finally decided I needed to stop leaning on the ‘automatic’ mode. My husband had already been on several photography courses but of course I would only listen to a stranger rather than take his advice 😉
I took my beginners photography class at the beginning of maternity leave for my second baby, knowing once he arrived it would be years before I’d have the time to focus on anything else. I’m so glad I did.
The beginner’s class was absolutely and completely brilliant. It explained everything from aperture to bokeh to composition in such a clear manner. I furiously scribbled down notes as fast as I could, ridiculously excited at learning how to shoot manual. And after that I never put my camera down, practicing anywhere and everywhere I could.
With both boys at school, I became very popular amongst parents after bringing my camera to birthday parties, sports day, the nativity play. I was told more than once that I should charge for my photos. And when we got our terrible school photos from Tempest, I was approached by several parents in the playground, asking if I’d consider retakes. My first venture into volume photography and I hadn’t even left the day job.
During covid, my employer put out a request for volunteers for redundancy, with a very good financial package, which would act as a financial buffer while I got myself set up. It seemed like my stars were aligning – so I set up a website and an online portfolio and the day I left the BBC, my website went live – I was raring to go!
The Learning Curve
How did the Intermediate and Portrait Photography courses at DSLR Photography Courses contribute to refining your skills and defining your unique photography style?
For a long time, I considered myself a natural light photographer and was too stubborn to contemplate using lighting. The honest reason? My lack of knowledge scared me a little – I was put off by how complicated it all seemed. But I soon realised that by leaning purely on natural light, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted and I was having to spend way too long editing after a shoot.
About nine months after setting up my business I decided it was time to stop being such a wuss and booked myself onto the Portrait Photography Course!
Again – completely brilliant and eye opening. I love that the basics were covered in such a way as to cement your knowledge, and not tedious at all. And the new skills we learnt were unbelievably helpful.
I love taking portraits and now feel I have the equipment, and more importantly the knowledge of how to use that equipment to get the beautiful intimate defined features that define my photography style.
Diverse Photography Services
Your portfolio now includes portraits, commercial headshots, family photography, events, parties, and school photography. How do you adapt your approach for these varied photography services, and is there a particular niche you enjoy the most?
People raise their eyebrows when they hear I do family and children’s photography but I genuinely get such a buzz from capturing joyful natural photographs. Parents worry their children won’t behave well during a photoshoot but I let them have fun, play silly imaginative games and literally get down on the floor to their level. They normally warm up to me and my camera very quickly and I’m able to capture them at their best.
School and nursery photos are easy as long as you don’t ask them to smile! I usefully start off by asking them to show me their most grumpy face – that usually works a treat. Hand puppets and fart jokes are also part of my arsenal! And bubble mixture for really small children who tend to get a little overwhelmed in the spotlight.
For events and parties, I tend to lurk in the shadows with my long lens and try to capture the occasion in a reportage style. It’s the little moments that I’m mainly looking for, rather than eye contact and posed formal group shots, although those obviously have their place.
I think the variety of work I do keeps me on my toes and for that reason I couldn’t choose a favourite!
The Big Career Shift
Transitioning from a successful career at the BBC to becoming a professional photographer is a significant leap. Can you share what motivated this change and how you managed this transition?
I worked for twenty years as a broadcast journalist in the biggest newsroom in the world. I learnt the craft of story-telling from my talented and experienced colleagues – which image or clip made the most impact and how to focus on the little moments as well as the big set pieces.
When I started posting my photographs regularly on social media, I had such overwhelming support from my colleagues, both editorial and also the camera crews who urged me to consider a secondment to their unit. I started taking my camera on news assignments capturing behind the scenes shots of my colleagues and they all loved making the cut in my montages.
The BBC sadly had to make big cuts to its workforce and I toyed with the idea of voluntary redundancy but decided against it. Afterwards I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision.
The next time there was a call for volunteers, we were in the middle of a pandemic, in semi lockdown, and I’d had plenty of time at home to consider my options and talk things through with my husband. He was and still is my biggest cheerleader (although frequently reminds me I’m using HIS camera!) and when he committed to supporting the family financially while I found my feet, I finally took the plunge.
Upcoming School Photography Project
Congratulations on securing a project to photograph an entire primary school’s portraits! How are you preparing for this large-scale assignment?
I had plenty of practice over the summer photographing an international chain of nurseries. I’m hoping there’ll be less bodily fluids involved this time but obviously baby wipes and a comb are on the packing list.
The most important thing for me is that I get a genuine smile – and for that, most children need to be having fun. I’ll be taking hand puppets, props, bubble mixture, music and ALL my energy. It’s pretty exhausting work – akin to being a children’s party entertainer – but I get such joy out of it.
Being shortlisted for the Best Start-Up Business in the Wandsworth Chamber Business Awards is a fantastic achievement. How does this recognition impact you and Light by Lexi?
It was a huge confidence boost and the recognition by the chamber lent real credibility to my business. Networking took a back seat at first but I’ve realised how invaluable it is, especially if you want to become well known in your community.
Very early on I wanted to give a little back to my community, particularly after seeing such unselfish acts during covid, so I started an Instagram blog @thewandsworthphotographer where I interview local heroes and take some beautiful pictures of them, which they can then use for their own social media or marketing. I am pretty certain it was this at least partially due to the blog that i was shortlisted.
Through the Chamber I started doing volunteer work with LinkUp London, lending my photography skills to local social enterprises and charities. This is very eye opening and rewarding. I would suggest that everyone sets aside some time for volunteer or pro bono work if possible.
Insights and Advice
What advice would you offer to individuals aspiring to transition into a photography career, especially those coming from different professional backgrounds?
I was very lucky to start off with my network of school parents and for the first year, I didn’t have to actively go looking for work, which was a pretty amazing situation to be in.
You really need to learn your community. Where are the schools – the nurseries – the mother and baby groups? Because this is where your potential clients hang out. Family shoots can lead to headshot and event bookings. Be prepared to offer freebies to get you on the road. Practice as much as possible on friends – use them as your Guinea Pigs, then post the results on social media. I try to keep very active on Instagram, am a bit scrappy on Linked In. Facebook groups have led to a lot of clients. Posting frequently is free advertising – it results in increased audience engagement and I am starting to get enquiries directly from Instagram.
I wouldn’t say it still feels like a hobby – it can be all consuming at times, especially when faced with editing 2000+ photos after a school portrait shoot. The journey to becoming my own boss is a very steep learning curve; I often find it hard to switch off. But it is very rewarding and I feel so incredibly lucky to be doing what I love for a living.
Alexandra’s transition from the world of journalism to photography showcases the limitless possibilities when one is driven by passion and dedication. Her focus on portrait photography is a reflection of her love for capturing the essence of individuals.
However, the world of photography is vast and varied. For those inspired by Alexandra’s path, our school offers many courses to suit different interests. Whether it’s the art of Portrait Photography, Product/Jewellery/Food Photography, the romance of Wedding Photography, or any other niche, there’s a world waiting to be explored. Dive into our photography courses and find your own unique path, just as Alexandra did with ‘Light by Lexi‘.