Life & Business

Life & Business: Pam Lau

by Sabrina Smelko


Sometimes, inspiration lurks in the most unexpected places, and hits you when you least expect it. A few months ago, I started really getting into photography and learning the ropes when I stumbled upon the Instagram feed of Pam Lau, who happens to neighbor me in Toronto. Inspired herself by the people and places that surround her, I, too, found inspiration in Pam and her work.

Pam is a Toronto-based freelance photographer and videographer whose lifestyle and portrait work is punctuated by simplicity with a focus on light, shadow and negative space. With an eye for capturing honest, simple moments, her work forever-balances the fine lines between art, commerce and technology. Since the age of 14 when she first picked up her father’s old Nikomat, she’s been shooting everything and anything — be it digital or film, stills or video — and has worked with clients big and small, from Nike and AIR MILES, to Bell Media and TEDxWomen. Today, Pam is joining us to share some insight into her career and life as a freelance commercial photographer and videographer, including oodles of advice and tips that apply to anyone running a business. –Sabrina

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

I didn’t go to school for photography. When I first graduated from university, I felt like a lot of other early twenty-somethings with Bachelor of Arts degrees; a little directionless, and a little scared for my future. I wasn’t particularly enticed by the entry-level job listings I found, and was doing a bit of freelance event photography for a magazine while in school, which I picked up contract work with after graduating. It wasn’t full-time, so I had to find other ways to fill my income, and freelancing kind of grew from there.

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?

Photography was kind of a happy accident for me. When I was in high school, I started fiddling around with my dad’s film camera from the 70s, taking pictures of my friends in the small suburban city we grew up in. It was never something I considered a career, but it ended up being something I grew to really love because I got to work with a lot of different people in different environments.

Life & Business: Pam Lau
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

Trust your instincts and recognize the difference between apprehension and fear. Apprehension is getting an odd feeling and being cautious about someone or something, and if that happens it’s probably for a reason. Fear is having to do something that you haven’t done before that scares you. And fear is good because it means you’ll be able to learn from the experience and start foraying into new things.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The most difficult part was not knowing what I wanted when I was starting, paired with a lack of confidence in myself. Earlier in my career, my skills weren’t as strong and I’d feel guilty asking people for money because I wasn’t 100% proud of what I made. That’s not changed, but it takes time.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Create structure in your process or else the chaos will drive you crazy. Moderation is still something I find myself struggling with today. You need to be able to set some goals, boundaries and parameters around your business or else you risk burning out really quickly.

Life & Business: Pam Lau
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?

I used to do a lot of free work, convincing myself that it was good for building up my portfolio so that I could start getting real work later. I finally realized that this “idea of preparation” is just another form of procrastination. At any stage of your career, there will always be people that will try to ask more of you than they’re willing to give in return. I’ve had a huge multinational retailer offer a measly fifty dollars for a photo shoot. I’ve also had a small burgeoning clothing line honor my full rate because they trusted my abilities and output. If people value your work, they will (and should) pay for it.

If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?

I’d take the time to stop, be present, and do something completely unrelated to work — also maybe catch up on sleep.

Pam Lau 01

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

Starting a business takes a lot of investment upfront. It can take a while to actually break even and start earning profit. However, the biggest sacrifice is, by far, time: I’ve missed a lot of family get-togethers and friends’ birthdays. Growing a business takes so much physical and mental energy out of you. I’ve been very grateful that those closest to me understand this.

Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

I’m really proud of the project I’m in the process of completing now. I’m in the final stages of putting together my first self-published photo book, titled bbblue. It’s the first non-client body of work that I’ll be able to call my own and will be out before the end of this year!

Pam Lau 03
What resources would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

Find your idols. They’re people in the industry whose work you look up to. Figure out how they get inspired and what their process is.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Be honest with yourself. Is it something you really want or something you feel pressured to do to impress others? If your business idea is based on something that’s popular now, it means it’ll become saturated even more quickly.

2. Think about viability. Yes, it’s important to do things you’re passionate about, but can you see yourself doing this all the time or for a long time? Can you actually make a sustainable living out of it?

3. Really understand and be ready to sacrifice. It will take a long, long time to actually see a return. Starting a business is not something that you can always turn off or walk away from at the end of the day.

What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

Instagram. Then emails and Pinterest.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

Constant self-motivation, throughout the highs and the throughout the lows.

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  • i appreciate the comments about recognizing fear vs. apprehension. another way to put that is: understanding when your heart is telling you to do something but your mind is resisting because it is out of your comfort zone vs. when your heart is telling you not to do something because it senses it is ultimately not in your best interest. as a business owner i struggle daily with this and think it’s a sort of skill that should be sharpened if you are to be successful as an entrepreneur.