This Photographer Got Her Start as a 25-Year-Old Photo Intern at Forever 21, Now She’s Insta-Famous
We all have them. We wonder how they find the most photo-worthy wall to capture the perfect couple, how they make every color in their photos pop right off the screen, and want to go on a photo adventure with them just to see how the magic happens. I’m talking about Insta-crushes. And today, I have the honor of sharing one such crush’s story!
Mary Costa is known for her swoon-worthy rainbow-hued wedding photography, and she stopped by Brit + Co to show all y’all how it’s done in her brand new How to Become a Wedding Photographer online class.
In between takes and in a shared Google Doc, I peppered Costa with questions about her creative process, what her day to day looks like, and how she turned her passion into a full-blown career. In person, Costa is just as sweet and joyful as her Instagram feed and love of flouncy floral dresses suggests. She loves love, color, and capturing those in-between moments that make weddings and engagements worth capturing.
Read on to learn all about the artist behind the hyper-colorful lens in this week’s installment of Creative Crushin’.
Brit + Co: First, the basics. Where are you from? Big or small family? What did you study in college?
Mary Costa: I’m from a tiny town in New Hampshire — basically Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls! I grew up in a small, close-knit family with my mom, Trudi, my dad, Ed, and my older brother, Adam. Although I started out as an international business major at George Washington University in Washington, DC, I ended up trading in my pantsuits and transferring to Emerson College in Boston, MA, where I was quickly creating performance art and learning how to develop my own film. I even had the opportunity to study abroad and live in a castle in the Netherlands! I graduated with a marketing major and photo minor — and transferring to Emerson turned out to be of the very best decisions I’ve ever made.
B+C: What brought you to Los Angeles?
MC: After I graduated, nearly all of my Emerson friends moved to LA to pursue work in the entertainment industry. At the time, I had zero desire to follow them and expected to end up in NYC or Boston permanently. All I really knew about LA was based on a quick visit to Hollywood and reality TV shows, and I was convinced it wasn’t for me. Fast forward through one brutal winter and me missing all of my friends and having met a guy, and I figured, why not give it a shot? Turns out Los Angeles has an incredible creative, open-minded, supportive community, and I’ve been here nearly nine years!
B+C: Did you always know that you wanted to be a professional photographer?
MC: Nope, not at all! Growing up I was always artistically inclined and tried everything from ceramics to cartooning, but it wasn’t until college that I really discovered a love for artistic photography. At Emerson, I quickly became obsessed with working in the darkroom and signed up for every photo-related extracurricular I could manage. By the time I graduated college I knew I wanted to pursue photography in some capacity, but I still didn’t know exactly what kind or how to make that work financially.
B+C: What types of day jobs did you have before you were able to work full-time for yourself?
MC: I worked as a receptionist at an outdoor-conservation non-profit, a marketing assistant for a community college outside of Boston, a marketing coordinator for a whole-house water filtration company in LA, and lastly, as a photographer for Forever 21. The jump between being a marketing coordinator and being a photographer for Forever 21 was pretty crazy. I took a huge pay cut and basically started at an intern level at the age of 25, but it was totally worth it for the experience. Throughout these years, I spent a huge chunk of my free time building my own portfolio and creating a website.
B+C: Was there a turning point when you realized you could turn your side hustle into your main hustle?
MC: After a year and a half at Forever 21, I was feeling really overwhelmed and stuck. I couldn’t stop looking at wedding blogs and dreaming of having my own business, but how would it be possible? I was barely scraping by at F21, even with added freelance work. How do people do it?? For me, it was slowly but surely. I had recently launched my new website and was starting to book a few weddings for 2013. An opportunity landed in my lap where a friend was moving back to the East Coast and offered me her part-time position. I basically drove, charged, and cleaned walkie-talkies for commercial shoots all around Los Angeles. It wasn’t glamorous in the slightest. Some weeks I was driving almost every day, some weeks I didn’t get called in at all.
This random part-time position gave me the flexibility to pursue more freelance work. I ended up booking six weddings that autumn on the East Coast and was basically forced to go fully freelance since I had to leave for two months. When I got back to LA, I felt perpetually nervous about booking more work and making rent. There were more than a few times early on where a $100 paycheck saved me. I was thankfully able to book small blogger shoots and enough weddings to make it work! It didn’t happen overnight by any means, but it happened.
B+C: What do you love about being a photographer? Describe that impossible-to-pinpoint driving force. What inspires you?
MC: So many things! I love how I’m able to document important moments for a lifetime to come in a beautiful way — sort of like putting rose-colored glasses on my memories. I love how I constantly get to go to new places and meet new people. Brand new locations always inspire me. I also love the instant gratification of digital photography. I can make my vision come to life so quickly compared to other mediums!
B+C: Part of what stands out to me about your photographs is the vibrant colors you seem to naturally find wherever you shoot. How much time do you dedicate to location scouting? Can you share any tips or tools for finding (and keeping track of) unique locations?
MC: It definitely depends on the shoot and where it’s taking place, but the majority of the time, I’ve never been to the location before the day. Google Earth and Instagram location searches are my best friends. For example, clients for a Detroit wedding really wanted to take photos in front of cool graffiti walls after their ceremony. I used the magical internet to find mural options and put together a Google Places map of the spots with photos attached to each pin. I also use an amazing app called Sun Seeker that allows me to plug in an address and check the direction of the sunlight for any date/time. There’s no point in going if the light doesn’t work!
If the location is private, I’ll arrive early to wander and scout. But sometimes the most fun happens when we stumble upon something spontaneously!
Favorite Quote: “When they go low, we go high.” – Michelle Obama
Trivia About You: I’m almost entirely deaf in my left ear. Restaurant seating has to be very strategic for me to hear anything!
Go-to Karaoke Song: "Total Eclipse of the Heart"
Favorite Art Tool: Adobe Lightroom
Late Night Snack: Homemade popcorn
Currently Reading: I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara (in direct contrast to my very happy, colorful photos, I regularly research true crime cases)
B+C: What does a typical day look like for you?
MC: Usually I wake up by 7:40 am and either go to OrangeTheory Fitness or go walking. I spend most weekdays editing/answering emails/working on my Insta feed/running errands. I might have a shoot in the afternoon, a lunch meeting, or Facetime calls with clients. Evenings are either spent working, going on dates with my husband, or chilling with my girlfriends. If I’m left to my own devices then I’ll work until bedtime (about midnight), but I attempt to find a balance! Saturdays are often spent shooting weddings. I attempt to keep Sundays for my personal life, but usually some work sneaks in…!
B+C: Sounds jam-packed! When you’re feeling creative burnout, how do you reset?
MC: I love going for walks, trying new cocktail bars, and mindlessly scrolling through cute floral dresses online. Time with friends is always an awesome reset too.
B+C: What does the Mary Costa team look like? Do you have freelancers and photo assistants you work with regularly? Tell us more about who you collab with to make the magic happen.
MC: Up until recently I was a one-woman show! One of my best friends, Jennie, became my freelance studio manager this year. She works part-time and keeps the logistical stuff running smoothly — invoices, expense tracking, commercial client communication, etc. She also makes sure I plan out my Instagram posts and schedules them. She’s the best!
Another one of my closest friends, Angelena, runs the floral and design company Shindig Chic. We met on a styled wedding shoot and have been collaborating ever since! We love making art together (and then getting delicious food after).
I always have a second photographer at weddings, and that person varies depending on availability. But it’s almost always someone I’ve worked with before and truly enjoy spending time with!
B+C: Speaking of awesome creative humans, who are some of your favorite contemporary photographers our readers should know about?
MC: Oooh, good question! I’m a big fan of JUCO, Diane Villadsen, Autumn De Wilde, Kimberly Genevieve, Max Wanger, Natasha Wilson, and Stephanie Williams. They’re all color experts!
B+C: When you’re not capturing the most colorful life moments ever, how do you (and your hubby) spend time?
MC: Mike (AKA my dashing husband) is super fun and really great at encouraging spontaneous adventures. He loves going to new places (and I love researching them), so we often have spur of the moment weeknight dates all over LA. We both love concerts, and since he started playing in a band, I’ve been frequenting many music venues with him! We also love opening a bottle of rosé and watching Netflix, like all basic millennials do ;)
B+C: Top five concerts you’ve ever been to? What made each of them so memorable?
MC: Okay, here we go…!
- Sufjan Stevens at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, June 2015
- Sigur Ros at the Orpheum in Boston, February 2006
- The Postal Service at the Greek Theatre, July 2013
- The Milk Carton Kids at the Largo, January 2015
- Nickel Creek at the Wiltern, May 2014
B+C: I read in your bio that you were a photo major at Emerson. I was also an art major at a New England liberal arts school and love waxing poetic about the weird artwork I made in my late teens + early 20s. Tell me about your favorite project you created in college.
MC: Yes, I love that!! My senior photo project at Emerson was definitely a favorite. I took portraits of people with the food that they were most emotionally attached to. I shot everything on color film, did the scans myself, and learned how to use photo strobe lighting. Even though these were taken over 10 years ago, this project is so consistent with my modern interests and inspiration. Prior to this, I’d only ever shot black and white film. I’ve included a favorite below of my grandmother, Tess, with crumb coffee cake. She was raised during the Depression and this was her only treat growing up.
B+C: Given that you’re a very in-demand photographer, how do you find time to devote to your own creative practice?
MC: I honestly haven’t had as much time as I’d like. Now that my hobby is my job, this is a constant challenge. Collaborating with my creative friends definitely helps, and I’m hoping to pursue a passion project I’ve been thinking about for awhile in 2019.
B+C: Finally, what advice do you have for emerging artists who are ready to take the leap and work for themselves?
MC: You might not ever feel actually ready, but if you’re dedicated, passionate, and continue to put your work out there, you will make your dreams happen! The sooner you start, the better!
To try your hand at making your own version of Mary Costa photo magic, sign up for her How to Become a Wedding Photographer online class. And be sure to follow @marycostaphoto on Instagram to add a powerful dose of color love to your feed.
Know of a creative who’s got an inspiring origin story to share? DM us @BritandCo so we can check them out!
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