Business + Marketing

Living the Photo Business Dream at 70: Portraits and Philanthropy on the Big Island 

November 22, 2023

By Abbey Pleviak

When you set your sights on a dream, you can manifest it, even if it takes forty years. Virginia Chavez Smith, is a Hawaii-based photographer who has done just that. Her photo business Big Island Portraits and Branding allows her to work part-time, doing one portrait and one branding session a month and volunteering her portrait skills to charities the rest of the time. She recently talked with The Portrait System Podcast host Nikki Closser about how at almost 70, she achieved her lifelong dream of having her own photo business after relocating to Hawaii. 

Chavez Smith had learned how to do photography in 1979 at a workshop in Aspen. However, her career path led her into the antique business, which she enjoyed for a long time. When her daughter started a wedding photography business, she invited her mother to join her. Smith shot her first wedding in 2010 while working with her daughter. They started at $900, then jumped to $1,500. After they felt their system was in place, they increased their price to right around $4,500. Chavez Smith enjoyed shooting weddings, but she started having mysterious health problems, even falling down once while shooting a wedding. It turned out that she had Lyme disease, which complicated her already existing lupus. Chavez Smith transitioned to shooting in studio, handling family photos and headshots, but then needed to take a year off to heal her body. 

[Read: Two Photo Businesses, One Incredible Story of Resilience]

When her husband was ready to retire, friends encouraged them to make a big move from California to the Big Island of Hawaii – even finding them the perfect home. Starting a business in a new place meant Chavez Smith needed to develop new connections and a new client base. She started networking through volunteer photo projects, by joining a women’s business group, and being active in her faith.   

Chavez Smith says it’s essential to charge industry standard prices if you want to work part-time and be able to donate photography services to those in need. She loves photographing people with special needs, such as autism and homelessness because she can see just how much of a positive impact it has on people. She says, “That’s what I love about photography; it’s that you can help somebody see the best of themselves.” 

© The Portrait System

To learn more about Chavez Smith’s photography business, visit her website, Big Island Portraits and Branding and her Instagram.  

The Portrait System Podcast helps portrait photographers navigate the world of photography, business, money, and much more. Hosted by Nikki Closser, the podcast is powered by The Portrait System, a comprehensive, online educational platform that teaches all aspects of running a successful portrait photography studio. If you’d like to be a guest on The Portrait System Podcast, send them a voice message. 

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