Since launching Closer to Love 6 years ago, our lives have been a non-stop adventure! In the span of 6 years, we photographed over 200 weddings, had our photographs featured in over 150 magazines/blogs, traveled the world hand in hand as husband & wife, became parents to 2 amazing daughters, wrote and released a book, and met the most amazing souls along the way. Has the road always been easy? Absolutely not! But looking back on where we’ve been, and where we’re going, the journey has been sooo worth it!!! We caught up recently with our incredibly gifted friend (Grammy Nominated, Dove Award Winning Female Vocalist!) Crystal Lewis to discuss what we’ve been up to and what the journey ahead looks like for the Closer to Love Family! GOD HAS BEEN AND FOREVER WILL BE FAITHFUL!
Sammy + Natalia
Where did it all begin? How did the two of you meet?
Our families actually lived in the same neighborhood so we occasionally saw each other but never paid much attention. It wasn’t until Natalia was 17 and I 22 that our paths crossed at a High School/College church group and I was drawn to her heart for Jesus, her desire of reading books, and really her beauty that radiated from the inside out. She was (and still is) wise beyond her years! We are both each other’s firsts: First kiss, first girlfriend/boyfriend, first “I love you.” We got married after 2 years of dating and had our first daughter, Saylah, a year and a half later! Audrey came into the picture 2 and a half years after that! Our relationship has been such an adventure from the very beginning and I wouldn’t have it any other way! Whew!
Did your own wedding somehow plant the seed of wedding photography? If not, what did?
Well, I actually fell in love with Wedding photography at the age of 16 when I was asked to photograph my sister’s wedding. I pursued Ultrasound Sonography straight out of high school, and photography was placed on the back-burner. We got married in October 2009 and Natalia was concerned about my lack of enthusiasm for picking up my camera, as that was one among many reasons that she fell in love with me, haha. Totally kidding, kind of! Two short months into our marriage, Natalia decided to address this concern of hers, and two months later we launched “Closer to Love Photography” on Valentine’s Day as a husband & wife team. We had no idea what we were doing but we knew we wanted to do it, together!
How in the world do you go from ultra-sound tech to sought after professional photographer?!
Great question! Haha. The truth is, growing up in a very affirming home environment, I knew I had a distinct and special calling on my life. I knew early on in life that I didn’t want to trade the best hours of my life for a boss. It just wasn’t me. I never saw myself in the typical 9-5 job for 50 years of my life. So if I can truly recall where it all began, it was in 1998 (I was 13 years old) when I finally had enough of my own money to purchase my own music CD’s. I LOVED music (& still do)! Oh man, I would evaluate the lyrics, the photographs, the design… every little detail, my eyes were drawn to it. I was so curious about the choice of fonts, imagery, colors, etc. Fast forward years later, that curiosity grew into action and I would recreate designs and take pictures on my spare time.
I graduated from Ultrasound School at the age of 19 and pursued that path straight out of school. To be honest, it wasn’t my cup of tea. And so I never foresaw myself there for more than just a few short years. Thankfully, by the grace of God, it was just a stepping stone for something bigger and better: Photography. I expand on this in much greater details in our book, but back in 2011, after our first daughter Saylah was born and less than 2 months old, I sent an email to my Lead Ultrasound Tech letting him know I would be stepping down from my position to pursue photography. We only photographed 14 or so weddings that year, and the average rate was between $1,000-$2,000… So, we weren’t busy by any means nor were we even financially stable to make such a life-altering decision. But, we had a dream, and two days after that email was sent, we got featured on the world’s largest Wedding blog and booked an entire year of weddings in less than 12 hours. It was ALL GOD, and Natalia and I knew in that very moment that we were on the cusp of an amazing adventure! Natalia’s constant prayers, encouragement and support were truly the backbone and affirmation I needed to dive into unchartered territory.
How has having two little ones (dramatically) changed the dynamic of your creative process as well as that of doing business?
In every way! 2014 was a VERY defining year for our business and for our lives, really. We over-did it. We overbooked, traveled way too much, and bit off more than we can chew. We photographed 105 events, 5 of them were out of the country. We wrote and released our book that same year, hosted our first photography workshop, and struggled with overwhelming exhaustion. We knew by May of 2014 (just 5 months into the year!) that we were in for an uphill battle because we photographed 5 weddings in one week and it was very difficult to catch up ever since. That year changed the course of our lives ever since. Now, we do our best to have family activities go on our calendar first because our family is of highest priority. You know, it’s funny, but I’m sure other photographers can relate that when I’m with the girls, the last thing I want to do is have a camera in my hand. As ironic as that sounds, I’d rather be present, enjoying the moment rather than freezing it in a frame. Thankfully, with the rise of impeccable technology, since Natalia is with the girls while I’m editing/shooting/running Closer to Love, she’s capturing so many precious moments on her iPhone and printing out those images in books every 3 months. Those books are my absolute favorite books to browse through!
What kinds of challenges in the ‘wedding/photography’ industry have you seen and therefore had to navigate?
I think that most conventional businesses/industries struggle to find a balance of time. After experiencing such a demanding 2014, navigating through a new change of course was so desperately needed. In 2015 we made a decision to deactivate our Closer to Love Facebook page for a handful of months, and that was just the beginning. We then proceeded to delete our own personal Facebook pages, pulled back significantly from Instagram, blogged only 1 Wedding in all of 2015, deleted our Closer to Love email off our cell phones, got rid of our TV and replaced it with books. We needed to unplug from our gadgets because what our souls craved was time with the ones we loved most, along with a strong desire to fight for simplicity. Who would’ve thought that finding simplicity would be such a fight! Yet even in the midst of all those drastic cutbacks, which could easily dismantle any small business, God remained ever faithful. Just a few months ago we received word from MyWedding Magazine that Closer to Love was chosen as a Top 10 Favorite California Wedding Photographer by their editors in their Spring 2016 issue! FAITHFUL. All we could think about when we received that initial email was how faithful our God truly is!
The question I am most frequently asked is ‘how do I get started?’ What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer?
The first advice I would give is to never compare yourself or your work to others. That’s a time-stealer, life-stopper, and a trap. Be yourself. Create art that moves you and don’t slope to the opinions of others. Constructive criticism, yes, that’s wonderful as long as it comes from a respectful source. But don’t just take advice from anyone. Don’t be a people pleaser, be a God pleaser and care about what He deems as successful, not what others define as a “success.” The next advice I would give is be okay with making mistakes, failing forward, and leveraging mentorship joyfully. Asking for help is a beautiful thing. The next advice I would give is to JUST DO IT. Don’t wait around for opportunities to happen, make opportunities happen!
What advice would you give a couple thinking about potentially working together?
Find another couple that is actively succeeding at being a husband & wife photography team, earn their time and mentorship, and pursue them. If they agree to take you under their wing, thank them every day, be ready with questions and make the most of your time together. The best students will one day be the best teachers, so you in return can pay it forward and impact others with the lessons you’ve received.
Can you tell me a little about the idea process and making of your book, Storytelling?
Over the years we have accumulated a substantial amount of emails and messages from aspiring photographers asking us how we did it, how we built our photography business so strongly, so quickly. Always honored and humbled by such messages, I reached a point in 2013 when I felt like it was time to share our story – all of it. Our business approach has always been about being extremely transparent, so why not write a book?! Haha. It was in December of 2013 when I distinctly remember leaning into our girls’ bedroom one evening where Natalia was, and I asked excitedly, “What do you think about me writing a book telling our story!?” Oh, the look on Natalia’s face said it all. At first she wasn’t extremely thrilled about the idea because we literally had no room to add anything else on top of our already-full plate – and I think mentioning this whole idea during the holidays when time was simply not on our side – wasn’t the best choice. But, just a few short weeks later in January 2014 I decided that if I didn’t start and pursue this dream, I’d NEVER sit down and write a book. So in the span of one week, I buckled down and wrote our book, Storytelling. And that’s why the very first quote that we highlight at the beginning of our book is by Mat Kearney, which so beautifully proclaims: “We’ll never be ready if we keep waiting for the perfect time to come.” I’ve always been a firm believer that the word “later” is a dream-killer. The dream I’ll pursue “tomorrow,” the passion I’ll live out “eventually,” the pursuit of adventure that will begin “someday.” I believe that a great danger we face is the moment we place our dreams on hold and tell ourselves we’ll pursue them “later.” Later never seems to come, so the best time, I believe, is NOW. Don’t put off tomorrow what you can do TODAY. And so, we wrote the book in a week! We then connected with an extremely talented friend/graphic designer (James Prunean), gave him full creative control to design our book, and in less than a month we had it designed, printed, and distributed globally! That season was a whirlwind but we are so honored and humbled to say that we had the distinct privilege of shipping out every single book from our home studio and handwriting every address! Seeing where our books were being shipped out to was priceless, just priceless! God is so good and, oh, so faithful!
I know we all have things we wish we’d done differently and I believe that looking back can often be a catalyst for moving forward… is there anything you wish you could have a second chance at? Maybe something you’d do different?
Oh, absolutely. I think the biggest thing I would’ve done differently is that I would’ve sought help and mentorship from successful business owners/photographers much sooner in our career. We literally, and I do mean literally, became full-time photographers overnight. So we made a lot of mistakes very early on, which we are very transparent about in our book, and we definitely had to reap the consequences of those failures. I’m grateful for our experiences, however, because we would not have grown if the road were always easy. We grew the most when we faced challenges. I’ve come to realize that difficulties are inevitable, but learning from them is optional. So now we see every adversity as an opportunity for growth. And for that, I’m thankful that we failed as much as we did.
Ok… having taken a look back, what does the road in front of you look like? What (not) impossible dreams are you dreaming for the future? What’s next??!!
Oh my goodness, our dreams have never been BIGGER and our future has never looked BRIGHTER. When you’ve seen God literally make the impossible, possible, how could we not dream bigger dreams? I’m 30 years old now and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that all my dreams, up to this point, have come true. Every. Single. Dream. One immediate dream that is just months away from fruition is beginning the homeschooling journey with Saylah, as a family unit. She’ll be turning 5 years old this summer and Natalia and I are thrilled to take the reigns and begin this adventure with her. We cannot wait for our classroom to be on the shores of a beach, in the ancient ruins of Italy, or in the comfort of our own backyard. Our dreams are endless.
We are in the process of trademarking the name for a café that we plan on opening in a handful of years. This will not be your typical café, but all coffee + menu items will be donation-only. All funds will go to charities dear to our hearts from regions around the world that we received the shipment of our coffee beans from. We envision the café being a community café, which means we want it to be an environment that everyone wants to be a part of. Walking in, you’ll instantly see and feel a noticeable difference. From live music, always, to extremely comfy furniture and a warm stirring aroma, this is how we desire to bring hope to a community that otherwise would never step into the 4 walls of a church building. The staff would be the best of the best, not having to hold 3 jobs to simply hold up their children. But each barista, musician, and janitor will be well-provided for, to be able to provide for his or her family. At one side of the café will be our recording studio (Closer to Love Studios; fancy right? Haha) where café guests can see artists recording their EPs/LPs in real time, but separated by a massive glass window so artists can be in their zone to create beautiful music. Have we mentioned how much we love coffee and music? This is how we aspire to intertwine both passions together!
Other dreams, among so many, is building our dream home in Newport Beach in the next few years, living a life of radical generosity, traveling the world with our family and friends, and celebrating our 10 year Wedding Anniversary in Puerto Vallarta with those dearest to us, overlooking a harbor full of boats, in an all-white Italian cafe. Yes, we are very detailed about our dreams! We absolutely want more children and have recently talked about the possibility of adopting, perhaps later in our lives, although we are definitely waiting on God’s perfect timing and direction for that! We will forever be photographers, and we’re excited more than ever to witness how God will use the little that we have and transform it into something beyond ourselves.
In this season of our business, marriage, parenting, and life, Natalia and I have become comfortable with being uncomfortable. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be comfortable, BUT ultimately, dreams are designed to help others, while comfort is meant to simply help you. On January 1, 2016 we decided that the word we want to define us this year is FEARLESS. On our journey thus far, we have come to realize that jumping off the cliff of comfort to dive into the sea of uncertainty & risk is so much more exhilarating and rewarding! Dreams aren’t built in comfort zones, so we’ve decided to go into our panic zone and to CONQUER our fears! Once you become fearless, life truly becomes limitless. And so do your God-given dreams.
AS A SPECIAL GIFT TO YOU THIS VALENTINE’S DAY, YOU CAN DOWNLOAD THE DIGITAL PDF VERSION OF OUR BOOK, “STORYTELLING” FOR FREE BELOW. ENJOY!