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Photog Friends ft Nelly Cabanillas

We are diving into another amazing Photog Friends interview this week with Nelly Cabanillas. The name may sound familiar if you've read some of my latest blogs -- specifically my latest post sharing my experience being on the other side of the lens! We connected on Instagram through mutual friends and it's been such a pleasure getting to watch her build her business and brand over the last couple of years. Her unique aesthetic and genuine passions for what she does really makes her stand out of the crowd and was a big reason I chose to shoot with her a few months back. I hope you guys love this interview as much as I did!

Photog Friends ft. Nelly Cabanillas

J: I'm so excited you're on board for this collaboration! Please just start it off by introducing yourself: who are you, what's your biz name and where do you shoot?

N: Hi everyone, I’m Nelly, and I’m the owner of Nelly Cabanillas Photography. I’m a wedding + elopement photographer based out of San Diego, CA. I serve the surrounding areas of San Diego and travel often, but I call Oceanside home!

J: What led you to photography and where did you learn your photography knowledge?

N: My love for photography started at an early age, I focused on analog photography, first shooting on 35mm film when I was 16. In College, I was completely invested and well versed in film photography everything from developing in a dark room with wet chemistry, creating tintypes with 4x5 film cameras, and creating images directly onto glass + even wood. Learning such a hands on approach + delicate medium such as film, taught me the importance and fundamentals of photography. Light, balance, composition, different lighting situations, all of which I carried over with me when I dove into digital photography. I owe a lot of my knowledge to some pretty talented woman who I had as mentors! As far as wedding photography and this whole industry I learned by attending various workshops, styled shoots, endless nights googling and watching youtube videos, asking questions, making friends and collaborating, and simply by practicing, A LOT!

J: Wow - I had no idea you had that much experience under your belt! I think that diligence and appreciation for the craft speaks volumes about how you got to where you are today. You've decided to pursue your photography full-time recently, right? Did you ever think you would take photography as seriously as you do today?

N: Yes, definitely, as soon as I picked up a camera when I was 16, I knew that I had to somehow make this into my career. I’ve always been a firm believer in pursuing your passion. However, at the time I didn’t really know what that would look like. When I first started considering this as my career, I thought I’d want to work with brands / shoot lifestyle, or even take a fine art / conceptual approach, I actually didn’t think I would go the wedding route. But lone and behold, I was introduce into this new age of wedding and couple photography, that revolves around everything I love: human connection, shooting people in love, traveling, lifestyle, all kind of wrapped into one. That’s when I switched gears and hit the ground running. I’ve been working at it ever since.

J: I think I had those same thoughts when I was starting to really get the hang of photography and creating with my camera. Not really knowing where you'll go with it, but knowing it will be a major part of your life. Have you ever been featured in a gallery, magazine, blog, or other larger body of work?

N: When I was heavily focused in film I actually had a few gallery shows along side some pretty talented individuals, one of my “big” shows was at Gallery D in San Diego, (which is no longer around), but I was super proud because it featured my mom. My most recent work was blogged by Mae & Co Creative, it features a Laguna Beach Styled Elopement Shoot and an In-Home Session featuring the blogger Stefanie Rouse.

J: Oh my goodness I love seeing shots from this session. It's one of my favorite shoots you've done - I think you caught the chemistry between these two perfectly. If you could shoot for a big name like National Geographic, Time Magazine, or GQ, would you?

N: I would be thrilled and would do it in a heart beat! I probably would lean towards Nat Geo, because I thoroughly enjoy other types of photography like landscapes, photojournalism, and so on. So YES, I’d freak out.

J: We've all had a shoot that just didn't go as planned (or at least I have!). Can you think back on one of those times where a shoot challenged you? What made it challenging and what did you learn from it?

N: I’ve never had a bad “client experience”, during a shoot, but I’ve definitely dealt with some other personal factors. Especially when I was just starting out shooting couples, I often times would blank on how to direct them or how to pose them, but that just pushed me harder to learn. I no longer stumble or force poses, instead I create prompts, direct them naturally into poses, and create the space for real emotions to show up. I create an experience for my couples. Had I not struggled in the beginning I would have not been able to grow as a photographer.

J: Thank you so much for sharing that. I remember in my early days of shooting couples, I did my brother and his wife's maternity photos and they gave me great feedback on how important it was for me to be more "bossy" and give more direction. Even though it feels odd at first and you don't have much context for how to pose and direct people, it's one of those places practice makes perfect. So, out of all the work you've done, which photo or which shoot are you most proud of and why?

N: For me, the most important shoot, was actually more of a moment, it was when I booked my first wedding gig with my ideal client. After years and months of hard work, fine tuning, creating my own voice and brand, I had finally attracted my ideal client, not only was she my ideal client but she was a wedding photographer herself, and told me she could see how much passion and drive I had, and trusted me completely! We’re great friends now and it was a sort of defining moment for me in realizing my worth and talent.

J: What a cool experience! It must've been a whirlwind of emotions for all of your hard work and fine tuning to pay off in such a major way. And I think that's what a lot of your clients must feel, because I had the same thought process when deciding to finally book our session with you. Trust is exactly the word I'd associate with your brand! It seems like most of the work I've seen you share is portraiture. Do you ever explore other genres or niches of photography? If so, what other niches do you enjoy or hope to dabble more in?

N: I kinda giggled when I read this one because, oh boy - I shoot everything. Although my site and social media is curated towards couples and wedding work, my heart has always been about photographing a bit of everything. Although I wouldn’t do it for “work”, I do shoot other stuff (but I don’t share it haha). Shooting for myself and for my creativity sake, I like to shoot landscapes, when I travel I do some photo-journalism, action sports like dirt-bikes and motorcycles when we go out to the desert, shooting food / food styling is a big one because I love to bake, and lots of lifestyle work. Basically I’m always shooting something, because it makes me happy.

J: I know that itch, like, "I've got to shoot something, I don't care what it is, but I need to shoot!". What is your favorite editing program & why?

N: Lightroom is my go to editing program, the quick and efficient workflow and layout is perfect for me as a photographer, if I need to do a higher level edit I’ll take it into Photoshop.

J: I really love the idea of finishing these interview sessions with advice for newbie photographers. So take a second to share what advice you wish you'd heard at the start of your photography journey!

N: My biggest advice would be to start in the mindset of community over competition. There is enough room for success to go around, make sure to make connections and friends within the photo industry, it’ll help you stay sane and you’ll learn valuable information. Also, never stop learning, constantly do better, invest in education and workshops, they will impact your growth tremendously!

Be sure to give this gem your support by sharing this blog and by following her on Instagram @nelly_cabanillas

Know a photographer I should interview next? Email me directly at

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