Like many people during the pandemic, I spent a lot of time on YouTube this past year. Whether I was watching concert footage of some of my favorite alternative rock bands from the 1990s or classic NBA highlights from the Jordan era, YouTube was the great escape that took me away from what had been an extremely stressful year.
One of the other YouTube channels I visited with great frequency in 2020 belongs to Anita Sadowska, a swimwear, fashion and portrait photographer based in Bali, Indonesia. I’m not the only one who stopped by her channel this past year. With nearly 275,000 subscribers, Sadowska’s channel features fun and accessible photography tips, techniques, and tutorials, with her weekly videos racking up tens of thousands of views. One of Sadowska’s most popular videos of all time tops out at four million views (and counting).
Shot on location in exotic locales such as the beaches and tropical villas of Bali, Sadowska’s videos combine easy-to-understand photography advice with behind-the-scenes footage of her capturing gorgeous models in striking swimwear. Seriously, what’s not to like?
By drawing views from all the eye candy, Sadowska’s been able to leverage her YouTube channel into a crucial part of her business: selling Lightroom presets. So, while other photographers might not be able to match the beautiful locations Sadowska shoots in or the professional models posing in front of her lens, they can reproduce some of the looks of her images through her custom preset packs, which range in price from $12 to $219.
It’s a shrewd marketing approach, one that Sadowska is further building on via forthcoming paid workshops and online educational courses. To find out more, Sadowska answered some of our questions about how her scintillating swimsuit photography has grown into a full-time, multi-faceted business.
Q: Please give us some background on you as a photographer.
Anita Sadowska: My photography journey started at age 16 when I got my first camera as a graduation gift. In the following years I experimented with my style and took photos of mostly nature and my friends. I very quickly realized that I’m definitely more interested in shooting people than I am nature or landscapes. I ended up going to a photography college and then dropping out two years later since work was picking up and I was at the point where I had to choose either staying in school or working on my paid projects.
For the next few years, I worked as a fashion photographer in Ireland, but I never felt fully fulfilled by the images I was taking. I took my first big trip to South Africa in 2017 and that’s when I took my first swimwear photos. Straight away I knew this is what I wanted to do. Taking photos of beautiful girls in bikinis surrounded by breathtaking views was definitely something that I wanted to pursue in my career. It was also when I fell in love with shooting in direct sunlight.
About a year or so before my travels commenced, I set up my YouTube channel and started posting instructional videos about photography and retouching. As my channel grew and I became more financially independent and didn’t have to rely on clients as much, I ended up travelling to some of the most exotic places in the world, taking photos and sharing how I do it with my audience.
Even though I still love swimwear photography, I’ve started leaning more into shooting nudes and implied nudes. It’s definitely a bit more tricky to publish your work without getting censored on social media but it does bring me a lot of joy and makes it that much more exciting.
Q: A lot of your shoots are done in exotic locales and feature beautiful models in swimsuits. You can probably understand that during the pandemic, these might seem like dream assignments to some photographers. Clearly, however, they involve a lot of work and particular challenges in the time of COVID. Can you give us an idea of how these assignments come about, the logistics involved in setting them up, and some of the challenges you face during a typical shoot?
Anita Sadowska: Yes, I definitely see how in today’s climate taking bikini photos for a living seems like a dream. I think what people don’t realize is that there is relatively very little money in taking swimwear images. And I would probably not be doing it if not my YouTube channel.
Most of the photos that you see on my page are personal projects that I film for my YouTube channel and then monetize in diﬀerent ways like sponsorships, preset sales and so on. Of course, because I get to shoot in really beautiful locations with really beautiful models, I do get quite a lot of requests for paid photo shoots and it’s mostly through Instagram. The majority of time, my clients will be based all over the globe, so I usually take on the job of creative director and help them organize everything from models to locations. Once all of the details get sorted and approved, the clothing is usually shipped to me for the shoot.
I would argue that even though your portfolio is obviously super important, your social media presence is even more crucial nowadays to attract and get the clients you want – you can be the best there is but if no one knows about you, you are not going to make it far.
Q: A way a lot of people ﬁrst encounter your work, including me, is through your popular YouTube channel. How did the channel start, what is your goal with it, and what tips can you oﬀer photographers seeking to start their own channels and grow a following?
Anita Sadowska: That’s great to hear! I started my YouTube channel because I felt really stuck in Ireland in the line of work I was doing and was not bringing me any joy nor a lot of money. I needed a place to escape, and YouTube was a fun side project that eventually became bigger and bigger and gave me a lot of confidence to leave my old work behind, step out of my comfort zone and try going in the direction of what I really loved instead.
I never really had a particular goal for my channel when I first started, and I still don’t really have a clear vision of where it’s going to take me. I feel like I’m constantly learning about what people would like to learn from me and balancing that with content I actually want to create.
I would love to create a strong educational platform where I teach photographers on how to take images without overcomplicating it. I feel like a lot of channels out there depend on their gear way more than they do on their eye, understanding of light and knowledge of how to capture models in a more, natural way.
If there is one word of advice, I could give to people starting out on YouTube is to really try and find something you feel really passionate about and see how to present it in the way that is unique to you and will help you stand out from the crowd.
Q: Along with featuring gorgeous scenery and models, your videos also have some kind of educational component, which seems to be a part of their appeal. How did you develop this aspect of your content and why do you think it’s so important to your audience?
Anita Sadowska: One thing that I see people get wrong when starting a YouTube channel is that they make it all about themselves and not their audience. Throughout my years on YouTube, I learned that if you want people to genuinely follow you, you need to provide them with a lot of quality information they will actually find useful and not create something that is just an ego boost for yourself as a creator. Yes, posting a nice music video style behind-the-scenes with cinematic visuals is cool, but for those who watch and want to learn it does not bring a lot of value and will not get you far long term.
People follow my channel because they want to see how I produce my shoots and want to learn about how to achieve a lifestyle like mine. I find sharing my knowledge is so important and don’t think it threatens me professionally in any way. I think there is space and work for everyone out there and it’s all down to how you market yourself and your art. If anything, by sharing what I know I’m able to create a genuine following of amazing photographers that support me in my journey and look up to me for advice. It’s a win/win for me.
Q: What type of gear do you use both for your photos and videos? Who shoots your videos and how are they put together?
Anita Sadowska: I’ve always kept my gear super simple. I’ve been shooting with my Canon 5D Mark IV and my 24-70mm f/2.8 lens for the last six years. The only other lens that I own is a 100mm f/2.8. My video camera is a small Sony A6400 mirrorless camera and a 16mm Sigma Art lens. Since my main camera is a bit beat up at this point, I have been considering upgrading to the Canon EOS R5 and a 28-70mm lens. I would also like to upgrade my video gear as well but financially it’s not really my priority. A lot of the time I film my YouTube videos myself, I just set up my camera on the tripod and get a bunch of clips moving the camera around throughout the shoot as well as getting some B-roll captured on my 5D Mark IV after I finish shooting each look. I’ve been working with an editor for over a year now that puts together my videos for me as it saves me a lot of time to be creative instead. Some of the more complex video ideas I still edit myself however, as I sometimes have a very specific look in mind that only I can execute exactly how I want it.
Q: Some of your videos involve collaborations with other photographers on YouTube. How do these come about and why do you think they appeal to viewers?
Anita Sadowska: I love working with other creators. I’ve met a lot of good friends through collaborating together; it’s amazing to see other people’s perspective on similar subject and how diﬀerent their approach might be. A lot of the time it just starts with a simple conversation and an idea. Most of these happen when me and the other creator happened to be at the same location at the same time. It’s so much fun to see how fellow photographers work, how diﬀerent their energy might be on set and what approach they have to their subject. I feel like these videos appeal to viewers because they get to see how we interact with each other and how sometimes even though we are presented with the same circumstances our creative eye makes us see it in a completely diﬀerent way and I think there’s something very fascinating about it.
Q: You also have a big following on Instagram, and it seems to be another way many people connect with your work. How did you develop your Instagram page and what tips would oﬀer to photographers looking to grow their following?
Anita Sadowska: I originally started on Facebook and then migrated to Instagram. I definitely love it as a platform, and it is definitely a great way to get work. It also gives me credibility that makes connecting and collaborating with big names much easier. However, I find it incredibly diﬃcult to grow my Instagram. Before I started YouTube, I was around 30,000 followers. Most of the growth I got was through my YouTube channel but even at that, I get almost as many follows as I do unfollows weekly. It’s super frustrating and even though the engagement on my posts is great, I’m pretty much stagnant when it comes to numbers. To put it in perspective, my YouTube grows on average by 3-5K people a month while my Instagram, around 150 people a week.
What works best for me is definitely collaborating with fellow photographers and diﬀerent models, as it expands my audience reach. Story restates are also super beneficial and I almost always get more engagement from them than I do from actual Instagram posts.
Q: Another way you market yourself is through your custom Lightroom presets. How did this aspect of your business develop and how do you go about creating these?
Anita Sadowska: I’ve started working on my presets close to three years ago now. Over the years I developed quite a specific color style and started getting requests for presets. I was very skeptical at first as I tried two diﬀerent presets before and I was not really happy with how they made my images look. I wanted to make sure if I push out a product it’s something that I’m proud of and not afraid to represent it with my brand. I understand that my followers trust me and are spending money that they worked hard to earn, and I would never want to disappoint them in any way. I always make sure I rigorously test my packs before I release them as I never want to deliver a substandard product. I usually start with color-grading a large batch of photos from scratch, saving those presets and then continue to test them on multiple images from diﬀerent creators that were shot in diﬀerent lights scenarios. Out of 15 to 20 presets I create, I usually end up with around six final ones that are the most universal for the images I test them on. I also usually make two to three diﬀerent varieties of each preset – one regular, one less contrasty and one more contrasty. This way it reduces the amount of tweaking people that use them have to do.
Q: What’s next for you?
Anita Sadowska: I don’t know for sure. I would consider myself quite easy-going and just following where my path takes me. What I do makes me happy, and I would love to continue doing that for sure. My next big thing however is workshops! I’ve been working hard on creating some quality educational content that will show aspiring photographers how to elevate their work and get the best results with minimal gear required. Keep your eyes peeled!