For photographer Johanna Oakes, her passion for capturing life’s most precious moments is the foundation of what she does.
The Hamlin resident said photographs are the imprints people leave for themselves in their lives.
Oakes is now working to create her own imprint, helping share the stories of couples and families throughout the Orlando area.
Her favorite moment to capture? The in-between.
“I don’t think I capture the perfect moment, I think I capture the imperfection that’s going on during the shoot,” Oakes said. “I’m not looking at the posed family photos where everyone is just looking at the camera and smiling, I’m looking at the silly faces and the picking of flowers and the jumping and tickling and the behind-the-scenes happy moments.”
Born and raised in Nice, an idyllic town on the French Riviera in southeast France, Oakes said she never knew photography was something she could pursue as a profession, although it was an active hobby since around 2012 when Instagram first became popular in her country.
“I loved my city so much that I thought everything was beautiful and I needed to capture it,” Oakes explained. “It was amazing to see pictures other people shared from all parts of the world, and it inspired me to start capturing my own photos on my phone of my home landscape.”
Oakes bought her first small camera later that year but had no idea how to use it. The first picture she took with the new trinket was a picture of her grandparents.
In 2014, when Oakes was almost 26, she moved to Orlando to pursue the international program she was selected for at Epcot.
Disney is where Oakes met her husband, Jack, who was a restaurant manager at Disney’s Grand Floridian at the time. When Oakes’ program ended at Disney, she stayed with Jack until her visa expired and she had to go back to France.
In April 2015, Oakes returned home and Jack followed her, proposing to her in her hometown. The couple got married a few months later and had their daughter, Elena, soon after.
Elena, now 5, is named after Johanna Oakes’ grandparents and was Oakes’ initial inspiration to capture people through the lens of her camera.
“When we had our daughter, the desire to capture every perfect moment with my family only grew,” Oakes said. “I wanted to freeze every memory I had of her: her tiny hands and toes, her messy morning hair, the way her eyes lit up when she explored the world.”
After winning a newborn photography session giveaway on Instagram and seeing the photos come to life in her own home, Oakes knew she was interested in learning more.
“The photos were very lifestyle, and I didn’t know that was something you could create in that way,” she said. “The woman took the most beautiful and stunning pictures of my daughter, and I remember wishing I could do something just like that.”
About a year later, Oakes said a friend convinced her to share her passion with the world and pursue photography more seriously, helping her land a gig taking photos for a jewelry business.
Oakes said she learned a lot from her work but felt something was missing.
Then, she was forced to make a difficult decision.
The same year, she injured her back, causing her to become bedridden for a few days. At the time, she was waitressing to provide a more stable income for her family in addition to her photography and knew she would be unable to continue the physical strain on her body.
However, Oakes said, she was scared to pursue photography more professionally, not having many American friends and still getting used to the country’s lifestyle.
“When I first got into photography, it was like a whole new vocabulary that I didn’t know, so it was really, really hard for me,” she admitted. “The first couples shoot I did I came back home crying and I told my husband, ‘I can’t do this; it’s too difficult.’ It was hard to explain how to position the people in front of the camera and to encourage them to act natural.”
Even though the new adventure was challenging, Oakes said she knew she couldn’t give up, and she continued to learn by taking free classes online, educating herself on the technicalities and details of a camera, practicing at every opportunity she could, and even buying her first professional camera in 2019.
The wedding and family photographer said the best part about photographing people is the special stories the photos create.
“They will always have something to look back at,” she said. “When I look back at my family photos, it makes me happy, and that’s what makes me happy in doing this. All the families I photograph, they will always have these treasures to look back at. … It really feels like I’m almost part of their family too because I was there to capture those moments.”
In just a few years, Oakes has completed hundreds of projects, more than she can count, for residents all over Central Florida.
Although each project holds a special place in her heart, she said, one of her favorite shoots was a Lebanese wedding she captured. She said it had a special impact on her career because it reminded her of her Mediterranean origins.
In addition, Oakes said she enjoyed the mini sessions she did with the princesses of FantaSea Character Co.
The collaboration with the company allowed the two businesses to put together a magical and personal experience for children through a pretend tea party and a meeting with their favorite Disney princesses.
Weddings always will be Oakes’ favorite service to offer from her portfolio.
“I can be there to see the love surrounding the couple and their family,” she said. “It’s just a special place to be. What drives me is the interaction between people.”
Oakes describes her style of photography as bright, vibrant and true to color, striving to enhance the colors and remember a moment exactly as it was, saying the style also matches her energetic and upbeat personality.
As her business started to take off, Oakes said, she realized she could only learn so much online and by herself, and she yearned to learn more.
“I am constantly learning and growing,” she said. “That’s the crazy thing about photography — you cannot know everything, there’s always new ways to improve. If you think you know everything, you will not be able to succeed.”
At the end of last year, the photographer decided to change her business structure, placing a larger importance on time with her family and doing fewer shoots for a higher value to better balance her personal life.
“I have met amazing people in the community that have become my close friends just through doing photography,” she said.
Oakes won best photographer in Winter Garden on the Winter Garden Rants, Raves and Reviews Facebook page this year. She said the award was completely unexpected because she has little friends and no family in the area, saying the award is credited to her clients and people they knew for voting and sharing.
In September, the Hamlin resident will be traveling to attend a workshop hosted by Esteban Gil, a Connecticut-based wedding photographer who uses flash to create stunning frames.
Oakes said she is happy with where she is at in her current journey, but she would love the opportunity to have a studio in the future.
One of her newest projects is working on a mentoring program.
“Over the last few years, I’ve turned my photography hobby into a full-time career,” Oakes said. “I’ve built my brand, brought in steady bookings and created a thriving business I’m proud of. … Now, I want to take everything I’ve learned and help others invest it into their business.”
Throughout the mentorship program, attendees will learn how to attract the customers they want so they are able to take consistent bookings and turn their passion into a career – just like Oakes did.