Focused on a dream: Side hustle brings joy to one alum

5 – minute read

It’s not uncommon to find Fabiana Solano (’19, communication, and ’21, master’s in public administration) snapping photos of graduating seniors on the Florida Gulf Coast University campus. What was different on a day in March, as she photographed journalism major Delinah Rosario, was the two other photographers with her. 

A photographer, as viewed from behind, takes photos of a woman in a graduation cap standing in the blue and green FGCU logo on the Library Lawn
Fabiana Solano estimates that FGCU senior portraits account for 80% of her business. Photo by Jessica Piland.

Solano estimates she’s taken pictures of more than 400 graduating seniors in eight years. But this time, the camera was turned on her — to capture the freelance photographer at work.


Solano didn’t always know she wanted to be a photographer. The Fort Lauderdale native attended a medical magnet high school and started at FGCU planning to major in nursing. But, as she says, “some seeds don’t work.”


While she felt the nursing program wasn’t the right fit for her, it wasn’t until she failed a biology exam that she changed her major to communication. “I knew that seed was for me,” Solano says. “I planted it, and it just keeps growing.”


“But my foundation was so strong,” she says, referring to the education and experiences she gained at FGCU. Her parents gave her her first camera, but she credits university photographer and adjunct instructor James Greco for giving her tools to compose great pictures. Solano took Greco’s photography class as an undergrad and worked for him throughout her bachelor’s and master’s programs. She filled the marketing student assistant position Jessica Piland now holds in University Marketing & Communications. Greco and Piland photographed Solano for this story as she took senior portraits last month.

Large blue and green FGCU logo on Library Lawn with a woman standing inside the letter U
Journalism major Delinah Rosario had senior portraits taken by FGCU alum Fabiana Solano. Photo by Fabiana Solano.

As a photographer, Fabiana is a triple threat,” Greco says. “She has the technical expertise, she’s very creative and she has great people skills.”


Greco hired Solano as a freshman after seeing her work on Instagram. “She put together a video of her first campus visit and made another one during orientation. She caught our attention — she was impressive — and I hired her in her first semester.”


Throughout her undergrad and graduate programs, Solano assisted Greco with FGCU’s social media accounts. She also captured campus beauty shots and events for marketing materials and department websites. Her work led to meeting graduating students who asked her to take photos for them. And that led to more opportunities.


She took senior portraits for nursing students Dawson Dascani and Morgan Tyson in 2022 and was recently hired to photograph their planned wedding in December. “It’s just so sweet that I get to continue to be in their lives for years to come, and I get to capture so many milestones,” Solano says.  

A laughing woman in a blue sweater shows a woman in a navy blue dress and a mortarboard graduation cap a photo on her camera
Fabiana Solano (left) shows Delinah Rosario the photos she took. Photo by James Greco.
Two women stand with their backs to the camera, posing in the reflection of a window
Solano (right) often uses the Marieb Hall windows when she shoots portraits at FGCU. Here, she demonstrates a pose to graduating senior Delinah Rosario. Photo by Jessica Piland.
A photographer in a blue sweater fixes the hair of a woman in a navy blue dress and mortarboard graduation cap standing with her back to the camera
Solano (left) fixes Rosario's hair before taking another picture. Photo by James Greco.
A woman in a navy blue dress stands facing the photographer with her feet crossed while wearing a mortarboard and making a Wings Up! gesture with her right hand
Solano says one of her favorite photo ops is in front of Lutgert Hall, with her subject positioned to block the blue pole (hidden in this shot by Delinah Rosario). Photo by Fabiana Solano.
A woman in a navy blue dress stands with her back to the camera while twisting to look at the photographer with a mortarboard in her left hand
Solano says the boardwalk between Marieb Hall and Parking Garage 3 is another picture perfect spot on the FGCU campus. Photo of Delinah Rosario by Fabiana Solano.
A woman in blue dress stands facing away from the photographer with a mortarboard in her right hand while making a Wings Up! gesture with her left hand
At the North Lake Village waterfront, Delinah Rosario demonstrates one of Solano's preferred poses — holding the tip of her mortarboard and facing away from the camera. Photo by Fabiana Solano.

So, how exactly did Solano go from taking photos at FGCU to building a successful freelance photography business?


“I started taking photos for free for students and then they asked me to take their graduation pictures,” she says. The more senior portraits she took, the more students asked her to take their photos. And eventually, students started paying her for her time.


“They would just bring money,” she says, laughing. Once she felt confident about the service she was providing, she started charging clients.


“I want to be profitable but accessible. The reason why I keep doing seniors is because I love it. This is the beginning of the rest of their life — and the first time most of them get their pictures [professionally] taken.” She says she keeps her fees low enough to charge what she would have been able to pay as a college student. “I don’t want them to not be able to afford me.”


This year, Solano has booked 70 senior portraits and doubled her business by renting a studio space in Bonita Springs. “I was really worried I wouldn’t be able to support it or pay for it. But I’ve been able to grow my business to twice the size in less than a year.”


Social media has also helped her increase business — she regularly posts photos and videos to her Instagram page. One video of her setting up her studio space for a Valentine’s Day shoot garnered 3.1 million views.


Solano learned from her marketing classes at FGCU that word-of-mouth marketing is the most difficult to track. But since she doesn’t buy advertising, she knows that her business benefits from it. She says FGCU senior portraits account for 80% of her business.


“I’ll be at my day job and then I get home and log on and I have all these emails. I think, ‘I don’t know how you’re finding me because I’m not even trying to market myself.’ It’s very hard doing that with a full-time job and my own personal life, but I love it so much.”


No matter what she’s going through, Solano says she knows photography is where she’s meant to be.


“I just feel this sense of happiness, the sense of fulfillment. It’s like energy just pours into me, like photography breathes life back into me, 100%. I just feel so happy in it,” Solano says. “I don’t want to follow other people’s dreams. I’m always going to follow my dreams.”

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