From Pokémon Polaroid to Full Frame Professional (or: How I Became a Photographer)
Alright, folks, this post is gonna be a long one. So get comfortable, and enjoy the ride. I'm going to tell you how I became a professional photographer. And if at any time you have any questions, don't hesitate to shoot me an email!
The goal of this post is to share with you what has led me to today. Perhaps this will inspire aspiring photographers, or perhaps this will provide insight to those wondering what being a photographer is all about.
As the title says, my first camera was a neat little Pokémon frame polaroid I had when I was like 7 years old. I don't remember much about it, but it was a long ways from my Nikon D750. My journey in photography thus far has had several beginnings, but the most concrete one, one which has brought me to where I am today, was in my freshman year of college.
But before I get into that, I'd like to give you a bit of background.
Growing up, I always said I wanted to be an artist. I loved drawing and painting, and all that jazz. My dad raised us on various arts and crafts, and these things shaped a large portion of my childhood life. I took art classes in school up until 8th grade.... but that's when things changed.
In 8th grade I also took a marketing class as an elective, and something about that class inspired me. It was at that point I decided I wanted to be a wealthy business owner. I became motivated by money. My upbringing wasn't particularly wealthy, and so if I wanted to have things, I decided I would have to get them myself. That, coupled with the fact that my 8th grade art teacher was totally uninspiring, led to me not taking any art classes in high school. I decided to pursue business/marketing, and computer science. Two fields I thought for sure would prep me for my future as a millionaire. And I loved those classes. In my marketing classes I got involved in DECA, an organization which has definitely done a lot to shape me into who I am today, and my computer programming classes were interesting and enlightening as well. I took these classes every year until I graduated, and then I got accepted into VCU's school of business where I enrolled in the fall of 2011.
At this point, I was still high on the lure of business venture and success. I was excited to pursue my degree in entrepreneurship. But even so, I dabbled in creative efforts. I would get bored in classes, and proceed to doodle when I should have been taking notes. I wrote short stories, and even a (very amateur) novel. I was always creating. But I wouldn't realize for several years that that is what I wanted to do for my career.
I was fortunate enough to have some extra financial aid money my freshman year of college, and decided to get a camera on a whim. I had remembered my Young Life leader, Kyle, being a photographer, and both he and a few others inspired the idea. I figured I had an eye for it, and it would be nice to have a better tool to record the events and memories I experienced. I bought a dinky little Canon Powershot from my friend, Emily, and I loved that thing (for a little while, at least). My friend, Drew, called it a "Digital Dan," which is a term I still use today.
I used this camera for all sorts of things! I walked around campus and took pictures of buildings, of fire hydrants, of trees, etc. I took this camera to school events, and I used it to record my first Notochords concert (a group I became rather loyal to over the years). I think I used this camera for about 3 months before I realized I needed something more. I got frustrated by the delay between pressing the button, and then the picture actually being taken. So I did some research and learned that what I wanted was a higher shutter speed. What I needed was a SLR camera. I researched different cameras for weeks, and asked friends of mine what they thought. During this research phase I discovered Ken Rockwell, whom I now know as a great resource for all things camera/accessories. And then I stumbled upon ThePhotoForum (TPF). ThePhotoForum.com became one of the biggest factors in my growth as a photographer, but I'll get into that later.
I ended up going to eBay where I found a cheap Sony SLR for about $100. I bought it. And quickly realized after buying, that what I purchased was from the "for parts" section of eBay. I blame my eBay noob-ness at the time. Anyway, after receiving the camera I was quite displeased, as it had a dying sensor, and could barely take a photo. So.... being the entrepreneur I was, I ended up selling it on Craigslist.
I got rid of that thing and started looking on Craigslist for replacements. I wasn't too strict about what I wanted. I wanted something that could take pictures fast, and had good image quality. I didn't know anything else. And finally I saw someone selling a brand new Nikon D5100 with warranty for just $500. At the time, that deal was worth about $800, so I jumped on it. I met the dude at Rite-Aid, where I learned he had bought it to take pictures of shoes, but decided after a week he didn't want it anymore. I was happy to relieve him of that burden. And it was at this time, I became a Nikonite.
I know I've been laying on the detail here, but don't worry. Things will start speeding up here now. After I got my Nikon, I kept taking pictures. And the first photo I uploaded to ThePhotoForum with this camera was a "macro" of my glasses.
I was stumped on why I had such a narrow depth of field, but a few of the forum guys pointed me in the right direction.
ThePhotoForum was definitely in the top 3 learning resources for me in becoming a professional photographer. The others being Youtube, and books/magazines. I tell every aspiring photographer I know to sign up on this forum! I never took any photography classes, so what I would do is just take photos and post them on the forum for critique and feedback. I have to admit that while I've always been a fast learner, I haven't always been a gracious one. My days on the forum started out with a lot of defensiveness, and I had a big ego. I would be really happy with some photos, and get upset when people called me out on their flaws. But over time, I realized that what these people were saying was changing my technique, and I was improving. These guys helped me with everything from watermarks, to business strategies, and of course, the art of photography. And they humbled me.
Here's one of my first attempts at a logo/watermark, for your amusement.
After about 7 months of being on the forums, I got more interested in the business side of photography. I realized there was potential to make money doing this, so I made business cards, created a Facebook page, and began advertising on Craigslist, selling my services for as little as $25. Keep in mind, the quality of all these platforms at this point was garbage. My cards looked totally ridiculous, my Facebook page was inconsistent, and I really didn't know what I was doing. And I was resistant to the people who were telling me to not worry about the business of it, and just to focus on the art. It took me a couple of months to realize this. Once I finally decided that I should become a better artist before making it into a business, things began to improve. I became more receptive to feedback, and I shot more and more, always improving.
Eventually, I had my first "model shoot." I asked my RA to model for me, and she kindly obliged.
This shoot was very instrumental to my development for 3 reasons. After posting the photos from this shoot on ThePhotoForum, I was told about single-point focus, and the 50mm prime lens. These two things made a huge difference in my photography. The 50mm allowed me to better experiment with depth of field, and single-point focus has helped me to have my photos properly focused. Of course... I would have already known these things if I had read my camera manual like I was supposed to (READ IT!).
The third reason is that I discovered that I really liked shooting with models in fashion and editorial styles. I enjoyed working with people and having that human element in my work. This is something I continue to pursue today.
The next portion of this post is going to be a timeline to summarize the events that led me to where I am today. Disclaimer: in 'missing' months, I was still practicing photography. Walking and shooting scenes around my school, photographing events, etc. But this post would be incredibly too long if I catalogued every shoot I did. So I'm just going to highlight the ones that I think most influenced my growth as a photographer. There will be a lost of "firsts." And you can click on the photos to enlarge them! There will also be a gallery at the end with assorted works from across the years, to show the variety and changing quality through the years.
August 2012 - took my camera with me to Michigan during family vacation and photographed buildings, the fair, lighthouses, and nature. Also experimented with tone mapping... those were some dark times.
September 2012 - experimented with business cards....
September 2012 - my first show/stage photography and learned more about white balance
October 2012 - did my first portrait shoot (Tereza; pictured earlier)
November 2012 - took my first photos of the moon and received feedback about astro photography
December 2012 - took picture of other random things, but more important got a tripod for Christmas! It's a great tripod and I still use it today, even with my Nikon D750. I also created the first draft of my website!
January 2013 - first time "light painting," and also through reading, research, forum activity, and taking photos of my guitar... I learned how depth of field worked! Also this month I received advice from Derrel, on TPF, on how to interact with, and prepare models for portraits.
March 2013 - took my first product photos. Also learned how to properly expose for the moon.
April 2013 - began experimenting more with Photoshop, Naruto-style. Did my first photo shoot using a backdrop (white sheet taped to my ceiling), Aaron Carter, and first light trails (long exposures)
Also... experimented with names/cards again. The last one kinda stuck ;)
May 2013 - shot at the Vizcaya Swimwear Richmond launch party. The proprietor, Lisa Opie, would go on to become a friend and mentor.
July 2013 - got my 50mm f/1.8! And nothing was ever the same again.
September & October 2013 - bought external flashes and umbrellas, and practiced on myself, and with model, Kelly, whom I had met at the Vizcaya launch party.
January 2014 - I think around this time I began to really dive into lighting. I was also becoming more confident in my work. Enough so that I was asking acquaintances and strangers (via Model Mayhem) to model for me. One such person was Kathleen.
The first image here was used as the front page of my website for about 2 years.
June 2014 - I started to be more active with my Facebook page, and decided to host my first contest. I called it #500in2Weeks. The premise was that if I got 500 likes on my Facebook page, I would shave my head bald. Kind of silly, but fun nevertheless.
July 2014 - first time storm chasing! Not the most fantastic shots, but this experience gave me the nature/travel bug, and would lead to my future camping, storm chasing, and traveling adventures.
September 2014 - my first wedding. Dun dun dun! I had been wanting to do a wedding for awhile at this point. My friend, Staci, needed a photographer, and she needed it to be cheap. I fit the bill perfectly! I believe I charged her something like $150 or $200 for the event... a far cry from my current $1500-$2500. As far as the photos go, they were certainly usable, and decent enough. But to be fair, it was easily one of those "you get what you pay for situations." After this wedding I realized my desire for a full frame camera that had the dynamic range and ISO capabilities to get the settings needed for an event like a wedding. More on that later.
October 2014 - the Women emPOWERMENT Project. This was the first time I had used my talent for a cause greater than myself. I realized that I had the ability to help people and bring awareness to an issue. Check out the project here! At the end of this month I also did my first cosplay shoot which would lead to Nekocon the next month!
November 2014 - I went to my first anime convention and discovered I loved shooting cosplay! Cosplay is now one of my photography focus areas, and it wouldn't have happened without the Cosplay Club at VCU.
June 2015 - my first lighting bolt! And actually, my only lightning bolt! I need to find some more storms.
July 2015 - I was interviewed by the local news station about a scam going around photographer circles. I was happy to provide them my insight and advice on the situation! This month was also the first time I met The Hunts. They're a Virginia band I knew nothing about until my friend, Justin, invited me to a concert. I ended up really digging their music, and have since shot two more concerts of theirs, the last being at The National where they got me a press pass and they opened for O.A.R. Definitely my closest brush with fame thus far (unless you include the snap shots I sneaked at If/Then with Idina Menzel).
August 2015 - I made my first big trip. Chicago! I was initially heading there for other reasons, but things changed, and it became a photography voyage. Great food, interesting people, beautiful sights. Read all about it and see the rest of the photos here!
September 2015 - this is when it happened. I bought my Nikon D750. The powerhouse with which I accomplish everything I do today, and I'm sure for many years to come. I also had a lot of shoots this month, and I was recognized as one of Thumbtack's Top 10 portrait photographers in Richmond.
November 2015 - The Weekly Jazz. This was a newsletter I started and ran for a month or so before fizzling out. Honestly, it's an idea I want to come back to, so stay tuned! It will probably be something like a monthly feature instead of weekly. This newsletter taught me about email communication, article writing, and showed me how tough it is to be consistent with something like that! Also...... I took my first trip to Skyline Drive! I had read about this place in an issue of Popular Photography magazine and finally had the chance to check it out. I met and got advice from a photographer from National Geographic, and even backcountry camped. It was quite an adventure and you can read all about it here.
December 2015 - I moved out of my dad's house and into a duplex where I had space for a home studio! A place I would have a LOT of shoots over the next year
January 21, 2016 - I got Lasik surgery. I'm including this because this surgery has had a relatively big impact on my photography. The ability to be able to tell if my photo is in focus was and is very important, and with my aspirations of traveling, I didn't want to have to carry glasses around everywhere. Not to mention they could fog up and make shooting troublesome. Here is the last photo of my unaltered eyes.
Unfortunately, this surgery has had some complications. It's been almost a year now, and while I can definitely see better, and without glasses, I am suffering from dry eye and discomfort. I can't open my eyes in the morning without taking eye drops, and I've had to take prescription eye drops for 6 months now. We're hoping my eyes will return to normal, but there's a chance that won't happen. This is a developing story, and I'm hoping for the best.
February 2016 - I learned frequency separation. And I spent a couple of months learning other photoshop editing techniques as well, and honing the ones I'd already learned. These techniques really kicked my portraiture up a notch, and I hope to never stop learning!
March 2016 - I reached 1000 likes on Facebook! And didn't even have to shave my head! Though 'likes' are certainly no indication of business success, it does extend my reach and is certainly a valuable tool in getting my work out there. This month I also started using a website called Viewbug, it's a great tool for inspiration and led to the creation of this image, which went on to receive many community and staff awards on the site.
I also was lucky enough to have one of my photos featured on their Instagram page, which achieved over 1900 interactions!
September 2016 - landed a contract with a local theatre company, where I get to take actor headshots and production photos for each of their shows for the 2016-2017 season. This is a great accomplishment professionally, and my hope is that I can get involved with more theatres, as I do love stage photography. I also finally bought a printer so that I can make prints!
I took photos all through college, all the time. But I still had my sights on the corporate world. But that would soon change. I graduated May 2015 with a bachelors in entrepreneurship, and landed an internship with the Department of Housing and Community Development, which was a great experience! I worked with great people, and my job was to help create the governor's inaugural business plan competition, Virginia Velocity. I was also the photographer for the website and the event!
The work was rewarding and I figured I had found my place. Unfortunately, as all internships do, it came to an end. But one of the connections I had made along the way encouraged me to apply for a position at their bank. I obliged and within a month had started work as the "anniversary coordinator." It was a good experience and I definitely learned a lot, but perhaps the most important thing I learned was that sitting in an office starting at a screen all day was not for me. I kept feeling the draw of photography and other creative work, and eventually made the move to pursue photography as a career. I put in my two weeks, and got to work on developing my business. I partnered with a PR professional for a time on jobs, and eventually got my business license. I began working for Candid Color Photography, shooting local high school yearbook photos and events, honing my skills in portrait, and sports photography,
This January I had to move back home to my dad's for financial reasons, but that won't stop me. I plan to do more on-location shoots and events. It's probably a good thing, as I was getting a bit too comfortable with my studio anyway. I need to be challenged to continue to grow.
As the years have gone by, I've realized that photography is the thing for me. I've never been able to stick with something so long as I have with photography. There's just something about it that keeps drawing me in. I love it. My goal now is to make photography my career... for now. I want to be able to sustain myself by shooting weddings, events, and headshots. I love fashion and portraiture, but there isn't a huge market for it here in Richmond. Who knows, maybe I'll end up in New York one day shooting fashion, but for now I am working on continually improving my craft, networking, and developing my business.
If you've made it this far, thank you. I am glad you have taken the time to learn about my journey as a photographer. I hope something in here has inspired you, or maybe encouraged you to continue in your efforts to be a photographer, model, artist, or whatever it may be. I've had a lot of amazing experiences, and I'd like to end this article with some words of advice, and some thank you's.
First off, looking back, I think some of the most important things I've learned are as follows in the following categories:
• Photography Technique - Youtube, ThePhotoForum, and books/magazines are your best friends. Phlearn is a great Youtube channel to learn Photoshop techniques from and has definitely taught me a ton. Post your photos on ThePhotoForum and let the people there tear them apart. You will learn. Oh, and make sure you're using single point focus!
• The Art - this is important. I think a very critical time for me was when I was trying too hard to make money from photography. I think it takes at least 4 years to become very good at something. Good enough where you can make consistent money from it. Of course, there are variances, but this is what I've seen in my experience. Focus on your craft and improving your technique. You will know when your work is good enough and when you're ready to turn it into a business, if that is something you want to pursue. That time in my life sidetracked my growth as an artist for a good half a year or so. I'm at a point now where I'm confident my work is on par, and sometimes better than other professionals in my area, and that I have something valuable to offer people.
• Passion - being passionate is hard. I often times find myself in a slump not wanting to do anything. I think it's important to determine what kind of things you like photographing, and you won't know this unless you take pictures a LOT. You will see the variety in my photo gallery at the end of this post. So far I've narrowed it down to events, portraits, and weddings. I enjoy all of these things. I'm most passionate about portraits, but I truly love each of these type of photography, and plan to pursue them both creatively and professionally. And once you know what you love shooting, you have to keep at it. Find ways to get motivated, and get out there. For me, just writing this post is motivating to me. I look back and see all the things I've done, and it inspires me to do even more, to outdo the past me.
• The Business - this is a pretty big topic, but I have learned a thing or two along the way about the business of photography. You have to be able to offer something that other people can't or won't. For me, I offer great customer service, superior photo quality, and I am easy to work with. After you have those things down, you have to get the word out. This is something I'm still working on, but Craigslist and social media are great places to start. And once word of mouth begins to spread, you start to make something of your business. I've learned hard lessons as well. I've burned bridges. All I can tell you is to give it your all! Be professional, be punctual, and be dedicated. It will work out if you truly want it. At least I hope so!
Now for thank you's....
There have been a lot of inspirations in my life as a photographer. My earliest inspiration was photographer, Kyle LaFerriere. Kyle was the first professional photographer I'd seen in action, and I just thought he was so cool. He was my Young Life leader in high school, and has since become a good friend and professional role model. I thank other friends and photographers who have inspired me as well. Kourtney Smithson, and Thomas Kolenich have been wonderful in-person mentors to me, and the wonderful people of ThePhotoForum, including my mentor John, have taught me so much as well. The models and makeup artists that I've had the pleasure of working have been amazing, and I look forward to the many more people I'm sure I'll meet and work with in the future!
I am thankful for everyone who has worked with me, or has given me a chance. I thank all my clients for investing in me and my business, and I thank my parents, teachers, friends, and God for all the opportunities that have been afforded to me.
I've been shooting for about 6 years now. I've shot a large variety of subjects, from corporate events and weddings, to still life, cosplay, and fashion. I upload my favorite shots from about 70% of my work to ThePhotoForum where I've received feedback and criticism on what I could do better. Over time, that feedback has helped me to grow as a photographer. I used Youtube and books/magazines for inspiration, and learning new techniques. I've had many wonderful mentors and encouragers that have kept me going. The most important thing has been to just keep shooting. Every shoot I do I learn something new, and like most things, practice makes "perfect," and I am thankful to everyone along the way who has helped or inspired me.
That just about wraps up this post! Thank you all so much for reading, and see below for a comparison of one of my first portraits to a recent one, and below that a random assortment of photos from across the years.
Thank you all so much for reading! To check out my latest work, check out the gallery pages on my website.