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). 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).