I don’t think I ever told this story on the blog before. You might find it interesting. It’s the story of how I got into photography.
I had taken a photography class when I was in middle school. Learned how to push the shutter release button and, mostly, develop black and white film in a darkroom. I don’t recall that I took a lot of great pictures. Maybe a couple. More importantly, I liked it. I still have one of the pictures.
A couple of decades later found me doing desktop support at Marquette University’s college of communication. I liked that job. The college always had something cool going on computer-wise. No spreadsheet jockeys, these students; they were on multimedia missions. So I wasn’t surprised when they presented me with bunch of boxes and said “figure these out.”
They were cameras. Digital cameras. They were turning the college’s photography operations digital. And I had to learn to use them so I could support other people when they had problems.
So I took one home and started shooting with it. I kept on taking it home for weeks. And I shot a lot of pictures.
The thing about shooting a lot of pictures is that sooner or later you get lucky. You take something really good. After a while I started asking myself what made the good ones good.
Even though I loved it, eventually I had to give up that camera. As I recall, it was (of all things) an Epson PhotoPC 3100 Zoom. Had a swell little neoprene crushable wrap for it. With velcro. To keep rain out. I loved that thing, too.
It wasn’t long before I splurged on a camera of my own. I read a lot of reviews. I did a lot of research. And I bought a Canon Powershot G2. Ran me about $500.
I learned a lot of things with that camera. Like how to suppress the flash, how to force the flash, and how to spot-meter. I took some pretty decent photos with it.
When the G2 started to get a little long in the tooth, I took the plunge and got a SLR-type camera. This time a Nikon: The D50.
A guy I knew loaned me a really nice lens: A Nikkor 18-35, I think. F/2.8 all the way through the zoom. With the D50 and that lens, I really began to get some results. But I didn’t take a big leap in understanding until I had to give it back. By then I had gotten used to good glass and had to buy my own. More research. But the prices! Financing this hobby was becoming a problem.
It was around this time when a friend who knew of my interest in photography asked me to shoot her wedding. I said no. She said she wouldn’t take no for an answer. So I said I’d do it–if she paid me enough to buy a lens fast enough to do the job. She agreed, and I bought myself a Sigma 18-50 f/2.8. Still use it regularly.
I shot the hell out of that wedding, let me tell you. With workmanlike results, maybe–but what it lacked in artistry I made up for with enthusiasm and thoroughness. Nobody told me that you couldn’t just pick up a camera and be a photographer, so I just did it. Fortunately, I was able to draw on some other skills I had: how to talk to people, how to get them to do what I needed them to do, and how to be unobtrusive during special moments.
I shot a couple more weddings. With the proceeds I bought new and better equipment. A Nikon D300. An array of fast zooms and some sharp primes. External flashes and diffusers. I started to think a lot about light, how I could use it, how I could manipulate it.
Soon I doubled my price, made a web site, got business cards and wrote up a simple wedding photography contract. I was in business. And business was good. Advertising in Craig’s List, I was shooting a wedding every month. And that’s about as busy as I wanted to be, having a family and full-time day job.
And, yes, I claimed every penny of income on my taxes–and wrote off every expense, too. I found that if I advertised a lot I could easily pocket an extra $10,000 a year working less than 30 hours a month.
I’m teacher at heart, so it wasn’t long before I attempted to share my newfound knowledge with others. I published three photography articles at Lifehacker.com. They were well-received.
Through it all, from the first days of that old Epson digital right through to today, I had help. Mostly in the form of Dan Johnson, chief photographer at Marquette. He encouraged me. He gave me good advice. And he asked me piercing questions about the fundamentals of photography that I still think about every time I pick up a camera.
So that’s how it happened. Bit by the shutter bug one minute, part-time pro the next. I still have a lot to learn. Even if I did this for the rest of my life I don’t think I could know everything. That’s one of the things that’s so appealing about photography, I think: the rules are simple, like chess. But like chess, it can take a lifetime to master–and the variability is almost endless.
Bonus: The three most important things people can do to improve their photos.
1. Get closer
2. Get even closer than that.
3. No, really–closer
Don’t shoot things the way your eye sees them. Fill the frame with your subject. Just doing that one thing will probably improve most amateur snapshots by 50%. Now you know.