Everyone makes mistakes when they start a new hobby or job. It’s a valuable part of the process, just as important, if not more so, than getting things right. In this post, I'm going to give some examples of mistakes and good choices I made when I was getting started in photography. Featuring various photos I shot in the first year after I took up photography.
When I first took up photography, I shot EVERYTHING. Weddings? Yes. Portraits? Yup. Products? Yah. Families? Oui. Fine art? Si. Fashion? Music? Ye. Yuss. Architecture? Ja. Events? Gij. Nature? Aye. You get the idea. I did quickly realise I wanted my focus to be on photographing people, but I was still shooting a wide variety of subjects. Ultimately, I shot too many different things and it took me a while to narrow down my focus, so my portfolio was all over the place for a while. I think the sooner you can narrow down what you want to shoot, the quicker you can develop a strong portfolio and gain a reputation within that area.
I should clarify, that a big part of starting photography is working for free. When you’re just starting you have very little portfolio, no contacts and no individual style. You need to photograph for free so you have something for prospective clients to look at, and you also need to shoot for free (we call it testing or Time For Print/TFP) to develop a style and experiment. So when I say ‘don’t work for free’, I mean that you shouldn’t do a shoot if it has no value to you. Value can be in the form of portfolio development, developing your style and valuable networking contacts. I will also say, never work for ‘exposure’. ‘Exposure’ equates to very little, and unless your names is being exposed to literally a million plus people, it doesn’t have any real value. But I shot for free on projects that had zero value for me on the promise of exposure, and they were nothing but stressful and quite boring. They didn’t help me develop my portfolio, they just sat on my hard drive gathering metaphorical dust.
A skill I have developed in recent years, through sheer necessity, is the ability to talk to anyone. Through going to shoots with people I haven’t met before, to shooting weddings with hundreds of people I don’t know, I’ve developed the ability to have a conversation with anyone with no knowledge of who they are. I can make small talk with a tree. But when I was just starting out I did not have this ability. I actively avoided ‘networking’ opportunities because I just didn’t know how to go about it. I still struggle with events that are explicitly ‘networking’ because it feels incredibly forced and fake. They’re events designed for people to try to get something of value from other people, and it feels a bit disingenuous. The benefit of photography, is that a lot of our work is technically networking. If you shoot weddings, that’s a big room full of people who might hire you or recommend you to their family and friends. If you have a test shoot, you can get to know a model/make up artist/hair stylist etc. and see how they work, and build up your network in a really organic way.
Back in 2010, I had a hard drive fail. It contained a lot of my work from my degree, art & design foundation, and even school, with a lot of photos of friends and family. Some of it was salvaged, but unfortunately a lot of it was lost. I was devastated. So you would think I’d be very careful and start using back up system. You would be wrong. I kept on only keeping my work on one external hard drive. It took a second hard drive failure early this year for me to finally get that I need a back up system that will back up my work to more than one place. It was expensive to recover my work, and I still lost most of my work from 2014 (and it was SUCH a good year for work). I decided to ask the company who rescued my work the best way to back up work. They said to back up to two hard drives, and keep them in separate places, and then have everything backed up online in a cloud or similar service. Which is now what I do. I store my work on portable 2TB USB 3.0 SSD hard drives (I mostly use WD My Passport hard drives, but also have a Seagate and an astonishingly hardy Hitachi HDD) I then also back up my desktop content and hard drive content on BackBlaze. I did a lot of research into the cheapest online storage with greatest capacity (I need multiple terrabytes of storage capacity) and BackBlaze came out as the best value, and really straight forward to use and access backed up work.
The Good Choices
I’ve been on social media since it’s original conception - MySpace. I’ve joined most social media platforms since - some have outlived others, and some are more useful as a photographer than others. The best way to get new clients is to get your work in front of eyes, and social media allows you to do that in a quick (and free!) way. It’s also really valuable for networking, and making friends in the industry - which can be invaluable. Some of my biggest projects have been as a result of making contacts through twitter, and people seeing my work on Instagram. Photographers have utilised all sorts of social media platforms to their advantage, so it’s best to give them a go and see what works for you.
I’ve always been a very self driven learner. I like solving a problem or setting a goal and gathering the knowledge I need to complete it. I think being self employed and being creative for a living, you have to be able to push yourself. I learnt the ability to work and learn new skills independently when I studied textile design at university. And the desire to learn is so important, and part of your style and career development. Whether it’s a lighting technique, Photoshop or other software, camera equipment or even prop making, learning new skills can only drive you forward and maintain your passion for photography. There's a multitude of tutorials and knowledge on the internet, and I found Creative Live particularly useful, they cover a massive range of topics including photography and are a fantastic resource.
Roping in family and friends, particularly when you first start, is incredibly useful. Because they love you, they’re going to have the patience to let you practice photographing them, and they can also help you get work through word of mouth. I think there should probably be a support group for the victims of my creative ideas, like Ashley who let me Mod-Roc her face, Zara who modelled plastic bags, Rosie who wore a cloak of rubber gloves, and to the ten friends I put in clown make up and made them get into my small car. But they were all really valuable learning experiences. Photographing a levitation portrait with my friend Kat forced me to learn all new tools in Photoshop. My work shooting my friend Andy doing some fire performances taught me a lot about shutter speed and ISO. Practising stroboscopic photography with my friend Kady taught me how to use flash properly. Photographing friends and family is a really valuable learning tool, particularly if you’re going down the self-taught path.
I have shot in Manual mode ever since I first picked up photography. I understood that most professionals shoot in Manual mode anyway, so I may as well just jump right in. I think the sooner you make yourself shoot in Manual, the faster you will adapt to it. You can fully understand what different apertures, shutter speeds and ISOs do, and the trial and error will help you understand how your camera works. It also aids experimentation whilst you learn, through ‘happy’ accidents, and eventually you’ll be able to change settings like it’s second nature. In the same vein, I’ve also shot in RAW since I started photography. You’re given much more light and colour information, a much higher quality image, and greater editing control. I knew that most professionals shot in RAW, so didn’t see the sense in sticking to jpeg when I could just start learning how to shoot and process RAW files.
This is a more recent decision, but I’ve been starting to embrace film. I was lucky enough to learn black and white film development on my art & design foundation course, which I absolutely loved. But digital was just hitting it’s stride, and my main interests then lied in fashion and textile design, so it wasn’t an area I pursued. Since I’ve now been shooting digital photography for a few years, I’m beginning to explore other methods of getting a photographic image. I was lucky enough to win a Holga CFN 120 (you can find them on eBay nowadays) from Metro Imaging a couple of years ago, and I was delighted to have the chance to work in medium format. The camera is quite a cheap camera with very basic settings, and a changeable colour flash. Because of it’s cheap design there’s lots of light bleeds and double exposures, which have an amazing ‘arty’ effect, and it’s always a surprise to get the film back. Using this camera, I’ve become interested in other film cameras and the beautiful imperfections they can create through either the camera itself or the film used. Working in digital, I’m so used to seeing perfected images and so much of the photography we see is retouched. When we look at an image, it’s edited to the point of ‘perfection’ and we know it isn’t real. Using film brings back a sense of imperfection, but in a positive, authentic way. It’s a surprise to see what we develop or receive from a development lab, it’s an area so open to experimentation but also can’t be so finely controlled as a digital image.