I’d like to share some advice I recently passed on to a student, who I suppose I mentor, about how to ensure you’ve got a good foundation upon which to build your photographic life.
Finding good information can be confusing these days, with so much info online, where everyone’s a photographer and they all know best. We are constantly bombarded with imagery left, right, and centre as we struggle to find our own unique photographic voice.
The simple but immensely valuable solution that has taken me some years to work out is this: we all need to slow down and focus. Sounds easy enough, but what does it actually mean? In most cases, the kit we have access to will be more than sufficient to shoot what we love most, so the biggest hurdle becomes the commitment to following your gut feeling and going out and shooting. Yes, we are passionate, but boredom and creative burnout lurk at every corner of our adventure.
We are also easily distracted, with so many suggestions, coming from everywhere in our fast-paced digital world, as to where our focus should be. We shoot family one week, portrait the next, then macro the next — it can be never ending. You can also become stricken with the compulsion to buy this bit of kit, and then more, then an additional this, and one of that. Not only is this a financial drain, but it can also take a toll on your creative drive. The solution is to slow down and focus on a few styles or topics and become the best you can at those before progressing to more creative, even paid, photographic work. It will happen, but it will take some time.
First, my commercial portfolio is online at paulpetch.co.nz, and I recommend you go check it out. My portfolio of work has evolved and changed every year and continues to do so, but I remember the start clearly. I was an outdoor sports (mostly running) and events shooter, with my main focus people and their emotions. With that direction defined, I began to better understand the concept of ‘visual storytelling’.
I learned with a humble camera and kit lens from Harvey Norman, which came in at a budget-bursting $1600. I even shot my first commercial job with this set-up, chasing Salomon-sponsored athletes up, down, and around Mount Taranaki. I have memories of ducking behind boulders to shelter my single camera from the extreme winds as I swapped kit lenses.
I then splashed out on a Canon 7D, and it was like a revelation. From there, I learned to shoot fully manual and invested in some good lenses, then worked out the best focusing process and techniques for tracking movement with natural light exclusively. I was in my happy place until I started to push for more commercial work and then, once again, got a bit lost.
I realized how much flash photography can elevate a photo for commercial work and started to move my focus to include using flash creatively and consistently. The fact is, for commercial work, clients demand clarity of images, with their messages related to sponsors, places, and products. If you can control light properly, you will be able to get the very best shots consistently. With that revelation, the bills began to get paid.
Fast forward to now, and I’m still learning. I’ll never stop learning. And I’m always pushing my photographic limits. But mastering new skills and equipment is made easier thanks to the foundations I learned years ago. Maybe I was lucky, but it’s never too late to learn them.
I didn’t know it at the time, but shooting sports and events with natural light taught me so many valuable skills. I learned about controlling light, anticipating moments, observing patterns in people’s movement and events, tracking fast and unpredictable objects, setting up a moment with available tools, and dealing with never being able to default to higher than 1600 ISO.
I mostly shoot commercial portraiture, places, and documentary work these days for all sorts of clients, but each time I grow into a new style or area of photography, the few years I spent shooting sports and events has ensured a fluid learning curve for me. I have the foundations.
Of course, it’s subjective, but instead of buying tons of gear, I suggest spending time coming to understand your existing kit, and the aspects it shares with any professional set-up. You still expose with aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. You still need to see how different types of light affect and influence outcomes. You still need to be in front of what you want to shoot, regardless of camera model.
I suggest choosing just two subjects to master over one year and sticking to these. This can be harder than it sounds. Even online photography schools insist that students photograph everything, but it’s exhausting.
Focus on using the Aperture Priority (A) and Shutter Priority (S) (called ‘Time Value’ [Tv] on some models) modes on your camera, and master them for your two topics over the first six months. For example, portrait is perfect for Aperture mode, while sports is a good fit for Shutter. Use natural light exclusively during the time you spend mastering Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, then, once you start to understand what you are doing, move into shooting manually.
When investigating manual photography, start shooting with off-camera flash. By off-camera, I mean a cheap $50 cable and speedlight of your choice. See how the flash acts as a light source, and dial in the exposure with the camera settings (and take a look at my five-minute portrait series at photoworkshops.co.nz for more ideas).
So, six months shooting with Aperture and Shutter, then six months in and out of manual mode with flash. That’s a plan, right? Most of all, and I can’t emphasize this enough, you must keep focused on the two subjects — be shooting them at every available moment. Slow down and avoid the urge to shoot everything.
Travel to events and places you want to photograph. If you want to capture people, join modelling websites and offer imagery to beginners for their portfolios. If you want to shoot sports, just Google events and head out there. To shoot children and maternity imagery contact a charity or organization. Corporate head shots — what about where you work? Spend your time and energy shooting real things, real places, and make real mistakes.
The aim is to master your camera settings and control light. After this period, you will start to feel a transition taking place as you find your groove and discover that all the other skills and aspects you thought you were ignoring can be learned through those two subjects you have stuck with. You can cover any topic — macro, portrait, doco, action, fine art, people, places, travel, anything — without straying from your two chosen areas. The creative opportunities were always infinite, but now you have the foundations to really master what you love, instead of changing direction every few days and getting frustrated.
Slow down and focus from today, and don’t be scared of making mistakes. Keep practising and believing in yourself, and remember that you rock.
This article was originally published in D-Photo Issue No. 60. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine for yourself below: