My Evolution as a Photographer

My Spark of Interest

Everybody start at the beginning and it was the same with me. My beginning with photography started very young! When I was only 6-years-old, my family took a long road trip from where we lived in Michigan, around the US, and ending up in Yellowstone. They gave me a little camera that took that tiny 110 film. I was in love with pointing the camera somewhere and knowing that I’d get to see what they looked like in a few days! Also, I always thought they looked like DJ headphones for mice. What can I say, I was 6!

But photography was always just a fun thing I did from time to time for almost 10 years. During that time I owned several little cameras, starting with a little 1 megapixel digital camera that could fit in a shirt pocket. I also played with the cameras my parents owned – a 10 megapixel DSLR and a 35mm film camera.

My Hook – Film Photography

The first time I went further in photography than just touristy pictures was when I took my first photography class in high school. I was lucky my parents stopped using the film camera, because that class was only for film – no digital at all, very traditional and very fun!

It was when I printed my first photograph in the darkroom. In traditional photography you don’t use a printer, you project your image onto a light-sensitive paper, then immerse the paper in a series of chemical baths. When that image bloomed out of the paper, it felt like magic – and I was hooked. I absolutely had to be a photographer, no matter what.

The downside…I was awful at that class. I didn’t fail…but a little before it ended, I was removed from the second course until the following school year. That was my second part of why I had to be a photographer: I had so much fun and felt a passion, but had to prove that I could do it.

So I took that little film camera and as soon as the next school year came around, I put my soul into learning and practicing photography. To this day, a not insignificant piece of me still misses the mixture of art and science I found in the darkroom. It may be a part of my future as a fine art, but that is more of a past technology, and let’s face it: the future of camera and photography is in more advanced technology.

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Shot on 35mm film and hand-developed in a darkroom. I called it “Lion Tree” since, well, it kind of looks like a lion’s head in the tree knot.

Eventually my high school ran out of photography classes and I had to dual-enroll in my local community college during my Senior year. The first class I took there really helped me to evolve past the point of pure high school styled photography. It was also a film class, but helped to push my creativity further (plus they had a really sweet darkroom setup).
The second class, however, was digital. I’d played around with photoshop and my parents DSLR camera before, but with no real direction, my advancements were painfully slow. That class started to give me the direction and some actual knowledge of Photoshop.

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I shot a lot of my high school football games during my senior year and some of the images turned out pretty decent for that age!

This is where I consider myself as an amateur photographer. I wouldn’t consider myself a hobbyist for the simple fact that it wasn’t a hobby. It was a passion.

The Next Level – Student Photographer

I had a bit of an ego when I left to go to college in Tampa, Florida. I thought my two college courses taught me just about everything I needed to know. But when I finally got there…I found out I was so wrong. There were skills and techniques I didn’t know existed, and technology I couldn’t imagine. I still wasn’t aware of what lens to use for the right situation, or even that it mattered.

All new photography students were given a little DSLR camera to work with and the standard kit lens that came with it. 18-55mm, standard quality. That lens worked for the first few classes, when very little was expected, and the camera was good for most projects during the entire program. Not all of them though.

There were times when 12 megapixels weren’t enough, or when we needed a lens with longer zoom or a wider focal length. Luckily the school had rental equipment available. I was able to use cameras with incredibly high resolution. A Mamiya medium format camera with 80 megapixel resolution was my personal favorite, but I also tried my hand at using a 100 megapixel Toyo Large Format camera. The latter was more difficult, much more suited for landscape photography and could take a while to set up, since you’d have to use an abundance of dials and knobs to adjust the bellows.

Typically though, when not using my own camera, I could rely on renting a full-frame Canon DSLR that had about a 21 megapixel resolution. In fact, I loved that camera so much, I got one when I graduated and still use it to this day!

Most of my skills were developed through college, where I was able to lay my ego aside and focus on one thing – bettering my skill and creating better images.

Photography, I feel, is separated into 2 distinct, yet inseparable aspects: Technology and Creativity. It really works your left and right brain.

Learning when to use which piece of technology is critically important. With lenses, for example, you would never use an 18mm lens to shoot portraiture. Processing images, it’s important to know which tools to use for each kind of image you’re editing as well as their final outcome (print, digital, web, etc). Don’t believe me? Try uploading a 20 megapixel image with 300ppi resolution to a website and see how many people stick around for it to load!
Very left brain kinda stuff.

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This wasn’t a creative or well-composed image, but it sure was fun to play with! Back from my first few quarters in college just as I was learning masking and compositing multiple images into one.

Once I learned the technology part of photography, I was focused more of the creative and conceptual aspect. It takes much greater effort to develop creativity, in general, than technology, because there’s no exact right and wrong. Learning has general guidelines, but there are certain feelings and critiques one has to go through to learn. Very right brain!

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A more well-composed image for a fear project. As I’m really not okay with spiders, it was all about making myself into one.

This was my main evolution into a Professional Photographer.

I like to think that “Student” is a special designation, not required, but definitely elevated above the status of “amateur” or “hobbyist” photographers because photography students (while possibly less skilled than some amateur or hobbyist photographers) are dedicating years of their life to the study of this art.

Semi-Professional Photographer

I graduated college with my BFA in Digital Photography in December of 2012. In January 2013, my roommate and I stuffed all our belongings in his car and drove from Tampa, Florida to Ontario, California. I was disappointed I couldn’t move right into the heart of Los Angeles…but when you’re a 22-year-old fresh out of college, it’s a good thing to not put yourself in the epicenter of seasoned professionals. You won’t get business.

So I had my degree, I had my shiny new Canon 5D camera, I had several lenses, and a small studio lighting kit. I even had the occasional paying gig. The technical definition of a professional photographer is one who takes money in exchange for their work…but I didn’t quite feel professional. So I’m content to label this period, in retrospect, as my semi-professional career period. At the time, I felt like I was, and called myself, a professional photographer.

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One of my all-time favorite shots. Because you don’t have to show a product to sell a brand.

During the next several years, I amassed more and better equipment while working in non-creative jobs. I worked at Apple for a year. I was the guy on the other end of the line when you called for tech support. I also worked as a manager for low-income apartments – this one started out fun, but still ended up as nothing more than a means to an end.

While not fun, these jobs let me get the equipment I needed to make my own images just the way I needed them. My camera is still considered industry-standerd, so I never felt a huge need to upgrade. Of course I’d love a newer model camera, but it’s really not the most important part. Professional lights, lenses, filter, all those goodies were on the top of my list.

Evolution to Professional

In September 2016, I had an extremely rare opportunity. I got to quit my job managing apartments to only do photography and related work (such as marketing and graphic design, things I’m learning) to which I was ecstatic! Circumstances in my life led me to connect with people who, while not photographers or even artists, wanted to fund the creation of a photography studio. It was made to rent to all sorts of photographers, but that I can use for my own business, as an equal owner.

First off I can’t tell you what a treat it was to help plan out an actual photography studio! But more importantly, that was when it really hit me: I’m making a living from photography. I’m running a studio, shooting for clients, creating images, and doing what I’ve wanted to do!

That’s how I know I’m actually a true professional – photography is now at the center of my livelihood, I produce images that people are happy to pay for, and I have technology and equipment that doesn’t look like I bought it from a discount shop. That last point is silly, I admit, but photographers like to take pride in the gear we use!

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Joe Caigoy of the Filharmonic and I recently did a photo shoot involving colored powder. No matter what the shoot, it’s important to always have fun and enjoy what you do! And we both had a lot of fun with this one!

Moving Forward

There are a lot of advancements I’d like to make going forward. I’d love to learn more, achieve a higher mastery of my craft, and advance my studio.

I’d love to upgrade my equipment as well! Who doesn’t like to have the newest toys? Lights that sync faster and go brighter, multiple cameras with a higher resolution and more features, a variety of high-quality lenses, the simple things most photographers dream of!

Recently I even discovered a cool little camera that I, for one, would love to get my hands on! Especially for street photography and event photography, when it’s important to me that people aren’t looking at my big, bulky camera with my conspicuous lenses. The company Light has developed a unique compact camera, not much larger than my mobile phone, that can shoot in certain RAW formats, has a 52 megapixel resolution (higher than the camera I use professionally), and has 16 lenses built in! I’d say checking out their Technology page is well worth it too.

Conclusion

That’s it! Eventually I’ll move beyond where I am now. Who knows what I’ll think about the me I am now once several more years come through?

What level are you? Enthusiast? Student? Amateur? Semi-Pro? Professional?
What distinguishes you? What makes you so sure that that is truly  what you are?

Interesting things to think about and contemplate! And you know, I do still have that old 35mm film camera. I’m hoping that one day, I might even be able to build a darkroom. Just for the fun of it! See where it goes.

I’m so excited to find out where the future will bring me in my photographic career!

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