This month marks five years since I bought my first “real” camera and started trying to take photography seriously. What started as a means to an end (trying to set myself apart as a blogger) grew into a passion and now a fairly decent second income.
My beginnings as a photographer
It all started because of this blog. When I started this blog I really wanted to cover all the travel hacking stuff that you can do with points and miles, but honestly I wasn’t very good at it (the debate about whether I’m good at the alternative is certainly ongoing, I admit). I struggled writing about the complex techniques used to book these crazy itineraries and wasn’t really that good of a travel hacker myself, I really just wanted to tell stories. In researching my peers, everyone wrote pretty well and took pretty good pictures, and I appraised myself similarly. But when it came to trying to separate myself from the crowd, I figured I could get better at photography more quickly than becoming a better writer and/or travel hacker. So I needed a camera.
A pro photographer buddy recommended a point-and-shoot Fuji X10 to me for the blog, so in 2012 I bought one, handed it to him, and said, “set it up to where I just need to hit a single button”. I didn’t want to learn about any settings or anything, just wanted to find pretty stuff during my travels and take pictures of it. The Fuji was an impressive little camera (and still is, I still own and love it) and it ended up taking one of my favorite pictures ever.
If I loved that camera so much, what prompted me to get a better camera?
Well, the Fuji was great and epic but it wasn’t very powerful. With a 12-megapixel sensor, I couldn’t really get the resolution I wanted out of it and couldn’t make very large prints with it. In July of 2014, after some careful research, I decided to invest in a “real” camera and start learning what all this stuff was about. Being that my current camera was a Fuji, and the pro photographer buddy of mine spoke highly of them, I targeted the Fuji X-T1, a crop sensor mirrorless camera. I had no idea what “crop sensor” nor “mirrorless” meant but it was getting great reviews and was said to be very powerful. I had an upcoming trip to Machu Picchu that left in a few days so I needed something soon.
I made my way to a local camera shop and confidently approached the counter and said that I’d like a Fuji X-T1. “…really sorry man but we’re out of them right now,” was the reply from the camera store guy. Deflated, I sat there for a second and considered my options. Since this camera shop came highly recommended by my buddy, and time was a bit of a factor, I made another highly-researched decision: “how about that Sony a7 on the wall, is that good?” My thought process was: the box looked similar to the Fuji’s box. The camera store guy said “it’s very good, it’s full frame!” “Cool,” I replied, not wanting to let on that I had no idea what that meant, “and it’s mirrorless,” added camera store guy. Still having no idea what he meant, I handed him my credit card so he’d stop talking and saying words I didn’t understand.
I never knew what would await me walking out of that camera store. With each click of the shutter, I began to love the process more and more. The more I learned about photography and post-processing, the more I wanted to learn.
So now, 250,000 pictures later, looking back on that fateful summer day five years ago when I started my life as a photographer, what have I learned? It’s hard to narrow it down to just a few things, but I’ll give it my best shot.
Lesson 1: taking average pictures is easy, taking great pictures is hard
There’s a lot of pretty stuff out in the world. There’s also plenty of pretty people in the world. It’s not hard to take a “not bad” picture of something. But taking a great/epic picture is really hard. It very seldom happens by accident. I’ve sat outside for hours getting sunburned, eaten alive by bugs, all for the chance that something might happen. I’ve failed more times than I succeeded. When I’m trying to plan for a shot, I consult numerous tools to figure out where the sun will be, what type of clouds will be in the shot, or (when shooting people) what kind of background/mood they want. And there’s no guarantee you’ll get the shot: I’ve worked for hours and hours planning for a shot, only to have the weather not cooperate at all (this basically sums up my entire trip to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile).
Taking great pictures of people is even harder. You have to get them over their fears of being in front of the camera, pose them in the right way, get the expression right, and capture a moment that still somehow looks “candid”.
But here’s the thing: when you know you got one, all the effort you put into planning it out is worth it.
Whether it requires getting on a boat, a plane, in your car, or just walking outside at the right moment, epic pictures are hard to get, and that’s what makes them so epic.
Lesson 2: it’s really easy to get lost in the picture and forget to enjoy the moment
When was the last time you’ve pleasantly exhaled? You know what I’m talking about, that semi-sigh where your mind and heart are at peace and it almost seems like you’re exhaling the stress of your world away.
The pursuit of epic pictures will tempt you to skip that in the name of photography. I’ve learned this the hard way. Take this random roadside photo I took early one October morning in Norway a few years ago.
I love this picture, and believe it’s pretty dang good. What I regret, however, is that right after I took the photo I got right back in my rental car and kept driving. I remember the air being cool and crisp, but man what a missed opportunity to invest 15-20 minutes in myself and really enjoy the scene. There were birds chirping, dew on the plants, and bugs crying out to one another, nature’s song in such a majestic place. I was too focused on taking from that scene and didn’t allow myself to become a part of it.
When fine-tuning a composition it’s amazing how often I will get into the fine details of scene: where to place the sun, where the horizon should go, and the lines of the scene. But it’s tempting to say “that’s it” and go off to the next thing instead of sitting still and enjoying the moment. Sure you’re capturing how the moment looked but it’s no comparison to how the moment felt.
Lesson 3: photography is a great excuse to see the world
New Zealand. Norway. Antelope Canyon. Patagonia. Austria. Cinque Terre. Lake Bled.
There are countless beautiful places in this world. Photography gave me the motivation to go out and see them. Sure, I went to the Lofoten Islands of Norway in January last year to get a picture of the Northern Lights, but I also got to go see a remote part of the world!
As I sit down and budget for each year, travel takes up a big portion because there’s always some other place to go and take pictures. While I would likely still be traveling without this blog, it really has given me a motivation to visit places like the Republic of Georgia that I never would visit otherwise.
Lesson 4: taking pictures for money can be incredibly stressful
I’ve sold quite a few prints in my day, particularly of this picture of Texas A&M University’s Kyle Field. From a photography standpoint, prints are relatively low stress, since the picture has already been taken and you know what it’s going to look like. I mean sure there are times when a print is damaged during shipment but then it just comes down to customer service from your print shop (and my print shop has excellent customer service).
Being paid for a service (rather than a product), though, is unbelievably stressful. I take headshots for businesses and individuals, and the first few times I had to deliver the images to them I was almost breaking out in hives because I was so nervous (even though the images were fine). Experiencing this for myself immediately made me respect pro photographers all the more. To put it simply, you hire a photographer not just because they’ll get it right, but because they won’t get it wrong.
To get comfortable with taking pictures for money you have to get comfortable taking pictures for money. While I know that seems redundant, it isn’t. Your interactions with your camera have to be fluent and immediate. You have to look at light and immediately know how to shoot it: where to position yourself, where to position your subject, where the light is coming from, the quality of the light, etc.
Thankfully, with some reps under my belt, I’m now way more comfortable taking pictures of people, and my headshots have gotten much better as a result.
Just remember this point the next time you get a quote from a photographer. You’re not just paying them for this shoot, you’re paying for their collective experience from all of their shoots.
Lesson 5: the best part of photography is meeting other photographers
Some photographers prefer isolation, and I’d argue photography is the perfect hobby for introverts. As an extroverted introvert myself, I understand why. But man, the photo community has some absolutely wonderful people. My favorite parts of being a photographer are the friendships I’ve made with people all over the world purely because we ran into each other on a random cliffside in Cinque Terre and had mutual friends or because we’re both aviation junkies.
I see countless photographers hoard themselves and not interact with the broader photographic community, which isn’t necessarily wrong if your shooting schedule is packed. But man they’re missing out. I love helping new photographers and giving back like so many gave back to me. There’s nothing quite like having a random friend flying through Dallas on his way to someplace crazy like Bangladesh for a photo gig and meeting him for lunch, knowing that you’ve met up on multiple continents now. Even more than that it’s amazing to be a part of a community of people truly rooting for each other and being as excited as you are when you land the big gig.
(note: yes, there are also some absolute turds in the photo community, but thankfully this number is small, albeit vocal)
An enormous thank you to some mentors of mine
It’s a big deal, in my opinion, to call someone a mentor. Whether they mentor you directly or indirectly, I feel like it’s an honor to say to someone “your support, your art, and your work ethic inspire me”. Some of these are simply YouTube channels I followed in my early days, others are now longtime friends, and all are phenomenal photographers.
- Mike Kelley – one of the most consistent and positive influences in my photographic life. His constant willingness to entertain my hare-brained ideas and your love of pushing one’s self to the limit continues to inspire me on days when I just want to throw my camera away. Also he’s a total plane dork
- Elia Locardi – I originally got to know Elia through his Fstoppers tutorials but we’ve since met up on I think four different continents. A loyal SkyTeam flyer, I love talking travel shop with Elia, and I blame my recent acquisition of the Fuji medium format system entirely on him
- Peter Hurley and the Headshot Crew – I took Peter’s Headshot Intensive earlier this year and found so many critical nuggets that I have used in every headshot session since, and the Crew makes it easy to learn and get better, I can confidently go out and charge for top-quality work knowing I can produce top-quality work with the toolkit I have as a result of Hurley’s empire
- Serge Ramelli – When I was getting started with Lightroom and Photoshop, Serge’s free YouTube tutorials helped me gain an understanding of what was possible in the world of post-processing. My style has grown away from Serge’s a little bit but I still watch his videos from time to time and always enjoy his enthusiasm for his craft and for teaching it to others
- Brian Braun – for being there and walking with me as I started my journey into photography and sticking with me through all the not-so-pretty parts of it (my HDR phase, for one)
And a heart-filled thank you to…you!
Without my patient and loyal readers none of this would’ve ever been possible. I’ve published 4,439 photos to this blog, almost every single one of them taken by me. Your constant encouragement keeps me going and makes it a joy to share my work with you! I can’t believe how far I’ve come in such little time, and it wouldn’t have been possible without your support. Let’s see what happens in the next five years!