On Becoming a Photographer

Posted January 26th, 2009 by Mike Cherim

I’ve been at a little while now. I’ve got some calluses. I’ve been a member of iStockphoto since February of 2008, but I didn’t start contributing until April. You do the math. During these months I’ve been hard at work basically re-learning the craft. Photography has been a hobby since I was a kid — I grew up with an SLR camera given to me by my dad — but this whole stock photo thing and using a digital SLR (DSLR) have been a new and exciting adventure. This is my progress report.

Going Digital

When I was a kid I shot mostly in black and white as that’s what I was barely able to afford. Color was out of reach at the time. I worried a great deal about exposure, focus, and of course, composition. If the photo was underexposed, it could get grainy but rarely was it a problem.

That was then. In the digital present I worry about exposure, focus, and a host of other things like noise, artifacts, chromatic aberration, and more. Exposure is harder to nail with a digital camera due to the sensor and its averaging of various exposures in the scene. As a result, elements in the scene are sometimes over and/or underexposed. Often the cameras will err on the side of underexposure. At least that seems to be the case for Nikon, and it leads to some of the issues mentioned. I cannot comment on Cannon or any other quality brand. I use the Nikon D300 and have various lenses (listed on my iStock profile page).

Lately I have taken a step back and gone back to my roots so-to-speak. I started using my Nikon in Program Auto mode while learning it, then moved to using primarily Aperture Priority mode giving me better control. I then added exposure compensation to the mix, which is ever changing, and now I’m using my camera in Manual mode. I turned off autofocus on my lenses pretty much from the start as I’ve always preferred to focus my scenes manually so it started there I guess. I do like image stabilization, though.

I’m not at all down on digital if it’s sounds that way. I like Manual mode, I have complete control. I am becoming one with my equipment as I should be. I may use the auto stuff again at some point. If I become a paparazzo someday, for instance, I’m not going to have time to adjust my exposures and focus manually. If I become a paparazzo.

Nope, I’m not down on digital at all. With digital I pay a whole hell of a lot less for my mistakes. And believe me, I make plenty. I discard far more photos than I keep. But, hey, it’s digital so I can afford to play around. Digital photography delivers instant gratification. What’s not to like?

The Journey

Stock photography isn’t easy for me. I’m sure it is for some, but for me it’s as slippery as an eel. I’ve always liked to get creative with my photos, to be artistic, and I still can, but now I must consider how a designer might want or need to use my photo. Isolated on white was once boring, now it’s useful to designers sometimes. I have to retrain my brain. But only partially. I’m smart, I will catch my eel once and for all, but a side of me will continue to produce niche photos and some art. I won’t settle for taking photos of objects and toothily grinning models all the time.

I do this now in preparation for later. I couldn’t live with what I make now selling photos, but I hope it supplements my retirement later on. I will continue on my journey for the time being, giving it my time and dedication. And the latter will be needed. As I wrote, it isn’t easy for me. It’s even worse for many others — my acceptance rate at iStock is pretty good compared to some. I will put up with it because it is the price to be paid. And anything worthwhile has a price. Why should this be an exception?

Starting Over

The learning curve, while fun and interesting, has been steep. The jargon and all of the things that can go wrong in digital photography alone are daunting. Add to that my new learning experiences in post processing. And add to that the stringent criteria for getting photos approved on iStockphoto (or any microstock site). It’s a lot to deal with at times. Taking a photo no longer happens as quickly as it once did as dozens of things must first be considered.

Writers, according to Stephen King, must learn to “kill their darlings,” meaning that they must objectively revisit with their work and possibly rip it up. The same is true of photography. I’m partly used to this phenomenon. Some of my articles take a long time to produce. I write them, fall in love sometimes, then I have to put them aside. I then go back and reread them after a while, trying to be objective as possible. Sometimes, most times, the love fades and I start hacking the article into bits trying to get it right. I do the same with my photography, except the killing goes on in PhotoShop or I sometimes just reshoot.

In effect, while my photo experience is certainly valuable, and my understanding of re-re-re-assessing all my work and sometimes killing it off, it’s like starting over. I am learning. There’s no doubt that I’m finding this progression a heck of a lot more interesting than you’ll find it, but I wanted to share. Becoming a photographer isn’t easy — though it has some great perks that will meet my future needs far better then web development — and writing it down as I go helps me put some of the minor aggravations into perspective.

18 Responses to: “On Becoming a Photographer”

  1. Jonathan Fenocchi responds:
    Posted: January 26th, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Interesting read, Mike. I once tried photography before, but it was a very poor, low-quality digital camera. I think one day I would like to revisit the chance to get into my “designer boots” and look at the beauty of things instead of all the math and programming that I do nowadays. You seem to be learning a lot about it, though. I do hope it turns out to be very helpful for you in your retirement years.

    Oh, and I never knew a photograph could be both over and underexposed simultaneously. How does that work, incorrect exposure on different parts of the image? Poor lighting?

  2. Steven Clark responds:
    Posted: January 26th, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    I’m following a similar path, Mike. It’s interesting to read other’s perspective.

    About 2 years ago I started working with a Canon point and shoot, a good quality 10Megapixel one, and spent a LOT of time experimenting with composition. I’d never had the digital luxury or opportunity for the total experimentation that fast tracks a learning curve. But I got better and I got reasonably good. Late last year I upgraded to my first DSLR - a Nikon D90 - with an 18-105 VR Kit lens. That was when I really took my redirection towards something I’d now regard as an obsession - art photography (my partner is an artist, so is her youngest daughter, and her late father, and on and on)…

    But when I picked up a cheap nifty fifty - 50mm 1.8 lens - it was like getting a sports car that I could work under the hood. I’ve pretty much been a fully manual settings user from the first few weeks in. I’d highly recommend it, by the way.

    Anyway the long and the short. I’m starting my MBA with a specialisation in Journalism and Media Studies next month and have started realigning from web designer to art photographer as primary occupation. A bold move. But if it’s the difference between being happy as a pig in shit all day versus bogged down with an industry that everything is a struggle - hey follow your heart, Mike.

    There’s nothing to say that in 4 or 5 years time you won’t be working professionally at as a photographer. Good on you, too. And good luck with it.

  3. Steven Clark responds:
    Posted: January 27th, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Ha ha, thanks Mike. IE is probably a part of that, I confess.

    But mainly I meant that continually pushing against managers who don’t understand web technologies in the first place, for example, is a big problem I’m very tired of dealing with. Too busy to learn new concepts when you try to discuss even basic ideas. And when organisations pull you in for work because they want web standards but then the designers and managers start getting shitty because you keep bringing up WCAG and the relevant gov’t guidelines (done a fair bit of local public sector work over the last few years).

    It’s like every contract I take over the last five years has been me pushing a barrow of very very unwelcome stones uphill against the will of the rest of various teams. Occasionally, very occasionally, you run into someone who gets it bit not often enough to make earning a living at web design worthwhile. And, there aren’t any rich web designers because the industry undercuts itself and there’s too much low quality “free work”.

    Ideas like usability, accessibility, interaction design, human computer interaction - even the meagre concept of meeting business objectives with a website - turn me into a hostile alien in that landscape. Much nicer to spend my day taking photographs and working towards an MBA. Rather than being yelled at, bullied at work or having to worry about being fired for referencing A List Apart too often.

    Sorry, that’s a bit of a whinge lol… but I think anyone, particularly in the public sector, who gets into those trenches and puts their head down to work solid for a few years is worthy of a web standards medal. It’s hard emotionally and mentally and life can suffer. Oh and they won’t let go of pixel perfection on six major browsers!!! :)

  4. Steven Clark responds:
    Posted: January 27th, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    I guess with a wife who is an artist and her family network of established artists, it’s probably easier for me to drop out because I have the support network in place. Success or failure isn’t a bar I’ll be judged by internally. Linden’s father was an ex-pat British potter on the Sunshine Coast when she was a child. He made his own glazes and clays and their house was a focal point of famous artists through the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s.

    At 44 my advice to anyone is follow your heart if you can afford it. Be who you want to be.

  5. Steven Clark responds:
    Posted: January 28th, 2009 at 1:10 am

    Ahh yes I’ve had that very same experience in a different bucket, Mike. A number of contract positions with similar issues, although for a long time I’ve just refused to do cheap.

    Some of the public sector work was $70K a year but as I mentioned more and more ideas that upset them they cut me back and back until I was part time and only getting 2 days per week with demands to come to unpaid meetings. The real issue was the designer didn’t want to underline hyperlinks, wanted to use 300KB fluff design images on the home page, and was almost incoherent at times due to sheer anger that I questioned the usability of placing Quick Links below the fold in 10px sized text with white on yellow…

    So the job slowly slips away lol…

    Anyway, by the end of the MBA I’m hoping to be doing a bit better with the photography. Maybe those same departments will realise that WCAG is a web standard too (go figure). But mostly it’s about quality of life nowdays. This has been my first christmas off in most of a decade and it’s been brilliant (but poor).

    I should start charting how many hours in that veiwfinder. Are you spending a lot of time working on stock photography?

    I think that’s the idea I started with - stock for my own projects - but somehow got to having fun as an artist. :)

    In other words I get to do blurry pictures and say it was intentional… (not really)

  6. Steven Clark responds:
    Posted: January 28th, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Thanks. I just finished my Bachelor of Computing part time over too many years, but the next two years I’ll be investing full time into a Master of Business Administration with the extra six months specialising in Journalism and Media. Whether that ever translates to a solid working income… that’s anyone’s guess.

    My partner has some pretty good paper cred, too and understands the big picture of best practice web development. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Environment and Wilderness Studies, a Bachelor of Fine Arts with first class Honours in Printmaking, and she’s finishing mid-year her Master of Fine Art in Printmaking. And she’s also doing a Graduate Certificate in Commercialisation during this year too. On the TAFE side she has Certificate 4 in Multimedia and a Certificate 4 in Web Design.

    So getting degrees and stuff are just par for the household. However, we all know it’s getting the right job isn’t about a bit of paper. But fancy initials after one’s name… yep she’ll PhD eventually just to beat me outright I reckon.

    All I really want to do is run around with a camera and keep having this brilliant summer holiday :)

    There’s something surprisingly refreshing about walking around looking at things, really closely looking at things. I enjoy street photography but with all the predators and suspicion about terrorism nowdays it’s something I’m less inclined to do outside something like the market.

  7. Nippy Ireson responds:
    Posted: March 4th, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Inspirational read, thanks. I first tried my hand in photography nearly 20 years ago whilst in a rehab in my early twenties. I found it incredibly frustrating, I can’t remember which camera I was using but I was shooting in black and white and the results were messy and not what I had in mind. My foray into photography was short lived and I didn’t think about it again until about three years ago when I bought a Canon G5 for shooting some stuff to put up on eBay. I was (and still am) impressed with the G5, I know that there are better cameras out there, but up until now it has suited my needs pretty well.

    When I started making money out of graphic design and web design I turned a hobby into a career and although I still enjoy what I do I have found that I don’t get the same buzz out of doing it as I am constantly following briefs and pleasing the whims of my clients. Over the last 18 months I have been looking for something else to do, a new challenge. The only two criteria I set out was 1, it has to be creative, and 2, it won’t be for profit.

    I have been looking at a couple of blogs written by Japanese photographers and they have inspired me to get on with photography once again. Reading this I realize that like most things in life, it’s a journey. Thanks for sharing

  8. Christine Bowen responds:
    Posted: April 30th, 2009 at 11:34 am

    I got started in photography 9 years ago and began shooting weddings 4 years ago. I’m just starting to get into stock. I too am dealing with trying to balance the different styles each type of photography requires. I try to shoot a personal project every 1 -2 weeks to maintain my personal style and passion for photography.

  9. maleia responds:
    Posted: April 7th, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    ALWAYYS , ALWAYYS , FOREVER follow yoour heeart . . . thhe ansswer wonn’t juust pop uup ouut oof annywhere . . . ggo annd discoover thhe yoour drream ! ( :

    REMEMBER , ( ; a little addvice will goo a loong waay !

  10. Gerry responds:
    Posted: July 28th, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Photography is only a hobby for me but I enjoy the insights that come from reading the “pro” experiences.

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Peter responds:
    Posted: August 5th, 2010 at 11:44 am

    I take pictures as a hobby, I started a course and there I learned about basics like light, but because of circumstances I had to quit. But in my free time I always enjoy taking pictures. Thank you for this great article. Keep us updated!

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