Photo by Scott Stulberg.
I was just looking through my portfolio this past week and physically cringing at how bad some of my old shots are. I almost deleted them from my Flickr stream, but then I realized that each photo represents a part of my photographic journey.
My photography evolved a lot from the days when I use to take pictures of Pez, cupcakes, and interesting trash I found in my back alley. It seems so silly now, but had I not spent everyday shooting, learning, and exploring the world with my camera, I wouldn’t be taking the pictures I am taking today.
I bought my first dSLR, the Canon Rebel Xti (400D), in November 2006. I had one lens other than the crappy kit one, the 50mm f/1.4, and I shot absolutely everything on it. From concerts to portraits to landscapes and nature I took that lens on many adventures. Unlike a zoom lens, a fixed prime lens forces you to physically position yourself to get the shot. That usually means getting up close, lying on the floor, or squeezing your body in crazy spots to get decent angles.
I spent almost a year shooting exclusively with the 50mm f/1.4. I couldn’t afford another lens, so I just had to make do with what I had. I think this forced me to learn the basics of photography (exposure, light & composition) and really know how to use my camera.
I shot almost everyday. I went on photowalks and started shooting things around my neighbourhood, and the beautiful landscapes of Vancouver. Whenever I traveled abroad in the next year, I took thousands of pictures. Some were good, some were meh, but the sheer act of taking pictures everyday made me a better photographer.
Because I only had one lens at the time, and no money to buy another one, I started renting lenses for specific shoots or just for fun. For $35, I could rent a $1500 70-200mm IS f/2.8 for an entire weekend. I rented everything from wide angles to macro lenses to honking zooms, experimenting with different subjects and styles of photography.
I didn’t read many “how to” photography books (too boring) or take classes (too expensive), I just spent hours on Flickr and other photographer’s blogs. I connected with these photographers, asked them questions, shared my photos, and studied theirs.
I learned what I needed to improve on and what style of photography I liked. I was immediately drawn to colour and magic hour light. The subject matter I found most intriguing was people. But, people were not as easy to come by as trash in my back alley.
I begged everyone I knew to let me take pictures of them. And if they said no, I snuck candid shots when they weren’t looking. At the time, I was also spending a lot of time shooting Jessie Farrell (Canadian Singer/Songwriter) and her band on their first year touring Canada.
I followed them around snapping their performances, as well as the behind the scenes moments. I learned a lot about shooting in hectic places with really difficult lighting. This gig also connected me with other musicians who wanted promo photos for their websites and promotion.
When I couldn’t find any people to shoot, I photographed animals. When I was traveling in Australia, I took a series of “animal portraits” of the fabulous creatures I found. Again, I only had one lens with me, the 50mm f/1.4, so I really get up close to these animals to fill the frame. This was ok with koalas, kangaroos, and lorikeets, but not so much for man-eating crocodiles and sharks.
I also experimented taking artsy shots with the LensBaby Composer. I’m not the ‘artsiest’ photographer. I’m more inclined to make photos as realistic as possible, which is part of my debate with HDR photography (which I did learn how to do by the way :P). Nevertheless, this lens gave me a new perspective on the types of shots I could get with my camera.
After a while, I got bored of just taking pictures of things that I was just observing and wanted to create shots I could control. I was also modeling at the time, so I took particular interest at my own shoots and started grilling every photographer I worked with about lighting.
This is when I discovered David Hobby’s Strobist blog. The DIY off-camera photography he was doing and talking about was exciting, challenging, and oh so sexy.
It took a while to accumulate the gear I needed to take great portrait shots; 3 strobes (580EX & 2x430EX, two umbrellas, stands, & the Alien Bees Cybersync Remote System), and a long while to actually learn how to use it.
I won’t lie, when I first started using strobes I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was even kind of scared of them, so I asked people who knew what they were doing, and watched and learned. I found a few settings that worked and practiced a lot. Once I’d learnt the basics, I started to experiment, sometimes even on the job (shh.. don’t tell), but usually taking pictures of myself.
Then, Alex Lindsay of TWiP (This Week in Photography) asked me to fly down to San Francisco be a guest on his popular photography podcast. I really felt like a n00b photographer then especially compared to one of my heroes, photojournalist, Steve Simon. I felt like I hadn’t done anything of note, just taken some nice photos. In fact, I’m sure that at first I was interviewed more for my modeling talents than my photography. My Flickr stream did contain more pictures of me than by me.
Being on TWiP was a huge wake up call. I realized then, that if I wanted to be a photographer, I had to step up and know my stuff. I couldn’t rely on being a pretty girl with a camera that took pretty pictures. I had to get down and dirty with photographic theory, photoshop, the technical specs of my gear, and build a portfolio with content in a style that I wanted to actually work in.
I decided I wanted to shoot portraits, beauty, and fashion. I really needed models to shoot portraits, beauty, and fashion photography. I bought a second awesome prime, the 85mm f/1.8 and put up a profile on the social networking site “where professional models meet photographers, ModelMayhem. I’d found some great models to work with and I booked four for the next week. A Canon Canada Rep was nice enough to send a XSi (450D) loaner to me, so I had an extra body on these shoots.
I really wanted to push myself to see if I could actually create the images I wanted. After the first shoot, I realized I needed a professional makeup artist and a stylist because I am absolutely rubbish at these things. So I brought Mika (MUA) and Tami (Stylist) on board.
They helped me develop the concepts I wanted to shoot, and make sure all the details (hair, makeup, clothes) were there.
I also knew I had to become fluent in Photoshop (CS4), so I buckled down and learnt how to use it. I spent days perfecting images, learning techniques, watching every retouching tutorial on Lynda.com and finding out the best and most efficient ways to retouch and process my images. Once I’d mastered the basics, I started to explore different processing styles.
I spend hours scouring photographer’s portfolios and flickr to find inspiring shots and trying to emulate them. Through this process I learnt all kinds of PS ninja tricks and started to develop my own style.
I could shoot, light, and make sweet pictures. All I needed was a kick ass camera. I’d spent 2 great years with the Xti, but I’d grown out of it. I needed something full-framed and powerful, so I bought the Canon 5DMKII. I’ve never looked back.
After 2 1/2 years, I feel like I’ve perfected amateur photography. Now, I’m ready to work as a professional. And so my next photographic journey begins! Wish me luck!
Questions? Comments! You know where to leave ’em.