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My Photographic Journey

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.

Superhero Pez

Super hero Pez. Canon Xti, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/60, f/5.0, ISO 100.

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.

abstract of a large leaf with raindrops

Xti, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/320, ISO 200.

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.

Photographing Chichen Itza

Photographing Chichen Itza, Mayan Riviera, Mexico.

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.

lens flare sunset

Sunset Flare, Xti, 70-200mm IS, 70mm, 1/250, f/7.1, ISO 200.

red boots 6/365

Polish dancing boots, Xti, 70-200mm IS f/2.8 lens, 153mm, 1/80, f/2.8, ISO 200.

Bokeh & The Spider

Canon Xti, 100mm f/2.8 lens, 1/80, f.2.8, ISO 100.

Water <3 World

Xti, 70-200mm f/2.8, 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 200.

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.

Jessie Farrell & Fancy Wallpaper

Jessie Farrell, Canon Xti, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/30, f/1.4, ISO 100.

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.

Kylee Epp Promo Shot

Canadian Singer/Songwriter Kylee Epp, Xti, 50mm f/1.4.

Jesse Godin (Drummer) Promo

Jesse Godin, Xti, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, 18mm, 1/100, f/2.8, ISO 100.

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.

Rainbow Lorikeet

Rainbow lorikeet, Xti, 50mm f/1.4mm, 1/100, f/2.0, ISO 100.

Sleepy Kangaroo

Sleepy Kangaroo, 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/5.0, 1/250, ISO 100.

Lovely Currumbin Koala

Koala. Xti, 50mm f/1.4 lens.

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.


XSi & LensBaby Composer.

Painter's Lodge, Campbell River

My first HDR :P

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.

Super Summertime Strobe Setting-up

Setting up the strobes for a summer shoot.

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.

Lisa in Jamaica Sunset

Xti, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/100, f/4, ISO 100.

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 was inspired by photographers like Nick Onken, Chase Jarvis, Joe McNally who had unique and strong styles and got hired to to do major commercial work in this style.

Beautiful Shauna

Shauna, Canon XSi, 85mm f/1.8 lens, f/3.5, 1/200.


Canon XSi, 24-105mm f/4.0 lens, 45mm, 1/100, f/4.0, ISO 100.

Zara with 2 Strobe set-up

Zara set-up shot.

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.

Rockin' Bella

Bella, Canon XSi, 85mm f/1.8 lens, 1/125, f/2.8, ISO 100.

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.


Sexy Stephanie, Xti, 85mm f/4.5, 1/125, ISO 100.

Stephanie backlit setup

sexxeh steph

Canon Xti, 85 f/1.8 lens, 1/200. f/4.5, ISO 100.

Steph set-up shot

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.

franziska's rainbow eyes

Xti, 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/2.5, 1/100, ISO 100.

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.

Jesse Tucker, guitarist, singer & songwriter

Canon 5DMKII, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 1/125, f/5.0, ISO 100.

Jesse Tucker set-up

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!

Nicole's Baby Blues

Canon 5DMkII, 85mm f/1.8 lens, 1/80, f/2.2, ISO 100.

*i don't love you anymore*

5DMKII, 85mm f/1.8, 1/500 at f/5.0, ISO 100. Natural light & white reflector.

Questions? Comments! You know where to leave ’em.

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  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 2:46 AM

    It’s great scrolling through these photos and watching your early photography morph into a kind of ‘über-photography’. :D

    Just in the time that I’ve been following your blog, I’ve seen one heck of a photography journey. Well done, Lisa! Keep it up!

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    Kate Day
    August 14, 2009 at 4:02 AM

    Thanks Lisa, this is really interesting. Good luck – not that you’ll need it :)

  • Reply
    Kate Day
    August 14, 2009 at 4:03 AM

    Weird, I have a Gravatar account…. Still, nice little chap!

  • Reply
    scott neumyer
    August 14, 2009 at 4:49 AM

    Great shots and a great way to show your evolution as a photographer. Kudos!

  • Reply
    Jônatan Fróes
    August 14, 2009 at 4:50 AM

    good lucky!

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:01 AM

    Hello Lisa

    this post is very nice to read and very refreshing ! Your style is very good and you give hope to all other amateur who would have similar stories !

    I wish you good luck !

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:19 AM

    Great Pictures!
    I love them!


  • Reply
    love this post
    August 14, 2009 at 5:21 AM

    your post is very inspiring. :) thank you for sharing. im actually stuck in a rut of being a newbie- for almost two years now. thanks :)

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:22 AM

    Lovely article and reassuring reading for others like myself currently on our own photographic journey. I especially love the pictue of “Canadian Singer/Songwriter Kylee Epp”, the lighting (given the situation) is outstanding!

    Best wishes :)

  • Reply
    love this post
    August 14, 2009 at 5:25 AM

    maybe you can also post the kinds of filters that you use. and oh, the mandatory, “what’s in my gear bag” photo. :) please?

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:25 AM

    Great post, good luck – I’m on a similar journey, but taking longer :P

  • Reply
    Robb Shirey
    August 14, 2009 at 5:26 AM

    That was the longest post, but well worth the read. I’m curious why you chose (1) 580EXII and (2) 430’s? Was it the cost or is there a functional reason? I’m looking for a third flash to use behind the subject for a rim light.

    Great post, you are about a year ahead of me in my photographic journey. I’m hoping to be where you are today. Great work!

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:27 AM

    Great post Lisa!

    As a [very] amateur photographer I’ve looked at your work for inspiration, and look forward to reading more of your witty posts.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:28 AM

    Awesome following your journey right from the early days Lisa. You’ve certainly inspired me and hopefully soon I’ll be joining the 5D Mark II club.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:29 AM

    Nice pics, stoked I stopped by.

    Will be back

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:40 AM

    Thanks for posting this. It’s a real inspiration. :-)

  • Reply
    Sergio Muscat
    August 14, 2009 at 5:40 AM

    Indeed very inspiring!

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:43 AM

    Thank you for this post Lisa, I really enjoy your pictures!!!

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:45 AM

    Great post, I started my photo journey about 1 year ago with the XSi, have learned so much since then.

    Any reason why you’re shooting with prime lenses rather than a zoom? How did you find the 85 prime on a 1.6x camera?

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:49 AM

    Thank you for this post, I had a good time reading it. And I really appreciate your pictures!

  • Reply
    Ben Drucker
    August 14, 2009 at 5:49 AM

    When you say you’re becoming a professional, do you mean you are planning on opening a studio or building one in your home?

    You have definitely morphed from a beginner to a professional very quickly. Reminds me very much of myself.

    One thing I do have to scold you for… All this time, you’ve been holding the camera wrong. You don’t put your hand on top of the lens barrel. You grip it from the bottom. Check out this article: http://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-hold-a-digital-camera

    I know the name sounds like it’s for newbies, but it would really help you to learn the right grip for an SLR, which would help you keep the camera more stable and give you sharper shots. It also makes your hands and wrists less tired when you’re shooting for a while.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:51 AM

    This is awesome, and inspiring! Thank you for writing this post, and letting us share in your journey. I know I am still on that journey myself. =)

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:55 AM

    Great, great article Lisa! Very cool, and informative.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 5:59 AM

    Interesting journey :) You’ve really made a big progress. Good luck with your career!

    I am kind of at the junction between available light and strobes too, but at the moment the price and effort behind using strobes is a bit scary. Not sure if I want to (ok, could) become a professional anyway.

    Ps: Isn’t it frustrating the models when the photographer is better looking than they are?

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    August 14, 2009 at 6:03 AM

    Having graduated from college probably before you were born with a degree in still photography, I then only played around with it until this year when I lost my job in January. Now, at a youthful 50 years of age (no one believes I’m that old) I’m starting to go for photography full-time and your photos are always ones I go to for inspiration. Thanks for the awesome photos and for sharing them and your knowledge and experiences. You’re awesome!

  • Reply
    Kevin Rye
    August 14, 2009 at 6:08 AM

    You’re awesome. These pics are mostlyamazing!

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 6:15 AM

    Nice journey, thanks for sharing :)

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 6:18 AM

    Great post Lisa, great photos too. I can relate exactly with what you are saying about your earlier work, I think most photographers would agree that photography is a journey in fact someone said that to me the other day when we were talking about the exact same issue! Thanks for sharing this with us :-) Regards,
    ~~ http://www.twitter.com/jakphoto

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 6:33 AM

    Nice! Good to see a step by step revelation of the visual art. I just dropped into HDR photography myself, and have been having fun using it with portraits. I did a shoot with a band and tone mapped all of the shots to give them that surreal, we’re the next best thing, kind of look. You can check ’em out on my blog if you want ( http://www.thegoodlight.com/archives/471 ).
    I love the use of sun flare in your shots, something I need to use a little bit more.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 6:38 AM

    A good read Lisa, thanks. You know, throughout all the shots though, you have The Knack, The Eye, whatever you wanna call it, and your shots reflect it. The rest is technique and refinement, but at core, a good shot is artistry :)

    Good luck with your journey, look forward to seeing your future art!

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 6:42 AM

    that leaf with raindrops photo is CRAZY good. i’d LOVE to use that as my wallpaper on my MacBook Pro. any chance you could send me a 1920×1200 JPG? please. :)

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 6:44 AM

    Fantastic article but boy do I wish it was a narrated slideshow (hint hint). I’ve been following this “pretty girl with a camera” RSS feed since you started showing stuff on Flickr and to watch you grow is amazing.

    I don’t aspire to be a professional, but I do want to be able to take amazing pictures and to see your progress is truly inspirational. You really are a photographer now.

  • Reply
    Stephen Christian
    August 14, 2009 at 6:57 AM

    Been following since you’re appearance on TWIT. I want to take better pictures and know taking more photo is key and learning to use my camera. However, I still don’t think I have the eye / know when a photo is good or bad (outside the obvisios – blurry, to light, to dark).

    I’m a computer programmer so I can understand exactly what you mean, I look at old code and sometimes wonder what I was thinking. This is crap code I need to rewrite this but you don’t know that until you have the experience.

    What I would love to hear from you is an explanation on what you feel is “wrong” with some of your old photos. Not to be cruel but help us see what you now see. What you would do different, so newbies like me can learn to imagine what we could get from a photo and then produce (or get the best results) that photo with our camera.

    Keep up the great work.

  • Reply
    Brandon Tucker
    August 14, 2009 at 7:09 AM

    Aw, but I miss the Pez. :)

    I really have enjoyed following your progress, I only really got into Photography about a year ago. I would like to move up in the world but I know that I have to get WAAAAAY better before I can. You laying out what you have done sort of helps me grasp what I need to do to better myself.

    Thank you for being so open about your journey and good luck on the new journey.

  • Reply
    Dan Shaw
    August 14, 2009 at 7:14 AM

    Great post Lisa! Thanks for sharing your story. You have come a long way and I’m excited to see what is in store for you. Good luck!

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 7:16 AM

    The best photography quote I’ve ever heard is, “The camera looks both ways.” That’s what makes those old photos so valuable. I really enjoyed reading this because I started my photography journey about the same time you did with my 20D. I haven’t had the same success, but I enjoy where I’m at. Having two kids in the mean time doesn’t help cultivate the hobby much, either :-) It’s neat to see how things have “developed” for you…I suppose only the film guys will think that’s a pun.

    Best wishes,

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 7:30 AM

    Very cool post. How do you approach (beg) people to ask them to pose?

  • Reply
    Craig Shipp
    August 14, 2009 at 8:02 AM

    Lisa, I would wish you luck but my guess is you don’t need it. Your hard work and natural style will take you wherever you wish.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 8:24 AM

    Good Luck

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 8:46 AM

    Found you via TWIP and have been following with interest ever since. Great post. Very inspiring for those of us who are just starting up the learning curve ourselves. Best of luck to you on the next part of your journey!

  • Reply
    Mike Lopez
    August 14, 2009 at 8:52 AM

    Great stuff… I also go back and look at my portfolio of images and think of what was I thinking when I took that pictures. Very inspiring and I wish you the best.

  • Reply
    MostlyLisas Photographic Journey | visuelleGedanken.de
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  • Reply
    Desmond Williams
    August 14, 2009 at 9:03 AM

    Thank you for sharing your journey. I too plan on walking a similar path so your story was very inspirational.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 9:25 AM

    @kadajawi: Haha! Been asking myself the exact same thing! :)

    @lisa: What a very inspiring post. I started getting more serious with photography just a year ago, but can already see some similarities with your story. I for myself have the huge advantage of having an incredibly talented and ambitious photographer as my father from whom I draw a lot if inspiration and advice as well as other photographey bloggers (such as you) and the other usual ressources.
    I’ve got one question though: Have you ever tought of or even actually entered photography contests? In my opinion this is also a wonderful way of increasing one’s skills since you are confronted with certain criteria you have to think of and fulfill during your creative process. Those limitations have proven themselves to be very helpful for me, as they ensure that I can concentrate more thouroughly on the really important parts such as the message or emotion you want to get through to the viewer. What do you think?

  • Reply
    August 14, 2009 at 9:26 AM

    Great article Lisa. Thanks for the inspiration. I’ve been shooting with the Canon Rebel XS for almost a year now and I’m thinking of upgrading already. Your pictures are really inspiring. :)

  • Reply
    John harder
    August 14, 2009 at 9:26 AM

    I can’t believe I was able to have the privilage to read that. Thank you for being so candid and sharing so many names, equipment, photos, sites,etc. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

  • Reply
    Don Hendricks
    August 14, 2009 at 9:29 AM

    What a great story of rapid progression from passion to profession.

    You are cute, but its your humor and honesty that hooks us.
    You have made my hobby shooting for informed, and my tolerance of previously unknown Canada is growing.

    I hope all your dreams and desires in this medium and the others you seek will come true.


  • Reply
    Don Hendricks
    August 14, 2009 at 9:30 AM

    What a great story of rapid progression from passion to profession.

    You are cute, but its your humor and honesty that hooks us.
    You have made my hobby shooting more informed, and my tolerance of previously unknown Canada is growing.

    I hope all your dreams and desires in this medium and the others you seek will come true.


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