I thought I’d try a little something different over here. From time to time I get really lovely emails from people enquiring as to how I do the work I do, how I got there, asking for advice on camera gear or what career path they should take… I’m by no means an expert and everyone does things their own way, but I really wanted to be able to answer some of these questions on a more public forum, because it’s nice when we can all share things! I put a little video out on Instagram letting people know that they could ask me anything. And so, here we are.
It’s weird to ask people if they have any questions – I feel like it makes it seem as though I’m some kind of know-it-all. I promise you, I’m not. This whole life thing is one big learning curve. But the thing that I’ve always loved about Instagram is the creative community it has given me – I can hand-on-my-heart say that some of my dearest friends in the world have come from an app which I look at on my phone, which blows my mind. So in the spirit of that community, here we go with me trying to answer some of your questions, as best I can!
Also, I’ll try and put some photographs in here – because otherwise, it’s just a whole lot of words.
@mondomulia What’s the hardest challenge for you of working as a freelancer? (for example I struggle with managing my schedule and prioritising projects).
Ohhh there’s so much about it I find tricky – to say otherwise would just be a bald-faced lie on my part! For me, number one would be the financial side of things. It sounds like a copout but it’s very true that I struggle a lot with numbers and organising financial documents and generally understanding important things like taxes. I think that also comes from living in a country where the system is so different from what I grew up with. And if I don’t like doing something, I avoid it. Which isn’t a good idea when it comes to numbers.
The other main one would be factoring in time for myself – that barely ever happens, but I am trying to get better at it. I think as freelancers we are conditioned to accept as much work as we can when it comes around, because who really knows where the next job might come from, right? The first 6 months of this year were an absolute blur for me. I worked on some dream projects with amazing people and clients, created work that I am super proud of, and travelled a hell of a lot. But I also completely burnt out at the end of that 6 months. And that’s where I have some work to do… I’m trying to make sure I schedule editing during the week and not over a weekend. If I have hi res due on a Monday I’ll try and have it done by the preceding Friday. And I’m trying to actually make time for myself to live life in between jobs, and to travel for the love of it, not just for work.
Am I completely succeeding at this? Hell no. But I’m really trying.
@eriksellgren Hola! One of my challenges is that I take way too many photos because I feel that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Sorting out and organizing photos take so much time. I do miss the days when I used analog to be honest. So… do you take heaps of photos every time you shoot or have you learned to try to keep it to a minimum?
Saludos! Honestly, I feel as though however you are most comfortable shooting is how you should shoot – I don’t really believe there’s a right way or wrong way! Personally I actually find myself shooting two different ways, depending on what the situation is. If I’m shooting landscapes/interiors/street scenes I tend to take my time, compose the shot I know I want, and that’s that. I might do a couple of different angles because I shoot a lot of editorial work, and my past life as an Art Director has taught me that sometimes you need to have options when you are laying out a story – so I might shoot the same scene as a portrait and landscape shot if it works either way, so the AD has some choice when designing.
Where I change that approach is when I’m photographing people. Because people blink. They squint. They start talking and their mouths contort into strange shapes. And they sometimes just don’t know what to do in front of a camera, and it takes a little bit to get them to relax. But what also happens is that people throw their heads back and laugh. They let their emotions play across their face, they make some kind of small gesture or all of a sudden the light hits them just right and you know that’s the shot – and that can’t often be planned.
I don’t tend to shoot much studio/lit work. It’s all natural light and usually very natural circumstances. So in those situations I shoot a lot – because I really love those moments between moments which are super fleeting and incredibly disarming where a person is just themselves.
I have no idea where you are with your photography at the moment, but I feel as though sometimes shooting a LOT to begin with is also the only way we get better. It’s a total pain in the ass to edit and archive, but after a lot of editing and looking through your work you’ll start to notice the types of images you prefer, and what they have in common. And your brain starts naturally attuning itself to notice those things when you see them in front of you.
I used to think I had to shoot ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING in order to please the client, and myself – and also a bit out of fear – you don’t want people to think you’ve been lazy or just haven’t bothered to shoot something. But I’ve gotten to a point now where I just won’t take a photograph if I know the light is wrong, or the situation isn’t right. I’d much rather take that time and spend it making images of things which are working. I usually have long shoot days which are constantly changing – no day is the same. So if the light is bad at 3pm I’m happy to go back at 7pm when I know it will be better – because I know the images will be better. But it takes a while to get to that point for sure. Having the confidence in knowing how you shoot, and how it is that you get shots that you’re happy with, can take a long time. I say practice, try different ways, find out what works for you.
I hope that helps!
@samirarosie Hello! I am 16 and in year 11. So I’m starting to think about what I want to do when I leave school. I really love photography and would love to peruse this as a career but I have no idea where to start and how will I make a profit from it? How did you start out and how do you make money from what you do!? Thanks heaps , Samira xx
Hey Samira! It’s wonderful that you want to pursue photography, it’s a very rewarding career path. That said – I’m going to give it to you absolutely straight, because I think that we owe it to each other to be super honest. It’s not all the life that we see on Instagram – those are just the highlights. Like any career path, it has its ups and downs.
Working as a professional in a creative field is not easy, at least, not to begin with. It’s incredibly hard work, a lot of self promotion, a lot of self doubt (unless you’re a creative who is super confident in their work. In which case can I be you please?), and a lot of being told no before you start being told yes. That said, if you love photography, then you will make it work – because you love it and you won’t let anything hold you back.
I took a very circuitous route to get to being a full-time photographer, and actually, I think it was overwhelmingly good for me, and my career. I believe if you can, it’s good to arm yourself with as many skills as you can handle, especially when you’re in the creative industries, because they all inform and influence each other…
Personally, I went to University and got a degree in Photography. It was back home in New Zealand, and I studied for four years and came out the other side with a Bachelor of Design (Photography), First Class Honours (I never get to tell anybody about that First Class Honours thing!) Whilst I majored in Photography, I knew I was also really interested in Graphic Design – and I made sure all my electives during my degree were design-related – in that way, I kind of did an unofficial double major.
I did this because, like you, I was completely unsure of whether I’d even be able to make a career out of photography. I’m going to show my age now and tell you that when I was studying at Uni, it was still all film. We shot 100% on 35mm, 120mm and 4×5 film. We processed and printed it all ourselves. All my food money went to chemicals and paper. I spent my entire life in the darkroom and was happier than a pig in the proverbial…
Digital photography came out properly back home in NZ the year that I graduated. I looked at the professional photographers around me that I admired and saw that they were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit themselves in digital gear, and I completely despaired – I had just taken on 4 years worth of student loans to put myself through University, and there was no way on earth I could afford to outfit myself as a photographer. I was super bummed out.
BUT. Luckily for me, I’d also done a lot of learning around design, and I started doing design work straight out of University. I designed the programme for the local theatre (BATS), I took on odd jobs, and every chance I could, I pursued photography in my spare time. That continued for the next 15 years. I always did both – when I wasn’t shooting, I was designing – and vice versa.
Things are way way different now, and it’s so much easier to break into photography in terms of getting gear and showing the world your work. Cameras are affordable, the iPhone is fantastic, and places like Instagram are an amazing platform to start sharing your work and learning from others.
Do I think you necessarily HAVE to get a formal education in photography these days? Nope. I think life can give you those lessons and experiences. But you have to want it, and you have to always want to be getting better.
Wow this is long and I don’t even know if I’ve answered your question. Let’s try it this way:
• Yes, you can totally make a career of photography – if you work hard, are a self-starter, are willing to work your way up and learn as much as you can, always; and don’t take no for an answer.
• How will you make a profit from it? That’s tough. Some avenues of photography are far more lucrative than others. At the moment, I shoot mostly editorial work, which pays abysmally – but it also gives me a lot of creative freedom and the chance to shoot what I love. If I shot more advertising/commercial work, I would get paid a lot more. It’s about finding what you love, and working with people who value what you do enough to pay you for it.
• How did I start out – I think that waffly bit up top covers that? 😉
• How do I make money from what I do? I don’t make a lot. But I also live a pretty quiet life – I don’t need a lot of expensive material things, most of my money goes on travel and coffee, and that makes me happy. I seek out regular work which will pay me well, and I’m currently working on marketing myself for more commercial projects so that I can start saving again, and maybe even buy a house one day. And a dog. Maybe the dog first… I am not wealthy, and if I continue exactly as I am right now, I never will be. So it’s about finding a balance between creating the work you love and finding clients and projects which will compensate you properly for that work.
YOU CAN DO IT!
@sitwithlydz @hellopoe Thank you for doing this! I would love to know more about which camera to use for blogging(fashion street portrait) photography. I was told canon70d is good enough? What about lenses? Is there any compact camera that does a similar quality work too? Also, is there a particular classic camera that gives a “faded” effect while photographing? Hope you can help me clarify 🙂
No worries! I’m going to give you an answer that you might not like – the camera really, really doesn’t matter. It’s that dumb cliche (hate it when cliches are true) that it’s really what you do with it that matters.
I’m a huge believer in the iPhone. It has an effing amazing camera, and if that’s all you could afford right now, then I know you could shoot amazing things with it. The resolution is high enough that you can display and print the images from it at a decent size, and it’s highly portable – win.
If you have a budget for something bigger, and you want to do that, then absolutely, do it.
I personally shoot with the Canon 5D Mk III but it sounds like that might be more than what you need. I’ve not used the 60 or 70D but I have heard that both are great – if given a choice I’d choose one that shoots full frame rather than with a crop frame sensor, though.
The other thing I’d love to mention as it’s really the lens that is the most important – not the camera. It might seem weird, but it’s the quality of the lens (or ‘glass’ as some people like to say) that will make all the difference to your images – if I were you, I’d get a pretty basic camera body, learn how to use it well, and spend more money on a good lens.
I’m personally a massive fan of shooting with prime (fixed focal length) lenses – they force you to zoom with your feet, the quality is just beautiful, and after so many years I swear I see the world through 50mm eyes – I know what a shot is going to look like through that lens before I even look through the viewfinder.
Having said that, a zoom is going to be more versatile for sure – and if you’re wanting to shoot street portraits, I’m imagining that you’re not always going to be able to zoom in and out with your feet, and that being able to shoot quickly and effectively is going to be the most important for you. I used to have the Canon 24-70 L lens (the Mk I version) and sadly it never lived up to the hype for me. That said, I know loads of people who have the Mk II (way way better and sharper in almost every way) and they all swear by it – so much so, that I’m considering adding it to the bag. If street portraits are what you are after, then I’d say that’d be a great place to start. It’s an L series lens, which comes with the L series price tag – so be sure that it’s something you’re going to use a ton before investing!
I don’t know if you’re in the UK, but I rent a lot of lenses from lensesforhire.co.uk – they’re the only place I know that don’t require you to put down a massive deposit for their lenses, and they deliver them to your door. It’s an excellent way of trying out new lenses and get a feel for their capabilities before committing. (They’ve not paid me to say that, I genuinely think their service is fantastic!)
Regarding compact cameras, that’s where I’m going to fail you. I wish I knew more! I’m wanting to invest in a mirrorless camera myself, so I’m right there with you about not being sure what to get. I know I want a fixed lens. I know I want it to be small and discreet, and I know I’m super picky about there not being any lag between focusing and shooting a photo. I’m still asking lots of people for their personal experiences, and everyone has their own favourites. Personally, I’m really wanting to start shooting more video, and to wrap my head around telling stories with moving images. A friend recommended the RX 100 Mk IV and I love what he shoots with it (Tim Kellner, you can see his stuff on YouTube here) – so at the moment I’m leaning that way…
As far as a ‘faded’ effect goes, that’ll all be in the editing, so the camera you use won’t create that for you (unless you used some specific in-camera settings, which I wouldn’t recommend). You’ll want to look at different editing techniques and apps in order to get the look you’re after – for mobile editing on your phone and laptop, Priime has amazing presets which are created by photographers (full disclosure – I’m one of those photographers – so I have a bit of first-hand experience on working with them!) – they’re amazing. VSCO also has presets for their mobile app which are great, and sells film packs for editing in various computer programmes such as Lightroom.
I hope that all helps!
@jessicahull1 Hi! I’m Jess. I’d love to know about your career switch and how it came about. Xx
Hey Jess! So, it can be pretty easily explained by this handy dandy slide (see above) I made for a talk I gave on the Passport Express – hope it’s cool that I don’t type it all out!
So basically, what’s happened is I’ve gone full circle from studying photography – moving into design – into art direction – then back into photography. What I can explain in a bit more detail is how it came about…
I’d been working in publishing (more specifically, magazines) for a really long time. Which was wonderful because I love love love print. I love books and magazines and holding (and reading and devouring) tangible printed things in my hands. Also, the smell of printers ink. I’m in love with all of it. So really, it was a dream career, and one that made me really happy. It still makes me really happy, and I still take on design work too (like books! I just designed my first book last year and it came out a few months ago – a cookbook by the wonderful Georgina Hayden. You can see it here)
BUT what happened was that I was working with all these amazing photographers (in all honesty, some of the very best in the business) and I found myself wishing more and more that I could do some of the jobs I was having to send people on. I was working on a food/lifestyle magazine, and I don’t aspire to be a food photographer (it takes far more patience than I have!) but I did commission a bunch of travel stories, and those were the ones I would be sending other people on, wistfully wishing that it was me.
At the same time, I was spending a lot of time on Instagram sharing my photography, and I really used it as a creative outlet and a visual diary – I recorded my life on there – and still do – and upped my photo skills shooting with an iPhone along the way. Eventually I started getting a few opportunities (let me hasten to add, they were for the most part, not well paid ones – I wouldn’t advise anyone that they could make a living from social media work. I know some do – but I feel it’s the exception rather than the rule.)
I was also taking on a lot of freelance work on the side – non social media based, with my DSLR – and it actually got to the point where I was working so much on nights and weekends on my photography, that my day job started getting in the way.
I wasn’t getting any younger, I didn’t have any responsibilities in terms of a mortgage or family, and I knew I really really wanted to try spreading my wings and getting back into image-making full-time. So, I did it.
It wasn’t an overnight decision. I saved like a crazy woman before making the leap. I worked nights and weekends for 2 years before actually resigning. And I made damn sure I had enough work lined up for at least a few months, and a cushion to fall back on in case I didn’t find any more work.
It’s been 2 years and it’s still really hard work. It can be a struggle sometimes to get your invoices paid on time. I have to save up for a while in order to buy a ticket home to New Zealand to see my family. But I am so, so glad I did it. And that I did it in a really considered way.
Phew. Does that explain it? I hope so!
@moymoyzai Hello! Been following you since you were at JO magazine and have always admired you and your photography ☺️ My question is what are your top 5 tips for making a career change into photography? And one from the photography geek in me, what is your favourite lens and why? Thanks so much for sharing x
Ahhh that’s amazing! Hi! I still have so many amazing memories from my time on the mag. Oh man OK top 5 tips for a career change into photography, here we go:
1. Have savings. I hate stressing out about money and I do like a regular pay check. So going freelance was immediately going to be really difficult for me. I knew I had to make it easier on myself to have some savings so that I could concentrate on finding work, rather than panicking about money running out.
2. Cold call. Make the effort. Don’t expect jobs to come to you – you have to track down email addresses, find out names of art and photo editors, get your portfolio in order and set up meetings. A lot of the time you’ll be met with silence. But I really believe you have to make the work happen.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I still ask people everything I can. There are still some things I’m iffy about. There’s so much more I need to learn. I think as soon as we let go of thinking we have to be perfect and know everything, the easier it is to be inquisitive, not be afraid to look dumb, and ask honest questions.
4. Your peers are your friends. This is something that my time in the US in particular has taught me – we are all in this together. I’d say the majority of my friends are photographers. We’re all roughly the same age group, many of us shoot similar projects. But we are not each other’s competition. Being part of a creative community where you can honestly share experiences and advice has been the best and most important thing for me both personally and professionally, and I’ve been really lucky to find myself amongst a group of ridiculously talented, and incredibly generous friends and peers. You help each other out. Karma is a good thing. It all comes around. Don’t be selfish.
5. Do it because you love it. I know this is something that not everyone can do. We all have to earn a living. We all have responsibilities. And sometimes you just have to pay the bills. But, if you can do what you love, it’ll show. If you don’t love it, and you’re able to change it – then hey, it might be a good idea to do that. Life is so short.
As for my favourite lens – that one is easy. The Canon 50mm f.1.2 L has my heart forever and ever amen. I think I mentioned elsewhere that I seem to see the world at 50mm – I know what the shot will look like with it. It’s as sharp as hell. Tricky to manage at 1.2. But it’s the one that I keep on my camera 70% of the time. We are the very best of friends.
@scarlet_feverr I’m genuinely curious about government healthcare in the UK! So many of us over in the states are too terrified to go freelance or make any changes at all because we’re trapped by our horrid jobs & private healthcare system.
Haha that’s something I want to ask you about, too!
So to be clear, I live in the UK, but I’m from New Zealand, where our healthcare system is kind of similar, but in some respects still quite different.
Here in the UK, healthcare is free. In New Zealand, you pay a fee which is subsidised by the government, and there are discounts/free healthcare for those on benefits, the elderly, students, children, etc.
Honestly, having access to free healthcare is something that I completely take as a given – I’ve never lived in a place where just getting a cold could cost you hundreds of dollars. That said, I’m hoping to relocate to the US, so even having to factor in the cost of health insurance into a budget is kind of doing my head in!
The NHS here in the UK is desperately underfunded and the medical staff are so very poorly paid that it’s heartbreaking. If I had private healthcare here I would probably use it if I were to become very ill, because it would be faster to be seen/treated. But for the average person, it works out just fine.
Now tell me – how much would I have to pay a month in the US for decent health insurance?! This stuff is freaking me out.
@meredithspetit This is so great!! I just love your work so I’m super excited to hear some of your advice/thoughts. My question is pretty broad, but how do you get started? How do you make the jump from being just a hobbiest with no formal photography education to start taking photos that are client worthy (and then obviously getting the clients)? Thanks and I can’t wait to read your blog tonight!
Ahhh that’s so kind of you, thanks! I think I might have actually answered your question about how to get started in my previous waffly answers above – if you have a comfy seat and a drink I think you might find what you’re looking for up there! The only thing to add is that I do have a formal photography education – a very formal one in fact, in the form of a Bachelors degree. I think perhaps it might seem to many that my Instagram profile led me to quit my job and become a photographer – which is something that I really don’t want people to think…
Instagram definitely helped me re-immerse myself into photography at a time when I was spending all my time and energy on design. It introduced me to an amazing creative community and I did (and sometimes, very seldomly, still do) get some work opportunities through it – but it was not something that turned me into a full-time photographer.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong at all with finding a career in photography that way! One of the most talented photographers I know, Chris Ozer, was working in a completely different field when he started using Instagram and it completely changed his direction in life – it’s absolutely wonderful and he is an incredibly talented and humble guy.
In terms of getting clients, I think it really helps to narrow down a field of focus in terms of the type of work you want to do. Currently, I shoot mostly editorial work (poorly paid) and a bit of commercial work (much better paid) – so I’m working on that ratio myself. But I knew when I went back to freelance work a few years ago that I wanted to concentrate on getting editorial work. So, I went into bookshops, looked at magazine mastheads, copied down (or figured out) email addresses and started emailing people. I made promo postcards. I updated my website and tumblr religiously, and I was persistent. I don’t have it sorted out by any means. The past month has been super quiet, and I’m OK with that. I just think you have to be really pro-active about your career and your work, and get out there and make it happen – you can’t sit back hoping opportunities will just fall into your lap.
Now, I’m completely redesigning my website, thinking about the types of clients I want to work with, and trying to come up with some personal projects to work on, as some of my favourite photographers best series have come about through personal projects (Helena Price is amazing at setting herself personal projects – check out her Techies series. Also Gab Herman’s incredible series The Kids on growing up with LGBTQ parent(s). These two are such inspirational photographers and humans.)
Choose what you love to do, then find jobs that let you do more of it.
@meredithspetit Ok, one more 🙈 Any advice on story telling through photography? I really admire your style of storytelling. I struggle translating what I’m feeling/seeing to the photos I take and creating a cohesive story. Ok, that’s it ☺️
Haha, no worries! See this is interesting, because personally I think I’m pretty rubbish at storytelling – it’s something I’m consistently trying to get much, much better at. I see the work of people like Michael George (his el Camino series ‘Portrait of a Pilgrim’. Amazing) and I know there’s so much I have to learn…
But, I think what I find works for me, is to be completely genuine. Find the things that you naturally gravitate towards, and photograph them. You can stick 10 photographers in the same situation and each of them will shoot something completely different – because they all see, feel and visualise things differently. You’ve just got to trust that people will want to see what your take on things is.
Me, personally, I know I find things resonate with me most if there’s an emotion or personal story attached. Which is pretty interesting when you consider that I shoot mostly bright and colourful travel work. Which I adore. So maybe I’m trying to reflect a story in the places I see? I don’t know. You’re making me think here, which is good.
What I know I’m needing to do is work on creating more personal projects (like I mention above) I feel as though these really let us tell stories that we care about, without the worry of ultimately having to please a client or compromise on the stories you want to tell. You know? So yeah. Let’s both come up with some personal projects to shoot?!
OK. I hope that helps. I feel like it’s a lot of words. Who knows if anyone will read it. But I’m happy to answer any further questions you might have! Leave ’em in the comments here and I’ll answer them next time around. Cheers!