A good photograph speaks with a loud voice and demands time and attention if it is to be fully perceived.
If this quote by Ralph Gibson resonates with you, perhaps you have always harboured a desire to be a professional photographer.
How will you accomplish that if you have never taken photography courses and don't have a diploma?
You might argue at this point: one can train oneself to take exquisite photos, if only one has the passion and motivation to do so!
Photography is perhaps the most accessible form of art today. Everyone with a SmartPhone is in possession of a camera, and photo editing software, such as Photoshop, is widely available.
(Nearly) gone are the days of alchemy, when photo paper, bathed in chemicals, became images!
Today, thanks to Adobe – among others, we are treated to a visual feast of photographic genius from amateurs of all stripes.
Still, not everyone who plies their camera as a hobby can go pro – become a professional photographer.
Even more vexing: thanks to Pinterest, Instagram and other social media platforms, the sheer availability of photographic material works against the professional photographer.
With open databases that permit free download of digital images, even commercial photographers are feeling the pinch.
Why should a business contract a professional photographer when they can download the shot they want for free?
The sum total of this effect is that artists now spend more time networking and promoting their products than they do cultivating and producing visual art.
What a bleak vision!
Nevertheless, it is an accurate one. If you are to stand out among that field of grey; that world of digital downloads with or without attributions, you will have to be uniquely creative and enterprising, in equal measures.
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Is it Possible to Teach Yourself Photography?
If you are an autodidact, it is entirely possible to master lighting techniques and lensing with no formal instruction.
For some, that would be sufficient: taking snaps at family events, around town, of nature...
However, if you intend to earn your living behind the camera, there are certain factors you must not overlook.
The art of photography is a complex web of interlocking concepts that must be grasped individually, but also be understood as a part of the whole.
To expound on that idea:
To take pictures, one must have a camera. The camera has a lens, light sensors, mirrors, an aperture, an image recording device – be it film or a memory card...
All of that goes without saying.
And then, you have accessories: various lenses, light meters, mono- or tripod, studio lighting (if you photograph in a studio)...
Beyond that, there are the ephemerals: composition, colour, saturation, effects...
These are just some of the tangibles and intangibles that connect the fibre of photography as a whole art form.
Let us now drill down to the basics.
Obviously, the image capturing device takes center stage in the photographer's arsenal.
Cameras fall into three broad categories:
- Compacts are lightweight, easily portable and affordable, but have limited performance and flexibility. If you are interested in photography as a career, it would be best to steer clear of these models.
- Reflex cameras are a bit more cumbersome and expensive, but offer a greater range of dynamic performance and flexibility, and interchangeable lenses. Professionals generally gravitate toward this type of device.
- Hybrids are a combination of the two; built like a Reflex, but smaller. The lenses are generally not interchangeable unless you invest in a higher end model. They are sturdy machines, and manage more flexibility than a compact.
The bottom line: investing in even a low-end reflex would serve you better as a beginner than either a compact or a hybrid.
Once you have settled on a type of camera, it is time to choose your lenses.
Two parameters in particular should govern your selection:
- Focal length: expressed in millimeters (mm), a long focal length allows you to shoot distant subjects while a short focal length allows to photograph large subjects, such as a monument or landscape.
- Aperture: the greater the aperture, the more light floods the image, permitting faster image recording. A large aperture is ideal for shooting action photos, such as sports or wildlife photography; that setting is also used to capture images indoors or in low light settings.
Now that you have selected your camera body and lenses, it is time to think about other accessories:
- filters: to change the mood of your composition, to avoid reflections, to optimise contrasts and hue...
- flash: to compensate for low light conditions
- mono- and/or tripod: the former is ideal to stabilise your camera for action shots; the second is best to shoot portraiture
- a camera case: how else would you transport and protect all of that valuable gear?
In this list you will note the lack of any film photography components: the mention of ISO, film speed and film, in general.
ISO does apply to digital photography, but in a different way than with film photography. In fact, some photography beginners aver that the technology behind film photoshoots is much more complicated than digital!
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Fundamental Photographic Concepts
If you have any experience at all online, you must be aware that tutorials of all types are available on YouTube and other video streaming sites.
Specifically for photography, you can view workshops on:
- Setting exposure: your photograph could be under- or overexposed, depending on light and contrast. The amount of incoming light is determined by shutter speed and aperture settings. For a poorly lit subject, you should set the camera to a greater aperture setting and long exposure.
- Night photography is generally achieved in that manner.
- Light concerns itself with white balance versus grey. A well-balanced white gives clear, sharp images with bright, true-to-life colours.
- With a digital SLR camera, you can set the white balance to multizone or matrix; spot or centerweight. Try it! See how it affects your image!
- Shutter speed, also known as exposure time represents the amount of time the digital sensor (or film) is exposed to light. Varying shutter speeds yields different effects: a blur around the main subject, for example.
- The aperture is what allows light into the camera, to capture your image. This is that mysterious-sounding f-stop, usually expressed as f/n (number). The higher the number, the smaller the aperture; the lower the number, the greater the opening.
- Higher f-stops prevents overexposure of your subject!
- Sensitivity: This is the amount of light required for good exposure. In digital photography, the ISO index is used to express that value. A large index = high sensitivity (to avoid underexposure). Conversely, a small index = a low sensitivity (to avoid overexposure).
- In film photography, ISO indicates the speed of the film. Higher ISO is better for action shots and low-light conditions; lower ISO is suitable for shooting outdoors on bright, sunny days.
In preparation for your grand debut as a professional photographer, or if you are at intermediate level, it would be a good idea to test these various settings out, to see what sort of effect they have on your images.
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The Fundamentals of Composition
Photojournalists and wedding photographers; commercial photographers and those who specialise in portrait photography: their common talent is the ability to compose an image tantamount to visual storytelling.
Have you ever heard of the rule of thirds?
It is one of the most useful composition tools in photography, that consists of gridding your scene into a total of nine fields – three columns and three lines.
It seems counterintuitive, but centering your subject – capturing the main object you wish to photograph smack in the middle of the frame, makes your photo appear boring and without appeal.
Aligning your focal point with any of the resulting four dots the imaginary grid produces places your subject off-center, giving your shot more depth and punch.
The human eye is conditioned to roam from the upper left corner of a quadrant to the lower right corner, in effect creating a Z pattern, when scanning any image.
Centering your subject in the middle of your frame is likely to cause an uncomfortable disturbance in this natural pattern of eye movement.
If you learn how to use this golden proportion, you will have mastered one of the best tricks of professional photography!
Selling Yourself as a Professional Photographer
OK, so you know all about the basics of photography. You have selected the equipment that suits your situation and experimented with it.
You have watched photography tutorials and maybe even attended a workshop or two.
Your photography skills are coming along nicely, and you are now ready to aim your Nikon or other DSLR towards making money.
Where do you start?
Not that there is any shame in it, but without an academic background in photography – a Level 3 certificate or a BA Honors photography degree, you may have a hard time establishing credibility in the world of professional photography.
Ideally, working with established photographers is a great way to get your name out there; to let people know what you are capable of and how much you would charge for your services.
Therefore, it would be best to gain a bit of professional experience by working with a professional photographer.
You may ask around: perhaps a studio photographer is looking for an apprentice? If you are interested in commercial photography, cast around those circles.
Sure, you might only carry props, brandish light meters and pose subjects, but doing so is a foot in the door to the world of advanced photography.
And, imagine how experienced you will look with such apprenticeships on your CV? With such shots in your portfolio?
We'll come back to portfolios in a moment...
Not every established photographer will put his/her name on snaps captured by assistants.
However, there are some whose trust in their protégées permit 'prentices to work the camera under counsel.
If your eye for composition and your technical skills are deemed suitably impressive, s/he may even allow you to publish your work under your own name!
Another avenue into the world of professional photography rests in your hands.
Your address book, social media contacts; friends and family: any one of them could lead to your very first gig!
In spite of today's more advanced communication channels, word of mouth remains the most effective form of advertising.
After talking yourself up to your family, friends, coworkers and neighbours, casting a wider net is the logical next step.
Attending events or visiting businesses related to the particular type of photography you wish to specialise in will enhance your chances of getting hired.
If wedding photography appeals to you, visit bridal shops and wedding planners.
If travel photography is more your calling, visit booking agencies and contact leisure magazines.
To sell yourself and your skill at capturing images, you will have to be a bit forward. Shyness has no place in marketing!
By that, we don't mean insisting on contracts, or even offering your services as a photographer upon first meeting a prospective client. That should take place only after a couple of meetings.
Assertion works well; aggression will drive clients away!
Finally: you have to give in order to receive.
Suppose your friend is looking for an event photographer for his parents' silver jubilee, but you are more of an expert a macro photography.
Show him samples of your work: exquisite close-ups of fine jewellery, or intricate machine parts. And then, regretfully inform him he must look elsewhere for someone who knows about portraiture, group photography and taking casual snaps at events.
You may pass on that commission, but he will remember your integrity, skill and creativity when he needs pictures of tiny things!
Preparing a Professional Portfolio
The very nature of photography is visual: what is the point of a carefully typed CV?
That is indeed the question!
As a photographer looking to establish yourself professionally, it would be better to maintain a book of sample images you created and edited yourself.
You can also create an online photography album, a whole web page and a blog!
Especially if you have no photography lessons to list on your resume, it would be far better to showcase your skill at imagery with images, rather than with words.
Besides: isn't a picture worth a thousand words?
Compiling a portfolio will communicate your passion as well as your skill and eye for composition.
To help you build a most effective illustration of your skill at taking pictures, we recommend:
- the less is more principle: only 15 to 20 of your best shots; ones that display your versatility and creativity. If your prospect is wowed, s/he will certainly ask to see more of your work!
- Show your best photography: mount only quality snaps; ask friends and family to help you choose.
- Diversity: if you are equally adept at capturing street scenes and stunning landscapes, put samples of each in your book
- Progression: put your second-best shot in first place to give yourself a strong and lasting finish, and a lingering good impression. Your client will perceive your work as ever-improving.
- Keep up to date: regularly update your portfolio with fresh images, recently taken.
Creating a website, either with WordPress or through a social media platform such as FaceBook will give you greater exposure which, in turn, will bring you more prospects.
The more likes you amass, the more traffic your site incurs, the more credible your photography business becomes.
And, while blogging, why not give tips on how to photograph, how to use Adobe lightroom, or offer photography workshops?
Mastery of photography as an autodidact is a long journey, but entirely possible.
Making use of online photography tutorials, joining photography societies and participating in workshops will help you develop as a photographer.
Marketing yourself as a photographer of merit takes audacity, assertion and adaptability, but never arrogance!
Use every outlet possible to advertise your work: blogs, websites, competitions, social media, and especially: websites dedicated to photography.
Give to get: permit free download of a minimal amount of images in return for citation when used in clients' articles or websites.
Ply your camera and marketing savvy on all fronts: capture the clients you need to make your photography business grow!