Over the last year I’ve had a number of people ask me how I learned photography and how I transitioned my career path from the corporate world to becoming a photographer. I wrote this blog post to share my experience on exactly what I did (in detail) to learn the ropes. I love helping others find their path, so if you’re contemplating how to transition into professional photography, want a side hustle, or just want to learn photography, this post is for you.
Before I begin, I should note that everyone’s experience is different. Everyone has a different way of learning and may have a different opinion on how to become a photographer. It’s also a never ending journey to learn. I am still learning and growing in this path — whether it’s a new piece of equipment, subject I’m photographing, or client that challenges me, it never really ends. I think that may be one of the reasons why I love photography so much! I should also let you know that when I decided I wanted to become a photographer, I had no experience or knowledge (aside from shooting on my iPhone and playing with my boyfriend’s point and shoot camera). Most people probably think it’s crazy that I dropped a significant amount of money on a pro-line camera before I ever knew anything about photography, but I had a really strong feeling that this was what I wanted to do and I have no regrets.
1. Invest in a DSLR camera and good lens
I invested in the cheapest (not so cheap) full frame Canon camera. My first camera was a Canon 6D and the 24-105mm f4L lens. I wouldn't do this unless you are really wanting to take on pro work. It's expensive and there are many other great cameras you can learn photography with. If you're not sure yet, a Canon Rebel kit is a great place to learn how Canon's work and how to shoot on a DSLR. Even if you decide you don’t want to become a professional photographer, it's still a great camera for hobby work. You can always upgrade later if you decide you want to jump into pro. I wasn't able to second shoot for most professionals until I had a full frame camera, so that's another thing to note. If you're able to borrow one from a friend to see if you like it first, that's a great option! My experience is only with Canon, but there are many other great cameras outside of Canon as well.
Other things you will need:
You will likely need a memory card — I use SanDisk 64 GB. I use 2-3 of these for an entire wedding. The amount of space you need is up to you.
External hard drive — I highly recommend uploading images to an external hard drive instead of your computer. This will keep your computer from running slow! I have used Lacie and Seagate for this in the past.
Since my first camera/lens, I've purchased the Canon 5D Mark III, 24-70mm 2.8L, and the 50mm 1.2L (the 50mm is a favorite lens for many portrait photographers and my favorite out of what I own). I have been dying to get the 35mm 1.4L or Sigma 35mm. From renting the 35mm, I know I would prefer to use a 35mm lens as my only lens when traveling since it’s slightly wider than the 50mm. Again, these are all pro cameras/lenses, so don't feel like you need to invest in these right now. If you want to go big on anything, I'd do it on a lens.
2. Take a class
After getting my camera, I took one class at a local photography school (The Harvey Milk Center for Photography). It was only 3 days (once a week for 3 weeks) and it was called Getting to Know Your DSLR. This gave me knowledge on the very basics to then trial/error and practice on my own.
I’m all about taking classes in-person and having the instructor there when I get stuck, but if you prefer an online course, Creative Live is an awesome resource.
3. Practice like crazy
Start shooting in Aperture Priority mode (AV mode on a Canon). In my opinion, it's easier to learn on this mode first. This means you choose the aperture and ISO settings and the camera decides the shutter speed. I second shot a number of weddings on AV mode when I started out. Eventually I moved into manual mode where I now decide all those factors, but I started learning in AV mode.
Also, this may all be jibberish right now, but don't worry it's not that bad :) Take your camera out at different times of the day/ different light, take photos of all different kinds of subjects. When you get stuck, google it, YouTube it, or text anyone that knows photography. It’s part of the fun.
4. Learning Editing on PhotoShop/Lightroom
This is the standard well-known editing tool that most people I know use. This is a big factor that gives your photos a certain style — light/airy, moody, grainy, colorful, etc. Some of that is shooting and the light you shoot your images in, but a lot of the coloring/style is from post-production. I still have so much to learn here, but I edit all my photos in Lightroom (exposure, contrast, colors, etc.) and if anything needs heavier edits (skin smoothing, removing something from the photo, etc.), I use Photoshop. I usually start by using VSCO Lightroom presets and then tweak the images heavily from there.
When moving your images into Lightroom: move your images from your memory card to an external hard drive > then import from your external hard drive into Lightroom. I am including this because even the smallest things that seem mundane today, were confusing when I first started! There are lots of videos on photography workflows that help when it comes to figuring this part out.
4. Build a Portfolio
Get a website for your portfolio. I use Squarespace, which was super easy to setup. This is where you showcase your best images. Other photographers may ask to see your work before helping them, so as you practice, update this! It's not going to be perfect in the beginning, so the only important thing is that you start. So many people wait until it's "perfect" and it takes them years (if ever) to get going (not ideal). Your work and your brand will always evolve as you grow. The most important thing is to just get things out there. Done is better than perfect! If you don't want to do a website right away, you can use Instagram as a portfolio.
When you have a portfolio, share it with the world.
Let people know that you take photos. Instagram is also great for this. You can setup a separate one or use your own (use hashtags like #losangelesphotographer). Sharing on your Facebook and letting your personal network know that you're looking to build your portfolio/ practice is a great way to get started. Eventually, you will start getting asked by friends to take photos and this will let you practice with your own personal network and help you find your style. You may notice after a while that people will start asking for your rates and that on it’s own needs an entire separate blog post, so I won’t cover that here.
Practicing with friends/families is great, but it’s mainly for practicing on people. There are so many different types of photography and you may find you don't want to photograph people, which is totally ok! My first gig was actually in food/drink photography. It happened because I brought my camera into a restaurant and they offered me and my friends free drinks on the spot for a few images due the following day. That led to getting paid in gift cards to shoot their cocktails and then it led to them actually paying me. Eventually they started referring me to other restaurants and things just started happening from there.
I cannot emphasize how valuable networking is and how important it was for me to transition my career. Start by meeting other photographers in your area — Reach out to photographers in your network, DM photographers on Instagram, and ask friends if they personally know any photographers and ask them for an intro. Facebook groups are also a great way to meet others and ask questions to other photographers. You can search locally or by niche.
From talking with others, I have realized the idea of networking doesn’t come naturally to everyone. If you are asking yourself how or what you would say, I’ll give you a few tips:
If possible, find a warm intro (you have a mutual connection to introduce you or you have something in common)
Do your research - Compliment their work, reference a project, blog post, or a talk they have done. Get specific about this to show them how much you admire their work or follow what they do.
Ask to learn about their journey - Ask if they would be willing to have a quick cup of coffee or short phone call to learn more about how they got into their career.
If you get the meeting, come prepared - Figure out what questions you have ahead of time and be mindful of their time. Always offer to pay for their coffee when you meet in-person.
Follow up with a thank you - Email them and let them know how much you appreciated their time and include a note about something specific you learned or talked with them about.
If you leave a lasting impression or form a connection, you never know where this can lead. Perhaps they will introduce you to someone looking for an assistant or let you shadow a shoot. You never really know, but over time making these connections really help.
Also, you will get a lot of crickets and no's, but don’t get discouraged. Eventually someone will agree to meet for coffee or have a phone call. It took me about 1 year to form a relationship with a local photographer after following up with them every 3 months. It seemed like it was never the right time, but when they finally needed someone, I was top of mind.
Eventually, I formed a network of 4 different photographer mentors who I could rely on for questions that came up in business, editing, shooting, etc. They all had different perspectives/experiences, so this was super valuable.
Lastly, some final tips:
This is probably the best advice I can give for anyone for who’s looking to get started in photography with out becoming overwhelmed. I think the biggest piece of advice that won't be in my "steps" is that so much of transitioning your career is mental. It’s getting comfortable with being in uncomfortable situations and conquering your fears. It's not going to be easy and it's work. It's also really awkward in the beginning when you're learning how to use a camera, how to pose people, and letting people know you're going into photography when you feel like you know nothing! BUT it does get easier, it's SO rewarding, and it's a life long skill regardless of what happens!
I want to leave you with some mantras that got me through my first year of learning. I really don’t think I would have made it this far if I didn’t tell myself these three things continuously:
- If she can do it, I can do it. - Think about who you look up to. They all started somewhere.
- Say YES to every opportunity even if it's scary. - The first time I got asked to do studio headshots at a pretty big well-known company, I said yes with out knowing anything about studio lights. After saying yes to them, I freaked out and spent the week asking photographers how to do them, studying online, and practicing before the gig. It worked out and today they are one of my larger clients to date. Studio headshots have since become natural to me, but I know I would have never learned how to do them unless I took that first time gig that felt uncomfortable and pushed me to learn.
- Nobody knows what they are actually doing. - Seriously, I'm still figuring it out and so are my mentors!
If you’re unsure about taking the leap into photography or wasn’t sure how to begin, I hope this post was helpful. I’d love to hear your thoughts and I’m happy to answer any other questions in the comments below!
Photography by Jenna Monaco