One of the hardest, cringiest things any photographer can do is go back and look at the images they created early in their career. In this video, Lee Morris and I revisit some of our best and worst images taken prior to launching Fstoppers.com. How bad are these photos? Let's find out!
A few years ago, Lee Morris pulled a clever prank on Mike Kelley and me when he had us critique "black and white" images. After we trashed most of them, Lee revealed that the images we were looking at were either extremely expensive Ansel Adams prints or snapshots he had taken off our own Facebook profiles. It's a hilarious video that definitely makes you reexamine the value of art and artistic expression when you do not know who created it.
So when Saal Digital approached me about another sponsored video featuring their high-end photography albums, I thought it would be fun to give Lee a little payback. However, as I began scouring our servers and even the internet for old photos of ours, my original idea of a cringe video morphed into something that might be more inspirational and motivational. Instead of simply picking the worst photos I could find from both of our early portfolios, I decided to pick a mix of acceptable and embarrassing images to help round out the album.
I have to admit, there was a big part of me that felt a little ashamed and wasteful building such a beautiful photography album with less-than =-stellar images. If you recall, I recently created a brand new portfolio album through Saal Digital, and that album was a lot of fun to design. Each image was heavily curated, tweaked, sometimes re-edited, and perfectly cropped in order to make the most impactful presentation showcasing my strongest work over the years. As I was searching for images for this professional portfolio album, I found a few folders containing images Lee and I had used for industry and college presentations back in the day. Most of the images weren't horrible, but I thought it could make for an interesting video, so here we are!
One of the interesting things about designing this album and filming the companion video was how encouraging it was for both of us. Lee and I rarely revisit our previous work or relish old memories. While we both assisted and collaborated together on a bunch of personal projects back when we first became friends, there were a lot of images we both created completely on our own, and many of those stories we had never shared with each other. Sitting down and laughing at some of our old work but remembering the valuable lessons we learned in creating those old photographs was a pleasant surprise. Below, I've outlined a few basic tips that allowed both of us to become full-time photographers, and I think they are still valuable to aspiring photographers today.
Assist, Assist, Assist
This is probably the biggest advice I can give someone looking to become a full-time photographer. Assisting allows you to watch someone who has already figured out their own successful process. Not only can you learn about the creative and technical side of photography, but through assisting, you can also learn about business, how to handle clients' expectations, and bypass a lot of shortcomings that happen when you are left to figure out this industry all on your own. I could write a whole article about the advantages of assisting, but in short, assisting will let you grow faster than anything else while also allowing you to get paid in the process.
Weddings Can Prepare You for Anything
Almost all of the images shown in the video above were taken while Lee and I were both making money as wedding photographers. Each weekend, we were making thousands of dollars separately by essentially photographing high-end events. Weddings are great practice in general because they require you to take charge of a hectic situation, direct people, photograph detail shots, work on your portraiture skills, figure out lighting in difficult situations, and use a variety of lighting gear like small LEDs, on-camera speedlights, and larger studio lights. The wedding day is also filled with a lot of stress and pressure that is almost always present in larger commercial jobs. If you can get good at producing great photos at a wedding, you will find that shooting other genres to be less difficult overall. To this day, I find myself thinking how easy and stress-free most of my bigger shoots are because I spent so many years learning to manage all the logistics of a full wedding day.
Shoot Anything and Everything
Another reason I think Lee and I found success throughout the different stages of our careers was because we spent our free time learning to shoot other genres of photography. While 90% of the money we were making was from weddings, it didn't take long to realize that there were other business opportunities shooting headshots, product shots, art installations, and real estate. In those first few years of picking up a camera, I was genuinely excited to learn how to create any type of photograph I saw online or in magazines. Once we created Fstoppers, we were able to learn from some of the best photographers in their respective fields by working with people like Peter Hurley, Mike Kelley, and Elia Locardi. Even though those genres aren't necessarily what I wound up focusing on, understanding how those top-tier photographers crafted their images definitely helped me improve the photos my clients were hiring me to create.
Copy Artists That Inspire You
I know many people will immediately dismiss me for saying you should copy your favorite photographers, but I think unlocking the secrets that they use is unbelievably important in finding your own style. If you are an aspiring musician but you never take the time to learn the phrases and voices from those who came before you, I do not think it will be easy to find your own unique voice. They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but I think the saying goes beyond just admiration. Learning a new skill thoroughly almost needs to be approached like teaching a baby or child. If you study other people's work and look at it with a very discerning eye, you will learn so much more about the craft itself than if you just blindly try to reinvent the wheel and ignore all those who have come before you.
Lee and I would often challenge each other to reverse-engineer the lighting we liked in a particular photograph. Other times, we would try to reproduce the gel techniques found in images by Joe McNally, Gregory Heisler, or Michael Grecco. When we felt comfortable recreating simple lighting setups on friends and "models," we would then try more complex lighting setups on intricate jewelry or popular tech gadgets. If you take this approach and constantly compare your work to the work you are emulating, over time, you will begin to naturally build a creative intuition that starts to come across in your own style. The trick is you have to do it over and over again, and you have to always compare your work critically to the work you aspire to produce.
See If Your Images Sell
The final bit of advice I could give an aspiring photographer is to upload your images to a stock website and see if they sell. Selling stock photography is pretty difficult for a number of reasons, but if you are just getting started, seeing first-hand which images have commercial appeal and which ones do not can be a huge eye-opener. You will never get rich selling stock, and down the road, you probably don't want your most iconic images available to anyone for a few dollars, but selling stock definitely helped me understand the psychological effects certain styles and creative directions had on a particular set of images. Maybe your lighting is great, but are you working with the right models? Perhaps you have an interesting concept, but is the entire set and styling thought out enough? I remember spending tons of time shooting images that had crazy lighting, only to find out that my naturally lit photos actually resonated more with the stock buying customers.
Obviously, most stock images are simplified and more sterile than the type of work you will want to get hired to shoot, but I still think there is a lot of value in testing the waters and seeing if you can compete in a market filled with talented photographers. The proof is in the pudding. Check out Yuri Arcurs' stock website, People Images, if you want to see lifestyle images done at an incredibly high standard. I still reference this site a lot even today when I'm storyboarding ideas.
So there you go, a super high-end photo album featuring images I will most likely never show off again. Hopefully, you enjoy this video as much as I enjoyed creating it. Trying to locate some of my best early work from 15 years ago wasn't easy, and I'm sure there is a lesson to be learned in proper file management from this project as well.
As mentioned above, this video concept was sponsored by Saal Digital and their high-end Professional Line of photo albums. Regardless if you are looking to build a simple family photo album, a wedding album for one of your couples, or perhaps you are in need of a more luxurious portfolio book to show to potential clients, Saal Digital has a ton of different albums to match your exact needs.
At the time of this published article, Fstoppers reads can take advantage of an exclusive discount on all photo albums (currently 50% off, which is an incredible deal). Simply click the link above, apply for the coupon in your part of the world, and get started designing your own album with Saal's simple-to-use album design software.
Really, really enjoyed the video. You guys proved that there are many stories and memories on each photograph. I also enjoyed the unrehearsed dialog among friends.