Your First Real Love: The Story of How You Met Photography

Your First Real Love: The Story of How You Met Photography

Remember the time you first discovered photography? That day of unboxing your first camera and going out into the backyard and photographing just about anything you come across. That perilous voyage you embarked on, trying to get that bee perfectly in focus as it hovers above the flower or the macro image of the tree bark shot in shallow depth of field. The first sunset you shot. The first time you launched Photoshop in the 90s and then publishing your first portfolio on DeviantArt soon after. Landing your first job as a photographer. The stresses that followed and the mistakes you made. If you could do it all over again, would you do it any differently?

I can't remember exactly how it happened. But the time I was in fifth or sixth grade, my father handed me an Olympus film camera to accompany me on a school trip to the Drakensberg. For those of you who don't know about the Drakensberg, it's the mountain range in South Africa that Hollywood told you to travel to in case of a flood of biblical proportions were to strike. Anyway, I was on this school trip in the Drakensberg when I noticed the clouds gathering and shafts of light appearing all over the green hills leading up to the mountainous region laid out in front of me. Something told me to grab my camera and take a photo of the scene. Maybe out of pure curiosity as to how it would translate to an image. Or maybe I just wanted to remember the scene and the way it made me feel at that particular moment in my life.

Years passed, and I completely forgot about the Olympus in my cupboard. It must've been around the early 2000s then. I remember being into nu-metal and other questionable music at the time. And it was around then when my mother handed me a 3.2-megapixel digital point-and-shoot camera. It was incredibly slow, had a small LCD screen, and a weird magenta cast to every image. Instead of a well-known brand, it was some subpar knock-off. I guess that explains the sluggishness and color cast.

But still, I felt the urge to create. And create I did. Using the music at the time as my primary influence, I used the hormonal and rebellious impulses of my mid to late teens as the fuel for my fire. It was the medium I could best express the feelings I felt at that stage. Acting as the rebellious teenager against his parents. Against society and sticking it to the man. Yeah, I'm going to show the world! I felt powerful with this little camera in my hand. I felt I could change people's perception for the better. Or for worst. Doesn't matter. I did it for me, no one else. And as I became older and eventually moved out of my parent's house, I started paying bills and realized the world doesn't revolve around bad art (thank goodness).

I had to change the way I viewed photography. Yes, it was my medium to deal with the questions and issues any teenager faced while growing up. Yes, I thought it was cool being creative, and never thinking further. But eventually, we all grow up. And if photography was to remain constant in my life, it needed to be monetized, unless I decided to go for a desk job and long for the freedom photography presented me. And yes, funnily enough, I eventually went for the desk job, and after a few years of hating it, I came to realize what my passion was and made the choice of going freelance. At the end of the day, all I wanted again was the freedom to roam my backyard for images whenever I please. I wanted that newfound sense of creativity. A limitless imagination not held in place by a sense of budget and time constraints. I wanted to be young and explore again. And so, like the Olympus film camera my father handed to me, my camera was stored away in my cupboard, doomed to face the eternal darkness and gather dust while embracing the cold sting of a neglecting owner.

After many an office job, angry bosses, and tons of self-loathing later, I decided to open that cupboard again and reach inside for the camera. It was time to start thinking seriously about this dream. I wanted to make this my career even if it's the last thing I ever did.

Fast forward a few years later to the time my son was born, I was faced with the decision to go full freelance or carry on with a dead-end desk job. With everything going on, I took the plunge and handed in my resignation. I had no real game plan. No money. Just a dream that carried me through the sleepless nights one associates with having a newborn in the house, while always questioning myself whether or not I made the right decision.

While the idea of going freelance sounds incredibly romantic and rash decisions like these always seem to work out in the movies, one never realizes the amount of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. While running around the house to make sure my one-month-old son was surviving this terrible ordeal of being born, I also had to please two different clients and several photoshoots. The two major clothing manufacturers I had to do retouching for at the time overloaded me with an incredible amount of images to retouch accompanied with the shortest deadlines possible. So short, I remember having to deep-etch over a thousand pictures in a week while also dealing with dirty, stinking nappies and an incredible lack of sleep.

After battling low income for years, missing bank payments, and sometimes having to resort to family or friends to borrow cash and growing closer to giving up this dream, I eventually gained a sense of what to charge and when to say no to work. No article or tutorial will ever be able to tell you when that moment is as everyone's is different. I started to look for better clients and eventually found them. I realized one of the mistakes I always made was to pick up any work just for the sake of getting work while in the back of my head I was thinking, "This could be the big one. This could be the shoot that makes me a highly demanded photographer." Clients could see the desperation in my eyes whenever they offered me work and took full advantage of it. I was too desperate to care.

But since moving to a larger city and getting involved with people from different aspects of visual design in either cinematography, film, set design, production, and directing, it's helped broaden my horizons and add value and knowledge to my own work by always being open to collaboration. It's helped me see the bigger picture (hah!) in my own work and made me fall in love again.

After all the ups and downs, we've been together on this path for over a decade, and she still remains by my side to this day. We've had many a great experience as well as the accompanying sour experience or two, but that hasn't stopped us in the slightest. Photography has been my companion through it all, and I can't wait to walk the rest of this path with her.

When did you first fall in love with photography and how did alter your life and the decisions you made?

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Fred van Leeuwen is a South African-based photographer and filmmaker. He operates under The Image Engineer, working on short films, portraits, and landscape photography.

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Back in 1977 when I was in the US Navy I met a girl who was a photographer. She introduced me to the darkroom.

The Navy had photo labs for those of us who were hobby photographers at the bases. I spent a lot of time shooting and developing failed rolls of Tri-X in Hawaii and on the remote Midway Island. I dated a surfing photographer from Haleiwa who was an incredible photographer who inspired me to do more than snapshots. Those were amazing times that have defined my life since.

Today I'm a full time photographer and can't imagine my life being anything else.

Amazing, Gary! Did you manage to save any of the rolls of film or photos from back then or did they all fail?

I still have some of the prints and most of the negatives. Most are nothing to brag about. ;)

I'll dig them up, scan a few and make a blog post and share a link with you Fred. :)

A self portrait circa 1977. It took me a couple of tries to get down there and pose in time. :D

Great stuff! I'm sure you look back at images like these and have all the memories of that time just flooding back! Absolutely love the grain and texture from the Tri-X. You've just made me go dust off my old film camera now! All I need is some film.

Do it. ;)

I was always surrounded by it.

My uncle was actually one of the first LIFE magazine photographers hired and before that was an FSA photographer. So, I grew up on his stories whenever we got to visit or see him at a museum opening (I was very young and didn't know much about that world when he was alive). So, I grew up just fascinated about those stories.

I wanted to be a writer, but I walked by a camera store one day and saw a used DSLR for sale. I thought to myself, I"m going to buy that camera and get a job as a photographer. Not too long after using it, I was able to find a job as a freelance journalist. The first time I saw one of my images in print I was hooked.

Picked up a compact camera Kodak V1073 (still have, tape and all) for a vacation in Colorado (2009). Started taking pictures of friends which were mostly at parties. Sister (wedding photographer now) bought a Canon t2i (2011, she still has) which we both started sharing. Which lead me down a rabbit hole. First love was concert photography. Late, I ended up moving to Colorado (2012) and now specifically shoot landscapes and wildlife. Been camping since I was a baby and now I've merged the two together and is where I currently stand. As I travel and shoot. I can't help but think about and to follow the footsteps of my grandparents who traveled a lot and had albums of photos from all the places they've been. As they both have passed. I'm trying to track down these albums from my aunts and uncles too see if i can recognize and/or visit some of the same places. (

My grandfather and I was laying on the floor retouching photos. I have been 5 years old back in 1963. Later he took me into the darkroom and showed me the development process. Then he died and I didn’t touch any photography related stuff. When the Olympus OM 2 was released I bought one.

That’s a bold headline.
Anybody working there checking the article headlines before publishing.

For my 20th birthday (1984) my late Mum presented me with a small box diligently decorated with all the typical wrappings. “What’s this” was my rather ungrateful response. My skepticism was well founded as the previous year Mum presented me with a screwdriver and the year before that a toolbox. With a degree of trepidation I nervously unpacked the gift with occasional glances to the smiling Mother. With a perplexed grimace on my face I pulled out a camera. “A camera!!!”. I didn’t even want a camera. “You can take pictures of my skittle club’s matches now” said Mum grinning widely. I still have it, a Praktica MTL5. It still works and it started what has became an obsession, a total and complete consuming obsession. One day, I may actually be good.