I make no secret of my age. It’s 54 if you need to know. The best part of 38 of those years has been spent in photography. That photographic path started on my 16th birthday with a $50 Soviet Zenit and has carried on through to modern digital Fuji’s.
Like all ventures in life, the journey through photography has been an education, a roller coaster, a cocktail of emotion but most of all, great fun. Now, whilst that journey and education continue, sometimes it’s cathartic to look back at where I came from and think about how I might have done things differently. So today we are going to take a look at photographic advice I would give my younger self.
Find A Mentor
Although my first flirtations with photography were random, a camera for my 16th birthday, my passion for it was greatly enhanced by having a mentor. In my case, it was my uncle, an experienced amateur, who loved to shoot many different genres of photography.
The real benefit of having a mentor is to temper the arrogance of youth. I was lucky enough to win a camera club competition months after taking up photography. As a 16 year old that can kind of go to your head, make you think you are the next Bailey or Adams. A mentor will quickly bring you back to earth. Not in a negative way but by demonstrating that being a good photographer is about consistency not being a one-shot wonder.
Spend Your Money Wisely
At 16 you don’t have much disposable income. I was lucky enough to work part-time whilst I studied. However the pay was not that huge, and if I am honest with myself a lot of the money I earned was not well spent.
I bought several secondhand but relatively expensive lenses, within months of buying my first camera. I was certainly trying to run before I could walk and those lenses were nowhere near utilized as much as they should have been. In glorious Technicolor hindsight, my meager funds would have been better spent on books and tutorials about photography. Perhaps on travel tickets to more photogenic locations rather than wandering my own rather dull suburban town.
The key takeaway I would tell my younger self is that photography is about you, not about the equipment you own. Learn where your creativity lies, then spend money to enhance that creativity if needed.
Experiment A Lot
Growing up in the film era meant that there was a significant cost to every photo I took. That meant I tended to restrict myself to one or two types of film and one or two ISO’s (yes we could not change the ISO on the fly as we can today).
The advent of digital made me realize how much you could and should experiment. You can play with high ISO to see how it can give you a striking grainy image. You can experiment with slow shutter speeds for motion blur or even the simple effects of adding a polariser. There is so much a newcomer can learn about photography simply by experimenting. These days there is no real reason not to experiment, as opposed to my younger self who was severely constrained by cost.
Ignore The Haters
We have talked about this before but if I were to talk to my younger self, it would be one of the most important conversations. Younger photographers, female photographers, and in particular young female photographers will always be targeted for abuse or ridicule. The demographic that drives this negativity is well-known, middle-aged men.
As a young photographer, I came across this well before the age of the Internet. Sadly, the Internet has enabled more of these people to come forward and project their negativity towards you. If I were to go back, there would be one simple thing I would say to myself. “It’s not you, it's them”. The sad fact is that some people feel their own abilities are threatened by newcomers. You need to ignore that and carry on. Don’t let that negativity put you off, you will find it in whatever you do.
This returns us neatly to the first point, having a mentor. A mentor will act as a shield against the more negative elements in photography. They will praise your work where deserved and critique your work where needed. They will also have insights as to why someone is being negative towards you. There is a certain irony that some of the best mentors you will find are also middle-aged men.
By this I mean don’t neglect other important parts of your life. This could be your family, friends or even studies. Photography, especially when you first get into it can be addictive. You want to go out and shoot all the time. You want to lock yourself away in a room with a computer and Photoshop. It consumes you. Don’t let this happen.
If you allow photography to consume your life, you will soon burn out. You will tire of shooting the same old things, you will lose that first flush of creativity, you may even lose the will to shoot. Make sure you divide your time well between your photography and your other interests, in the long run, it will benefit you immensely.
By this I mean don’t assume you are going to walk into a photographic career. At 16 and after two months of owning a camera, I proudly pronounced to my parents that I wanted to be a professional photographer. They soon brought me back to Earth. The fact is, I got lucky. It was not so much about my own skills but about certain people I met. I was also lucky that my formative years were in a time when photography was still very much seen as a highly-skilled job.
These days the photographic jobs market is very different as is the number of people applying for those jobs. This is not to put you off, if your heart is set on becoming a professional photographer then absolutely you should try. However today, more than ever, you need two things, a very strong portfolio of good images and some excellent marketing skills. If you can put those two together, you can have a career in photography.
Looking back, if I were to have a conversation with my younger self, I am not sure he would believe how much photography has changed. I am sure however he would be envious of what we have now. Cameras that can nail pretty much every shot and shoot video to boot. No need for expensive film and printing – the Internet and its virtually unlimited resources as a learning tool for photographers!
I might be a 54-year-old, I might be occasionally called grumpy, but the tools that we have now for our photography, amaze and delight me, they make me smile. Talking to my younger self, I would say, keep going, the future, your future, is going to be incredible.