In Spring of 2008, I was driving across I-80 with family on a week long adventure that took us from Detroit, up through Canada to Niagara Falls, back across the border into New York State, stopping in NYC, through New Jersey, into Pennsylvania, through Ohio, and then back to Detroit. My partner had just graduated college, and some of her family had come to stay and take a once in a lifetime adventure.
I remember from this time that I was starting to really get back into photography around 2007/2008. I took a bit of a break to pursue a career in computer work, and somehow found my way back to my creative side -- or re-discovered that my creative side was there all along, but someone somehow some way told me that I was not good enough, and that I should stick with a 9-5 job.
I remember when I was really getting back into photography that it was triggered specifically because I was in Chicago on a trip, and I was on one of the boat tours that take you up and down the waterways through the city. I saw a man with a black Nikon camera that was taking photos of scenes that we all witnessed from the boat, and I said to myself that I wanted another Nikon right then and there! I only had a cheap $100 Sony cybershot point and shoot that I had with me on the trip, and I quickly felt the urge of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) brewing before I understood what that meant.
I ended up getting a cheap Nikon D40, and all of the cheap DX lenses that I could buy. Prior to this and my computer stint, I had only shot with film cameras, so really this was my entry into the digital "pro" game -- or at least what I thought was pro at the time on an entry level APS-C camera that I was shooting in automatic with... I was excited though, and that was what got me shooting again.
I started again by photographing anything and everything! And I do mean EVERYTHING! I tell any of my students or anyone out there that if you truly want to understand photography and learn how to become a better photographer that you must be ABS (Always Be Shooting)!
I was still working an IT job at the time, and I remember that they did not really want you to be taking photographs inside of the building. I honestly don't know who would give two shits about seeing photographs of cubicles, people in business casual clothing, Dell computers, and the really cheap coffee that they used to put in the break room that tasted like it was burnt most of the time. It was probably the coffee that they were hiding -- but regardless I kept my camera sheathed during the day in my backpack, and I would take walks around the block on my lunch hour to shoot the fake lake, the geese that would purposely do their business on the hood of your car, trees, cars that drove by, or whatever I could get in front of the lens.
I wanted to try my hand at wedding photography because I wanted to do something creative that made money. Let me just state for the record that my skills were NOWHERE READY to be a professional wedding photographer! However, I found a kind woman named Anne that allowed me to shadow her for a couple weddings as her second shooter through a friend that I worked with at my day gig, and I thought after a couple weddings that I WAS READY!
I will point out right here that if someone is kind enough to take you on as a second shooter, or that if you get hired as what we call 'work for hire' in industry, you should ask the lead photographer or your employer if it is ok to use images in your portfolio. In a work for hire situation, usually you get compensated for your rights to the photos, but in an internship or second shooter position that I was in just as a favor, the slope gets even trickier to navigate because I did not know to ask, and she did not mention anything to me initially.
I started to post some of the wedding shots on my website and my Facebook at the time. Anne got very upset with me because I was working for her company, and told me to take them down. Me being me asked why, and she told me we were done and that I was not to use her name on any of the work at all.
I moved forward with the shots that I had. In hindsight, as I mention, my skills were nowhere near where they should have been to take on what I was about to do, but being stubborn as I am sometimes I did it anyways.
I put out posts on things like Craigslist, Facebook, and other sites in hopes of attracting my first solo wedding clients. I made the mistake of not valuing my work because I knew deep down that I was not ready to take on too much full time just yet, so I put weddings up for $500 and engagement sessions up for $100.
Now I know that if you are a pro like me, you are sitting there shaking your head reading this going what the actual f---?!? I know, I know... But at the time, I did not know.
I did manage to meet some lovely couples that were getting married that gave me my first jobs. A lot of them hired me because I had a very non-traditional approach to the photos that I shared. A couple of my favorites were a wedding that I shot at a local brewery where the groom got his own beer made called "Chris's love potion", and I remember another shoot where I thought I had to look super 'professional' so I wore a wool suit outside in 97 degree weather just to impress my clients for $100.
The further along that I got with more weddings though, I slowly started to realize that I was selling my soul for a measly $500/wedding. Weddings to me were also not rewarding work as I thought that they would be initially. I can't be fake. I am as straight of a shooter as they come, and I wear my heart on my sleeve. If I am not feeling something, I am the first to say something.
I started shooting fashion not too long after I felt the soul suck of the weddings. Or.... at least what I thought was fashion at the time. I learned a lot of what I know and can pass on as trial by fire. Some of us must go through life and make all of the mistakes in order to learn or lessons. Others will read my blog post and learn from my experiences to have a better first go at photography than I did.
What I thought I had to do for fashion, just like weddings, was to build a portfolio. How does one get a portfolio in a place like Michigan that is not really known for 'fashion' per say? I saw some of my friends on Facebook that shot with models. I asked them where they met the models, or how to book them, and they sent me to a website called Model Mayhem.
Now again, I know a lot of you that are pros like me out there are face palming so hard right now hearing this, but I do hope that some of my follies will help a new generation of photographer to navigate the fields with a bit more grace than I did.
For those that don't know, Model Mayhem is a site for independent models, photographers, makeup artists, wardrobe..etc. Don't get me wrong, I met a lot of GREAT people there (there are a lot of creeps too though so be careful)! I am still friends with a lot of them today! BUT... If you truly want to shoot fashion, you need to understand that the real fashion industry does not give two shits about you playing dress up with your friends and making beautiful pictures. I'm sorry, but that is the cold hard truth.
In the past, media has dictated or defined what constitutes as a 'model'. If you are going to attempt to become a photographer for Guess Jeans for example, you need to first have the skills that it takes to shoot Guess caliber of images, and then second find models that look exactly like what Guess puts in their advertisements. The same goes for any other company that you want to work for, or any magazines, blogs..etc.
In 2020, it is a brave new world out there. I applaud all of the beauty movements that are changing the way that we look at models. I also applaud all of the models who can be themselves and not have to starve themselves to death trying to be a size 0 coat hanger being honest also. Real women have curves as the saying goes, and positive body movement is IN!
When I started shooting models, I picked everyone that I worked with based on what media and industry taught me was a model. I did not realize that the best models don't just get the jobs for their looks, they have a personality that resonates with the demographic that they are modeling to. That is why there is room for many more individuals to model in 2020 is because we have realized in society and industry that not everyone has to look or act the same (unless it is times of covid-19 in which I urge everyone to act the same in the respects of staying home!).
When I shot my first jobs in NYC, all of the work that I did prior to shooting for Conde Nast, GQ, Pinner, and any other companies that I worked with was thrown out the window. NONE of it was allowed to stay in my book, because none of it was what they were looking for.
What I do remember from my first model shoots though is that I learned how to work with people better.
A couple tips that I can share no matter if you are starting in weddings or fashion/models is to:
1. Always talk to your sitters. A quiet room or scene is the worst because people get trapped in their heads and wonder if they are doing ok. Two simple things that can start a conversation is to ask where someone is from, and also what they do. Those two questions can find common ground with sitters which will be the difference between a deer in the headlights look in a photograph, and creating real genuine emotion. I call it breaking the ice.
2. Angles, Angles, Angles! People automatically pose the way that they think they are taught to pose. It is a subconscious habit that stems from things we observe as humans. A couple guidelines with either things like weddings or fashion is to work 45 and 90 degree angles with your sitters to create some simple shots that usually both you and your sitter will enjoy. For those of you that are more adventurous like I am with your shots, speak with your sitter to clearly express what you are looking to accomplish and be respectful for starters, but if someone is open, I like to play a game called 'chase the camera'. I simply keep turning my camera away from the model, and his or her job is to run or jump in front of my lens every single time. I shoot right when I think they are in frame, and I turn it into an interactive experience where I can move, or they can move. It usually results in everyone in the studio laughing their heads off, but it is a fun way to achieve alternative angles that sometimes result in very genuine and unique shots.
3. Shoot LOTS! If you think you have 'the shot', shoot 200 more at least! You are working on digital cameras these days, and there is no more cost to developing photos other than your time. It is up to you to communicate with your sitter or client prior to the shoot to manage expectations of how many shots they receive no matter if you are testing with someone, or if they hire you also. In my personal suggestion, I would never agree to "ALL" the shots, and I would never give away RAW or unedited photographs. That is my personal way that I do things. The reason I don't suggest all the shots also is because it will take you forever and a day to edit. You are not getting paid for a test shoot, and neither is anyone else on your team, so make sure to value your time so that you can more effectively improve your skills other than editing 400 very similar shots and wasting days. RAW files are also like negatives that we used to use in our film days also. In order to provide someone with the best quality, I would suggest to never give them away because there is always tweaking that can be done by someone that is a trained professional to get the best quality out of images. Some people may say that they have a friend/cousin/uncle, or whatever that will edit the photos that is a "professional", but in my personal opinion, unless those individuals can show me industry credentials from REAL jobs and notable companies with a portfolio that looks better than mine, even then the answer is still NO!
I don't mention any of this to be mean, but you as a photographer have to decide what works for you. There are a lot of folks these days that moonlight on the weekend to shoot things like I started with in weddings, models, fashion, or whatever thinking that it is an easy way to make a few quick bucks, or that it will be some form of creative outlet. There is nothing wrong with making a few quick bucks, or having creative outlets, but I would urge everyone to understand where your skill levels are at, and to not just give away all of your hard work without talking about these things with your sitters and clients.
Eventually after I made all of my mistakes, I ended up in NYC shooting things like fashion week, Conde Nast, GQ..etc. like I mention. But, it came through many years of paying my dues, learning my craft, and many times of putting myself out there to get a million no responses back before I got the yes. We as photographers and artists must deal with so much rejection on a daily basis, and it is hard.
After many years, as a professional photographer, I have diversified into other things other than just shooting. I refuse to shoot a job for just money any more. A piece of advice that I offer to anyone that is reading this is to find work that you are actually passionate about and the rest of life falls into place. Don't just accept a shoot because it makes money. There are 50 million better ways to make a lot more money a lot quicker than photography. And passion in a photo is felt through culture, generations, or anyone that sees the image. That is how the great photographers stand the test of time. They worked on their craft, and they were all very passionate about what they did to put their best foot forward.
I myself took on teaching photography, I have diversified into tech endeavors, I make my own personal projects for books, I pick up odd jobs as a consultant for fellow creatives, and lately I started @79punks to raise awareness for mental health.
I think that life constantly evolves. There is no point where we ever stop learning and growing. What I write to you is from experience of making mistakes, and then learning what needed to be done to get where I needed to go. Everyone will have a different path, and some may be camera virtuosos right from the first time of picking up a camera. Who am I to stop you?
For the sake of this post today though, I do want to say a huge THANK YOU to my family, my friends, and anyone who has ever sat in front of my lens or given me a shot to work for you. I appreciate you all greatly!
The thunder rolls, and the lightning strikes with what is going on in the world right now (and literally outside of my studio window there is a storm right now), but every day we have a choice to wake up and discover how we can make what we believe in work, or to dive back into the bed and pull the covers over our head. I choose to discover new ways to make things work!
I will see you all live this evening on my @charlienaebeck IG to teach a brand new photo lesson. If you enjoy what I do and would like to support my streams, you can donate to keep me going on creating content and blog entries at charlienaebeck.com/support. You can also book online private photography lessons there, or get some of my shirts that I have worked hard to design for my latest @79punks project.
Thanks for reading, and stay safe y'all!