1 Year of Taking Photography Seriously

In January 2018, I bought my first DSLR camera after several months of deliberation. Why did I want to pursue photography? The ignoble reason was that I just wanted my Instagram to look better. This wasn’t my first dalliance with photography. My father bought me my first digital camera in 9th grade and I took film photography in high school. But since then I had mostly been using my phone camera like any good millennial. After seeing the pictures from photographers around the world, I wanted to up my production value. But I also think there is something very romantic about taking years to hone a skill, like artisans of old. Until last January, I had spent a lot of time dissecting the work of others but buying a camera gave me a chance to actually be the creator myself.

The Gear

I started with new software before I even started looking at camera gear, because honing editing skills seemed like a low barrier to entry into the photo world. I purchased Adobe Lightroom as a standalone package (rather than buying a Creative Commons license). I bought the software and one set of presets (essentially filters that photographers often sell to those who want their “look”) and began editing the photos that I had already taken as practice for when I finally got my camera.  

Camera choices: I currently own a Nikon camera body, which is still the only one that I have. When I was researching cameras, I cycled through about eight different entry-level models before settling on both the company and the particular model. I won’t get into particulars since I don’t want anyone to feel as though this is the only way to get into photography but rather to take you through my thought process in choosing my first DSLR

Why that Company?: My dad has a collection of Nikon lenses, so I had to either have a Nikon body or an adapter for another type of camera if I wanted to the Nikon lenses. I actually know more people who shoot using Canon and Sony, but I also saw the test images coming from this camera and it seemed like the best value at my price point.

Why that Model?: When I actually held each of the cameras, I realized that  Canon cameras I was considering were very slippery and too large for my hands. So in some ways, the decision was made for me.

My lens: I ended up choosing a prime 35mm lens, meaning that the lens can only shoot at a certain focal length/zoom. The kit lens (which is included with the camera as a base feature) would have been a more flexible zoom lens.With a zoom lens, you can stay in one place and zoom in and out (like on your phone). With a prime lens, if you want a closer crop, you have to physically move closer to your subject. Because of the additional restrictions, a kit lens isn’t necessarily the first choice for a beginner. However, multiple people had advised me just to invest in “good glass”. My dad also made the suggestion that it could actually be cheaper and a better solution to choose my own lens, rather than to go with the kit lens.The lens I ended up choosing can go down to f1.8, meaning that in low light situations, it will be able to open wide to capture as much light as possible.

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

Why that focal length?: Photographers often talk about the “nifty fifty” (50 mm lens) as the most versatile. Historically, it was also the most used in newspaper photography. I wanted something slightly wider to be able to capture architecture. The image captured at a focal length of 35 mm is supposed to most closely mimic what the human eye sees. Ironically, with a crop-sensor the 35mm ends up being approximately 50 mm in focal length anyways (oops.)

Part I: Learning the tools of the trade

I spent the first part of this past year re-learning the basics of how to use a camera: how to focus, how to change aperture and shutter speed. Although I actually rarely shoot manually anymore (having full control of each of those settings instead of letting the camera choose for itself), it was a useful exercise. When you transition from a phone camera to a DLSR, it is gratifying use because instantly everything DOES look better in higher resolution. I also learned to shoot in raw, which essentially is working with a different file type. Doing so allows greater control of editing photos because more information was captured. Most importantly, the fact that I chose a prime lens changed the way that I took pictures altogether. Using a prime lens forced me to think about my scene (and where I had to be to get the shot) with more care.

Also important was just getting out and shooting! Practice makes perfect and I took tens of bad pictures that will never see the light of day for every one good photo I posted. For the first 5-6 months with my camera, every single picture on my social media feed was from my DSLR. This was mostly just to force myself to use it rather than trying to fall back on using my phone. It had an unexpected pleasant effect on my mental health by getting myself out of the house when I would normally just curl up and stay in and isolated. Crouching out by train tracks on a frigid February night was not something I would typically do but I was never more excited to do it than to practice long exposures.

Long exposure, Feb 2018. Boston, MA. It was very cold and I got some odd looks but I had so much fun shooting that night.

A skill that I’m still working on is developing a cohesive “look” or style. When I first began shooting, I literally made a Google Document entitled “What make a photo look professional?” and made detailed bullet points and tried to think about what settings I would need to put my camera at to achieve a given effect. I voraciously consumed pictures on Instagram (easy to do otherwise but I was doing it with the intent of trying to absorb styles, learn different compositions etc). Although I have a sense of how I want my shots to look, this aesthetic is still something that is changing and evolving with each season.

Part II: The Social Media Thing

There is a line in the Incredibles 2 movie which paraphrased is “Who has more power: the Creator or the Marketer?” Are there good photographers who don’t have an Instagram presence? Maybe, but the platform is a huge part of having potential clients find you. In many cases, people will treat Instagram like your portfolio so it’s important understand what they see as well as how to help people find your work.

Also, I have had several people lament to me that their accounts don’t look like the ones that they follow, with thousands or millions of subscribers. Having looked a lot at the content being posted on Instagram, dear Reader, you should know that most of the content from public accounts is being shot on expensive cameras and uploaded through phones, not captured using the mobile phone camera. In recent years especially, I feel like the bar on production quality has been raised so high but you do not need to go out and buy a camera just to be present on social media. So please do not feel bad or inadequate if your mobile photography does not look how you want. Your baby or lunch is still cute, even if you are not shooting on a hard-core full frame camera or drone.

A brief exchange with a photographer community:

I had followed this community page for Boston-area photographers, hoping that having a group of peers would push me to create better content. I applied in the early summer, thinking that I was just starting to get polished enough to be a contender but their feedback essentially was to keep posting more frequently on my page. The reasoning being that if you don’t, people are likely to unfollow you because people like seeing consistent content. The other main criteria is that members post New England-themed photos at least three time a week. If I was a full-time photographer, that might be more feasible. However, I worried I would be sacrificing quality for quantity and so I never reapplied. Although I decided not to pursue membership again, I think this was an important push in the right direction that made me realize that there was absolutely still room for improvement in terms of marketing my work.

So what exactly does it take to be “good” at Instagram?

You should take the following with a grain of salt-I am not that good with Instagram. Relative to other creators, I feel as though my growth in followers has been pretty slow. Mostly because growing a following hasn’t been my main goal but I can’t deny that it’s definitely a confidence boost when people do praise your work. But I’ve also seen “smaller” creators with amazing work and thoroughly underwhelming accounts with large followings. So for me personally, while it’s important to be savvy on the platform, doing so does not come before creating good content.

Example of photo that I really liked but that did not do so well on Instagram. I still like it though. (Boston Pride, June 2018).

I think “succeeding” on Instagram is something that requires a balance between technical skills and other softer skills. On the technical side, it’s important to know export settings to make sure photos aren’t compressed when you upload them. Additionally, if you are using Instagram as a “business account”, there are several built-in analytics you can use to your advantage to knowing when your audience is most engaged.

Some skills that I think take more finesse and experimentation are choosing your hashtags and essentially optimizing your exposure by playing around with the ever elusive algorithm. Knowing to comment back on your own posts is important both to build a base but to also boost the likelihood that Instagram will showcase your work. But there is no manual on how to get “Insta-famous” so everyone must go through the process of finding their niche.

I also wanted to speak a little bit about getting featured. My first featured post was for Boston.com of maple trees on our street. This is a huge ego boost and makes it feel like you are on the right track. However, it’s also true that once you are featured the first time, it is easier to get featured again by other accounts. Other feature accounts are likely following the one you are, so the exposure grows exponentially. And it’s also a bit of luck-a picture that you might not think is spectacular might be the One that everyone responds to. Each time this happens though, you have more information about what hashtags the featured account is using (from the re-post) to inform what you could be using.

The photo that launched a thousand likes

Although this has been a year of tremendous learning, I can’t deny that I am definitely still very much at the beginning of this journey. I currently still just have just the one lens and body, although I have been very generously gifted two tripods (a full-size one and a Gorrilla pod). My main goal for 2019 and beyond is to keep pushing and challenging myself. There were a couple times during the year where I felt myself stagnating or becoming formulaic and I think there will be many more times like that to come. I also haven’t really experimented with portraiture but that could be an interesting avenue to pursue. In terms of gear, I have been thinking about acquiring a new wider-angle lens since most of the time I find myself pressed up against buildings to try and get the shots of narrow Boston paths. On the social media front, while I do still want to keep polishing my work and posting Boston-centric photos, I definitely have relaxed since the days of only posting DSLR photos to my account and I think I want to allow myself to loosen up and just use it as another social media platform.

If you want a cheap/easy hobby, photography is not it. Camera gear can get really expensive. Despite using my camera a lot, I had sticker shock when I first bought it because even my thoroughly-vetted, good value combination was still almost as expensive as my rent. There can also be a steep learning curve with getting to know how to use the camera and if you don’t have the drive to push through that then you have just bought a very expensive shelf ornament. This is still a process for me, expert photographers have decade long careers and I am just finishing up one year. I am absolutely certain there is still so much to learn but I can’t wait to see what I’m shooting next year.

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