Can you talk about your transition from being a passionate enthusiast to becoming a pro photographer?
You bet! Ever since I was a little bambino I dreamed of being a photographer. My grandpa gave me my first camera at the age of 2 and it changed the course of my life. Uhhhh, not! But that’s what you’re supposed to say, right? Too bad it’s a total lie in my case. When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. Heck, I didn’t even know I liked photography until years after I had collected my bachelor’s degree in, of all things, aerospace engineering (I mean, I really wanted to be an astronaut). I even worked as a satellite designer for Boeing for awhile, thinking that’s where my future lay.
It was during my tenure at Boeing that I got my first DSLR almost as an afterthought just before a month-long vacation to Alaska. Before and during the trip I made the classic beginner’s assumption that since I had an amazing camera (a Nikon D50, watch out!) and was going to an amazing place, I would automatically take amazing photos. Nat Geo was going to be interested in these shots, fo’ sho. And during the trip things went well, though I had no idea what I was doing. Twiddling aperture and shutter speed this way and that, shooting from the hip, almost never using a tripod (gasp!). And I have to say, those photos looked flippin’ baller. Or, at least they did on the tiny little screen of my camera.
Once I got home though the truth of the matter came to light. I looked at the photos on my computer monitor and discovered with a sick, sinking feeling that they all SUCKED, with a capital UCKED. But this was an important moment, because it signified a shift in my thinking when photography transitioned from simply something fun to do while traveling, to a Problem To Be Solved. This is what engineers are trained to do: solve problems. And my photos not living up to my expectations? Well, now that was a big problem.
So I dove into the world of nature photography with both feet (is it still a dive if you go in feet first?). I devoured articles on not only what aperture is but why you would bother to choose one f-stop over another. I read about the emotional as well as technical implications of different shutter speeds. I learned how to spot meter, shoot in raw, and even the most important thing of all: how to remove the lens cap. I also found photographers I admired and studied their works, analyzing composition and lighting. How they placed the elements of their photos, what times of day and in what conditions were they shooting, what worked about their photos, and what didn’t.
And you know what happened? My photos started getting better, a lot better. Which made seeking out and taking pictures a heckuva lot more fun and satisfying. It soon became my all-encompassing hobby. And many many days after work (and weekends) were spent out crashing around Southern California looking for the best spots to take the best photos I could.
After about two years of this a few chance encounters led to me earning my first few dollars as a photographer. This was early 2008. First, I made some prints of my best shots to date and took them down to a local painter whose work I admired. I simply wanted some feedback from a professional visual artist, to see if he could offer advice about composition or treatment. To my surprise he thought the shots were good enough that he suggested I enter the Hermosa Beach Art Walk (or maybe as chair of the Art Walk he just wanted my $75 entry fee, hmmm….). He even gave me suggestions of how to create a booth and framed pieces for the fair. So I entered and sold about $700 worth of prints in that one day show. I was absolutely floored!
Around the same time I had entered a photo competition in my home town and after the judging was complete I received two phone calls from the jurors. First they told me to come pick up two of the four pieces I entered which weren’t accepted. Then they hung up. Oh. The next day the jury called back and let me know I’d won first place in the contest. Ha! Fast forward a couple of months and during the awards ceremony I made a connection that led to me assisting on my very first photo workshop. Of course, by “assist” all I really did was make sure no one wandered off and got lost, but hey, I was still earning money (a tiny amount) by leading (shepherding) photographers on a photo workshop. This was the big leagues, man!
Meanwhile I continued to while away the days as an engineer. That is until the housing crisis struck the US economy and Boeing went about laying off thousands of workers. So with visions of all this new photography coin rattling around in my brain I started deliberately writing bad code into our software. And when satellites began blowing up left and right the company traced it back to me and laid me off…..Kidding! In reality I simply went to my bosses, told them I wanted a chance to try making it as a full time photographer, and off I went.
That was the second fateful -yet totally naive- decision of my photo career. I had no idea what it took to run a business (arguably I still don’t), how to attract clients, create and maintain income streams, and constantly fight off the surges of self doubt and utter bewilderment that made me want to scurry back to the safe confines of my Boeing cubicle. And yet, running headlong into building a photo business gave me a crash course in Eking Out a Living 101. At the same time it was another Problem To Be Solved, though orders of magnitude bigger, tougher, and more complicated than simply learning how to use my camera.
I spent the next four years attending art festivals, assisting on workshops, working side jobs (even went back to engineering as a consultant for about half a year), racking up tons of credit card debt, collecting unemployment (thanks, Obama), and even co-founding a workshop company with Jim Patterson, a friend and fellow landscape photographer. And all the while I continued to build diverse income streams from teaching to print sales to licensing to photo contests to recording and selling video tutorials. And eventually, in 2012, I was able to earn 100% of my income from photo-related activities. Damn, did that feel good!
So you can see that it was not like flipping a switch from enthusiast to pro. It was a long, hard, gradual slog that eventually started paying off. And I have to say, the process continues, and it’s not like I can simply stop and say “phew, now I’ve made it and I’m done!” Every day is about continuing to shoot and share the best photos I can, to seek out new business ideas, opportunities, and partnerships, and to trust that even though nothing about this business is consistent, there’s always another opportunity on the horizon.