An Open Letter to Those Who Received Cameras for Christmas ~ Wisconsin Photographer

Dear New Camera Owner,

Hey! 

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah....the Holidays are upon us! Eeeeeep! 

Let me take you back. Way back. To Christmas 2007. I was working as an Insurance Contract Negotiator (I'll let you soak in how exciting that sounds)....I was also in college, 2 years from graduating with a degree in Sociology. I had a 5 month old Betty Baby and we lived in a teensy weensy house in Milwaukee. 

I owned a point-n-shoot camera that was pretty crap at taking pictures of my baby girl. Or really anything else that wasn't stationary. But, I wasn't terribly concerned with it.

I wasn't a photographer.
I, honestly, had no interest in photography. 

Christmas Eve I opened a box that, unbeknownst to me, contained a future radically different from the present I was living. 

A Nikon D40X

I took my first picture with it about 20 minutes after opening the box. I had no clue how to even turn the thing on.

Truth be told, I'm pretty sure it was one of those presents my husband secretly just wanted for himself ;) 

Here it is, in all its glory...the first and second shot:
 

Clearly....I was on my way to greatness.

I didn't take to the gift right away. I was working on other things. I was busy negotiating contracts and doing homework and taking care of my kiddo. 

Here and there I would bust out the "big guns" and take "nice pictures" of the baby. But, that was about it. The thing intimidated me. I knew jack nothing about exposure, shutter speed, aperture or ISO. All I knew was "AUTO" and snap.

Then, April of 2008 I lost my job.

I was unceremoniously fired. Canned. Kaput. I came home, sat on my couch and wondered "Ok, now what"? 

I had no degree and my skill set included arguing with Medicare over benefits and, apparently, pissing off my boss. Not exactly marketable skills. Plus, I was growing weary of sticking my kid in daycare and making minor pennies in a job that was completely thankless, among other negatives.  

While I sat home and ruminated over what to do next with myself, I decided to fill in my newly found "free time" with the camera I had received. I started practicing. I started experimenting with the manual settings. I made a CRAP. TON. of mistakes. But, I realized the more I shot the more I really enjoyed it. I read "Understanding Exposure" and felt like I was learning a new language. My husband took me to a tent sale at Art's Camera Plus in Milwaukee and I was so intimidated by the salespeople that I couldn't even bring myself to speak to them.

But, I kept at it. Everything I shot went on Facebook. Just for my own enjoyment, really. You see, I had NO. IDEA. that "wedding and portrait" photography was such a prolific business. I didn't know any photographers outside of the guy who took my senior pictures and a girl from high school who took pictures of babies. 

Had I really known there were about 4000 people in Wisconsin with the title "Photographer" I would have probably thought twice about my next move.
 

What happened was, people started seeing the pictures I was shooting of Betty and asking me to come take pictures of THEIR kids. Why the hell not, I said. Not like I had a job to go to. 

Those few free shoots turned into people I didn't KNOW asking for me to come shoot. They asked me what they could pay me.

No idea.  

It all started there. I realized if I worked this right, I could actually make money. How much? Uhhhh....good question.

I started researching, meeting other photographers. In 2009 I booked 27 weddings (I KNOW. Holy crap.). In 2010 I booked 32. To say it all snowballed would be an understatement.

So here I am, nearly 9 years later.....and I would have done it all again, because I have the best job in the world. But I probably would have done some things a heck of lot different. 

 

YOU JUST GOT A CAMERA FOR CHRISTMAS, NOT A BUSINESS

Don't confuse the two, seriously. A hammer is not a construction business. A sewing machine does not make one a seamstress. You are going to be completely blown away by what your new gift can do once you start messing with it. It's going to trick you into thinking this is an easy peasy way to make some cash.

It's not.

YOUR FRIENDS ARE GOING TO TELL YOU YOU'RE AMAZING. YOU'RE PROBABLY NOT.

Now, I don't say that to be cruel. The word amazing is thrown around on Facebook SO often, someone should figure out how to copywrite it and monetize that shizz. Because whoa. You're going to start posting some random, in-focus pictures of your kid's eyeball, your dog sleeping or a macro of a snowflake and people are going to say "That's amazing. You should be a professional"

Trust me. They will. They said it to me. Someone said it, at some point, to every friend of mine who does this for a living.

They're not lying, exactly. They're friends. They're being nice. Supportive of your new hobby. 

But, you're not amazing.
Not yet. 
Don't get ahead of yourself.
I'm not amazing and I've been at this for nearly a decade. 
Amazing people are out doing truly amazing things and shooting pictures some of us could only dream of crafting. They are special. Unique. And rare.

Don't let that word worm its way into your head and your ego.

BE SMART BEFORE YOU START

I say, looking back, to keep that Christmas gift with you at all times for 6 months. Document. Observe. Play. If after 6 months you're not completely sick of people asking "Hey, can you bring your camera to the next family gathering?" you may have something there.

But slow and steady wins the race. I wasn't slow and steady. I was unemployed, so I was quick and dirty. I took any "job" that I was approached with because I needed to freaking feed and diaper my kid.

So, I never 2nd shot until YEARS after I started. I didn't take ANY workshops until several years into my job (because those things cost money).

Someone asked me to shoot their wedding and I said "Why the heck not"! 

I didn't really reflect on what the consequences could be if I completely SUCKED at weddings. I figured "Can't be that hard". I looked up other wedding photography online and I showed up with my little D40x and a D90 I had purchased used by that time and my one external flash and I made that work.

Be ye not so stupid. It just HAPPENED to work for me. By the grace of the photography gods.

If I could do it all over again, and the cards had been laid out differently, I would have second shot my patootie off. It's the only way to really immerse yourself in the world of wedding photography without taking on the huge liability of screwing up someone's big day.

My First Wedding EVER. Really, I look back and see the potential. I also see every error I made! But I cared DEEPLY about doing a good job for these folks. I knew it was a make it or break it situation. And in the end, I had happy clients....and so it began.....

My First Wedding EVER. Really, I look back and see the potential. I also see every error I made! But I cared DEEPLY about doing a good job for these folks. I knew it was a make it or break it situation. And in the end, I had happy clients....and so it began.....

IF YOU DON'T HAVE A HEAD FOR BUSINESS, DON'T GO INTO BUSINESS

Here's the thing, not everyone is meant to be a self-employed person. It's ROUGH. It's also wonderful. But ROUGH. It takes a certain fortitude with a dash of complete madness to want to basically live by the seat of your pants year after year.

If you completely SUCK at any business task, don't take this on as a business. Just ENJOY photography. Because, really, shooting actual pictures is what I do the LEAST of. Most of my day is administrative type stuff, talking to clients, editing, ordering, blogging, marketing, and hustling new work leads. 

Because if you don't at least somewhat enjoy and gain a bit of knowledge on the business end, it will end up DESTROYING your love for the creative end. You'll gain a cold, steely, cynical heart and stop wanting to even pick up your camera. And you will lose your butt financially if you can't figure out how to charge a living wage for yourself. Trust me, I've seen it happen.

The only thing that really keeps me going year after year is I'm a nerd for the business end. I revel in spreadsheets and tax time and trying out new marketing ideas. I really do love that part as much as the creative side. 

DON'T LET THE GRUMPY ASSES GET YOU DOWN

Here's the thing. I can be a grumpy ass. I think you do this long enough we ALL can....even if it's just in the cold, shadowy reaches of our offices as we edit our 10,000th image that day. We'll hop on Facebook and see some "newbie" who just rattled off some out-of-focus, over-exposed travesties for a family for the low low cost of $50 and a disc and are getting praised up the ying-yang for their efforts. 

And we sit back and go "BLEEECCHHHHH.....really?"  Admit it. We ALL FREAKING DO IT. If you're saying you have never scratched your head in amazement at some pee-stained garbage on Facebook and wondered what the hell people are paying that person ANYTHING for.....then, I'm going to call shenanigans. We are all jerks sometimes.

And we all seem to forget our own pee-stained atrocities rather quickly.

HOWEVER....I have found that through supporting others in the field, sharing information, and asking questions myself....it really does improve the industry as a whole. You have to respectfully enter the industry and LOVE the industry. Don't expect to stand on the shoulders of those who came before and blazed trails for you and then crap all over their work and ideals.

You are ALWAYS going to have your outlying crabby asses. Your outlying rogue photographers who don't really WANT to participate in the industry. Again. Human nature.

But, you find your base. The folks you work among....and they can be the most supportive, helpful, and wonderful people in the world. 

A rising tide, folks. It lifts ALL ships. Even the shitty ships with the bad paint job and the really mean captain who have no business on the sea. 

I kid. I kid. ;) 

THE HARD IS WHAT MAKES IT GREAT

You hold in your hand a shiny new tool. A tool that can elevate your snapshots to less-crappy-snapshots in a pretty short time. A tool that will do some thinking for you. A tool that if not taken on with reverence and contemplation, can drain your bank account and lead to stupid decisions.

Photography is absolutely incredible. Even now sometimes I click that shutter and I look at what I froze in time and I'm just dumbfounded that I caught what I did. It's a lot of luck. It's a lot of knowing how stories are going to unfold. It's a lot of repetitive work. And you have to love it. The loving it is what keeps me gone every weekend from March to November. It's hard. It's hard on the family. It's hard on my body. It's hard on the gear. But, the hard of it is what makes it so great. 

I've tried other things. I don't want to do anything else. Not at this point in my life.

So welcome, new camera owner. Welcome to your newest obsession....welcome to a new WORLD. New people, new friends, new ideas. It's all out there....and there are a lot of us, yes....but if you're willing to scratch and claw and barrel your way in with YOUR vision and YOUR voice....there's room for you at the table. (Though, you may have to sit at the kids table until you learn to stop fashion-tilting everything like it's going outta style. Because newsflash there, Demarchelier, it's gone and not coming back).  

A Christmas present changed my life 8 years ago. 

The husband is never gonna let me live that down. :) 

Love, 

Amanda :)