How I Became a Photographer with No Formal Training
Curious about how I became a photographer with no formal training? In this post I break down how years of loving taking photographs and creating connections turned into a career.
Is it Called a Calling if You’re 7 Years Old?
I was given my first camera when I was really young by my aunt and uncle. To be honest I have no idea how old I was but it’s nice to pick an age. So let’s say I was seven. The camera was a little point and shoot that needed four double A batteries. I loved it. I immediately thought I could take amazing photos.
When I was about to turn 14 I decided to buy a digital point and shoot. I got a Sony Cybershot with my own money (a hefty purchase at that point) and I loved that camera too. I vividly remember discussing the mechanics of a camera with my dad in the car on the way to pick it up. My dad was so supportive. I remember explaining to him that, “I couldn’t help but see the world as if everything were a photo”. Wow. I was a cheesy kid. Anyhow I bought the Sony and I thought I could take even MORE amazing photos.
On my 15th birthday – a whole year of obsessively taking photos later – I was given an Olympus Rangefinder. A traditional film camera – fully manual. So I had to learn all the manual settings and try to pick up the skills as quickly as possible (because film was EXPENSIVE). I still thought I could take pretty amazing photos.
Well. They weren’t awful.
4H is Not Just for Farmers
A big shift in the way I viewed photography was when I joined a local 4H club in the Photography Project. 4H is a non profit organization run across 70 countries around the world that looks to encourage positive youth development. You can do public speaking, community service, and most of the time you have a farm animal. But you can also do photography – which is of course what I did. I learned a lot – we had local speakers come in and talk to us. We had homework and did lots of photo adventures in neat places. At this point I was also working at the local library – feverishly reading every single book about photography, composition, portraiture, and lighting that I could find.
Through my three or so years with 4H I became a much better public speaker, I developed friendships, but most of all it really showed me how much I loved photography. I became more and more confident in my skills and eventually I even lead workshops for younger members. Building confidence and learning from local experts gave me skills, assuredness, and connections I would use in the future.
Taking Every Opportunity
If you have something you really love and you want to become good at it – take every opportunity you can to be around people who are good at that thing. I started using the connections I had made with 4H speakers and local photographers to do job shadowing. Mostly that means going on a photo/video shoot and holding the light bounce/moving lights around/watching the photographer do their job. Although job shadowing wasn’t my favourite thing, it definitely showed me the less glamorous parts of the job and even then I was still infatuated. I loved the interaction with people, the creativity, the mix of casual and professional environment. I Loved it all.
A Twist in the Road
By the time I made it to University (I was 17, I had a nicer camera, and I had been doing some family portraits for family friends for a couple years) I knew what I was doing behind the lens. I was attending University to become a teacher so I could travel the world teaching English. But when I was walking through clubs day and saw The Martlet, the University Newspaper, was hiring a Photographer, I thought it would be a fun part time job.
It took a moment of bravery to walk up to that table and ask how to apply. But I did, and I worked at The Martlet for three wonderful years. It was my second home while I finished my degree – that office is where I made friends, ate pizza, studied, taught photojournalism workshops, wrote my first articles, and decided to pursue a career in photography instead of teaching. There are certain moments in our lives that alter our path forever. Walking up to that table at Clubs Day in 2016 was one of those moments. And I will forever be thankful for the way that part time job shaped me as a human and my career path.
We all get Lucky Sometimes
I think it’s important to acknowledge the luck that went into this journey. I was lucky for my 4H Club, lucky my dad had many local photographer friends that I could job shadow in high school, but my luckiest break in my photography career was in 2018 when I started working for a local magazine publishing company. I knew their Director of Photography, he asked me to do a few event photoshoots as a kind of “trial” and I ended up working in their photography, marketing, distribution, event, and production departments for almost two years. I loved that job and I was so blessed to have that connection and have the chance to work with such an amazing, creative team.
Hard work is important. Consistency is important. Creating connections and not being afraid to use them is important. But so is some good old fashioned lucky timing. But while I am on the topic – it’s good to point out that although luck is valuable – it doesn’t just happen. If you open yourself up to opportunities and work hard in the direction of your goal, you are more likely to have that luck come your way.
Paying for a Bad Website
In terms of my own freelance career. Let’s just say I that for a long time I was paying for a very bad website. After four years of owning bellewhite.ca and three complete redesigns of my site and brand, I finally have a website that I love and a brand that really feels and looks like me. But even though I spent a lot of time and money creating this site – which for a long time was very ugly and didn’t work well for my business – I still think it was worth it. I made plenty of mistakes on those early websites but I think you have to go through those crappy versions before you learn how to create something good.
It’s like everything in business, I had to price low to start, build up a body of work, raise my prices, try different editing styles, find the one I liked. Raise my prices again after more and more experience. Talk to a LOT of people. Self-promote. Print business cards. Remember to give them out. It was a lot of steps and it felt overwhelming – still does sometimes. But looking back on how far I have come really helps on those days when I think of how far I still have to go.
Not Even Halfway
In summary, I started out as a young kid obsessed with taking photos. I’m not sure you could call it a calling exactly, but I feel like I just knew that creating special moments and capturing them on camera felt right. I read every book I could find. Learned the mechanics. Job shadowed whoever would let me. Took a few lucky turns. Made use of contacts. Grabbed opportunities presented. Paid for some very rookie websites. Built a portfolio. Saw my work in print. Captured beautiful moments for clients. And honestly. I’m not even halfway to where I want to be. That’s the thing I’ve learned about dreams. They don’t really stop – they just build and grow and get better and better.
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