I had several bouts of photographing as a kid, and had my first show in the lunchroom of the University School of Milwaukee (despite the confusing name, a prep school). But I didn't really become a photographer until 1980, when I was 23. That was 31 years ago.
Yesterday I was asked what I'd do if I were 23 and just starting out now.
That's impossible to answer, because I'm being asked to assume the perspective of a 23-year-old with 31 years of experience. If I were actually 23 right now I'd be a bright idiot just like I actually was when I was 23, who believed time was limitless and success was destiny, and I'd have to grope around and try all sorts of things and learn things slowly and painfully and suffer setbacks and inconstancy and see my ambitions go up and down like a yo-yo. And, just like then, I'd have to somehow get by—how to earn a living along the way is a big part of the puzzle.
But here's the answer I'd give now. First, I'd buy two identical, common, and not-too-precious camera bodies—either entry-level or mid-level APS-C DSLRs. The brand doesn't matter, but I'd put considerable effort into holding the available options in my hands. I'd get whatever seemed most comfortable to me.
Not too precious, because my intention would be to not baby them, and not worry too much if they got wet or hurt or stolen. I'd intend to use 'em up. If one broke, I'd use the other one while I sent the broken one in for servicing; if one got lost or stolen or ruined, I'd replace it with another one just like it.
I'd get two lenses, a moderate wide and a moderate telephoto. Small and portable.
I'd only allow myself to shop for cameras once every five years. And I'd give myself some clearly delineated time period to complete the shopping even then—say, three months. Shop, then stop. The stopping of shopping is the hardest thing for photographers to do.
Next, I'd make sure I had a good monitor, and a way to calibrate it (that's just the one I actually use; there are a number of others). Photographers are visual people; we need to see what we're doing. Not just some crappy half-assed simulacrum of it.
I'd get a copy of whatever the standard, common processing software is, probably Lightroom 3. Add a small handful of plugins as needed—emphasis on as needed.
I'd definitely, absolutely, unquestionably get a printer—any 13" pigment-ink model. I'd start printing from day one. I'd spend all my money on ink and paper. What else do you need?
And then I'd get down to the real work.
And what's the real work? Well, there are two parts to it. One is to hone your craft. Learn how to shoot, learn how to expose, learn how to print. Learn the cameras, get to know the lenses, master the software, learn to keep the printer "on song," strive always to make better and better prints. If I were 23, I'd have a lot of energy, so I'd print every day. I'd show only the very best ones, and every few months I'd go back and print one of the best of my old files just to see if I could do it any better. I'd learn to shoot more than I thought I needed to and edit much more ruthlessly.
We're talking about me here, and I'd definitely practice photography and not "digital imaging"—that is, I'd make pictures that respected the lens image, that were intended to be true to the world, to reality. Whatever Photoshop skills I learned would be in the service of that principle.
I'd work hard at staying organized and keeping to a very practical workflow.
The other part of mastery is learning what kind of pictures you like to look at, figuring out what you care about, gaining access to whatever your subject is, learning how pictures function. The how is always so much easier to grab hold of than the what. You've got to make it all about the pictures, all about the pictures.
I'd never get distracted looking for a magic bullet. The name for that is "insecurity."
And one last thing: I'd both commit to being a photographer as a serious avocation—one I could dedicate myself to, one I was willing to sacrifice for—but I'd also make sure I did something else for a living. No offense to anyone (god knows...I mean, look at me—I blog for a living. Far be it from me to criticize anyone else for how they turn a buck). But I'd want to stay free, above all else.
I'd do my level best to be true to myself. I'd take myself seriously. I don't mean in the sense of being humorless or self-important; I mean I'd believe in myself. That's a really hard thing for most people to do. If 23-year-old me knew how hard that part was going to be, I might be doing something entirely different with my life by now.
Of course, there's no such thing as a 23-year-old with 31 years of experience. Too bad about that.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Craig Norris: "Nice piece, Mike. It reminds me of a Frank & Ernest comic strip I saw once. It showed two old guys on a park bench and one says: 'I wish I knew now what I thought I knew twenty years ago.'"
Featured Comment by yunfat: "Sound advice Mike, unless of course you believe DSLR's will go the way of the Dodo in less than 5 years....[big snip, of a long discussion of camera technology...you can read yunfat's entire comment in the Comments section —Ed.]
Mike replies: See how dangerous that is? The long version of your comment is all part of what I'm calling "shopping." You're making your analysis of camera technology into your hobby, and making it into the focus of your expertise. I eventually did the same (the worst "shoppers" become "reviewers") but that's not photography. It's photo-tech. It's true that I wanted to be a writer more than I wanted to be a photographer, and today I am a writer of sorts, so maybe I should let myself off the hook. But I'm suggesting that, assuming I wanted to be a photographer, I would have been better off concentrating on taking pictures and making prints rather than becoming an opinion-expert on imaging technology and the camera industry.
What I said, what I'm saying, very deliberately, is that I'd buy two T3i's (or whatever) and forget about camera technology for five years. I'd be fine in those five years. I'd get to shop again, and when that time came I'd know I could wallow in photo-tech all I wanted. Until then, you should use what you bought.
And, incidentally, I'm speaking from actual experience. I tend to be obsessive, especially under stress, and I did make my living for a lot of years writing for magazines, which meant I had to keep current with photo-tech issues. Right after my son was born, I was the single parent of an infant, had moved to a new city, didn't have a job, didn't have many friends, was suffering serious sleep deprivation, serious money worries, etc., etc. Talk about stress. I found my obsessiveness getting out of control. So, as a "cure," I chose one camera, two lenses, and one film, and decided, willfully, to "stop shopping" for three years. The "three years" ended up lasting for four and a half, and I did some of my best work in that four-and-a-half-year period...and was the happiest I've ever been with my photography avocation. So I'm not making that advice lightly; it's something I've actually lived.
Featured Comment by Marc Rochkind: "Recalling your "Leica for a year" idea from a while back, I expected this post to suggest film. Has anything changed in your thinking?"
Mike replies: The two do seem contradictory. Maybe they are. I'll weasel and wiggle a little with Whitman's lines from Leaves of Grass, a book no one now ever reads outside of the classroom but that everyone knows of and quotes from:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
It's not actually that grand, though. I'd say the "Leica Year" is properly part of one's education, not part of "getting started" on an ongoing life as a photographer. Does that work—will you let me off with that distinction? It's a little specious, I know.
Featured Comment by Preston Earle: "Mike, can you speak to the difference in prime vs. zoom lenses? With your recommended moderate wide and moderate telephoto (I presume both are primes), it's going to be hard to 'fill the frame' on lots of shots. Do you think modern hi-res (large pixel count) cameras have made it less important to photograph the scene with the full image and allow more cropping? It seems like there is a lot of range between moderate wide (35mm-e?) and moderate telephoto (135mm-e?)."
Mike replies: I don't generally like zooms (see "The Case Against Zooms")—in fact I'm a bit notorious for it—because you don't learn a focal length with them, and learning how the lens sees is an important part of training the eye/mind IMHO. But do what you want—I'm only saying what I would do, not what anyone else should. What's right for me would surely be wrong for someone else. In any event, the more important takeaway from my advice is that the equipment doesn't really matter. Choose wisely, yes; get what you want, yes; but then move on and stop worrying about where the green of the grass might possibly be one or two points more saturated. In fact for this post I almost said I'd get a D700, 5D Mark II, or A900 (for the nice big full-frame viewfinders—the better to see you with, my dear—that bit about photographers being visual people again). Just...keep it simple, keep it basic, and work on mastering what you have.
Featured Comment by Tom Kwas: "The most important thing you've mentioned here Mike, is to practice photography as an avocation, not a career.
"I almost wrote a 90-page diatribe on why it isn't feasible to make photography a career, but figured no one would read it and it would just make me more angry. But, regardless of all the digital/analog quality/craft arguments, digital has truly changed almost all factors associated with trying to eke out a living in imaging. Digital has made it far easier for a person with a decent 'eye' to deliver a far more technically acceptable image to professional users, with less education and practice.
"This, coupled with the inability of untrained and marginally trained end-users to recognize, much less demand, the in-camera quality of an educated professional photographer, has done more to accelerate the end of the professional photography career than almost any other single change in the industry.
"The disappearance of the small photography job, which most professionals and studios relied on to keep their doors open in smaller markets, ceded to the casual shooter who does not charge the needed rate to cover liability insurance, equipment replacement and repair, health insurance, and all other aspects of professional business overhead; while the casual shooter depends on their 'real' job and usually their spouse to fill in these needed expenses, has sounded the death knell for people seriously considering photography as a career.
"Love photography, shoot pictures to your hearts content, do a few small jobs to massage your ego; but avoid spending 40–80 thousand dollars on a college photographic education, and the years of little financial reward and long work hours annoying and avoiding your family, to try and become professional in a field that doesn't respect or pay for the experience and knowledge."