PHOTOGRAPHY

Getting Started with Photography

First, I want to tell you about how I got into this whole thing.

In high school, I was a creative kid. I borrowed my dad’s old film camera to take an intro photography class and I was hooked. I loved the feel of the camera in my hands, I loved being able to capture moments the way I saw them, I loved developing the film, I loved the darkroom. I loved the process. I loved that there wasn’t a right or wrong answer.

I got in to a university art & design program with my photography portfolio, but within my first semester at college, I changed my major to something else. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be good enough, that I wouldn’t be able to make a career out of it, that it wasn’t a “real job.” I let doubt get in the way, and as a result, I didn’t end up taking a single photography class in college. Do I wish I did? Um, yeah. Was it necessary for me to take specific photography classes in order to become a photographer? Well… you tell me.

The first thing to know about diving into this industry is that there isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. There isn’t a gear checklist or a step-by-step guide (though there are definitely some things I wish I knew). I’m willing to bet that getting into photography is one of the biggest questions I receive because it seems like a mysterious process. But those who have done it know it’s much simpler than it seems. You just have to pick up a camera and start.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE CAMERA… BUT GET A CAMERA.

If you want to get into photography, you need a camera. Duh. It doesn’t have to be fancy. My first camera was my dad’s Nikon F1. After that, I had a Canon Rebel XTI. Then came a series of Canon PowerShot and Lumix Active Lifestyle point-and-shoots. I didn’t own a smartphone of any kind until 2014, shortly after buying a GoPro Hero4 Silver. Then came an iPhone and finally my first Sony camera, a Sony a5100, which I used exclusively until earlier this year when I bought my Sony A7Rii, the best camera I’ve ever used.

I have only been getting paid for my photography since the Spring of 2016. It hasn’t been that long. Pretty incredible when you think about how short that timeline is, and that in the past year I’ve completed many gigs with just my a5100.

A good camera for starting out is whatever camera you have available to you. Find something in your budget, read reviews before you buy anything, and borrow someone else’s or rent first if you can. Use what you can within your resources. I don’t recommend splurging on a super expensive camera you don’t know how to use yet. One example is the new Sony A9– this is a fantastic camera, and lots of people asked if I was going to get one when it came out. My answer is no. The A9 has some awesome features, but it’s overkill for me unless I start shooting lots of action or wildlife (its main feature is high frames-per-second). I just don’t need to spend all that money for a feature I will rarely use.

In my opinion it is better to outgrow something and then upgrade when you know exactly what you want (and why). When I went to buy my first camera, I was tempted to go straight for the big guns I had heard about, but I am so glad I went with something less expensive because it allowed me to actually learn my preferences. Spending time practicing on my first camera helped me make my decision when it was time to throw down bigger bucks.

I get asked all the time what a good first camera would be. If you’re looking to get into a mirrorless system, I recommend the Sony a6000 with the kit lens (the lens it comes with). This camera is an excellent introduction to the Sony system and the small size is great for travel.

GO SHOOT (AND THEN SHOOT SOME MORE)

Go out with your camera and practice. If you are wanting to get paid to take photos eventually, your photos need to be good, and that comes from lots of practice! Not only does your work need to be good, you need to know how to operate your gear comfortably. You need to know how you change your settings quickly. You need to know how light works and how to position your models/clients/subject. You need to get comfortable interacting with your subject.

Develop your style. The way to do this is through a lot of trial and error. A lot of creating photos you don’t like. A lot of frustrating nights editing an impossible image and wanting to throw your computer against the wall.

If you want to do outdoor photography, get outdoors. Portraits? Take ’em of your pals. Weddings? Practice at the next one you go to. The only way you get better at this craft is through experience. So work hard, keep going, and practice your craft.

LEARN WHAT THE NUMBERS MEAN

The technical stuff is not the most important thing, but it is important. I am not above Googling super basic stuff. I didn’t even know what dynamic range was until a few months ago. There’s a lot of technical verbiage in the photography world and it’s actually not all that complicated once you understand the main principles. I and everyone else in the industry figured it out as we went, so please go do the same, and never be afraid to ask questions even if you think they’re stupid. Everyone has been there at some point.

A very brief crash course on numbers:

  • ISO: Basically, this is the level of sensitivity of your camera to light. Lower ISO = least sensitive to light = sharpest image. Higher ISO = more sensitive to light = more grain/noise. Typically you want to shoot at a lower ISO because it produces the sharpest image.
  • Aperture: A hole in your lens that light travels through (like the pupil in an eye). The larger the aperture, the more light can get in. Aperture is expressed in f-numbers, and a larger f-number means a smaller aperture. Confusing, but this is where practice matters. A larger aperture (smaller f-number) will give you more depth of field (i.e. the blurry background with the subject in focus), whereas a smaller aperture (larger f-number) will bring more things into focus. This is all about depth.
  • Shutter Speed: A measurement of time a camera’s shutter is open to allow light in (and therefore capture your image). A shorter shutter speed lets less light in, a longer one lets more light (and motion) in.

I guarantee you can find the answers to almost any photography question you have online. YouTube is one of my favorite resources for pretty much anything–– whatever your question is, someone, somewhere has probably explained it in video format. Bless you, Internet.

LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES EVERYWHERE


Say yes to the work that comes your way–– even if you’re doing it for the exposure and practice while you are getting things up and running. If you’re serious about this, you will eventually get to a point where you can’t work in exchange for exposure, but you’re not necessarily there yet, so step away from the high horse. There are mixed opinions about working for free, but if you are looking for experience and if it gets your work out there, I think it’s worth considering.

How do you start getting paid? Eventually, you start charging money for your services. You can start charging money today if you want to–– this is up to you. However, obviously there has to be demand. And how do you create demand? You get the word out. You put your work into the world. You do good work and people talk about it to their friends and family. You let absolutely everyone know that you are available for hire. You won’t know what to charge at first, and that’s OK. Try to find out what the going rates are. Ask around. Google it. And when all else fails, you can ask what their budget is before you even throw out a number and take it from there.

Know that when I say opportunity, I don’t just mean job opportunity. I also mean relationships, mentorships, and building your skill set. Identify people you look up to and watch what they do that makes them successful. Identify the people you hope to be surrounded by, and try to get yourself (and your best work) in the same room with them.

…AND PLEASE *TRY* NOT TO OVERTHINK IT

I know you will overthink things at some point, but please try not to think too hard about this. Spend your energy doing things instead of micro-managing yourself and getting stuck in loops of worry and doubt.

It will feel frustrating, and that’s a promise. It will feel like it’s taking forever. You will wonder if you are doing it right. WELCOME… This is the process. It’s not all glam. Photographers can make their lives seem really adventurous and easy on social media, and there is so much more to the story. You stay up late, you wake up early, you take more risks in your career than you ever thought you would. If you’re in it for the right reasons, it’s worth it.

A lot of my advice isn’t photography-specific–– it’s applicable to a lot of different professions, and to life in general. Work hard, consistently, for a long time, and if you don’t have a good Why behind it, find something else to do with your time that really fires you up.

Quality, consistency and passion will take you a long way. Welcome to the journey.


More specific photography questions? Let me know in the comments so I can write more blog posts like this.

13 Comments

  • Reply
    Derek
    September 10, 2017 at 9:55 am

    Thanks for all the advise and information you put up, it really does help a lot! You seem like a really awesome person, and it’s nice to see good people doing what they love. You’re doing a really great job by the way, and I hope you continue to have success in doing what you love. I’ve been a chef for the last twenty years, and after seeing your vlogs it inspired me to take two months off and go backpacking and camping throughout the PNW. It’s been the best two months of my life, so thank you for the inspiration. Keep it up, you’re making a difference in people’s lives.

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      September 29, 2017 at 2:06 am

      Thanks so much Derek! Truly so glad to hear that and honored to have provided any inspiration for your trip. Really wonderful.

  • Reply
    Monica
    September 10, 2017 at 10:30 am

    Erin- I simply am a fan! I love your writing style- as though we’re having a heart to ❤️ conversation! You inspire me to think there just may be something incredible for me just around the next adventure I say “yes” to! Thanks for sharing your pointers and your heartbreaks – I’m definitely listening!

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      September 29, 2017 at 2:07 am

      Hi Monica! Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. Great to hear.

  • Reply
    Lynn
    September 15, 2017 at 7:09 am

    Great post! I’ve found the cheap photography classes on CreativeLive to be super useful. I took one on just how to use my Nikon, because I didn’t really want to spend hours reading the thick manual. Another class is on night photography, which was very helpful.

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      September 29, 2017 at 2:11 am

      Thanks Lynn! That’s awesome, will have to check it out.

  • Reply
    Sonya
    October 24, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Hi Erin! I have a question about you camera choices. Why you use Sony vs a standard DSLR? I know you started using a Sony when you were traveling, but what was the choice to keep doing that? I own a DSLR and have no plans to change that right now ($$$) but I was wondering about your thoughts on professional photography using a DSLR vs a mirrorless Sony. Thanks! <3

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      November 4, 2017 at 9:56 pm

      Thanks for the great question Sonya! So fist and foremost this was a size thing for me. I had been using a friend’s DSLR and was looking to buy a camera for myself, and was deciding between Canon and Sony. I ultimately went with Sony because I had heard great things from friends, and it was smaller for traveling/backpacking. I then decided to stick with the Sony system because I was quite happy with the sharpness of the images and video quality. Back then I wasn’t working as a photographer, but now that I am, it would take a lot for me to switch back to a DSLR system, especially as Sony comes out with more and more lenses and cameras that are improving on the previous versions. I think it all boils down to personal preference–– I know many folks who shoot Canon/Nikon and do amazing work. You just want something that helps you achieve the content you are wanting to create. I think renting can be a great option to have an opportunity to play with a few different cameras before making a huge investment.

  • Reply
    Christina
    October 24, 2017 at 7:57 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing your advice, Erin! Do you have any suggestions on a computer? I’m thinking a MacBook Pro since I want to get Lightroom and start learning that, but not sure what specs to choose (RAM, Processor speed, storage, etc.) What do you have on yours? Also, do you have any tips on photo organization/storage? I have over 4000 photos on my phone right now just from this year and have so much trouble organizing them and backing them up ‍♀️

    Thank you!

    Christina

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      November 4, 2017 at 10:00 pm

      Hey Christina! I am currently using a MacBook Pro 15in–– nothing special with the specs. I store everything externally on hard drives with 2-3 backups that are then stored in different locations. I try to avoid storing anything on my laptop’s hard drive if I can avoid it, just because it slows things down. If I do store anything on the hard drive I will make sure to transfer it to an external drive as soon as I’m done with it. I do want to note that you don’t need a MacBook to use Lightroom–– there are PC versions of the Adobe CS programs and I know folks who do great work on their non-Apple products! Hope that helps.

  • Reply
    Elaine
    November 2, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you for this Erin! I’m curious–can you share links to some of the YouTube tutorials or other resources you’ve used to learn? Also, I’d love to know where you look for inspiration. Are there other photogs you admire?

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      November 4, 2017 at 10:04 pm

      Hey Elaine! Much of my YouTube-ing was just a result of Googling things when I get stuck, so I don’t have any specific videos for you to check out, but I am planning on launching resources in the next year for you and anyone else who wants to learn more :) A few photographers I admire: Colby Brown (I do some work with him – he does quite a bit of photo education if you check out his site), Cristina Mittermeier, Paul Nicklen, Chris Burkard, Thomas Peschak, Ami Vitale just to name a few!

      • Reply
        Elaine
        November 8, 2017 at 12:26 pm

        That’s great! I’m so excited to check out those resources. Thanks for sharing some other photographers you admire–can’t wait to check them out. Much love from Seattle!

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