Sunday, August 28, 2011


Everyone needs a role model - someone to look up to, to admire and to aspire towards. For some people these role models are celebrities, for others they are close family members. As photographers we should really have some of both. We should follow the work of famed photographers and see how it is done. However, to really see how photographers work, you need to follow one closely - closer than you could follow a famous photographer from halfway across the world. You need someone to go to shoots with, to watch in action, to get advice from in a close and personal rather than an informal way. What you need, I would say, is a mentor.

Please note that this is all based on my own ideas and opinions, and there is no guarantee that any of it will work. Please also note that this is not the way to go about finding an apprenticeship or becoming an assistant to a photographer. This is merely to find a mentor who you can turn to when you have questions and who you can learn from. Finding

I have had two kinds of "mentors". One was a friend, and I use this term broadly since we only met once and do not know each other particularly well, who I met in Korea. He was studying photography at the time and was as close to an expert as I could find. Whenever I had a question, I turned to him, and he was happy to help. But I do not consider our relationship to be close and personal and I was never able to follow him on the job, so I do not consider him to be one of my serious mentors. I merely think that he helped me stand on my own two feet and get my photography off the ground.

I met my second mentor by pure coincidence. A friend had asked me to take some shots at an event that the University was holding, and they had asked him to take some videos. Paul Mills is a professional cameraman, and has been one for most of his life. Though he is now technically retired, he still takes on projects on the side, and in his spare time he does photography with his Canon 7D. He bumped into me early in the morning and we got onto discussing cameras and lenses, and he let me borrow one of his. From then on a friendship was formed based on photography, and this friendship quickly grew into a mentorship as he began to offer me advice, to let me borrow and test lenses, to critique my photos when asked and to be there for me, night and day, whenever I had a question that needed answering. Paul Mills has become my photography hero!

Finding your own photography hero may not be quite as easy. I found mine by pure coincidence, but it often takes a lot of work and a lot of putting yourself out there and taking the chance of being turned down. Many photographers do not have the time or the patience to take on mentoring or apprenticeships, while others may appreciate the attention or find it flattering, particularly if they are on the cusp of professionalism themselves.

I would recommend attending photography workshops or classes and starting to associate yourself with photographers. Photographers who are involved in these kinds of workshops usually do so because they enjoy teaching and helping others with their photography. It will immediately put you in touch with photographers who you know want to help, and could become possible mentors. Become a part of your local community and make it obvious that you are a beginner photographer who has questions and is willing to listen to constructive criticism.

In terms of approaching the photographers themselves, I would recommend approaching them on a one-to-one basis, being friendly and open and starting out slowly. Do not immediately jump in and say "I want you to mentor me." Do this and you are unlikely to find many photographers jumping at the opportunity. Think about the friendships that you have formed in the past. Did you jump in upon meeting the person and say "I want to be your friend." Of course not. You got to know each other first and the friendship developed because you discovered things that you have in common. In terms of looking for a mentor, you already know that you have one thing in common - photography - but you need to test the waters first, make sure that your personalities are compatible. I can imagine nothing worse than ending up with a mentor with a short temper, or one who I butt heads with when it comes to what we look for when we take photographs. You need to find someone you get along with. Ask if you could perhaps discuss photography over a cup of coffee, on you. That way you will get to know each other and see if it is a good fit before jumping into the deep end and ending up with a mentor that you do not respect or appreciate, or who does not respect or appreciate you.

I would also highly recommend building a portfolio before you approach anyone, as a number of photographers will expect you to have one. Even if it isn't expected, it looks a lot more professional to approach a photographer with something to show them rather than approaching them with just a question or idea in mind. Imagine having someone who doesn't know you walk up to you and say "I need help with my photography. Can you help?" Sure, you can help. But what is it that they need help with? Is it their technique? Is it their eye? Is it merely that they need to gain some experience and confidence? You can't tell unless they give you something to work with.

Building your portfolio is going to be the subject of my next post, so please check back later in the week to learn more on how to go about building a professional portfolio.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Community Values

This saying is no less true in photography than anywhere else in life. The photographic community is one of the biggest assets that a blossoming photographer can find. From feedback to support and inspiration, a photographer starting out in the business can learn a lot by participating in the photographic community.

There are a number of ways to get involved in the community, and how you get involved will depend on a number of factors. For example, the first thing that many blogs recommend that beginner photographers do is to find a photography club to join in their area. Now, I am in Grahamstown, and as far as I am aware, there is no photography club in my area. There also seem to be fewer of these clubs in South Africa than there are in cities in America, though in the bigger cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg you are likely to find something -there just might not be too much choice in which club you can join. However, joining a club is just one way of getting involved in the community. There are many other ways that you can go about it, some of which are done in person, some are entirely online.

  • Take a class. Whether it is through a community college or university, a high school or a website, take a photography class. I am not recommending getting a brand spanking new degree (though if you have the time and can afford it, go ahead!), but I am recommending that you find a part time class that you can attend to teach you the basics and to give you assignments and exercises to practice. Remember how I was saying in my last post that you need to have both the practice and the theory under your belt to really get to know your camera? A class will provide you with both of these, and you will get to discuss problems and questions with people who are experienced and there specifically to help you learn.

  • Start a blog. If you want to get your photography out there, share your experiences, share your photos and ask questions, one way of doing that is to start a blog. You may struggle to find readers at first, but the more you comment on other blogs and get involved in the community, the more hits your blog will get. You will find that most blogs in the photo community will give you the opportunity of linking your comments to your blog or website. Take advantage of the opportunity! Get posting and get involved!

  • Read and comment on other blogs. As I explained in my previous post, reading other blogs is incredibly beneficial. You can learn from their experiences and avoid mistakes that might have been made otherwise. There is so much that you can gain by reading other people's blogs, and even more to gain by commenting on them. By commenting and becoming active in the community, you will find that people will be drawn to your blog, particularly when the comments are relevant and appropriate. Of course, if the comments are no more than trolling, you will likely find your blog slightly devoid of activity.

  • Find a photography site and post on it. By photography site, I here mean sites like Flickr and 500px. These sites are aimed at photographers specifically, and allow you to upload good quality images and share them with other photographers in the field. It opens you to feedback and constructive criticism and it broadens your photographic horizons as you will be able to view different kinds of photography and different concepts captured in different ways. This will often lead to inspiration and open your mind to creative ideas that you may not have considered before.

  • Find a mentor. This can be the most difficult aspect of getting involved in the community, as it involves finding a professional to learn from and requires that the professional accept the idea of becoming your mentor. Some photographers simply do not have the time to teach, some are just not interested in it. Some look for mentees who are already skilled or have an extensive portfolio. But occasionally, you will find a photographer who is willing to help, willing to teach and willing to have a novice follow them around and see how things are done. I will be discussing the role of mentors and why they are so important in my next post.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Starting out

I have been reading a lot of photography blogs, as usual, and started thinking to myself today that this blog is not what I want it to be anymore.

I started the blog as a way to post the pictures from my 365 day challenge, and when the challenge started failing earlier this year, the blog ended up becoming a sideline and more of a place to post the photo shoots that I have been doing. While that is great and I am happy to continue using this blog to post the photos from my shoots, I also think that there should be more to it.

I don't just want to have a blog that I post to once a month or once in awhile. I want this to be a photography blog - not just in terms of posting my own photography, but in terms of helping other people along with their photography. Since it is something that I am passionate about, and writing is something that I am passionate about, I want to join the two together to form a blog that other photographers would enjoy, not just the people whose photos I shoot. And so, I have decided that I am going to start writing articles about photography, starting from today. To ease into the transition from photographer to photo blogger, I want to discuss a subject that can be easily understood by looking at this blog from it's conception to this point.

When you are starting out as a photographer, people are going to give you a lot of advice, and that advice will vary from photographer to photographer, from blog to blog. But there is one piece of advice that always stays the same regardless of who you talk to - you need to get to know your camera.

Let me explain a little what I mean here. You can read your camera's manual inside and out, you can read every blog in existence, but if you have not picked up your camera and played around with it, I don't think you can say that you know your camera. While you know about the technical details of how your camera works, while you know the theory, there is a vital aspect missing from your knowledge of your camera, and that is experience. I would say the same thing for people who pick up their camera from the get-go and shoot in automatic mode for months, not reading a blog, not picking up a book, not even looking at the settings that are being used when a photograph is taken. There needs to be a good medium of theory and practice. If you only have the theory, you are going to be lacking in experience. If you only have the practice, you are going to be lacking in knowledge.

So what should you do as a beginner photographer? First of all, I would highly recommend at least flipping through your manual. It will tell you some of the aspects about your camera that will be finicky to learn, even through experience. I speak from experience here. When I first got my Canon EOS 550D, I had very little idea about what the various buttons did. I had played around with a Canon before, but never this model and there were a number of new buttons that made no sense to me. I automatically turned to manual mode and tried to change the aperture. I couldn't. I turned the dial that I had turned on the previous Canons that I had used, I pushed buttons and nothing happened. This is where my manual came in handy. I would never have guessed that the little button that looked like a magnifying glass could be used to switch between settings, allowing me to change them one at a time. Different models have different buttons, different methods and different features. Looking over your manual will at least tell you what some of these features are and how to use them.

While you are reading through your manual, I would highly recommend picking up your camera and testing out the settings that you are reading about. Reading is one thing, practicing is another. Sometimes you need to try your hand at something to completely understand it. Once again, understanding the theory of how it works does not mean that it will come across in your photography. Test your camera out.

Next, I would highly recommend finding some blogs to subscribe to. There is a wealth of knowledge available online from experienced photographers, and a number of people going through the same thing that you are. You can learn from both the experienced and the experiencing. It can help having someone to chat to about the problems that you are experiencing, particularly when that someone has experienced the same problem in the past. At the bottom of this post you can find a list of the photography blogs that I have subscribed to. Make sure that you find one that speaks to you. I subscribed to a large number of photography blogs at the start that either never posted anything of use (or never posted at all), posted articles that were far too advanced for my level of photography, or posted blogs that made me want to fall asleep. Everyone has their own personalities, and you need to find a blog that suits yours. I would also highly recommend looking at other people's photography. By doing this, you accustom yourself to good photography and you will find pictures that will inspire you to greater heights in your own photography.

Finally, I recommend taking up a project. For me, it was a 365 project - a photo a day for a year. This meant that, even when I didn't particularly want to, I felt that I had to pick up my camera and take a photo. I learned a lot this way. For example, I learned how to take photos in a number of different lighting situations - how to juggle shutter speed, aperture and ISO, when to use my flash and when not to, how best to use the light sources that I had. I look back on some of the photos that I took in the beginning that I thought were great at the time, and cringe now and all the mistakes that were made. But I also know that my mistakes back then influenced the photography that I do now. Now, I am not saying that everyone should take up a 365 day project, but I do think that you should set yourself projects and goals, even if it is trying to take a photo a day for a week, or a photo a week for a month, or trying to take pictures related to a particular theme or a particular feature that your camera has. But essentially, I highly recommend that you pick up your camera as often as possible and practice as much as you can using the different functions that your camera has so that, after a few months, you will no longer need to think about the settings that you use - they will just come naturally.

As promised, some of the blogs that I follow. I use Google Reader to follow my blogs, as I find that it allows for a great reading platform and means that I am integrating my photography blogs in with my friends blogs, my news blogs and my humour blogs. Please note that the links below are to the RSS Feeds for the sites. This means that if you use Google Reader, adding them to your reader will automatically let you follow their posts.

Beyond Megapixels
is a photography blog that is run by Tiffany Joyce and Steve Russell and occasionally features guest writers on a variety of subjects. I find it useful as Tiffany and Steve cover a large range of topics and often have differing opinions on how things should be done, which makes for both interesting and educational reading.

Digital Photography School is a school run by Darren Rowse mainly, but featuring a large number of guest contributor posts on a range of subjects, camera and lens reviews by a number of experts in the field and challenges and competitions that can be both challenging and educational when you are starting out and just plain fun once you have got the hang of things.

Photofocus is entirely run by Scott Bourne, who has a wealth of knowledge that he is ready to dole out. He is an expert and well known in his field, and does occasional giveaways. While these are usually not open to South African readers, as the prizes need to be delivered to an address in the States, I personally would not mind paying for the shipping and customs tax to have a brand new Canon 7D sent from my Aunt in the States to here.

Through the Lens of Kimberly Gauthier is a blog written by an amateur photographer that I have recently started following. She has a number of insights into starting your own photography business and her blogs are both easy to read and fairly entertaining. While it is extremely handy learning from the experts in the field, sometimes you want to hear form someone a little more on your level, and Kimberly is great in that way. She takes great photos and can share the ups and downs that she has experienced in trying to get her feet off the ground as a photographer.

What the Duck is just a fun comic that I recently stumbled across and absolutely love. LOVE! Very cute, very witty, very funny and often very true.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Not Just For Fun

Participants in the RAVE Run/Walk

It was the perfect day for a walk. The sun was shining for the first time in a long time and I was actually starting to feel hot in my long sleeved black shirt, hot enough to wish that I had worn something more along the lines of what everyone else was wearing. On this occasion, that happened to be tank tops and shorts, and considering how cold it has been in Grahamstown recently, the fact that I wanted to follow suit says something.

Of course, these people were wearing tank tops and shorts for good reason. They were being sensible, understanding that running or even walking five kilometres in a long sleeved black shirt and jeans was not going to be comfortable. And each and every one of the people surrounding me was intending on walking five kilometres. I could tell from the bright orange cards around their necks, the cards that singled them out as participants in the RAVE Run (or Walk).

The RAVE, or Respect And Value Everyone walk was in aid of the Adinkra Child Mentoring Programme, a programme founded by Danielle Djan which pairs children from disadvantaged background with Rhodes University students in order to benefit them both - the children by providing them with role models and people to look up to, with people to help them through their tough times and show them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel; the students by providing them with a purpose, with someone they can inspire and giving them a reason for being inspirational. It was appropriate then that the orange cards that people were wearing around their necks had a space on them for a photo to be pinned besides which, in bold black letters, were the words: "I'M RUNNING FOR YOU!"

Considering that I had heard nothing about the walk before Mike had phoned me on Sunday morning, I was quite surprised at the large outcome. Over 100 people were there and ready, orange cards around their necks and paint on their faces. Most of them were young - either from the schools in the area or in their early University years, but there were a number of locals as well - families who had come to walk together, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons and members of the Run/Walk For Life organisation, all ready to get running and walking for a cause.

As the marshalls were placed along the path, ready to direct both the runners and any traffic that they might encounter, the participants started stretching their legs and getting ready for the starting sprint. By 3pm, they were off. Some started full speed ahead, others slow and steady, but all had a sense of purpose to their stride - they weren't just walking. They were marching, protesting, supporting and encouraging. They were inspiring. At the end of the day, it didn't really matter who came first, second, third or last. The prizes at the end were not the purpose for anyone participating. It was all about the meaning behind the walk, all about the message that they wanted to spread. And with every car that drove past, every van that was stopped to let a participant through, it was working. People stopped and stared. People questioned, And that was the point.

An hour and a half later, the final woman walked through the gates and the walk came to an end. Sure, there wasn't the turn out that some had imagined. There was less enthusiasm than had been expected. But curiosity had been peaked. I suspect that next year, there are going to be a lot more people walking through the streets of Grahamstown. And whether they run or walk, you'll certainly be noticing them.