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.