When you’re in high school, you’re on top of the world. You have everything figured out; a plan for everything. You’re told the next step in the road to success is college…. I started my college experience at a large university. It only took me a semester to realize that I was wasting a lot of time and money, cutting out shapes and gluing them on paper in my “introductory” art classes. Not to mention, everyone around me was more interested in the party scene. I felt like an outsider. Like, I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I was more focused than my peers and had nobody to relate to. I felt isolated and dark, with only my art and music to turn to. So I came back home, took a semester off and continued working in a retail job. I attended a local community college that fall where I majored in graphic design. It was in those classes that I realized I enjoyed creating images for my designs, more than the design itself. But it was too late to change majors, so I stuck it out and pursued photography outside of class. I began freelancing in 2006 shooting local bands, products, portraits and weddings, eventually winding up as a freelance retoucher for a local commercial photography studio. But freelance work was far and few between, so it’s not like I could sustain myself at that time.

As your life unfolds, things don’t always go the way you plan. I graduated college in 2007 and guess what? Companies weren’t handing out photography jobs. I went door to door in various cities looking for someone to give me a chance. But nothing was happening. Sure, I got to sit down with some agencies – but they weren’t hiring. So I continued working my retail day job while freelancing at night. I was no stranger to hard work. In fact, I learned what hard work was at a very early age. If I wanted something, I had to earn it. I bought my first electric guitar by mowing lawns in the summer of 97’. Teaching myself how to play guitar through the years taught me three things: discipline, patience and the ability to become a self-learner. These three qualities have transcended into other avenues of my life, including my career as a commercial photographer.

My wife Jill (girlfriend at the time) bought me my first Scott Kelby book, the 7-Point System, for Christmas in the winter of 2007. Reading that book was a mind altering experience for me in terms of my Photoshop education. For the first time ever, I had experienced a fun way to learn the software that would help me create the type of imagery that I had in my head. Scott’s approach to teaching was like nothing I had ever read before. It was fun to read, easy to comprehend and also entertaining at the same time. By completing the tutorials in the book, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. It also made me realize that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. Through Photoshop User Magazine, I learned about NAPP (National Association of Photoshop Professionals). I quickly became a member and subscribed to Kelby Training. Scott’s original portrait retouching class blew my mind. It was full of “WOW” moments for me. Things just started to click. After graduating college and several failed attempts to land a job in a creative field, I became burned out. Kelby Media Group single handedly reignited my excitement and fueled my creativity again.

When you’re a hard worker and you work in the retail industry, they want to promote you. And promote me they did. In 2008, I landed a job at the corporate office of the largest retailer in the world. Nothing was happening with my photography at that time…what did I have to lose? My job was to create open flight 3D simulations of new and existing stores. Not a bad place to be in my early 20’s. My wife (girlfriend at the time) and I moved our entire lives 12 hours away from everything we had ever known for me to take that job. Although I had met some great people there, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the lifestyle of Corporate America just wasn’t for me. Sure, I was making great money, but I was sitting in a cubicle all day, behind a computer that never worked, having meetings about meetings. I never really felt any sense of accomplishment at that job. The only escape I had were my lunch breaks.

I had an hour. Everyday at lunch, I would go out to my car to get out of the office environment and clear my mind. I would spend that hour watching things like Zack Arias’ OneLight Workshop on my iPod, reading issues of Photoshop User Magazine, and Scott Kelby Photoshop books. That hour always flew by. So, if you think about it, I spent about 260hrs on my lunch period alone over the course of that year immersing myself in sea of photography and Photoshop related education. This is a trend that continues even to this day. I have a real passion for learning new things, not only in photography, but other areas as well. I studied studio lighting for a solid year and used nothing but cheap painters lights from Lowes before eventually buying real studio strobes. Experimenting with these cheap lights taught me how to really “see” light. As Joe McNally says, “Light is the language of Photography.”

After working at that corporate office for a year, I just couldn’t take anymore. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t being fulfilled creatively. It was a soul sucking experience in my life. Something had to change, so we moved back to our hometown in Northern Indiana. I left the corporate life, and corporate wage behind, only to return to my old life as a retail employee. Only this time it was different. I felt like I had taken a step backwards. I felt like I had made a mistake. I had a perfectly good job, and made great money. I should have been content. But I wasn’t. I could have stayed there and worked my way up the corporate ladder. But it wasn’t about that. It was about something deeper…

Upon my return, I took a management position and took a large pay cut. Yes, I was manager and took a pay cut, you read that correctly. Things were pretty rough for a while. One day I remember being pulled into the office by my retail store manager. He was very adamant about having me join the upper level management team in his store. He told me that I was “wasting my time” with my freelance work, and that I should be focusing on inline management within the company. I had a decision to make… and it was an easy one. Needless to say, I traded that retail job for another one before finally landing a full time job as a retoucher for a commercial photography studio that I had started a relationship with back in 2006. I worked there full time for about a year before transitioning into a full time career as a commercial photographer/digital artist at an advertising agency.

My parents once told me when I was a kid (as most parents do), “When you grow up, you can be anything you want to be.” Today, I’m fortunate enough to say that I’m doing what I feel I was meant to do, at least at this point in my life. I’m Brian Rodgers Jr. Commercial Photographer/Digital Artist. I’ve been a dreamer my whole life, but I’ve also been a realist at the same time. One of the reasons I think I’ve gotten this far, is because I have two things going for me. In the words of the great Joel Grimes, “I have a passion for the creative process, and I’m a hard worker.” I’m always working towards my next goal.

Every artist has a different path. You must realize however, that the path never has an ending. “Life is a journey, not a destination” as the saying goes. Sometimes it’s almost easy to just give up on your dreams when you have people in your life telling you that “you’re wasting your time,” and that you should just do something else. Those people are detractors – don’t let them steal your dreams! It’s so easy to get comfortable in your unsatisfying day job. It’s so easy to put things off. So stop doing it! You alone have to fuel your fire and keep your dreams alive. Set goals, and push yourself to achieve them.

If you’re not getting the type of work you know you’re capable of doing, go out and create that work for yourself. Do it totally unpaid. Build your portfolio. You have to practice if you want grow as an artist. This is also how you get experience. This is how you become an expert in your field. Create the type of work that you eventually want to get hired to shoot. Building a portfolio of those types of images is the key to getting hired. Create your own opportunities.

Don’t stress over gear. You will acquire essential gear over time as you build your career. Gear is not nearly as important as vision. A little bit of gear can go a long way when you have vision. Nearly every image I’m posting today was shot with a Canon Rebel t2i, and 3 or less strobes. Two of the images were lit with a single LED pen light. Can you guess which ones they are? At the end of the day, the only people who really care about what camera you are using are other photographers. Gear is great, but only when it helps you achieve your vision as an artist. My personal work/self assignments are what landed me a job at the advertising agency I currently work at. My personal work also allows for freelancing opportunities. (All of the images that I’m posting today are self assignments, btw). Not only have self assignments opened up awesome opportunities for me, they have also helped me develop my own way of shooting and retouching; my own process.

Douglas Sonders wrote a great post on Scott’s Blog a while back about the important of self assignments. Go read it! Everything he is saying has merit. In retrospect, my college portfolio was not great. It was full of school assignments. It didn’t really show who I was as a photographer. So I had a lot of work to do over the years. I’m still working on new things all the time to take my work to that next level.

Through the past 7 years, my wife has been one of my biggest influences. She has always believed in me and pushed me to be better. She bought me my first Scott Kelby book. She made sure that I had a Wacom Intuos tablet for retouching (which completely changed the way I work.) When I needed a model to practice portrait lighting, she was always the first person to sit in front of my camera. She still to this day brings home cool things for me to shoot. Through everything, she has always been my support. She’s awesome!

I believe that everything in life happens for a reason. Why? What if I told you, that I met my wife in pre-school? It’s true! We first met when we were just 4 years old. And boy did we like each other. After pre-school, she was gone. I didn’t see her for many years after that because we went to different schools. All I had to remember her by were fragments of childhood memories. Fast forward 20 years from pre-school, we recognize each other at a Taco Bell drive through. She left her business card at the drive thru window with her cell number on the back. The Taco Bell employee gave me that card and the rest is history. That girl I had met in preschool, is now my wife.

Oh yeah, and those years of retail….it turns out that I learned all kinds of skills including how to communicate with different types of people. And wouldn’t ya know it, those communication skills that I learned over the course of 10 years in retail, are now coming in pretty handy in my career as a commercial photographer. Because I talk with all types of people on a daily basis. The year I spent in the corporate office, actually helped me develop a lot of Photoshop skills I may not have otherwise acquired. I had built a lot of retail products (including the boxes) from scratch in Photoshop, those products ended up being placed on shelves of retail store layouts in the 3D models my team and I were working on. The ability to create objects and products from scratch has helped me immensely in my retouching abilities. Furthermore, because of my struggles and hardships throughout the years, I have a deeper appreciation for what I do professionally. Because I really had to work for it. Photography is hard work!

The experiences that you will encounter throughout your life, help shape the work that you create. For me, it’s really prevalent when I’ve got that perfect playlist going and I’m in my creative zone. The frustration, the angst, the happiness and sadness; all behind those pixels we today call digital imagery. The images you create are a reflection of you. Which is probably why we as photographers get emotionally attached to our images.

If you’ve ever worked in a job that you dread going to everyday, keep your head up. If you have a passion for something, pursue it! Don’t make excuses. Keep putting everything you have into your craft. If you want it, you’ve gotta work for it. Being a photographer for a living is not an easy job. In fact, it’s damn hard. Photography has become somewhat of a fad these days. But I believe the artists that really work on their craft, and think like entrepreneurs, are the ones who are more likely to have the opportunity to do it professionally. It’s a very rewarding career, but it’s very hard work! I’m nowhere near the skill level I’d like to be, but I’m on my way.

Here’s a time-lapse retouch video that I created of a recent self assignment:

More info on about this self assignment on my blog.

Dream Big. Stay inspired. Never stop learning. Be honest. Be genuine. Be yourself!

I wanted to give a shout out to my buddy Melvin, who I met in Chicago at Scott’s “Shoot Like a Pro” seminar. Good guy!

Finally, I wanted to thank Scott Kelby & Brad Moore for the opportunity to share my thoughts on a stage shared by some of the best photographers in the world! And a special thanks to Pete Collins!

Brian Rodgers Jr. is an Addy Award winning Commercial Photographer/Digital Artist based out of the South Bend, Indiana area. When he needs to take a break from photography (and we all do from time to time), hes writing and recording his own guitar driven music. You can see more of Brian’s work at DigitalArtThatRocks.com and connect with him on Google+, Twitter, & Behance.