To start off – THANK YOU to Scott and Brad for letting me write a guest post! As they say in radio I’m a, “long time listener, first time caller.” I’ve been fortunate to attend a handful of KelbyOne Live events and virtual conferences and have been a big fan for a long time. To share even a tiny bit of space with the likes of Scott, Rick Sammon, Joe McNally and the dozens of photographers who have been a part of this space is really cool!
My photography journey began almost 40 years ago when I inherited my grandmother’s Minolta HiMatic7. My dad had been an avid amateur and he encouraged me to explore photography but I had never had my own camera before. The next year I spent an entire summer buying my first used camera five dollars at a time. I edited my high school yearbook and shot frat parties in college for extra cash.
I got into the photo retail world when a Photo 101 class was killing me financially and I needed the employee discount to go through 5-8 rolls of film a week. I still work in a brick and mortar camera store, as well as teach and shoot a good bit in my adopted hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina.
In short – in some form or another, photography is just about everything in my world. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked with a number great mentors over the years and that’s what I’m writing about today – the value of teaching, mentoring and helping out the next generation of photographers.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MENTORING
I find a lot of photographers who share their time, talent, insight, and technique and appreciate all that they do. Over time I’ve given a hand up to aspiring professionals and watched them grow (some have become far more successful than me). As I’ve gotten older and more secure in my space, I find more and more that I enjoy the teaching part of what I do far more than the shooting. Mentoring and coaching rookies is so fun and rewarding, and its not unusual for me to learn something from them, too. It’s true: old dogs CAN learn new tricks! <using the whisper voice> Most days I actually prefer teaching and coaching over shooting and editing.
My first mentor was a retired New Yorker named Abe, who owned a tiny camera store in South Florida back in the late 70s. He was the guy who took my crumpled $5 and $10 bills in the summer of 1978 so I could buy a used Konica T. He was also the guy who gave me a little wire-bound notebook where I was supposed to record exposure notes (old school EXIF data). When I lost the book (I was 12 years old) he let me know I had no hope. His tough love made me better and helped me grow. Abe was one cool dude. I learned responsibility and working hard for what you wanted from him.
The next guy who made an impression was Jorge, who managed the Miami studio I worked at after high school. My first day he was going through my gear and quietly removed my Focal/K-mart brand UV filter before casually smashing it with a hammer, with the immortal words “NOW you’re shooting with a Nikon.” Jorge taught me to always have fun on a shoot, how to see the next shot and how to prepare for a gig. He taught me that the “best” gear was the best you could afford, and that shooting was the best teacher.
Denis Bancroft is the greatest photography mentor/coach/friend I’ve ever had. He’s the science lab offspring of Kramer and Hawkeye Pierce and one of the finest shooters I’ve ever worked with. In 1997 on my first day of work at a photo lab (I’m sensing something about first days here) he stormed back to my desk with “Hey, I’m Denis. You shoot much??” Like thousands of other kids who owned a camera I wanted to be a Sports Illustrated photographer and Denis gave me the chance to shoot Opening Day for the then-Florida Marlins.
In 1997 the Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers were owned by the same guy, and Denis shot for every team in the city. That year I shot everything from theater openings to NFL football, some minor-league basketball, Indy 500 champions, lots of baseball and the World Series. It was a ride I’ll never repeat, and I’ll be thankful forever. He threatened to not come to my wedding unless he was shooting it; for the price of a plane ticket I had the same guy who shot for the owner of the Miami Dolphins! I haven’t seen him in almost 20 years but I still share stories and teach things he taught me long ago.
From Denis I learned FUN is critical to happiness and how much money you make is secondary if it’s a fun gig. I became far more critical with composition and “getting it right” and to have no fear when shooting – get the shot, then be ready to grab the next one. And that pickleball is the greatest sport of all time.
It’s not just photographers. We need mentors in other areas, too. My friend Catherine hired me before taking a photo workshop a few years ago; the only thing she claimed to know was, “Apparently it’s a Nikon, let’s start with that,” when I asked what skills she wanted to work on before her trip. Afterwards she cajoled me for months to create my own workshop so we could work together again. Her guidance, generosity and persistence pushed me into developing a successful Cuba photo workshop series that I would have NEVER considered previously. Once we can travel again we’ll be going back with new photographers looking for new learning adventures.
EDUCATION PART A
We’ve got to be mentors and teachers. I talk with photographers who are afraid to share anything, afraid to give up the “secret sauce” and I always wonder why. Crankiness? Insecurity? Fear of competition from the newbies? PRO TIP: If you’re afraid of rookie competition, maybe it’s time to up your game. Letting new shooters earn their degrees from YouTube University (full of great and awful information) really shortchanges them. In my classes I hear all the time “You Tube said… but it didn’t work.” Why not give some hands-on help to that new photographer? It pays back in so many ways.
My friend Lyn spent years of Saturday mornings sitting in my class after working 24 hour shifts as a paramedic. A few years ago she pursued the dream and became a full time photographer, and it was a genuine thrill when she asked me to second shoot for her on a wedding last year. Lyn crushes the equestrian/family portrait game in her small North Carolina market and I’m lucky to have been a part of her growth.
My photography brother Walter is killing it in Phoenix and has far surpassed anything I taught him. There’s a whole stable of really skilled photographers I’ve been fortunate to coach over the years (NEWS FLASH: I’m a better photographer for it, too. We all get better together). I’ve met dozens of photographers, had great experiences and learned stuff from my fellow WorldWide Photo Walk participants each year, too!
EDUCATION PART B
Remember: I’m the guy behind the counter, in an old school camera store, teaching and guiding you about which camera/flash/gadget fits your needs best. You’ve been reading reviews until your eyes bleed. You’re chasing new technology because your friend just got a _______ and you shoot with a ________ which is junk, and you need to replace it. WHY are you changing brands? If you’ve shot Nikon your entire life and change to Fuji you’ve got a big learning curve full of time and frustration.
DON’T CHANGE just to change. Your brand *probably* has a model with the feature you think is missing, why not upgrade but stay in the family? Switching from a 5DIV to an A7RIII won’t make you an appreciably better photographer, but instead an appreciably poorer photographer. Switching to an R5 will make you both better AND poorer so there’s that! Why even switch if your gear is only a few years old? The $3-$5K you spend on new gear (thank you very much) is likely better spent on education.
Take a solo trip, and when it’s safe, join a workshop. For the same amount of money spent on new gear that will take a year to learn, I PROMISE a great workshop with a great teacher and mentor will be more valuable in your growth as a photographer. The shooting experiences you’ll have after a week in Venice or Havana or Tanzania will be far more memorable than figuring out the menus on your new Sonikon.
Learn your gear: in, out, front, back and sideways. If you shoot Canon and your coach is a Sony-only person, find a better coach. Don’t jump to the coolest and newest until there’s a gotta-have-it feature. 24MP makes great big prints, but on Instagram they aren’t better than 45MP files.
My last piece of advice: buy a better tripod because that bigbox $69 one isn’t worth hanging your laundry on, much less your $3,000 rig.
That’s all I’ve got. Thanks again to Brad, Scott and the blog crew for giving me this spot. I’ll see you at The Flash Conference in 2 weeks (you have signed up, right?) Now go photograph something!
Tony Ulchar has been a mentor and guide to hundreds of beginners, rookies and aspiring photographers for more than 20 years. As a photographer he has photographed everything from charity events to political conventions, major league sports and more corporate headshots than I can count.
Much of his work is donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation on both the local and national level. While he always loves grabbing a new photo to hang on the wall, his greatest joy comes from guiding and watching new photographers learn and improve.