The question is….
I know. Every Wednesday you hurry to Scott’s blog to see who the guest blogger is. You expect a successful, professional photographer with a stunning portfolio, and a series of inspirational stories about their fabulous career.
Sorry, I’m not that kind of guest blogger.
I’m just a regular gal in Los Angeles, with a passion for photography. I got my first camera at age 5 and never looked back. I might never make any money from my photography and I don’t care. My goal is to keep learning and growing, and just be a better photographer each year than I was the year before.
So if you’re not a professional photographer, my question is, what do you do with your photography? How do you make it part of your life?
First of all, if it’s your passion, treat your photography like it is your profession. Get the best gear you can afford, and take good care of it. Find classes or tutorials and take them. (If you ever get a chance to take a class with Scott Kelby? Mortgage the house, sell the kids, do whatever you need to do to take it. You’ll never learn more or laugh more in a class.) Read all the books and magazines you can. Get to know other photographers (Scott’s annual Photowalk is a great way to meet locals). Attend trade shows if you can. And, of course, if you’re not a NAPP member, join! That will help you with all of the above.
When you’re looking for photo opportunities, my best advice is to get to know people doing interesting things. And if they ask you to go with them, always say yes. That’s how I wound up in an LA police helicopter, pursuing a bank robber. I met Sgt. Doug Abney when he was at my local station, running an annual holiday charity airlift. Private pilots donated their time to fly toys and supplies down to a mission in Mexico. I helped raise some money. Soon I was eating fish tacos at the border with twelve cops and a priest. When Doug started flying helicopters for the LAPD, he invited me along for a shift. After we caught the bank robber, we touched down on the tallest building west of the Mississippi, cruised by the Hollywood sign, then flew over to the beach (at 150 mph!), flew UNDER the jets at LAX, and found my house–I’m on top of a mountain, it’s easy to find. When we got back they told me they’d taken up 38 civilians that year and I was the only one who didn’t get sick (I took home my barf bag as a proud souvenir). I made a photo book and sent a copy along to Air Support, since I’d met all the officers at roll call. They used it to show visitors what a typical shift is like. For years afterward, I’d be in the Jacuzzi out back, and along would come a helicopter at eye level. Wave hi to the nice officers!
Then there was the time I was in Outer Mongolia, drinking vodka and singing folk songs with a shaman. My friend Jeremy Schmidt started Conservation, Ink to bring printed materials to the Mongolian National Parks. Five of us raised some money, then spent a month in the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia, traveling with the nomads. City Girl had to ride a horse across the river and up the glacier, and sleep on the ground with the goats and yaks. For most of the trip we had no electricity, so we hot-wired the Russian jeeps to recharge my camera batteries. We stayed with the shaman, and an eagle hunter. At the end, we donated our photos. So today you can buy maps and postcards with our photos on them, and the Parks make money. You can also buy Jeremy’s partner Ted Wood’s amazing photos to benefit the Parks. After the trip, I made photo books for all of us. I also sent 400 prints to the families we stayed with–they got there eventually, by plane, jeep, horse, camel. If you ever promise to send photos, please do it. Most people don’t, and that just hurts the next photographer that comes along.
Closer to home, my friend Mollie Hogan runs Nature of Wildworks, a wildlife refuge in Topanga, California. She takes in injured wildlife, or wild animals that were pets and shouldn’t have been. I just love getting that call, “Want to come see the baby owl?” We had a fundraiser at my house, and she brought the animals, including a bobcat, serval, great horned owl, skunk, turkey vulture, and more. We set up a portable Canon Selphy printer (very easy, just plug in your memory card and get great 4×6″ prints instantly), and everyone took home a photo of themselves with the mountain lion. Mollie also uses those event photos for publicity, and we made photo books for the volunteers.
My friend left her dog with me when she went out of town. Turns out her dog will do about anything for a cookie. I made a book of silly dog photos and we sell it to benefit local rescue groups.
I love photo books, but for a real impact, consider making a framed fine art print or a canvas. They cost more than books, but there’s something special about that big image, presented as art. Mpix makes beautiful framed prints, with superfast delivery and surprisingly affordable prices. I’m also fond of Artistic Photo Canvas, and not just because of their gorgeous canvases. They have wonderful customer service, and went above and beyond on my recent order (thanks, Lew!). And of course I loved the canvas.
No Assignment, no problem! Make your own.
So you’re not a professional, and nobody’s paying you to take photos. You don’t need to go to Mongolia (but I recommend it, lovely land and amazing people). Find a project like the amazing Help-Portrait, that’s been mentioned here before. They take and print portraits of people in need, around the world; congratulations on their success this year! I’m also a huge fan of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a national network of photographers who photograph stillborn infants to preserve their grieving parents’ memories. Heartbreaking, I don’t know how they do it, but bless them. Google “photographers charity” to find other photographers helping those in need.
Or do it yourself. Find a local group you support, a sports team, animal rescue group, school club or classroom, senior center, church group, charity (I once ran the massage booth at a Basset Hound event, but that’s another story). Offer to be their official photographer. Attend all their events, provide them with high-quality photos for their newsletter and website. Make prints or books for the volunteers. Treat it as you would a job, take your responsibilities seriously, make sure they credit you every time they use your photos. It’s a great way to practice your skills and build your portfolio.
Photograph your friend’s house. It’s great fun to see your house through someone else’s eyes. (I swear, I will get up to Wyoming to shoot my friend, mystery writer Craig Johnson’s ranch next year. Really! I promise!) Or photograph a friend’s party. No posed shots, all candids and don’t forget the food and decorations. I had friends shoot my big birthday party and write messages on 3×5″ cards (the more mojitos, the funnier the messages)–great souvenir.
Keith Carter (one of my favorite photographers) says you should always have at least one ongoing project, wherever you go. It might be as simple as shooting people in red hats. Reflections in mirrors/windows. Street musicians. I always stop and shoot abandoned shoes. You’ll build up a collection of images, you’ll try new techniques or effects, and you’ll train your eye to be on the lookout for a photograph wherever you go.
Or create your own personal project. In 2010 I did my favorite photo project ever. I decided to make a visual diary of my life. I shot places and things around me, especially things that might be different five or ten years from now. The more I shot, the more I thought of. Favorite restaurants. My dentist’s office. What’s in my wallet. My pantry. My medicine chest. Gas prices. Fast food menus. Magazines and newspapers. Favorite clothes. I wound up with over 800 photos, that got edited down and sorted (Adobe Lightroom was a big help). I made a book that I love to flip through. You can read more about it here (including my comparison of three photo book companies). I’m going to do this every five years, and I wish I’d done it before now.
Many thanks to Scott and Brad for asking me to guest blog, it’s an honor. One thing this blog does is build an incredible community of photographers all over the world. So now I’m asking you, what do you do with your photography? How do you make it part of your life? Can’t wait to hear your ideas!
Janine Smith is a writer, photographer, proud NAPP member, and financial consultant to nonprofit organizations. She lives in Los Angeles, California, with two demanding dogs and a convertible that is not aging well. You can keep up with her at jzine.com and janinesmith.com, and follow her on Twitter.