My path to a profession: Getting paid to take photos

 So here it is, my first post on the Matt Lazenby Photography blog. To kick things off, I’ll go back to the beginning, responding to a question that I, and I imagine other photographers, get a lot:

How did you get started in professional photography?

 This question can actually take several forms and be asked with different intentions. Most of the time it is simply out of curiosity, but sometimes it is someone seeking advice. This post is intended to answer how and why I got started without really giving advice. If you’re able to take something away from it that will help you, then I’m glad I could help.

 I’ve always had an interest in just about anything that allowed me to be creative. I’ve also always been interested in gadgets. Those two worlds collided when I was about 8 years old and I got a point-and-shoot film camera for Christmas, which I had asked for. I took pictures of anything and everything, my mother regulating my film consumption so we wouldn’t go broke. There was such a thrill of getting film back from the store and seeing the result of pushing that shutter button. This, of course, was back before the digital age, the internet, and instant gratification. Sometimes I miss those days, I miss loading a new roll of film and winding until I hear that ‘click.’ I loved taking pictures, but it didn’t take long before the rest of my busy young life got in the way and my camera found its way into the bottom of a drawer in my room.

 Fast-forward about 14 years. I’m in college and had only been taking photos while on vacation with the help and convenience of disposable cameras. These photos included trips to the Bahamas and my study abroad in Spain. I learned a lesson or two about the limits of flash coupled with low light and low ISO film.

 Fortunately, at the same time, digital cameras were just becoming available to the mass market. Needing to document my shenanigans, I got a digital point and shoot camera for Christmas. I believe it was a Canon Powershot, 3.2 megapixels…it was all about the megapixels at the time. It was a similar story as before, pictures of anything and everything, but in higher quantity since there was no cost of developing film. But this time the camera didn’t go back in the drawer.

 Over the next few years, I upgraded twice (sticking with the Canon Powershot series, in case that matters to you). During this time, I lived in Spain, in which I traveled throughout. I also made trips to Morocco, Russia, Scotland, and a few other places in the US, all the while toting and employing my camera. I enjoyed taking pictures and documenting my travels. Other people seemed to enjoy my pictures, as well. The photos weren’t necessarily groundbreaking, creative, or terribly dynamic, but sound in composition and with interesting subjects, telling a story of where I had been.  A little positive reinforcement from friends, family, and colleagues went a long way.

 In 2009, I got my first DSLR… for Christmas, of course. This time a Nikon D90, which the girl who helped me at Ritz Camera in Jacksonville, FL recommended as the best mid-tier (or semi-pro, rather) camera at that time. It had all the automatic settings of a point and shoot, but also had external controls for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO when shooting in manual. This gave me the option to grow creatively as a photographer if I ended up wanting to dive deeper into the art or sticking to automatic if I found manual mode to be tedious.

 The addiction was almost instant. I bought Scott Kelby’s The Digital Photographer boxed set (three volumes, I think there is a fourth now). If I give any advice to someone who is new to photography, especially to DSLR cameras, it is BUY THESE BOOKS! They will demystify manual mode and other settings that can be difficult for beginners wrap their mind around. I read the books over and over, camera in hand, practicing along the way. I bought a tripod, a speed light, and a couple lenses. Again, I spent my spare time shooting anything and everything, experimenting with angles, light, exposure, and HDR, pushing my imagination to its limits. My fingers quickly learned the buttons on the camera adjusting the settings became second nature. I was passionate about my new hobby. But as it sometimes goes, passion for a hobby leads to the question: Can I make a living doing what I love to do?

 I moved back to Spain in 2010. I didn’t really have a concrete life plan, I just knew the corporate life was boring and I needed a change. Plus, Spain has jamón ibérico and great wine. I taught English to pay the bills. Naturally, I used to my newfound photography skills to capture the beauty of the Iberian Peninsula in my free time, including some of the places I had been before when all I had was a disposable camera or a point and shoot. I continued developing as a hobby photographer, buying a nicer tripod, and shooting the amazing landscapes and cityscapes in Madrid. I learned more about ambient lighting versus flash lighting. I slowed down to study subjects to make sure I got the right angle. I moved away from HDR photography, which I began to find too fake looking. I tried harder to “get it right” in the camera and rely less on editing software. I studied photos of great photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, and Steve McCurry. I gave myself exercises and homework to do. I limited my shots to 36 a day when I was out shooting in the city. I started practicing the habits that professional photographers practice. I wanted to make a living as a photographer.

 I got my first gig from a friend who organized corporate events. He needed a photographer and asked me if I’d like to give it a shot. I took the opportunity and, despite being a bit nervous and unsure of myself, did a pretty good job. They liked the results. I got paid paltry sum, but it gave me the confidence I needed to go forward. Slowly but surely, I began to get more jobs, mostly based on referral. I upgraded my equipment, bought more lighting, lighting modifiers, and radio flash triggers. I built a website and printed business cards. I positioned myself in market as one of the few English speaking event photographers in Madrid...and probably Spain.

 After a year or so, I cut my number of English classes I was teaching so I could focus more on photography. My income shifted and I began to rely more on income from photography than teaching. I was getting paid to follow my passion. I was a professional photographer.

 The journey still continues today. I am constantly learning and practicing different techniques, taking on challenging jobs, assisting with big commercial shoots or fashion shoots to learn from established professionals in those areas. The learning will never end, nor do I want it to. I still love shooting as much as when I first picked up a camera. This is what keeps me going. This is how I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.