After a super busy year, I finally saved up enough money to upgrade my camera body. I bought my first ever DSLR in 2009, which was an entry-level body that I bought specifically because it was lightweight. So now, I have a Nikon D750, which is a full frame camera, and wow, there was such an immediate difference in the photo quality. Here are some of my test shots I took right after getting it!
I didn’t intend to spend all of 2017 teaching classes. It wasn’t really in the realm of possibility for me - I’ve always been bad at public speaking, I’ve never taught before, and although I do have a studio art degree, I still taught myself a lot of what I know today.
But I was lucky enough to start the year out with the most perfect opportunity for me specifically. A local arts space had a food photography class that the teacher had to cancel on at the last minute, and a friend recommended me to do it.
All the pressure I felt to teach wasn’t really there - I was filling in for someone else, so if I messed up I wouldn’t feel responsible. The lesson plan was entirely up to me. The subject was something I actually felt like I had some expertise in. And the class size was really small - just six people. So I had to go for it. The only downsides for me: all the students already knew a bit about photography (would they ask me hard technical questions??) and it was a six hour intensive workshop. (Six hours tho??)
It was the first hard push I gave myself in 2017, and I’m so, so, so glad I did it. It gave me the confidence to say yes to a lot of amazing opportunities that filled the rest of my year with challenges and great experiences.
What I taught:
- one six-hour intensive food photography workshop
- styling for social media class at the george eastman museum
- social media photography for an audience of 150 people
- a collab class with Sarah from The Pastiche on styling for social media for food professionals
- a food photography & styling workshop at Upstate Social Sessions
- two photography & styling for social media classes
- two natural light photography classes
- two food photography & styling classes
- one class on using your DSLR
- one class on editing & retouching photos
Here’s what I learned from my deep dive into teaching, as a high-anxiety, fear-plagued, impostor-feeling sensitive person.
Prepare, prepare, prepare. Overprepare.
Before the first class I taught, I planned and worked for weeks - from the research I did, to the actual format of the workshop, to all the demos we would do together, to all the food I had to prep beforehand, to all the props and backgrounds and tools I’d have to bring to make it all work. The night before, I ran through the whole text I wrote, seeing how long it would take me to finish, trying to gain courage as I spoke.
When I actually got there, I was glad I was almost too prepared. I was shaking and I could hear my voice shaking as I started. (I was so grateful I had Rachel there to assist me - both in demos and emotionally.) If I didn’t have an outline and full text there to help me, I don’t know how I would’ve made it through the six hours. After the first demo, I didn’t feel like I needed the text assistance as much, but it was great to have it there.
Before each of the classes, no matter how long or short, I had a full script written, just in case. I made sure to have too many props, too much food, etc., just in case - and then in the last few classes I’ve done, I’ve scaled it back as I’ve gotten more confident and my lesson has gotten more focused.
It was crucial for me to take each one too seriously, but that’s because I lose my train of thought and get frazzled really easily. If that’s you, I would take this lesson to heart.
More content doesn’t mean more learning.
I’m currently researching bringing my photography classes online, and the competition is fierce. A lot of them tout hundreds of hours of video lessons for less than $100 - something I don’t think I could do. But ultimately, does hundreds of hours actually add value? Do students actually finish courses that run in the hundreds of hours? Could I teach someone something in a few hours in a concise way that would rival that? When I look to the teachers and professors I learned the most from, I think of just a few moments of clarity where their explanations all fell into place and I just “got it.” I’m certain there are plenty of theories on this from actual teachers, but I feel like I’m going to try to keep it as short & smart as I can, going forward.
Questions bring clarity.
I’m terrified of questions, especially online. I kind of dread looking through Chickpea’s social media questions. So for me to field questions at a place where I’m already scared, I was expecting the worst. I was scared of technical questions, in an industry that thinks that women don’t understand technical elements. (In all honesty, I don’t understand most of it, but I researched heavily and then tried to answer in ways that would make practical sense.) But 1) they weren’t that hard to answer, because I overprepared, and 2) those questions helped focus my lesson plans in a way that made them better, and it helped me learn SO much along the way. So I thank the questions, and now I’m a little less scared to hear them.
Mastery comes from having to teach someone else how to do what you do.
Being someone who is obsessed with long, complex board games, and loves to push them on friends, I’ve already learned that teaching others helps you get better at those games. To explain it to someone else, you have to know the small details, the rules, the strategies, and what the overall goals are - that way, you can generalize it or go into detail as you see fit.
The same goes for teaching anything, I think. Being knowledgable is great, but there are many points that you might not have thought of, or perspectives you might not have considered. If you just know how something works by experience, but can’t explain it, do you really know it? I’ve learned so much by teaching those unexplainable things to others.
Tailor your message to your audience.
Before each class, whenever possible, I tried to ask everyone what their experience is and what their goals are. Someone who’s there to take better photos of their kids for an album has different priorities than someone who wants to make money from high end food blogging.
Same goes for the length and size of the class. I tried my best to simplify for shorter classes, or theme them based on the audience. For the Becoming Boss panel I was on, I did a 15 minute session by myself in front of 150 people - this was probably the scariest thing I did all year. Sarah from Rocgirlgang suggested that I focus it down that way it’d work for a big crowd, so instead of a more in-depth class on social media photography, I did it just on 10 things to avoid when shooting for Instagram. That, compared to the six hour class with six people where we did multiple long active demos, showed me how important tailoring is.
Always keep updating your message.
My section on photo editing at my first class is very, very different from what it is now. Before every class, I like to go through and update my notes, text, slideshow, and handout to incorporate any important information I might’ve learned between classes. (And I’ve been spending the year very deliberately learning as much as I can, to make my classes better.)
Same goes for the demos I do. At the beginning I tried to bring lots of props and let everyone style their own setup, but now I’m doing more elaborate, well-conceived demos that I put together as I explain the concepts, then we all shoot together. This simplified it for me, and I think the students were more focused on the information and less on styling something “wrong” by themselves. I found it invaluable to keep changing my lessons as I went along - not only did it get better, but experimenting helped me find better ways to teach.
Besides strengthening my knowledge of photography, opening me up to be better at public speaking, and teaching me how to be more confident, these classes were also just fun to do. I'll be doing a few more for sure in 2018, but I'm most interested in doing an online version for Chickpea - it'll be another push forward for me.
If you're looking to expand your view into teaching, definitely give it a try through Skillshare, making an ebook, or do it locally like I did. (In Rochester, give The Brainery a try!) It was an experience I've loved doing.
If you know anything about my work history, you’ll know that I’m not a wedding photographer. Up to 2016, I told myself and many others that I would HATE to shoot weddings - they’re stressful, the people are rude, the hours are long, and the post-event work is grueling.
After a year of working in wedding shoots in my unique position, I’d have to say only one of those is really true. (The editing time killed my schedule for the second half of the year!) I had a great opportunity to shoot with one of my favorite people, my friend Rachel. She’s been getting her start in portrait work for the past couple of years and booked us a large number of weddings for 2017. I wasn’t really a second shooter, more like a shooting partner, where we split everything up equally and delivered our own edited images. This is not a normal situation, so I won’t go too deep into the pros and cons of it specifically. But I do want to talk about what I got from it, because it was an intense learning experience.
It’s not about the idea, it’s about actually doing it.
There were so many shoots where we had tons of ideas and options, but when it came down to time and people and reality, quick decisions actually had to be made. I’ve always been the person to think about the possibilities, but rarely the person to actually have to make a decision. Once you have to decide, it’s extremely hard (for me) to see all those other possibilities float away into the ether.
But shooting weddings made me make constant, fast, irreversible decisions. If they were the wrong decisions, I couldn’t go back and change them (although Photoshop can help, ha) so it made it a lot easier for me to let go. In the end, I realized that by actually making decisions, I could better see the outcomes, learn from them, make better decisions later, and come up with new solutions I wouldn’t have thought of before.
Preparation is key.
I sort of knew this beforehand, but I truly came to embody this after the first few events of the year. I have photographed a few weddings before this year, and looking back at them, I can see now that I wasn’t prepared enough for them.
There are the obvious ones, like dress well, have extra batteries, SD cards, and a second shooter. But there are others that aren’t so obvious - like scouting locations, learning my camera inside and out, learning how to shoot in low light, learning how to see light throughout the day, learning how to pose individuals or groups, or how to get emotion out of people. That knowledge definitely developed in me a ton this year.
I found that watching informational videos while I edited photos helped immensely - get yourself to Youtube or Skillshare and absorb as much info as you can.
If you’re noncommittal, do something you can’t get out of.
In my normal work, I don’t have hard deadlines or lots of meetings - I really pushed myself in 2017 to try to change that. I purposely make that part of my job because I’m scared of disappointing people or confronting people about needing more time. But nothing says “you cannot get out of this” like photographing a wedding. So many people are relying on you, and even if you cancel a few months in advance, that’s already too late.
So I got over my fear of deadlines and said yes to many things I couldn’t cancel. (beyond just weddings, but that’s another blog post.) And I’m so glad that I did. Maybe because I did almost all of them with a friend, but I looked forward to each event - I kind of saw each one as a chance for me to get better, as cheesy as that sounds.
For your best work, get in the zone.
This was one of my favorite parts of shooting weddings, mostly because it went from being my least favorite part to the most fun part of each night. I always DREADED the ceremony and reception parts of a wedding: the ceremony is so high pressure because it only happens once - there are zero do-overs, and the reception is fast-paced in super low light, which makes my camera work to its highest capacity.
I almost always had a mini panic attack before the reception started, especially at my brother’s wedding this summer (which I also shot.) I was so scared I would mess up or not live up to their expectations. But I collected myself and slowly got into a groove. The more I shot, the more I could anticipate moments about to happen, the more in-tune I got with my camera, the more I realized that there’s SO much time in which I could get “the” shots I needed. (The photo of Rachel right above this was taken right after said panic attack at my brother's wedding, along with my other favorite shots of the night. This moment was a revelation for me, about how dumb my self doubt can be.)
The more I let go of my brain and just let my eye do the thinking, the less stressed I became and the better my work became. I’ve found this happens in all sorts of work (writing, drawing, etc.) but I really found that rhythm/groove in shooting weddings.
Let go of perfection, and get good at rising to the challenge.
I came into this year with little experience in shooting weddings or high-stress events, compared to seasoned wedding photographers. I mostly only did portrait work, or my normal food photo work - both of which gave me a lot of control over shoots. But when it came to those high-pressure shooting situations, where fast decisions had to be made, I feel like I became great at letting go of possibilities, my own reservations, and everything else that wasn’t absolutely necessary.
Instead, I thought of it like an America’s Next Top Model challenge, or a Chopped challenge, as silly as that is. What’s the best location, best time of day, best pose, best camera settings, etc? All of those decisions challenged me, and because I didn’t have the luxury of time or location or clothing, I just had to give what I could to make it the best it could be. By letting go of what COULD be, I just worked with what WAS. And the results often turned out better than if I had agonized over every bit of what showed on camera.
Give yourself time to breathe, but don’t stay there.
I mentioned before about a short panic attack before every reception. There was at least one moment like that at every event I shot at, I think because I care so much about being “perfect” but I didn’t have a lot of experience yet. (I still don’t!) Normally, that moment would turn into a week or more of depression and self doubt - but because I HAD to continue on, I picked myself up and continued on, even though I felt bad.
There were so many moments of “God, I’m so bad at what I do” and “this isn’t going to work” that slowly, after getting into the groove, turned into “I love this song!” or “wow, that moment was incredible” or after looking back at a perfectly captured shot, “I’m SO good at what I do.” That moment to breathe, between portraits and the reception, was crucial to me not crying on the dance floor (high school flashbacks, ha) but I’m so grateful for the experience of shooting these events because it taught me, very physically, that I have to stand up and keep going, especially when I’m feeling down on myself, because that bad moment does eventually end.
Time management runs on a small and large scale.
I’ve always been a very organized person, but this year tested me on so many levels on that. I’m used to working on a weekly time management schedule - where I do social media for Chickpea, get our issue work done, and do cleaning and relaxing on the weekends. But I threw a rather large wrench in that plan by doing so many events back-to-back.
I learned that for me, a wedding shoot takes about 5-6 days of editing to complete, and the event itself took a day and a half of my time beyond that. So for every wedding I shot, it took more than a solid week out of my schedule, simultaneously overworking myself and having no time to complete my regular work. If I ever did this full time (spoilers: I don’t think I would) I’d need to charge a lot more, hire someone on, quit my other work, and spread out my bookings more. It’s an exhausting process, but for sure worthwhile.
There’s still so much I don’t know.
There is so much more that goes into a wedding photographer’s job than the shooting and editing that I haven’t even explored this year. Getting clients, following up with clients, designing and delivering prints and/or albums, getting return business, meeting with booked clients, getting business & event insurance, hiring people on, and much more - these are all essential parts of a photography business that I don’t necessarily want to dip my toes into, no matter how much I like the actual shooting part. I know a few full time wedding photographers who also have kids and are doing house renovations and everything else - I applaud them, and I truly don't know how they do it.
Diving into something so daunting so quickly taught me most of all that there’s so much I still need to learn about myself and the world I live in. The amount of things I uncovered from just one year is incredible, in my opinion, and something I’d pass along to you is to try something new like this - put your whole effort in and see what you learn from it.
If you don't want to jump into something so big, start with a photo challenge with a friend - pick a location, both shoot for five minutes each, and see what you can do with the time restraints. Or have someone else pick out the props, location, outfit, etc. and you work with what you've got. Either way, challenge yourself in the coming year, and see what you can learn.