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Mailbag: How did you develop your skills?

I sometimes get questions about photography and video and thought I should post my answers on the blog because I’m sure there are others with the same or similar questions. This question actually comes from a friend on facebook:

 “I wanted to pick your brain a little. How did you develop your photograph skills. Did you take professional classes or just self learn? Or both? I do want to keep developing skills. Especially in portrait type photography. How did you develop into a business? Any thoughts welcome!”

I think there are two main questions here…

“How did you develop skills?” and “How did you become a business?”, they may sound very similar but they are very different, I’ll try to answer both, but please let me know in the comments If I fall short.

Warning: this is a very long post. Probably the longest post I’ve ever written. But here’s the thing… it really has been a long journey to get to where I am now and I didn’t want to write an inauthentic answer. It’s really hard to make a living doing photo and video work and it’s even harder to run a business doing it. I didn’t want to sugarcoat things.

How did you develop your skills?

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers that to be really good at something you need 10,000 hours of practice. My answers below covers a lot of my effort to get my hours, and I’m certainly not saying I’ve arrived at some sort of expert photographer status, but people do pay me money to take pictures so I’m at least a little further along the path than many others.

High School
I got my start in photography through video production. I got inspired and shot a documentary in 1999 while still in high school with a borrowed video camera that I didn’t know how to use. Fortunately for everyone, that footage got lost before I taught myself how to edit. Then I wanted to make music videos with my band so I started getting more serious about understanding how video worked.

College

When I went to college I realized I wasn’t a good musician but had a growing interest in video production, so I sold all of my music equipment and bought a decent but affordable video camera. I also built a beefy PC that I could use to edit the footage. It helped that I scored a job in the multimedia lab at the University of Arkansas and was able to learn a lot of software skills on the job.

My office at the Multimedia Lab at the University of Arkansas.
2005 – My office at the Multimedia Lab at the University of Arkansas.

So I started shooting whatever video projects came up and that included some promo materials, documentaries, music videos, and commercials. None of this stuff was very good because I didn’t know anything about lighting. But I kept going and kept getting hired to shoot stuff through word of mouth. Eventually I upgraded to a nicer video camera (Sony VX2000) and started writing and shooting short films. But I still didn’t know anything about lighting and I realized I needed to learn more about this thing called ‘Cinematography’.

 

2004- serving as a director of photography on a Short Film
2004- serving as a director of photography on a short film

 

I bought a digital point and shoot and played with it for awhile. The instant feedback that a digital camera provides allowed me to learn very quickly about the magic triumvirate of Aperture/Shutter/ISO. I kinda knew these things from the video world, but not really…

My first digital camera, a canon point and shoot with manual controls.
2004 – My first digital camera, a canon point and shoot with manual controls.

So I enrolled in a photojournalism class to learn how to shoot still photos, thinking this would help me learn more about the art of shooting. It didn’t. It was a film based class and I had struggled through the whole semester. I sucked at working the camera and sucked even worse at developing the film in the darkroom. I was probably the worst student in a class of 15.

But I kept going with digital. I started shooting interesting things I saw and pretty things I found including flowers, architecture, shadow patterns, etc… None of this was very good, but I was learning. I carried the camera around with me most of the time. I also experimented with portraiture a bit and shot pictures of any of my friends that hold still for me.

 

2004 - One of my first ever portrait sessions. Did this in my apartment with a blue blanket thumbtacked to the wall and a small home depot style work light held up with my free hand. Not bad, for a rookie...
2004 – my friend Sarah, one of my first ever portrait sessions. Did this in my apartment with a blue blanket thumbtacked to the wall and a small home depot style work light held up with my free hand. Not bad, for a rookie…

 

Graduated to DSLR

Then one day I accidentally left my car unlocked and my bag inside (camera, school books, etc) and of course it got stolen. That’s when I decided to invest in a DSLR. I bought the Canon 20D. I would say that’s when I really started taking photography seriously.

20070923-_MG_3946
2005 – My first DSLR, a Canon 20D

With my new DSLR and my developing skill set, I met the owner of a local music venue and asked if I could take pictures of bands. He said I could come to any show and shoot as long as he could use the images for his promotions, so for the next two years I shot several shows a month at The Music Hall.

The Wedding performing at The Music Hall
2005 – The Wedding performing at The Music Hall

This was one of those venues that focused more on the music than the lighting, so I was constantly challenged to get good exposures. This is when I figured out how to use my flash and how that mixed in with shutter speed. Shooting fast moving rock bands in a crowded dark and hot room is probably the single most educational experience I’ve had for learning how to control the various camera functions without using too much brain power. I just didn’t have time to be fumbling with the settings in the dark. I developed a feel for what settings would work in a given scenario and I could adjust my camera by feel without removing my eye from the viewfinder. So in essence, control of the camera settings became almost second nature. I shot around 100 bands or so and it all went towards getting my 10,000 hours.

All this time I was still working at the multimedia lab at the University, eventually becoming a full time employee. I also started working for the Athletics department at sporting events, in the control booth, running some of the equipment that powered the video screens in the arena/stadium. So all this time I was learning more and more about video production and just absorbing everything like a sponge.

View from my station in the Control Booth at Bud Walton Arena during Razorback Basketball games.
2006 – My “Office” in the Control Booth at Bud Walton Arena during Razorback Basketball games.

 

The Santa Fe Workshops

In 2007 I accepted a position as the multimedia coordinator at the Santa Fe Photography Workshops, located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They are one of the premiere training/workshops companies in the world for photography. Basically it’s like weeklong photo camp with different instructors each week. It was here that my eyes were opened to the beautiful world of creating photographic art. I was helping some of the world’s premiere photographers and photography instructors develop presentations for teaching. I rubbed elbows with the likes of Joe McNally, Greg Gorman, Karen Kuehn, Ralph Lee Hopkins, Sam Abel, Bob Sacha, Arthur Meyerson, Jay Maisel, the list goes on and on. (for those who don’t recognize those names, just google them and prepare to be blown away!).

My office at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.
2007 – My office at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.

Working for the Santa Fe Workshops changed my life. This was my first exposure to the really big photographers of the world. People that shoot for National Geographic, people that shoot for Life Magazine, people that shoot celebrities, that run studios, that travel the world making images. It opened my eyes to a career that I hadn’t really known as a legitimate possibility. But it wasn’t just the instructors that had an impact. Having peers that were just as inspired as me and hanging with people my age that loved nerding out on camera gear and going out meant going out with our cameras. This kind of inspiration and excitement is what an in person on- location workshop really gives you.

My friends and colleagues at the Santa Fe Workshops
2007 – My friends and colleagues at the Santa Fe Workshops

 

One of the instructors that came was Scott Kelby and he was showing off a new product from Adobe called Photoshop Lightroom. After his presentation, I immediately started editing my photos in Adobe Lightroom version 1 (currently I’m using version 6). Besides investing in a digital camera, using Lightroom is the single best thing to happen to my photography. It’s a very powerful program and it has made me efficient and I owe a lot of the joy and satisfaction I get from photography to the speed and efficiency that Lightroom allows. Since then, I’ve been preaching and teaching the power of Lightroom for other photographers. If you haven’t tried it, I encourage you to download the demo and give it 30 days.

 

2010- Lightroom Workshops in Puerto Rico
2010- one of my flyers for a lightroom workshop I taught in Puerto Rico.

 

Anyway, the Santa Fe Workshops offers workshops in Mexico, so I had the chance to work in Mexico and being able to travel and shoot in a foreign country really challenged me in a new way. I was inspired. During this time I was shooting nearly every day. Anything and everything.  I think this constant shooting in Mexico really shaped my love for color and really served as a growth spurt creatively. It was first real taste of being a photographer on assignment in a foreign country might be like.

My colleagues while working in Mexico (photo taken by Anne Fuller)
2007 – My colleagues and I while working in Mexico (photo taken by Anne Fuller). Sidenote: The girl in the front, Cristina, and the guy in the back, Donnor, wound up getting married!

 

After Mexico and back in Santa Fe, I had some personal issues unrelated to photography or my job. It affected my work and my attitude and I was no longer interested in being in Santa Fe, so I left. The Santa Fe Workshops were good to me and it really had nothing to do with them, it was entirely a personal matter.

 

This one was taken while I was literally moving out of Santa Fe. The U-haul is loaded up on the back of my truck and I'm stopped on the side of the road for this one last selfie.
2007 – This one was taken while I was literally moving out of Santa Fe. The U-haul is loaded up on the back of my truck and I’m stopped on the side of the road for this one last selfie as I head out of town.

 

Maine Media Workshops

I had been offered a similar position with the Maine Media Workshops so I accepted it and drove across the country (2600 miles), shooting along the way and visiting friends. Maine was another fantastic educational environment and this time they also had filmmakers curriculum so I was able to keep learning about video production as well. I met so many great filmmakers and photographers many of whom I still call friends and was given the courage to stick with these creative pursuits as a career.

Russell Carpenter (DP of Titanic) takes questions after a viewing of '21' in Union Hall.
2008 – Russell Carpenter (DP of Titanic) takes questions after a viewing of ’21’ in Union Hall.
Observing a lighting class at the Maine Media Workshops
2008 – Observing a lighting class at the Maine Media Workshops
My office at the Maine Media Workshops
2008 – My office at the Maine Media Workshops

Eventually my contract expired and I decided to head back down south to Atlanta.  The great recession had just just started and I knew no one was hiring. I had limited cash and limited options, but I knew I wanted to keep working with a camera.

Portfolio Center

So I enrolled in the photography program at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta, GA. I took out student loans to pay for it and bought a decent camera and a good lens and started learning how to make it in the wide world of Commercial Photography.

 

2009 - Learning how to light stuff with studio strobes
2009 – Learning how to light stuff with studio strobes at the Portfolio Center

 

The Portfolio Center offers two year programs in Design, Illustration, Photography, Art Direction, Copywriting, and New Media. Students work on tons of projects with each other so a photographer is taking pictures for an art director and the copywriter is working for a designer. It’s very collaborative and after two years of classes and projects, you walk away with a portfolio worthy of showing off to ad agencies, design firms, corporate communications departments, or in the case of photographers, all of the above so you can start your business.

2009 - Design students doing analog stuff at the Portfolio Center
2009 – Design students doing analog stuff at the Portfolio Center
2009 - Behind the Scenes of my Bloody Dogtags photo for a class assignment at the Portfolio Center
2009 – Behind the Scenes of my Bloody Dogtags photo for a class assignment at the Portfolio Center

 

I took classes with titles like “Perspectives” and with assignments like “take a picture outdoors at sunrise and sunset everyday for 10 weeks”. I learned about the business of commercial photography, I learned about retouching, I learned about illustration and design, I learned how to use studio lights, I learned the hard way about the quality needed to actually cut it as a pro.

2009 - Illustration for photographers class at the Portfolio Center
2009 – “Perspectives” for photographers class at the Portfolio Center
2009 - One of my 'Sunset' Pictures
2009 – One of my ‘Sunset’ Pictures

After 3 quarters of the program I was out of student loan money and felt like I had learned a lot and was ready to go, so I left. But I do have to give a shout out here to one of my main mentors and the Photography Program Chair at Portfolio Center (while I was a student), Jerry Burns. Jerry took me under his wing and hired me as an assistant and studio helper whenever he needed help (I think sometimes even when he didn’t need the help!). He operated StudioBurns since around the time I was born, but recently put the camera down, moved out to the country, and started a B&B. Best of luck Jerry!

2009 - Jerry Burns, my photography mentor and friend,
2009 – Jerry Burns, my photography mentor and friend,

 

Post Portfolio Center

After leaving school, I moved in with the best photography assistant in Atlanta, Morgan Cooper, and he was able to get me the occasional assisting gig. Big photography productions take a lot of equipment and a lot of people to move that equipment around, so a photographer will usually hire assistants to help with those things. Assisting is a fantastic way to learn the ropes while getting paid a little bit. I got to see how the pros did it and this was even more valuable than school in many ways.

2009 - Assistant Morgan on a portrait shoot
2009 – Morgan shooting a portrait with me assisting

 

I also took an “internship” at place called Burn Photo, which is a digital equipment rental house and also offers onsite Digital Imaging Technicians for running the computers and doing on set file and asset management. So even though I left school, I was still learning everyday and I was making a tiny amount of money using the skills I had developed so far. It was actually quite rewarding, that is until the student loan debt started coming up due.

I kept my overhead low but wasn’t making enough to pay all my bills, so each month I kept getting deeper and deeper into debt. This was still deep in the midst of the recession. I leaned on my video background and started doing some freelance video editing for a company called Adventure Advertising, a full service design agency with a video focus. They offered and I accepted a full time job and did that for about a year. Working for an ad agency exposed me to the full suite of marketing and I made some valuable contributions from a creative standpoint while video editing and b-camera shooting on videos.

Assisting on a video shoot at AA.
2010 – Assisting on a video shoot at AA.

 

I learned a lot on this job but it wasn’t a culture fit, the commute was terrible, and I was itching to go back to doing it on my own, this time as a photographer/video producer instead of an assistant. I reached out to a couple of other ad agencies and got a few bites for video work now and then.

 

2011- behind the scenes on one of my freelance video shoots
2011- behind the scenes on one of my freelance video shoots

 

I was able to get just enough video and photo work to allow me to eat and pay rent, but not enough to purchase needed equipment or pay down debt. I scraped by for about a year like this but it just wasn’t working out. The recession was still going strong and marketing budgets were small, I was still a no name with a limited reel, I was not doing a good job of marketing myself and no one was busting down the door to hire me, so I started looking for another full time job.

ATLFRB

And I found one in the most unlikely of places. I prefer not to name them here, but if you check my linked in profile, it’s quite easy to see what company I’m talking about.

I manage a corporate studio and post house for both video and photo. We handle internal and external content. My role is officially called Senior Creative Consultant and I actually do a lot of concepting work and development of ideas as well as the hands on production work and facilitating smooth workflows of a small creative team. It’s a great place to work.

This full time job has improved my skills a lot but has also cleared the way for more of the freelance business success too. I’ve made progress paying down debt (student loans are the only debt I have) and building up equipment inventory. Earlier this year, 2015, I officially registered my company as an LLC, so technically Kendrick Disch Creative is just getting started and all this previous stuff has just been training…

 

My HDDSLR one-man-band setup
2014- My HDDSLR one-man-band setup. This was a video shoot for a great non profit called HouseProud. 

Freelance

I’m still taking on freelance work as both a photographer and video director/director of photography, but I’ve transitioned Kendrickdisch.com to be photography focused and I’m developing a new company, a media production agency focused on helping small businesses harness the power of Youtube, Instagram, and Facebook with engaging photo and video. More details on that when there is actually news to report.

So there it is, a really detailed story of how I got my skills and a little bit of how I’ve built my business so far. I’m happy to answer other questions as honestly as possible about what I do and how I do it, so don’t hesitate to ask if you have a question.

Advice

If I had to give advice for somebody starting out in photography I would encourage them to study other things while you learn photography on the side. Learning something besides photography will help you develop a voice, it can help you have a stable income while you practice, and it may give you something to specialize in  (architecture + photography, sociology + photography, programming + photography, even accounting + photography are better than just photography). I’ve used video production as my lead job while photography has been my creative outlet and a side income that pays a few bills.

I want to give a shout out to some other photographers that have really helped me along the way, Guy Welch, Tom Abraham, Josh Meister, Chris Stanford, Jason Fobart, CJ Isaac, Alicia Kidd, Claire Rosen, and to all those other photographers (too numerous to name) that have inspired me or given me courage to pursue this craft as a profession. Thank you all!