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  • How I Became A Professional Photographer - Part I


    I got hooked on photography when I was 32 years old, so by my reckoning almost 20 years have passed since I bought my first "serious" camera. But the obsession didn't start there, it went way back to when I was just 12. 


    As a boy I was given a Canomatic "Instamatic" camera by my parents for my 12th birthday and I loved it, but it wasn't like the SLR cameras I would see in the windows of camera stores around the city. Those cameras looked the business. They had bumps on their heads and big bold letters on those bumps proclaimed their pedigree. Nikon, Pentax, Canon, Minolta, Chinon, Olympus, etc. You could change lenses on those cameras and I really, really wanted one, because if I had one people might take notice of me. I would be important. Girls would want to pose for their pictures and that might unlock romance. You see, I was a painfully shy kid. I couldn't even talk to girls, but if I had a camera... However, those cameras with bumps on their heads were well out of the realm of my blue-collar upbringing, so I got a 2nd hand Canomatic. It was 1980. 


    In those days you could hand your film in to the ubiquitous 1-hour lab and get your prints back mostly within an hour. I remember going back home with my first pack of prints and my Mom wasn't very impressed with my "art". There were photos of buses driving along our street, taken from a low angle (as close as I would dare to lie in the road with a bus flying by!), photos of ships coming into the harbour and one or two photos of my friends performing wheelies on their 10-speed racing bikes. 


    "Dallas! This isn't what we got you the camera for!" shouted Mom. "It costs lots of money to develop photos and what are we supposed to do with these? You're supposed to make memories with your photos, not this random nonsense." 


    Of course I was dejected, but I wasn't deterred. I continued to take my camera around with me and I did make some "memories" that Mom deemed suitable to put in the family album, but I also made my own photos. At that point I had exactly zero clues on how to use the Canomatic. It was a zone focusing f/2.8 lens, but I had no idea what any of that stuff meant. I was only interested in looking through the viewfinder and pressing the shutter button.


    In late 1981 my folks went on a trip to North America and took the Canomatic with them. They went to NYC, Toronto, Vancouver, LA, Vegas and then finally Tallahassee in Florida. They went in the winter and as Durbanites used to wearing shorts all year round they had no idea just how cold it got in America. They brought back lots of photos, but many of them were blurry or out of focus. I asked my Mom what all this random "artsy" stuff was about. She didn't respond positively. And the camera wasn't working anymore either. Stuck shutter. I think they may have dropped it in the cold weather! 


    Fast forward to the mid 90's and my best friend Warren had saved up and bought himself a Chinon SLR camera. I was floored. Looking through his photo album I could see the kinds of photos that I had always wanted to make, but there was no way that a young father like me was going to be able to justify the kind of money needed to buy an SLR. A few years went by and I had managed to climb my way up the corporate ladder and was beginning to do well enough in my job that there was spare money available for me to finally buy my first camera with a bump on its head. This was at Easter in the year 2000. 


    Our local mall used to have three dedicated camera stores, plus a large department store that had a camera section in it. I had my heart set on buying a Minolta 404si from one of the stores on the lower level. I had almost convinced myself to get it when I went upstairs to one of the other camera shops and the salesman there started showing me something from Nikon that was a little bit more expensive, but apparently much better built than the plastic mount Minolta. It was a Nikon F60. In black it certainly looked a lot more "the business" than that puny Minolta! 



    I ended up going to the big department store's camera department and lo and behold, there they had the exact same Nikon F60 but at the same price as the Minolta 404si was being sold for. I handed over the money and in that moment the course of my life changed. 


    Sometimes I wonder if I might have gone as deep down the rabbit hole as I have done had I bought the inferior Minolta camera that day. When I first got the Nikon I thought it was incredible and I started taking photos of my kids and just about anything I thought looked interesting. I took out every book on photography I could find in the library (mostly John Hedgecoe) and I carried a little notebook with me to write down my settings every time I took a photo. My friend Warren was suitably jealous of my Nikon too. It had autofocus! 


    However, the results I was getting weren't always exactly what I had in mind when I looked through the view finder and my interest did begin to fade a little. But then something else happened. A neighbour friend of ours worked for an insurance company and she had acquired this Nikon lens from a claim and asked if it would fit my camera. In other words, did I want it for free? Duh. It was a little 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 kit lens, smaller than the 28-80mm my camera had come with, but the build quality was exponentially better. She gave it to me and suddenly the dying embers of my interest in photography were fanned right back into life. The image quality of the 35-70mm lens blew me away when compared to the lens that had come with my F60. The photos were so much sharper and the colours seemed richer too. 


    At that point I should have walked away and been happy, but happiness is like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. You have to keep topping it up. Especially where photography is concerned. That one lens led to another. Then another. Before I knew it I had two Nikon cameras. Then three, then four. I would spend every moment of my day looking at Nikon camera stuff online, neglecting to do the work I was actually being paid to do at the bank I worked for. I was on usenet camera forums all the time. Within the space of a year I had acquired more camera equipment than any amateur should have, including the then top of the line Nikon F5 as well as a couple of ED Nikkors, including the much coveted 80-200mm f/2.8 2-ring version. At one point I even created a "Nikon Broker" website on a free platform called Tripod.com (appropriate name!). I would try and find buyers of anything Nikon and sell them the equipment I didn't like. 


    One morning, about a year after I had bought my first Nikon, the entire division I worked for at the bank was called into a meeting at a very early hour. We walked into the meeting room and found a visibly distressed Marketing Director as well as the company's chief of HR. We all sat down in somber silence, waiting for the bombshell to hit. It became clear soon after the director began speaking that this was a serious meeting. They put an organogram up on the projector screen and said that if we saw our name on there we could leave the room. Mine, along with about 80% of the rest of the division, wasn't there. We stayed behind to hear that as an unfortunate consequence of poor company results, we were being retrenched. In other words our positions had been made redundant. In even less sanitary words, we were about to be fired. There were some open positions on the organogram and it was suggested that we might want to apply for those if we had the relevant qualifications and experience. Alternatively we could take a voluntary severance package and there would be an incentive to do so. The HR man took over the meeting and proceeded to give us some numbers regarding these packages. I stood to get out about a year's salary, plus of course my pension if I wanted it. I decided to take the voluntary package. I'd had enough of banking and being told what to do by suits anyway. 



    Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. I got out that money and as is my natural disposition to go into things with both feet first, I went a little daft, believing that I could somehow crack it as a professional photographer, buy all the toys I would need and enjoy getting paid for it in the process. I spent about 40% of my severance money on new Canon equipment. There was a new digital SLR they had named the D30 which was revolutionary and since the Nikon D1 was outrageously priced it caught my eye. You could put any of the Canon EF lenses on it and you'd get a glorious 3 megapixel image, albeit cropped to 1.6x the focal length. I thought to myself, with the ability to churn out digital imagery in a blink of an eye, I could join the ranks of the world's sports photographers and make a killing doing it way faster than everyone else. Who could possibly out perform me? 


    So I did just that. Somehow I sweet talked my way into getting an accreditation from the Natal Rugby Board and I found myself running along the sidelines at Kings Park Stadium taking digital photos of the Sharks playing in Super Rugby and Currie Cup matches. This was great! I'd sometimes see my former colleagues living it up in the company's hospitality suite at the stadium, which was in the same block as the media room, but I felt much more important than them as I got to brush shoulders with the players down on the field. How cool was I? The bump on my super-cool 3 megapixel DSLR said I was the coolest cat on the block. What I really needed was a bump on my own head. That came soon enough.


    The reality of a life in sports photography hit me squarely on the head when it came to finding people who wanted to pay me for the images I was getting. I had managed to sell a couple of them to our local newspaper, but the money wasn't very good at all. It certainly couldn't justify the expense of all the equipment I had purchased. And I didn't even have the best stuff. Apart from the newspapers there wasn't anybody else buying images. Not even the magazines I approached wanted to use freelance work while they had their own in-house photographers. I flirted with doing a few other things while my severance money grew thinner and thinner. Chief among these was setting up a property sales magazine on our south coast with a successful Dutch guy I had met in the course of my final months at the bank. All I got out of that partnership was a lot more mileage on my BMW. I was travelling almost 250km a day for 3 months, selling ad space and distributing the property magazines.


    I then tried my hand at selling insurance. The company who hired me to do this made me buy a very expensive laptop and sent me on some sales and product training. I think in 6 months I managed to sell two policies, one to my brother and another to the friendly manager of my local camera store (he was always happy to see me for some reason). I hated that job, mainly because I had no confidence in the products, but also I suppose because I had no confidence in myself. I was feeling really bruised and battered. 


    By the end of 2002 I had no money left and few prospects. My dream of being a cool cat professional sports photographer lay in tatters. We sold our home, I sold the BMW and we moved into a rented house. I kept my equipment. My brother offered me an opportunity to sell some concrete paving products that his company was making on the side on a commission only basis, so I happily took up the "job". It was about this time that the local housing market began picking up. The reserve bank had reduced interest rates to their lowest level since I had become an adult and the prices of property were soaring. With all this new found equity people began doing a lot of home renovations and since there were only about 3 companies in our city making the kind of paving we were selling, the demand for it was outstripping our ability to supply. I started to make good money. Really good money. Then I got interested in camera gear again. It was 2004. 


    To be continued...


    © Dallas Dahms 2019. No part of this text may be reproduced outside of this platform (Fotozones) without express written permission from the owner of the rights. 

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    9 hours ago, Luc de Schepper said:

    Great story Dallas, thanks for sharing this with us and I'm looking forward to the next post.


    Thanks Luc, I have written the second part, but need to refine it. Hope to publish next week. There will be a third and maybe a fourth part too. 

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