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  • How I Became A Professional Photographer - Part III


    So there I was in early 2008 with a giant hole in my finances and apparently no way of fixing it that made any sense to me. To make matters worse our landlord had sold the house we were living in and we had until the end of January to find a new home.


    Fortunately there was a place just up the road from where we were that seemed to be suitable for us, so I went through the motions with the estate agent who was acting for the landlord, filled out all the paperwork for the lease and then two weeks before we were supposed to move in I phoned the agent asking when I needed to pay the deposit and when I could get the keys. She politely informed me that I wouldn’t be moving in as the landlord had decided to go with another tenant who had offered a higher rental. If I hadn’t made that call I don’t know what would have happened come 1 February.


    Needless to say my stress levels were through the roof and I quite literally didn’t know what I was going to do next. I had less than a month to find a new home in the area because moving to a different suburb wasn’t an option. My boys were in great schools, nor did we want to put them through the trauma of unsettling their home life as well as their school life, particularly my elder son who was just starting his final year.


    It was pure chance that I came across an ad for a property not far from where we were living, but asking quite a lot more money than we had been used to paying for rent. I thought to myself, well, I have to go and look at it anyway and then trust that the money would come from somewhere. The house was amazing. Smaller than what we had been living in, but it had a gorgeous view of the city of Durban, the harbour and parts of the ocean. It had hardwood floors, a small pool and a double lock-up garage, albeit on a very tricky driveway to get in and out of. The major downside was that the owners didn’t want tenants with pets, so if we wanted to live there we would have to re-home our two Rottweilers, Diesel & Dusty. My wife and I talked about it and over some tears, but acceptance of our dire situation, we agreed to take the house and at the same time find new parents for our dogs.


    That wasn’t easy, especially the part where we had to say goodbye to them. Diesel, who we’d gotten as a puppy found a great new parent via a friend of my sister-in-law who lived on a farm far away in Zululand, so he ended up living the high life as a farm dog there. Dusty, who was a rescue from the SPCA ended up with another Rottweiler male on a large property not far from where we lived. We decided not to visit her because it would have been too distressing for not only her, but ourselves too.


    There was, of course another small problem moving into this new house. Where was the money for the deposit and first month’s rent going to come from? Fortunately my brother once again came to my aid and he loaned me the money I needed. He also got me a new job working in construction for a company he had joined while he was waiting for his Australian emigration process to get going. I just had to keep my Ford Ranger, find some labourers and grout pre-fabricated concrete slabs for residential buildings that the company he had joined was making and installing. That job was probably the worst I have ever had. Working conditions on construction sites in this country are not great. The first assignment I got from them I had one African guy from my brother’s old company join me and together we toiled on the third floor of a building in the middle of the hottest part of the Durban summer, mixing cement and manually filling in the gaps between these slabs. I thought I was going to die. You know that old saying about trying to put a square peg into a round hole? I felt a lot like the square peg doing manual labour, but I had no choice other than to continue. The money coming in made up for it. My life was starting to sound like a Bruce Springsteen song.


    At this time I wasn’t really doing any photography. My equipment had dwindled down to the Nikon D70 and one or two inconsequential lenses. I had sold the Nikon 70-200/2.8 VR to pay for various expenses and replaced it with the Nikon 18-200mm VR. The idea of doing photography for money had been swimming around in the back offices of my mind, but in reality I didn’t have any confidence in my ability to do it on a professional basis full time. Nor did I have the right gear. I was usually shy around people and so the idea of photographing things like weddings where I would have to give direction and deal with the antics of brides and their mothers kind of freaked me out. Sports photography, which as you already know I had some experience with, was comparatively easy. You just had to pitch up, point the camera at an athlete at the right time, email or FTP your image files to the client and that was the end of the job. The problem for me if I wanted to pursue that avenue of photographic work was to firstly find the clients and then secondly buy the right equipment. If you’ve ever considered buying a 400/2.8 or a top end DSLR you’ll know that they don’t come cheap, so unless I could find a benefactor to kit me out, that option wasn’t looking likely.


    Only a few months into the year another bombshell rocked the earth on which I stood. My brother’s emigration process had hit high gear and he resigned from his new job at this other concrete company in anticipation of wrapping up his affairs in SA. Almost immediately the new manager who took over from him took it upon himself to eliminate our nepotism and once again I was back in the unemployment hole.


    I don’t recall exactly the moment when I decided to make a full go of professional photography but it was born more out of economic necessity than any burning desire to turn my hobby into a job that paid me. I’m guessing that this probably happened around Easter time of 2008, but if I’m honest, a lot of the occurrences of that year are a black hole for me. I was not in a good state mentally. There were creditors calling me up constantly, as well as my own accountant who wanted to know what I was going to do about not only my now dormant company, but also the money I owed her. I just turned it all off. I didn’t want to know about anything to do with money. Somewhere in the depths of my denial I let go of accountability and in its place there grew a deep seated enmity of all things financial. I could barely make enough to keep the lights on or buy food. Dealing with accountants, bankers and other people asking me for money that I didn’t have only served to heighten my hostility towards them all. The song of my life had moved from Springsteen to Leonard Cohen.


    So where to from here, I asked myself. How do I live? What do I do now?


    I’d always kept a personal domain name since 2004 and one thing I had going for me was the ability to develop websites. I had migrated away from using Dreamweaver’s offline template system and in between fiddling with SMF for the Nikongear forum, I‘d also taught myself a bit about WordPress. This remarkable open source platform was powering large portions of the internet, so armed with a little bit of SEO knowledge and some customised WordPress themes I started redeveloping my own website, posing as a professional photographer.


    My offering was limited to the kinds of work that I thought I could con people into paying me for. I offered product photography, corporate event coverage and portraiture. I had watched Zack Arias’ tutorials on how to light a white seamless background and I sort of adapted that technique for product photography using my dining room table, a white sheet and some clothes pegs to hold the sheet onto a makeshift backdrop ensemble. I had a Nikon SB-800 speedlight and was using the pop-up flash on my D70 to trigger it in manual mode for the backdrop (you’re supposed to have 2 lights for the backdrop, but the SB-800 covered most of it so I could get away with that). I also had an old Elinchrom strobe for a key light that only had one power setting and I used a manual optical slave to trigger that.


    On my new WordPress powered website I had put together some examples of my work using this method. I thought the site actually looked pretty good and professional. I remember arrogantly putting “I don’t shoot weddings and I don’t wear ties” somewhere in the footer too. Professional indeed. One day I got a phone call from a young lady asking if I could please give her company a quote to photograph some text books for them. They were an international publishing house.


    “How many books do you need photographed?” I asked.


    “About two thousand or so.” she said. “You’ll have to go to our warehouse in Pietermaritzburg to do it.”


    “Okay! No problem.” I replied. “What do you need from me to get going?”


    “Just a quote for now.” she said.


    I had my first client on the hook. I didn’t want to lose them, so I quickly cobbled together a “formal” quote based on what I thought would be a fair price to do the job. I’d estimated that I could probably knock this job out in about 2 or 3 weeks tops, so I billed them for what I would need to earn to cover 2 month’s of my living expenses and overheads. It seemed like a lot of earnings to do something rather menial.


    What I hadn’t taken into account was the time it would take me to do the editing and delivery of the work. Or the fact that I would have to buy some extra equipment to do the job. Or that I would have to drive almost 700km over three days of shooting between my home and the warehouse in Pietermaritzburg (another city that is 110km from my home). The least of my considerations was just how menial this job would be, especially on the post processing side.


    I had sold my Ford Ranger to my brother-in-law and used the small difference between the selling price and the bank settlement to buy some new gear. The equipment I got comprised a second SB-800 speedlight and a used Nikon D200 body. The D200 was pretty much the best DSLR Nikon could offer the consumer market at that stage. The D3 and D700 were still a year away and the D2X was just crazy money at the time (although it actually cost significantly less than what I had paid for the Canon D30 in 2001!). I also found a used flash meter and bought a medium sized pop-up tent designed for product photography. It had three different coloured velvety sweeps that attached to it on the inside with velcro strips. I was ready to go!


    On accepting my quote the client asked me to do three things that I should never have agreed to, but in retrospect I guess these are the kinds of things you learn as you go. The first request was to provide them with three different sizes of the final images. One thumbnail in PNG, one medium sized image in JPG and of course a large printable JPG that they would use in their printed advertising. They also asked me to deep etch each item and save all the files with the ISBN of the book. These last two items are what almost sank me on my first big job.


    The process of deep etching is not what I thought it was. I had been under the mistaken notion that deep etching simply meant turning the background pure white, when in fact it means removing the background entirely so that it can be replaced with anything else. The only way to do this is to duplicate your base layer in Photoshop, use the pen tool to trace a path around the subject, save it as a clipping path, turn that path into a selection, invert that selection, then knock out its contents. Once that was done I had to look-up the ISBN for the publication on an Excel spreadsheet and save it in the three formats that way. Have you ever seen how long an ISBN is?


    Some 6 weeks later I was still doing the editing and kicking myself for ever agreeing to do it in the first place. I think this experience probably also has something to do with my now deep-seated loathing of Photoshop. But on the upside I had done the shoot successfully and the client was quite happy with the work. They remained a client for many years after that job and I did much more than pack shots for them too. I did their executive corporate portraits, plus I also photographed their offices after a remodel as well as a few of their company events. Over the years though their staff has changed and it’s now been a while since I did anything for them.


    And so that’s the story of how I ended up becoming a professional photographer. It isn’t pretty, glamorous or even all that inspiring, but it’s my story. Do I have any regrets about choosing to buy that Nikon F60 back in Y2K and the profound effect it has since had on my life? Maybe, maybe not. The story is still playing out and the ending is as yet unwritten. One thing I do know is that a bad day in the studio or on location is still a lot better than sitting in a cubicle somewhere, wearing clothes that don’t speak to my character, listening to a boss I don’t like and waiting for the clock on the wall to crawl towards the home time mark so that the hours of my real life can begin. Right now all the hours of a day belong to me and when they don’t I at least know what they are worth and how much I can get for selling them. That’s a good space to be in.

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    Thank you for sharing to us a "real life" story. You have succeeded because not only only of your obvious abilities to produce nice photography but also by your constant persistence to create your own working space. Bravo!

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