How I Started Photography


I hate when people tell me that it’s admirable how I’m able to take things I’m interested in and actually learn them, get pretty good, and then make money with them… Because It’s usually followed by them saying how they wish they could do the same.

I’m not here to pat myself on the back, because while I have been able to turn my love of computers, music, and photography into revenue generators for myself, I think anyone could do the same.  I’m not incredibly disciplined (in fact that’s only now something I’m really starting to work on).  And I’m always just as clueless as anyone else, having no clue how I’m going to go from knowing pretty much nothing, to actually being skilled enough to make money.

I’m going to share with you guys how I started photography so that you can see that you can do it too! I’m also going to see if I can out out some lessons to make your creative journey.  Now that I’ve learned a few different mediums I realize that there are core principals that aren’t specific to what kind of art your making, and we’ll get into a few in this post.

lets get started!

Before I even got a camera…

I was always kind of interested in video so I would borrow my mom’s camera when I was in high school and i would make videos of myself playing guitar and I started messing around with taking some pictures since I had the camera a lot. I even tried some light painting one night when the power went out, but I wasn’t really perusing photography at all it was just a cursory interest.

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Lesson 1

Don’t be afraid to dabble and try things, if you think something might be interesting or fun, give it a shot!

You’ll never know what could have been if you never try.  It would be a shame if you had genius level talent at something, or if you could have found a hobby that would give you a lifetime of fun, enjoyment, and growth, but didn’t because you didn’t give yourself permission to dabble.  dabbling is a good way to get started, I dabble a lot and then I stick with the things that really resonate with me the most.  

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I started a now defunct YouTube channel called jplaysguitar and kept using my mom’s cameras for videos.  When I left for college I didn’t have access to my mom’s camera anymore so I kind of fell off of making videos until I decided to just get a camera of my own for making videos.  I wanted something that could help me make high quality videos so i did a little research and found out the best quality would come from interchangeable lens cameras.  At that point I want even intending to take photo’s and there was a lot of talk about Panasonic video so I got a Panasonic GF2 (which i still own) and hacked it to get higher video bit rates (quality), this was a common thing you could do with early Panasonic cameras.

I kept making videos and in an attempt to improve my video quality I started learning about lenses because I wanted a blurrier background.  Now I was a broke college students so I couldn’t afford much and ended up getting an old manual focus fd lens with an adapter for my gf2.  I was really shocked and how good the quality was for the price and then it occurred to me finally that “hey I could take pictures with this”.

You see at this time I had started taking a lot of pictures on my phone.  Instagram had come out and i would take pictures of just random stuff I would see around and throw on a filter and I thought it looked really cool.  There was one time in particular when I went to a beach in Toronto with my family, there weren’t many people there that day so it had a really interesting calm vibe and i just walked around taking a ton of pictures of things I though looked “aesthetic” those pictures are still on  my Instagram if you scroll down far enough. (or just look above)

That dabbling in cell phone photo’s and dabbling with interchangeable lens cameras for my YouTube videos is what led to me having the aha moment that I should try photography on an interchangeable lens camera.

When I started shooting…

I would take the same kind of pictures I would with my cellphone.  Shots of nature, you know street and still life kinds of stuff.  I was on tumblr a lot so i used to do things like take pictures of flowers and put some kind of moody or inspiring text over it (something I’ve gone back to doing recently but now with portraits).

I would just shoot around casually for fun and just look for things that had an interesting appearance, I learned to use a camera fully manually and would just snap whenever I felt like it. I wasn’t really thinking about turning my photography into anything i just did it because it was fun.

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Lesson 2

Always remember part of making art is having fun.  We never start our creative endeavors trying to make ourselves depressed we just do it for fun, remembering that above all else will get you far.

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I wasn’t even really that conscious of myself doing photography as a pursuit until i held my first prints.  I was just taking pictures thinking nothing of it, but I would have my cameras with me a lot so i guess other people could see i was kind of into it.  My church was having a youth art gallery and inviting local painters and other artists to participate. I guess since people knew i was taking photo’s they asked me if i wanted to display some prints of my stuff in the gallery.  The leader of the youth program was also a photographer so he made my prints and helped me mount them.  This experience made me feel a little more legit because I was displaying my work with some “real artists” that were actually good, and because of that I wanted to take photography more seriously. I still have those prints because no one bought them, at the time this was disappointing but I’m actually glad now that I still have them.

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Lesson 3

Once you get past starting don’t be afraid to put yourself out there!  Yeah we make art based on our own vision and a lot of time it’s like a form of therapy.  But if we’re keeping it real, we know that we still want other people to see our work and acknowledge it. A lot of times were don’t start or don’t put ourselves out there because we’re afraid of negative feedback.  But honestly, it’s never as bad as you think its going to be and it never kills you, it makes you a stronger and better artist.

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Portraits

I never really intended to get into portrait photography really. I’m pretty introverted and at the time thought I wouldn’t be very good at shooting people, but because I’m willing to dabble in anything to see if it sticks so i started taking pictures of my friends, and people on tumblr thought they were good so i kept doing portraits along with the other types of photo’s, and making my YouTube videos.

At this point I realized I needed a new camera because I had been using my gf2 so much i became aware of it’s limitations.  I decided to get a Canon 60d because it had a flip out screen which was good for youtube, and a lot of portrait shooters I saw around my campus also shot on Canon.  This was at this point one of the single biggest investments I made into my art, this camera was bigger and more expensive and professional than my gf2 but I was willing to make that investment because I knew that using the camera was something with would give me a lot of joy.  I was also familiar with the idea of investing in good gear to get the job done right from being a musician.  At this point I used to play more gigs than I do now and I would save up my gig money to buy better guitars and amps so i could get the sounds I wanted for my own music.  I didn’t know how exactly but i knew I could do something similar with my photography.

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Lesson 4

Never be afraid to invest in yourself.  The way I see it the best investment i could ever make is an investment in myself.  I am the one thing I have complete control over so if I invest in myself I can make sure I see returns on my investment, no other investment gives you that kind of guaranteed return. And I didn’t just invest in gear.  I invested time to practice and hone my skills and time to get info from the more experienced shooters i knew.  Nothing beats putting in the work and getting guidance from mentors.

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The Grind

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Lesson 5

Once you invest, it’s time to grind, that’s non-negotiable.  The only way to have any sort of guarantee your investment doesn’t go to waste is you put it to use as much as possible

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Once I decided I was legit into this whole camera and photography thing, I started shooting A LOT, like almost every day.  If there’s one secret i could give you guys to learn a new skill or improve your art, it’s to work daily.  You’ll inevitably miss a day here and there but I’ve found with guitar playing, writing code, and taking photos, that you get the biggest skill jumps when you start practicing daily.  Someone who practices almost every day for two years can easily surpass someone who has no consistency but has been doing something for 10 years.

It’s hard to stay consistent when your’e grinding by yourself. Something I learned when i was teaching myself guitar was that being terrible and working hard to get better isn’t as bad if you have other people trying to do the same as you.  So pretty much every weekday me and my friend Tayo would go shoot together, and if we didn’t have a model we would model for each other.  We did that for about 4 semesters straight.  We learned about using natural light, then reflectors and modifiers, flash, then off camera flash, posing, composition etc. And for the most part we were just shooting our friends, we were lucky that some of our friends also modeled so this made learning posing techniques much easier.

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Lesson 6

Making art is hard, and it can be lonely so if you want to be consistent you need to find or build a creative community. The people in your community don’t need to be doing the same thing as you they just need to be open minded creators.

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The Payoff

I shot a lot and got pretty decent after about two years on shooting constantly.  I understood the basics of lighting so i could shoot in a lot of different conditions.  I got an understanding of exposure and how to use my cameras and lenses properly.  I created some really cool creative stuff (for my standards at the time), but I wasn’t really making any money.  Every once in a while someone would ask me to shoot something and i would make $20 here $40 there but I wasn’t making enough to equal the value of the camera I had spent.  So I got to planning on a way that I could make a good amount of money…

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Lesson 7

You have to figure out monetizing for yourself.  There’s a lot of ways to make money from your art depending on what you make and what type of person you are.  This is something I’m still learning but over time you find what services or value you can provide while honoring yourself.  One thing i would advise everyone is before they start building a business around their art they need to deploy self awareness in the planning stages so that you still enjoy art making while making money.

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I was still going to college, so I made sure that a lot of people knew I took photo’s just by being outside taking photo’s, I would even take a shot or two of people for free and send it to them.  Then when Graduation time came I could cash in.  People knew how i shot and knew they could get a cool concept done instead of just the generic smiling photo in your cap and gown in front of a corny backdrop.  At that point i was only charging $60 for photo-shoots but I had a lot of free time so i could do a couple shoots in a day.  So during graduation season I could easily make more money than people with part time jobs that they hated.

Then I never looked back…


Thanks for reading! hope this helped you realize that there was nothing magical about me learning photography. You can learn whatever you want, you just need to be passionate and patient. So please never make an excuse for not watering whatever flower of creativity you have in you.

-Jamal Mortimer

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