Photographer for a Month: A Journey into Learning to Shoot Strangers

For 30 days I threw myself into photography, hoping to discover if photography is what I would like to do for a living. Read on for the outcome of my quest and find out what it’s like to be a photographer.

Last edited: May 25, 2017

Mirha Masala as a photographer

It wasn’t until I started The Spin-Off Project that I also began to take photos on a regular basis. To say that I had taken an interest in photography, however, would be a stretch too far.

I saw photography as one of the essential skills that bloggers needed to develop. And when I added “be a photographer” to my spin-off list, it was because I thought that being able to take better pictures would make me a better blogger.

Over the last four years, my reason for wanting to learn photography evolved. Now, it’s not just about becoming a better photographer for the sake of my blog; it’s also about finding out if I want photography to play a bigger role in my professional life.

Instagram has had a lot to with this consideration. It’s there that I saw photography move away from the arts and into the ordinary. Photography became something everyone could do–and did, regardless of their technical skills, and regardless of whether the result was any good or not.

This trend helped me move away from the myth that “photographers (like any other type of artists) are born, not made” and allowed me to experiment more freely with photography. Unintentionally, I created the possibility of becoming a photographer.

At the same time, as I saw more and more people turn their photography hobby into a career, I began being drawn to the freedom that professional photographers seem to enjoy. The freedom to create, the freedom to do so anywhere in the world. That’s what this spin-off was about: finding out if I would want a piece of that freedom. 

what it was like to do a photography spin-off

pt.1: learning photography

I got my first DLSR camera, complete with a set of semifamiliar buttons, only a few days before the start of the spin-off. Just by looking at the device, I knew I would be tempted to study the manual long and hard before daring to take a single shot. I also knew that would be a mistake.

If there is one piece of advice that every photographer seems to agree with, it’s that the best way to learn photography is by going out to shoot. Furthermore, my main challenge for these 30 days was to overcome my fear of asking people for pictures. Staying in was no option.

Thus, it was already on the second day that I found myself on the streets, trying to build up the courage to approach my first subject. In a now-or-never moment, I ambushed a gas service worker, who to my surprise, agreed to have his picture taken.

But as I looked through the viewfinder, trying to frame the man to the best of my abilities, I realized that I didn’t know enough to ensure a decent shot. There was no time for trial and error either. I ended up keeping the result, which was poor at best, to myself.

I thought this was unfair. If people were willing to trust me to take their picture, then the least I could, was learn how to do it reasonably well. I wanted people to be able to see the outcome, and think, “Oh, that’s quite nice.” Shooting around cluelessly, hoping for the benefits of experimentation to kick in, wasn’t good enough.

I needed to understand the principles and techniques of photography. Yet, I also quickly learned that I could be studying and taking perfectly exposed pictures of the flowers on my desk for days on end, it would take a street portrait to expose the flaws in my learnings.

The theory inspired me to experiment with different techniques and gave me the confidence to go out and shoot–but out, I needed to go. Studying photography, practicing it, and finding a balance between the two, became a constant.

Going back and forth between the studies and the street was necessary and at the same time very rewarding. Because in photography the theory translates so well into the practice, I was able to keep climbing the learning curve without ever being stuck for too long. In this sense, learning photography was far more rewarding from, for example, learning to surf (or kiteboard or snowboard) when I would often hit a disconnect between theory and practice.

Even when I understood the technique behind getting up on a board, it still took an eternity of slip-offs and nosedives before I managed to perch myself on top of it. (Related reading: 30 Days of Surfing and a Few Surf Stories about Perpetual Frustration, Persistence, and That BugWith photography, however, learning to set the focus on the eyes when shooting portraits, produced stronger images as soon as I applied the knowledge.

With photography, understanding the theory and applying it, was often enough to get the technique (fairly) right on a first attempt. It made learning photography the most gratifying learning experience I’ve had to date. 

pt. 2: being a photographer

Although it would take me the entire spin-off to start feeling somewhat comfortable with approaching people for a picture, it took only “three yeses” to make me fall in love with taking street portraits.

I found people’s willingness to be vulnerable, to trust a stranger with something so intimate as having one’s picture taken, to be admiring. Most people indulged my request to take their portrait without much of an internal debate. Rarely did anyone ask what the photos were for or even if they could see them.

These displays of self-confidence and unquestionable trust have inspired me to be more playful myself and say, “Sure, why not?” more often. But as inspiring as I found people’s confidence to be, and as humbling as their trust is, it’s the glimpses into their insecurities that hooked me to shooting street portraits.

There’s this short window of time, after a person agrees to have their picture taken, and before I actually take it, in which moments get stretched out, and as if in slow motion, I get to witness my subject’s range of emotions unfold one by one through my viewfinder: pride, wonder, embarrassment, worry, suffering.

In these few mesmerizing moments, I instantly connect to the person in front of me. To the humanity within them, to the humanity within “the others”, which we rarely get to see and perhaps, more often than not, don’t even believe exists. And I’m reminded again that we are all suffering on one level or another and, above all, to be kind.

what I liked best about being a photographer

My friends say I’m an extrovert, but if you ask me, it’s not that simple. Social interactions are a source of joy for me, but spending too much time with people tires me. Although I don’t mind being in the center of attention, in novel situations, it might take me a while to reach the middle. No doubt, I prefer to work alone. And yes, I’m talkative, but I can also stay silent for days. (Related reading: Meditator for a Month)

Being a street photographer fulfilled both my introverted and extroverted tendencies like no other lifestyle has before. Not only was I able to combine working alone (editing photos, following photography courses) and interacting with people (going out shooting), but I could also balance the two as I desired. Depending on how I felt on a given day, I could do a little more of the former and a little less of the latter or vice versa.

what nobody tells you about being a photographer

What came as the biggest surprise to me is how tiring I found taking street portraits to be. From being hyper alert to my surroundings and approaching people to talking them through the process and constantly evaluating, judging, my work: just a couple of hours of shooting portraits would leave me both physically and mentally drained.

Furthermore, I vastly underestimated the amount of time that photographers need to spend in post production. Image editing programs like Photoshop are time-gorging monsters. A basic touch up can easily take five minutes, and that’s assuming you know what you’re doing. Now imagine having to retouch 50 photos, 100, 200, and I’m sure you’ll never ask a photographer again, “Can’t you just fix that in Photoshop?”

But even if photographers never had to edit a single picture (ha ha), only importing, organizing and sorting a batch of images can take hours. Then, there’s also the work of resizing, exporting and printing or publishing the material. Between “the click” and final result is a sea of time-consuming steps.

All this leaves photographers with much less time for taking pictures (or studying new techniques) than I thought. In fact, with much less time than I had for both, considering professional photographers also have to spend part of their working hours marketing their work and meeting clients (neither of which I had to do).

Finally, being able to take good photos instead of just ordinary ones, and doing so consistently, is hard. Be that as it may, it’s the good ones that make all the difference. Good photos make everyday scenes look magical while ordinary photos make them seem, well, ordinary.

It’s the difference between a pasta dish made following a Jamie Oliver recipe and the same dish made by the Naked Chef himself (and sometimes, it’s pasta that Mr. Oliver struggles to make). It’s the difference between yours truly taking a picture and my dear friend and professional photographer, Silvia Falcomer, taking one. (Related browsing: Silvia’s travel diary of our trip to Seoul

market lady baking sweet potatoes in Seoul

The image on the left, taken by me, makes this market scene seem rather ordinary. Looking at it, you might even wonder why I stopped to take it in the first place. Silvia’s shot on the right, however, captures that why and puts the magic back in the scene that made both of us stop.

the insight that I took away from this month

After one of the portraits I took, my subject, his wife and I started talking. Before long, however, our small talk turned into a conversation about balancing parenthood and a successful career, and more pertinently, about equal parenting and the couple’s experiences on these topics.

It was quite the discussion to be had among people who knew nothing about each other. And in retrospect, it’s no wonder our talk turned awry. Still, at the moment, I was taken by surprise when the man took a defensive stance, suddenly annoyed by my presence and opinion.

Had I not just taken this man’s portrait, and seen traces of self-doubt in his eyes moments before I released the shutter button, I would’ve probably thought he was being a jerk. I might’ve even reciprocated his anger. But now that I had seen his vulnerable side, I felt compassion for him.

Doing street portraits has increased my empathy towards strangers in this way. I might not be giving out free hugs yet, but I’m more aware of the internal dialogues I have, and the comments I make, about people I don’t know.

It’s too easy to dismiss people for being rude, insensitive, weird. But the truth is, everyone is struggling. And if you ever have any doubts about this, and about the humanity of another person, just put them in front of your camera lens.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. ―Wendy Mass, “The Candymakers”

if I would want to be a photographer

After five years of doing The Spin-Off Project, I now long for a professional career that’s largely independent from my creative work. I want to be able to follow my creative pursuits without my income being depended upon the success of those efforts.

Although I like the idea of becoming a professional photographer, there’s no guarantee that, even if I devoted every waking hour for the next couple of years to photography, I would be successful–that is, paycheck-successful. This is a risk I already took with blogging and which I’m not willing to take with photography at this moment.

Furthermore, I found a hobby in photography. It’s become a pursuit I look forward to doing in my pastime. I don’t want to risk killing my newly-found passion for photography by trying to monetize it. For once, I’m just going to enjoy having a good ol’ hobby.

the resources that I used

Note that the links below direct you to the original websites of given resources while the 🛒 emojis bring you to the resources’ Amazon product pages. Book links, however, are directly linked to the Amazon store.

gear

photography courses

Photoshop courses

applications

From the Creative Cloud Photography Plan:

  • Adobe Photoshop CC 2017 – photo editing software
  • Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC – photo organizing and editing software
  • Adobe Bridge CC 2017 – media managing and organizing software

For the iPhone and/or iPad:

books

Understanding Exposure, 4th Edition: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera” – Bryan Peterson

Bryan Peterson’s Exposure Solutions: The Most Common Photography Problems and How to Solve Them” – Bryan Peterson

Ten: Ten Ways to Improve Your Craft Without Buying Gear” – David Duchemin

Ten More: Ten More Ways to Improve Your Craft Without Buying Gear” – David Duchemin

Lonely Planet’s Best Ever Photography Tips” – Richard l’Anson

other

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Tell me what you think. Connect with me on FacebookTwitter or Instagram (links match comment pages for this post) and let me know: What do you think about my immersion into photography? Have you ever wanted to be a photographer? And are there any other photography resources (books, podcasts, movies, courses, workshops, products, etc.) that I should look into?


FURTHER READING

To see some of the pictures that I took during this spin-off, go to 30 Days of Photography: The Pictures, the Process, and the Skills behind the Progress.