How to Tackle Your First Year of Photography

Posted on August 13, 2013

A friend from New Jersey asked if I could give her some advice about getting into photography. She had a few questions and wanted to hear from someone who had already gone through the experience of starting a photography business. Our conversation follows:



Zackie! I have a question for you about photography. Is it difficult getting into photography? Understanding the cameras and all the photography gear seems like a really steep learning curve and intimidates me a bit. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, but I wanted someone else’s point of view, someone who has already taken the plunge and has experienced these questions/fears. Any advice for a newbie photographer?



It really isn’t hard getting into photography at all. Photography is about experiencing, storytelling, experimenting, and having fun. And practicing until your hands can’t bear the weight of a 5 pound DSLR any longer. Some of skills come naturally to people, but they can be learned fairly quickly.

This is basically what the first year of photography looks like:

Phase 1: You try to learn everything you possibly can in classic academic style. You read books/blogs/tutorials, you take notes, watch videos, blah blah blah.

Phase 2: You go out on your own to practice everything you just learned. Then you get confused as fuck and go back to the books and blogs to refresh your memory.

Phase 3: You ask, “Why don’t my photos look like magazine ads?” and realize you should probably start learning how to edit. So you pick up some more books and watch videos and tutorials on Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. Luckily, these programs are pretty easy to get the hang of.

Phase 4: Two things happen here. One, you get so accustomed to your camera, your style, your settings, etc. that your hands and your eyes start doing the work before your brain even realizes what the situation requires. Just walking down the street you start seeing shit you’d never otherwise pay attention to if you didn’t have your new photographic eye.

You start thinking about how you could tell stories with your images. You start seeing things differently, you’re more aware of your surroundings. You start noticing different people and how they live such different lives.

You notice the unfamiliar.

You notice things so familiar that you realize you’ve never given attention to them before.

It grounds you.

Phase 4 is a really important transition, one that shows growth from an amateur, to an artist or storyteller.

The second thing that happens is that you realize everything you learned in Phase 1 was awesome and great, but many times it pays to ignore those concepts and break all the rules.

Phase 5: You start thinking about how you can make money off your awesome new hobby.

Going through those first three phases happens relatively quickly. And honestly, the more often you can get out and practice your skills, the faster you’ll get the hang of it. Practice all the fucking time. Take your camera everywhere. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and don’t ever limit yourself.

Realize that by “don’t limit yourself”, what I really mean is that you need to enable yourself to think more creatively. Force yourself to see life differently, from other people’s perspectives. Lose the fear of looking weird walking around in public with a camera around your neck and start rocking it with pride.

Sunrise fishing in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Being passionate about something allows you to remove obstacles and let creativity flow naturally.

Seriously, if you’re excited about photography, just dive all the way in. Think about it, you’ve taken pictures since you were super super small, and you’re never going to stop wanting to take pictures because as humans, we all love to relive our fondest memories.

So, do your research, find and buy a rig that fits your budget and your needs, and get hooked. Even if you don’t get to that money-making Phase 5, it’s an awesome hobby and skill to have.

After four years of shooting, I made the decision to keep my love for photography a hobby rather than a business for several reasons. Somewhere along the way, I was persuaded to get into wedding photography. This turned out to be a nightmare, especially for an introvert like me. I thank my lucky stars I had Tanya by my side to act as my megaphone, manager, and wedding planner.

Golf Carts, Wedding Party

Ahh,  my wedding photography days

Wedding photography can be extremely lucrative, but it comes at a price. Your springs and summers are basically jam packed. You go through a never-ending cycle of pitching to clients during the week, uploading and editing last week’s shots while downing your third quadruple espresso from Starbucks. You prepare and plan obsessively for this week’s wedding, scope out locations and finalize timelines, photograph the event on Saturday, and then get home at around 3 AM feeling accomplished and relieved only to find you have five new blisters on your feet. That is, of course, if you even managed to pull your shoes off before collapsing into a heap to process your thoughts over incredible pain in your wrist from holding five pounds of plastic and glass for eight to ten hours nonstop.

And then sometimes, you get up at 5 AM on Sunday and do it all over again.

By the time Monday rolls around, you’re just repeating cycle. Of course, you’re supposed to find time to maintain your business, respond to emails, process orders, and live your own life. Ah, the perks of owning a small business!

Zack Sylvan, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park

I’d prefer to photograph a moose over a wedding any day.

It is immensely stressful, and it isn’t for everyone. I’ve vowed to not shoot weddings anymore simply because the overwhelming stress led me not enjoy the art aspect anymore. I booked clients because I had to pay my student loans, not because I loved capturing moments.

Now I just shoot for fun and photograph what I want, when I want. If I manage to get a great shot that I can sell as stock or privately, that’s awesome. If I feel the urge to update my portfolio, I may take a new client on if time allows. Ultimately, I want my photography to be what I put into it, not what external factors force it to be.

The other thing that can happen is that if you ever decide to get back into agency or corporate work, you’re naturally going to put your photography business on your resume. (Shit, I’m proud of what Zack Sylvan Photography achieved in its short life!) Employers see this as a way to get you to take pictures for them for free. My thoughts on this are conflicting. On one hand, it might help me get the job over another candidate. Sweet. On the other hand, my previous clients paid me very well to photograph them or their events, and my new employer wants me to do this for free? I can see why some people say ‘fuck no!’ I struggle with where I actually stand on this. If I’m advertising it on my resume, I shouldn’t be whining when my employer asks me to use the skills.

You have to decide what you want out to get out of your photography. It depends what your goals are, even if your goal is just to have fun and try something new. My advice is to start thinking about what you might want to photograph, what type of budget you have for gear, how much time you want to invest in learning and mastering your skills, and then think about what your short and long term goals might look like. If you’re serious about it, how will you know what success look like, even if it’s just a hobby? Don’t agonize over answer these questions, but having a vision will definitely help make sure you don’t waste money on a $2,500 camera body and another $6,000 on lenses and other equipment. (Yes, it is an incredibly expensive and addicting hobby.)

I will tell you that it’s super rewarding when you get a website portfolio up, or start hanging your own prints in your house. People ask you where you purchased the print from and it feels awesome to be like ‘please, I took that shot.’

I hope this rant helped! I tried to be vague so as to not bore or scare you away from photography. I’m always here if you want help picking out a camera, finding specific sites or books to start learning about photography or where to find inspiration. Whatever you need, let me know!


So there you have it. Photography 101. This really applies to more than just photography, though. Whatever it is, whether you’re struggling with a business decision, getting into running, photography, or some freaky S&M shit, to better guide your decision-making, you need to define what you want to get out of it to keep focused and creativity flowing. The last thing you want is for an idea or passion to die from a lack of planning. As they say, if you fail to plan, plan to fail.

Knowing what to expect is equally important. You will get frustrated and disappointed in your first few months of shooting. The most successful photographers, runners, and businesspeople understand that their skills are molded over time.

Everyone likes to talk about failure these days, that it’s part of the process of becoming successful. Failing is great and makes us sound human, but understand that failure is a dead end if you’re not able to learn from the experience. Amateurs talk about failing and struggle as if it’s cool, entrepreneurs quietly build off of their experiences and turn them into profitable passions.

Finally, when your company/hobby/pursuit stops being as thrilling as it was when the idea first popped into your head, it’s time to reevaluate. Your passion shouldn’t bring you stress, it should be your stress relief.

How to Tackle Your First Year of Photography by

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