Ever take a photo and feel like the entire world just makes sense? Capturing your surroundings can be a powerful means of self-expression, whether you’re documenting your community, staging an elaborate fashion photo shoot, or taking an intimate portrait of a close friend. And image-making doesn’t just have to be a hobby, and it doesn’t even have to be formally learned for you to be successful in it. Want proof? Take it from Aditi Mayer, Shingi Rice, and Ashley Kickliter, three young photographers who are part of Girlgaze, a community for young female-identified photographers. We wanted to know what lessons they wish they knew when they were just getting started, so we sourced questions from our photography fellows on how to develop a unique style, get your work seen, and collaborate with other creatives. Read on, take notes, get inspired, and then start snapping!
You Don’t Have to Study Photography to Become a Photographer
We repeat: You don’t need to go to art school or major in fine art to become a photographer. Don’t believe us? “Don’t sweat it,” says Aditi, who studied journalism and international studies in school to have a broader understanding of how to tell a compelling multimedia story as well as larger social issues. “At the end of the day, creativity can’t be taught in a classroom.”
Shingi also confirms that self-study and lots of trial and error is the best way to fuel your own imagination and sharpen your skills. “I learned everything I know myself, from books, the internet, and just putting it to practice and working with friends, asking them to pick their favourite clothes and shoot for an hour or so.” she explained. Ashley echoes the value of just diving into the library or Tumblr and going deep. “Study photographs and see what you like or don’t like, and then see how you can replicate those things in your own work.”
But where do you practice honing your skills if you don’t have lessons to follow and professors to keep you accountable? A little self-discipline goes a long way. “Shoot, shoot, shoot,” says Ashley. “One of the biggest aspects of photography is training and developing your eye — whether that be to light or composition or post processing. The only way to do that is by continually shooting. Even if you have five minutes or no subject, use a plant or an animal, anything at all, because you will begin to develop and sharpen your eyes every single time you shoot.”
And ultimately your portfolio (which we’ll get to in a bit), your eye and your attitude speak louder than an degree does. “Any creative field considers one’s work more than it does one’s academic credentials,” Aditi confirms.
Start With Tools You Have Now—Even If That’s Your iPhone
While it may feel like you have to have that fancy camera or next-level Photoshop skills to get recognized, don’t underestimate the tools you already have at your disposal—whether that’s your phone camera or a hand-me-down point-and-shoot camera. Aditi confesses that she began her “photography journey as a young middle schooler with a vision and a subpar camera phone—a flip phone, might I add!” With a little creativity, patience, and practice, even the most unexpected equipment can create incredible results if you’re willing to think outside of the box and believe in your vision. As Aditi says, “At the end of the day, good content and storytelling aren’t reliant on one’s gear.”
Define Your Own Style Beyond the Instagram Algorithm
“What engages the masses won’t necessarily engage you,” Aditi explains of her experience on Instagram and Tumblr. “Art, before it can exist for public consumption, has to exist for you.” So whether or not you want to take photos of latte art or sunset photos (and no shame if you do!), make sure you’re taking the images for your personal enjoyment first and foremost, rather than for the Explore page or someone else’s aesthetic.
Your Best Collaborators May Be Waiting for You on Social Media
While artmaking can often feel like a solo activity, don’t be afraid to collaborate to learn new ideas, points of view, and shooting styles. “Instagram, specifically, has been the best way I have found to connect and collaborate with other creatives,” explains Ashley. Aditi also echos that she’s discovered other photographers, brand, and models to work with by scrolling through inspirational feeds and encourages fellow creatives to not “hesitate to slide into those DMs. Beautiful collaborations and creative connections await you.”
But Instagram isn’t the only place for photographers to meet other like-minded creatives. You can also learn about meetups or other workshops through Facebook events. “A lot of cities have organized group ‘photo walks,’” Ashley notes, where you pair up with fellow photographers and models and work together on a larger project. Cultivating your own network will not only help you create more work, but it is also key to opening up job opportunities and potential clients.
A Strong Portfolio Will Convey Your Point of View and Your Skillset
There are various ways to present your work to the public, whether that’s through a Squarespace website, a shareable PDF that can be easily scrolled through on a phone, or your Instagram profile. But Aditi explains that understanding your internet persona is your first step. Portfolios, she notes “are no longer printed folders of your best work. Your portfolio is your internet footprint.” And don’t just think about the images you are setting forth on your website or Instagram account, but also consider the causes you support and messages you post on Facebook as part of your overall branding. “I’m passionate about a wide variety of issues, most notably the ties between style, sustainability, and social justice,” Aditi explains. “As a result, I’ve created a blog that explores these three things, and I’m lucky to say that 90% of my work as a photographer deals with these themes in one way or another.”
But when considering the nitty-gritty of what images to post, Ashley has one rule of thumb: Consider your audience. “Some good advice someone gave me a few years ago was to cater your portfolio to whom you’re sending it to,” she Ashley. “But I think you should always have a general portfolio that shows a range of your skill sets. Shingi agrees, noting, “I have realised recently that the more evidence you have of working in different environments such as studio, location, city, and landscape shoots, this way, the client can see that you can adapt to anything.” Don’t be afraid to showcase multiple styles, subjects, or points of view, because a diverse body of work will explain your passion points and expertise visually and quickly.
Also, when deciding what images to display, consider going beyond your personal favorites and ask friends and colleagues for their opinions too. “Don’t forget about the power of critique and having other’s eyes on your work too,” says Ashley. “This has greatly benefited me in the past when trying to curate my portfolio because I would always get stuck or not want to throw something out, but having a fresh set of eyes not connected to the work like yourself can really help you decide what to include or not. I always like to start and end a portfolio with what I feel are some of my strongest images.”
Use Hashtags to Get Your Work Seen by New Communities
Whether you’re using CF’s #GettingSomewhere tag, Instagram’s ongoing #WHPclassic, or #girlgaze, Ashley urgest photographers to make the most of these self-selecting communities, sharing widely and sharing often. “Any spare time you have, create something,” she says. “Not only will you be flooding platforms with your work, but you will also be growing and excelling in your skill each time you create something.” For Ashley, participating in #girlgaze has provided her with work opportunities as well as natural networking. “The #girlgaze hashtag on Instagram has specifically connected me to so many talented female creatives. It’s been such a cool thing to watch a community grow from a hashtag.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Discuss Money—and Ask for What You Want
While it can be scary to discuss payment, if you’re considering a long-term career as a photographer, you’ll need to establish your rates, decide what you will and won’t work for exposure or trade, and create a pricing system that will ultimately support the lifestyle you want to live. “One of the hardest things I’ve learned as a photographer in the last year has been how to price my worth and not just my services or products,” says Ashley, who quit a 9-to-5 job this year to pursue freelance photography full time. “Even when I’m scared to how the client will react or of losing a job, I’ve had to make the leap of really not accepting work for exposure alone anymore. Once I started doing that, I became more comfortable and I started to really only attract the type of jobs I wanted because that’s what I was simply putting out in the world.”
And if you’re new at the pricing game, don’t be afraid to start a dialogue rather than name a single-fee structure. “Have a price in mind you will settle for, but always pitch higher,” says Ashley. “Most people are willing to negotiate if your initial price is out of their budget while still landing on a number you feel valued at.”
For more advice on finding your style and voice as a creative today, listen to our CF Office Hours episode with Girlgaze’s founder and CEO Amanda de Cadenet below!
Featured photo by @bluespit