Twenty years into photography, it’s rare to find a subject I haven’t already photographed in some capacity. Enter Night Snow. Whenever possible, I get outside when it’s snowing those big, fat beautiful flakes, but I had never tried it at night.
First, it required me to do something I absolutely hate: take a tripod. I’m about as anti-tripod as anyone can be who still owns one. I find them extremely limiting. I knew with how dark it was that I would need a tripod to shoot at slower shutter speeds if I wanted to have a low(ish) ISO, which increases my image quality.
But, of course, slow shutter speeds mean that the snow streaks across the image, which isn’t really the effect I was going for. And if the speeds are slow enough, you can’t even tell it’s snowing at all.
Comparing Shutter Speeds for Night Snow
Let’s compare the three images below. The image top left is at a shutter speed 0.8 seconds. Is it even snowing? I can’t tell! The top right image is at 1/8 second. Better! The bottom image is 1/100 second and it has more of the type of night snow look I was going for. However, I had to shoot at ISO 12,800 AND underexpose the image quite a bit to shoot at that shutter speed, which means the quality of the image wasn’t great. The color was terrible, but it does look decent in black & white.
The image below is the best compromise between all the factors. It’s 1/50 sec. And even though it’s ISO 12,800, since I didn’t underexpose it as much as the image above, the color didn’t turn out too terribly. Oh, and all of these photos are at f/2.
I can admit that my greatest strength as a photographer isn’t thinking of all possible scenarios in advance. One of my greatest strengths is being very quick to adapt to a situation to make it work in my favor.
So that means I decided to crank the ISO (3200-12,800) and accept the graininess that comes with that in order to get my shutter speed high enough to (somewhat) freeze the flakes in midair and get the type of night snow photos that I wanted.
I was glad to have the tripod, though. It made a nice walking stick.
Pro Tip: Stability Technique
Just because I’m morally opposed to tripods, it doesn’t mean that I don’t do whatever I can to stabilize my camera to get sharp images. For example, for the image below, wedged my lens into the corner of one of those small squares at the top of the fence to add some stability for this night snow shot. I used trees, buildings and all types of furniture to do the same.
Welcome to my third
and final post on my practices for shooting in low light using only available
light. This post addresses the low light post-production practices I use to get
great shots in extremely low light without using flash or strobes.
Get the whole series here in a cool PDF download. All the kids are doing it. Just enter your info below.
This is my tag line for commercial photography, so you’ll need to get your own. My first priority when editing photos is to make the scene appear as it did when I took the image. I don’t use filters or Lightroom presets and I definitely don’t photoshop as a verb. I am a photojournalist by training and I use the same principles as the photojournalism community in maintaining honesty and accuracy. My images are intended to be a part of the historical record, documenting a time and place in the world.
“As I Saw It”
say I want the scene to appear as it did when I took the image, I mean I want
the scene to appear as I saw it, not exactly how the camera captured it. I
always keep that in mind for low light post-production. A camera isn’t the same
as the human eye. We can see a greater spectrum of tones than the camera can
capture in one frame. So when I photograph a performance and expose for the
stage, the audience is very dark, but that’s not how my eye perceived it in the
moment. I could see the crowd as well. So I’ll bring some of the crowd detail
out of the shadows to better represent what I saw with my eyes.
images below are a good representation of what I’m describing. The image on the
top is completely unedited, the way it came out of the camera. The image on the
bottom is edited to my standard of “how I saw it.”
Color VS. Black & White
Everything I shoot is in color. I’d rather have the option of converting to black & white later than making that decision in the moment. I don’t have a general rule about what ends up color or B&W; it’s more of a gut feeling. The easiest consideration for me when making this decision is if I find the color distracting from the essence of the image. When a nice moment is muddled by green fluorescent light (see image below), I switch it to B&W. If a bold color in the background draws the eye away from the focus of an image rather than adding to it, I switch to B&W.
When I’m going to use color, I want it to convey the ambiance of a place or add to the story in some respect. When the color doesn’t accomplish that, I’ll convert to B&W.
I do 98% of my post-production work in Lightroom. It’s great software for tagging, marking, organizing and editing images. I could do a whole series of posts on Lightroom, and maybe someday I will. For today, I’ll focus on some of the Lightroom features I use when editing my low light photos. Most of these low light post-production principles will work with whatever editing software you’re using, even if it’s not Lightroom. I’m sure some specifics will differ though.
As a reminder from the second post, I’m always working with RAW image files. They offer the most latitude in tone and color adjustments, which is especially important when using images that were shot in extremely low light.
First, I make sure the brightness on my screen is all the way up. It’s basic, but an easy thing to forget! As previously stated, I want the scene to look as I saw it in the moment.
I watch the histogram to make sure I have the full range of tones in the photo. The right side is whites and the left is blacks. To the right you’ll see sample histograms from two images. The top is a color image and the bottom is B&W.
“Clipping” is when some of the whites are so bright, or the blacks are so dark, that there is no visible detail in them. When the histogram goes off the right or left side of the image, you have clipping. The histogram on top has clipping for both blacks and whites. The bottom histogram has no clipping. Sometimes clipping is unavoidable. If you have a bright spotlight, of course you’re not going to have any detail in that. And definitely when you’re in a very dark room, some of the shadows are going to be too dark to contain any detail.
If the histogram doesn’t have the full range of black and white, it won’t have much contrast to it. So, when I’m shooting in low light, it is usually weighted more towards the blacks. I look to increase the exposure until some of the histogram reaches closer to the white side.
For my style, I like the image to have contrast, but not too much. I work to bring out some detail in the shadows, but just slightly. Mostly, I go by feel to get it where I want it, which is how my eye saw it in the moment. I don’t want my images to look HDR (High Dynamic Range. I will NOT get into that. Google it if you’re curious.)
When editing in Lightroom in
the “develop” module, on of the boxes is “HSL/Color”. HSL is for hue,
saturation and luminance. I find luminance most helpful. I can make the individual colors
brighter or darker by using the sliders.
For example, skin tones often contain a lot of orange in them
(regardless of ethnicity), so when I slide the orange up and down, it will take
those tones up and down. I pay close attention to anything else in the
photo that’s orange-ish because it will change brightness as well. Also, it’s
easy to slide it too far, so just watch that everything still looks
balanced. I typically don’t go more than +/- 20. This also works
with colored light sources. So if a person was lit by blue light, I need
to slide the blue slider to adjust the brightness.
A breakthrough for me in low light post-production for B&W images in Lightroom was discovering the “Black & White Mix” functionality. When shooting an image in color and converting to B&W in Lightroom, it retains the color information underneath. Use the slider to adjust the brightness of certain colors.
SUPER ADVANCED PRO TIP:Adjusting the mix with the tool tip. This is very cool. First, I click on the little circle in the upper left corner of the “Black & White Mix” box. Then I can hover the tool tip on the part of the photo I want to adjust. Clicking and holding then dragging the mouse up and down makes that color brighter or darker. This works even better than adjusting the individual sliders because sections of the photo are made up of more than one color. For example, skin tones aren’t just orange. They can be a mix of orange and red or yellow. So when I drag up or down on someone’s face, it will adjust each color in proportion to how much of it is present. NOTE: This also works with color images in using luminance.
sure which other software might offer this feature. If you know, leave a
A huge benefit of shooting RAW files is to adjust the white balance of image using a combination of color temperature and tint. This is allows for much more subtle adjustments than working with a jpg. As I mentioned in the previous post, the RAW image is uncompressed so adjusting the white balance while editing does not affect the image quality at all.
With low light post-production, I’ll try the “auto” white balance setting in Lightroom to see what it gives me. Sometimes I like it and keep it. Many times it gets me close and then I can make custom adjustments from there. Occasionally it’s just way off and I immediately “undo”.
For low light post-production, and any other editing I do, I work to keep the color as I saw it. If I don’t like the color of the light in an image, rather than changing the white balance so much that it looks like it was shot in different lighting, I’ll make the image B&W.
Shooting in dark places using only available light often leads to very saturated colors. When at a show or a bar, there can often be very strong colored lighting. If the subject isn’t too close to the light source, it can make for really cool colors in the image. However, if a colored light is especially strong, a subject close to the light source can be saturated to the point of losing detail. In those cases, again, I’ll make the image B&W. It’s always surprising to see the detail emerge when the color is stripped away in these cases.
Low light post-production takes some practice, but once you find what works best for you, it can take your photography to another level. This concludes my series of three posts on using available light in low light situations. I hope you enjoyed it and maybe learned something, if only that I like to talk about low light photography. As always, please share this with your photog friends if you think they could use it. And if you’d like to have the whole series to refer back to, you can download the PDF guide through the form below.
Thanks for checking out my second post on my practices for shooting in low light using only available light. For an introduction to the benefits of available light photography and a review of the type of gear I use to get great shots in low light, be sure to read the first post. This post addresses the specific low light techniques I use while shooting. You can also download the whole guide as a super-sleek, handy-dandy PDF right now by entering your info below.
DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE
For illustrative purposes, I’ve selected a series of images from
the four years I photographed RIOT LA Alternative Comedy Festival because
almost the entire festival happened in dark and crowded theaters without
As mentioned in the first post, I use mostly prime lenses that have a minimum aperture of f/1.4. When shooting in low light I shoot consistently at either f/1.4 or f/2.0. So, since I don’t change my aperture much in these situations, I rely mostly upon changing shutter speed and ISO to get the desired exposure.
I usually have a minimum shutter speed in mind when shooting
depending on the subject. If a person is standing mostly still engaging
in conversation, I find that 1/60 will suffice, although I’ll try to get that
up to 1/125 if I can. When the person is more animated, I consider 1/125 my
target and adjust the ISO to get the shutter speed higher if needed.
Photographing a scene that’s still, I have no problem shooting at 1/15.
Later in this post I will describe some of the techniques I use
to increase my yield of sharp images when shooting at slower shutter speeds.
Like most photographers, I try to shoot at the lowest ISO I can. For my low light technique, I find my best-case scenario is usually around ISO 800. I’ll regularly shoot at 1600 and even push to 3200 in some circumstances. Occasionally I’ll even go up to 6400, but only when I feel like a grainy image can work stylistically. I recommend taking some test shots in low light at different ISO settings so you can see for yourself where your line is between good and poor image quality.
Most pros (myself included) will always shoot RAW images. The fact that these are uncompressed gives you a lot more latitude when making color and tone adjustments in post production (the topic of the next post). If you’re put off by the file sizes of RAW images (which can be 5-10x the size of a JPG), you might want to at least consider switching over to RAW when you’re shooting in very low light.
I also like shooting RAW images because I don’t have to mess
with white balance while shooting. I’ll leave my camera set to auto white
balance and just adjust it in post. Since the RAW image is uncompressed,
adjusting the white balance while editing does not affect the image quality at
I address working with RAW images in my next installment in this
series: post production.
I don’t fully rely on my light meter when shooting in low light.
It’s always going to say that the image is underexposed because in low light,
it’s trying to average the entire scene, which is mostly dark. So a part of my
low light technique is that I’m actually more concerned with my highlights than
shadows. If the highlights are blown out, I can’t get them back when editing. I
prefer to shoot on the side of underexposing the highlights. Then I know
they’re there for me to bring out in post-production.
The other benefit of underexposing is I can shoot at higher
shutter speeds and minimize unwanted motion blur. For example, if I spot-meter
on a subject and the shutter speed is coming out to 1/15, I might shoot that at
1/30. Then I don’t have to worry about motion blur or camera shake as much.
However, I make sure not to underexpose too much because there will be too much
noise (digital artifacts) in the shadows/blacks of an image when I adjust the
exposure in post-production.
It can be a fine line to walk, but the more I shoot, the better
I know where the balance is between a sharp image, good exposure and image
No matter where you’re shooting there’s a light source of some sort. If you’re trying to shoot in pitch black, you have bigger issues than I can address here. The first thing I look to identify, whether I’m shooting with my low light technique or at high noon, is where my light is coming from and how I can use what’s available most effectively.
In a dark space, I like to camp out near the light source and see what kind of activity is happening nearby. I look for people who are talking together near a light and then focus on the person whose face is most clearly lit. If several people are in decent light, then I look to see who I can frame up in the most interesting way or who is speaking in with more facial expressions or animation. I’ll also step away from the light source and see if there is an interesting silhouette that can be made or just a different angle I can get by changing positions.
Keep it Sharp
In order for me to consider an image a “keeper”, SOMETHING in it needs to be in focus. On some occasions a moment may have really cool action or life and it’s not 100% sharp, but for my work that’s the exception rather than the rule.
Here are a few pointers on how I get a higher number of sharp photos utilizing my low light technique.
There’s a photography rule of thumb for avoiding blur from camera
shake (caused by the way your body/hands move naturally when you’re just standing
still): Keep your shutter speed equal to or greater than the focal length of
That just means if you’re shooting a 100mm lens, you want to
keep your shutter speed at or above 1/100. For a 50mm lens, keep it at or
above 1/50. At any slower speed you risk getting blurry images from
camera shake (this differs from motion blur, which refers to the movement of
the subject). A lens with image stabilization has more latitude, but
typically prime lenses don’t have stabilization.
A simple, yet highly effective technique is to just find
something nearby to steady yourself and/or brace your camera against: a wall,
chair, table, post, floor, bar top, etc. If I need a little bit of
stability (like shooting a wider lens around 1/15), I’ll do something like lean
against a wall or doorway. When I’m shooting slower than that, I’ll look
for something I can wedge the camera itself against like a post, chair or
You might think I’m a real dummy here, because I could just use
a tripod. Nope! Can’t do it. Tripods slow me down significantly, are difficult
to carry around and take up a lot of space. It is important to me to be able to
work in low light in the same manner I approach any of my shoots, which is why
I started using these techniques.
Shoot in bursts
When I used to shoot film (pre-2004), I was very precious with
it. I didn’t have much money and only had a certain amount of film to
shoot, so I didn’t shoot a lot of frames. Even after switching totally to
digital, it took a bit of prodding from an early photo editor of mine to start
shooting more frames. As a result, no matter what I shoot, in any level
of light, I take 2-3 frames in a burst each time I press the shutter.
This greatly increases my number of usable images.
I think this is especially important in low light, because when
I’m shooting at slower shutter speeds, the natural movements of subjects can
easily blur an image. The higher I feel the risk is going to be of
getting motion blur I don’t want, the more images I’ll take in a burst.
If I’m at 1/15 taking photos of a person talking animatedly, I’ll take 7-8
consecutive shots. When I’m taking a wide angle of a scene with many
people moving around, and I have the camera resting on the ground, I’ll shoot
10-12 frames in a row. That gives me a lot to work with when I’m
editing. I only need one of those frames to turn out.
Using Live View
When I first bought a DSLR that could shoot in live view (using the LCD screen as a viewfinder), I thought, I was NEVER going to use it; it’s amateur stuff. Wrong! Shooting in live view in low light situations took my available light photography to another level.
Live view has two main features that I use: exposure preview and electronic zoom. Prior to having exposure preview, in low light I would use spot-metering to get a light reading of the subject, take a photo, and then review the resulting image. Now I can just see immediately on the screen how the exposure changes as I adjust the camera settings and know I’m getting the result I want before even pressing the shutter release. When using my mirrorless Fujifilm camera, I’m always shooting in “live view” because even the viewfinder is an LCD screen. I’m not looking physically through the lens like on my Canon DSLR.
When using autofocus on a DSLR, if the light gets too low, it just can’t get a read on anything. I learned to combat this by using live view to improve focus. By using the exposure preview feature, I can essentially see in the dark. I would set the exposure much brighter than I wanted, giving the autofocus something to grab onto, and then return the exposure to the desired level and start shooting. Camera manufacturers got wise to this practice and now many cameras do this automatically. When shooting in live view in the dark, if the camera can’t focus, the screen will brighten, the camera will focus, and the exposure on screen will return to normal, all automatically. Pretty cool.
Many cameras also give the option to digitally zoom when in live view mode. To be clear, this doesn’t zoom the final image; it just allows you to see a section of the frame closer up in live view. I frequently use this feature in my low light technique to make sure the focus is exactly where I want it to be. Sometimes the method described in the previous paragraph isn’t perfect, so I’ll digitally zoom in live view mode and try autofocus again. If autofocus isn’t exactly where I want it to be at that point, I focus manually and zoom back out to get the image. When I need to act quickly, I can shoot a burst of images even while zoomed in on the LCD screen because it’s actually taking the full frame image.
This concludes the post on my low light technique I employ while shooting. Check out the first post for an introduction to the topic and gear info. The next post is about post-production. Get the whole series in one download, here. Have anything to add to this discussion? I’d love to hear it! And if you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer them soon. You can also have the whole series now, in a really fancy full color PDF download.
DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE
Thanks! If you take any images using these techniques, tag the photos with #ZDPphototips. I look forward to checking them out!
One of the most difficult aspects of photography is shooting in low light. However, with my documentary approach, it’s a skill I need in order to maintain the integrity of the subject material and avoid affecting the end result with my presence. Therefore over the past 15 years I’ve developed a series of practices that allow me to shoot in low light using only available light without compromising image quality.
Often people will ask me about low light photography situations, so I’ve created a series of three posts shared some tips. OR! You can also get the whole guide now as a PDF by entering your info below.
DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE
This first post is about gear. Subsequent posts address shooting technique and post-production. While I firmly believe that the gear itself is NOT the most important aspect, I want to address it in the first post so that the technique I describe later will be clearer.
To illustrate these posts, I’m using images from the four years
I photographed RIOT LA Alternative Comedy Festival. Recently I was going
through some archives and enjoyed revisiting the experience of the great event,
invented from the ground up by my extremely talented friend, Abbey Londer. I
thought RIOT was the perfect backdrop for a discussion on low light
Shooting exclusively with available light at night and in dark
theaters and bars was a fun challenge at the festival and made for some really
cool and rewarding images. Also, I’m a huge comedy fan, so that just made
these gigs even sweeter.
Benefits of Using Available Light
First and foremost, I prefer using available light because it is significantly less obtrusive. As a documentary photographer, I want my imprint on the scene to be minimal. That means two things to me: First, I don’t want to affect someone’s experience by introducing flash. Secondly, I want to stay inconspicuous so I can capture authentic moments that are happening in front of me.
Popping a flash or strobe a few times every minute can be very
distracting. I’m not the only one who feels that way. When
photographing Mel Brooks at the festival in 2017, he specifically asked
photographers not to use flash around him. As a result, I would have
missed out on being able to take photos of him backstage and behind the scenes
if I relied upon a flash.
Similarly, I feel that the ambiance of a scene is lost once artificial light is introduced. Using available light allows the image to retain the same feel as the original setting. Richer color, more background detail and softer light are all benefits of shooting with available light in low-light photography situations.
Some professional photographers use flash to highlight a scene
and allow viewers to see into the shadows. I like to portray the scene as I saw
it. Therefore, it’s simply a matter of style and intent. I think
the larger point is to be purposeful in your approach.
Let’s get to it. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going
to talk about gear at the level of an amateur who knows the basics of the
technical aspects of photography: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. I want
these posts to be accessible to the widest audience. If you any
questions, whether more basic or advanced, leave them in the comments below and
I’ll be sure to answer.
I think the most important piece of gear for low light photography is the lens. I prefer prime lenses, also referred to as fixed focal length or non-zoom lenses. This is because of their wider aperture. The best, most expensive zoom lenses are only going to get you down to f/2.8. Having a prime lens that is f/2.0 or f/1.4 gives you a significant amount of latitude in low light. And don’t forget the lower apertures give better bokeh.
I also like wide angle lenses to give the viewer a better sense of being in the middle of things. That’s a stylistic choice. If you’re looking at one of my images and you feel like you’re standing right next to the subject, that’s because I was standing right next to the subject using a wide-angle lens. When shooting with two cameras, I typically use 24mm and 50mm lenses. When I shoot a single camera, I like to use a 35mm lens.
Keep in mind that if you have a crop sensor camera, you need to account for that when choosing lenses. For example, my carry-everywhere-with-me camera is a Fujifilm X-T20, which has a 1.5x crop factor. So, I bought their 23mm lens, which actually has the same field of view as a 35mm lens on a full frame camera.
The camera market these days is exploding with mirrorless
cameras. “Mirrorless” refers to the fact that these cameras don’t have
the mirror that a DSLR has, which allows the photographer to look into the
viewfinder and see physically through the lens. Mirrorless cameras have
electronic viewfinders, which means you’re looking at a tiny LCD screen when
you hold it up to your eye, or using the larger LCD screen on the back of the
This has a few benefits that will come into play in the next
post when I talk about technique. Using an LCD viewfinder with exposure
preview in low light allows you to see the image as it will appear when you
take it. This can greatly improve exposure accuracy when shooting in low
Another benefit of a mirrorless camera is that most of them can be made to shoot completely silently using electronic shutter mode. While this doesn’t pertain to low-light photography specifically, I have found it extremely beneficial when shooting in very quiet places where I don’t want to draw attention to myself, which coincidentally tend to be places with less available light.
Even though I just laid out a number of benefits for mirrorless
cameras like the Fujifilm I use, I do want to point out that for my
commissioned work I continue to use Canon DSLRs. I find that I can work
faster and more effectively with Canon, especially in environments like sports.
I’d give Canon the edge in image quality as well, although it may be
negligible in most cases. All of the images at RIOT were shot with Canon.
Below are some links to some of the gear I’ve mentioned. You’ll
see that prices vary quite a bit, but I made sure to include some “affordable”
prime lenses ($500 or less). Prices are as of January 2019. Most larger camera
shops have a used department that’s worth checking out as well.
I regularly rent gear from BorrowLenses. This is a great way to try something out before you buy it or rent a specialty item for a specific shoot. Use my affiliate link below. They have discounts for first-time users.
This wraps up my post on gear for low light photography. Please check out the the next two posts on technique and post-production. If you’ve enjoyed this post/series on shooting in low light, please share it! You can also have the whole series now, in a really fancy full color PDF download.
and post production. If you’ve enjoyed this post/series on shooting in low light, please share it! You can also have the whole series now, in a really fancy full color PDF download.
DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE
Thanks for reading! If you take any images using these techniques, tag the photos with #ZDPphototips. I look forward to seeing what you make!
I often receive emails from student photographers seeking advice about pursuing a career in photography. I decided to compile the answers to the most frequently asked questions in a blog post.
FIND YOUR VOICE
The most important advice I have for student photographers is to find your own unique point of view. This is the key to differentiating yourself from the thousands of other people trying to make a career in photography. Your voice is what you’re looking to convey with your work. It’s not something you sit and try to define in words. It’s primarily driven by the work you create.
Don’t fall into the trap of chasing images you think other people might like or find impactful. Shooting what you find interesting will make more compelling images than shooting on trend or trying to convey what you perceive to be an important statement.
As a student photographer, you have access to a wealth of subjects to photograph. At any university there are many different departments and areas of study and any one of them would be thrilled to have someone taking their photo and highlighting the work they’re doing. Plus, being a student photographer or working for a student publication can get you access to all types of different events or people outside of school that you might want to photograph.
Studying other topics you’re interested in will greatly inform your photography. Learning about anything from sociology to dance can affect the direction you take with your work. Like I said, follow what interests you and that will help you find your voice, which is key to being a great photographer.
BUILD YOUR COMMUNITY
School is also a great place for creating relationships. Good professors can be life-long mentors. Friendships will lead to all sorts of personal and professional opportunities you couldn’t even guess at this point. A network of alumni will be thrilled to meet with you, advise you, and hire you from here on out.
START A DATABASE
I recommend starting to collect your contacts & grow a database now. Use Apple or Google contacts and compile a list of everyone you know: friends, family, acquaintances. Get all of their email addresses and phone numbers in there at a minimum.
Go to events through your school and in the community that sound interesting to you. When you meet someone, get their business card and put them in your database. Ask people if you can add them to your email list. Send out a monthly or bi-weekly email with 1 or 2 images and say something like, “To see my latest work, be sure to follow me on Instagram/Twitter/Blog (include links).” Don’t ask people for work in these emails. They should just be casual: “Hey, I wanted to share this with you.” You can use a service like MailChimp for free.
LEARN HOW TO RUN A BUSINESS
If you want your passion for photography to be more than just a hobby, you’ll want to study business and marketing. This will not only help you run your own company, it’ll help you know how to best serve your clients. Even if you’re considering doing photography as art, and not commercially as I do, you still need at least basic business skills to know how to make a living at it.
I’ve been a full-time photographer for more than a decade and I can tell you that actually shooting and editing photos comprises less than half of my time. A lot of my time is spent marketing and doing the actual work of running a business. Here’s a partial list of my other regular tasks…
building & maintaining a database of contacts
networking opportunities (i.e. community events)
calling current & prospective clients
writing current & prospective clients
meeting with current & prospective clients
bidding/estimating for new jobs
writing contracts & licensing agreements registering copyrights
creating email & print pieces to market my business
posting to social media
managing & maintaining equipment
reading & studying (continuing education classes, publications, blogs, etc.)
managing digital files (organizing, exporting, uploading, archiving)
hiring & managing contractors (assistants, stylists, etc.)
I could list more, but I think you get the idea. I mention all of these things because I think it’s good to know what you’re getting into. As your business grows, you can hire people to handle a lot of the tasks you might not care to do, but you’ll always oversee everything, and in the beginning it’s a one-man show. That’s why I always tell students to take business classes. I’ve seen many talented photographers struggle and fail because they can’t run a business and many average photographers succeed because they can run a business. This is why taking business classes is important advice for student photographers.
It’s very tempting as a broke student photographer to borrow money in order to buy a nice camera and lenses and tell yourself that you need them. Debt severely limits your options in the future. Buy what you can afford right now. If you have $500, buy some used gear. Then after you’ve had time to save up more, sell your old gear and put that money together with your savings to upgrade.
When you’re a young photographer and your shooting style is developing, the type of gear you want can change pretty quickly, so don’t put much money into it. Borrow gear available at your school. You can also rent specialty gear when you need it from places like BorrowLenses.
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So what can you do as a student photographer to get started now?
Shoot, shoot, shoot. Then edit and see what you like and what you don’t like. It can be good to get feedback from a trained eye, but don’t put much stock in likes and retweets. Most photographers who receive thousands of likes on their Instagram photos are NOT making a living as a photographer. I also know some professionals who generate hundreds of thousands of dollars each year and only have a few followers or aren’t on social media at all.
The style that plays well on Instagram often doesn’t translate to images that work on most other media. I find that my most complex and layered images don’t play as well on social media as my simple and “pretty” images. But those complex photos work much better for print and full-page website images. They’re also the preferred images of my clients.
When people start seeing your work and following you, they’ll start asking you to shoot things for them. It will take a few years before you’re able to do it full time, but the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get there.
Getting involved in your local community of photographers. Professional organizations like the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) have gatherings where student photographers can meet pros with a lot of experience, hear them speak and ask them questions.
When you get to know veteran photographers, you can ask them about assisting or shadowing them on a shoot, which is an excellent way to gain knowledge.
Many cities also have vibrant Instagram communities, where photographers meet up to shoot different events together, or have some friendly competition photographing a theme. In my area, two good examples would be Igers Indy and Igers Bloomington.
To sum it up, my advice for student photographers who would like to pursue a career in photography is to shoot all the time, share your images and build your network. If you develop an audience online throughout your time in college, that will be a HUGE help by the time your graduate.
I hope this advice for student photographers helps a bit! If you have any questions or feedback to give, please leave a comment below so everyone can benefit from the dialog.
In 1948, Nat Fein shot this photo of Babe Ruth shortly before his death. Photographers were gathering together to get a shot of Ruth’s face, but Nat “got a feeling” and headed behind Ruth and captured this image, which was the first sports photograph to win a Pulitzer Prize.
I’ve been greatly influenced by this photograph in my career. I shoot many events where there’s a slew of photographers and I pride myself on getting shots no one else has. Because of this photo, whenever I see a group of photographers, I head another direction and I’m always pleased I did.
Recently a friend of mine, Bill Crawford of Harbor Pictures, noticed my particular approach had been documented peripherally in a print on display at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
The following image is part of Keating’s Hoosier Hardwood project from the 2017 IHSAA Boys Basketball State Finals. You might notice a group of photographers on the left in the background. And then on the right, you’ll see me, lying on the floor by myself.
Finally, I’d like to note that Mr. Keating obviously deserves credit here too: in order to get that perspective he was shooting from a unique perspective as well. Not that he needs my stamp of approval! He’s had a long and distinguished career in photojournalism.
Share in the comments, when have you pushed the limits in your photography getting in a unique position that paid off? What about in other kinds of art or work?
Usually when people ask me about getting better sports photos, the question is focused around what equipment to buy. For this post, I want to provide advice for parents, students and aspiring photographers on how to improve sports shooting.
1) Get close. The best thing you can do is physically move yourself as close to the action as you can. Don’t rely on the equipment to do that for you. A lot of my favorite shots are moments that happen before, after and in between action, and don’t require a long lens to capture.
2) Communicate. Plan ahead and ask coaches about shooting before game day. They’re happy to have other students and parents document the action. Let them know what you’re hoping to accomplish. If you’re upfront and low-maintenance, they’re usually very welcoming and help get you close to the action to get some great images of their team. I say usually because some coaches can be intimidating. If you’re nervous to approach a head coach, start with an assistant or the Athletic Director. The AD is there as a liaison between the community, school and athletic department, so communication and approachability are typically strong suits.
3) Be patient. The more people are used to seeing you around, the more you’ll start to blend into the background and find great candid images. There’s always a period of adjustment where people will mug for the camera, so don’t be worried if that happens a lot at first.
4) Go early/stay late. Before crowds arrive or after they leave can offer some interesting and unique moments that most people don’t get to see. Another benefit is that you can experiment with shooting angles you couldn’t during a game, like standing center court (I almost typed center quart).
5) Get back. Ok, so I said to get close, yes, but then get as far back as you can to find a different perspective. Show the arena/venue as a whole. Some gyms have a track around the upper half that provides a unique angle. Do something different.
6) DETAILS. Keep an eye out for interesting details. A piece of equipment, a message written on a shoe, eccentric clothing: Any small thing that catches your attention will probably make for an interesting photo.
I hope this post helps give some insight into how I work and gives some helpful advice as you pursue your hobby or potential career. I always welcome questions through this blog or email!
Oh, and one note: All of these photos were from this year so far, except that cheerleader shot. It was from 2015, but I hadn’t posted it yet and it’s my blog, so I’ll do what I want.