How to get started when you have no experience

Photography

Nicole Hill

by

When it comes to getting started as a photographer, the ever-growing list of “must-haves” and “must-dos” can feel overwhelming. Somehow you’re supposed to have the perfect camera (and, uhm, know exactly how to use it), have all the right gear, have all the connections, and — of course — have the skills and experience to put it all together. But the problem is, none of those things really MAKE you a photographer. You could literally have every one of those things handed to you on a silver platter and you still wouldn’t be a photographer. Because believe it or not, all you really need to do to be a photographer is to take photographs, and lots of ’em. Let me explain. 

When we’re just starting out, we all have a tendency to succumb to a bit of imposter syndrome — feeling like we’re not good enough or like we don’t have the right [insert absurd distracting thing here] to really reach the next level and “make it.” And when you have very little experience and momentum behind you, these feelings can be really heavy and sort of make you feel like your feet are stuck in the mud. As if no matter how hard you try to keep moving forward, you can’t seem to gather any momentum. Well, keep draggin’ your feet forward, because I’m here to tell you that you are not alone. Literally every photographer (and I mean it when I say every photographer) has had to drag their feet through that very same mud in order to get to where they are. And even though those very first steps can feel like the hardest, they’re also the most life changing! 

So, chances are, if you’re just starting out as a photographer, you’re going to find yourself in that super fun (not) awkward phase where you know in your heart you WANT to be a professional capital-P Photographer, but you don’t really have the experience to back it up yet. Maybe most of the photos you take are of friends, family, flowers, or simply your very photogenic dog (honestly, all dogs are photogenic, let’s be real), but you haven’t quite landed that first paid gig. So does that mean you can’t call yourself a photographer yet? The answer is: ABSOLUTELY NOT!! I have good news for you — if you are out there, hustling, learning, trying, failing, experimenting, and TAKING PHOTOS then congratulations you are a photographer! And don’t let anyone tell you differently. 

I know how scary it can feel to finally say, out loud, that you’re a photographer. In fact, I remember when I was still learning the basics, I would hear other professional photographers talking about the shoots they were planning, or saying how they were going to go location scouting that week. And even though I was doing the very same things I was way too bashful to say so. So, instead I would just downplay the hard (I mean, SUPER hard) work that I was putting into developing my skills by saying that I was…going to go “take some pictures.” I felt like if I said I was going on a shoot that they would call my bluff and think that I was a total fraud. And while the whole thing might sound a bit silly, it’s those small moments that come together to feel like really big, heavy moments and make you feel like you’re back dragging your feet through that mud again. 

But no matter how awkward it may feel, I’m here to tell you that you can and should start calling yourself a photographer as soon as you decide that you want to follow that career path! And it’s not just about manifestation, it’s about approaching each day with intention. And if you intend to become a photographer, then I have good news for you  — you’re already half way there.

The funny thing about the “awkward” phase that we find ourselves in at the beginning of our photography careers is that it’s so essential. We really just have to learn to be okay with the unknown, the intimidation, and the fear. It’s all an important part of the process. And it doesn’t matter if you’re at the beginning of this process or the end — you still get to call yourself a photographer the whole way through.

I know how complicated and intimidating the process can feel when you’re first diving in, so I put together a few tips to share with you that will help keep you moving forward confidently.

Meet yourself where you’re at, and celebrate

The places we end up in our photography careers don’t always look the same as the places we started. And they shouldn’t — that’s what growth looks like, after all! So when you’re just starting out, remember to go easy on yourself and acknowledge the place you’re in with your skills, materials, and interests. The amazing thing about the beginning of a new journey is being able to see just how many paths you could take to move forward. And that’s something to really celebrate. 

Maybe your dream is to become a fashion photographer, but right now you’re just taking a whole bunch of very cute portraits of your dog (if this sounds like you, please send me all your puppy shots ASAP because I love them all!). And that’s totally okay! In fact, that’s more than okay, it’s a step forward. No famous photographer ever started out their career by simply waking up one morning and deciding to go shoot for Vogue — they had to wake up every morning for many mornings in a row and decide they wanted to be a photographer. You have to start at the beginning; enjoy where you’re at and be proud of yourself for showing up. 

Take ALL the photos and learn as much as you possibly can

When I was first starting out as a photographer, I really had no idea that I wanted to be a fashion photographer. All I knew was that I loved taking photos, and at the end of the day as long as that’s what I was doing I was happy. So I took photos of literally EVERYTHING that I set my eyes (or, well, lens) on. And this meant that I found myself trying out and exploring all the different forms of photography without really realizing it. But this is exactly how I was able to realize what I loved photographing most. 

While studying celebrity photography in school, I learned about the importance of expression and being able to connect with your subject; and when I worked on product photography, I learned how important it was to pay attention to the fine details. Literally every style of photography you try has the ability to open your eyes up to something new that you’d never have imagined otherwise. And all these little skills you learn will eventually come together and shape your overall photography style into something that is beautifully and uniquely you. How amazing is that?

Even if you aren’t shooting something that you love right away, embrace it for all that it has to offer you in the moment. Don’t be embarrassed if it isn’t as flashy as you’d like or isn’t as “Instagrammable” as other things — appreciate it and learn from it so that you can grow from it.

Just have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously

I mean, if you’re not having fun with what you’re shooting, what’s all the hard work for!? At the beginning of my career, a lot of photographers I knew put way too much pressure on themselves and just took themselves too seriously. They didn’t give themselves enough room to grow and change, and they struggled because of it. You need to let yourself start small, have fun while you’re doing it, and let the growth and change come to you naturally. You have to be realistic about your expectations of yourself and of others (for example, if you’ve only been shooting for a year you probably shouldn’t try to charge the same rate as someone who’s been shooting for ten). If you start taking yourself too seriously early on, you run the risk of isolating yourself within your own unrealistic expectations and your career and community will suffer as a result. Spend your time focusing on YOU and YOUR CRAFT. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing. Focus on figuring out how to be your best self while taking your best photographs – that way you’ll build the kind of portfolio and professional reputation that will make people want to work with you. Trust me.

Find a mentor

Okay, so this is actually super important, and I know how intimidating this might sound — but you’ve got to find yourself a mentor. The good news is that it doesn’t matter if the person knows who you are or not! You just need to identify someone who you look up to so that you can begin using their career path as inspiration for planning your own. 

When I was starting out, my mentor was Jamie Nelson, and no, she did not have a dang clue who I was. She’s a beauty photographer whose work and personality I deeply admire (even though we ultimately shoot very different things and are completely different people) and I was inspired by her entire journey into the professional photography world. And the thing is, by watching her journey I was able to take steps forward on my own path more confidently. I kept telling myself that if she could do it, so could I. And then every time that I would see her succeed on her own next step, I would feel more motivated to move forward myself. So, find yourself a mentor that you look up to to help act as your guide as you move forward while also helping to inspire you and keep your passion and creativity alive.

It takes time — and that’s okay

I know this one probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s still so important to remember so let me say it again: all of this takes time. Finding your unique path, learning from the curve balls that life throws at you, and ultimately reaching your own definition of success can take a while. And that’s totally normal. No one is an overnight success at anything they do. Every person has to put hours upon hours of work into the thing they care about in order to even be good at it, much less be great at it. 

So, rather than thinking about how long it might take you to get from point A to point B on your success roadmap, try instead to think about what you might be able to do to improve even more by the time you get there. Don’t rush your progress, instead bask in the sunshine and happiness that comes from learning something new, from those little moments that make your heart skip because you finally got the lighting perfect in a shot you’ve been working on all afternoon or you finally got an email back from a client you’ve been trying to work with. Enjoy the little triumphs and let them move you forward.

When it comes to getting started and ultimately finding your success in photography, the most important thing you need to do is to follow what you love. As long as you are shooting what you love, and dedicating enough time to it, you will find yourself moving steadily forward. If you truly love photography, and want to dedicate your professional life to it, then you need to show it — you need to show up every day, camera in hand ready to take whatever triumph or struggle comes your way. Because by doing this, you’re proving that you already are a photographer. 

AND If you feel like connecting with other female photographers who are on this journey with you, join our Private Facebook Community Group where you’ll be welcomed with open arms. It’s a place where you can share your work, find inspiration, and ask for advice from all of our amazing members. Click Here to join!

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meet the photographer

HI! I'M NICOLE HILL

I've spent the last decade of my life traveling the world as a fashion photographer and I created Horizon Found to give you everything I wish I had when I was starting my career. Here you'll find community, inspiration, and education - to help guide you down the path towards building the photography business of your dreams. My dream is to use this platform to help build a supportive environment in the photography industry.

I'M HERE FOR YOU!

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