5 things I learned as a photographer

2015 was my first official year in the business of photography. I'd been taking photos for awhile, but it's a whole new world when you make a business of it. In true Liz fashion, I learned all of my lessons the hard way. I laughed a lot. I cried a lot. Sometimes I locked myself in my room for days. My first year was all about "The School of Hard Shots." Here's my top 5 photos from the year, and what they taught me about myself as a photographer: 

It's ok to try everything

In this day and age as an artist, there's a lot of pressure to "find your niche." In the beginning of the year, I just knew I liked taking photos and meeting people. Early in the year I did a lot of yoga projects, and some of my photos were a hit (this one made it into some different yoga catalogues and advertisements). I started getting a lot of inquiries for yoga photos. I even got to do a shoot for Lululemon.

But then I froze up. I started worrying if I put myself out there as one "type" of photographer, I would be branded for life. What if I wanted to shoot more than just yoga? For a period, I stopped posting any of my work online. I was scared of being branded as one thing or another. For fear of going in the "wrong" direction, I didn't go anywhere.

In the end, I learned more about myself and photography by just going out there and shooting everything. In addition to my own shoots, I assisted on a lot of different types of shoots for free, just for the experience. Working for free meant also picking up extra side jobs to help pay the bills, and consequently turning down a lot of social invitations due to lack of time. It was fun. Sometimes it was lonely. But overall, it was really rewarding for me. I learned what I like, and what I don't like. I'm eternally grateful to the photographers that took me under their wing, mentored me, and showed me their crafts. On a side note, I gained a whole new level of respect for jewelry product photographers.

When you find things you like, don't give up on them

As someone who is constantly fighting feelings of inadequacy, I find it really empowering to tell stories about strong, inspirational women who pursue their passions. Especially if it involves things I also love, like being active and outside.

But my ideas don't always come together the way I want them to. This particular shot was from my fifth attempt to shoot a girl climbing with blue water at this location. It's over an hour drive from my house. That equals over 10 hours of driving, plus about 6 hours of shooting time. The timing, water quality, and other factors just hadn't worked out the way I envisioned it, so I kept trying over the course of several months. On this particular day, it was overcast and pouring rain.

It was one of those "NOT AGAIN!!!" moments of frustration.

But then we remembered why we were out there in the first place - to do the things we love, and have fun. We decided to go climb in the rain anyways, just for fun. As we played, the clouds parted. We ended up getting some blue water climbing shots with a bonus rainbow.

I'm currently working on a personal project that I have attempted eight times so far. When I get frustrated, I like to look at pictures like this one. It reminds me to relax, have fun, and just keep working at it.

Always make time for personal projects

It was really tricky for me, finding a balance in mixing my artistic expression with my source of income. At times, I started becoming more of a "button pusher" and less of an "artist." Some of my photos felt downright flat and lifeless.

About halfway through the year, I realized I didn't want to be hired just because I have a nice camera and can push buttons. I wanted to have the creative freedom to work with people who trusted and valued my artistic vision. At this point, I realized I had tried a lot of different things, and I was ready to start making moves towards defining myself as an artist. I've always have been a storyteller. And I have a lot of fun, but quirky ideas.

So I started adapting a more photojournalistic, story-telling style in my photos. And I started working on more personal outdoor creative projects.

For me, personal projects were the best way of attracting my ideal clients who liked my style and trusted my ideas. My "Mother in the Moon" project arose from working with a client who trusted my vision to create something special for her. And that was a really good feeling.

A picture is only as powerful as the story it tells

This was by far, the biggest revelation to me this year. I got to take a lot of beautiful photos this past year. But the photos that meant the most to me were the ones that captured not just a place, but also a story.

This picture of Helene Dumais had a large reach this year. It was from my largest personal project of the year, documenting the first female to complete the Ko'olau Summit Ridge in one through-hike. It won the Grand Prize for a contest I didn't even enter (due to a misunderstanding). It was featured on the homepage of National Geographic as the photo of the day. But what made this photo so powerful to me was not so much the timing, framing, lighting, or any technical details. What made it powerful to me was the feelings and story behind it.

It's not actually a triumphant photo of reaching a summit or end-point. It's a photo of defeat mixed with determination and dreaming. It was right after a failed attempt to complete the trek. We were scouting a section of the "saddles," three treacherous climbing sections that had forced us to quit. Our limbs were covered in bruises and rashes, and our knees were swollen. We were completely depleted. But Helene's body language still conveys a sense of strength, adventure, and hope.

I like this photo because it has a meaningful story behind it. It reminds me to keep your sense of adventure in times of adversity, and never, ever, EVER give up on your dreams.

Helene's determination paid off, and in June she became the first documented female to through hike the entire ridgeline in one self-sufficient through-hike. Ironically, on the last attempt of the trail, I actually left my camera behind. Finishing the trail required significant weight cuts. It forced us to choose between high quality photos, or being truly ultralight and actually having a chance at finishing. It was appearance vs. experience. I left the camera gear behind, and only brought a mini point and shoot to document. As a photographer, it was a game changing decision for me. I realized that I was first and foremost, a storyteller.

Photos have an incredible power to move a viewer emotionally, and incite action

Emotions captivate me. Happiness. Loneliness. Curiosity. Sorrow. Love. Fear. I spent a lot of this year learning how to help people relax and capture them in their most natural states. That was one thing I discovered about my "style"- I like capturing genuine emotions. Most were in happy moments, like weddings. But I captured other emotions as well.

I took this shot during an emotional search for Moke, a missing teenage hiker. In this moment the father & David (a volunteer searcher) embraced in a tearful and emotional hug after they returned from a flight scanning over the mountains for his son. Moved, I quietly took a few photos of the love & sadness I saw between the people there.

I wasn't sure if it had been insensitive to take photos in those moments. I asked the family before I shared any photos. Surprisingly, they agreed, and actually thanked me for the photos. I shared a short post of a few photos telling the story of the search & a link to the fundraiser for the family's search. I was blown away by the response. In one week, the photo reached over 23,000 people on facebook.

It really brought home the capacity of photos to move people on a deep, emotional level. And when people are moved, they act, and create change.

As Moke's story spread, volunteers and donations poured in. While many different forms of media helped their cause, it was rewarding to be a small part of that. It was the first time I experienced the power of photos to not only tell a story, but to generate action. And that was pretty inspiring. It made me want to tell more stories that inspire change. Stories that move people to create a better world.


There are so many other things I learned through the school of hard shots this past year, but those were my big ones. What advice would you have for somebody in their first year?