Reader Question

Category: Reader Question

Reader Question – How do I become a great photographer?


Recently was sent this question by a reader:

“Hey Kurtis! I’m coming back to Vancouver in September and have decided I would like to pursue my photography a little more. I remember reading you were teaching at Langara. I just wanted to know how you liked the program and what steps you took to becoming a great photographer?  -Justin”

Firstly, thanks for the compliment! Yes, I currently work for the Langara Continuing Studies Photography Program (evening and weekend classes). Prior to that I graduated from the Langara Professional Photo-Imaging in 2009 (2 year full time day program). You can see all my posts about those classes here.

So are you SURE you want to be a “Photographer”… you know what that means right…?


All illusions aside, still interested…?

Alright then, read on Macduff!

It’s interesting thinking about how to become a “great Photographer” as admittedly I’m still on that journey but let’s break it down so far;

  1. Take tons of crappy pictures. My Mom always said when I was sucking at learning to draw (read as: still learning) “The first 3,000 don’t count”. Those first ones are going to suck, accept that. This is a great rule, for photography I can shoot 3,000 images at a wedding so lets up the number to 30,000 for all your trigger happy shooters out there. I went to school to shoot this many images but there are a ton of resources out there if you’re more of a learn from a book/internet kind of person.
  2. Shoot a lot of different subjects. I’ve shot a whole range of genres including architecturefoodportraitureevent coverageweddings, and sports. It’s all good experience and you can take skills you learned from a recent portrait shoot to your next food shoot for a new perspective. Shooting different subjects also helps you narrow down what you DON’T like to shoot *cough*childrenandpets*cough*.
  3. Shoot what you love. Once you know what you love to shoot, DO THAT! Need a car shot? Talk to Matt Kwok. I was told there is a photographer in New York that JUST shoots silverware for chrissakes.
  4. Get feedback on your work (for better or worse). I was told my work sucked more than once BUT it made it better in the long term. You want to feel like an flawless Power Ranger riding a unicorn? Join Flickr. You want to be a professional? Go to something like the CAPIC Portfolio Review to get some great experienced professional eyes on your portfolio
  5. DO find some one you admire, DON’T compare your work to theirs. There will always be someone better than you in the industry. It’s great to have role models but comparing your beginner work to someone like Chris Buck will leave you crying in the fetal position in your parents basement. Instead compare your work to your OWN past work and get excited by seeing that progression (If it’s not getting better see #4).
  6. Watch “If I had to start Today” by Zak Arias about how he’d start his business from scratch if he was dropped in a completely new city with no contacts.
  7. Know your gear (see #1). RTFM, seriously. As you shoot more and more your gear begins to fade into the background as it becomes an extension of you. Photo shoots become more about the moment/client/model, not where-is-that-button-that-does-that-thingy-ma-doo. The better you know your gear the quicker you will get better images and the less likely you’ll miss awesome shots.
  8. Rent different gear. I made the mistake early on of buying some gear instead of renting. It’s way cheaper to rent some really cool lenses/lighting gear from a place like Flashpoint and see how you like working with it and what it can do for your images.
  9. Do a practicum. I spent 3 weeks volunteering for Steve Pinter and then another 2 weeks with Bryan Ward (NSFW). Seeing how people operate their businesses is invaluable as well as the skills you develop working on set vs. theory in the classroom.
  10. Show up early and keep helping people. I wouldn’t be anywhere in the industry if I hadn’t volunteered to show up early and lug gear for Adam Blasberg. From that experience I met and was hired by Adam and Kev, who later recommended me to Anthony RedpathChristie Graham AND Langara where I met Jeff Bell who got me onto the Ultiphotos team and recommended me to Dave Delnea and Chris Morris… etc etc (this isn’t met to be name drop-ey, just to show how one interaction can lead to so much work/experience). To this day, I’m still responding to emails from classmates and colleagues about quotes and marketing plans, when a job comes their way that they can’t accommodate I’m #1 on their speed dial.
  11. Watch  “F*ck You. Pay Me” by Mike Monteiro about client contracts, payment, and lawyers. It’s like a standup routine with lots of cursing… so… a stand up routine.
  12. Take a class with Andre Amyot about business. I took his class in 2009 at Image Explorations and it truly opened my eyes to the cost of business.
  13. Keep learning. The reason I got into photography is because there’s always some new software, gear, technique to learn. Part of why I love my job at Langara is the students push me to answer questions I’d never thought of or bring in gear I hadn’t worked with.
  14. Stay up to date on the industry. These are a couple great blogs to follow like A Photo Editor and Peta Pixel. Know what’s going on out there so you can adapt to it.
  15. Ask questions. See some cool image/technique online, email that person responsible. What’s the worst that could possibly happen? No response? Don’t worry, this is not The Notebook, you’ll be fine. The payoff could be that you learn something new and make a new contact and I will take that gamble. Every. Dam. Time.
  16. Have fun. We get to create images for a living and that’s a sweet gig. If you’re not having fun doing that…

Didn’t want to read all that? FOINE, at least do 6 and 11.

Conclusion, you’ll note that a lot of this was pretty business heavy but that’s because you can’t afford to suck at that. Your images will get better over time you keep making bad business choices you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot over and over again.

At the end of the day know that your life is as a photographer going to look something like this…



You can see more of my Reader Question posts here, for more updates follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

Reader Question – How to get consistent assisting gigs?


Received an question from Kris Mohoruk a past classmate at the Langara Professional Photo-Imaging Program (posted below with his permission, [my comments in bars]);

Hey Kurtis,

I have been following your blog over the last little bit, very well done, I like how it is a nice blend of business and fun, t’s nice to see that your doing so well [Thank you Kris]. I recently just got back from Australia and have been trying to drum up some work and have been having some luck, but it hasn’t been consistent.

I thought I would just inquire and see if you knew anyone who was looking for any sort of assisting work, charity work, or looking to start work on any projects.

I hope all is well,



Great start Kris, asking around is a good place to start looking for work. To quell one thought, photo work has never been “consistent” for me by any means. The only thing consistent about it that my bosses all call me all on same week every three months…

**Disclaimer: This is my opinion, it may or may not work for you, it has not been tested 117%**

I’m still trying to crack the consistent code, a couple of things I could reccomend:

  1. Make a list of photographers you’d like to work for in your area; PPABC or CAPIC have great lists failing that Google is a great resource. Assisting is as much about work as it is learning. For example I probably wouldn’t assist a children’s photographer more than once (unless we hit it off) as that is not work I’m particularly interested in being very proficient in.
  2. Take one of those photographers out for coffee/lunch/dinner (YOUR treat). I’ve found that if you don’t have a word of mouth referral photographers are hesitant to hire a new assistant as they have to spend a 5-10 hour day with you and not knowing you can be an issue. Make the investment, prove you’re awesome. You’ll be footing a $10-60 bill (you’re essentially paying for a job interview) but even if that turns into one/half a gig it’s paid for itself and you’ve got another photographer referral.
  3. Work for free once (DOUBLE DISCLAIMER always bill when you work for free, then discount 100%. This way the photographer knows your value and won’t be shocked when you drop your assisting rate next time). You don’t want to come off as cheap. Takes down that initial “is-this-person-worth-my-money” barrier from the photographers point of view. Again, prove you’re awesome.
  4. Develop a mailing list from #1 and send out promo’s “20% off if you book me by/before Febtober 37th”. Give them the option to unsubscribe (I hate when I unsubscribe from something and still keep getting it)
  5. Start a blog, show what you’re shooting right now. Nice to show photographers what you’re working on/ where you see yourself going. Add this to your newsletter from #4
  6. Keep learning on your own, take a course (Photoshop, Capture One etc) then send out a press release to your mailing list from #4. Show that you’re gaining more and more skills making yourself more and more proficient at your job. I’d personally rather pay some expert 2x$50/hour to get a job done than some rookie 10x$10/hour for the same job.
  7. Develop relationships with rental studios. Provide them with a cut (10-20%) of your day rate to be their #1 Guy/Gal. Meanwhile someone out there is screaming bloody murder I’m taking from their profit… how about charging an additional 10-20% on top of your original rate to begin with (80-90% of something is better than 100% of nothing).
  8. Be available, I’m lucky enough to have 1 2 3 4 bosses that are very understanding of my passion for photography so with enough notice I can cancel bread and butter work and go assist on set. I’ve gotten calls from photographers at 11:00pm to be on set at 5:00am…and been there at 4:55am. Invaluable generating that kind of reputation.
Photographic Assisting Tools
If you can't fix something on set with these two items you have a BIGGER problem - © 2011 Kurtis Stewart

Off the top of my head that’s all I’ve got. Now the best thing about almost all the ideas above is they cost essentially nothing, just your time or coffee.

My idea for 2011 is to assist for one NEW photographer each month for free. This is more of a learning process thing for me as I’ve been working for a couple photographers for a while now and have found that when I get to set I’m on auto pilot as I know the photographers habits/wants/needs so well. I want to learn more lighting, play with new gear and see different perspectives. Just, putting that out there

Great question, hope that helps Kris.

Now lets ask the readers, what other things would/do you do to drum up more consistent work?