Starting Out In Photography
Mike Grandmaison, November 07, 2010 at 6:35 PM

I am often asked about how I started out in photography and what advice could I give. For those of you struggling with that issue, here is my story ... the long version!



Humble Beginnings


I remember taking my first “real picture” in grade 11, circa 1968. For a

school project, I visited an aunt’s farm in Estaire, Ontario, some 20 minutes south of my hometown in Subury. With my mom’s “Kodak”, I remember making a black & white photograph of the old wooden barn which was still being used for dairy cows. That was the extent of my photography until I graduated from university in 1976.


During my undergraduate studies in Biology at Laurentian University, I often traveled with my classmates and some of my professors to visit and study “live” some of the interesting biomes we learned about in class such as the deciduous forest in the Great Smoky Mountains, the alpine communities at Mt. Washington, the prairie habitat in the American midwest, the desert community along the sand dunes at Carter Bay on Manitoulin Island to mention a few. Upon our return, my classmates would organize a social evening (complete with beer, etc) and share their photographs of the trip in a “slide show”. Not having my own camera, I was always envious of my classmates and could only enjoy the photographs as a viewer.


Upon graduating from university, that all changed as I bought my first 35mm camera, a Nikkormat EL upon a suggestion from a classmate. Being primarily interested in botany and ecology, one of my goals was to record   plants and the environment they grew in. I did not take any formal training in photography and puttered around for the next few years. With few biology positions available in the late 70’s, I opted to try my hand at managing a small camera store that opened for busines in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, an hour’s drive from my home town. I learned a great deal about the retail business and the photography products that were offered. However, without much support from the owners, the store closed its doors in about a year. But it was at the local Sturgeon Falls Camera Club that my interest in photography ignited. Having access to a fully equiped darkroom 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I spent plnety of time learning the craft of B&W photography, as well as dabbling in Cibachrome printing. 

The following year (late 1978), I moved to Edmonton, Alberta to find work in biology; within a couple of months, I began a 17 year stint working in the biological sciences.


Total Immersion


Shortly after moving to Edmonton, I found my way to Images Alberta Camera Club (IACC) where I met Mufty Mathewson, a most energetic woman with whom I became close friends with. She introduced me to the local photographic community and soon I became involved with a few local photo organizations. My involvement with two organizations - (1) IACC (as Newletter editor, 2nd Vice President and Programs Chairman) and (2) NAPA, the National Association for Photographic Arts and now called Canadian Association for Photographic Arts (CAPA) as District Representative, Prairie Zone Director, Vice President and President) - provided excellent opportunities to work with people of all walks of life and learn how volunteer organizations work. Part of our mandate involved organizing photo seminars and conferences and, in the process, I met a number of very fine photographers like Freeman Patterson, Ernst Haas, Frans Lanting, John Shaw, George Tice, Paul Caponigro, Courtney Milne, Pat O’Hara, Craig Richards and John Netherton to name a few. Seeing the works of these photographers first hand, and listening to their approaches and their stories, was invaluable. Two of those photographers, Freeman Patterson and Ernst Haas, would have a profound influence on my photography. Between photo seminars, conferences and camera club meetings, I immersed myself in anything that pertained to photography. I frequented the local library often and checked out the maximum alloted number of books on the topic of photography - everything from nature, fashion, architecture, darkroom processes, how-to, etc. I am still trying to track down some of those great books that inspired me decades ago which featured the fine works of Brett Weston, Minor White and Harry Callahan to name a few of my favorite B&W artists. I also browsed and purchased numerous photo magazines. Don't limit yourself to photography either as all art forms can be a source of inspiration and learning.


Honing My Skills


Whenever I had a chance, I would take my camera and photograph, whether in the backyard, the local park, the back roads, a canoe trip or holiday across the country. I simply could not get enough stimulation. Film was relatively cheap and photographing continuously improved my technical skills as well as my ability to see good images. My favorite book, and arguably the finest introductory book about photography, was by Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson called 'Photography For The Joy of It'. His subsequent book called 'Photography and the Art of Seeing' is indispensable in understanding about designing an image. The American John Shaw's 'Nature Photography Field Guide' was another excellent book that taught me much about the medium, particularly regarding the technical aspects. By this time I had switched to slide film and began learning about making good slide shows. During my time in Edmonton, I met regularly with a few colleagues (Mufty Mathewson, Mike Waterhouse, Gilles Delisle and Drew Jeffries). On a monthly basis, we met in each other’s homes to critique our work, discuss new techniques, inform each other of new developments, etc. The quality of my photography improved significantly in the early 80s and, by the time I moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1985, a few of my images had been published. Shortly after moving to Winnipeg, I was invited to join another Photo Critique Group and have been meeting on a continuous basis now for more than 25 years. This monthly gathering has been one of my most rewarding and enlightning photographic experiences. I also enrolled in a Small Business course at a local college thinking this might prove beneficial in the future. It would be another 11 years before I would finally venture out on my own as a full time, freelance photographer. In 1996, I left an excellent, well paying, full time government job to pursue my passion. To this day, there have been no regrets!


Hard Work


The decision to become an entrepreneur was not taken lightly however! I spent a great deal of time drafting up a business plan to understand the dynamics at play in my community and to try and determine whether this idea of mine was viable. To help guide me to an informed decison, I also sought the advice from a few pillars from my community - a couple of well known commercial photographers (Ron Gilfillan and Paul Martens), a graphic designer (Rob Peters of Circle Design), the owner of our custom photo lab (Paul Martens of The Lab Works) and a camera store owner (Dick Toews of Photo Central) - to find out whether they thought that what I had to offer would be of value and whether I could get paid enough for my services. 


The reality of the “big jump” set in very quickly! I had a young family at the time and my wife had decided to stay at home with the kids until they started school. Resigning from a well paying, full time job I now had no income, no medical benefits, no pension plan, etc. It was paramount that I got things going very quickly to ensure that I made enough money to support my young family.


I wasted no time and I hired one of the finest local commercial photographers for a week to teach me the ins and outs of commercial work, everything from working with lighting equipment in a studio and on location, to pricing assignment work to marketing. I also hired the services of a well known graphic designer to help me chart a course for my new career (build a web site, design business stationary and set up marketing materials). My business plan involved commercial photography as well as leasing my stock photographs through my own efforts. For the next 12 years, I would earn my living from both these streams, split nearly 50% from each stream. During this time, my assignment work focussed on architecture, agriculture, with some industrial and environmental photography as well. The stock photography part of the business specialized in nature, agriculture and travel, all within Canada. The last 10 years leading to the launch of my new career served to build a strong stock library of premium quality images.


While my focus has shifted somewhat in the last few years to include more stock photography as well as producing coffee table books, teaching workshops and marketing fine art prints, the assignment work still plays an important role in diversifying my offering. Despite the recent economic downturn, I continue to work hard to ensure the viability of the business.


In Summary


The path that led to my present situation is one that has worked well for me. Your own set of circumstances may dictate a very diiferent path. However, keeping the following points in mind might serve you well indeed.


Immerse yourself in photography! Read as much as you can about the medium, its practioners and the various fields of photography, particularly the ones that interest you. The library, you local club, your favorite book store, as well as the online ones, are great sources for books and magazines. The web is one of today’s great resources for photography, both for learning techniques as well as for viewing inspirational work. Don’t limit yourself to photography but be open to veiwing other art forms as well.


Your local college or freelance photographer may offer any number of photography courses, lasting from a few hours to a few months or even a year. Look into upcoming photo seminars or conferences and commit to attend, even if it’s not in your immediate vicinity. Consider taking a photo workshop as these are often opportunities to fast-track your learning. Get involved locally with a local camera club, association or, if you’re more of a loner, perhaps meet with one, two or a few like-minded individuals to talk about photography or photograph together.


If you have aspirations of becoming a freelance photographer in the near future, I would highly recommend attending a course in “Starting A Small Business” as well as another about marketing. It’s not enough to be an excellent photographer; you also need to know how to manage your business, everything from cash flow, to assessing what you need to charge to stay in business, to learning how to market your work in this highly competitive, global market. If stock photography interests you, you will need to build a strong, extensive file of quality images which will take you at least a few years to develop. You should research your particular market to understand what you can offer that is both better or different than your competitors. Building up your stock photography business as you carry on with your regular job for a few years will likely put you in a better financial position to make the “big jump”!


Essentially, follow your heart. As far as I know, we “only live once”! Personally, I thought I owed it to myself to at least give it a good shot! It is a daunting task and much work will be required. It will take time and significant financial resources, especially if you want to "fast track " your education! Shoot, shoot, shoot ... and shoot some more! That is the recipe I followed and it served me well. No regrets!