My Journey To Becoming a Professional Photographer - The Last Instalment: When It All Got Real!

It was a very dreary evening when I found myself sitting in my car outside the college building where my first photography class was about to start (when I say “about to start” what I really mean is that I was around an hour too early).

The room where the class was going to take place was adjacent to the main building so I was pretty much parked by the door. I got out of my car, lit a cigarrette (oh, the shame of it… but yes, I was smoker in those days) and stood there, staring at the building. These thoughts were going through my mind:

  1. Do I really want to do this?

  2. How is photography ever going to be useful to anyone, or change anyone’s life?

  3. Should I have enrolled on a medical course of some sort, instead? I always felt that, due to family tradition, I should have been a doctor. Or a nurse, or a paramedic…

  4. Tomorrow I will look for traininng on something which really can help others

  5. I find photography a bit of a bore

  6. Meh…

Then I also considered the fact that I was already very well educated, that I went to uni to become a teacher and never followed that career path through, that I spoke three languages and was using them for a job that had no real impact. I felt that I had made all the wrong career choices and was certain that I was not the best person to judge what I’d be good at, and so I had “allowed life to decide” - Hence finding myself standing where I was, at that time.

I finished my smoke, picked up my borrowed camera and went in. I was the first in the classroom.

HERE GOES NOTHING…

The classroom was large and well lit, with lots of image prints and photographic paraphernalia. The desks were more like large tables, side-by-side forming one even larger table, in a semi-circle.

The other students started to arrive and take their places, and soon after the teacher walked in.

After a brief information talk about the course, the class itself started.

Now… I cannot tell you about a single word uttered at that time, but I can tell you about the precise moment it all changed for me:

The teacher put on a slideshow during which he was telling us about different styles of photography and about high profile photographers. It was interesting but it was not really holding my attention, until a photograph of a lady in a white dress and wide brimmed white hat, stood against a black background with the only light source being a match from which she was about to light her cigarrette, was shown.

Something lit up in my brain. I loved that image. I understood it. I knew, instinctively, how that was done. I wanted to create an image like that.

I left that first class knowing that not only would I return and complete the course, but that I was not turning back. Ever.

I HAVE A QUALIFICATION! YAY! NOW, WHAT?!

In June 2003 I received my City & Guilds Certificate, and I felt so proud that I had passed my exams with flying colours (no pun intended)!

But I knew that the real work would start right now, and also that I had no clue where to begin.

I had not tested my skills in “real life”, I had no studio, no equipment (still using the borrowed camera), and felt a little stuck.

However, being ever-resourceful, I thought: “No problem!”. I cleared my living room, hung up a white bed sheet, set up a cheap studio flash I bought second hand from the high street, and begun to call my friends and talk to work colleagues, to enlist them as test models.

If I knew anything at that time was that simply having a certificate was in no way guarantee that I’d be a good, or even just-about-good, photographer.

I knew how to use a camera, measure light, and compose an image, but that did not make me a photographer - any more than having a calculator and being able to use it made me an acccountant!

I spent the next 6 months photographing anyone who would be kind enough to step in front of my camera (or, my borrowed camera) and realised that not only did I love the whole process but also that I was already quite good at posing and lighting my subjects, competently. People liked the images and I liked it too!

At this point I had only photographed adults, in pretty straight forward portraits, and I knew that being competent was a great start, but was not enough. I wanted to capture my subject’s personality and I knew this was going to be a life-long learning curve.

WHEN IT ALL FELL INTO PLACE - THE DAY I REALISED THAT I COULD, IN TRUTH, CHANGE LIVES WITH PHOTOGRAPHY

I have told this part of my story many times, and it still moves me. It always will.

The below is an excerpt from my Blog post on the 22nd March 2019, where I explain why I have come back to photographing adult portraits and, in particular, women makeover portraits.

I enlisted the help of a lovely young lady, whom we will call Ana- Not her real name, but given the personal nature of this story I want to protect her privacy. I am sure you understand!

Ana was in her early twenties and had a very well defined fashion style, which was what led me to ask her to model for me - She always looked very distinct and individual.

Ana came over to the studio and I photographed her in her favourite outfits and the make up she did, so skillfully.

After a couple of weeks I asked her back to view the images and pick some, as a Thank You, for her help. She remained completely quiet through the projection of the images, and that made me very worried! I was certain she hated the images and was trying to spare my feelings by not commenting. Nonetheless, she picked her images.

A week later she came back to collect her photos and what happened next shaped my view of photography, its power, and it also shaped my career…

I offered her a coffee and she followed my into the kitchen. Without prompting, she told me this:

“I want to thank you, so much, for asking me to do these photos. They are beautiful and I was really taken aback by them, as I never believed I am beautiful. I used to wake up and look at myself in the mirror and hate myself, but now I have a lot of confidence! In fact, I have so much confidence that I even got back in touch my my dad, as I had not seen or spoken to him for many years. We had been estranged and due to my lack of confidence in myself I never got back in touch. Now I am really looking forward to seeing my dad again and I really believe in myself!”

FROM THERE TO HERE

After my experience with Ana I began to put even more time and effort into learning more and more every day, in real life scenarios.

I finally invested in my own camera (YAY), and it was digital!

IMG_0694.JPG

This was one of my first CF cards - You could not fit many images in there now, due to the file sizes on modern cameras and the fact that the capacity on this card is minimal… No, I do not use it now! It is only of sentimental value.

I began to advertise my business, locally, and people started to book me to photograph their chidren, their family group or just themselves.

Then one fine day a friend asked me to photograph her wedding, and panicking (my face must have been something else…) I said I could not do it!. “I have absolutely no experience or any idea of what to do”. To which she replied “Not a problem. I trust you. You are good!” - Yes. Flattery WILL get you everywhere!

I reluctantly accepted and charged her only for the prints I made as I figured that as I was a guest at the wedding, in any case, I would combine business with pleasure and it would be just fine.

The images were actually very good and I gained yet more confidence - so I started to also photograph small weddings, locally, mainly at the local registry office. Within a year I was photographing at small venues and soon after at much larger venues, and much more elaborate weddings. It pretty much became my main photography service, even though I never abandoned portraiture!

As of June this year I no longer offer Wedding Photography as I want to concentrate solely on portraiture, but over the past 16 years I photographed weddings for some amazing couples at some of the grandest and most beautiful venues in the UK. I feel very blessed.

IT WAS A BUMPY ROAD BUT GIVING UP WAS NEVER AN OPTION

Along the way I found that many people think that being a professional photographer is easy. It’s glamorous. It’s fun. Some even think that it is not a skilled occupation and that anyone with a camera can do it.

I have come across these misconceptions many times over the past 16 years and I have to admit that this made me feel very low, at times. It really made me feel like giving up - But that was never really an option.

Ultimately I made the choice to turn away from those misinformed comments and thoughts - I wanted to concentrate on the people who valued and understood what I do: My clients!

There have been many highlights and joyous moments - I have been able to help raise funds for worthy charities by giving my time, skills and service for their endeavours, I have won awards, been featured in magazines and newspapers, had radio interviews about my work, and all sorts of other great moments - But the ultimate joy and reward is the emotion I see in a parent’s eyes when they view their child’s beautiful portrait, or when I am able to change a person’s self-perceptiom for the better.

Being a professional portrait and wedding photographer is not for the faint-hearted. You are responsible for capturing people’s most precious moments and memories, and that is an enormous responsibility!

So regardless of the challenges I found, my sincere love for this profession always wins out and my motivation always comes back to this:

  • My work can, and does, help make my clients’ lives better.

  • It is an ever-lasting record and legacy of precious family moments, of their children’s beautiful and happy smiles and of their growth and changes;

  • It is a self-esteem builder and a reminder that we are all imperfect-but-fabulous human beings and worthy of joy;

  • It is an ever-lasting reminder of my clients most treasured moments - Be it their wonderful wedding day or the first few days of their child’s life;

  • It is a family heirloom;

  • It is an ever-present reminder of life - be it our own or of those we love.

  • It is a moment of joy, captured - And that is worth a lot!

No, it is not brain surgery, or any surgery. It is not life-or-death. It cannot cure disease. But then again it is never sold as such.

Photography is my life and I cannot imagine my life being any other way. I am overjoyed to be able to work from my own, small-but-perfectly-formed, comfortable and bright home studio and am ever grateful to all the clients who over the years have entrusted me with their precious memories.

Was my finger falling on that photography course the universe/life deciding for me? Or just a fluke?

It doesn’t really matter as looking back I can now see that even though I initially thought that this was an unlikely career path and doubted it all the way, it was a much better decision than I would have consciously made for myself.

I have, after all, made a difference - And I hope to continue to do so for many years to come!

THE LAST WORDS ARE OF GRATITUDE

I will try not to sound as though I am making an Oscar-acceptance speech, but I believe that acknowledging those who helped you along the path, and saying Thank You, is ever important.

So…

To my wonderful husband for putting up with my photography craziness and for being utterly supportive,

To absolutely everyone whom ever indulged me in standing before my camera in the early days, as “models”, and never ignored my calls (which I would have 100% understood),

To my closest and most loyal friends for their support, unwaivering belief in me and not falling asleep when I start talking about photography,

To all my clients - present and past…

THANK YOU!

And if you like to check out my work, just see the menu at the top of the page!

Andrea de Gabriel