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  • Writer's pictureDave Pidgeon

Oh those early images from your first days photographing stuff

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

There's this eternal struggle in the photography community for thousands of people unable (maybe unwilling) to answer a fundamental question:

Am I a photographer?

Then there's the follow up:

If I'm not, then when do I become a "photographer?"

People walking on North Myrtle Beach at sunrise.
This was my first "ah-ha" photography moment, when light and shadow came together for me to snap an image. It made me realize we could do special things with these instruments called cameras.

For those who wrestle with this - and you know you do when people ask you if you're a photographer and you hesitate or say "no no no, it's just a hobby" - lemme put some of your anxiety at ease.

There are no photography gods, no gatekeepers, no scary authoratative temple guards wagging fingers to shame anyone who prematurely claims the title of "photographer."

A lot of hobbyists are true artists. A lot of pro photographers are actually uninspiring.

So, when does someone get to claim, internally and externally, they are a "photographer?"

The answer, honestly, is in you.

So if you wanna say "I'm a f***ing photographer, dammit" then do it.

There is one thing, though, that distinguishes people who graduate into seeing themselves as "photographers" from those who never find that kind of self-confidence or self-worth.

And it has everything to do with those first days you hold a camera, any camera.

The three things you can do to advance beyond the basics

We all start somewhere.

I don't care who you are, how long you've been making images, whether your parents put a camera in your crib at birth or didn't pick one up until ordering a mirrorless on Amazon for your 50th birthday.

No one ... no one ... is born knowing how to make great images. Nope. It's a skill, a trade, that has to be practiced, screwed up, learned.

Sure, some have an advanced visual sense, something in their DNA or their upbringing that allows them to observe the world using their eyes more than their ears, nose, or fingertips.

A business owner's headshot portrait.
A headshot portrait I did from those days when I was trying to find my niche.

But we all have to learn things like manipulating the exposure triangle and how to compose images that are compelling, tell a story, or are just simply nice to look at.

Honestly, if I majored in English in college, then twenty years later I'm running a super niche portrait photography business in a medium-sized town (for profit nonetheless), then yeah, it's possible for you to become a photographer too.

What's the pathway to get there? I believe there are three core things you can do, starting today, that will set you on that road.

In no particular order, they include:

  1. Devore all the book and online resources you can to help you learn. KelbyOne and Creative Live are great places. However ...

  2. Don't rely on online learning. Find in-person mentoring or workshops. Online learning is amazing, accessible, easy to digest, but it simply cannot replace the honest, real time feedback of someone who's been there, done that. Online learning cannot replace being engaged in a community of other motivated creators being led by an expert. Online learning and in-person learning go hand-in-hand.

  3. Find photographers, maybe three to five, whose work makes you go OH MY GAWD THAT IS AMAZING HOW DID THEY DO THAT I WANT TO BE ABLE TO DO THAT!!!!!! Don't just find them. Follow them. Study them intensely. Spend time examining their images and try to dissect them so you can figure out what they did to light and compose. Read a photograph, don't just look at it.

Actually, there's one more thing

It's the hardest one.

No doubt. Because it requires you to dig really deep into yourself.

You gotta keep going.

Fear not making bad photos or having an inferior camera. Really. Fear not.

Just keep making images. That's going to make all the difference.

Amusement park swings in Ocean City, N.J.
This 2014 image, taken spontaneously during a family vacation, was featured on National Geographic's Your Shot.

Keep going. Nobody is born with the ability to create an image. It's a craft. Just like writing, which you must do over and over again to develop your voice.

To develop your photographic vision, to get better at consistently making great images, keep going. Keep photographing.

Try different techniques. Try black-and-white or wide angles instead of color and telephoto.

Walk around a city with only an iPhone. Photograph a subject that you've never photographed before.

Keep going. Because if you do, if you push your creative boundaries, if you don't fear making bad photos because they'll help you make great photos, something magical happens.

You develop photographic instinct. You begin to make amazing images sometimes without much thought. You develop a photographic style that is uniquely yours.

Just keep going!

Dave Pidgeon is a seasoned writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. You can reach him at

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