digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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Overcoming Challenges to Achieve Your Photography Goals – Student Showcase

In this article, I want to show you what is possible if you face your fears and your challenges and push through them. Not by telling you about myself, but by talking to two of my past students, Dawn and Rick. I believe that if they can do it; if they can achieve their dreams, you can too!

I think you will relate to them and their stories, so let's get to it.

Rick Halbert – Video Interview

This is Rick!

I met Rick about three years ago when he attended my Available Light Portrait Photography class in Edmonton. We hit it off almost immediately.

One of the reasons I wanted to share the story of his journey with you is something he told me after we finished recording the video.

I never intended to quit my day job and do photography as a living.

But he's doing just that, setting his own hours, hand picking his clients, and having the time of his life.

So while you may not have any aspirations to do photography professionally, keep in mind – he didn't either! And even if you never do any paid gigs, it doesn't make you any less of a photographer and you can still follow much the same path he has.

Rick's transformation or photography journey

As you'll see in the interview, he's been doing photography about 10 years but only in the last five has he gotten more serious about studying it.

He knows the value of constant learning and also told me after the interview that it's only been in the last year that he's even attempted to start using Photoshop because it “scared the crap” out of him.

Here are some of Ricky's early portraits. Watch our video chat now and then scroll down to see more of his current work and you will be able to see his transformation.

Watch our video chat now

Warning: There may be one “oops” word used in the video, please excuse the accidental profanity.

Now Rick does do some of his photography professionally and he shoots events like Fashion Week here in Edmonton. Here are some of his more recent images:

Rick in action. Doesn't he just look like he knows what he's doing!?

If you want to see more of Rick's images and or connect with him you can find him on Instagram and his Facebook page.

Dawn Sulyma Smith – Read about her journey below

Dawn is another past student of mine that attended a couple of my local classroom sessions.

The reason I wanted to showcase her story is I think many of you will connect with some of her early struggles. I hope you'll also be inspired by how she's overcome them.

I asked her a few questions and we chatted by email, here are the answers and story of her journey.

This is Dawn on one of her many travel adventures.

When did you get into photography and why?

I always had an interest in photography but did not have the time to pursue it further until I was 40!

As a parent, I always had a camera in hand documenting my kids' childhood and enjoyed taking photos of them. I originally started to get into photography and take some classes because I wanted to move away from taking snapshots and take “better” photos of my family and our travel destinations and my interest expanded from there.

It started off as a hobby and has turned into a part-time business for me.  

EARLY IMAGE  – “ISO 100, f/8, at 1/20th of a second. I was using Manual Mode and preoccupied with changing the settings. I was far too close and standing at the wrong angle. These are my kids and part of the reason why I got into photography.”

Why do you enjoy doing photography?

I enjoy photography for a variety of reasons.

It allows me to express my creative side that I don't normally get to use in my day job. I travel a lot, and photography has helped me see the beauty and magnificence of the world around me and to share how I see that.

I love working with families and couples and capturing moments and their emotions during our sessions and sharing those with them. I also like to give back to the community. I have volunteered with an organization called Help Portrait in the past, and love seeing families, often for the first time, receive a family portrait of themselves.

NOTE: See how she and Rick have the commonality? Jobs that do not allow for creativity! So finding an outlet is so important if you can relate to that.

Which aspects of portrait photography did you find difficult when you first started?

Working with people, lighting that flatters the subject (using available light and/or flash), posing, camera settings, using flash.

Working with people, lighting and using flash were the biggest obstacles for me.

EARLY IMAGE – ISO 100, f/7.1, at 1/15th of a second. “Taken at the Royal Alberta Museum at sunset. I was using Manual Mode at this point and was so busy changing my settings that I didn't nail the focus.”

How did you overcome those challenges?

To overcome those challenges, I read books, watched YouTube videos and then I signed up for a couple of your classes. I originally started with an HDR class, night photography class, a portrait class, and then finally an online flash course.

The combination of the books, videos, classes and many hours of practice all helped overcome the challenges. I found that hands-on experience in a class was the most beneficial. I think my biggest obstacle was to overcome my lack of self-confidence, something that is always a work in progress.

How you would compare your abilities and confidence when you first started doing portrait photography, to after taking Darlene's course and her mentoring?

How did your photography evolve? Did you feel more confident with your camera, your skills? Anything else?

When I first began my journey I owned a T3i Canon Rebel camera that I had purchased shortly before a trip to Cuba. I had no idea how to use the camera and literally took it out of the box just before the trip, switched it to the Auto landscape mode and away I went.
This was one of my favorites, although my focus was off, I was happy with my progression here. I took my client to Summerside Lake and she walked in with her wedding dress. This was when I learned that in order to get the shot I wanted, I had to get in the water and get down low as well.
I had signed up for a class to learn about the fundamentals of a DSLR camera and that is when I realized that there was just so much more to photography than the little face and landscape icons on my camera dial. I was hooked and I started signing up for a variety of classes, mostly to try out different types of photography. The first was on landscape photography.

While I learned a bit, I felt I didn’t succeed as well as I could have in class. I am very quiet, incredibly shy and lack confidence. In a class where you need to be hands-on, I found that I just got lost and essentially left behind. My next two classes I signed up for were an HDR Class and a Night Photography Class that were both taught by Darlene.

My husband had recently gifted me a Canon 5D Mark II, which was completely different than the equipment I had been using, and at the time it was overwhelming. Darlene took her time to help show the basics of the new camera so I understood and could use it and function through the classes. When I completed those classes I felt that I understood the DSLR and could set the settings for different scenes.

The difference in instruction between the previous instructors I had was night and day. While I tried to be my normal self, a wallflower, Darlene’s teaching style would not allow for that to happen. She was always kind and caring and was able to read each student in her class and adapt to each one of us to ensure that we all succeeded.

EARLY IMAGE – ISO 100, f/5, at 1/15th of a second. One of my first larger family photos. At this time I was learning to increase my aperture to help make sure everyone on the photo was in focus.
Then I enrolled in her available light portrait class, which really changed things for me.

I had been practicing with my new DSLR and understood the settings and the basic principles to a point where I didn’t freeze and draw a blank as to what setting should I be using. Darlene was patient and ensured that she spent time with each of us, reviewing settings, techniques, and setup of the various lighting scenarios with the students (who also modeled for each other in class).

Darlene would review the images that I was making and not only provide constructive feedback but demonstrated again until I was confident in what I was doing and answering any questions I had. The interaction with the other students was well out of my comfort zone but with Darlene’s encouragement and direction, I felt that I succeeded in the class.

I became more comfortable directing fellow classmates to achieve the natural light portraits that we were learning to capture.

I think the recurring theme for me at that point was the classes I had taken at the start of my journey, were types of photography that were solitary, I could do them on my own without having to interact with anyone, which at the time I thought was perfect. That was until I signed up for the natural light class and began working with other people in portrait situations.

With Darlene’s classes and mentoring, I gained a solid understanding of my camera, its settings and the situations where each was best suited.

I left the available light classes with more confidence and a desire to learn and do more portrait photography.

One of the things that I admired most about Darlene, was that we were more than just her students, she took an active interest in us and kept in touch with each of us after we had completed her classes.

She genuinely wanted to know how we were progressing and where photography was taking us.

Soon after the available light class was over Darlene had invited me to assist her at a charity photography event that took place every December called Help Portrait. Photos are taken and printed on location and provided to individuals (free of charge) that can't otherwise afford such a thing. 

This event was emotional for me, to see people so appreciative of the simple task of taking and printing a photo for them. Some people were in tears, overjoyed at their portraits and some could not wait to send their photo to family members.

There was one gentleman that I recognized from Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada. He was homeless and living on the streets of Edmonton, his family had not seen or heard from him for many years and he could not wait to share his portrait with his family.

John Carver – from 2012 Help Portrait. He had such kind eyes, I wanted to know more about his story. – Darlene
Note from Darlene: I learned he was an artist (he sculpts pieces of rock) so I create two different portraits for him. One that showed his hands as those are the things he uses to create his art, and one more of his face.
Image by Darlene
Darlene took her time with the gentleman, started a conversation with him to learn more about him. As she went through this process you could see his demeanor change and how he became comfortable with her through the portrait process. This is the day that I learned to become more engaged with people, to do what I could to make them at ease and to converse about topics that they relate to, to act like a fool to get the kids to laugh and keep them engaged and that often, the person in front of the camera is more awkward than the photographer.

A short time after that I helped Darlene with her own family portrait. Even though this was her family, and she could have easily set up a timer on a tripod, she knew that I had interest in portrait photography and took the time to include me and walk me through each step of the session.

family portrait photo
Darlene's family photo take by Dawn
I learned many things from watching Darlene during this session, the importance of arriving early to scout out locations in relation to where the best light was hitting, that when there are children involved not everything goes as planned and you need to be quick, that interaction with clients is essential to making sure the session progresses smoothly.

I learned a great deal about posing, including where to situate everyone so they look best, to make sure you stagger people appropriately and not stack them like totem poles and to let the kids have fun and be kids, to be silly with them and get down on their level. I am certain that at both Help Portrait and the family photos Darlene had a squeaky toy with her, and because of that, I have one in my bag at all times, as well as some candy. Candy bribes work best, even with adults.

I found an old barn just outside of the city and it has become one of my favorite places to shoot. The light here at sunset is beautiful. ISO 100, f/4, at 1/30th.
All of these things that I learned from her in her classes, at Help Portrait, and at her family photo session helped me with my progression. It also helped me with my shyness and confidence levels and I learned that I did love portrait work and wanted to do more of it.

I loved watching people look at the portraits we were taking and fall in love with those images. I started asking people if they would be interested in modeling for me so I could practice, I once even approached someone in Costco. I made a ton of terrible images, but thanks to Darlene and her mentoring and encouragement, I made some good photographs and now have a regular clientele for my part-time business.

I have even taken a model to Lake Louise, put her in a wedding dress and set up my shot in front of thousands of tourists, it was an exhilarating moment for me. I feel an overwhelming sense of happiness when I am out photographing, and am gaining self-confidence every day and trying new things and concepts out all the time. Some work, some do not, but I keep on practicing.

Where are you at now with your photography?

My daughter's wedding in Jasper, AB. The overcast conditions helped create beautiful light for her photos that day.
I do a variety of photography, I photographed the RAH Class of 65 Reunion, volunteered my time to capture events for the Ice On Whyte Festival (a winter event in Edmonton). I have tried some newborn sessions and photographed some weddings but I focus mainly on families, couples and children portraits.

I have a part-time professional business, which I do mostly on evenings and weekends.

I also enjoy landscape, night and astro photography and sometimes wildlife. I love to learn and do not feel I am limited any longer.

How long did it take for you to get to this point? Was it difficult?

It took a good five years after my first class to get to the point I felt comfortable charging for my work and work away from being the “free” photographer. It is hard to break into the market and be price competitive.

It was a hard transition for me, I lost some clients once I stopped offering free sessions and that was a little depressing, but some stayed. I have one particular family that I see every September.

ISO 100, f/3.5, at 1/80th.  I posted in a travel forum that I would be in the Turks and Caicos and as looking for a couple to photograph during sunset. This is a photo from that session. I love the backlight and love that I actually arranged the session.

Where you can follow Dawn and see more of her work?

You can follow Dawn on her Facebook page, on her Instagram profile – AND she even has her own website now DSS Photography. I'm so proud of her!

Do take a look at her website and see what she's been able to achieve.

One thing I want to point out that she mentioned she started off with a landscape class and had no intention of doing portraits – and yet here she is!

So remember to try other genres, step outside your comfort zone, and read: 5 Benefits of Learning Portrait Photography Even if You Don’t Do Portraits you might just surprise yourself!

I'll let you in on a little secret!

In high school, I was the SHYEST person ever.

I hardly talked to anyone and did my best to be invisible. People who know me and meet me now don't believe it, but it's true.

So when I went to photography school I focused on working with still life subjects, things I could shoot in the studio and not have to talk to anyone. But over time life happens and I sort of fell into doing portraits and weddings and lo and behold – I too found it very rewarding. Much more so that photographing inanimate objects.

My advice is to be open to whatever comes your way.

Try it even if you think you don't like it, and especially if it scares you or is out of your comfort zone. You may have heard this saying before, “Growth lies just beyond your comfort zone” and it's so true!

Wherever you are on your photography journey remember to be gentle on yourself. Take baby steps, but keep practicing and move forward if only an inch at a time. The snail still gets to his destination, it just takes him a little bit longer.

Darlene Hildebrandt photographer DPM

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