My Photography Journey by Christie Nelson

My interest in photography started to simmer when I moved to Chicago in the year 2000. I purchased a book of “then and now” photos of the city and was mesmerized. It was then that I began to appreciate the power of photography to make time stand still.

Fast forward to 2007, when I purchased my first DSLR, a Nikon D60. Recently married, I began reading some blogs about a variety of topics which showcased some good photography. I wanted to be able to create the same quality images, and had the naive assumption that if I got a nice camera, the rest would be easy. I used that camera on Automatic or Priority modes for the next three years with mixed results.

Nikon D60 in Shutter Priority mode with kit lens, ISO 100 | f/8 | 1/250 sec

This is still one of my favorite images today.

In 2008, I took a photography course at the university here in Canberra, Australia. Unfortunately for me, it turned out to be more of a photographic art appreciation course, when what I wanted was instruction and practice in technical photographic skills. So, I sought out a few good photography resources online, including Digital Photography School, where I began to learn the very basic fundamentals of exposure and light. Then, in 2009, my little girl Eliza was born and that’s when things really began to take off.

I took oodles of photos of her when she was a baby, and most of them were terrible! I loved using Aperture priority to narrow my depth of field, but I didn’t understand that in most cases, my camera wasn’t selecting fast enough shutter speeds to capture her motion. I ended up with a lot of photos like this:

Nikon D60 in Auto mode with kit lens, ISO 720 | f/5.3 | 1/30 sec

Looking at these settings now, it’s no wonder she was so blurry. However, back then, I had no idea why. It was really frustrating!

Nikon D60 in Auto mode with kit lens, ISO 320 | f/3.5 | 1/30 sec

It’s a miracle this one is in focus. I loved this shot – it was one of the first times I began thinking about composition, lines, etc.

I joined Clickinmoms (CM) at the end of 2009, but really just lurked for a few months. I picked up a copy of Photoshop Elements and began playing around. I also picked up a 50mm lens and began shooting everything at f/1.4. And again, I couldn’t understand why my photos weren’t tack sharp…

When I finally got the nerve to begin posting on CM, it became clear quite quickly from the feedback I received that I needed to take the plunge and begin shooting in Manual mode in order to get control over all of my settings and improve my photos. I took my first online workshop: Shooting 101. This was exactly what I needed and the instruction and exercises allowed me to understand not only the exposure triangle but also focus modes, metering modes, white balance, and light. And that’s when I think my photography interest officially became an obsession.

Nikon D60 in Manual mode with 50mm 1.4 lens, ISO 200 | f/1.8 | 1/200 sec

This was back when Eliza happily sat still for photos! I practiced using Manual mode for the first time to achieve a sharp image.

Once it all started to click, I started taking even more photos. And, I soon wanted a new camera body… so I upgraded to the Nikon D90 which allowed me to more easily control my settings while shooting and to also shoot at higher ISOs in my dark house. Between 2010 and mid-2011 I cannot believe how much I learned about photography. And, the majority of it was from posts, tutorials and workshops here on CM.

Nikon D90 in Manual mode with 50mm 1.4 lens, ISO 200 | f/3.2 | 1/320 sec

This was the first photo I took with an end vision in mind. I spotted this park when visiting my mom and knew I wanted to take some photos there. I knew just enough about Lightroom at the time to add some creative processing to enhance the feel of the photo.

It was obvious to me that there was so much I had to learn. This was a bit overwhelming! I decided to take things slowly and focus on one skill at a time. Here’s a rough outline of the order in which I approached learning things over about 9 months’ time:

  1. Shooting in Manual and the exposure triangle
  2. RAW / Lightroom Processing
  3. Photoshop Processing (Thanks to Photoshop 101)
  4. Skintones
  5. Creative Processing
  6. Bought my first and only action set (I got Michelle Kane’s actions, which I was able to pick apart and really understand what they were doing to my images. Very useful for learning! I still incorporate her actions here and there in my workflow.)
  7. Workflow and Image Management Process (e.g. backups, file organization, etc.)
  8. Composition and Creativity (I took Composition and Creativity course here at CM – it completely changed my shooting.)

Towards the end of this learning period, I realised I needed to take a step back and focus more on my shooting and integrating all of this new knowledge into daily practice. I started a 365 project.  When this article posts, I should be within 2 weeks of completing this project (hooray!). I highly recommend doing a daily photo project if you want to give yourself the time and opportunity to practice shooting in any/all conditions and with subjects who may not always be the most cooperative. It really helped me grow in finding new and creative ways to take photos of my daughter, since I have tried to get as much variety in my daily photos as possible. I can look at these images as a set and really see an evolution in how I approached processing, composition, and the use of light. Here is one of my favorite shots from the earlier stages of my 365:

Nikon D90 in Manual mode with 24-70mm 2.8 lens, ISO 1250 | f/2.8 | 1/160 sec

In October 2011, I decided to take the plunge and start a photography portrait business. I purchased my Nikon D700 and I set up a number of portfolio building shoots. I began learning a whole new set of skills, like how to plan a shoot, manage and pose clients, get variety in client images, etc. Portfolio building also helped me to establish a strong image workflow. At this time, I attended a 3-day workshop in Sydney with Tamara Lackey, which was an amazing kickstart in setting up my business plan and processes, as well as meeting and shooting with other photographers. Here are some images from my portfolio building sessions:

Nikon D700 in Manual mode with 24-70mm 2.8 lens, ISO 200 | f/3.5 | 1/800 sec

Nikon D700 in Manual mode with 24-70mm 2.8 lens, ISO 200 | f/2.8 | 1/2500 sec

Nikon D700 in Manual mode with 24-70mm 2.8 lens, ISO 500 | f/3.5 | 1/500 sec

I started taking  clients early this year and so far, so good! I’m taking the business side of things really slowly, allowing myself the time and opportunity to learn and change things up as I go. With each shoot, I note things I can improve on and try to focus on those for the next one.

Another huge accomplishment for me this year was applying and getting accepted into CMpro. The idea of applying had been mulling around in the back of my head since I started my business, and I was waiting to get some more client shoots and experiences to show on my blog. I was also finding that a new sense of my “style” and my most favorite shots were emerging from my 365 project too. One day in February, I posted one of my 365 photos as a picture share on CM. This one:

Nikon D700 in Manual mode with 50mm 1.4 lens, ISO 200 | f/3.5 | 1/400 sec

I was feeling positive about the use of light and composition and then I read a response from Ashley Spaulding. She said, “Christie ~ This is amazing!!! The light, the moment, the little pop of color on her dress, and your composition are all fantastic! I just love this shot!” And that was it – the catalyst I needed – so I filled out my CMpro application, crossed my fingers and hit “Apply”. I included my blog as well as my 365 Flickr set in the application. Getting accepted was really rewarding and it validated of all of the learning, hard work, and practice I’ve put in over the last few years. So thank you, Ashley! A good testament to the difference positive feedback can mean to someone, and also the supportive environment you can find on CM.

Here are some of my recent favorite images:

Nikon D700 in Manual mode with 50mm 1.4 lens, ISO 2000 | f/2.8 | 1/160 sec

Nikon D700 in Manual mode with 50mm 1.4 lens, ISO 320 | f/2.8 | 1/800 sec

Nikon D700 in Manual mode with 50mm 1.4 lens, ISO 200 | f/4.0 | 1/8000 sec

Nikon D700 in Manual mode with 50mm 1.4 lens, ISO 1600 | f/2.8 | 1/320 sec

I hope this has been inspiring and helpful for someone just starting out in their own photography journey. It’s so challenging and rewarding. I love depicting the everyday in beautiful and creative ways, and maintaining variety in my images. I also love finding ways to capture beautiful light. There is a great deal more for me to learn, and I am so excited to see where this journey takes me next.