I knew I wanted to be a photographer the first time I picked up an SLR. Time stopped and I lost myself in the world behind the lens. My best friend’s dad had a fancy camera, so we borrowed it to play fashion photographer in her backyard. Shooting transformed the everyday into something magical. And getting that first roll back from the developers solidified my love of photography. I was 17 years old and I remember thinking, ‘this is it.’ I decided then and there that I would be a photographer, specializing in natural light and exotic locales, the likes of which I poured over in my favorite glossies.
An image from my very first roll of film more than twenty years ago (don’t mind the bad scan). Not a great shot, but I remember being intrigued by the pattern the shadows made on her face.
Once I set on that path, I worked hard. I got a Canon AE-1 Program camera for Christmas and fell in love with it. I borrowed book after book of master photographers from the library. I took lessons from a local photographer and a night class from the community college. My first two years at a university was spent taking every photography course they offered (which wasn’t many) to gather a portfolio and enroll in art school in New York City.
I was ecstatic when I was accepted. But ironically, once in the school, my love of photography waned. I spent my days learning studio lights on large format cameras and my nights developing film. The photography I did there bore little resemblance to the natural light portraiture I loved. I couldn’t see where my place in the photography industry fit. I switched schools and majors, fell back on my other loves, reading and writing, and set a different course for my life. More than a dozen years passed, most of my knowledge long since forgotten.
I’m not sure if I would have ever found my way back to photography if it weren’t for the alignment of three things. The first was the birth of my children and becoming a stay at home mom. The second was moving with my husband to an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I found myself with two small children, living in a tropical paradise that brought to mind my childhood of Hawaii, with swaths of time on my hand. My husband had just bought a DSLR, a Nikon D200, and I took picture after picture of my new baby and toddler.
In 2007 I picked up a (film) camera once again when my son was born.
In 2008 we got our first DSLR and I began practicing on friends’ beautiful children. I hadn’t learned about white balance yet.
I upgraded to a D300 in 2009 when my daughter was born. I was shooting at aperture priority and editing in iPhoto.
I quickly fell in love with digital portraiture. It gratified my impatient self – seeing those images right away. I took a few very basic online classes and felt the rekindling of an old dream. But I still couldn’t figure out how to really learn photography. I’m a student at heart, so I wanted to dive into real, academic learning of photography, but I had to find an accessible way to do that. It had to be flexible, online, and affordable.
I began experimenting with light. Hmmm I considered those tilted horizons to be ‘creative’.
That’s when the third magic thing happened. Something that I count daily among my blessings. I stumbled upon Clickin Moms and CMUniversity. I found what I’d been looking for for the past 20 years: a deep well of photographic knowledge, endless inspiration, and people creating images like I’d always wanted to – editorial-style portraits in beautiful natural light. This wasn’t a forum for gear-heads who just wanted to one-up each other. This was a place where women supported one another. The talent surpassed what I had found in traditional university all those years ago. I signed up for my first workshop, then another, and another - more than a dozen in total. I also discovered breakout sessions and made that a regular purchase each month, with each one I felt like I’d had a one-on-one mentoring session with photographers I look up to. And somewhere along the way, I added lenses and upgraded to my baby, a Nikon D700.
My two years of CM workshops:
It’s Your Atmosphere was my first experience shooting manual. I felt out of depth, but incredibly inspired.
Beyond the Basics gave me a solid foundation on everything from using light to Lightroom.
Intro to Natural Light gave me so much confidence in shooting in all kinds of light – and it taught me to finally master backlight.
Finding Your Style helped my shooting and processing come together and gave me more of an ease and confidence to continue to explore in the direction I wanted to go.
Lifestyle Photography with Kids made me fall in love with documenting my beautiful family, something that often gave me stress before her workshop.
During Posed for Success, my images had more polish, my sessions were more organized, and I had more confidence to shoot for others.
The past two years have been a bit of a blur. My nights were spent bleary-eyed reading through countless tutorials and lessons, editing my homework assignments, and chatting with photography friends who have become my rocks.
With Clickin Moms’ help, I’ve slowly grown my skills, built a portfolio to start a business, and achieved a long held dream of becoming first a CMPro and then a Mentor. I love the thought that I can help others starting out in their journey, as I was helped two years ago.
I am still only beginning my long journey, still a passionate learner, but CM has set the course. The secret magic is that we Clickin Moms have done it together – each of us meeting daily in a special place reserved for women and moms – taking turns being student, artist and teacher – with respect for each other and for photography.
Here are seven things I’ve learned along the way (with a few recent images from the Daily Project):
1. Photography inspiration is deep as well as wide. Go back in history and see who inspires you. Also, explore different genres. The photography of today is fabulous, but trends and styles come and go. See who and what has stood the test of time. Some of my favorite all-time photographers are people like Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Louise Dahl-Wolfe.
2. Photography in its basic form is light and shadow. Simply that. Learning to appreciate how light falls on your subject is a photographer’s most important lesson. You don’t need grand subjects or fancy styling. You just need beautiful light, which is around us everywhere, at all times of the day and night, in sun and shade, indoors and out. You don’t even need a camera to practice seeing it.
3. Switch to manual and nail your SOOC (straight out of the camera) shots. Get to know your camera, the exposure triangle, and the basics to getting a good, clean, well-exposed image with correct white balance. I love playing with actions and processing, but think of them as fun add-ons, not a way to fix my images.
4. Practice, practice. And practice some more. Many say it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at a craft. Talent is nice, but it’s nothing without skill and daily effort. The mainstay of my daily practice is still photographing my children. I build my skills while preserving precious memories. Win-win.
5. Learning is messy, fun, and completely personal. Your mistakes are more important than your triumphs. So don’t be embarrassed to fail. It makes you better. If your images don’t look like anyone else’s – that might be a very good thing.
6. Style is in you, not anywhere else. I stressed for a long while about finding my style. But it wasn’t until I stopped looking at others, and starting examining myself, that I actually uncovered it. I examined what I loved (in photography, clothes, everything – hello Pinterest) examined my own work, and wrote down words that I wanted to convey. Whenever I falter, I come back to me.
7. The learning never ends. There is something that people don’t tell us at the beginning of our journey. One of my biggest surprises as a photographer was realizing that my struggle as a newbie was essentially the same as those rock-star photographers I admired. They still learn new things, go through ruts, doubt their work, and struggle with fear. The lesson? I needed to focus on the work I am doing, move past my vulnerable spots, and find joy in my daily process. The daily click of the shutter is what matters through it all.
Sarah Vaughn, California
CMU Instructor | CM Mentor
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Nikon D700 and prime lens photographer Sarah lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children, one boy and one girl where she loves to shoot single subjects outdoors in natural light. Her obsession began in high school and although she started her college days at an art school, she eventually transferred due to being “disenchanted with the emphasis on studio photography and large format cameras” and received a master’s degree in writing in publishing and even admits to having a few partly finished novels on her computer. Her love of photography came flooding back when she received a digital camera after the birth of her daughter and she hasn’t looked back since. Sarah is a romantic and a dreamer and loves spending time with her family, cafes, the internet which keeps her connected with her family and friends, Italian food, and a glass of something sparkly. Sarah is the instructor for Shooting 306: Photography Through The Eyes Of The Masters and a co-participant in the Watch Us Edit: CMpro Edition breakout.