How I became a full time professional photographer

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The early days

I've been fascinated by photography ever since I was a kid. Back then at the end of the 80s I believe my interest was sparked by my dad's camera. It looked very complicated, yet because of his skills he made taking photos look easy... It really wasn't, I found out years later.

The camera he took his photos with was a Minolta from the 1980s and it had manual focus only. To get a shot in focus you had to align two halfs of a circle while looking through the viewfinder. When both of those halfs were properly aligned and formed a full circle, the subject in the frame was in focus. When pressing the shutter button you could finally take the photo. My dad was pretty snappy with it, but thinking back it must have taken a lot of skill, patience and a very keen eye as well to be able to shoot our holiday photos as fast as he did.

Already when my sisters and I were kids we got our own basic cameras for when we were on holiday with the familiy. Back in the days we shot on film. 24 or 36 photos would fit on one roll of film. Of course it was always a suprise what we would come home with. It took a week at the local photo store to develop the photos and only afterwards you could make out if you succeeded with that fast action shot with that ball on the beach in the waves or if you completely failed it.

While I was in highschool the digital age dawned and mobile phones were introduced. After a while these phones had the first generation of digital cameras on board and over time they gradually became better and better, eventually replacing film.

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At first I shot my photos with some of the first camera phones like the Nokia 6680 which produced, compared to today's standards, horrible almost 2MP, blurry, noisy results. Of course you have to place that in the technological age at the time. I bought my first standalone digital camera somewhere back around 2008/2009.

My first camera

I did a little bit of research and I managed to retrace my own camera purchasing history by going through my old photos and checking the EXIF data. It was a deep dive into my extended photo archives but I figured it out in the end.

I found out that the first standalone digital camera I owned was the Sony CyberShot DSC-W110. It had a 7.2 MP sensor with a fixed Carl Zeis lens (f/2.8-f/5.8 and 5,35-21,4mm) and it fit in my pocket. I distinctively remember the camera had a built-in Smile Detection feature. If someone would smile it would automatically snap a picture. Neat!

These cameras where relatively cheap and very compact. Great when you're on holiday and you want to snap a few shots while going to the next destination. It easily fitted in your pocket. This had a disadvantage though since you could easily lose it too. But the greatest drawback was this: It didn't matter how clean you kept it. Eventually sand and dust would creep into the camera body and jam the zooming mechanism. Resulting in the camera turning on but the lens wouldn't not extended outwards anymore because the plastic protective lens covers stuck together because of dust, sticky stuff or other dirt.

Overall the photo quality was decent and colourful. Another great camera feature was the battery life. Since I carried it everywhere I always would come home with a ton of new photos during the camera's 2-3 year lifespan. After a certain period the camera would inevitably fail though and I had to buy a new one, since having it professionaly cleaned meant that was the cheaper option.

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Retracing my steps

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The follow-up was the Sony CyberShot DSC-W300. It had almost doubled up in MPs since it came out in the era where camera manufacturers were competing for more megapixels per sensor surface area.

This camera had a 13,6MP sensor. Same body size, same style, different colour, better photos, newer technology. I was able to use my old memory cards and batteries in this new camera. Very nice. But... the same dust problems arose and faulty zooming mechanisms still weren't a thing of the past. Time to take it a step further. 

In 2011 I was still in camp Sony with the Sony DSC-HX9V. Great compact camera. A bigger body, better low light capabilities but the golden rule of compact cameras was still applicable: it would eventually break down as well.

In 2013 this one was followed up by the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, my first camera phone. That year my HX9V just gave out shortly before my holiday and I really needed a temporary replacement. The true replacement came at the end of 2013 with the Sony HX20V. Again: bigger, better and faster than its predecessor.

In 2014 I took a break from digital compact cameras and I shot my photos two years in a row with smartphones: the Sony Xperia Z3 and the Z5. Both produced images of fairly decent quality during the day but mediocre at best at night. Also, keeping in mind that since the camera isn't the core function of a phone, the battery would drain pretty quickly after an afternoon of shooting. I decided it was time for a dedicated camera again.

From hobbyist to semi pro

And then came 2016. That was the year when I made a brief switch back to compact cameras with the purchase of the high end Panasonic Lumix TZ-100 which was able to shoot in... RAW.

In the preceding cameraless period I read up on shooting in RAW. This camera had that option (why I bought it) which opened up an entire new world of possibilities. For example for shooting in low light situations and certain types of fast action photography. Now I was able to retrieve information from parts of the frame that seemed lost in shadow or light at first isght but actually weren't. I was no longer bound to the choices the camera made for me because I also learned step by step to let go of Auto Mode and slowly made the switch to solely Manual shooting. Step by step I gained more control over this camera and its the technology and its many possibilities.

This was also the time that I taught myself how to edit in Adobe Lightroom and this is where I took my first steps into acutal photo editing. I never took any courses or classes and since 'practice makes perfect' gradually I taught myself everything I know until this day. Of course I also looked a lot to others and I learned a lot from my many many mistakes. Of course learning and understanding photography is a process that never ends which means that I am still learning new things every single day.

After a 6 months period of shooting in RAW with the Panasonic I felt there was way more to it than what this 1 inch sensored camera could offer me. I ran into the limitations for truly speedy action and nighttime photography (high ISO), so I decided to sell it. In this short six months this camera took quite a beating.

After I sold it I went to the camera store I still go to today and there it was that I choose for camp Nikon with the purchase of my first semi-professional DSLR: the Nikon D7200. I immediately gave back the kit lens and bought my very first lens: the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 ART, which I still own and occasionally use, because it survived all major lens sell-offs I went through till this day (Jan 2022).

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My first Pro steps

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After a year I truly discovered the full potental of this APS-C sensor sized camera.

After buying the D7200 I immediately dove into the huge Nikon F lens eco system. l already did a few paid photography gigs at that time and the main reason for buying this body was because I got more and more jobs.

I bought, tried and learned about more and more different types of lenses. I really searched for the limits of the Nikon F mount by looking for niche type lenses. I found and experienced the very widest lens available for this mount (Sigma 8-16mm) and also the fastest (the old Nikkor 50mm f/1.2). I experimented with fish eye, macro and cheap tele lenses.

In the end I can honestly say I tried out almost everything that was available for that camera mount which was a bit affordable from a wide variety of different lens manufacturers such as Tamron, Tokina, Sigma and Samyang. Eventually I reached the limitations of the D7200 in terms of speed and again, low light situations. 

So I stepped it up a notch and after a year I switched to Nikon's DX flagship as primary camera: the Nikon D500. This particular camera was a true high speed monster: lightning fast when it comes to data write speed and AF and it is capable of handling all kinds of different situations very well. It has an insatiable buffer for continous burst mode shooting and also possesses a huge dynamic range, which basically means (if handled correctly) that I can shoot in both bright sunlight and dark night time situations without (much) noise in the final result or blowing out highlights any time soon.

Pro vision

During this pretty steap learning curve I educated myself on the principal of "It's not the camera but the photographer that matters", but along the way I quickly found out that this is only partialy true.

Yes, you have to have keen eye for composition. In my opinion that indeed is the most important thing in photography, because even a (slightly) out of focus but correctly composed photo, can still turn into a useable image. One step to the left or right can indeed mean the difference between a nice holiday snapshot or a Pullitzer price winner. BUT what also matters is reliable gear, focussing technique and technical know-how of your camera and lenses (and their limitations). I eventually sold all my niche type lenses and traded it all up to end up with solely pro Nikon glass.

Is native glass better than the cheaper alternatives that are out there? In my opinion: yes, and it goes for almost all lenses. There are only a few exceptions that I can come up with from my own experience: the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 ART actually is better and sharper than its Nikon F counter part. Only time will tell if this Sigma will be as durable as the trusted Nikon brand already proved to be for over a century.

As of that day I only shot with pro-grade Nikon and Sigma lenses. Both the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 ART and 50-100mm f/1.8 ART withstood the major buy and sell-off I went through in the last three years (2017-2020) which to me is a clear sign of how good those two Sigma lenses are.

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More pro steps

In June 2020 I retired my first D500 (170K clicks) to the status of backup camera, because the AF system of my D7200 broke down.

That first D500 is by no means done yet. It's still fully operational, fast, accurate and keeps on delivering tack sharp photos. And since I love that camera to bits I decided to stay with the D500 system and kept things simple by just buying a second D500.

January 2021: expanding from DX to FX

In October 2020 I sold my first D500 but I soon felt the need for a backup camera again. So in January 2021 I decided that this new camera would preferrably be a full frame camera since I already own most FX glass anyway. I went future proof and madea partial switch to the Z mount with purchase of the Nikon Z6IINow I had the flexibilty of two cameras again and I was ready for the future.

September 2021: ultimate long range telephoto zoom

At the end of September 2021 I seriously ran into the limitations of my long range telephoto glass so pulled the trigger on a very high end zoom lens to replace tha glass I wasn't particularly happy about anymore. I go my hands on the Nikon 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VRThis is not a particularly small or lightweight lens, but I got this lens to free up some space in my lens cabinet. And also simply because it's the best high end long range telephoto zoom lens that Nikon ever created to date for Nikon F. Now Having solely Nikon glass means having all equipment working together in perfect sync. If I now still managed to miss the shot somehow, it simply cannot be the equipment: in those cases it has to be me.

In light of the future and the plans that are slowly unfolding towards (hopefully) the end of the pandemic, travel plans are being made for some exotic destinations where reliable gear is needed. Locations like the polar regions, Iceland, Lapland and countries like Jordan, Iran, Bhutan and Sri Lanka are on the list for the not too distant future. With all of this amazing gear at my disposal I was definitely ready for it.

Z stuff

November 2021: my first Z mount lens

In November 2021 my Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 ART's zoom mechanism suddenly locked up during a shoot. It wouldn't move at all anymore so I brought it in for repair under warranty. Since the pandemic was still slowing everything down, they told me it could take up 3 to 6 months. Since I both love and need that focal range for my work, I decided a week later to get it over with and just get the Nikon S-line version. My first Z mount lens. And what a difference that lens makes... It's tailor-made for the Z system, it's half the size and weight and it indeed offers the best image quality combined with the best shooting experience. Buying this one definitely was my best 2021 photography decision ever.

More good news was to follow soon, because halfway through December 2021 the idea of selling all my 'old' F mount gear to finally making a full switch to mirrorless, took root. In one week I sold off all of my Sigma lenses, my obsolete telephoto lenses, both my D500s and my very first DSLR camera ever: my D7200. Everything but one item: my very first trusty Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 ART lens, which had been with me since the beginning.

December 2021: FX pro body and another Z mount lens

Selling off 6 lenses and 3 camera bodies in one go really sped things up. Admittedly it was a bit..... sad to say goodbye to all that trusty gear, from which most of it had been with me since the very beginning of my DSLR days, dating back to September 2016. 

By selling it all off I created financial space and for the sake of progress I took the step to jump on the mirrorless Nikon train altogether by purchasing the upcoming Nikon Z9 flagship straight away. At the very end of December 2021 I sold my last remaining two F mount f/2.8E lenses and went "full Z" with my second Z mount lens: the NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8 S.

The third Z lens that followed was the NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2 S in February 2022 which I immediately started using for event photography work during the days of Carnaval 2022. It resulted in some truly spectactular images, taken under extremely hard circumstances.

The page was last updated on 5 January 2022

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