How I became a full time professional photographer

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The early days

I've been taking photos and I've been fascinated by photography ever since I was a little kid. Sometimes back in the late 1980s my interest was already sparked. It was by my dad's camera. The camera looked very complicated, but because of his photography skills he made taking photos look very easy... It wasn't, I found out later in life.

The camera he used was a Minolta -I regrettably wasn't able to track down the type- and it had manual focus only. To get a sharp photo you had to align two halfs of a circle while looking through the viewfinder. When properly aligned and both formed a full circle, the subject in the frame was in focus. When finally pressing the shutter button the image was saved on film. My dad was pretty snappy with that camera, but reminiscing about those days it must have taken quite a lot of skill, patience and a keen eye to be able to shoot our holiday photos as accurate and fast as he did.

Already when my sisters and I were kids we got our own -very basic- disposable snapshot cameras. We mostly used those when we were on holiday with the familiy. Back in the days we shot on film where 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 determine if you succeeded with that fast action shot of 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 built in and. Over time those gradually became better and better, where they eventually replaced 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- not quite as nice looking, slightly over 2MP, blurry and very noisy results.

I bought my first standalone digital camera somewhere back around 2008/2009.

My first camera

It was a deep dive into my extended photo archives but I figured it out: I did a bit of research. I went through my old photos and retraced my own camera history by checking the EXIF data.

I found out and remembered again that the first standalone digital camera I boiught 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 could fit in my pocket. I distinctively remember the camera had a built-in Smile Detection feature. If someone in the frame smiled, the camera automatically would take a picture. Neat gimmic!

These cameras were very compact and relatively cheap. Great for when you were out and about and wanted to snap a few shots. Because of its small size it went along everywhere I went. It easily fitted in my pocket which also 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 a bricked camera or the camera turning on but the lens not extendeding outwards anymore. The plastic protective lens cover parts eventually got stuck together due to dust, sticky stuff or dirt and this lens wasn't detachable. Once broken, it was broken and economically not viable to repair it. Replacing it with a new one generally was cheaper.

Overall the photo quality was decen. Sony is a good camera maker and photos were colourful with quite a lot of contrast and detail. Another great camera feature was the battery life. I always had cameras with battery packs instead of penlite batteries. Since I carried it everywhere I always would come home with a ton of new photos during the camera's two, sometimes three years lifespan. 

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Retracing my steps

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The follow-up was the Sony CyberShot DSC-W300. It had twice the amount of megapixels. Since it was produced in the era where camera manufacturers were competing for more megapixels per sensor at a fast pace, this came as no surprise in such a short time.

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 inevitably. Still faulty zooming mechanisms weren't a thing of the past yet. 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: also this one eventually broke down as well.

In 2013 the next one was not a camera. It was the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, my first choice of a decent camera phone: an all-in one device. That year the Sony HX9V just gave out shortly before my Summer 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 altogether and I shot my photos for the next two years with smartphones: the Sony Xperia Z3 and the Z5. Both produced images of fairly decent quality in daytime but the results were mediocre at best at nighttime. Also, since the camera isn't the core function of a phone, the batteries of these devices drained pretty quickly after an simple afternoon of shooting photos. I wasn't satisfied with the overal photo taking experience and finally that was it. I decided it was time for a dedicated camera again and I would not switch back anymore.

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 considerably more expensive but packed a ton of nice features and it was able to shoot in RAW.

During the preceding cameraless period I read up on shooting in RAW. This camera had that option which was basically the reason why I bought it. It 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 details from parts of the photo which was previously not possible and photo would be considered lost. I also got off Auto, meaning that I was no longer bound by choices the camera made for me. I rapidly made the switch to solely manual shooting. Step by step I gained more control over this camera and all of its many features.

When shooting in RAW you also need a RAW editor. Adobe Lightroom was the editor of choice 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. I am still learning new things every day today.

After half a year of shooting in RAW with this Panasonic, I wanted more than what this 1 inch sensored camera could offer me. I ran into various limitations. For example for truly speedy action or good nighttime photography (high ISO), so I decided to sell it. In these short six months this camera took quite a beating and I shot a lot with it. I did manage to sell it and after that I went to my camera store and took the final step to camera systems with interchangable lenses.

In September of 2016 it was that I chose camp Nikon when I purchased my first semi-professional DSLR: the Nikon D7200. I immediately traded in the kit lens I got with it and bought my very first lens: the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 ART which I still own and occasionally use. It went with me on memorable trips and I can't part from it so it survived all major lens sell-offs I went through up untill 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.

Right after buying the D7200 I immediately dove into the huge Nikon F lens eco system that came with it. Nikon has as long history of making lenses and one of the main reasons I went with the brand was exactly did: much to choose from. l already did a few paid photography gigs at that time and another big reason for buying this camera body was because I got more and more jobs that required serious equipment.

I bought and tried dozens of lenses and learned about more and more different types as well. I searched for the limits of the Nikon F mount by looking for strange, 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 (cheaper) telephoto lenses.

In the end I can honestly say I tried out almost everything that was available for that camera mount -within my budget- from a wide variety of different lens manufacturers such as Tamron, Tokina, Sigma and Samyang. It took about a year and a half until I reached the limitations of the D7200 in terms of speed and again, low light capabilities.

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

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 also 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 fun holiday snapshot and a Pullitzer price winner. But what as much matters as having a keen eye is reliable gear. You have to have focussing technique and technical know-how of your camera and lenses (and their limitations). I eventually sold all my niche type third party 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? Most of the time it turns out: yes. There are only a few exceptions that I can come up with from my own experience: for example the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 ART actually is 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. I owned a bad copy of the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G lens. However I wasn't happy with its performance and its output at all so I pulled the trigger on a very high end zoom lens. 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 it's really, really good. I also got this lens to free up some space in my lens cabinet. But the main resason was that this is simply because it's the best high end long range telephoto zoom lens that Nikon ever created to date for Nikon F. Having Nikon glass only 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 definitely will be ready for it.

Z stuff

November 2021: my first Z mount lens

There it happened. 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 going across the world, the camera store told me that the repair job could take up 3 to 6 months. Since I need that focal range for my work, I decided after a week into the repair period to get it over with already and just get the Nikon S-line version.

That was my first Z mount lens. And what a difference that lens made... 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 make 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. I then learned why people sometimes say 'Thank you' to their stuff when it has become obsolete and has to go.

By selling it all off I created financial space and for the sake of progress I took the step of jumping on the mirrorless Nikon train altogether by purchasing the upcoming Nikon Z9 flagship. At the very end of December 2021 I sold my last remaining two F mount f/2.8E lenses and the final step of the switch to the Z mount was complete when I bought the 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 and nightlife photography during the days of Carnaval 2022. It resulted in some truly spectactular no flash images, taken under difficult lighting conditions.

Photography all over the world

2022: video, new body, drone... full pro steps

In terms of gear I aquired the NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8 S leading up to the Summer of 2022. In the Summer I pulled the trigger on my DJI mini drone and it was around that time that I -next to the benefits of having two camera sets- discovered the disadvantages of having two different camera sets. 

When I was doing shoots where I had two cameras with me to save time for not having to switch lenses, I started to really learn what I was missing. Since I had the Z6II and the Z9 I constantly had to switch between the modes of operation of those two systems. Simplyfied: I missed having two Z9s. There's an obvious benefit of using a small camera like the Z6II over Nikon's flahship model, but let's be honest: once you've been using a pro level camera like that, it's hard to level down.

Functions and options I had on the Z9 simply lacked on the Z6II. Besides that, it wasn't even a matter of having a quality difference. Images shot with the Z6II  were more than decent enough. I simply became increasingly annoyed by the fact that both camera's operate and handle differently. That costs time. Once I started to do more and more of these demanding shoots where having two cameras was convenient, the disadvantages became increasingly more obvious. Halfway through November 2022 after I came home from Jordan I decided and finally at the very last day of 2022 I aquired a second Z9.

Yet I still have the Z6II and since I also got myself a DJI Ronin RS3 Pro gimbal for shooting video, that camera is going to serve as my video /vlogging camera since it's that small and lightweight. For my future travel photography trips my plan is to do more with video. And despite the fact that the Z9 is a step up for video over the Z6II together with the fact that it also works very well on the gimbal, it probably will be sold soon. Yes, the Z6II is half the weight, which is significant because when having to walk around with it all day this setup better be as light as possible. I believe that for my -not too distant future- video aspirations the Z6II probably would have been nice indeed. But money is also important and having three cameras simply is... too much.

It was a crazy year for me as a travel photographer as well

At the end of 2021 I had already decided I wanted to visit the UNESCO world heritage site of Petra in Jordan. Everything was set unfortunately in the beginning of 2022 my flight was cancelled and I was forced to postpone my trip.

In the Summer of 2022 I decided that I now had the money and the time to go to other beautiful corners of the world. I started looking into going to Bhutan, North-Korea, Somalia and Eritrea. But after reading an article in the national news about extreme tourism, trips to locations where nobody in his right mind goes to at the moment, I was sold. Syria was quickly decided and planned for March 2023. Around September 2022 I visited a nature photography convention in Amersfoort and right after that I booked my trips to Spitsbergen (June 2023) and Iceland (January 2023). In October I found an even more extreme location and I booked myself a 10-day trip to Antarctica (March 2024).

Halfway through November 2022 the time had come to pack the gear for my 5-day trip to Jordan. This visit was amazing and I came home with some very unique footage and priceless countless memories and experiences as well. After Jordan a plan hatched to look into a 11-day trip to Iraq. As of 1 January 2023: this one is not definitive yet, but if it comes to that it might happen in October 2023.

The page was last updated on 1 January 2023

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