(c) 2005 - Photo courtesy Renee Keith
Photo of me on my very first photo shoot – (c) Renee Keith 2005

My professional photography career started exactly ten years ago today, thanks to one crazy event in Seattle with the  unlikely name of iStockalypse.

In 2005, I was strictly an amateur photographer. While I did own a digital camera (the original Canon Rebel) I had only the single “kit lens” that it came with. My primary interest at the time was in taking snapshots of my kids. I had never taken a photography course. I had absolutely no idea how to use studio strobes, and I certainly didn’t know how to direct models.

So, how exactly did I end up standing on a step ladder shooting professional models in a large photo studio in Seattle?

Back then I had nothing to do with professional photography. I was working as the Director of an Internet marketing company in Vancouver, managing a group of professional web consultants who helped individuals and small businesses sell products online. A member of the team sent me an email recommending iStock (now owned by Getty Images) as a source for website images. While the stock photos would certainly prove useful to our web clients, what caught my eye was a little link to a photography event called “iStockalypse Seattle”.

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The iStockalypse event was limited to just a small group of people and it had almost sold out. Realizing that I didn’t have a lot of time to research the event, I signed up.

To this day, I’m still not 100% sure why I signed up. I guess I figured it would be some sort of basic photography class for amateurs.

Boy, was I wrong about that!

The real intent of the event was for iStock to get a select group of professional and semi-professional photographers together for a weekend to create volumes of stock images for sale on their website. iStock paid for the studio rental (a totally fantastic space in downtown Seattle), rented all the lighting equipment, and even contracted professional models and props – including an albino boa, and an African Serval cat.

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That weekend turned out to be a series of firsts for me:

It was my first studio shoot; my first professional use of my camera; my first attempt at shooting stock photos; and my first experience directing professional models.

It was also the day that started my journey to becoming a professional photographer.

I had arrived “early” for the photo event, only to find that it was already underway. My first thought was “Holy Cow, is there ever a lot of photography gear around here!” Every one of the other photographers had bags and bags of camera gear and lenses. This all seems perfectly normal to me now, but back then it was a stark contrast to the little camera – and single lens – that I showed up with.

At first, I kind of drifted around the periphery of the various shoots that were in progress – really not too sure what to do. Thankfully, a more experienced photographer named Renee noticed I was looking a little bewildered and convinced me to just “get in there and shoot”. First problem – my camera had no sync-cord socket, so I couldn’t even connect to the studio strobes! Luckily, a hot-shoe adapter was offered up on loan by another kind-hearted participant. So I “just started to shoot”.

Back then, I didn’t realize that there’s a lot more to shooting photos of models than just pushing the shutter button. You’ve got to actually direct them. And, you’ve got to keep coming up with interesting things for them to do. I was pretty much pre-occupied with just focusing my camera and framing the shots, while trying not to fall off the stepladder I was perched on, but the models kept looking up at me with this puzzled “what do you want me to do now…?” look on their faces…

Slowly, I started to get the hang of the studio shooting stuff. And, when I was not “plugged in” to the strobes I would try to grab some shots from the periphery of the action. Not as easy as it looked. I managed to get a couple of “keepers”, but most of the available light shots got discarded when I viewed them later on at 100% on my laptop; they were all just a little fuzzy. My skills at getting tack-sharp images in available light did develop over time, but back then they were still years away.

Later that afternoon, the animal act started! The albino boa was a no-show, but the much anticipated African Serval cat did arrive. I was impressed with the model’s tolerance in letting this wild animal lick her face during the shoot, but I began to cringe as it started to hiss loudly and claw her because it was getting aggravated by all the strobes going off. To this day, I’m eternally grateful that my first-ever professional photo shoot didn’t turn into a paramedic-themed event.

Day two of the event found us shooting on location in the amazing glass and steel architecture of the Seattle Public Library, which had been completed just a few months earlier. As the building opened, a security guard came out and informed us that the use of flash and tripods was strictly prohibited. After my fuzzy existing-light shots the day before I was not feeling too hopeful I would obtain anything usable that day.

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While I did get a few usable shots, my lack of experience took its toll. By the time I got my camera set up for a particular shot, the other photographers – and the models – had already moved on to the next location.

The ability to shoot at a moment’s notice – being in a constant state of “photographic readiness” – all seems second nature to me today – but ten years ago it was a total mystery. And yet, those first two days of shooting photos in a professional setting sparked something profound inside me that would change my life forever.

I felt a great sense of accomplishment at capturing at least some good images that weekend. And, it was a total rush a few days later, when some iStock customer somewhere on earth actually bought one of my images!

More than anything that first weekend showed me just how much I needed to learn before I could really call myself a professional photographer. So, I began taking photography classes, and eventually attending week-long master-class workshops taught by some of the world’s greatest photographers. Years later, all the training and real-world experience finally paid off, allowing me to exit the corporate world completely and pursue my passion for photography full time.

Ten years later I don’t really do any stock photography at all. Despite this, the various images that I uploaded many years ago have now sold over 5,000 times. It’s been a nice little passive income stream over the years.

My best selling iStock image?

Well, it certainly wasn’t one of those photos from my first two days of shooting, it was this amazing panoramic image I took one magical winter day while skiing up at Whistler:

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Who knew that one photo event with a crazy name would spark my interest in becoming a professional photographer and change my life forever?

How One Crazy Event Changed My Life Forever