This morning Facebook greeted me with one of those memory posts--the kind where one of your old images appears below an orange banner and tells you how many years ago something happened. The image Facebook drew up is a picture I took three years ago of the wedding party of my friends (understatement; more like soul companions), David and Rachel Grilliot. The memory is right on time—today really is their third anniversary. But the picture made me realize something else.
I really can’t even remember exactly how I got the gig to photograph their wedding. Rachel and David had few reasons to ask me to do it, or to believe I could do it how they wanted it done. I wasn’t a professional photographer. I liked to take and share photos, and my friends knew that about me. I had taken some pictures at a family wedding before David and Rachel’s that turned out nice, but I wasn’t the official shooter, just a guest. Despite all this, they had confidence in me and asked if I would shoot their wedding. I was driven to prove they didn't make the wrong choice.
Months before the wedding I hashed and rehashed the details. I made lists, verified my equipment, poured over the wedding schedule, read blogs and articles about photographing weddings, poked around at other people’s wedding albums to see what kinds of pictures looked good and which ones were super cheesy. I even arranged for another friend to help as a second shooter, for the fun of it, and because I figured two was better than one. I worked really hard to prepare and of the day, I remember this: sweat, mud, fatigued muscles, reaching, stretching, climbing, crouching, running, concentrating, slipping on grass, shrubs scratching on my legs (I went guerilla-style for a few shots). I remember the dress I wore, the full pockets of the skirt of my dress swinging on my hips that was full of lens caps and microfiber cloth and other random camera paraphernalia. I remember how the mud felt between my toes as I strode around taking pictures. It rained all day and was humid. And I loved every bit of it. I remember smiling and laughing a lot. I can recall the whole thing like it was yesterday. That I remember it all so well will always be surprising to me.
When I delivered the photos to David and Rachel, I received compliments in the form of squeals of glee, including from their family and friends. It was enough of a success that I thought maybe I could take this photo thing more seriously.
I shot their wedding with a cropped sensor Canon Rebel t3, a 35-55mm kit lens, am f/3.5 55-250mm, a f/1.8 50mm, and a Speedlite external flash—on automatic. I don’t even want to admit that I did this, but it's necessary to show how far I've come in three years. For those who are unfamiliar, shooting a wedding on a camera’s automatic setting is like trying to drive a car with a visual impairment. It is very difficult to predict, adapt, or control the outcome of a photograph on automatic, if not impossible. You’re at the whim of the decision-making abilities of the camera and the favorable, or not so favorable, environment. Genius camera engineers have made the automatic setting incredibly adept on DSLRs, but it’s still just not as great as shooting in manual.
I shot the Grilliot’s wedding on automatic because I just didn’t feel comfortable at that point shooting manual. I hadn't learned enough. I couldn’t be quick enough. I would miss something. I would mis-shoot an important moment. So, if others think that David and Rachel’s pictures are beautiful, I owe it to the engineers of Canon, and the raw beauty of my subjects.
Some time after this experience, I realized that not only would I need to master manual, but that I needed to get a camera with a full-bodied sensor. We're talking $$$.
Learning to shoot manual took some time. I found I needed to internalize the process of it before I would be comfortable shooting manual for a paid job. I learned the principles of it and I practiced the balancing act of the math. I played with different variations of ISO, aperture, shutter speed and scrutinized the outcomes. I failed a lot, but I eventually began to get the hang of it. In fact, one day, it just clicked as easy as a 250 shutter speed. I started to build a feel for what settings I would need depending on lighting or action. I began to build habits very, very slowly.
Then I got my fancy camera. I researched all kinds of options, read dozens of reviews, and compared models to choose the camera right for me and the kind of photos I like to take, and one that was within my price range. I settled on the Canon 6d and have not been disappointed. It isn’t top of the line, but it’s exactly what I needed. Over time, and as the opportunity presented itself, I got glass: a wide angle, a prime, a telephoto lens. I sold my Canon Rebel and the lenses along with it. I went round in circles for a month before I decided on a camera bag to carry all my new gear. I toyed with the idea of starting an actual photo business, shot a few weddings, took a few paid jobs, met other photographers, started to convince other people (and myself) it was something I could do well. Ultimately, though, I found that the joy of photography comes not from any income, but the work of taking photos and getting to share them with others. It is a venture that continually brings newness to my life. New people, places, events, all the juicy things in the world.
Since the Grilliot wedding, photography has become a mainstay. I have sought out new and different ways to take photographs, I have been published, I have exhibited work, I have worked with artists, blessed others with beautiful images of their families and animals, volunteered my time and photographs to benefit others, captured stories, and I have a growing body of work that is a continual source of both pride and joy when other lights in my life are dim. The experience of shooting David and Rachel's wedding tipped the scale in a way that is difficult to explain, and the Facebook post in my newsfeed came at an apparently ripe time. I was reminded of how anxious and uncertain I was that weekend, but how eager I was to please and do well—and then the relief of how much fun I had, and how great the photos still are today because of how much love is in them. It made me realize that I no longer have any doubt about whether or not photography is a skill I have or want to develop. In hindsight, I am also convinced that fancy equipment and technical knowledge is not enough to make a beautiful image.
It’s an origin story, I think.
To David and Rachel, happy third anniversary! And thank you for giving me a gift none of us knew was really in store. It’s three-years ripe, and only getting sweeter.