My photography journey started a little differently from most because I was going into it with a handicap right off the bat. It was always a thought that I may not be able to make this work, and that I’d fail miserably, and nobody wants that. From birth, I’ve had a disability that you’d think would make me the last person to get into photography: I’m legally blind.
I was born with underdeveloped eyes and cataracts. When I was a few months old, they removed the lenses on my eyes which corrected the cataracts, but left me with glaucoma. I’ve had a number of eye surgeries since then for muscle correction, glaucoma and the initial cataract surgery, and I’ve regained a lot of sight, but I’m still legally blind.
A little example of what this means: a person with perfect eyesight see’s “20/20”. In my left eye, which is my good eye, I see 20/60 with correction (contact lens). Without my contact, I see roughly 20/400. What this means, is what you can see (assuming you have 20/20 vision) at 400 feet away, I have to be 20 feet away to see the same thing. I have the same 20/400 vision in my right eye, but corrections in my right eye don’t help, so it’s pretty much useless. I also have roughly 20 degrees of peripheral vision in both eyes, meaning I bump into things a lot because they fall outside of my visual field.
Photography was always something I could use to see further. My first camera was a Sony a330 DSLR with a 75-300mm lens, and I was able to use that lens to help me “get closer,” without actually getting closer. This was amazing to me because I could never see that far before. If I needed to get closer, I’d physically have to get closer.
I brought my camera everywhere, partially because I loved taking pictures and didn’t care how they turned out, but because it started to feel like an extension of my vision; an extension of me. I could see, and I could see well with a camera.
After getting more interested in photography, and actually caring how my images turned out, I decided to take my camera to a Goalball tournament — Goalball is a sport for blind and visually impaired athletes. I played all through high school and eventually made team Canada. I found myself actually having trouble with my images.
I was shooting under terrible gym lighting, shooting fast motion, and my picture looked like garbage and I had no clue why. Raising my ISO made my images brighter so I decided to raise that all the way up without realizing what I was actually doing. Obviously you can guess how that turned out. This was the kick in the pants I needed to actually start taking photography seriously.
Over the next few years I worked very hard learning everything I could. I read blogs, watched YouTube videos, and talked to photographers who I didn’t feel I belonged in the same room with because they were that much better than me. I also went out and practiced whenever I had spare time.
I also started to realize how my vision really affected my photography. I find it hard to shoot in sunlight because my eyes are light sensitive. That makes it really hard to see through the viewfinder. I also use to miss things in my photos. I’d take a decent photo of someone, and there’s a garbage can in the background that I wouldn’t notice until afterwards.
I also have my computer set up for reverse contrast because I have a hard time reading black text on a white background. When I edit, I have to turn this off and it can make for a challenging time, but I get through it.
Eventually I felt I was good enough to start finding clients and start making some money at photography. I knew how to work with my disability when I took photographs. I knew how I could and couldn’t shoot, and where I could and couldn’t shoot. Learning the limitations of my disability helped me become a better photographer overall.
I learned about natural light first because thats what I started with. I then added in a single flash in a shoot through umbrella. It took me about a year to learn how to properly use a flash and understand light. I then was able to add a second and third flash and still feel comfortable shooting. I tend to take a few more test shots than most, but thats because I really need to examine my images a little closer or I might miss something.
I now specialize in maternity and portraits, while shooting events in my spare time. I really enjoy the interaction of a big event such as a music festival, or a fashion show.
I don’t hide the fact that I’m disabled, but it’s not what I lead with. When you first get to my website, you see my work, and from there you can move about my site and learn more about me. I don’t hide my disability from my clients. I feel I’d be lying to them if I didn’t mention it.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t tend to push people away, but draw them in more. I think Its because I lead with my images, and then my disability, and by that point, they feel confident in my work which is the bottom line. Occasionally I’ll get a client who can’t overlook my disability, even after saying how much they love my work, but you can’t win them all.
So the point of this article is to tell you that you shouldn’t let your disability stand in the way of your dreams, whether those dreams are to become a photographer or something else entirely, you can make it work. Sometimes you may need to alter how you do things, or find ways that work for you, but in the end, no matter what your disability, you can almost always overcome it and pursue whatever you want.
I’ve spoken to many people with different disabilities who say they can’t do something because their disability has been an obstacle for so long, they think they can’t go any further. But you can. You can take the next step in whatever it is you’re doing, no matter what cards you are dealt. Take a breath, and move forward.
Thanks for reading.
About the author: Dylan Johnson is a legally blind photographer, and owner of CaptiVision Photography in Ottawa, Canada. He specializes in maternity and portraits. Dylan’s been featured by many news outlets such as CBC, CTV, and Metro News Ottawa over the last few years for his photography.