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Early Photos vs. Now: Seeing Progress as a Photographer


Whelp! The Internet reminded me a few days back that I’ve officially been shooting photography for over 10 years now. I’ll be honest, I thought my progress would have been further. I assume the end of my life will be something like what I am currently experiencing, which is “Wow, that went fast.” It seems I’m just barely starting to grasp the wise words of my elders when they told me “Time goes quicker than you think.”

Recent artwork from my 2018 RGG EDU tutorial. Both tutorials I’ve released with them are some of my favorite accomplishments.

In the spirit of anniversaries, let’s see just how f**king horrifying Year 1 and 2 really were… *Takes a deep breath* To the archives!

What’s this ‘flower’ setting on my point and shoot?? Oh s**t! You can take pictures of things close up! Woo!”*misses putting subject in focus
“Yes yes, let’s do a fake blood-filled cup and some s**tty pearls cause Anne Rice got me hooked on f**ken vampires in the 90’s!” Shot again with a point and shoot, with some lamps for lighting and some brutal Photoshop work to make up for the lack of lighting knowledge. Also had clearly not heard the term “Color Temperature” yet.
“Flash can be turned on manually on my Nikon Coolpix, and if I put it in front with the sun behind, it does THIS?? Well this is my new favourite thing ever!” Then I remembered that mosquitoes suck and promptly scampered into the studio for mostly ever more.
Photographed in my fridge, cause I learned that big soft light is sexy, and lamps just weren’t doing the trick.
Blown highlights and crushed shadows and no concept of color harmony?? You mean sky glitter and trendy as f**k presets…

When I first picked up a camera it was mostly to be creative in a way that didn’t involve modeling, and it was faster than drawing. I photographed macro, still life, bikes, and over the course of a year, a number of friends and slave labored my sister a bunch. The first few years were the most exciting cause the gains were exponential, obvious, and relatively easy to attain.

Admittedly, Year 1 was probably my most fun year in photography. Not that the subsequent haven’t delivered amazing memories and new friends, but I was in it purely for the fun and had no expectations from anyone but me. I didn’t have goals, a client wish list, no questions of what gear would make my work better, or any desire beyond the next batch of point-and-shoot pixels that would get my dopamine levels hopping off the charts.

Early years are dedicated to trying a lot of things, as many different facets as possible. I don’t think anyone should be really trying to “figure out their style” because if we do enough work and spend the hours just being immersed in it, style will inevitably start to form. Sometimes it looks like what’s already being made, and sometimes it turns into a creature that nobody has ever seen before. Regardless of what it is, you have to have your ass in the seat as often as you can or want, to find that voice.

10 years in, it feels like the gains I make now are at the sacrifice of dragging myself over broken glass while an elephant steps on my back. I’m not here because I retained that energy of “This is the best thing evaaarrrr!” from the early days, but because discipline and stubbornness have forced me to continue. When I’m bashing at the walls of my inability to complete a concept that’s been in my mind for 5 years, and I’m still probably another 2-3 years away from being competent enough to finalize the piece, I know I’m in it for the long game.

Time has taught me the harder things feel in the moment, the more frustrated and pressurized my brain feels over the work, I’m probably just getting closer to my next sliver of a creative breakthrough. I’ll trade one elephant for another bigger, slightly heavier elephant. While they trade places though, in those brief moments I’ll find I can breathe again.

A recent challenge to create an image using only one area of the color wheel. Many thanks to Linda Friesen for channelling her inner Moon Goddess.

Those Moments Are What I Live For

I write this all to serve as a reminder, to those in their first year, or to the grizzled veterans staring down a resume longer than a CVS receipt. Where we started and where we are now is worth celebrating. Most of us weren’t born with a natural “talent” — in fact, many would argue that is a myth. We are simply a result of repetition and practice.

I think a lot of people get intimidated in their early years that their work will never look as good as they want it to. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can definitely say that 10 years in, I’m still another 10 years away from doing the kind of work I want to make. I hope it never changes.

My inbox is filled with emails asking the same question written hundreds of different ways, but the theme can be boiled down to “How do I get awesome at this??”

Answer? I could write an essay but here are some easy points:

  • Just keep at it. Put your ass into frequent, habitual practice.
  • Most who are any good, sit upon a throne of really, really terrible work, and years of it. Every time you complete a work of art that you think is pretty f**king awful, congratulate yourself. It’s one more foundation stone into your cathedral of mastery.
  • Do not look for shortcuts. You’re only stealing from your future-self.
  • There is no “one path to success”. There are thousands of ways, and what works for one may not work for another.
  • Know thyself. Inspiration is great, but nothing beats digging into the nuts and bolts of your honest creative self.
Self portrait, trying to grind down on better color theory. I probably need to watch Kate Woodman’s RGG tutorial…

Maybe you are the creator who does a little bit of everything from now until forever. Maybe you’re the type who started one style and never ever changes. There is no right or wrong answer. Far as I know, they don’t hand out medals in the afterlife… yet.

“They” say if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I’ve met some of those humans, and they’re most often either f**king unicorns, or completely disillusioned. Love what you do, or don’t, regardless your ass is probably gunna work pretty damn hard.

I fall in and out of love with my chosen career and lifestyle on a weekly basis. I equate my career to being in a long-term, committed relationship. Some days we wake up and look at each other in bed and wonder why the other is still there. Others we are reminded what got us there in the first place. Regardless of my feelings, I think they’re mostly irrelevant.

Accurate depiction of real life misery. Brought on by walking barefoot into a glacier fed, cold ass lake, or occasionally just trying to will myself into turning on my computer… Side note – Check out those “I clearly only ever wear boots” pasty ankles!

10 years in, I feel like I’m just cracking the surface of “me” and what that means to be a creator. Seated upon a mountain of embarrassing pixels and memories, I’m staring at the bottom of an even larger heap that I will create over the next decade. My well-made list of goals and plans will probably get muddled and misplaced by the chaotic influence that is life, but another 10 years will pass regardless.

I just hope that my small, infinitesimal contribution of creativity will maybe start to balance out the number of straws I’ve used.

Commissioned work for guitar queen Nita Strauss.

Inspiration time! I managed to convince some mind-bogglingly awesome artists from a variety of genres to also dig into their archives, and bravely share some of their own humble beginnings. This was a very cathartic experience for me. It was so just absolutely f**king perfect seeing where they all started to their current favorite work. Remember, we all start somewhere, and with a few years of dedication, we never know where we will wind up.

Dave Brosha

2003. “Pure garbage. Both emotionally and metaphysically.”
2018. “The only thing between where you are and where you want to be is the passion to learn and putting the time in. Some of my earliest images are laughably make-your-eyes-bleed bad – but I never beat myself up for them. They are what they are…and that’s to say, they’re part of the process of learning and growth.”

Visit his website here.

Curtis Jones

2012. “Cape Spear, Newfoundland. Completely disregarding geography, composition, and proper use of a tripod, I felt this was a pretty solid shot of my friends under the northern lights. To be honest, I’m not 100% certain a tripod was even involved but I was out there making an effort and that’s what sticks with me. Turns out the most easterly point in Canada isn’t a hotspot for aurora activity.”
2018. “Khongoryn Els, Mongolia. Now, with a few more miles racked up, an appreciation for location scouting and a better grasp on my gear, putting in the effort still counts but the returns have become more consistent – less random and more intentional.”

Visit his website here.

Felix Inden

2008. “I was really stoked about this one. Enough to save it as my first .psd (of course after reducing to 72 DPI)”
2018. “I was incredibly lucky that I got this shot… it was not thought or anything. I just saw it coming, fired away and luckily had the right settings from shooting out of the heli before of this moment. Don´t plan to much. embrace spontaneity. be there and be ready.”

Visit his website here.

Michael Shainblum


Visit his website here.

Tim Kemple

2004. “From my first commercial shoot. It was on Mt Washington for Eastern Mountain Sports and we had this awesome but wacky creative director that wanted a shot of the less glamorous moments that happen when you are out hiking. Shot on slide film. Provia 400F pushed a stop.”
2015. “Two climbers on Mt Huntington in Alaska. Shot with Phase One medium format from a helicopter.”

Visit his website here.

Elizabeth Gadd

2008. “10 years ago I discovered my passion for taking moody self portraits (because sitting on the ground and staring into space with a blurry focus seemed cool). Can’t believe how proud I was of this one once.”
2018. “10 years later, still taking moody self portraits. Hoping the practice has paid off!”

Visit her website here.

Bella Kotak

2008. “This was when I first discovered Photoshop! It took me a few more years to figure the program. At that time it wasn’t really about improving my “photography” but more about how I could improve on what I wanted to express. It just so happened that the camera felt like most natural medium to do that through.”
2018, The Kiss. “It’s amazing what time, practice, and knowledge can do. When it comes to creating pictures I’ve never focused on what I can’t do but rather, what I can do. The goal is, and has always been, to shoot often, keep learning, constantly experimenting, never hold back, and always try to level up.”

Visit her website here.

Kate Woodman

2014. This image represents my first real foray into using Photoshop in a creative/artistic way vs. a more conventional dodge-and-burn-cleanup kind of way. The image was accidental–one of my strobes didn’t fire, and I was left with something I wasn’t anticipating but though could lead to something interesting. It was the first time I really embraced a mistake as a learning opportunity–and I’ve made many more and learned so much from them, from both a technical but also a conceptual perspective.”
2018. “I feel like I’m finally getting to the stage where my photography not only reflects my aesthetic preferences but also my conceptual interests. This is a more recent image which I think is pretty successful in portraying a narrative that is both visually and viscerally impactful. There’s definitely something going on but it leaves room for interpretation–that ambiguity is something I’ve always liked in others’ art and strive for in my own.”

Visit her website here.

Richard Terborg

2009. ” I like the snow, and I like photography. So I figured it would be funny to combine the two in a “creatively next level” way, by wearing my normal “day” clothes instead of winter clothing. Because I didn’t want my garden in the background this frame was the only one that worked.”
2018. “I’ve been on a Wes Anderson exploration/funk/inspired by/phase/binge??? So I asked my friend to bring anything yellow he has and a puffy hat. It was around 35 degrees celcius outside and he had to put on the only yellow woolly shirt he had and a warm cap. Love places with a lot of color and lines because of ‘Wes’ and this place just clicked perfectly.”

Visit his website here.

Julia Kuzmenko

2007. “I honestly had no clue what I was doing. I know now, that the best thing to learn something in a specific photography genre is to break apart and analyze every aspect of the images of a handful of successful artists whose work resonates with me the most. The cropping, the colors, the makeup, hair and facial expressions.. everything that we photographers have control of at the time of the capture.”
2018. “Shoot, shoot, shoot more! Practice like a maniac, so you are at the right skill level when the opportunity comes along.”

Visit her website here.

Tina Eisen

2009. “February. I had one light and a friend called Hannah. We knew nothing. Even less than Jon Snow. Not even the cat bowl was safe.”
2018. “September. I know a couple more things now! I still experiment to this day and wake up happy every morning that I took this step 10 years ago!”

Visit her website here.

Pratik Naik

2008. “I wanted to be a fashion photographer with my wonderful wide angle kit lens and sweet angles. I thought the more angles the better and so we angled all day.”
2018. “I realized what was actually kept me inspired was the complete opposite. It was energy, mood, and emotion. Through my attempt at fashion photography, I carved the path to what I really loved shooting.”

Visit his website here.

Benjamin Von Wong

2007. “Well, I found a second set of mirrors… on another escalator haha. Theres a nice big flash hiding my head but I thought it’d make a cool effect on the metal parts.”
2018. “Ironically, I believed myself to be a better photographer then, than I do now, even though my skill level is objectively higher. I wonder how I’ll feel about myself and my work in another 10 years!”

Visit his website here.

Ashley Joncas

2010. “I was always a disgruntled little $hit even when I started teaching myself photography. I was obsessed with antique portraiture but also obsessed with HotTopic…so the dynamic duo combined with me barely knowing how to turn on a camera ended up in a branch explosion from my friends head surrounded by fake smoke. Thankfully 8 years has made a big difference…and I’ve gone from doing a horrible job to actual horror photography.”
2018. “The work I do now is directly indicative of how my creative mind works and what it responds to. For a while I thought being a good photographer meant doing pretty images with flower crowns and safe color palettes, but I realized my voice was in the strange and irregular chasms of our reality. So, my favorite image from this year is a shot of someone sitting in a basement with a bloody eye and shackles.”

Visit her website here.

The Art of Mezame

2013. “I thought using a single LED light and a Samsung Galaxy S3 was good enough for toy photography. I remember the motivation for using the LED light was just so I could see something in the dark. I don’t remember editing the image though haha!”
2018. “I am now actively shooting portraits in studios and using more than just LED lights. Instead of lighting things up just so I can see something in the dark, I use lighting and lightshapers to craft images that tell stories. Only time will tell what else I could discover in my journey as a photographer. Still learning, never stopping.”

Visit his website here.

Joel Robison

2009. “Back in the early days I was still a bit nervous to really get outside and shoot, I was largely taking self-portraits inside my apartment and really only had one bare wall to play with. I was doing a 365 project and ideas were getting thin so I decided to do a week of making props out of cardboard…I whipped up a cardboard gun, money bag and mustache and spent a good solid 5 minutes shooting this image which I then ran through Picnic AND Photoshop to get the desired “vintage” effect.” We all started somewhere and I can’t believe I thought it all looked good!”

Visit his website here.

Webb Bland

2005. “Distortion? Check. Vignetting like I stacked too many polarizers? Check. A pass of every free plugin I could find? Check and mate, photographers! *Retouchers. Whatever.”
2019. “High noon in an airplane graveyard, spacing each car between stark wing shadows. The only thing missing is the abysmal HDR and VIGNETTING OH GOD HOW DID I FORGET THE VIGNETTING??! Shot for Audi.”

Visit his website here.

Alex Ruiz

1993. “Crappy figure drawing: This gem was from my submission portfolio to Cal Arts. Needless to say, I didn’t get in. In retrospect this was valuable lesson for me: get damn good at figure drawing or else I wasn’t going anywhere!”
2018. “Kat Livingston as Elven Queen. There’s something about creating portraits that I’ve always been drawn to more and more over the years. There’s a deep intimacy to it, having a character stare deeply back at you, and sometimes through you. This one is based off New York model, Kat Livingston. Giving her an ethereal, elven quality seemed fitting for her.”

Visit his website here.

John Gallagher

2013. “My Little Pony – A cautionary tale. I’m fond of migrating beloved and nostalgic animated content to ‘real world’ to test my own ability to stay true to the characters while transforming them for fun. This is a gorgeous cringe worthy example of what not to do. Cue sharp inhale.“
2018. “So Deadpool… This won 2nd place in the DeviantArt fan art poster contest with Fox. DA picked five fan-favorite artists to compete for prize money and a trip to New York to the premiere. There was a long list of no-fly zones for content and just a couple days to do it so we all hit the ground running. I thought it came together pretty well and dovetailed nicely with the slo-mo mayhem of the DP cineverse. It’s a natural fit for my brand of hyperkinetics.”

Visit his website here.

The best way to see our progress is to occasionally take an honest look back at our past. What kind of people we were, what we valued, and how we expressed it. While it sometimes feels weird or awkward to look back at our less than experienced selves, they are the treasures that helped us become who we are, and what we do now shapes our futures.

It’s also so easy to get caught up in comparing ourselves to others, the mysteries behind the scenes that helped evolve the final product they now share to the world.

This list is only a snapshot in each person’s life, a single Polaroid in an entire journal to be perceived as warnings or inspiration. Inevitably there will be someone commenting about “I like x image more!” or “I wish I was as good as their befores”. If those are your thoughts, I applaud your skill in missing the point.

Remember, we are only in ultimate competition with our younger and future selves. Our journeys are our own, appreciate the past and embrace the next 10 years.

About the author: Canadian born and raised, Renee Robyn is a former model turned photographer who has developed an ethereal style, combining fact and fiction. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Merging together expertly shot photographs with hours of meticulous retouching in Photoshop, Robyn’s images are easily recognizable and distinctly her own. She travels full time, shooting for clients and teaching workshops around the world. You can find more of her work on her website, Facebook, and Twitter. This article was also published here.