How I Became A Professional Photographer

 A team of Japanese soldiers simulating an attack.

Ever since I was just a kid, I only wanted to be one of two things: 1. A Full-Time Firefighter, or 2. A History teacher.  My life however, took a very strange path that jumped from carpentry, to personal training, to managing a record store, to graduating school for business, and finally joining the military. I obviously missed the mark a bit, I've never belonged to a pumper, nor taught a class on Kristallnacht, but I'm alright with that.  I'm alright with it because I never missed out on challenges.  I was fortunate in being free to travel a lot, tried my hand at anything that caught my interest, and on the way wound up with the most amazing little family.  It's been an incredible adventure, but it hasn't been always easy, particularly with photography.

Here I am standing in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a couple of years ago.

So how did I manage to wind up as a career photographer?  Largely chance.  I certainly never set out to become one, I joined the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in 2007 as infantry.  In fact I actually didn't even want to join, I used the military as a self-imposed threat to motivate myself to get off my butt and get a job as a firefighter.  For more on that feel free to read this blog post

But when I was in the military a number of things happened that made a career as a photographer actually really easy.  I found myself in so many incredible situations where taking photos simply made sense.  Obstacle courses, firing ranges, helicopters, jets, weapons, combat training, they all made for really interesting photographic subject matter.  Plus we do all of this with a team of 30-40 people who you grow super close to, and who share your photos and video with their families every week.  Talk about a great networking and advertisement tool. 

I was posted to 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment in Petawawa, where I served as a rifleman (C6 gunner) for a while.  There was always something going on, somewhere to be training or travelling, and something to take photos, but it can take a toll on your body.  After a knee surgery in 2009 I had a number of months off for recovery where I was confined to bed.  Not one to sit idly, I spent at a minimum 6 hours a day studying photography online.  Everything from the theory of light and techniques, to equipment and styles, and when I felt up to it I rented a wheelchair and had my girlfriend (now wife) take me around so I could get out and take pictures of anything that wasn't the end table, alarm clock, or ceiling fan of the room I was recovering in.

Eventually I finished my recovery and headed back to work (still as infantry), but kept shooting on the side.  I challenged myself shortly thereafter to start a Project 365, a challenge to take and share a photo a day for a year.  The feedback kept me growing and challenged, and though it took its toll on my free time (and at times my relationship), soon enough people were asking me if I would shoot their weddings.  So I registered a side business - Bend the Sun, and started shooting for a bit of side profit.  Nothing much, just the odd job here or there, but the ball started rolling, and I started taking my profits and rolling it into the business - developing a growing series of Canon bodies, red ring lenses, and photography accessories.

So in 2012 the Canadian Forces commitments to Afghanistan were winding down, and the forecast looked like a significant decrease in the budget for infantrymen. I saw my opportunity and jumped ship, changing trades to become an Imagery Technician (Photographer) in the CAF.  My experience with my business and personal work made the course training pretty easy, and in my success I turned a few heads, scoring a pretty high-profile position in Ottawa, where things really started to take off.

I suddenly had deployments all over the world.  I found myself with exclusive access and opportunities to experience cultures and pockets of the world that nobody I knew had been to, and that everyone I knew wanted to see.  It's probably one of the best ways of developing a diverse portfolio one could ever have; constantly presented with new landscapes, hundreds of people to take portraits of, thousands of interesting objects to practice product photography with (many of which explode, which TOTALLY adds to the bad-ass factor).   Not to mention routinely brushing elbows and travelling with VIP's.

It got a little complicated though, particularly considering that the Canadian Forces uses Nikon gear predominantly in its photography.  I know what most of you will be thinking (if you're still reading this far), "it's basically the same thing."  But it really isn't.  Fundamentally the same principles apply, but so many things are different between the two, so long story short: I jumped to Nikon.  For more on why I did that read this blog post

So I now was working full-time in the military as a photographer and booking jobs on the side with Bend the Sun.  The jobs though were ever changing, I was suddenly shooting less and less with weddings, and more and more with commercial side contracts that actually can pay better. All the while my military career was providing me the stability and opportunity to grow my personal business at whatever rate I could handle. 

For any of you considering getting serious into establishing a photography business it's a great way to start.  Not only do you have stability and control, but you're being paid to stay fit, and trained by some of the most experienced fitness experts in the country.  You earn a pension, you have benefits, and your resume starts to look great for all the training and free education they give you.  I'm actually presently really focusing on the free education element and will hopefully be finishing off a degree in a little over a year.  For anyone in the Canadian military looking for more info on the free education options I'd suggest contacting your BPSO regarding the ILP program, it's fantastic.

Now my goal is to progressively pursue my education while serving in the military here based in Ottawa, while I (hopefully) finish off my degree and teacher's college, then finally move into my aforementioned childhood dream job #2. History (and now Photography) Teacher.  That way I'll have a career I've wanted since I was a kid, plus I'll be free to continue doing what I love most, taking photos, teaching photography, and (most importantly) spending time with my wife and kids.

 
 

-Wes.