In one of our recent newsletters, I asked our subscribers to share their stories with me. The newsletter celebrated the beginning of spring and was dedicated to inspiration and aspiration in the contemporary photographic world. I always encourage readers to hit the reply button and get involved in the conversation. And often, you do (high five!).
So did our subscriber, an Amsterdam-based Architecture / Product photographer Melanie Weij. It appeared that Melanie has just graduated from the University of Applied Photography and her excitement about a new stage in her life could be felt through my laptop screen.
I thought her story might be interesting and helpful to both photographer wannabes out there and those who are making their first steps in the business. So check out my interview with Melanie in which we discuss the role of education, focus, and planning in any photographer’s life.
Tell us a few words about yourself. When did your interest in photography first spark?
My name is Melanie and I am 36 years old. I am half Greek/ Dutch, lived in the Netherlands all my live but used to visit my mum’s country and the family there every year. My dad always took lots of pictures and he introduced me to photography.
I was curious how his camera worked (a Canon AE1), in those days nothing digital 😉 I remember, about 20 years ago, walking along the water of the harbor on my own and through the little streets of the Old Town in Rhodes taking pictures of those picturesque scenes. I loved it and it made me feel so free! So I saved money to buy my own AE1 as well, because I wanted my own camera (spoilt as I was as an only-child haha).
A little later I started working in a photoshop, developing films. In those days I experimented a lot with developing and printing; I had great fun, but then I went to study Communications and photography become less of a priority due to exams, boyfriend, etc.
Years later for our anniversary my partner gave me a D7000 and (*shamefully admitting*) with Instagram I rediscovered my connection with & love for photography!
It’s the excitement as well.. You know when you shot that great photo and at home on the big screen of your computer it’s confirmed.. it’s like unwrapping a gift and loving it! Simply said, photography really makes me happy.
Besides all that I am a commercial projectmanager for a tv broadcaster here in the Netherlands. Pays the gear 😉
When did you started your education in photography?
When I got my D7000 I studied at home a lot, mainly the technical side. But a year later I found I wasn’t getting any further so I checked out some courses. My partner encouraged me to have a look at the „Fotovakschool, University of Applied Photography” in Amsterdam. They did courses that ran a few months. I went there for more info and discovered that I wouldn’t learn a lot more during the course (I already knew the basics) and so I had a look at the „proper” educations they offered.
Before I could start I did have to show them my portfolio and have my level tested to see if I actually could skip the basic course and enroll straight away. And I could! So in 2014 I started my two year education. As I studied next to my job the classes were in the evening and you had to do a lot at home. Almost all my free time went into photography the last two years.
Why did you choose this path despite the oversaturated photographic industry?
I like to look at my own strengths & talents and build on that rather than holding out because of fear or something like that. When you have a talent, a vision, know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and know how to market it, then I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do what you love.
Yes, it will be hard, it’s never easy. But it’s a choice and I’m prepared. I need to build a network, talk to people, invest time and money, never stop learning and developing and so on.
I have a plan and if it doesn’t work out I have a back-up plan 😉
What was the most enjoyable and the most challenging part of your study?
When I started out I expected to learn more of the technical side. I completely overlooked the content part but I am very happy now that they taught us, it’s essential to good photography. Also I loved I was able to take the time to discover my specialty. Like I said in my first email, last years I’ve fully exploited to discover what kind of photography suits me best. From a wedding to industrial and abstract and everything in between. Oh, and it was great to meet new people and make new friends!
So taking all the above into consideration I’d say it really broadened my world and I am very grateful for it!
How do you feel after graduation?
Proud! I posted on Facebook the day after: „Wow, don’t know where to start. What an audience, what a result, what a day! Time has flown so fast but I f*cking dit it!” and i thanked all my love family, friends, colleagues and everyone who has been so supportive all that time.
And I am very excited: because this is only the beginning, the real lessons will follow now. Can’t wait!
Do you have a specific plan, strategy in terms of your career? Do you plan to find a photography job or run your own business?
Certainly! Summing it up: I want to expand my portfolio, find creative people who I can work with. I need to build a relevant network, so invest time in that. I want to learn from other pro photographers so I’m „interning” (what I did was contact a photographer who’s work I love and just asked if I can assist a few times!). Also I set myself practical goals each week, for example learn better Photoshop (lot of time goes into PS so one tutorial each week or two), read books & magazines, visit expositions and .. shoot of course! It takes time and that’s ok.
What are you main specialties?
Architecture, food and product!
As an architectural photographer I want to capture the atmosphere of where I am, surprise my client and make users happy, inspire and get them into a certain movement. In architecture space, material, shape and styling come together where people are the center piece.
As for food, I secretly am a bit of a foody, I love healthy & great food. So on my bucket list is “making a cookbook”. And so I am; because together with a blogging friend we are working on a very special book! The thing with food is, is that it needs to look tasteful, I aim for instant hunger! haha
As for product: I love styling a set where the product is the hero. Making attractive images that makes the product look fantastic, and above all of course make people really want to have it 😉
Is that what you plan to stick to in the future or do you like to experiment and try new things on a constant basis?
As I discovered and learned during my education what my specialty is I don’t need to try other stuff, like portraits or weddings or what have you. That’s just not my thing. This is what I do best and what I want to excel in and that takes time. You need focus to get better in what you do. So experimenting is good in the beginning but after that it shouldn’t be necessary anymore.
What would you answer to someone denying the importance of professional photographic education?
That’s a very good question. The topic is hot and when you look at all the online discussions you see going on it kind of makes me take a step back and let people have their own opinions. If you’ve ran a successful business for ages being self-taught who am I to tell you you should get a pro education. There are so many layers here, it’s a generation thing, it has to do with your goals, is it commercial work or artistic (I think the latter can’t be without a proper education in most cases).
So if you are still young by all means get a pro photography education; most youngsters, including me in the past, think they know but you really don’t 😉 you learn so much more than you think. But you have to be open to it.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
Traveling is a great source of inspiration. City trips are best for that. I am in love with Valencia for instance. Nice hotels. Architecture (big fan of Calatrava). I am very sensitive to atmosphere, design, styling. And going through loads of magazines of course!
Do you find it in the works of other photographers? If yes, who are you favorites?
Oh yes definitely. I love the works of Kalle Gustafsson, Vivian Maier, Gregory Crewdson; so much to see in their work. And I love discovering new photographers. There are so many! But also one of my classmates his work is outstanding, it’s architecture taken out of it’s context and made into minimalist art. And of course on Instagram I have a few favourites for instance _ingo_1, I just adore his minimalistic style & consistency.
What would be your single most important advice to photography graduates like you?
Focus. I always say: if I would be looking for a photographer for a specific job I’d want the best in their field. If I see portraits, landscapes and buildings in one portfolio, I know this is not the person I’d want. And of course you can have different specialties but they need to be marketed in different ways as well. Someone looking for an architectural photographer isn’t looking for a portrait photographer. So that needs a smart approach and not a practical one 😉
What would you advice to budding photographers who’re just looking at some professional education opportunities?
Go for it! Choose the education that suits you best and just do it. Remember that nothing comes for free and if you want to get somewhere it’s hard work. The trick is to find something that doesn’t feel like work 😉