When 2021 first dawned, an online photography community I’m a part of, Offbeat Photography, gave us a theme: The year of personal growth.
We were tasked with setting a specific goal and working on that goal throughout the year. I knew it was time to set a goal that I’d long been putting off: Get more familiar with off-camera flash and incorporate it into my outdoor photography. My long-standing, irrational fear of OCF had held me back for too long. Being a sport and landscape photographer, I wasn’t really interested in shooting portraits or weddings. But I wanted to add this skill to my photographic toolbox simply in the pursuit of being a better photographer.
I publicly stated my goal for all to see, and then promptly avoided all thoughts of it for the next month.
Finally, the day came where I mustered up the courage to dust off the two Canon Speedlites that had been sitting on a shelf in my office. They’d been mocking me daily as walked past them, trying to ignore them. I spent a lot of time with the manuals learning how to change the settings and communicate with the receiver. I grumbled and fumbled and cursed a lot.
My first attempt using flash was a commercial shoot for a local bike company. The location was an old, abandoned building, covered in graffiti. Because it was a company I’d worked for previously, I was honest about my skillset with flash. They encouraged me to try to get what they needed, with no pressure. I will forever be grateful for that trust and opportunity.
I practiced in my yard the days before, and didn’t sleep the night before the shoot. Somehow, with the teamwork of the people on location with me, I pulled it off. Insert shock and awe.
Next, I practiced portraits with my 10-year-old neighbor during a rare snowy day here on Vancouver Island. I flailed with cold fingers, not knowing where to start with settings. At first I couldn’t get one of the flashes to fire at all. But somehow, I pulled off a few decent shots. I wrote an article about this first experience attempting portraits here.
My husband and dog also got in on the action, patient subjects with a cantankerous photographer. I did a backyard ski shoot with a friend where hilarity ensued but I got a cool shot and made some great memories. Next, I tried some mountain biking shots while getting devoured by mosquitoes in the muggy, summer night air. Almost all of these shots didn’t turn out. But I took them back to a cohort of photographers who helped me troubleshoot what had gone wrong. Lessons were learned.
I put a random call out on Facebook to have someone come be my practice model in the forest. Again, I was frustrated when I didn’t get the exact results I was aiming for. But still, I was trying and learning. I also attempted flash during a commercial shoot for a local brewery. I realized that gradually, I was bringing this newfound tool out of my toolbox more often.
Getting out of my comfort zone
In September I attended a four-day workshop, Portraits in High Places, in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Believe me, I never thought that I would be attending any workshop with the word portrait in it. But I wanted to branch out, meet like minded peers and learn something new.
I will never forget the first time we broke off into partners on our first day. After some in-field instruction, we were given a light and a model and told to go create. I crossed my fingers and prayed that I had a portrait photographer for a partner. Much to my dismay, I quickly learned that he too was a portrait newbie. We both looked like deer frozen in the headlights as the other groups quickly dispersed into their creative genius.
I reminded myself that I was paying a good chunk of change to feel this fear, and be forced past it. And I did. It made me to put my big girl pants on and start trying. And isn’t that always the hardest part? Just to start trying.
At the end of the year I even used my softbox in a couple of jobs for a local magazine. Outwardly I was playing cool, but internally I felt like there was a wasp nest in my chest. I setup my softbox and proceeded to take a ton of test shots before getting something that I hoped would sort of work out. And they did — with some photoshopping — and if you didn’t look at my unexperienced posing jobs.
Oh right, don’t forget to look at the actual person too, Sara. One thing at a time right? Have I mentioned that I’m not a portrait photographer? But overall I felt proud that I’d tried.
Adding to the toolbox
I set up my softbox again, with another portrait for the magazine (wait, all of a sudden I’m taking portraits?!). I took all of my standard natural light images, and then asked if they had time to work on another shot with the flash. They obliged. It took so long — well, in my head it did, maybe it was 10 minutes total — to get that one right that I only submitted one image created with flash. But guess which photo ended up getting used in the magazine? Yep, that one.
Overall, could I have put way more time into flash this year? Definitely. But did I get out of my comfort zone with it as well? Yes. One checkmark for personal growth. Of course, as I look back now and reflect on the funky year that 2021 most definitely was, my growth as a photographer involved much more than some technical flash knowledge. But, knowing that I set a goal and stuck with it while persevering through fears and insecurities, I can be content in moving forward into 2022.