Three years ago I had technically launched my photography business, but was still working my other non-photography jobs. While I wanted to move forward with my own business, I hadn’t fully committed to the freelance life yet. I was mostly doing landscape work and dabbling in other genres but didn’t have a clear path in front of me.

One day I saw that a local wedding and portrait photographer was looking to hire an assistant for the summer. Karen McKinnon was (and still is) the best known photographer in town, and her post intrigued me immediately.  

I had never met Karen, but had always felt irrationally intimidated by her. I’d been at events she was at and she owned the room wherever she was. I, on the other hand, was still a shy wallflower, too nervous to even introduce myself. I didn’t even call myself a photographer yet when people asked what I did for a living; I always referred to my career in education and healthcare. She oozed confidence where I stunk of low self esteem and uncertainty (at least when it came to photography!).

Prior to working with Karen, I only had experience in the landscape genre.

Taking a chance

I wanted to apply to be her assistant but didn’t think I was worthy in any sense. I put it off for a couple of weeks. Finally, once I thought the applications were probably closed, I worked up enough nerve to write an email to her. I think I rambled on about being happy to carry her gear and soak in any knowledge that I could. I was surprised when she wrote me back, seemingly interested in taking me on, and she even knew who I was! This shocked me. 

I remember being pretty nervous for our first phone interview/meeting. Trying to find out if I knew the basics, she asked me if I knew what short light was. Of course I didn’t, so I thought I’d blown it right there. Karen asked me about what I wanted to learn, where I was with my business and described what she needed in an assistant. After a couple of discussions she agreed to hire me for her wedding season, with my main roles to be a voice activated light stand and keeper of the car keys. I was both stoked and terrified. 

Me, piggybacking a bride from a photo location. Photo by McKinnon Photography.

Learning new skills

For the next couple of months before our first wedding, I studied as much as I could. I knew nothing about light modifiers, external flashes, posing or weddings in general. I took some online courses and kept pages of notes on my laptop.

Why do all of this as a landscape photographer? Even back then, I knew that any knowledge was good knowledge. At that point I didn’t know whether or not I liked wedding photography, I knew nothing about it. All I knew was that I had the opportunity to learn from a real pro and I didn’t want to disappoint her. 

Jumping into the deep end

Our first wedding was held on a small island, two ferry rides away. Karen was already there as her mom happened to live on the same island and we’d planned to spend the night there. Needless to say, my nerves were high as I drove to meet her. This was our first time working together, even really spending any time together. And I was going to go stay with her overnight at her mom’s house. No pressure, right?

I remember going through all of the gear on the grass in the front yard, and then going for brunch at a nearby restaurant to fuel up before the wedding. We seemed to get along right away which was a plus and helped ease my nerves just a little. 

An image from our first wedding together. I was laying in the grass behind the couple with a strobe.

The wedding itself is a bit of a blur for me. We got through it and I didn’t mess anything major up. Karen was a great teacher while still performing her job at an extremely high level. I learned to look for extra power sources, keep the batteries charged and how to eat dinner in about four minutes.

Afterward, I experienced the high you get post-wedding, when you get in the car exhausted, still clutching the memory cards and ready for a celebratory glass of wine for a job well done. I slept well that night, surprisingly exhausted.

Changing my mindset

The next morning Karen had to leave really early, on to the next job. As I had nothing but time, I allowed myself some time at the beach, reflecting and feeling proud, like I’d finally accomplished something. I’d finally taken a step forward in my career, even if it was working for someone else. And I knew that I’d already made a friendship that was only going to get stronger.

I often think back to that morning at the beach; it was pivotal for me because my mindset had changed, and a small bit of confidence sprouted somewhere within me. I had hope for my photographic future.

We continued on through the summer and into the next year, tackling weddings, events and some portrait sessions. My skills grew as I became more comfortable with the gear, and my confidence grew as well. Karen knew exactly when to push me, and where I needed to get out of my comfort zones, whether I liked it or not. I continued evolving with my own styles of photography (landscape and sports) but enjoyed any time I got to work with Karen.

Just another day in the field … literally.

Lessons learned

So, what’s the moral of this long-winded story? For one, don’t be afraid to take a chance. I can insert that cheesy quote about missing a hundred percent of the shots that you don’t take here. If I hadn’t bothered to write that initial email, I would have missed out on an amazing opportunity and a lifelong friend. 

I’ve learned that I don’t, in fact, want to be a wedding or portrait photographer, it’s not my jam. Good to know though. I’ve learned about light and posing and how to interact with clients when they’re nervous or upset or intoxicated. I’ve seen the way Karen runs her business, from social media to invoicing to booking clients. I’ve met so many new people through her, and have traveled to some cool places.

We’ve shared a ton of laughs, long car rides and many bags of chips. I have someone I can turn to with any questions, big or small. I have an industry confidant that I can vent to, someone who’s been through what I’m going through. I have someone who refers clients to me, and I reciprocate doing the same. All of these experiences were, and still are, invaluable. The fact that we shoot completely different genres never mattered, we continue to grow and learn with each other.

So, if you’re just starting out and get the opportunity to work with someone who’s spent some time in the industry, I highly recommend it. If you can find someone specializing in your genre, great. But even if not, there’s still so much to be gained by learning from someone who has more experience than you. Carry the bags. Second shoot. Supply snacks and water. It’s not beneath you if you’re willing to grow and learn.