Expert Interview Series - Interview #1

On Learning Photography:
Aloha Lavina

"Why not pick up a camera and see what you have to say?"

As we begin our new On Learning Photography interview series, editorial and travel photographer Aloha Lavina explains how her obsession with photography and desire to learn resulted in a professional freelance photographer career.

Aloha also discusses how she decides what type of photography assignments to accept, and gives some top tips for anyone learning photography.

Editorial photographer Aloha Lavina holds her camera near carvings at a temple.
Image © Aloha Lavina
Aloha at a wooden temple in Burma (Myanmar)

Photo Course Advisor: Aloha, please describe for our readers the role of photography in your life today.

Aloha Lavina: I am a freelance editorial photographer. Most of my work is for magazines, both fashion and travel. My work in fashion involves ad campaigns, like billboards, magazine ads, and feature stories on fashion.

I also work for designers for their private campaigns such as billboards for their retail spaces. I've done some catalog work and sometimes cover weddings, but the weddings have to really interest me—such as a Nepali wedding in Kathmandu or a traditional wedding in Bali, Indonesia.

For my travel work, I freelance for CNNGo, Readers Digest and a few other magazines. The stories I shoot for these publications are travel related.

Photo Course Advisor: How old were you when you started learning photography, and what was your first camera?

Aloha Lavina: I played with my father's Nikon F2 when I was a child.

Photo Course Advisor: When did you decide you wanted to make photography a major part of your life? How did that come about?

Aloha Lavina: Three different companies asked me to shoot some beauty shots, a clothing line, and an ad campaign in late 2007. Prior to that, I had only taken photos for fun, to share on Flickr and a couple of other forums. The commissions led to more commissions, and before I knew it, I was in business.

An image by editorial photographer Aloha Lavina.
Image © Aloha Lavina

In 2008 I decided to take the plunge and hire my vision out for clients who believed in the ways I interpreted imagery. But I'm very careful about what I accept in terms of commissioned work. This is how I "protect" my creativity—and sanity—I won't do work if it's not creatively interesting or challenging.

For example, I avoid conventional studio portraits. Yes, these things can bring income, but I would like to get income from work that means a lot to me, rather than just mechanically shooting for the sake of a job. If I have to do the same lighting, same poses, and same retouching as say the standard photo booth at Walmart, then I would rather do something else.

I think this sounds snobbish, but that's just my personal philosophy.

Photo Course Advisor: Did you formally study photography in college or earn a photography degree? If so, in what ways did that experience improve your photography skills?

Aloha Lavina: I am self-taught, but have always played with cameras since a young age. Shooting a lot helped me improve my skills over the years. I started without technical knowledge. It's only as an adult that I really started paying attention to the technical side of photography. I've always just created images because that's how I felt at the time—a lot of what I call "subjective exposures."

Photo Course Advisor: What types of resources have helped you in your ongoing study of photography?

Aloha Lavina: I've taken some workshops on natural light portraiture and on studio lighting. I've also assisted professional photographers, which helped me stretch my own knowledge about photography and lighting. I've read voraciously on photography, both print and online, talked to other photographers, spent time on Flickr forums, done projects to challenge myself, and joined camera clubs, all to learn and improve photography.

Aloha Lavina's photo of a woman in traditional Asian costume.
Image © Aloha Lavina

Photo Course Advisor: Out of everything you have learned, what are a few of the most important tips you could give someone just starting out learning photography?

Aloha Lavina: 1. "It's not the camera, it's the eye." I have a healthy respect for technology, but technology can only take you as far as the programming it received from the manufacturer. Vision is really what makes great imagery. So for someone just starting out, don't be seduced by the new gear that's always entering the market. Get to know your current gear really well, and find out how it can help you make great imagery.

2. "You can't buy a photographer's eye." You can learn and keep learning, but you can't just upgrade equipment and expect skills to get better. You have to put time and effort into learning and improving. You have to internalize your learning and make the camera an extension of your self.

3. "You can't take a good photo if you don't have your camera with you." Bring your camera with you everywhere! Shoot a lot. That's how you will get better.

Photo Course Advisor: Now that you're an accomplished photographer, have you stopped learning? If not, what is something that you learned just recently?

Aloha Lavina: I love to learn new things. I am mainly a portrait photographer, a storyteller, so recently I've embarked on learning how to shoot landscapes. I just learned how to shoot at night and found it is a lot of fun.

Photo Course Advisor: How would you describe your own distinctive style of photography and how did you learn or discover it?

Aloha Lavina: I would describe my style as "storytelling" because I am always looking for stories in the images I try to make. It's not something I set out to do, but as a person who loves to write, it came naturally to me to narrate with my images. I found this out fairly recently, in 2006, when I realized while shooting a project that I was abstracting people because it fit the story. I've been doing a project called "The Faceless Portrait" for about five years, and this is something that defines what I try to do—tell a story with each image.

An emotional portrait of a man holding a woman, by photographer Aloha Lavina.
Image © Aloha Lavina

Photo Course Advisor: What have you learned about photography that has surprised you?

Aloha Lavina: Photography is a never ending quest. It surprises me that every time I pick up a camera, I learn something new. The novelty of discovery has never left me, in photography. That's why I am as obsessed about it now as I was as a teenager.

Photo Course Advisor: What is one of your greatest frustrations as a photographer?

Aloha Lavina: Not having time to shoot.

Photo Course Advisor: Speaking now to anyone who does NOT plan a career in photography: Why should they consider buying a camera and learning photography?

Aloha Lavina: We've reached a visual age—and it seems like photography's become a global habit. Images are a way for us to communicate more than ever, and telling our stories with photos has become so accessible.

So why not pick up a camera and see what you have to say? Why not join the conversation?

About Aloha Lavina

Aloha Lavina, Editorial and Travel Photographer

Aloha Lavina (Twitter: @alohalavina) is an editorial and travel photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand, who describes herself as "a global wanderer."

Her Imagine That blog is filled with examples of her creativity, with blog posts that both inspire and teach. Her photography and writing has been featured in several books, as well as in Seventeen magazine, CNNGo, Estamos!, The Korea Times, and the UTATA Tribal Photography Magazine. You can enjoy her online portfolio at

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