Expert Interview Series - Interview #2

On Learning Photography:
Nicole Young

"To me, photography is about people and life -- pixels, gear and darkrooms are always secondary."

In the second installment of our On Learning Photography interview series, stock photographer and author Nicole S. Young describes her journey into a successful stock photography career.

Nicole also reveals some of the secrets of developing her photography skills and gives helpful tips for anyone on the path of learning photography.

Stock photographer Nicole Young.
Nicole S. Young ("nicolesy")

Photo Course Advisor: Nicole, what is the role of photography in your life today?

Nicole Young: I make my living as a photographer—my main income is from royalties I make through image sales on I have also written four books (three print through Peachpit and one eBook through Craft & Vision), all of them about photography.

I'm also on the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP) Help Desk and answer Photoshop questions, so that's a small part of my daily routine as well. Photography and Photoshop have been a very big part of my life.

At times it feels like photography is my life! I'm single with no kids so I'm able to put most of my energy into my work, which really isn't a bad thing when you love what you do.

I try to make sure that all of my photography isn't "work" photography. The thing is, though, with stock photography nearly everything I photograph can be used, even more so now that iStock accepts editorial photos (images that don't need model releases, similar to news photos).

I still try to make sure that most of what I do is for me, even with my work images, and I'm always trying new things to gain new and unique perspectives. I have a trip scheduled overseas in November to do just that. It's going to be a photography trip, and I know I'll get useable images for my stock portfolio, but that's not my purpose. I want to create beautiful, print-worthy wall-hangable photos just to make me happy.

I think it's important for those of us with full-time jobs in a creative field to keep it fun and challenging. We have to stay passionate about what we do to continue being successful.

Image of utility lineman by stock photographer Nicole Young.
Image © Nicole Young
"Utility Lineman" - This is a photo of my dad,
one of my favorite stock models. He worked as a utility
lineman and now teaches his trade at a community college.

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

Nicole Young: I started learning photography in high school when I was 17 years old (I think). We used Pentax K1000s in class, and my very first camera was an old Canon Rebel film camera. That was stolen, so I upgraded to a Nikon F4, which I still have.

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

Nicole Young: I took photography in high school because I needed an art credit to graduate. I've always been "into" art, but never photography, but once I started it was a no-brainer—this was what I was meant to do! I can't pinpoint why, but I do know that just being in the darkroom, watching my prints develop, loading film in a completely dark room, and the anticipation of seeing if my photos were exposed properly and in focus was a part of what made me fall in love.

It's obviously different now, with digital cameras and computers being a major part of my workflow, but my love for photography has only gotten stronger.

Photo Course Advisor: Did you formally study photography in college or earn a photography degree?

Nicole Young: I have very little "formal" training in photography. I learned the basics in high school, and a few years back I took some classes at a community college by using the education benefits I received from serving in the US Navy. But other than that, I pretty much picked up what I know from teaching myself, reading blogs, and just using my camera. I tend to soak up information from a lot of different places.

Cover of the book Microstock: Passion to Paycheck by Nicole Young.
You can download Nicole's Microstock
e-book for $5 at Craft & Vision.
(Click here, then scroll down.)

Photo Course Advisor: Other than photography courses, what are some additional ways you have improved your skills and continued learning photography?

Nicole Young: I try to do things that aren't photography related to keep my mind fresh, and to branch out my creativity in other mediums. One of the biggest things I've done lately is take wheel pottery classes. It's all analog, there are no computers involved and it's a chance for me to be fully involved in the process and really use my hands.

I also try to knit and cook as much as possible ... I think it's important to step outside of "normal" and try new things. This might even just be photographing something you normally wouldn't photograph, and I do that, too.

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

Nicole Young: I subscribe to a lot of blogs, and I also enjoy going to conferences (my favorite, and the one I attend every year, is Photoshop World). I think I learn a lot from just being around other photographers, learning from individuals and using my camera a lot.

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?

Nicole Young: If you're brand spankin' new to photography, learn the basics. It may sound obvious, but photography is such a technical and mechanical art form (with all the gear we have to use) that it's extremely important to understand the exposure triangle (ISO, shutter speed and aperture) and some basic editing techniques. Do this before you spend a ton of money on gear, and don't put your camera on full-auto.

If your photos aren't looking right, try to find out why ... the majority of mistakes made in photography are "operator error." The camera can't see light the way we do, or the way we want the photo to look, so if it doesn't look right then it's probably your fault. :)

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

Nicole Young: Absolutely not! I have a pretty good grasp on how to use my gear and the fundamentals of photography, but there is always more to learn. Some of this is just seeing things differently, taking risks or being open to new adventures.

It's difficult to pinpoint something specific I learned recently ... it probably has more to do with my attitude about photography than with anything technical. I'm learning that I have a love-hate relationship with gear ... we need it to do our job, but it's a pain to carry around and travel with. If you ever see me on a photowalk I'll probably just have one camera and one lens with me. I enjoy traveling light when possible.

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

Nicole Young: Photographic style is something that should just happen organically, and it's tough to pinpoint your own style. I think I can see mine, but it took some time and I can remember when someone (a well-respected photographer and mentor of mine) told me that I do have a style (something I considered to be a very big compliment). If I had to describe it, it would be that my photos are very bright, colorful, and happy.

Image of lavender crusted rack of lamb by food stock photographer Nicole Young..
Image © Nicole Young
"Lavender Crusted Rack of Lamb" - I enjoy photographing food
because it combines two of my passions: cooking and photography.
This photo is comprised of elements I purchased at the local farmer's market.

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

Nicole Young: The thing that surprises me the most are the other amazing photographers I've met over the past five years. I'm very active in social media and local photography groups, and I think it is so wonderful that a shared passion can unite people from (literally) around the world. I've made amazing friends and felt a strong sense of camaraderie from getting to know other photographers. To me, photography is about people and life—pixels, gear and darkrooms are always secondary.

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

I would say that it's more a frustration of being self-employed, not necessarily as a photographer. I find that I'm always working, and I'm just now starting to force myself to take weekends off and not do any work (which I'm usually not very successful at doing). And, when I'm working I'm usually sitting at my computer. I think that many photographers share the same frustration—we love to create photos, but we don't enjoy editing them on the computer. I love Photoshop, and many times I get really excited about photos and enjoy editing them, but a lot of the time it's work. Boring, necessary work.

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

Photography, when you do it for yourself, is about preserving memories and creating beauty. I think that if you want to do to those things then it's totally worth the effort and cost of learning how to improve your photography and buying gear. Most of the people I know who are photographers are not full-time or professionals; they do it because they are passionate and want to share their vision.

Photo Course Advisor: How did you become a successful stock photographer?

I became successful in photography because I worked my butt off, researched and paid attention to what photos do well in stock, and didn't get discouraged or give up. I also didn't know that I would become successful, and when I first started that wasn't even my goal. It sort-of happened on its own, and when it got to a certain level I started really nurturing the business and started to drive it and make it work for me.

Cover of the book Food Photography From Snapshots to Great Shots.
Order Nicole's new book here

Photo Course Advisor: What will photographers learn from your latest book, Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots?

In my new book I go through the steps, from start to finish, on how to photograph food. I created this book with everyone in mind, which means that even if you are brand new to photography it will be helpful and informative.

I discuss basics of photography and gear, and then the specifics of how to light (with both natural and strobes/flashes), compose, style, and then edit the food photos using Adobe Photoshop.

The very last chapter is filled with behind-the-scenes of food shoots—I always get a large positive response when I do these on my blogs so I wanted to make sure that I dedicated a whole chapter to it.

(The book can be ordered from Amazon here.)

About Nicole Young ("nicolesy")

Nicole Young, Stock Photographer and Author

Nicole S. Young (Twitter: @nicolesy) is a full-time photographer specializing in food and lifestyle photography and licensing her images through iStockphoto and Getty Images. She is also an author of several books published by Peachpit Press and Craft & Vision.

Be sure to visit her Nicolesy Blog for helpful and interesting posts and to keep up with her fast-paced photography career.

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