How I Got Started as a Videographer

First love for photos.

The first time I remember having a serious interest in photography was when I was 15. Mom had a point-and-shoot Canon. I remember it cost $400. My current iPhone can unquestionably take better photos. I carried that camera around and took pictures of my life as a teenager back when we all had a Xanga account and posted everything we did there.

I realize that privilege surrounded me in that beginning phase. I had access to a camera. I had parents who trusted me with that camera. I had friends who had cars and drove me around and did fun things worthy of capturing. I wonder what my story would be if I hadn’t had this kind of access.

I saved up all my graduation money and bought my first serious camera—a Canon 30d with a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. I took this thing with me everywhere and took pictures of everything that moved and some things that didn’t. I crawled our tiny city late at night with a friend and experimented with long exposure and light painting. I played the role of second shooter in weddings. I shot my first wedding on my own.

I started thinking I might go to a specialized college for photography, but the dream was unclear, so I started working at a formalwear store sewing buttons on tuxedos and taking pictures of rain puddles in my spare time.

Feet to the Fire

During the time I was working at the formalwear store, my Dad was a pastor in our town and the church had a weekly TV program that aired in the local market. This show featured almost 30 minutes of new content every week, and it wasn’t the typical shot of the stage from the back of the room that many churches use. It was a fully produced show, planned, shot, and edited by a young woman who was a mass communications major.

Up to this point I hadn’t thought seriously about video and was focused only on photography. Dad brought me into his office and said that the woman producing their show currently would be having a baby soon and he wanted me to produce the show full time. This was a great opportunity for an 18-year-old kid without any college, though I didn’t realize this at the time. I quit the formalwear store and jumped into full time video production.

The reason this was such a feet-to-the-fire moment is that I had to start planning, scheduling, shooting, and editing a 30-minute TV show which aired weekly and was highly visible in the community. I had never made a serious video in my life up to this point. On top of that, I was in a social circle of creative friends who would be seeing the show and evaluating the work whether I wanted them to or not. The mere thought of this made my cheeks burn.

Repetitions

It was the best thing in the world for my skill to start publishing consistently when I wasn’t ready.  (This is exactly why I’m writing on this blog and shipping written content consistently, even though I don’t feel ready to do it.) 

It was good for it to be so public. If you know no one will see what you’re working on, nothing is at stake, and you’ll cut yourself a lot of slack and never do your best. It was good for it to be relentlessly consistent. If it doesn’t have to be done it takes much longer than it should. You can only spend so much time perfecting something when the deadline is approaching, and this is most important when you’re starting out and aware of how little you know. 

I was able to learn gain a mountain of knowledge in this position, including:

  • How to apply the photographic principles to video.
  • How to shoot footage.
  • How to plan content.
  • How to schedule groups of people.
  • How to build a set.
  • How to light a shot.
  • How to edit.
  • How to organize footage.
  • How to plan hard drive space.
  • How to back up everything I’ve made.
  • How to make animations in After Effects.
  • How to find the right export settings.
  • How to use a steadicam.
  • How to color grade.
  • How to shoot a multi-angle segment.

And the list goes on.

The most important thing I learned was to finish, publish, evaluate, and improve next time.

It’s vitally important to learn in public. (For further reading, see Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work.) When we keep everything we’re making private, we insulate ourselves from the criticism we need. You don’t need much criticism at the beginning. Here you just need encouragement so you gain enough courage to keep going. But once you get some repetitions under your belt and things go somewhat smoothly, criticism can save you from the arrogance that kills so many artists. Those who are most prone to arrogance are those who know a little and haven’t yet realized how much they don’t know. That’s when it becomes dangerous to insulate yourself.

Love for Video

Over time I began to fixate more on video than photography as a creative medium. It was also good timing. Right after I started, the first video DSLRs came out which put the power of a cinematic image into the hands of people with smaller budgets. On top of that, social platforms were revolutionizing media and providing an unprecedented home for video content. This trend has only increased and isn’t going anywhere soon.

Would I love video in another time period? I’m not sure. Maybe not. “Corporate video” meant something much different 30 years ago than it does now. I’ll never forget an old school ad executive telling me that in the 1990s, if his agency sold a video project for less than $250,000 the crew would be outraged because of how little they would be able to accomplish. 

All that to say, there’s never been a better time to be employed making videos, and this worked out well for me.

The need for video content is only increasing. High schoolers these days with an interest in making videos usually want to be vloggers and influencers, and this isn’t a great plan. Instead, they should learn to create great video content—learn to focus on the fundamentals of good lighting, good audio, good footage, and good editing. Storytelling is the key (this is actually what makes a great vlogger too). Figure out how to help businesses communicate well through video and you’ll be employable for a long time.

As the demand for video content continues to increase—and the means and methods available for creating it—I foresee that most businesses in the future will have a video content creator on staff full time.

More than anything, it’s about learning the skill within. Technology comes and goes, tools always get better, but great storytelling is forever. Learn how to tell a great story and you can ride the wave of change in technology forever.

Skill and Business

There is a mystery in charging people to use your skill for them.

On the one hand you have the skill, the actual work you do. On the other hand you have the business, the way you make money with the skill. Two different things.

There are two parts that are mysterious to me:

  1. How to keep business and skill in balance (if “balance” is even the right way of thinking about it).
  2. Whether focusing on one pollutes the other.

Artists aren’t typically renown for business savvy, and the image that comes to mind of a great businessperson is typically nothing like an artist.

I don’t know what to do with the mystery, but it’s there.

Being Open to Feedback as a Creative Professional

I’m a freelance creative professional, meaning I get paid to create videos as my full time job. Someone recently said in my hearing, “I know those creative types. Unless you give them a timeline, the job won’t get done.”

I responded by saying, “There’s a lot of truth to that!”

One of my goals in my career is to break the stereotype of millennial workers who need to be applauded for every small task they complete and feel they are going above and beyond when they’re really just meeting the baseline standard. Showing up on time is not exceptional. Getting something done when you said you would is not exceptional. Being open to feedback and criticism is not exceptional. These are the basics.

It’s especially tricky with the creative types like myself. Creating is an act of vulnerability, so there’s something of yourself in everything you make. When you expose this to a client and say, “What do you think?” it can be pretty scary. 

The best thing we can do for our clients and for ourselves is to be open to feedback and willing to explain our creative decisions. If you can’t find a justification for an element of your work and the client is uncomfortable with it, you have no reason to insist that it stays. 

It’s not personal when someone says, “I think this shot could be better.” How many contractors—painters and masons and architects and carpenters—hear that same thing every day around the world? Unless they can give a good explanation, they get to work changing it right away. I want to be the kind of creative that takes that responsibility, swallows my pride when I need to, and creates something that meets the client’s expectation.

I don’t know where the line is between offering your expertise and accepting the client’s ideas, but I do know one thing: if you get into an argument, you lose, even if you win. (Credit: Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People.)

There’s a huge difference between “I can’t work like this,” and, “I don’t like working like this.” Not all uncomfortable conversations are bad. Not all of our work should be praised. Not all criticism is personal.

Artist or Entrepreneur

Years ago I was running camera for an interview with the founder of a major tech company and he made a distinction that stuck with me ever since.

He said there are artists and there are entrepreneurs. Artists make something, present it to the world, and when people give feedback they leave their work as it is and tell people they don’t get it. Entrepreneurs make something, present it to the world, and when people give feedback they reconfigure and present again. Then they get more feedback, reiterate, and present again. They repeat this cycle until they have a successful product.

Where you fall on that continuum as a creator is completely up to you. You might make things that never make you money in return and that be perfectly fine with you. Or you might be totally focused on profit. That’s perfectly fine too.

The big thing is, you don’t have to choose. Artists can make money, and if they want to be happy, they probably need to at some point. It’s not fulfilling to have a burning desire to make art and spend all your time working jobs that keep you from doing it. Few people have the means to stop working and create whatever art they desire. The smartest artists figure out how to get paid to make art—art which they are still proud of.

It’s romantic to talk about never being a sellout, and no doubt, industry has warped many creators. But a lot of upcoming artists actually need to learn how to sell out. You can’t sell out if your art isn’t good enough to sell in the first place. 

Maybe step one is getting good enough at something for people to pay you to do it.

Hireling or Owner?

There is a massive difference.

Hirelings…

  • need someone else to tell them what to do—for everything
  • blame their boss when something goes wrong
  • stay in the their lane, get the job done, and go home
  • spend the company’s money freely
  • have as their primary goal making a good impression on their boss or peers

Owners…

  • take initiative as much as possible (and it is possible 98% of the time)
  • accept responsibility when something goes wrong; wonder how they could improve next time
  • show up early, work harder than most, actively think about how to improve things
  • steward company dollars wisely; care about the company’s profits
  • have as their primary goal making the company as successful as possible

As an employee, you can be a hireling or an owner. It all depends on where you think the buck stops.

A 2015 survey by Gallup showed that “50.8% of employees were ‘not engaged,’ while another 17.2% were ‘actively disengaged.'”

I wonder what engagement would be like if all employees saw themselves as an owner.

In my opinion, every person should know what it’s like to be a freelancer or entrepreneur for at least a little while. That is, they should experience a direct connection between their output and their income. It would expose a shocking amount of waste.