How I learned photograph models – an autobiography

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How to learn to photograph models and create my portfolio? Should you go to a proper school, learn from YouTube, books or online forums? I don’t know, but I can tell you how it was for me. The photos in this post are from my early days, so they are quite different from my later work.

Recently, I started reflecting on my journey, and it all began when a few years ago, I sent myself an email “to the future.” This email was meant to be delivered to me several years after I wrote it. In it, I described my life at the time and my plans for the future.

When I wrote the mentioned message, I was just starting to learn photography. I already had a camera with lenses, but I didn’t have much knowledge about lighting, which meant I couldn’t take good photos. Last month, the mentioned email finally reached me, and it brought back some memories and reflections – how I started with photography, what I did right, and what I should have done differently. This might guide someone on how to start learning. I’m not saying you should follow in my footsteps – in many ways, it’s probably better not to, but you can always draw some conclusions.

Unfamous “HDR” hole stage

School is the foundation…?

Let’s go back to the beginning – I have no education in the field of photography, I never planned my future with it, and I already treated high school (electronics/telecommunications technician) as a huge waste of time. Over 35 hours a week wasted on things that would never be useful to me. I didn’t plan to be a lawyer, doctor, or anyone whose profession requires a license. Studying just for the sake of getting a diploma wasn’t an option either, so I didn’t even think about higher education. I fully agree with the opinions that schools nowadays should be based on gamification and developing creativity, but it’s the opposite. Fortunately, I always had a good time at school with my friends, although the teachers weren’t necessarily thrilled with my presence. Actually, already in middle school, they cursed the day of my birth (“Voland is a weed, and weeds need to be weeded,” as one of my teachers used to say). In the second grade of technical school, the principal stormed into the classroom, furious, asking “when does Voland turn 18” and declared that after my birthday, I wouldn’t need to come to school anymore. Of course, after a few days, he got over it, but my plans related to education were already quite well-defined at that time – finishing high school part-time and that’s it.

Don’t get me wrong – I have great memories of the time spent at school. It’s just that it was completely wasted time – if I had the Internet back then and devoted those hours to what interested me, it would have been 100 times more efficient and useful. To this day, I regret not having the Internet when I was drawn to programming and a few other things. However, if there were a school with classes that interested me, I would gladly attend it.

As soon as I could, at the age of 18, I transferred to a part-time school (meaning Saturday and Sunday, and if you don’t want to, you don’t have to come at all, only for exams) – it was one of the best decisions in my life. My parents, of course, were devastated by what their son was doing, but later they admitted it was a good choice. Because there’s no denying it, my school achievements were proportional to my willingness to learn.

I finally had the Internet, so I took up what interested me, and life finally made some sense. If I had been interested in photography back then, I could have fully immersed myself in it without wasting time on integrals and essays like “what the character in the painting above is thinking about.”

However, everything revolved around computers, web design, and motorcycles for me at that time because those were the things I was interested in. And that went on for a few years. I planned to get a full-time job in the UK, in a studio related to web design. As in any creative industry, your portfolio says everything about you, and nobody cares about schools. Just like in photography. Luckily, I quickly realized that web design was not something I wanted to do for long. So for the next few years, it was mainly riding motorcycles, writing articles related to them, etc.

Red Bull FMX competition

Returning to education… I know that in some countries and cities there are high schools with a photographic profile, but it’s hard to find any opinions saying that you can actually learn useful things there. But if someone wants to pursue a future in this field, why not? You have to choose a high school anyway. If there was one in my city, I would gladly attend it.

It’s a completely different story with post-secondary schools – I wouldn’t be able to recommend them to anyone, at least in my homeland. I’ve met too many people who attended such schools and their opinions were always the same – if you want to learn how to set the white balance, you can go, but don’t expect much more. I’m talking about Polish schools here, which are still in the dark ages, and practical classes look like 10 people photographing the same person at the same time. I wanted to enroll in one, fortunately, it didn’t work out. After the open days, it became clear that there was no point in going there to learn something. However, it might be a great place to meet people with similar interests.

People are much more satisfied with schools in other countries, although the curriculum is usually focused more on artistic aspects than technical ones. When it comes to learning about lighting, which is the most important thing for me, I suspect I would be disappointed. That’s what photography workshops are for.

In conclusion – remember that no client will ever ask you what schools you’ve attended. The same goes for courses and certificates. Nobody cares about such things, what matters is your portfolio, so think carefully about whether it’s better to focus on that instead of school. However, if the school can directly translate into skills, not just papers, I support it 100%.

My beginnings with photography

It’s spring, the year 2009. At that time, every day looked similar – getting up in the afternoon, meeting friends on motorcycles, and returning home usually in the early morning. On one of these trips, a friend hands me a camera to take a picture of him on his motorcycle. I had never held a DSLR before. I took a few shots – almost all of them out of focus, as I didn’t know I had to wait for the autofocus. Despite everything, I think I liked it because from that moment on, whenever a friend wanted to take pictures, he had to carry two cameras with him – one for me and one for himself (Nikon d40 + d70s and a few lenses).

jak robić zdjęcia?

The friend from whom it all started was photographing another friend’s motorcycle. We all rode with cameras.

I took pictures of motorcycles, and while on the internet, I read camera reviews and looked for something for myself. And that’s how my days were spent – motorcycles, some photos, and the internet. Finally, in May 2009, I bought a Nikon D60 with a kit lens 18-55 mm. Why this one? Because the aforementioned friend had this system, so I could borrow lenses, and I chose the D60 because it was the cheapest and many people claimed that it didn’t differ much from higher models. They must have been crazy, but I’ll come back to that later… On the same day, I packed the camera in a backpack and went to a parking lot to take pictures of my motorcycle. I couldn’t help but call for help, asking, “where is the second dial on this camera” and “how can I change anything if it’s not there.” After returning, I read the user manual, and from that moment on, I carried the camera with me everywhere for a long time. To avoid breaking it during my first slide on a racing bike, I packed it in a completely non-photographic but somewhat armored Axio Swft 2.0 backpack.

Motorcycles are everywhere

I photographed motorcycles and basically nothing else, although the only type of photography that ever interested me was the one with fashion models. I particularly admired Maciej Boryna’s photos, in which the models usually had an almost dead or even furious look. But where would I be taking photos of models? When I told someone that I had plans to photograph models, I was told that it would never happen and that I must be impaired to think otherwise.

jak robić zdjęcia?

After photographing motorcycles in parking lots, I moved on to motorcycles at automotive shows – in fact, just a few days after buying the camera, the Auto Moto Show 2009 took place – the worst automotive fair in years, and unfortunately, the low level persisted in subsequent years. It was also a disaster from a photographic point of view – the lighting in the hall was extremely poor, and in my hands was a Nikon D60, whose sensor produced huge noise even at ISO 400. Combined with the dark kit lens (without vibration reduction), the results were very poor. Of course, I didn’t have a tripod. After the first day, I went straight to a photography store to buy a speedlight, but they didn’t have the one I wanted, so I was left without additional lighting.

I was determined to make this photo report as good as possible, especially since the editorial office I was writing for thought that since I would be taking photos anyway, I could do it for them instead of a professional photographer, who was a bit out of the way for them in Silesia. The idea suited me because it meant that the camera would pay for itself quickly, and this type of photography initially seemed easy to do. In the end, I took 60 photos over three days, and there were more hostesses than motorcycles in them, but that was supposedly a good thing – on automotive portals, the clickability of thumbnail photos with girls is much higher than those with motorcycles…

Shortly after the fair, I bought a flash – Metz 48-AF1 and a Nikkor 50 mm 1.8 lens, whose autofocus did not work with the Nikon D60 (lack of motor). It wasn’t a big problem, because just a few days later, I burned the Nikon with a soldering iron while trying to modify a battery grip… Yes, that’s right… an electronics technician (maybe school could have been useful once in my life?).

I ended up taking the camera to a service center and buying a Nikon D90 the same day, as I couldn’t imagine a day without a camera at that time. It seemed to me that these two cameras were almost identical. Until the D60 came back from repair – that’s when I realized the huge gap between them. It wasn’t about quality, but about handling – once I got used to the D90, there was no way to go back to the inferior model.

jak robić zdjęcia?

First tests of Nikon D90

I continued to photograph motorcycles, but I also started to photograph airplanes at various air shows. My friends were obsessed with them, so I would join them on these trips. I used the Nikkor 55-200 VR lens for these shots.


In the meantime, I tried taking photos of my cousin, but the results are better left unmentioned. I set up a flash with an umbrella on a stand and basically had no idea what to do next, so I just aimed for “bright enough.” That didn’t work out either, because instead of looking at the histogram, I relied on the image preview on the camera screen. At least it pointed me in the direction of what I needed to pay more attention to. I did more tests of this type of photography with a girl from local version of ModelMayhem (Maxmodels.pl). She was mostly interested in nude photos, which her family didn’t appreciate afterward. In the end, I didn’t leave any of her photos on the internet.

And so it went until the next motorcycle trade show. Since several months had passed, my knowledge of photography had improved. I ordered a custom-made bracket that allowed me to hold the camera vertically and horizontally, with the flash positioned around the lens. It was made quite amateurishly for about $30, which was reflected in the paint that ended up more on my hands than on the bracket. Anyway, it served its purpose. Well, almost – the UPS courier delivered it to someone in a completely different city and realized it only after the trade show… I used it only at the next event.

Oh well… With a piece of paper and “Motorcycles are everywhere” (this was the name of a social campaign popular in my country) stickers, I made a reflector for the speedlight and, armed with a Nikon D90 + 50mm 1.8, I went to take photos. Again, I took pictures for Motogen. Since the editorial office employed a very good photographer at the time, when they saw a guy with their ID and a camera, they assumed it was me. That’s how one of the exhibitors convinced a hostess that she would soon have the best photos from the trade show. As a result, the posing time was much longer than usual, and the hostess searched for me on the internet until she found me.

First photo shoot

I still didn’t have much experience with models and lighting, but I organized a photo shoot with the mentioned hostess, known to you as Klaudia Kandziora/Danch aka Kala. She was supposed to get a Lara Croft outfit, and I was to provide guns and holsters. It turned out to be much more difficult than initially thought, as thigh holsters with a matching look were only sold for the right leg. The problem persisted for a long time – even after many years, many people asked me where to buy them.

A makeup artist and an assistant to help with holding the reflector/light were with me. I only knew roughly how to set up the flash, but not exactly why do it in this way. In fact, the final result was a coincidence. There’s no point in elaborating, as I already did that a long time ago – you can read the description of the entire photo session here.

Maxmodels and photo-meetings

My problem was the lack of photos with models – it turned out that on Maxmodels.pl (the polish alternative for ModelMayhem), you don’t post photos of just motorcycles… The Lara Croft photo shoot partially solved the problem. Although a portfolio with only one session was very poor, it was something.

I also posted photos of hostesses taken at trade shows so it wouldn’t be so empty. Besides, I attended a photo meeting where people came with their cameras, walked around a location, and took pictures. There were also girls to pose, so I focused exclusively on them. So I had more photos to upload. I remember a “strobing meeting,” an event with about 40 people where models posed and groups of people took pictures of them. Great for a start – you can observe how others set up lights, etc. There was also an opportunity to take some pictures yourself. And it was another option to meet people interested in this field, although I’ve never been very social. I almost attended again, but when I arrived, a heavy snowfall started – I could either stay and have no way to return home (I came by motorcycle) or leave while I still could.

When someone contacted me on Maxmodels about a commercial clothing session, I suggested something that probably 99% of “professional” photographers would criticize and call market-ruining. I said I wouldn’t take a dime for it, but the entire photo shoot would be according to my rules from A to Z. The client covers all costs (location, models, makeup, etc.) and doesn’t interfere – whatever comes out comes out, if not much, then too bad. I didn’t want any pressure to produce good photos because I was just starting and not a competitor to those who would do it properly. Moreover, the budget for a photographer would be small anyway (it would be hard to get more than $300). Of course, I did my best, and I wanted to significantly expand my portfolio this way. One of my conditions was that Karolina Zientek had to do the makeup, because I loved her work.

jak fotografować

I still don’t understand how some pseudo-professionals can get upset about beginner photographers doing some photos for free. If they consider such a person as competition, they should probably change industries. Apparently, they are hopeless, and their strategy relies solely on price, not quality.

I constantly tried to photograph girls from Maxmodels as well. I looked for beginners only, assuming that more advanced ones would be disappointed with my photos. That was a huge mistake! Arranging photo sessions with such pseudo-models often didn’t work out. Everyone probably knows the situation when you receive a message right before the meeting, informing you that it won’t happen. “Because my boyfriend didn’t allow it,” “because my aunt’s funeral,” “because it’s too far,” etc. Or without any message – you just wait and wait, and no one answers your calls. When you’re alone, you can somehow get over it. It’s worse when a makeup artist, hairdresser, assistant, and rented studio are also waiting, but I hadn’t reached that stage yet.

Fortunately, such situations occurred mainly in the beginning when my requirements for girls were minimal. I regret not trying with more advanced models right away. If they refused, so what? Exactly – nothing at all. You have to try.

What’s next?

Once I realized that photography was the right direction for me, I spent less time riding my motorcycles and spent more time on the internet reading about lighting and watching backstage photo sessions and general photos on YouTube and fstoppers.com. As a result of this and the constant budget cuts in the motorcycle industry, I quit my job at the Motogen entirely and started living off what was left in my account (honestly, it was such a low amount that I could easily call myself bankrupt) and later on credit cards, occasionally importing something from China for trade. However, still living with my parents, it wasn’t a big problem. I should add that I didn’t previously believe in any loans, and to this day, my approach is such that if I buy anything, I prefer not to pay interest (excluding situations when a loan is actually much better than renting). At that time, the time needed to learn photography seemed much more valuable to me than interest. I also believed that working for an average salary in the long run, I would lose much more than gain.

A little earlier, I bought a camera (Nikon D700) and lenses with EU funding (the lowest for starting a business), plus my own contribution. It turned out that to do photo sessions, I need a car. I slowly started gathering more equipment like reflectors and tripods, and transporting it on a Honda Fireblade motorcycle became impossible. So, obtaining a category B driver’s license and buying the cheapest car that would run and fit everything became necessary. I chose a Nexia for $500. I heard so much back then that I should do weddings because EVERYONE does weddings, and there’s ONLY money in weddings… How limited one has to be to think this way is beyond my comprehension.

jak robić zdjęcia?

Sometimes I used to take photos in natural light. In this case, even without a sun reflector

So how do you start?

So, how do you learn to take pictures? Of course, I’m only talking about the kind of photos I’m dealing with, not macro or weddings.

I think first, you need to understand that lighting is the most important thing – without it, you won’t get far. I don’t mean that you need expensive lamps, just knowledge of how to use any lamps (this also applies to ambient light). It’s a good idea to read as much as possible about how different modifiers work and try to understand and practice them as best you can. Later, everything will be logical. It’s best to combine this with watching behind-the-scenes videos of photo sessions – this gives a lot because you see the entire set. You can search for such videos, for example, on Fstoppers.com or directly on YouTube or Vimeo. I never followed specific channels; I just typed various phrases (photoshoot backstage, etc.) into the search engine.

If you have someone to practice with regularly, you are in a great situation; unfortunately, I had to wait to try everything out, so everything took longer. Also, I didn’t have any place where I could take photos, which was a huge problem – I had to carry and set up equipment somewhere each time. Now, I would consider organizing a mini-studio as a basis. Even something small is much better than nothing, so if you have the opportunity, don’t hesitate. I carried the equipment to makeup artists and set everything up in their apartments. As long as there were only portable lamps, everything went smoothly. It got worse when the equipment took up the entire trunk – almost 2 hours each time for unpacking, carrying, and packing, and you can’t move without an assistant. And I could forget about a studio background, so I mostly did beauty shots, and fashion only outdoors. As a result, at some point, I had enough, and fewer and fewer photos were being created until I came to my senses about the amount and weight of the equipment.

Here are a few basic tips:

  • You don’t have to spend a lot of money on lighting equipment. On my blog, you will find descriptions of many lamps and modifiers (both mobile and studio), along with tips on how to use them all. As you can see, many of my sessions were done with lighting worth $300 or much less. I’m talking about everything with stands and modifiers, not just one lamp.
  • A decent camera and lenses are important, but for learning, anything will do. This is not sports or reportage photography, where your equipment can determine whether a given photo will be taken at all. On the other hand, if you do something cool at the beginning, the better the quality of the photo, the better. That’s why I wanted to buy good lenses as soon as possible.
  • The sooner you understand how important lighting is in the place where you retouch photos, the better for everyone who will view them. Without it, you will never edit them correctly. Of course, sometimes you may accidentally get it right, but it’s hard to approach the subject seriously while always relying on luck. If you assume that “it makes no sense because most people will view these photos on poor screens anyway,” then you still have a lot to learn. I described preparing a retouching workspace here.


You cannot learn to take photos without actually taking them… It’s obvious. However, at one point, I focused more on building a portfolio than on simply doing as many sessions as possible. That was a very stupid idea… I didn’t want to constantly photograph the same people because I thought it would negatively affect my portfolio. It’s true that it’s better to have a diverse portfolio, but it’s even better if the photos are good, which they most likely won’t be until you have many hours on the set. I could have calmly done sessions with the the same models all the time and looked for additional ones in the meantime. Fortunately, I finally understood that. Now, I am more than happy to return to the models I have photographed many times before.

Makeup and retouching

Now, I will write a bit more about photo editing rather than photography itself, but maybe some of you would like to do retouching professionally. And even if not, it’s worth knowing how to edit your photos to make them look their best. It’s very good to have a professional makeup artist on the set, as it makes it much easier to learn proper retouching.

Professional retouching is based on working with good source material (contrary to what most people think). You cannot learn decent retouching by practicing on photos with messed up lighting or weak makeup. So what if someone can turn a monster into a beautiful princess in Photoshop? That person might not be able to handle a great photo because they were previously focused on editing in such a way that the whole thing looked presentable, and now it turns out that you have to work on the detail. Many retouchers believes that it’s better to practice retouching for free on good photos than commercially on weak ones. This is because a good photographer (and often a well-paying, regular client) will not send poor photos, as they don’t take such photos (the bad ones end up in the trash). And it’s with good photos that you need to know how to deal with. Although my adventures with retouching were quite wild – sometimes I couldn’t imagine doing it professionally, sometimes it seemed like the best option.

It’s also hard to talk about a good approach to fashion or beauty photography when the model always does her own makeup. I had many such sessions, but only because there was no other option at the time.


At first, I wanted to write just a short note about how I started and what mistakes I made. It turned out that it’s hard to summarize such a thing, and I almost wrote an autobiography… You know what happened later from various articles on my blog, and I didn’t want to repeat myself again, as it would have resulted in an even longer article.

When I was younger I didn’t have the conditions to do studio fashion, only in last years I focused more on that as I should have done long ago. For me, living at the end of the world when I started (a village in Silesia) was a nuisance – it’s much easier to have a team for photo shoots in a big city, especially when it comes to fashion (of course, with a weak portfolio, even in capital city, I wouldn’t have accomplished much). However, at the beginning, such things are rather insignificant. You have to practice and do it as much as possible.