My story of how I got started as a photographer
How It All Began
Today, I want to do something a little different as I write to you from the Andes mountains of Colombia. I will tell you the story of how it all began for me.
Many of my photography students ask me, at one point or another, how I got started with photography and what I do outside of photography.
The short answer is that it has been a lot of trial by fire over almost 34 years now that I have been doing it. Many photographers want to be like me to shoot for companies like Conde Nast and Live Nation or to meet the celebrities and influential people I have met over the years. And in all transparency, I am not famous myself. I am simply a man with a camera that has the drive and determination to do what it takes to succeed, even if I fail many times before one success.
Yet, what most don’t understand is that it takes time, a lot of patience, perseverance, and many ups and downs to make it happen.
If you have one great success in your career, it does not define you and guarantees that you will never have another. You must want to succeed just like your body craves to breathe air or a fish craves water. It has to be something you live and breathe, as consistency does not come until you give all or nothing.
Today, I will tell you how and how I started. Grab your popcorn, get comfortable, and if you finish reading this post and are inspired, email me if you are passionate about success. I created some exceptional year-long mentorship workshops that teach you all of my secrets so you can succeed faster than I did without much pain.
How It All Began
Imagine that you are on a farm in the middle of nowhere. There are trees, creatures, barns, and a white two-story house. That is where I grew up as a kid in the country in rural Michigan.
I remember the first time my Mom tried to get me to attend preschool. I ran away on the first day and returned home. Everyone was frantically looking for me, yet I was rebellious and did it my way before it all began.
My Mom quickly realized that preschool would not work out for me, so my parents waited to put me in school until I was five. I was enrolled in a small Christian school with four students total in my grade.
I liked to learn, and I still do, yet I was always one to be socially awkward, and I enjoyed my quiet time alone with my imagination and my creations more than I did amongst other people.
In the fourth and fifth grades, I was very sick for a long while with walking pneumonia. It was near impossible to keep me in school as sick as I was, so my parents did their best to work with the school to get me my homework, and I learned the best I could at home.
I realized many years later that this moment would define me in my formative years in many ways. I would return to school to find that most of my friends had paired off into groups and social clicks, while I was quiet, reserved, and often played by myself using my imagination.
For my tenth birthday, two of my dreams came true that I had imagined. One was that I wanted to become a superhero. I received a frog mask in an Avon kit that my Grandma had bought me, and I cleverly named myself “Frogster.” It was short-lived, yet you have to try to achieve your dreams sometimes to figure out whether they work.
The other dream that came true was receiving a Polaroid 600 Instant camera that year for my birthday and also from my Grandma. I had watched my Grandma for years, photographing the family and making memories. It was finally my turn.
I photographed everything that moved, didn’t move, and then some. And I mowed a lot of lawns to earn my film money. Buying film for me was like buying a pack of baseball cards. I was excited about photography and baseball cards back then, yet only one really stood the test of time.
My first image was of Winnie the Pooh at Disney World for Mickey Mouse’s birthday on Main Street. My family had headed to Florida for vacation, and I packed my camera for action.
I remember looking up and taking the Winnie photograph simply because I was happy. It was pure joy in its finest moment, where I was having fun with my family, and there was a grand Disney celebration.
If I were to critique the image today, the composition, lighting, and everything else were technically incorrect. Yet, I have learned over the years that sometimes you throw all technical perfection out the window if something has a feeling. A feeling in a photograph can surpass anything else that one learns as a photographer. It can circumvent languages and cultures and stand the test of time.
How It All Began
My start in weddings and portraiture
I did not start out photographing high-budget campaigns for Conde Nast and others. I started my first photography gigs for money in weddings and portraiture.
I chose weddings because they seemed like they would pay the most for the least amount of work. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, yet I stuck with it and eventually made it happen, where I got paid to photograph people getting married.
Many of my students get into wedding photography for the same reasons or the grand notion they love people in love. I did not have a problem with anyone that was getting married. I was there to photograph and to get paid. There was little creativity in these sessions for me, if truth be told, yet that was only because, at the time, I was nowhere near technically sound with my camera and vision.
In portraiture, I started by photographing my family, friends, couples, families, and who I thought were models at the time.
In all transparency, many of my early portrait gigs were shoots I booked with people I wanted to photograph to build my portfolio with. I thought that I was building a fashion portfolio at the time with the young women that I thought were real models in my eyes. Yet, it was not until I got to New York City that I learned that my portfolio was glamour and was not ready for real fashion jobs.
The actual models came from agencies and never ate anything. If you did not have names in your book, you would get passed up when you tossed your hat into the ring for work.
So what is a photographer to do? I assisted several prominent photographers for many years while rebuilding my book in proper fashion in NYC. And in my spare time, I still photographed personal projects, yet these were geared towards my first books instead of simply shooting who I thought were models. I was learning to find my voice.
How It All Began
Returning to college and NYC bound
When I was working as a wedding and portrait photographer, I was also working a tech support job for another company by day that supported insurance writing software.
I thought that one day the flood gates will open, and the people will come knocking down my door for me to photograph them for portraits, fashion, and weddings.
In all transparency, again, I was very far from this dream. I did nothing to advertise myself other than posting short blurbs on Facebook and Craigslist, where I attracted lowballing potential clients that wanted my services for the lowest bottom dollar.
I made enough money on the side of my day job to buy nice camera gear. Yet, if I wanted to do photography for a living, it would take a lot more than self-worth gear acquisition syndrome to put food on the table and pay the bills to the point where I could ditch my day job.
In 2010, fate stepped in. I was laid off from my computer position, and the safety net was pulled from under me. I spoke with my ex-wife, and it was mutually decided that I would have two options ahead of me. One was to search for another computer job that sucked the life out of me, and the other was to enroll myself in college in my early 30s to finish the degree I never had.
On a wing and a prayer, I decided to try to enroll in college because the job market was slow on leads. I enrolled in a local community college to get all the base requirements out of the way for any bachelor’s degree and applied to the University of Michigan.
Weeks after my application was submitted, I received a letter in the mail from the U of M. I nervously opened it with shaky hands anticipating that they would say no, being I was in my 30s and had no prior art portfolio outside of my photography experience and a handful of personal drawings I made in charcoal.
To my surprise and exuberant relief, they accepted me! I was beyond happy, and this gave me a positive swift kick that I needed to get going on the current path that I am on today.
I expected that when I entered college alongside kids much younger than me, I would be made fun of or that people would ask if I was one of the teachers. Yet, I was wrong again. Everyone befriended me, treated me with great respect, and helped me figure out exactly where I needed to go and what to do to accomplish my goals.
By the time I reached graduation day in 2014, I had already worked in NYC and Los Angeles and flown out several times without any of my peers or professors knowing. I was hell bound that I was going to live and work in NYC. Instead of attending my art school graduation ceremony, I packed a moving truck and drove across the country for twelve hours with hope and determination.
The thing about arriving in NYC as a freelancer, as I did, is that NYC is very expensive. I was lucky to find an affordable apartment up-town Manhattan off 157th Street. It was in the basement of a pre-war building, one of the oddest studio apartments I had ever seen. The mice and the cockroaches were friendly at least, but it did not matter. I was in NYC, and I was there to photograph!
One of my first goals was to find a steady job being I was working as a freelance photography assistant on call when people needed me. What I did not see back then that I know, today is that the freelance gig life was just the same as when I booked weddings and portrait sessions. It was inconsistent, and I still had to work another job to support myself.
I knew that I wanted a job in my field, and the only way I knew how to find this at the time was through Craigslist, as I did not have any real network at that point.
Fate would intervene and allow me to teach photography at an after-work adult learning school. I remember the first beginner seminar I taught was very technical for beginners. After the first class, I taught the exposure triangle and expected everyone to be fluent in manual mode.
Yet, somehow the school liked my class and offered me a full-time teaching position while asking me to simplify the classes for students in the future.
I went on to teach four classes daily, six days a week, and I was making it in my field. After I got done teaching classes, I would assist other photographers or work on photographing my projects to continue to hone my skills and build my portfolio. There were usually days that I would work on all of this for 16 hours straight or more. I was obsessed and determined to make my goals a reality.
And after my first year of solidly building a proper portfolio, I pitched to Conde Nast on a wing and a prayer, just as I had for college, and I was hired.
I learned much more about photography than I ever knew in many years of dabbling around on my own by teaching it to others and shooting daily. I was exposed to over 40 different classes that I learned and taught, and problem-solving on my feet in teaching and shooting became invaluable.
As my technical abilities and network grew, I was invited to more extensive and significant opportunities. This led me to photograph for companies such as Live Nation, where I photographed many famous bands and artists for live performances.
And if I could teach any lesson to my younger self today, it would be that hard work is the answer and perseverance. If you can dream something and have the will to try to make it happen more than anything in this life, you can do it.
How It All Began
The exile from NYC, the pandemic, and how I ended up in Colombia
At the end of 2019, I worked myself to the bone, yet things slowed down with my larger jobs at Conde Nast, Live Nation, and teaching. I bought into many different ways to advertise my services, yet nothing was sticking, and I was doing it all wrong.
To make matters worse, my ex-wife and I decided it would be time for a separation. It felt like everything that I knew was imploding on me at once.
I remember specifically that I was heading home on the subway one night, and a homeless man threw what had to be a handful of over 100 pennies at me while shouting, “Pennies from Heaven!” This struck me because my Grandmother always said she would show me two cents whenever she watched over me before she passed.
I got home that night, called my Mom, and told her about everything happening. My Mom and I decided mutually that my Grandmother was trying to tell me to get out of New York City.
Two days later, I rented a large U-haul truck and packed all my possessions. I said goodbye to my ex and drove twelve hours across the country to visit my family in Michigan. I never knew that this would be the last time that I saw my ex or also that it would be the last time I set foot in New York City.
I arrived in Michigan on a very snowy night, and my Dad was kind enough to help me unpack the moving truck in about a foot of snow. As I settled in, it was quiet — It was tranquil. I had not had this kind of peace for a long time, and it was excellent.
A handful of months later, in April, the first word of the Covid pandemic hit, and I thought, as I am sure many people did, that it would not affect me. I started photographing local bands again and tried to pick up projects and work wherever I could before it shut down.
At first, I started launching online classes on Instagram live sessions to help inspire people and keep people positive. Depression, anxiety, and thoughts eventually took over, and I spent the better part of a year simply creating for myself on the farm, not going anywhere or seeing anything.
This led me to explore woodworking and metalsmithing when I decided to clean out my Grandpa’s old shop one day. I opened a small project called Honey Creek Originals, which I still run today three years later in Colombia.
As the pandemic started to let up more and people started to return to normality, I thought I would do a large motorcycle trip across the continental United States and camp while photographing.
Just as I was considering buying a motorcycle to prepare for the 8000-mile trip I had mapped out, I was also sharing photographs online and met a wonderful woman who commented on my work daily.
We ended up chatting for hours, days, weeks, and months, and finally, we met each other and found that we were in love. The gift of photography that my Grandma gave me so long ago gave me yet another gift when I met my new wife.
We planned to fly to Colombia to get married and visit family for six months. I had never had any experience getting married in a foreign country, let alone that I did not speak Spanish before this adventure.
We ended up in Colombia and got married. I thought that our visas would be easy to handle and that we could return to Michigan with our family, yet fate had other plans.
Technically, it takes one year and a couple of odd months to go through the USA visa process. The Colombian visa process is much more straightforward to deal with.
During our stay here in Colombia, my computer work dried up, and my online teaching work also dried up. In August of last year, I renamed my company to Charlie Naebeck Co instead of just Charlie Naebeck Photography. I expanded into several other endeavors while flinging the spaghetti to see what sticks.
I rediscovered my love for writing, drawing, painting, and teaching in a new way, and I began to put together my on-demand classes in addition to teaching on Zoom. I also expanded to do Youtube thumbnails, graphic design, copywriting, and more for my current services.
And while I struggled for half a year to keep food on the table for my family, the network I built generously stepped in and helped us in many ways.
With my current trajectory, I was able to pick up work for prominent creators on Youtube in addition to the other services that I offer, and my family was able to get our visa applications in to start the migration process.
I am documenting my sixth book through all the ups and downs called “Navigating the Unknown.” It is funny how life comes full circle sometimes. The camera I started with at age ten has become how I navigate life in many ways. Perhaps it is my social catalyst to the world. Or perhaps it is my destiny.
No matter what tomorrow brings, the most important thing to remember is that the road to this point has never been easy. It is full of turns, dips, cliffs, and stops. What you must remember on any road or goal in life is that you must be willing to face the challenge head-on. Stay hungry, and remember what is important to you. My family is the most essential part of my life to me. And everything that I do, I do it for them.
I will see it through one photo at a time, one word penned, one image or video rendered, and I will pray with my family daily that God opens another door as he always has done. Sometimes the doors are hidden, and you have to find them. Other times they are more prominent. Yet, keep searching. There is always a way.
And if you enjoyed my story today and would like to support me in my goal to get my family back to Michigan safely, check out the shop and let me know how I can help you with your projects. You can also take on-demand classes or live Zoom classes on photography, art, business, mindfulness, and life coaching in the learning center of the shop.
Thank you to everyone with whom I have crossed paths and will cross paths in the future. I appreciate you all!
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How It All Began Today, I want to do something a little different as I write to you from the Andes mountains of Colombia. I will tell you the story of how it all began for me. Many of my photography students ask me, at one point or another, how I got started with photography…