A photo shoot for the clothing retail company Mark’s is about to take place. Nathan Elson is the man behind the camera.
He has always wanted to work with this client, but so far everything is going wrong, all while Elson’s nerves and lack of sleep are factoring in.
As he snaps his first couple photographs, they do not appear on his laptop screen. The art directors cannot see the photos that Elson is taking.
By this point there are a group of 20 people on the set: models, makeup artists, art directors and producers all watching Elson struggle with faulty equipment.
Although the shoot was not going as originally planned, Elson refused to quit.
The art directors hover over him reviewing each shot on his camera … Elson is finally getting the groove of things and the rest of the shoot is a blast.
A somewhat terrible start to the day ends with commercial photographs that Elson is proud of. He looks back on this opportunity as a personal career highlight.
Elson played around with photography when he was younger but never took it seriously until his friends started getting into art careers. He then decided to take up the camera himself. Despite having little professional training, he’s turned photography into a full-time career.
Elson grew up in Roche Percée, Sask. This small village is in a valley just outside of Estevan. Elson recalls around 200 people living there. He also remembers about half the village getting wiped out by flooding in 2011. He said he wasn’t living a “visual lifestyle” there — he never owned a camera while growing up.
“All we had was imagination. We didn’t have stores — we didn’t have anything. It was literally [just] houses and families. I spent a lot of time going through trees and building forts. My mom would yell out the door when it was time for me to come home for supper. You’d just hear screaming in the distance. It was amazing,” Elson said.
Although he completed a graphic design course in high school, which involved taking pictures and developing film, there was still nothing calling him to photography.
Elson occupied himself working random jobs. While making, “enough money to go clubbing,” he still couldn’t find anything specific for what he wanted to do with his life.
While searching for answers, Elson noticed his friends engaging in various “artistic venues.” Some sketched and painted while others played instruments. Unfortunately for Elson, he could not do any of these activities.
He did, however, have a friend that was taking the photojournalism course at SAIT.
“He was the first guy I knew that got into photography. Seeing his photos kind of opened up a door to me to say: ‘Hey, this might be something that I could be interested in.’ I liked what he was doing, I liked what he was creating, and it seemed like something that I could do.”
This prompted Elson to buy his first camera when he was 23. Photography would be a hobby for Elson to help fill his time.
Elson brought his hobby with him to university where he took arts and science courses for a year. One of those courses was a black and white darkroom course. He says it was fun learning the process of creating images on film and learning how to bring them to life later in the dark room. Although it peaked his interest into photography, he remained skeptical about making it a job.
“I didn’t know if it would be a career at that point. I just knew that it was something I wanted to explore.”
Elson knew there were people who made livings and careers being photographers, but he didn’t know what that would look like for him. Eventually, he did see photography as a little direction in his life.
“It was just something that I was kind of dipping my toes in. It wasn’t a set plan but at least it was an idea.”
That idea brought Elson to Calgary. He decided to apply to the photojournalism program at SAIT and got accepted. When the courses got underway, he couldn’t keep up.
Elson said he came to the realization that he was, “in no way a photojournalist.” It didn’t fit with the mold of where he saw himself and where he wanted to go with photography.
“I like to slow things down. I like to get to know people. One of the biggest things I love about this job is how many people I get to meet, and the stories I get told. With the journalism side of things from what I experienced — granted I didn’t stay in it for very long — I didn’t really get to have that connection.”
Elson finished the first year of the program, but would not return for a second. With minimal experience, he started his career as an assistant photographer to get his bearings and figure out what to expect. After that, he decided to enter into the scene himself.
At the beginning of his career, Elson took photographs of wedding receptions. Looking back on it, he wonders if it was the best place to start.
“What’s confusing to me about photography is that weddings are very hard to get good at, but they seem to be the entry point into a lot of photographer’s careers. For something that you don’t really get a retry at and is very quick-moving — for that to be the initial point of entry is completely baffling to me.”
Elson still has the photos from the first wedding he shot. He uses them to remind himself of how his career got started.
“It went awful. It was terrible,” Elson recalls. “I literally had no idea how to work with people. I had no idea how to pose groups of people to make them look good. The whole thing was essentially kind of a disaster and it stopped me from shooting weddings for a few years until I got a better idea of what to do with the camera.”
Over time Elson eventually began to enjoy shooting weddings, but he knew he’d rather be doing something else. He had his eye on shooting for advertisement campaigns in corporate and commercial fields. This would involve a lot of portraiture, which was very intimidating for him at first.
“I’ve grown a lot as a person, as a photographer, as a father — the last 10 years of my life have been the most shaping parts of everything that I am today.” – Nathan Elson
“For a guy that shoots nothing but portraiture when I first got a camera I was scared to death of taking portraits. The only person that I ever took portraits of was my girlfriend, who is now my wife. I literally photographed her for two years exclusively because I was so terrified of the idea of photographing people.”
That wasn’t the only thing he was frightened of. Reaching out to clients was also a tough task he’d have to face.
“When I initially started reaching out to ad agencies to try to get work I was scared to death. I was like, ‘What if I take my work in there and they just laugh me out of the building?’ It’s these things you build up in your own head — and it’s not necessarily truths. It’s really easy to give yourself reasons not to do something. We’re incredibly good as human beings at convincing ourselves why we shouldn’t do something versus pushing ourselves to do something.”
For Elson, pushing through would be the only way to succeed in the career he wanted.
“It was just a matter of getting there and overcoming fears. Like realizing once you do something it wasn’t as scary as you made it out to be in your head.”
Elson now shoots portraiture in corporate and commercial fields for a living. For him, fear isn’t a bad thing. It has helped him get to where he is now. He says some of the best things in his life have come from accomplishing terrifying things.
“Even now when I have a big shoot coming up I am nervous as all hell the night before. I barely sleep. The next day I wake up and I can barely eat. It’s not until I hit the button on the shutter for the very first time and the client says, ‘Yeah that looks great,’ that I settle in and have the best time. This job is amazing, but I still to this day get nervous about everything. It’s just life.”
It has almost been 10 years since Elson started pursuing his photography full time. He isn’t concerned with keeping track of time though. The important thing for Elson is his desire to do it for as long as possible. As the next decade of his career approaches, Elson hopes it will be just as influential as the first.
“I’ve grown a lot as a person, as a photographer, as a father — the last 10 years of my life have been the most shaping parts of everything that I am today.”
Elson is grateful he has been able to take pictures with a platform for people to see them.
“I love the idea that the internet has made the world so small and it’s been able to allow me to have such a giant reach. I’m super happy that there’s people out there who will take time out of their day just to tell me that they appreciate what I’m creating. That lets me know that I seem to be on the right track for things.”
More important to Elson is the opportunity his career has given his family. Now that he is the sole provider for his family, his wife is able to stay at home. This ensures their children can grow up exactly how they have hoped.
“We always wanted to be able to spend as much time with our kids as possible,” Elson explains. “We appreciate what we have. We really wanted our kids to grow up how we grew up — with a parent at home. And that’s what we’ve managed to do. It’s been fantastic.”
Editor: Abby LaRocque | firstname.lastname@example.org