Lessons 101 with photography teacher and expert Nikhil Singh

What camera and light to buy, how much to charge for first assignment and what specialisations to choose? Answers here.

Starting at a young age of 22, Nikhil Singh began his career in photography with an assignment to shoot a relative’s birthday party.

Since then, the now 32-year-old photographer and teacher has shot food, wedding, product and fashion pictures.

Despite being influenced by a photographer uncle to pursue the profession, Nikhil decided to learn the tricks of the trade on his own. “My uncle refused to teach me saying that I must carve my own path and that helped me immensely,” says Nikhil.   

After completing his BMM (Bachelors in Mass Media) in 2011 from Swami Vivekanand College in Chembur, Nikhil went on to teach photography at many institutes in Thane and at Pillai’s Fashion Designing school. 

He also loves teaching photography and has mentored several young and new talents.

He answers for us some very crucial questions about professional photography.

What is the difference between a novice and trained photographer?

A trained photographer will have a better eye for detail and will know how to portray a subject in the best possible way. It’s all about using the right camera and lens.

Just to give you an example. The sensor of a Canon 80D and 90D is 10 times better than your regular mobile camera sensors.

The full-frame sensors are one-and-a-half times bigger than your APSC sensors. Because of which, there is a lot of detail in pictures.

You need to choose your equipment and style of working, depending on the assignment. For instance, Instagrammers shoot on locations for a very limited time. A photographer then has to shoot a minimum of  160 pictures to get at least 16 right. These pictures need to be approved six to seven times. If you are a good photographer, you need only three approvals. Also, a professional will be able to click pictures within half an hour. However, an amateur will click the same pictures in two hours.

Basically, you hire a professional over a novice because the former will save you time and effort.

So, a professional photographer would also know what camera to use for a particular shoot?

Technically yes. But this has hindered my work at times. I remember shooting for one influencer with my Canon 6D Mark II full-frame camera. I was shooting on the manual mode. But the influencer shooting from her smartphone was getting better results. When she questioned my work, I tried to explain. But eventually, I had to give in. You need to be realistic. If it is a set and a controlled environment and you are doing a fashion shoot, you can do whatever you want. But if you are short of time and the influencer is just making reels, then a photographer should be able to gulp his ego and self-respect. There has to be some practicality to the madness.

What about the lights?

Nowadays, people use ring lights for shoots. They think it is enough. A ring light costs anywhere between 1,500 to 15,000. The quality of light and colour matters and not many take this into consideration. Everyone is concerned with whether the ring light comes with a stand or not. That should be the least of your concerns.

There is something called a CRI (Colour Rendering  Index) in every light. Even in your household lights, there are CRIs. Just to give you an example, if you use a cheaper light, there will be a green, blue or yellow cast in it. Cheap brands are good but they, at times, give you a green cast. If you are shooting a big celebrity, the picture will look bad. But if it’s a small budget shoot, you can use that kind of light.

It all depends on the quality you need and the shoot budget. A picture taken from a professional camera will give you details, save time and give better quality images. Sometimes, to save time, a photographer will use a lot of reels with special effects. 

The quality of the images will also depend on your experience and skills. 

What should a photographer keep in mind during a shoot?

As a photographer, 50 percent work must be done on the set and 50 percent during editing. Ideally, it used to be 70 percent onsite, but over the years, thanks to digitalisation, people want surreal images. So now, only 20 percent shoot is carried out onsite and 80 percent is edited–for example, Instagrammers. As an Instagrammer or influencer, it is important to get that perfect look; but in doing so you tend to ruin the image by distorting it. I don’t have a problem with imagination but I have a problem with nothing being realistic.

What’s trending in photography today? 

Black and white pictures are in trend. The essence of a black and white image in terms of contrast and value is very good. When you convert an image into black and white, it becomes more dramatic. However, you need to choose an image carefully. This is a tough job.

What problems can a professional face when starting out?

One big challenge for a student is to change the equipment every one-and-a-half year because of the ever-changing technology. And that requires a lot of investment. What I tell my students is that during their learning phase, they must buy a decent camera and not a full-frame one like Sony A7 or Canon 6D Mark II. You can buy a Canon 80D or a Canon 200D Mark II. 

These cameras, however, will not be of any use after a year and a half. You can sell them and earn some money, which can be used to purchase a new camera.

How long does it take to become a professional from an amateur photographer?

Students must be open to work on everything at least for the first two years. Many homebakers started their ventures during lockdown. If you price your package well, then you can get many assignments from startups. You can also do destination weddings and candid photography at marriage registrars. The later has become a big market. If you want to earn money then these two genres are the best.

While freelancing for a basic event, you need to take around 200 pictures for which a student can earn 3,000 to 5,000.

If it’s a full-time job, a student can get 10,000 to 25,000. A student can get hired for product photography and food photography by various websites like Zomato.

Is it important to assist someone before going solo?

Marketing yourself is important but assisting someone helps you build a network. If you start working in a full-time job, it will give you a steady paycheck. If a student assists someone, you can get a decent number of contacts and start freelancing. Even though it has its own share of risks, it will reap good returns.

After Covid-19, how has photography in India changed or evolved?

The photography industry was badly hit due to the pandemic. But getting back on track is easier. When things opened up for a while, food photographers were getting hired. There is always a demand. Those getting married at the registrar office were also hiring photographers. So, there is always a demand.

As an amateur, you can charge around 3,000 to 5,000 for an event.

For a pre-wedding shoot, an experienced photographer can charge anywhere between 10,000 to ₹15,000. However, an amateur can charge around 7,000. Probably, no one will give a newcomer a wedding assignment. They will be made to shoot an engagement ceremony. If they do this well, they can showcase this in their portfolio. That’s how they can build a network.

Do you think a budding photographer should work for free to build their portfolio?

No, I will not recommend this. You must get at least a travel allowance which could be a mere 500. But you should get some money.

How do you shortlist the pictures?

It all depends on the event. If you are shooting for Lakmé Fashion Week, you may require a lot of post-production work because the models need to look good. If you are shooting for a political party, you may not need all this and if you are shooting for corporate firms, you may need good editing. It all depends on the event.

Which editing software should a photographer learn?

A photographer must have knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom. While Lightroom is easier, Photoshop is used to make detailed corrections. After editing a picture in Lightroom, you can process the same in Photoshop.

What equipment do you own?

I have a Canon 6D Mark II, Canon 200D Mark II, a 50-mm lens and a 7,200 F4 lens. It is good but very expensive. So, I rent it out when I have to shoot for a wedding.

What is the biggest misconception that students have about photography?

A lot of students want to get into fashion photography. They think that just technical skills are enough to work in the field. That’s not true. You need a lot of people management skills. You will be meeting people who will throw a lot of tantrums, which you have to deal with.

How did you start your photography journey?

It was a gradual process. I learnt how to use a camera while studying BMM. I was always fascinated with animation. In fact, I wanted to get into sketching and animation. A year later, I realised that sketching is not something I would be doing every day for the rest of my life. So, I decided to start filming. I started doing voice overs and photography and did a one-year course in cinematography. I worked on short films and assisted many cinematographers for TV serials and films. As I was very technically sound, I opted for photography as the technical skills are relatively easy. 

How much were you paid for your first gig?

Initially, I was only paid for food. After that, I was paid 1,000. Because I used to assist people, I didn’t pay any heed to the money.

Depending on the project, you can get paid 25,000 per day. 

Where did you learn cinematography and photography?

I learnt the art at Digital Academy in Andheri. In cinematography, you need a team of four to five people like a director and art director. However, as a photographer, you can be everything. You just need a strong mind and contacts.

Also, my training in cinematography was enough to know the basics of photography.

Natasha Rego
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