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  • Sydney Daniels

sydney daniels: a photographer's story

I don't know about you, but I do a lot of reflecting around this time of year, thinking about the ups and downs of the past 12 months and how that has shaped me throughout the year. One of the parts of my life that I feel has made significant progress is my photography. Who's ready for a storytime, kids: here is what started this project in the first place and how it's progressed through the years.



The very beginning

Grade seven was a very transformative year for baby Syd. She started learning about her interests and her talents and was given the chance to practice photography for the first time. My grade seven science teacher started a nature photography club which sounded interesting, so later that day I went home and ask to borrow my mom's digital camera to learn the basics of nature photography. The first time we went out to shoot, I had no clue what I was doing but I knew I was having a good time. I was never given any technical training in photography, I was taught simple guidelines and general rules to get some artistry out of my photos. As basic as the concepts were, I'm glad I was given such loose rules to follow. It allowed me to teach myself what looked good and how to find material practically anywhere I looked.

It is safe to say now that my first photos were not good, but that's what learning is all about. Being in that club where it was more of a learning experience than practicing a skill, I was not only allowed but encouraged to make mistakes to create this "eye" that everyone talks about with photography. I would go out during recess or after school taking pictures of anything and everything just to see how lighting or perspective changed my photos. I kept at it so much that my parents got me the camera I still use to this day; the Canon Powershot SX 540. As a graduation present, I was excited to experiment with it throughout the summer, but I had little to no intention of sharing the photos other than with my parents.


First camera and first account

The summer of 2017 was the experimental era of my photography journey. I had my very own camera that I could do whatever the hell I wanted with it, and that's exactly what I did. I spent hours doing laps in the backyard taking photos of vines crawling on the fence, or the blooms of my mom's hibiscus' at different points in the day, along with numerous ugly candids of my sisters. The photos did not look great, but they had potential. I didn't feel like I had to be the best, I just wanted to find everything I could photograph and see what I could make of it. We went camping that summer and I had an absolute field day. With cool animals and pretty sunsets for days, it was the perfect opportunity to experiment in a new environment, and that's where things really took off. I took so many cool photos of the landscapes of the forests, and the iconic 'Killbear Tree' on Sunset Rock, I even took my first moon pictures which became one of my favourite subjects soon after. Everyone I showed the photos to were amazed that I could get such good quality from such a far distance with a relatively simple camera.

After the camping trip was over and my camera roll was full of fun new photos, I had no real source to share them aside from shoving my phone into my parent's faces. I felt proud of my work and I needed a space to share them, not for any sort of gain or attention but just to showcase and display them as a body of art. Here, the Instagram account is born and good lord am I happy I learned how social media works. Looking back on those first few posts is haunting, gross Instagram filters layered over my unedited photos. At the time I thought it made them look cool and had a cohesive theme, now, they all of them look beige. I shared the account with a few people and got maybe 10 likes which was cool, but honestly, I just wanted them to be its own art display separate from my personal account. I have carefully crafted both of my Instagram pages, but my photography one has a lot more thought and effort put into it because I want to showcase my art and the Earth's art in the best way possible to my small following. In the early days of Instagram, I would, for lack of a better term, shitpost any photos I had taken with little to no thought of editing and social media marketing, but none of that mattered because I was thoroughly enjoying myself.


Pandemic hobby turned brand

School field trips and hikes always lead to fun pictures that I would constantly ruin with my poor editing skills. Averaging around 15 likes per post I knew I wasn't getting much attention but I had fun practicing the art so I kept at it. With that being said, I felt like my message wasn't getting across half the time. I would post photos of snow-covered tree bark and the individual snowflakes that landed on my coat, but I wasn't able to share with people the fun day I had playing outside with my sister. I've said this in the past but a lot of my photos are special to me because I have an emotional memory attached to them. There is a caption-less photo of some snow-covered pine trees with the sun peeking through the trunks. Very few people knew that this was taken during a field trip with my co-op class where I had the best time playing outside with them. They say photos are worth a thousand words, but I wasn't sure if my audience was able to read from my photos.

As I moved further through high school, so did the coronavirus which shut down my in-person schooling halfway through grade 11. Most people picked up a new hobby during covid, I picked up an old one again and started practicing the way I did when I first started. On those days when it felt like you couldn't do anything because the whole world had shut down, I was sitting out in my front yard just staring at the small buds peaking out of the garden bed. It felt so good again not to have a goal with my photography, but just to shoot whatever caught my eye. I started posting more and then it hit me, I needed another platform. I wanted to share more about my process and how I went about taking these photos which is where you find yourself right now, so I decided to start a blog.


Starting a brand was a foreign concept to me, I wanted to treat it as a gallery with a few stories thrown in the mix, a portfolio with some added context. I wanted to have specific shoots with an overarching theme to make my Instagram posts cohesive. After a lot of designing, researching, and brainstorming, the blog was finally launched in July of 2020. I was so excited about it, I wanted to learn how to take self-portraits so people could put a face to my photos. I wanted to make myself known as someone who actually takes this hobby semi-seriously because I didn't know of many others who did. It was so much fun writing my first posts and having a storyline to tell through images was so rewarding to play with.

I had my first collaborations soon after which was very exciting to get out in the field. The first shoot was a prom photoshoot for my best friend whose prom was canceled, and the second was for another group of friends who ran a teen's news blog where they wanted headshots. Both of these were slightly daunting because people were never my main subject, but it was still a fun experience. I started gaining a sense of style in my editing at that point where I found my love for colour. I needed lots of vibrant, bright, bold colours. Sunsets, fall leaves, bright birds, you name it, I wanted photos of it. The two camping trips I went on that year were photography gold for me, which led to my first feature with Bon Echo Provincial Park. They posted a few of my photos, notably my favourite shot of Mazinaw Rock during golden hour. It felt nice to have my work and my art recognized but also to show people how gorgeous this planet could be.


Work-life balance

As high school bled into university, I definitely struggled to find the time to freely take photos as I did in the past, or rather it was never on my mind because I had so many other new things going on in my life. As a habit, I am always taking pictures of random scenery and objects on my phone, but I never took my camera out at all during my first year and I was actually a little upset about it. I had some time behind the camera, but that was for a friend's film project, so I did not have a whole lot of creative control, nor was I shooting what I would like to be shooting. I felt bad abandoning the account and the blog for a while because I had so much fun producing art and content to share, but I never had the time or motivation to pick up the camera and go for a walk. Once I finished first year I knew I had to do better, and finishing in early spring meant it was time to start growing again.

Throughout the summer I tried to bust out my camera whenever I could in between my busy work and softball schedules. That being said, my line of work granted me a few opportunities to have brief photoshoots with incoming plants which was not only to show friends but also just to remove the dust from my lack of photography in the past eight months. At the end of the summer, it was rewarding to see how much I was able to come up with and that it was not only showcasing how stunning all of these plants were, but I was able to add some artistry to these already works of art. I fell back in love with the practice and I promised myself not to abandon it again.

That leads us to the current day or at least the most recent term. The fall term of second year was a period that allowed me to explore and grow a lot as a photographer, an environmentalist, and a person as a whole. Not only was I back in an unexplored environment, but I was also given the chance to take photos for class projects, which meant I had to challenge myself to take the best quality photos I could. Anyone could take photos to identify the specific bird or tree, but I knew my photos could be special. I stuck with that mindset throughout the term to capture possibly some of the best photos I've ever taken, my favourite being the red-tailed hawk that I talked about in my last blog post. With this fresh dose of new content and a solid understanding of how to promote and share my photos online, I was able to gain some momentum and attention. I started taking myself seriously as a photographer, rather than someone who just practices photography for fun. Was the growth astronomical, no, but it was enough to get the attention of certain people. With this, I was able to volunteer as an event photographer for the first time with the University of Waterloo's Sustainability Office, along with a few features during my classes showcasing my photos. I was finally able to see the talent that others always told me I had.

Future plans

When I first created the blog and the Instagram page, I wanted a space to store all my photos and stories together, but now I see it as a unique form of communication. Now I have the ability to share more information about the species in my photos or the ecosystems they're in, or anything else I feel needs sharing. I've begun to see myself as a translator in this practice which has become a huge part of my own personal way of promoting conservation. Nature photography is a way of exposing people to the beauty that the planet can create. I have somehow learned to understand that and can showcase it in a way that is digestible and pleasing to people. When talking about conservation in school or in everyday life, I often resort to telling people that the Earth is valuable because of the ecological services that it provides for people. The reason being is that if I tell them they should value the land because it looks pretty, they will not take me seriously compared to if I told them this land cleaned their water. Photography is my way of creating an intrinsic bond between people and nature so they can just appreciate how the environment works for itself, not for us.

I am not sure what my work or my platforms will look like in the future, but I am hoping to keep this running for as long as possible. I think it is an important part of environmental conservation and sustainability to show others just how amazing this planet is and how we can't take it for granted. No other planet can make systems and species like this one can, and I think that is the coolest concept ever and need to share that with everyone I come across. I am hoping as I move through university I get the chance to go out and explore even more ecosystems, to cover as much ground (or water) as I can because there is so much you and I haven't seen yet. The person that started all of this, my grade 7 teacher, had this saying he would tell us all the time; "If you say you can't, you won't, but if you say you can, you will.". I have taken this quote with me everywhere I go, and in doing so it has led me to grow into the person and artist that I am so proud of. This new year I am manifesting success and creativity with my photography, and I will continue to work at it to produce the best possible photos I can take. I am excited to see how that plays out for me and I hope you will join me on the ride.

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