My 2016 Budget Challenge: Affording Education

[Editor's Note: This is another episode in Max Wong's journey to find an extra $31,000 this year. Read the whole series here.]

I am on the cusp of transitioning into a new dream career. Actually, two new dream careers. People keep approaching me for work as a documentary filmmaker and as an architectural photographer, so I have decided to take the leap and try to do both full-time for money. This is tremendously exciting and mind-numbingly scary for two reasons:

First, I am old. Well, not old-old. I am 46. So, I am certainly young enough to start a second career. However, at 46, I am too old for a long educational track and too poor to get training for a career that leaves me saddled with student loan debt that then leaves me unable to save for retirement.

Second, I will just say it: I am a luddite. In order to succeed as a documentary filmmaker and as a professional photographer, I have to learn how to use my motion picture camera and sound system, a film editing program, Lightroom and/or Photoshop, and a new digital camera system. And that's just what I have to learn this year. I basically have to go back to film school, but cram four years of learning into the next nine months.

So how am I going to acquire all these new-fangled skills without breaking the bank or, more importantly, breaking my brain? Here's how I am cobbling together some quality learning on the cheap.

Finding a Mentor

If there is such a thing as a professional meet cute story, I have it. Last year, one of my favorite photographers started following me on Instagram and subsequently hired me to work as his sometime assistant.

It is incredibly gratifying to have an artist, who I greatly admire, support me creatively, even if it comes in the form of terse texts such as, "If you take that photograph now, I don't want to hear any whining from you about how sucky it is later." And, "Do better." Because I know he is rooting for me to figure things out, it is easy to stay motivated and learn the technical side of photography, a process that involves failing repeatedly. To quote Henri Cartier-Bresson: "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." With thousands of my worst photographs still untaken, I am glad that I have professional supervision and a safe space to crash and burn.

In addition to the self-esteem boost, a good mentor just makes everything easier. For example, after reading through approximately 556,373 camera equipment reviews, I still could not parse out what gear to buy, so my mentor wrote me up a custom shopping list based on what he thought would work best for me creatively, financially, and physically. Not only did this take some of the stress out of buying $2,288.94 worth of photography equipment, but he ended up saving me hundreds of dollars.

For example, the Arca Swiss Cube gear head is the industry standard for architectural photography. One of the reasons why my original gear budget is $10,000 is because the Arca Swiss costs $1,600. My mentor owns several different gear heads. The one he recommended to me is the one he uses the most: a $300 model that was not mentioned in any of the reviews that I read. Because I have seen what he can do with a $300 gear head, I feel confident that I can do professional work with the same model and save $1,300.

While mentors are always presented as white-haired, lions of industry (or Morgan Freeman) in films, I should point out that my photography mentor is actually younger than I am. Good teachers can be any age.


I am extremely pro-interning because it has worked well for me. I was hired as a film executive before I even graduated from film school. I never had to be an assistant or work in the mailroom, which are both standard entry-level film gigs. I graduated from college and the next day I went to work at my fancy production company job. I managed this feat by interning for a full year at the company that hired me. For them, it was just an internal promotion. I was already working 60 hours a week for them, so why not just pay me so I could afford better work clothes?

Interning while you are in college has become a huge drag. You either have to find a paying internship, which really don't exist anymore in a lot of fields, or you have to work an internship for college credit, which means you have to pay tuition for a job your school probably didn't even get you. It's tough. However, interning as an adult post-graduation is way easier. Plenty of companies have rules against hiring unpaid students, but very few companies care if a "grown up" volunteers to work for free. Interning is a great way to learn the industry culture, network, and discover the skills you actually need for a specific job.

I don't think of internships as just office jobs. In fact, I could probably invent an internship in almost any industry that does not require safety certification or security clearance. In addition to interning for my photography mentor, I am currently interning with a master beekeeper. I help him schlep heavy equipment around a farm once a week, and in exchange he helps me level up on my beekeeping skills. I am currently learning queen rearing, so I can breed and raise my own queen bees to sell to other local beekeepers.

For the record, I generally don't refer to my beekeeping arrangement as an internship. I am WWOOFing, which sounds endlessly more "authentic," "artisanal," and fancy. Kinfolk Magazine should just interview me right now.

Hiring an Intern

I bought my parents their first Apple computer in 1999. When they crashed it the first time, they called me in a panic. Since this was before Apple stores were in every big city, they had no idea who could fix their computer. "Pay the 12-year-old who lives down the street $40 to come over and show you how to fix your computer," I told them. "Which 12-year-old?" they asked. "Any 12-year-old," I said.

Like my parents, I am a digital immigrant, not a digital native. To this day, I am still more comfortable with analog technology than I am with the digital world. Just ask my editors at Wise Bread who are all half my age. I am clueless.

Right this second I'm trying to learn how to use iMovie to edit my documentary. It is going very slowly. It is not as intuitive as I had hoped. Or, maybe I am just extra dumb at this.

As luck would have it, my friend Cheryl called me the other day. She's trying to get a summer internship for her daughter who is applying to film schools in the fall. Could I use an intern on my current documentary? "Does your kid know how to use iMovie?" I asked. "Oh, sure. But she mainly uses Premiere to edit at home and she uses Avid at school."


I now have a 17-year-old summer intern who is going to sit with me and walk me through the editing process.

See? Good teachers. Any age.

Visiting the Public Library

My friend Fareed is superhuman when it comes to Photoshop. Where did he pick up his mad skills? The Los Angeles Public Library. Apparently, you can access Lynda Lessons for free at some public libraries. This is how I am going to learn Lightroom and Photoshop.

RTFM (Reading the Fricking Manual)

My new tripod has an instruction manual. I am reading it. My new gear head has an instruction manual. I am reading it. My new tilt-shift lens has an instruction manual. I am reading it. My borrowed camera body has an instruction manual. I am reading it, even though it is 260 pages long and in Spanish because my photography mentor misplaced the English instructions. Not that I am complaining as the photographs are in English and I am learning a lot of good vocabulary words in Spanish for free. So, bonus?

I know. Reading the manual to learn how to use a machine seems like, well, obvi. But, apparently I am in the minority. According to a survey, 24% of women who call tech support hotlines in the United Kingdom have never bothered to read the manual before calling for help. And lest anyone believe that this is just a problem for women because we are mechanical simpletons who can't understand technology, that exact same survey found that 64% of men don't read the manual before demanding IT help.

Of course, Americans are even stupider, or maybe just more stubborn than British tech consumers: 95% of gadgets returned in the United States actually work.

Watching YouTube

Even though I am muscling my way through all the camera gear manuals, I am hating the experience. The diagrams leave a lot to be desired. Also, while paper manuals are very good at explaining how to use the various buttons and levers, text-based manuals are not good at explaining how to use the various buttons and levers to get the desired photographic image. Thank God for YouTube. Now I understand how to use my tilt-shift lens! Concepts that take 13 pages of explanation in the book, can be explained in one five-second close-up shot.

While many YouTube instructional videos leave a lot to be desired in terms of production value, the sheer number of subjects covered make YouTube my first stop when I am trying to learn new, random skills. Do I have a Small Hive Beetle infestation in my beehive? Found a video on how to make a no-poison Hive Beetle death trap from an old CD case and vegetable oil. Did I make the disastrous decision to cut my own bangs without watching a YouTube bang-cutting video first? (Yes). Found a video on how to hide my bangs inside retro hair-dos while I grow them back out.

Reading the Comments

Fact: Reading Internet comments can be as pleasant as self-surgery. However, I often learn more from the comments on how-to blog posts than I do from the original article!

Are you an autodidact? What tools do you use to learn new skills quickly? Please share in the comments section! I can use all the help I can get.

Progress Report

My husband managed to save $1,500 this month from his regular paycheck. (At this rate, I am going to have to change his nickname for this series from Mr. Spendypants to Mr. Saveypants). He also earned an additional $1,100 for creating all the original artwork for Desert Island, a Kickstarter-funded card game.

I am so relieved that the start date for my professional architectural photography job has been pushed back to May. After much discussion and contemplation, we decided that it would be better for me to purchase all the equipment I need for the job, with the exception of the camera body, so I could have a month to practice using all these tools. Also, although this is a big expense, it is cheaper to buy the basic tools needed for this job rather than rent. The total cost of camera equipment purchased this month: $2,288.94

Goal: $31,000.00

Amount Raised: $16,078.00

Amount Spent: $7,592.66

Amount Left to Go: $22,514.66

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