Hi ShotKit! I’m Kay Dargen, a 22-year-old self-taught professional photographer and editor from Fargo, North Dakota.
Being from a region of infamously underwhelming scenery, I’ve embraced my fascination with color to create images that induce nostalgia and wonder.
I’ve had a camera in my hands since Christmas when I was 11; it was a bright blue Olympus FE-46 that you can now grab online for $20. I upgraded to my first big girl camera in 7th grade, a Nikon D3100, and I used that to start shooting my friends and their families.
Eventually, with money from that (and babysitting and selling hotdogs at my local baseball stadium) I bought myself a Nikon D810 and a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 as a sophomore in high school.
It was emotional to part ways with my D810 when I upgraded to the current love of my life, the Nikon D850. We had a good run but I was ready for that sweet, sweet touch screen, the flippy screen, and the obnoxious amount of megapixels.
Growing up as a self-taught photographer, I never thought much about camera brands until the mirrorless systems started taking over. Now I kind of feel like an endangered species as a Nikon shooter.
Recently my curiosity got the best of me and I bought my friend’s old Fujifilm x100t. As neat as the digital viewfinder is and how convenient the size may be, I still can’t bring myself to reach for it over my D850, even for the most casual outings. My Nikons feel like old childhood friends – I know them like the back of my hand and they have yet to let me down.
I also have a Nikon D750 as a backup, but 99% of the time I remain glued to my D850.
Like many of you, weddings and senior portraits have been my primary source of income over the last 5 years.
I quickly learned that shooting with prime lenses makes me a better photographer; I thrive on needing to move around to find my shot. I got my first Sigma Art lens a few years ago and haven’t looked back since. Now the Sigma Art 20mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, and 50mm f/1.4 are all mainstays in my camera bag.
Also, just last week I picked up the 24mm f/1.4 and it may have dethroned my 35mm as my go-to lens. The current photo climate has been all about those cinematic vibes and the 24mm is the perfect focal length in that department.
I still keep my trusty Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 handy for situations where the subject is going to be changing constantly, like wedding ceremonies. I’ll usually have that one on my D850, then, as long as it’s well lit, I put my Nikon 24-120mm f/4 on my D750 to catch the up-close moments, like grandpa and grandma holding hands, or the flower girl failing to evenly disperse flower petals and all that good stuff.
That is one kit lens I have been absolutely indebted to since I’ve never enjoyed telephoto lenses enough to pull the trigger on a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8.
Over the last four or so years, I’ve shot approximately 200 high school seniors, and my Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4 has been with me every step of the way. Through every sparkler and smoke bomb, it’s had my back.
To me, 35mm is the perfect focal length for the modern high school senior (and their parents approve as well.) I will briefly break out the Sigma Art 50mm f/1.4 for the formal headshots, and occasionally my Nikon 85mm f/1.8 if we’re looking to get real official.
It was only this past winter that I let myself splurge on a nice camera bag, and I am so glad I did. The Peak Design Everyday Backpack 20L is perfect for me. I’m a pretty small gal, and I’ve always been drawn to the over-the-shoulder messenger bags, but I had to admit defeat because they get too heavy and throw me off balance.
The Everyday 20L was the answer to all my prayers – being able to swing it around and have easy access to the side pockets is exactly what I need.
On my last tour, it went through the wringer and I managed to break a side panel zipper. Fortunately, all it took was an email and they so kindly and simply sent me a brand new bag. Definitely a proponent of them since that.
Over the last year or so, my artistic trajectory and career trajectory have intersected in a way I’ve always dreamt of.
I have spent most of my last year away from my home base of Fargo, traveling and taking photos. As I have garnered an increasingly visible social media presence, it seems people have begun to embrace my obnoxiously dreamy colors.
This has, in turn, led to more and more creative work primarily in the fields of travel and tour photography.
Getting to make money exploring and photographing the continent with different bands has been an absolute dream. And on off days or before the gig, I get to run around and do what I love most: Take pictures of new places and use Lightroom to color them as ridiculously as I want. Selling prints of that work has been a major game-changer for me.
Being from Fargo, the 2nd coldest city in America (and #1 is only an hour away), whenever winter would roll around, my workflow would abruptly cease.
Shooting outside, as I primarily do, means fingers too frozen in pain to change your camera settings and lenses constantly fogging over. So over the last couple of winters, instead of my camera sitting on the shelf collecting dust, I embarked on a new journey of surreal photography. It has been one of the most challenging and rewarding steps of my artistic development.
Being from a place where you have to work to create something interesting seems to have prepped me for these.
I’ve always clicked well with Photoshop – I think I was the only one in my high school photo classes who thoroughly paid attention to those assignments. Surreal images from people like Erik Johansson are the images that I would spend the most time staring at, thinking “How? How did he do that? How did he think of this?”
To now create images that might do that for others is an unparalleled feeling. And I do it with my SB-900 Speedlite pointed at my kitchen ceiling, a bedsheet backdrop, an outfit from the thrift store, some trinkets usually from antique stores, and a friend’s cheap bare-bulbed light stand they forgot in my car years ago.
I have big hopes for those images and the other ones that are still just sketches in my notebook. Each one I complete, after hours and hours of Photoshop, makes me sit back and feel like I am doing exactly what I was meant to do.
When it comes to social media numbers, my growth has always been slow but steady. However, going out on a limb with the surreal images has boosted that growth like no other by attracting others seeking the “how?!”.
In turn, they have gotten me incredible opportunities for things like tours and album art, which is maybe the most rewarding canvas I have found so far, because I get to create the visual that will be forever associated with musicians’ creations.
To touch on the other things in my little kit image: I had a ‘treat yourself’ moment and got myself a DJI Mavic Pro drone about 3 years ago. Forever one of the most fun purchases I’ll ever make. It has held up fantastically over the years and I don’t feel the need to upgrade it anytime soon.
Because I loved it so much, I also recently nabbed the DJI Osmo Pocket, the perfect little not-intimidating video camera for a curious novice like me.
I do a LOT of retouching, and the Small Wacom Intous Tablet is my lifesaver.
I switched over to using a tablet to retouch portraits about 3 years ago and I’m not kidding when I say I think it’s the reason I still have hair on my head. In the summers, I pretty much shoot a senior or wedding every day, and every other moment is spent editing those shoots.
Figuring out how to use this guy has made editing so much easier, and the results you get from a pressure-sensitive pen are leagues more realistic than I could ever get with my trackpad. If anyone is looking for an instant $70 game changer, this is it.
For my fellow touring photogs, PLEASE get yourself some nice earplugs. I literally cherish my Earasers; they immediately get clipped onto every all-access laminate, along with my industrial-strength whistle and good-luck alien I got while touring through Roswell, New Mexico.
I’m also a huge proponent of film photography. I keep a film camera with me pretty much at all times. My two favorites are the iconic Pentax K1000 and its automatic little brother, the PC35. I love Polaroids, too. Anything that can make you slow down and appreciate your surroundings – I’d encourage it.
I miss my local grocery store film developer every day; I think he knew me better than anyone just by seeing what moments were special to me. Indie Film Lab keeps me loading rolls these days.
Well, you’ve probably heard it a million times and you’re about to hear it again: It’s not about the gear. But, I also know that I’ve personally benefitted from getting to see some of the footsteps of those who have found success before me, so I am so happy to share some of mine. I hope this helps!