From Hobby to Profession: An Interview with 3rd Creative’s Don Ward

Written by
Emiley Jones
May 10, 2024

If you’re a volume photographer using composites, you’ve probably already heard of the amazing Don Ward and 3rd Creative. He is a talented photographer and graphic designer who turned his multiple passions into a successful career. 

3rd Creative was created due to direct requests for his modern, versatile theme templates, now used and loved by photographers nationwide. In the image-first world of online selling, Don’s custom and unique designs can help take your photography (and sales) to the next level.

PhotoDay and 3rd Creative recently announced an exciting new theme collection that is available exclusively through Miller’s Lab + PhotoDay! These stunning, versatile themes complement 3rd Creative’s other popular designs perfectly. 

To celebrate the collaboration, PhotoDay sat down with Don to hear about how he got into photography, his roots as an artist, how he found PhotoDay, and his helpful words of advice to other photographers. Let’s dive in!

PhotoDay: Tell us a bit about your photography experience. When did you decide to make a career out of it?

Don Ward:

As a teenager, I always had a camera. I wasn't really thinking about becoming good at photography or having nice cameras or lenses at the time. I was mostly just interested in getting snapshots and capturing moments with my friends—nothing fancy. 

I started with disposable film cameras and eventually point-and-shoot film and digital cameras. I was just known as the guy who always had a camera among my classmates and friends. 

It wasn't until my kids started playing sports that I considered buying a nice camera and a long lens. At soccer games, the point-and-shoot cameras that worked fine at home or at the park just weren't getting the job done anymore. I noticed another parent with a DSLR and a long lens and asked if I could see the images he was capturing. That was the moment I decided to invest in a real camera. 

It was pretty expensive to us at the time, so I decided to focus on learning action photography to make some money and offset the expense by photographing action for other kids' parents. 

Capturing action photos for other parents I knew quickly turned into being asked to photograph teams and individuals. I hadn’t considered this, but I thought this would be an easier and better way to recover some of the expense of my investment in camera equipment. 

What was your exposure to the art and design world? Was it something you had always been interested in or something new you started to pursue at the beginning of your photo career?

It didn't take long for me to decide that photographing kids standing in the grass was pretty boring. I decided to try and add some spice to it. 

I remembered seeing a pre-installed program on my laptop called Corel Paint Shop Pro. So, I opened it up and started experimenting. I scoured YouTube for anything I could find and quickly learned how to install free fonts and add drop shadows, and let's not forget the almighty "outer glow"! 

As a kid, teenager, and even into my twenties, I was always into art and drawing. Learning a little bit about Paint Shop Pro triggered something in me. I now had a creative outlet that I only had a little time for between work and kids. I was all in. I didn’t have a long-term vision or goal, but I really just wanted to make the coolest sports images I possibly could for my kids and their teams. 

Looking back, many of the images are pretty laughable, but I was beyond proud at the time. I decided to invest in Photoshop Elements because the full version of Photoshop was really expensive, and most of the YouTube content available was for Photoshop and not Paint Shop. I binged YouTube for anything I could find—watching content from the likes of Woody Walters and Joel Grimes. As I improved, I eventually realized what else I was missing: off-camera flash.

What came first regarding your business—the photography or the designs?  

Noticing my artistic abilities as a kid and teenager, my mother always encouraged me to pursue a career in graphic design. She said that graphic design would be the best path to make a living as an artist and that I would be good at it. The only problem is that I didn't take school very seriously. If it wasn't interesting to me, I couldn't force myself to focus on it or put in the energy. So, the idea of college started to fade, and whether or not I would graduate from high school became the focus. Life moves quickly. 

I graduated high school and immediately entered the workforce. I had several jobs that I did not enjoy, but they managed to pay the bills—most of the time. I got married and had kids, and my focus turned to them. 

It took a while, but I eventually found my way to graphic design, and it was through my camera—the one I almost didn't buy because it felt irresponsible at the time. 

My parents have both passed, but they saw the beginning of what would eventually be a career as a creative artist. I owe so much to both of them for always pushing me and encouraging me not to give up on art, even though this isn't the form of art that any of us ever envisioned. They never stopped pushing or supporting me as I delved into photography and, eventually, graphic design.

How did you realize you could combine the two? What led to that decision?

Over about five years, I began gaining traction and getting noticed not only by local customers who wanted me to photograph their teams but also by other sports T&I photographers who somehow found my social media. I met a local guy who was experienced with using strobes and taught me a lot about lighting. He often told me I should start a website to sell my Photoshop files as templates. 

This was the first time the idea came up, and I didn't even take him seriously. I knew nothing about building a website and even if I spent who knows how much for someone to do it for me, would anyone actually pay for my Photoshop files? It felt way too daunting and unlikely to be successful. So I kept doing what I was doing, taking more teams and getting more practice and experience. I was getting better not only at photography and lighting but also at design. 

It was in late 2016 that I got my first message from another photographer asking to purchase one of my Photoshop files. I just gave the files to them. They messaged back, asking for more. 

Gradually, more and more messages were coming from photographers all over the country. They were all asking the same thing: “Can I pay you for your work?” I honestly couldn't believe it. I figured out that I could share my files using Dropbox and use the Cash App to accept payment for them. This worked for a while, but eventually, it became almost a weekly occurrence. So, with the help of Squarespace, I decided it was time to take another leap, and was born.

How does your work as a photographer inform the design choices you make when creating your themes? 

Being a volume photographer myself (even if on the low-volume end) has been invaluable in my growth as a template designer. I get to experience real-life use of my products, which helps me identify what works and what doesn't in terms of ease of use. 

I try to stay in "template mode" when creating for a team I’m working with. This makes it easier to turn a design into a usable template later. However, "template mode" design is more restrictive creatively. There is a give-and-take between making something look as cool as possible and what will actually translate to practical template use. 

It's all part of the process, and I have tried to get better at providing as many bells and whistles as possible without overcomplicating it. Occasionally, I take on "personal projects" where I’m free to create without the limitations that can come with template design. Those are always fun!

How did you learn about PhotoDay? How do you think it helps volume photographers workflow-wise?

In the world of T&I, we learn and discover so much through social media, especially Facebook Groups—where I first discovered PhotoDay. A lot goes into running a successful T&I business, and time management has to be at the top of the list. The less time we spend on the back end, the more time we can spend shooting. Obviously, the more shooting we do, the more money we make. 

I’m guilty of sometimes working harder, not smarter, which is something I’m working on. If you can let go of some tasks and feel confident that it won't negatively affect your business but actually improve it, it's a no-brainer.

I’ve enjoyed observing the evolution of PhotoDay over the years. As PhotoDay continues to offer more products, services, and features, they have become even more valuable to us and our industry. 

As someone who has successfully tackled multiple creative channels, what advice do you have for someone who's still up and coming in either field?

I probably have nothing new to share that we haven’t all heard before. There isn't an industry "secret" or a magic formula. If you want to be good at something, you have to invest the time. It doesn't happen overnight. You will have plenty of failures and make plenty of mistakes. These are all valuable learning experiences. The more you do something, the better you will be at it. Practice, practice, practice!

If I were to point out a few specific things, I would probably say:

  1. Don't get caught up in comparing your work to others or worrying about what others will think. Fear of what others will think is one of the biggest reasons people give up on something. Not just in photography or design. Take feedback as a learning opportunity and let the harsh feedback roll off.
  2. Find people who are willing and like to help. They are out there. It takes time, but you can build a team or network of people you can lean on for guidance when needed. Just be sure to be that person for others when the time comes.
  3. Don't get too caught up in gear lust. There’s no denying that there is so much great technology out there, and a lot of it can help us become better photographers or designers. But don't convince yourself that you cannot create something amazing or be successful without the latest and greatest, most expensive gear available. Gear is important but I have often caught myself investing way too much time researching all of the new cameras, lenses, and computers when the gear I currently have is already meeting my needs.

Thank you, Don, for sharing your inspiring story and reminding us to stay creative! You can connect with 3rd Creative on Instagram and Facebook, and visit the website to purchase his incredible template designs. And don't forget to check out his new theme collection available exclusively through Miller’s Lab + PhotoDay!

If you’re not a PhotoDay User, are you ready to take Don’s “no-brainer” advice and take the next step? See what PhotoDay can do for you by creating a free account! Our customer success team will help you every step of the way.

For existing PhotoDay users, make sure you have a Miller’s price sheet attached to a job, then select the “Miscellaneous” theme.

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