© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

Learning Photography is NOT a Spectator Sport

One of my favorite college professors was Patricia Hooper, MS.  She was not one of my photo teachers, but my trigonometry teacher. Her favorite saying was “Mathematics is NOT a spectator sport.”

The same goes for photography.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

A sea star is exposed during low tide at Carkeek Park in Seattle, Wash.

Excuse me if I seem a bit ignorant, but, if you’re learning to be a photographer, where the heck’s your gear?

If you want to be successful, you need to shoot daily. It’s not a spectator sport. They only way to improve is to be active in photography and get your work critiqued.

It amazes me, and even baffles me, to talk with people who say they are learning this trade, yet don’t carry the necessary tools to do the job. I understand some may not want to be street photographers or photojournalists, but composition skills translate from one genre to the other.

I’ve run into people who say they are photographers wanting to learn, but at the same time, they have no gear with them. Why is this? Do they expect to improve through osmosis? Maybe they think some fairy will come down and sprinkle the magic “composition perfection” dust upon their brow?

Not just composition, but lighting and people skills as well. This is true whether you are learning with a DSLR or medium format. Carry something and shoot those things you find interesting.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

Kate Moyer, left, and friend Casey Altman, 12, both from Aspen, Colo., take to dancing on Park Circle. "We were bored and we felt like acting younger," said Moyer, "we wanted to be free." I found these two just up the road from my apartment when I was walking home from the store. Without my camera, I would've missed the shot.

Over the years, there have been times I have not had my gear and missed some incredible photos. When I lived in Aspen, Colo., my friend Tim Mutrie and I were walking downtown to get a brew and watch the Red Sox. On our way, we passed my bank and in the shadows I saw something move. It was a bear standing next to a tree only a few feet from us. Quite freaky, but it would’ve made a great photo.

When I was a student at Western Kentucky University, I always had my cameras. I kept a fanny pack with my telephoto, notepad, pens, lens cleaner, lens caps, extra batteries and film.  My camera with wide-angle was usually slung over my shoulder.

Then I put the fanny pack in my book bag.  I only carried what books I needed for the class at the time. Although I really enjoyed studying mathematics, photography was more important than my differential equations class. It seems like a lot to carry, but I was used to carrying the extra weight and it was good exercise. Especially at a college that sits on a hill.

There are a lot of photos on college campuses. Especially people photos. There was always something to photograph between class. Even at night.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

Warren County volunteer firefighters prepare to battle a vacant house at 189 Green Acres Rd. in Warren County, Ky. Alvaton, Plano and Gott volunteer firefighters responded to the blaze which Alvaton Fire Chief Tim Meyer says is "suspicious." He added that the property had been foreclosed on and was to be sold at auction. On my way back from work during college, I heard of a house fire in the county on my scanner. As I had my gear, It was a quick drive to capture firefighters battling this blaze.

I even had my gear when I was working at Taco Bell. Not because I thought Taco Bell was a prime place for photography, but driving to and from work I would see something. Whether it was breaking news, a cool feature, or just fun time hanging out with friends.

I know through years of experience, moments and light can be fleeting. Why take the chance and miss something because you don’t have your gear? And it always seems that when you don’t have it, a wonderful opportunity presents itself.

I carry my gear with me at all times. Even if I don’t have my full arsenal, I have at least one body and lens. My lens of choice is my 17-35.  This assures me of wide and “normal” lens choice.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

Sheep graze under a blazing sunset in north Snohomish County near Arlington, Wash. If I had not had my camera with me, I would have missed this beautiful photo.

When I’m riding my bike, I carry my camera with lens, telephoto, extra batteries (AAs and rechargeable), CF cards in a case and lens cleaner. This is stuffed in my Camelbak using the foam padding from other cases I’ve had over the years. I also use this set-up when I go hiking. For snowboarding, I use my Lowe Pro backpack. Even when I went for a day of fun, there was always a good photo to be had.

There are times I’ve regretted not having the right lens. I went on a short hike up Smuggler Mountain in Aspen, Colo., with only my wide angle. The smoke from the California wild fires in 2007 created a beautiful sunset and the silhouettes of hikers and bikers was stunning. But I needed a longer lens so the photos didn’t work out that well. They looked nice, but not what I wanted.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

A pedestrian protects themself from heavy snow showers during a May storm in Aspen, Colo. I was coming back from lunch when the storm hit. I'm glad I had my camera.

I’m not too worried about flash. I’m not a big fan of it as I like to use the available light. I learned to hand-hold my cameras to get slower shutter speeds using whatever object I can find. Trees, rocks, fence and sign posts make good tripods. I even put the camera on the ground using my fingers to elevate the lens.

It took a lot of practice using my body as a tripod, but when you don’t want to carry all that weight, it’s a good thing to do. Also, there are a lot of “natural” tripods around you. Looking for one may even provide you with better viewpoint improving your composition.

When hand-holding your camera, just remember to exhale your breathe and hold it while tripping the shutter. Breathing in and holding actually causes more movement as your beating heart pushes against your inflated lungs causing you to rock. This is more pronounced for some than others. Try it and see.

I know some photographers disguise their camera bag in an old gym bag and place it behind the passenger seat when they are driving. Hides their gear when they have to run into the store and keeps it in reach for a quick shot. Some have bolted lock boxes onto the floorboards and cover that with blankets. Some keep their gear in their trunk locked in a box.  There are many ways to do this

Carrying even a simple point and shoot is a good idea. With today’s high-end point and shoots, and cell phones, you have more mega pixels than some earlier professional digital cameras. My EnV Touch has 3.2 megapixels and the D1H has 2.6. My phone just can’t shoot in RAW, yet.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

Light and moments are fleeting. Why miss the chance for a great photograph simply because you don’t have your gear.

So in my opinion, there’s really no excuse.

Thank you for stopping by and reading. All comments are appreciated.

Paul Conrad

Pablo Conrad Photography

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  1. Thanks for the comments.

    I think the worst thing I see, and this really makes me bite my tongue, is when they say they are a student and yet have not shot a frame in over two weeks.

    But, it’s their loss.


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