A long time ago, a teacher told me that if I wanted to get better at tennis, I’d have to play with people who are better than me. Substitute just about any other sport, hobby, or craft for tennis, and this advice holds true. I’ve been playing around with photography since college. For years, I felt my skill level was sufficient for what I wanted to do. I love shooting. You can lose yourself in looking through the lens, becoming singly focused on composing a scene, finding a unique perspective. It’s a way to find beauty in the world and to take a deep drink of it. I used to shoot and just save my favorite photos in a box. Gradually, I discovered ways to share my best pictures — creating cards, calendars, and framed prints. I give them as gifts or donate them for fund-raising auctions. More recently, I decided that it’s time to get serious about upping my game. I want to discover how good a photographer I can become. Just playing around isn’t enough anymore. So, about three years ago, I started playing with people who are better than me. How does an aspiring photographer find such people? Join a local camera club! I belong to the Gaithersburg Camera Club, one of hundreds of local clubs under the umbrella of the Photographic Society of America.
If you want to shoot better pictures, I highly recommend joining a local camera club. Here are my top 10 reasons why:
1. The people. Photography can tend to be a solo activity, but a club will connect you with other people who like to tramp around with camera gear in search of great images. And they’ll know where the best local photo ops are.
2. Goals. Whether it’s earning points in a competition or learning how to shoot a different style — still life, portrait, action, or macro — you can choose goals and get support and advice from other club members on how to accomplish them.
3. Speakers. Each month, we invite experts, usually a local professional photographer and sometimes an advanced club member, to talk on his or her area of specialization. Attending these talks is a great way to learn. I find they often spark ideas for things I’d like to try.
4. Competitions. We also have a competition every month. Some have a theme (long exposure, emotion, shadows, for example), and some are open to any photo you’ve taken in the past 12 months. A judge from outside our club gives a mini-critique of each photo entered and awards 1st, 2nd, 3rd or honorable mention to the best. These are also great learning experiences — not just for how to improve your work, but to see the different criteria that judges apply. Photography is subjective after all. Don’t fret if your photo does not place. Just take what you’ve learned and keep trying. I’m still trying to get a 1st place in one of our competitions.
5. Tech Talk. Digital technology has completely reshaped photography over the past decade. It’s pretty hard to keep up with all the advances, but a camera club gives you a place to share what you collectively know about new gear. We have a library of books and instructional DVDs that members can check out. We get camera club member discounts from a couple of vendors too.
6. Tutorials. Some of our advanced members occasionally lead a tutorial on a new software package or how to use lighting. Another avenue to learn and practice.
7. Field trips. Not only are these great fun, they’re a great way to learn from other camera club members shooting alongside you. You can mull over exposure settings and composition. It’s also instructive to see how different people select subjects to focus on.
8. Information on local events. Most camera clubs maintain a calendar of local photography events and classes. You can find a wealth of information on their websites and in their newsletters.
9. Participate in an exhibit. Many clubs put on an exhibit or two every year in a local community center, museum or arts center. Get an idea about how these work by submitting an entry to be included in an exhibit. You’ll get to attend an opening reception, and you might sell a photograph! Sometimes two or three members in my club will put on an exhibit together where they each can show a dozen photos.
10. Inspiration. Our advanced club members do some amazing work. Just look at our Flickr site. Seeing all the talent in my club, inspires me to stretch my photographic skills and to keep seeing the beauty around me.
I am not yet as good at the art of photography as I hope to become, but I have learned a lot about photography and have made some good new friends.