Photography: Through the Lens

Looking to become a better photographer? Our region offers plenty of classes, clubs and tutorials where shutterbugs— both amateur and professional—can develop their abilities.
photography through the lens showing an actor during a session.
Image by Justin Sotelo

Laurie Friedman’s father passed down two important traits to his daughter: an artistic eye and a love of travel. Nearly four decades ago, she bought a single-lens reflex film camera and zoom lens for a tour of ancient civilizations of Mexico, starting in Mexico City and ending in Yucatán. Friedman has now visited 90 countries, always bringing a camera along to capture scenes of landscapes and life. “I tend not to be shy,” she says. “I’m happy to ask people, ‘May I take your photo?’ I always ask if I’m close, and every once in a while they’ll say no, I’d rather not. But most of the time it’s just fine. I also love little artistic details, like rooflines. Graphic images are my favorite, if I had to pick, but I’m kind of known for my portraits.”

Friedman—whose career was spent in hospital labs and sciences at UC Davis—had a wedding and portrait business, at one point shooting up to 25 weddings a year. Most of her photography these days is purely for enjoyment.

She is a founding member and program chair of the Gold Rush Chapter of the Photographic Society of America. The volunteer-run Sacramento club hosts workshops for photographers looking to develop their skills in areas such as portraiture, still life, smartphone, black and white, and flower photography. Gold Rush is one of many resources across Sacramento that serve photographers looking to learn the craft or boost their skills. Others include shops and galleries, formal education at local colleges and online tutorials.

A photography session by Justin Sotelo showing a model.
Image by Justin Sotelo.

While everyone may see themselves as photographers nowadays thanks to smartphones, and whether someone is a hobbyist or a professional, one of the most critical steps to actually possessing real talent is learning the camera. Justin Sotelo, an adjunct professor of photography at Sacramento City College, says, “There is no substitute for having knowledge, technical expertise and full control of the equipment you are using.”

Justin Sotelo
Justin Sotelo

OPEN TO THE COMMUNITY—When Roberta McClellan joined Viewpoint Photographic Art Center in midtown Sacramento as executive director in 2014, she already had many years of nonprofit arts management experience. She recognized that one way to advance Viewpoint, a member-oriented organization (now in its 32nd year), was to invite in the larger community, making its artwork and workshops more accessible.

“Viewpoint was started by photographers for photographers,” she says. “It was just this idea of a group of people saying, well, we love photography . . . and then it just evolved into what you see today.”

Image by Mark Howell/ Viewpoint Photographic Art Center
Image by Mark Howell/ Viewpoint Photographic Art Center

Viewpoint hosts two or three workshops monthly, about 22 exhibits a year in its 2,300 square feet of gallery space, artists receptions, Second Saturday gatherings and a student educational program. It also organizes Photography Month Sacramento each April. This celebration brings together between 20 and 30 partner organizations across five local counties to host about 40 events.

One workshop planned for this April is on NFTs (nonfungible tokens), which are “just blowing up” in the photography space, McClellan says. Viewpoint tries to stay up-to-date with the art form, because photography “is changing every day.” She sees growing interest in a return to old techniques, like alternative process, which developed in the mid-1800s and uses large glass plates, cyanotype and other tools.

Roberta McClellan
Roberta McClellan

Other Viewpoint workshops throughout the year include topics like composition, lighting, street photography and how to edit in Lightroom (a type of Adobe software); post processing topics tend to be popular. One-day photo outings are also well-attended. Past destinations have included Cosumnes River Preserve, Tahoe and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The opportunity to learn from peers makes these outings successful, McClellan says. “People have their peers with them and talk a little bit about what they’re doing and how people are capturing an image, what they’re doing with that image.”

Viewpoint’s 500 members get special privileges like attendance at “print and portfolio nights,” when experienced photographers facilitate a small gathering where everyone presents one or more images and a discussion follows. “Some of these people have been doing this for 30 or 40 years. You can learn so much in an hour’s sitting with a seasoned photographer,” McClellan says.

Laurie Friedman
Laurie Friedman

Friedman, of Gold Rush, describes Viewpoint as a “tremendous educational resource in the community.” She is also a member of Sierra Camera Club in Sacramento. (A local monthly meetup group called Beers and Cameras stopped gathering during the pandemic.) There’s also Professional Photographers of America, a national organization that provides educational resources for members. Many photographers and videographers say they rely on internet platforms and software tutorials to develop technical skills, such as CreativeLive, Phlearn, Skillshare, You-Tube and Adobe Photoshop.

After a hiatus from in-person instruction, Gold Rush is returning to this format in April with a program on abstract photography. Attendees will gather for instruction, then depart to take photos of wall art around the city. Friedman says there are benefits to being able to turn to a person next to you to ask for advice. “I found photographers are very generous at sharing their expertise,” she says.

Photography of an elephant by Michael Kallweit
Image by Michael Kallweit

Sotelo agrees that a valuable way to develop one’s skills is to seek constructive criticism from peers. “It’s really easy to have tunnel vision as you’re working on your content,” Sotelo says. “You have a different relationship with it. Maybe you’re just really focused on one aspect of it. I think it’s extremely important to have other people look at your work because it’s important to see what they see first.”

There’s no shortage of help offered to photographers who visit PhotoSource in East Sacramento or Mike’s Camera in midtown. “I teach people over the counter all the time. It’s just what I do,” says PhotoSource owner Michael Kallweit. “When people come in, we help and guide people for whatever they need.”

These businesses dole out advice and answer questions, sell gear and supplies, and in some cases have processing services and facilities available. For instance, customers can rent the darkroom at PhotoSource. The business opened in 2001 as a working photo lab where people can bring boxes of old media to get developed or converted to digital. Now it does much more. The shop buys, refurbishes and sells old cameras. It offers high-end rentals, which attracts professionals. Customers also include “the kids, as I call them, who are shooting film again,” Kallweit says.

Michael Kallweit
Michael Kallweit. Photo by Jim Koenigsaecker.

“We have experienced what we call a revival in the industry,” he adds. “The young people are finding film and analog attractive for a number of different reasons. It’s probably, for one, just the opposite of their phones.” The anticipation of waiting to see their developed photographs is a big part of the appeal, unlike the instant gratification of cellphones and other digital technologies.

PhotoSource no longer holds workshops, and Kallweit says the best way to learn photography or expand one’s skills is through college courses. He describes schools within the Los Rios Community College District and Sacramento State as having some of the best photo programs in the nation. “That’s the place to learn,” he says.

ALWAYS MORE TO LEARN—Sotelo has had many careers—in music, education and for the state of California for about 16 years, while he also periodically took photography classes at Sacramento City College. In 2019, the college hired him as an adjunct professor for the department. He is now able to make a living through his craft.

“Collectively, the classes and just the program in general allowed me to develop the necessary skills to feel like I was ready to move forward with doing more professional or freelance work,” Sotelo says. “We’re always learning. I think we’re students for our lifetime. Things are always evolving. There’s always new technology.”

Image by Ryan Angel Meza showing photography of the Point Reyes Station
Image by Ryan Angel Meza

Over the years, he has taught beginning and intermediate digital photography (which cover topics such as camera operation, flash photography, post-processing, digital print
preparation, video capture and editing) and portfolio development. This spring semester, he is co-teaching California coastal photography—with a field trip to Point Reyes National Seashore—with Ryan Angel Meza, another adjunct professor and freelance photographer (who has photographed for Sacramento Magazine).

headshot of Ryan Angel Meza
Ryan Angel Meza

Angel Meza’s road to becoming a professional photographer involved a six-year detour working for the state government. Classes at City College and then a photography degree from Sacramento State gave him the education and confidence to make the career leap. “It’s been a really long journey to really develop the craft and be patient with getting my foot in the door,” he says.

These City College professors say their broad spectrum of students includes those enthusiastic about pursuing a career in the field and retirees who do photography as a
hobby but want to refine their skills. Some students want to merge photography and social media as a career opportunity; social media, Angel Meza says, “has made photography as a career really reachable” because there’s an endless demand for this type of creative content.

Photo of a woman sitting during a photo session.
Image by Ryan Angel Meza

The students who will be best equipped to succeed in the industry will be those who have a multitude of skills, agree the professors. They both have also undertaken some degree of self-education in video and drone photography to make themselves more marketable. It’s about layering skill sets, Kallweit says. Just taking pictures doesn’t cut it.

Ultimately, a big part of growing as a photographer is simply creating habits and muscle memory—and the most critical ongoing step in one’s development is regular practice. “If you don’t really invest the time on a daily basis, if possible, you’re not going to progress,” Sotelo says. “I don’t pretend that I know everything. Every time I shoot, I walk away with some sort of knowledge.”