Mike Moats’ Bootcamp Surprised Me

This past weekend I drove from my home in Central New York, eight hours to a hotel in Livonia, MI. My mission was to learn all I could from a man whose success as a macro photographer I admired. I left home before sunrise on Friday morning and drove steadily until mid-afternoon because Mike Moats was going to be conducting his Macro Boot camp at that hotel.

A basket of feathers

I expected to learn some tricks (some people might call them techniques) that would help me take macro or close-up photos better – more like Mike’s. The bottom line is, I came away with some nice macro/close-up images, captured under conditions most photographers would swear were not appropriate for my objective.

Mike had attracted 40 photographers of varying skill levels to his boot camp. Some barely understood how their cameras worked. Others were skilled, award winning and published. Stacy Neidzwiecki, for example arrived with several awards under her belt and two new books, only recently released. Jackie Curts works at the Zoo in Indianapolis and uses every opportunity to practice her craft.Her business card reads, “portraits of pets, children, and families” and “nature photography.” Her images were proof that practice works.

A Withering Tulip

Others were equally capable while some needed help identifying the controls on their cameras.

Yet, all were wide-eyed at five o’clock Friday afternoon as we settled in for Mike’s evening presentation. I’d bet that I wasn’t alone among the more experienced photographers at the boot camp, who felt the talk about f-stops, depth of field, various lenses, etc. a bit more basic that we needed. I know the thought crossed my mind that evening and again a couple times on Saturday. But, it was a mixed group and several questions from others attested to the rightness of Mike’s inclusion of this “basic” information in his presentation. After all, he did bill the session as a “boot camp.”

Now, I remember boot camp when I went in the service more years go than I care to admit. And while much of what we were taught was new, much was also quite familiar. Together, however, it gave us a good grounding for the challenges we’d face after boot camp. I think the content of Mike’s boot camp will do the same thing.

Peacock feathers

The headline of this post says that Mike’s boot camp surprised me. It did, because what I learned wasn’t what I expected to learn. I was expecting that Mike would share some unique tricks-of-the-trade, those magical techniques only the “pros” know. He didn’t, in the commonly expected meaning. In an important way, however, he did.

To someone who works hard at his or her photography, what Mike shared was much more valuable than a trick or two. He shared his passion and his approach to his art. As a macro photographer, Mike makes his living selling images for publication, trucking countless images to art shows for sale to the public, writing books, and conducting workshops.

At the boot camp, no question was turned away, no matter how basic, how relevant, or in some cases, how much he might have thought the question was too much about he makes his living with his camera. But while Mike quickly and easily answered each question he communicated several points so present, so obvious and so valuable they might have been accepted without a second thought by the eager ears in his audience.

You couldn’t come away from the boot camp without being impressed by Mike’s “keep it simple” approach. It’s a back-to-basics message. Picture a room, perhaps 30′ x 40′. Lighting was typical of a hotel meeting room, some florescent lights down the middle and some incandescent lighting on the sides. Lighting was surely adequate for a wedding reception (there was one going on outside our doors) or for a business conference. Most photographers, however, would immediately think the lighting was grossly inadequate for good photography.

Now put 40 photographers, 40 tripods, camera bags and what have you in this poorly lit room and tell me you expect interesting photography to be produced. If your name is not Mike Moats, I think you’d be telling me a fib. Or, you just completed Mike’s workshop and the images in your camera impress you . . . despite these conditions.

It is out of all this that the surprise surfaced for me. It’s something every competent photographer knows. Good images don’t result because of your lighting, your new lens, your state-of-the-art digital camera, but because of your passion and your love of the craft.

Of course Mike shared some important competencies (like controlling depth of field), some artistic realities (like understanding your composition) and some new”ish” technology (the Lensbaby). The most important thing he sent me home with, however, was the renewed recognition that every photographer has his or her own vision and perspective to help define the images we capture. If we follow that vision with less of our attention on the tools and gadgets and more concentration on our passion, we’ll bring home more photographs we can be justly proud of.

So, from one photographer to another . . . Mike, you’ve managed to fan an ember in me and I’m burning with passion for my photography again. Thanks.