What Playing Golf Has Taught Me About Photography

Teeing it up with my $10 yard sale driver.



I was 17 years old when I picked up my first “real” camera. Prior to that I had just been using a basic Brownie-with-610-rollfilm model or the amazing Instamatic-with-126-cartridge film cameras.

I was 34 years old when I picked up my first “real” golf club. Prior to that I had just been using a basic primary-colored putter and matching golf ball to test my skills against the windmill and hippopotamus-mouth obstacles at the mini-golf center.

Since then I have probably shot about 500,000 photos and hit about 500,000 golf balls.

It has been said the best way to get to know someone is to play a round of golf with them. Clearly, the game of golf will shred away any layers of superficial pretense and display the inner core of a human being, usually by the second green. Otherwise mild and even-keeled folks can become vitriolic, maniacal, obscenity-laden beasts in a matter of minutes, often with no shame whatsoever. I’ve seen people throw clubs, break clubs, beat their golf bag for several minutes, run full-speed into a tree, and dismantle a porta-potty – all over a chunked shot or a missed putt. I’ve seen others play terribly and seem to be having a great time.

So what has golf taught me about photography?

I notice plenty of similarities and lessons (although I have never seen a person throw a camera):

Patience – golf demands patience, no doubt. The harder I push, the harder golf pushes back. Only when I finally let go and surrender to the game does it let me in. It’s counter-intuitive but the more I let go and relax, the better I play.

Photography requires patience – to learn, to improve, to gain clientele. It also takes patience with certain subjects to “come around” so they can relax and have great photos taken of them. In my photo classes I often meet aspiring photographers who want me to give them a crash course in photography technique or business aspects so they can become “Polaroid Pro’s.” (A Polaroid Pro is one that is made in 60 seconds.) I feel like Yoda guiding a young Luke Skywalker or Mr. Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid how to wax a car.

Practice – Austin commercial photographer Kirk Tuck has been a swimmer all his life and he talks about the importance of “time in the water”. A person can read books, watch tutorials, take lessons – but nothing is a replacement for just doing it. There is no limit to the amount of online golf instruction available. And most lessons will vary enough to appear contradictory, and thus, more confusing. But in the end, you have to pick up the club and hit some balls.

The same is true for photography. The cacophony of photo tips and advice is mind-numbing…and distracting – sooner or later you have to just pick up the camera and make photos. There is no better way to learn the tactile method for adjusting your camera than to use it a lot. Once you are able to touch-type the controls on your camera, without peeking, then you will be able to get on with the business (and fun) of making pictures. You will also practice interacting with people as subjects and clients. But you have to leave the house!

Discipline – this is a close partner of practice. In both golf and photography, discipline gets you off your butt, keeps you focused on the task at hand, and let’s you get the most out of your experiences. Without discipline, you won’t practice and you won’t learn.

First tee at Pebble Beach Golf Links


Gear – comparing golf equipment can be the biggest distraction of all. Which brand of clubs to buy? What kind of shafts(graphite, steel, or what about rifle shafts), grips (tour wrap vs soft vs leather), balls (two piece, three piece, balata), shoes, gloves, head covers, bags, etc etc?? And every year the new technology promises to out-drive and out-score the previous one. The sad fact is there is not a correlation between the cost of golf equipment and the score you will shoot. I’ve been playing golf with some older inexpensive yard-sale clubs recently and I’m really loving it. I hit my $10 yard-sale driver farther and straighter than my much more expensive, hi-tech one.  In a strange way, it feels like I’m thumbing my nose at all the hype around the “next greatest thing” in gear. And that is pretty satisfying.

If you are a photographer this sounds very familiar when it comes to cameras, lenses, lights, tripods, etc etc. It is very easy to get caught up in the next feature or improvement of the newest technology. While I admit that some of the improvements are very useful (low-light capabilities, for example) many of them are just incremental. And remember, your current camera does not suddenly stop working when a newer model comes out. Focusing on the gear is another distraction that gets in the way of Practice. Worse, focusing on the Holy Wars of brand debates takes you nowhere fast.

Every once in a while I pull out an older camera model and re-acquaint myself with it. Besides the little bit of nostalgia, I am also reminded that these cameras still take amazing photos. Some of my favorite images were made with long-forgotten technology. Most of my gear purchase decisions now come down to more practical things, like battery compatibility and consistency with the location of the controls (see touch-typing above).

Creativity – OK, creativity in photography seems obvious, but golf? Oh yes. If you’ve ever found yourself under a low tree branch or been stymied behind an immovable object, you’ve had to tap your golf creativity. It’s called Scrambling and it can make the difference between just one bad shot and several. You are allowed a maximum of 14 clubs, but there is no limit to the number of shots in your repertoire. Can you hit a golf ball behind you while standing with your back to the target? Putt with a 3-wood? Hit the ball 100 yards without flying higher than 10 feet off the ground? Lob the ball over a bush and make it stop on the green? Have you PRACTICED any of these? Many times the best shot is not directly at the flag.

And every once in a while, I make that amazing shot that erases all the bad ones, and brings me back out for another round.

Creativity in photography is much more than visual. I’ve had to scramble on photo shoots plenty of times. The scheduled time comes and goes, and so does the magic light. Equipment fails. Weather changes. The power goes out. People show up in bad moods. The client gets a brainstorm and wants to change the concept on the spot. Or the shot just doesn’t materialize the way the designer had hoped. All of these situations require scrambling and creative skills.

One of my favorite golf axioms is: In golf (and life) if you get into trouble, don’t get into more trouble. Creativity, and discipline, and practice, will get you out of trouble.

Fun – golf is a game that is PLAYED, and “play” should be fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably grinding too hard. I have the most fun playing golf when I get to know my playing partner better. Often, we’ve met on the first tee. Golf becomes the backdrop to the bigger picture – social interaction. I don’t Tweet my playing partner, I look him or her in the eye and we talk. And we talk about everything except golf. I remember the people I’ve played with much more clearly than the score I shot.

Photography is the same – if you’re not having fun, you’re probably grinding too hard. It is the backdrop to the bigger picture of social interaction. Spend a little time looking over the camera instead of through it. I usually remember the photo subject or the event much more fondly than I remember the photographs.

Tee it high and let it fly!

– + –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s