Story & photos by Donald Quintana
Our headlights cut through the darkness as we wind down the Blue Star Memorial Highway through the Lapanza Range of mountains. Just before nautical twilight ascends onto the earth, we pull into the parking area marked with an old vintage American water pump windmill. It’s good to have a landmark for our location. Out of the blackness, barely visible to the naked eye, carpets of Gold Fields speckled with Tidy Tips and patches of Baby Blue Eyes, glisten with the newly-dropped dew. Arriving 30 minutes before the scheduled meet up time, Bob and I set up and prepare to greet the members of our 367 strong NANPA Meetup Group of the Central Coast of California. Usually we have about 40 people RSVP, around 30 will actually make an event. Goodness knows what we would do if all 367 members showed up. Today we are gathering to photograph the wildflowers along Highway 58 and Carrizo Plain super bloom. Distant headlights begin to appear down Highway 58 coming in our direction. Members are beginning to show, and soon our meet up will begin.
Having been a Member of NANPA for a little over 10 years, I was drawn to becoming a Meetup group leader 3 years ago due to my own complex personal schedule. I wasn’t able to make our local camera club or Photographic Society meetings due to a class I was taking. I fully enjoyed my NANPA membership as it kept me connected to the professional world of nature and wildlife photography as an industry but, locally, I was feeling isolated. By starting the meetup group, I could stay involved in the local photography community because of the flexibility of the schedule. After a couple of weeks, I invited my good friend and fellow NANPA member Bob Canepa to join and co-lead the group. I was thrilled when he accepted. When I started, I had no idea it would grow to have so many wonderful members.
Make It About the Members
Going on 3 years now, I’ve learned a lot about running a Meetup group. For myself and, I believe for Bob as well, the Meetup group isn’t about our own personal photography, but about the photography of the community of people we bring together. You really have to make it about the photographers that attend and not about your own photo business. Everything needs to focus on the community of photographers and raising their skill level by sharing knowledge, experience, and creativity. Be inclusive, listen to their needs, and pull from the collective experience of all the photographers involved. I think the biggest mistake a person running a group can make is to keep too much control over the group, make it about themselves, their business, or their perspective of nature photography. You have to give people room to learn and grow. Otherwise the group becomes stagnant and falls apart. People need to have the freedom to express their creativity. Also, by drawing from the group, it puts less stress on the organizers to have to constantly be on stage or on point.
Collective Knowledge—Everyone Brings Something to the Table
So, it should be obvious that the second thing that makes our meet ups successful is that we welcome and celebrate the expertise and wealth of knowledge of the entire photographic community. We share information with one another and feed off of each person’s experience, from beginner to seasoned professional. I shoot Canon. Bob shoots Sony. Other members shoot Nikon, Olympus, and other camera systems. That collective knowledge allows us to help each other solve complex issues, learn about new ways of approaching a subject, and support the creative process. One just needs to open themselves up and embrace the learning process. I think having a learning environment that uses the collective knowledge makes everyone feel comfortable and welcome.
Go With the Flow, Ethically
Another element of our success is that our meetups are fairly free-flowing, with a relaxed structure. There’s no rigid agenda. When it’s time to begin, we gather everyone around, offer ideas on how to look at and shoot the location. If we have an expert in the crowd, such as a botanist/macro photographer when shooting wildflowers, we ask for their advice and suggestions.
We also go over field ethics: take only photos and leave only footprints; respect the area we are shooting in as we are only visitors; try to leave it as you found it. We cover NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices.
If people are interested and if time permits, we offer to meet up after the shoot for a late lunch. After our brief instruction, people are free to go about and shoot as they please. Bob and I stick around to help anyone who needs assistance. Some people wander off on their own, others gather in small groups and shoot together.
Our goal is to have a meet up each month. That consistency is important in attracting and maintaining members. The greatest challenge for Bob and me has been trying to come up with a new location for each month’s meetup. Once again, we rely on the collective input of the members and are open for suggestions for locations and subjects. One of the first things we mention when we get together is that, if anyone has any new ideas, locations, or topics, let us know. Once again we try our best to pool the collective knowledge of the members.
As with the windmill that served as a landmark in the opening paragraph, it’s important to have clear directions and an easily-recognizable place for the group to meet up.
Broad Places and Subjects
The most successful meetups we have had are ones where we photograph a larger location or make the subject of the group as broad as possible. Wildflowers is about as large a subject as you can get in the spring. Living fairly close to the Carrizo Plain, gave us a wonderful opportunity to shoot the 2019 super bloom. With such an immense area, there were plenty of opportunities. If people wanted to hang out with Bob and me and shoot with us, we welcomed the company. Another popular shoot was our Milky Way/star photography shoot. We held this out in the Carrizo Plain as well, due to it being one of the best dark sky locations on the central coast. For this meetup, we held two get togethers. One for people who had never shot the Milky Way and wanted help, and a second for people to put what they learned in the first meetup into action.
Follow Up and Sharing
After the meetups, we always ask that members share their best shots with the group on the photo section of the meetup page. If someone wasn’t able to make the meetup, but went on their own, we welcome those photos as well. People can ask for constructive criticism, if they want or they can just share. All we ask is that, if you don’t have something nice or constructive to say, keep it to yourself, as each person shoots at their level of experience. We want to keep a positive atmosphere for our group and encourage, not discourage.
So, how did we come to have so many members? Well I think our best method of marketing has been word of mouth. That we are welcoming to photographers of all levels of knowledge and ability makes it comfortable for both beginners as well as advanced photographers to feel at ease. When I send out a newsletter for my own nature and wildlife photography business, I mention to my clients that I also lead the local NANPA Meetup group and they are welcome to join. During the Meetups themselves, I don’t promote my own business, as it goes against the rules, but I do gain from having the opportunity to connect with so many people. There can’t help but be an overflow that benefits my own business.
Looking forward and thinking about the future, having a co-leader is a good idea. Always having someone to support you or help step up is a real boon. And, if the other leader has an emergency or just can’t make a meetup, having a co-leader ensures that the show goes on. Inviting the members to suggest ideas and help promote the Meetup group to their friends is crucial to creating a feeling of belonging and inclusion. After all, it really is a meetup for them. It also makes the job easier for Bob and me.
Getting together with like-minded people, taking photos, and sharing the beauty of the natural world is what it is all about. I look forward continuing this for as many years as they will let us. I can’t wait to get back on track and schedule more meet ups once we get through this current crisis that faces our nation. I look forward to seeing our members again.
Donald Quintana is a professional nature and wildlife photographer based out of Los Osos, CA, He is a certified California Naturalist and mentors local high school student in conservation photography working with local non-profits. When not leading photo tours, NANPA Nature Photography Group of the Central Coast of California Meetups, or giving educational programs, he works as a cat wrangler at the Rancho de la Quintana in the San Luis Obispo area. You can view his images here: