Learning to Shoot Again with Photographer Barbra Kates

By Laurie O’Brien

hawks prairie casinoI’m going to tell you about an amazing photographer and artist we have living here in Thurston County, but first I need to tell you a little story. I think many readers may relate:

When I was a 14-year-old freshman in high school, I used the earnings from my first job to buy a “real” camera – a Pentax K1000. It was a single lens reflex (SLR) that cost the astronomical sum of $200. I was beyond proud of my purchase. I took a summer course, learned all about aperture and shutter speed and even started fumbling my way around a dark room. I shot with that camera through the rest of high school and college. For ten years I dragged it to my summer job at a camp in Indiana. It accompanied me when I traveled to Europe and the Caribbean, and it was the camera I used to record our honeymoon trip nearly 20 years ago.

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Photographer Barbra Kates (left) works with student Nancy Mooney.

Sadly, my prized Pentax got relegated to the back of a drawer around the same time that two other important events occurred. First, my oldest son was born; and second, we acquired our first digital camera. My husband bought us a point and shoot, and that was it; I was hooked on the instant gratification that comes with digital photography.

The computers on digital cameras are so advanced that even the most inexpensive ones have the ability to read light and take gallery worthy photographs, but a couple of years ago I found myself longing for the control I used to have with my SLR.  Thankfully, my husband knows me pretty well, and I found a shiny new Digital SLR under the tree that Christmas. Problem was, I hadn’t had my hands on a camera with manual controls in years, and I was afraid to take it off the AUTO setting.

And that is how I found myself enrolled in one of Barbra Kates’ photography classes.

Barbra is a professional photographer and educator who lives and works primarily in Thurston County, but her camera has allowed her to travel all over the world and share her knowledge with countless students.

“I am a visual storyteller,” explains Barbra. “I’m drawn to all genres of photography. I love to capture and document expressive moments – milestones in a person’s life, extraordinary instants in nature, a fleeting glimpse of light as it dances across a textured surface.”

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Barbra Kates photography assignments have taken her around the world. In this photo, a water taxi is loaded with camera gear for the journey to a lodge in Rio Arajuno, Ecuadorian Amazon.

She also gains satisfaction helping others discover their inner artist. “I like to share knowledge with others, so I make time to teach,” says Barbra. With both a B.F.A.  and a M.Ed., she is uniquely qualified to help both adults and school aged students learn about art and photography.  She currently teaches digital photography and Adobe Photoshop community education classes through South Puget Sound Community College, and she also occasionally works as an Artist in Residence in public schools, helping design and teach arts integrated curriculum. Barbra also offers private and small group sessions, workshops and travel programs.

Most of the adult students she encounters at SPSCC and elsewhere enroll in her classes for the same reasons I did. “People attend my classes to learn how to decipher their camera, use the camera settings beyond  AUTO, make better images rather than taking snapshots, explore composition, learn post-processing software and workflow,” she explains.  Her classes are hands-on, utilizing a combination of discussion and practice during each session.

During my first class with Barbra, she taught us about the various modes available on our cameras – sports, macro, portrait, etc. –  and what happens inside the camera when we choose one of them. At that point, we were led outside and directed to shoot a single subject using each mode. When the class regrouped, we looked at our images and discussed the things we had learned. During our time away from class, independent shooting assignments were designed to get our hands and brains wrapped around our cameras’ capabilities.

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A photography of a high school senior by Barbra Kates

By the end of my six week class, Barbra had guided us through all of the controls and functions of our cameras and was beginning to touch more on the principles of composition and design. I left not only feeling that I was the master of my camera, but also that I had developed a more educated and artistic eye.

As a professional photographer, the current focus of Barbra’s business is contemporary portraiture including high school seniors, families, pets, glamour, corporate and fashion. She also has a penchant for travel and will shoot for clients anywhere they send her. One assignment found her acting as a photographer and base camp manager for Helen and Bill Thayer’s “Polar Challenge” Expedition, an attempt on the Geographic North Pole. “I was embedded in a quonset hut, high in the Canadian Arctic – Resolute Bay & Ellesmere Island, NWT – with crazy bush pilots, in -50 degree weather. We flew, and landed, Twin Otter aircraft up on the Arctic Ocean ice pack to re-supply the expedition.”

Other amazing adventures include floating in an inner tube, camera in hand, down the Rio Arajuno River in the Ecuadorian Amazon Jungle with killer boa constrictors in the water next to her, photographing the inside a waterspout while in a dive boat in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, a mystical experience while scuba diving and  photographing giant stingrays in the Grand Caymans, and walking among and photographing a penguin colony in the Beagle Strait of Argentina Tierra del Fuego at the Estancea Halberton Yécapasela Reserve.

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A photograph by Barbra Kates shows a woman cleaning milking equipment at 11,500 feet in the Andres mountains.

Wherever she goes, Barbra’s camera goes too. “I am interested in cultural anthropology, so people are a main focus to me as I travel,” she explains. Even so, it was the subject matter right in her own backyard that helped her achieve the dream of nearly every professional photographer. “I continue to be in love with Mt Rainier,” she explains. “The view is always changing. My stock library contains hundreds of images of the Mountain. One day, I got lucky. I was at the right place at the right time, had my gear, had time, waiting for the light, at the decisive moment, got the shot. The image was submitted to and published in the February 2011 National Geographic “America’s National Parks” special collectors edition on a two page spread and online.” As she says, “Check off another entry on the Bucket List!”

Still, Barbra insists her favorite subject is whoever and whatever she finds interesting in front of her lens. She maintains that the best camera is the one you have with you, and that the most important thing to remember is to have fun with your camera. “If the technical side becomes too confusing and stressful, put your camera back on auto and keep shooting. Remember the joy of capturing a moment and why you picked up the camera in the first place. Never lose sight of that.”

To see more of Barbra Kates’ photography, you can visit her website.

To find a class taught by Barbra, you can check the SPSCC Course Catalogue or check Barbra’s site.

Photos courtesy Barbra Kates.

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