Sacramento, Calif., photographer James Trapp decided to follow his heart and leave the safety of a corporate job to pursue something different about 20 years ago. “At some point, I said things have got to change, and I need to follow my heart rather than my head,” he says. “I found a small photography company that was looking for a studio manager, but at the time, I’d only ever had Photography 101.”
One day, the lead photographer was sick and no back-up photographers were available to shoot the customer sessions booked for the day. Trapp was surprised when he learned he would be the one behind the camera that day.
“The manager told me to pick up the camera and start taking pictures,” Trapp says. “I thought he’d lost his mind. I was so nervous, it felt like my stomach was going to leave my body, but I got through that day. About mid-way through, I realized I was having fun, so I relaxed and enjoyed the moment.”
Nowadays, Trapp is obviously more at ease behind the camera and recently won his first Sunset Print Award with “Stubborn Determination,” a piece that was captured when he was doing a Facebook Live lighting demonstration to promote the Georgia PPA State Conference. Working within a 10-foot square show booth, Trapp began taking pictures of the model and discussing the importance of lighting. Once he got home and looked through the images, one stood out. “There was something about it. I didn’t have a grab on it, but that’s what happens, sometimes,” he says. “I really liked it, but I didn’t know why. It [the image] just grabbed me and pulled me in.”
Once he converted the image to black and white, he entered it into a local Sacramento affiliate show. The image was well-received, so he submitted a printed version to the Professional Photographers of California competition. “I firmly believe in submitting images in a print format rather than a digital format, especially for competitions,” Trapp says. “If it is a digital file, anything can alter how it’s viewed on the other end. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way. I made the conscious decision to only submit prints because when it leaves my home, I absolutely know what the judges will view on the other end.”
The importance of print isn’t the only lesson that Trapp has learned from competing. He believes education is one of the most important reasons any photographer should enter a competition, even if it’s just a local camera club. “The things I’ve learned along this road and how I’ve improved compared to where I was during my first competition in 2013, I’m a totally different photographer,” he says. “I attribute that 100% to competitions.”
Trapp believes going under the microscope at a competition can only benefit a photographer when it comes to working with clients. “What you used to think was difficult is now done at the snap of your fingers,” he says. “You learn techniques to improve an image for competition, and then you start using for your clients’ images. It separates you from other photographers in your local area. That, to me, is the biggest benefit of competition.”
The friendships that Trapp has developed with other photographers is another reason he continues to enter competitions. “You have this little camaraderie, which helps with confidence to go to the next level. Next, you enter a state competition, then your pool of friends starts increasing a little bit,” he says. “Then you really get brave and enter a national competition and you realize your friendships are spreading from east coast to west.”
Having friends who understand the intricacies of photography is almost as important as taking classes. For Trapp, one of those friends is Reno, Nev., photographer Pete Rezac. He has influenced Trapp’s love of black and white photography as well as continued use of film. “I called him about five or six years ago to see what he was doing with film cameras,” he says. “I started in film before digital was a thing. It’s always held a special place in my heart. When you’re in a dark room and see that image appear out of nowhere, you realize that is something that you created.”
From the early days in film and watching an image appear before his very eyes to printing award-winning images on his Canon PRO-1000, Jim Trapp has come a long way from the nervous photographer he once was. One piece of advice he offers is photographers should never quit competing.
“I don’t need to keep putting images in [competitions], I already have my Master of Photography degree,” he says. “I do it because it still surprises me and I’m still growing.”