This was a year of adversity for most Americans. For many, it meant the end of an era, whether the loss of a home to foreclosure, or a long-held job, or just the ability to go on a real vacation. Adversity is like a psychological nor’easter—a great storm that blows into our lives without being invited. It also separates people according to their depth of character; some sink into the abyss of despair while others see it as an opportunity to begin a new chapter in their life. The profile on Susan Wood chronicles one of the latter.
What separates the masses of snap-shooters from those who create great photographs is the ability to think outside the box. In this case, the small green box located on the “mode” dial of any reasonably functional camera. Most of us know it as the “auto” mode, where we just point, shoot and hope we caught whatever it was that momentarily interested us. Other than framing the subject, there is little creativity here—just the programming injected into the camera functions by the manufacturer’s technicians.
In many ways, this little green box can be a metaphor for the lives of many East Bay residents. We start careers, get married, and raise a family in the comfortable confines our local communities. For those who choose to be stay-at-home moms (or dads) there is the added structure of volunteering at our children’s school, coaching a sports team or just helping out with community events. For most of her life, Susan Wood was just such a person with her family being the centerpiece of her life. She has a “giving” personality, and was always volunteering for one thing or another as her children grew up.As expected, her two children graduated from high school and moved away to college. Unexpectedly, marital difficulties ensued shortly afterward. She suddenly found herself alone, facing a totally unfamiliar world. Life, as she knew it, was swept away almost overnight. Susan says, “I was always taking care of someone else and hadn’t even considered what I would do after becoming an emptynester.” To make matters worse, she had to quickly find a way to support herself financially.
Susan grew up admiring creative people and had been an amateur photographer for many years, shooting school activities, sports events and family travel adventures. She had a knack for capturing fascinating subjects at just the right moment and gained a lot of satisfaction from getting a great shot. Susan decided to center her new “life” around being a professional photographer. This was a long-held interest which brought a measure of continuity to her world that had changed so dramatically.
“My camera skills gradually improved while my kids were in school but once I turned professional, I energetically threw myself into becoming a great photographer,” Susan recalls. “It required a lot of patience, persistence and hard work, but my self-confidence grew dramatically and resulted in higher quality photos.” There were endless hours of on-the-job training as Susan shot a variety of subjects and then painstakingly critiqued the results. In only a few years, she has become an accomplished local shooter with a broad range of interests, including wildlife, aviation, public events, corporate functions, weddings and family portraits.
Susan realized that great photographers spend all their time operating outside that green “auto” box. Creativity and flexibility are the keys to success in the photo kingdom in addition to planning ahead and maximizing the odds of capturing just the “right” image. Like all artists, photographers see more than just the subject in front of them. They envision how to capture the essence of that subject from the best aspect. At the time of shooting a picture, lots of technical details must be closely managed—focusing properly, getting the best lighting, framing the subject, etc. But that’s still only part of what makes a photographer like Wood special.
“I love what I do,” Susan says. “For me, photography is as much a journey of self discovery as it is of building a successful career. I learn something new every day plus I meet wonderful people while doing it. I explore interesting new places and things all the time. As if it can’t get any better, I get to share unforgettable moments in time with others through my photos. It’s like having Christmas all year.”
Along the way, Wood had a few epiphanies that greatly improved her photographic skills. In the wildlife arena, she had often taken pictures of ducks in local ponds—floating, standing, and even flying away. Fortunately, she received some timely mentoring from Rich Radigonda, an award winning waterfowl artist.
Armed with new insight, she ventured into the expansive delta marshland. Dressed in camouflage gear, and hanging around with a group of hunters, she learned techniques for getting close to wild ducks. She now captures much more dramatic shots of a variety of waterfowl, whether taking off, in flight or landing on the water.
Susan explains, “Rich made me realize that I had to change my perspective. I needed to visualize my final photo not as I would see it mounted on a wall, but as my customers would see it. Spending quality time with seasoned duck hunters allowed me to learn a lot more about what elements made a waterfowl picture special to them. As a result, I’ve captured some wonderful moments and learned a valuable lesson that has improved my entire approach to taking photos.”
When working with people, Susan’s passion is interacting with her subjects rather than handling the follow-up photo processing in a computer. She spends a lot of time getting to know the people who hire her and understanding what feelings or activities they are trying to capture. A growing number of photographers choose to shoot a reasonably good photo and then heavily post-process it with computer-based tools. Susan prefers to be more flexible. She adapts the photo shoot activity to the existing environmental conditions so only minor tweaks might be needed afterward.
In the studio and portraiture arena, Wood uncovered an essential secret to success. The majority of subjects who came to her studio were either in a hurry because of a full day’s schedule or nervous because they felt they were not very photogenic. Establishing a positive relationship with the subject is critical in order to capture the essence of their personality. “Studio work is an interactive process,” Susan relates. “I have to gain the subject’s trust in order to get them to relax. In a family setting, it’s also important to “see” the children though the eyes of their parents. My goal is to make great memories during the photo shoot, not just have a family picture at the end.”
Joe Ovick, the Superintendent of Schools for Contra Costa County, appreciates this approach. “Susan has the unique ability to capture the energy and spirit of her subjects,” Joe recalls. “This is aptly demonstrated in her portraits of my grandson Rory, where you can see his real personality shining through. My family has had the pleasure of having Susan take both individual and group portraits.”
Wood’s approach to weddings is similar; she starts by learning all she can about the clients and their expectations. Susan is particularly fond of shooting destination weddings, where members of the wedding party and guests travel some distance to the site. Since most of the individuals are away from home, they tend to be a little more adventurous. Susan describes a recent wedding event in San Francisco. “The bride really wanted some photos that involved Irish coffee served at the Buena Vista café while the groom was very interested in getting shots involving the cable cars. Because of the great weather, both were attracted to the beach nearby. So we adapted to the situation and worked it all in. Everyone had a great time while we were shooting these photos and it shows in the end product.”
Amy and Jesse Lanzon, the bride and groom, definitely agree. “Susan exceeded our highest expectations. Her attention to detail, high energy and dedication to her clients make her service unique and exceptional. We have the most wonderful memories of our wedding day.”
Because of her basic personality, Wood is very interested in capturing human interactions when she spends time at events such as town festivals, corporate parties or museum celebrations. She’s always watching people, looking for that special shot. She was inspired by her daughters Jessica and Laura as they grew up so she has a special affinity for kids. Wood relates, “I get an amazing sense of satisfaction in capturing a photo that shows a genuine depth of feeling between two humans. I’m very proud of several taken at the Hornet Museum this summer when Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, took time out of his hectic day to chat with some young children.”
Acclaimed local plein air painter and teacher Sylvie Carr notes, “Susan pursues all her subjects with passion and expertise. Her work reflects an artistic eye, clear vision and contagious enthusiasm. I have confidence in the quality of her work, which is why I recommend her.Susan is a photographer without boundaries!”
Wood, a member of the Pleasant Hill Chamber of Commerce, is also devoted to improving communities in the East Bay, not just working for corporations and businesses. Some of the non-profit organizations she works with include: California Waterfowl Association, Ducks Unlimited, Wardrobe for Opportunity, and the USS Hornet Museum. She is currently working on an assignment for the CALSTAR air ambulance service.
Just three years into her new career, Susan already considers herself a success largely because she places a different value on the term than most people. She doesn’t measure success in terms of cash flow or profitability, but in terms of personal growth, daily satisfaction (aka “smileage”) and expanded personal relationships. Most of her clients end up being friends and advocates, the best measure of success ever invented.
It’s abundantly clear that she not only lives, but thrives, outside of the green box.
In addition to selling large photographs suitable for framing and display on a living room wall, she has also created an excellent line of photo cards. Susan Wood can be contacted at 925-939-7060 or via her online photo gallery at www.susanwoodphotography.com.