Jonathan Cavalier is not a golf course photographer by trade. He does, however, have an intuition for what makes a likable photograph. He has gifted the participants of the Golf Club Atlas discussion board with numerous photo tours of some of the great courses of the USA. His ability to gain access to these courses is nearly as impressive as the photographs he produces. He is an incredibly busy man…how busy? We began this interview process last November! The man finally and somehow found time to answer these questions, and we are grateful. Enjoy the interview and take a look at some of his work as linked below. If you need a daily dose, follow him on Twitter.
1. Tell us who you are, what your day job is, that sort of thing.
I’m Philadelphia lawyer practicing labor and employment law at a large firm. I’m Philly born and bred — all Big-5 education (undergrad at St. Joe’s, law degree and MBA from Temple) — and have no current plans to leave, although every winter the prospect of moving somewhere with a 12 month golf season becomes more and more enticing.
2. How did you come to be a golfer? Give us the back story on your entry into the great game.
Typical story – grew up playing baseball, basketball and football, and stuck with organized baseball the longest, when college pitching just got too good for me. Fortunately, at the time, I was working for a friend of my father’s who happened to be a golf nut, and he took us both out for a round at Hartfeld National – my first round, shot 126, loved every minute of it and was hooked.
3. What type of golfer are you? 60s shooter? 70s? 80s? 90s? This will matter later on.
In a given season, my handicap fluctuates between 4 and 8, depending on how much I’m playing. I’ve been as low as a 1.8 (which lasted for about 10 minutes). My typical round is mid- to high-70s. I’ve broken par on occasion, but it’s not a common occurrence.
4. You are known on the Golf Club Atlas site for scintillating photo tours of golf courses. Have you always been interested in photography, or was it an offshoot of your interest in golf and golf course architecture? When/where was the epiphany when you said, “I need to preserve these courses.”
I never had a real interest in photography before I started shooting golf courses. At first, I’d just take a few shots here and there with my phone. My real interest began about the time I started playing some better golf courses, which coincided with the time I began participating at Golf Club Atlas. I wanted to discuss some of these courses, and thought that I would be able to contribute a little more if I was able to include photos with my text. I think one of my first posts at GCA was a discussion of the 12th hole at Garden City, and the response was overwhelmingly positive, which certainly motivated me to do more, and to take better photos.
5. There are many great, professional photographers who make good money at this. They have all day (or week) to shoot a course. We suspect that you don’t…how do you blend your photography with playing the course, not disturbing your partners, keeping up your pace of play.
I shoot almost exclusively while I play. The exceptions to that are if a club specifically asks me to come and shoot their golf course, or if I walk back out on a course to shoot it in better light after a round, though both of these are pretty rare. And, of course, if I’m using a drone.
I am an extremely fast golfer. I know, I know, everyone says that. But I typically walk 18 unobstructed holes in less than an hour and 45 minutes. I don’t take practice swings – ever. I just prefer fast golf – I play better, and I enjoy it more.
As you can imagine, when I’m playing by myself, this pace leaves plenty of time for taking a few photos. And when I am playing in a group, I shoot while others are hitting. Unobtrusively.
With that said, not slowing down or disturbing my fellow playing partners is absolutely my first consideration. If, for whatever reason, I happened to be bothering someone or slowing the group down, I’d stop shooting. But as best I can tell, this has yet to happen, and I have never had any complaints from people I have played with.
6. What tricks have you learned along the way? Do you take what you get from raw footage or are you a bit of a post-production guy? Which golf courses were your favorite ones to shoot and why?
I don’t like editing my photos. I am by no means a purist — I just don’t enjoy that aspect of photography. I find post-processing boring, and it takes me a lot of time.
I shoot entirely in JPEG, and transfer the photos from camera to iPad. Once on the iPad, I delete the photos I no longer want, do some cropping (I like a wider image when shooting golf courses), and upload to whichever site I’m using to host the photos.
So my workflow doesn’t involve a computer. As a result, I try very hard to get it right in-camera. Sometimes I am successful, others not so much.
My favorite golf course to shoot is National Golf Links of America, which is also my favorite golf course to play. NGLA has everything a photographer could possibly want — incredible ground movement, elevation change, long views, water, and, of course, the beautiful clubhouse and windmill. The natural bunkering and the use of long native grasses provides wonderful color and texture. It’s hard to take a bad photo of NGLA.
Other favorites on the classic side would be Shinnecock Hills, Fishers Island, Maidstone, Myopia Hunt Club, Somerset Hills, Sleepy Hollow, Merion, and Eastward Ho. On the modern side, favorites to shoot would be Bayonne Golf Club, Boston Golf Club, Old Sandwich and the courses at Bandon Dunes.
7. Do you have any war stories? Run-ins with grumpy golfers, weather conditions or wildlife? Courses that were less than agreeable to your photography? You should change necessary names to protect the guilty/innocent.
My experiences with clubs and other golfers have been almost universally supportive. The key, in my view, is to ask permission before shooting at a private venue, and to not slow anyone down or be disruptive. If I am asked by a club or a host not to shoot, I don’t shoot – simple as that.
Strangely, all of the grumpy golfers I have run into as a result of my photography have been on GCA. As I am sure you know, there is a very small but very vocal contingent of people on that site that view golf course photos with the same scorn as they do mulligans and lift-clean-and-place. That said, the support from the majority of people on GCA, and online in general, has been overwhelmingly positive.
7A. (In case you had no war stories) What should beginning landscape photographers (of which golf course photography is a subset) strive to do and strive to avoid, in your opinion? In other words, what were some of your early missteps that you can counsel others to evade?
The number one thing a beginning golf photographer should strive for is to avoid disrupting anyone while shooting photos. If shooting during a round, make sure that your pace of place is good, that you are not slowing down the group behind you or your playing partners, and that you aren’t being an annoyance otherwise. Another crucial rule is to ask permission of the club or your host before you shoot.
With respect to the photography itself, my biggest suggestions would be for beginners to start by shooting what interests them, and if possible, by shooting golf courses that they love. They should also practice shooting as much as possible, as its really the only way to improve. And beyond that, there are a wealth of resources available of photography in general and golf photography in particular.
Another tip would be to avoid getting hung up on equipment – digital cameras have gotten so good that even the most basic, in competent hands, will be good enough for 99% of the shots that most people want to take. It’s much better to learn how to use a decent camera than to just keep buying the latest and greatest.
Lastly, my advice would be to ask questions — find a golf photo that you really like and reach out to the photographer to ask how it was taken. I’ve found that most photographers are happy to answer questions about their work.
8. Project a bit down the road. Do you see yourself shooting more, less or the same? Do you have interest in upgrading your photographic equipment?
I expect I’ll be shooting about the same, or perhaps a bit more. For me, it all depends on where I play.
I don’t buy camera equipment very often. My primary cameras for shooting golf courses are a Sony RX100 Mk4, a Fuji X100s, a small Leica, and an iPhone 6s. All have strengths and weaknesses, but the key feature of all four is that they’re small enough to fit comfortably in a pocket — since I shoot while I play, this is a must, and it’s the reason I don’t use my DLSR to shoot golf courses.
I did recently upgrade my drone to a DJI Phantom 4, and it is tremendous. Not only is it a blast to shoot with, but it gives me the ability to shoot courses from angles that were previously unavailable.
9. What question haven’t we asked, that you would love to answer? Ask the question and answer it, please. And thank you for your time today.
The question I get most often is, other than, perhaps, “How do you shoot photos while you play?,” is “Why do you take photos of golf courses?”
I came to golf late in life – I didn’t play my first real round until late in college. But the game hooked me deeply and immediately. Aside from the joy I got in discovering a relatively athletic game I could play outside until old age, I fell in love with the camaraderie and togetherness that golf brings.
My relationships with my old golfing buddies have been deepened and strengthened through golf. I’ve met many people through golf, some of whom I now count among my closest friends. Many of my best clients have been developed directly through golf. And my bond with my father is stronger than it’s ever been due to our mutual love of the game.
Golf has given me so much. Taking and sharing photos is the best way I have to give a very small bit of that back. Nothing makes me happier than when a club or a member reaches out to me and asks to use my photos for something to benefit the club. And I believe that architecture discussions, such as those we all love on GCA, benefit greatly from the visuals that photos bring. Lastly, I recognize that I’m very fortunate to have been able to play some of the courses I’ve played, and I enjoy sharing a part of that experience with people online, and through Twitter and Instagram, who may not have the contacts, the time or the resources to see some of these courses in person.
As long as people have an interest in seeing the photos I take, I’m happy to keep doing them.
Have a look at some of Jonathan Cavalier’s photo threads on the Golf Club Atlas Discussion Board