Walk into Paul’s Photo in Torrance, and you immediately feel the buzz of a community shop. A longtime patron may be sharing details of a recent trip while another customer trades in old gear for new. After a while you get to know the familiar faces, including owner Mark Comon.
At 14 Mark began working at Paul’s Photo with his dad, whose name still proudly sits atop the store. Now the owner of the business, Mark shares his father’s passion for photography—so much so that he extended the operation to include the Creative Photo Academy (CPA) next door.
CPA classes attract photographers of all levels and backgrounds—professionals, hobbyists, artists, newcomers—some looking to improve their skills, others to join a community. Since Mark began the academy as a “photo boot camp” in 1988, his students have won a collective 200 entries and 65 ribbons out of 8,000 submissions in the prestigious Orange County Fair photo contest.
Inspired by Mark’s vacation photos, students wanted to join him on the road for classes. In response, he created a travel extension of the academy, taking students on both domestic and international photography adventures. Mark recently returned from his 30th group trip—this time to the Eastern Sierras.
With the demands of running both the photo shop and the CPA, not to mention having a family at home, Mark sets his life at a rapid shutter speed. The quiet force behind his enthusiasm is his wife and high school sweetheart, Sheryl. She supports home base, only occasionally joining him on the adventures.
For Mark, travel is the great equalizer. It shows us that we have more in common with our fellow humans than differences. “Mothers are mothers, daughters are daughters, sons are sons and fathers are fathers, for the most part—no matter where they live,” he says. Through years of travel and looking through the camera lens, he appreciates the powerful link of human connection. “It’s what makes the world interesting, accessible and awesome.”
Currently, the CPA has adventures planned to Cuba in March, Italy in June and Africa in July with a trip extension to Uganda. Each adventure is customized to capture those perfect photos and experience the local culture on a deeper level. For the Tuscany adventure in the Chianti region, guests will enjoy a stay in a 10th-century monastery. Daily excursions to neighboring towns, cooking classes and wine tastings are woven into the itinerary as a respite from shooting or as additional activities for a spouse or travel companion.
For Mark, the Kenya safari is a bucket-list trip. He’s already working with a local tour operator with deep knowledge of the country, capable of making special arrangements to satisfy Mark’s photo community.
The pace of the international trips can be described as slow travel. And Mark insists it’s not all about f-stops and shutter speeds. The experiences are personal—sometimes even life-changing. Like all adventure travel, Mark says, sometimes you might just have to “roll with it” because “stuff happens.”
On a winter trip to Yellowstone, his luggage was lost and he had to endure the elements of –10º temperatures and snow while teaching his classes in a knit cap, jeans and regular shoes. On an Eastern Sierras trip, a river had washed out the road, leaving debris and fallen rocks. The group quickly pivoted and worked together as they cleared the path and pushed on.
Sometimes weather changes the plans or offers a lesson on how to shoot in the rain or snow, or a travel snafu reminds participants to practice patience. It’s all part of the adventure. And that’s why people sign up. They don’t plan to lounge in Havana at the hotel.
Mark and his students want to be where the photo opportunities are—even if that means getting up early to see the sunrise, battling unexpected travel delays or tracking wild animals in the African bush. They show up to see the beautiful landscape, capture that inspiring, once-in-a-lifetime shot and endure unplanned mishaps as part of the adventure.
The students also just like hanging out with Mark and other photographers. Typically the participants are an eclectic group of people with a singular focus and love of adventure and photography.
Each photo tour has unique moments that have been curated and planned for the best possible photo experience. Mark has spent years cultivating local relationships to fine-tune the adventures and handle trip logistics. He serves as both host and teacher, taking the group on a photographic journey peppered with social and cultural highlights.
He refers to his signature trip to Africa as “coming home,” sharing that it’s a feeling that this country is where it all started. As anyone who has been on an African safari knows, it’s easy to get hooked. The heady scent of Mother Earth and animals. The intense heat blanketing the landscape that forces a relaxed calm. That primal hum of nature that fills a void for something we didn’t know was missing. Playful adolescent elephants charge, lions roar in the night, zebras and giraffes stalk the vast plane. Participants are transported back to the days of hunters and gatherers, tracking the next fantastic photograph.
Sometimes a student will show up to an experience with just an iPhone—choosing to take the trip to enjoy the group’s safety and community. That’s fine with Mark too. He considers a smartphone helpful as a tool in planning shots, connecting and building an online community. He also acknowledges that the smartphone’s photo limitations can be significantly less desirable compared to those of a professional camera and lens.
Mark offers local social events that allow participants to try the latest gear—from telephoto lenses to mirrorless digital cameras. He even provides photographic content like exotic owls and falcons. Over the years, he has customized adventures and classes. Students can perfect their craft while exploring California’s natural wonders with annual trips to Death Valley, Monterey, the Eastern Sierras, Yosemite and the American Southwest.
Whether photographing landscapes, exotic birds, models, zoo animals (a popular local event) or city lights, there are plenty of opportunities and social events for all skill levels and budgets. Mark also offers a wide range of online classes and schedules viewings of recent trips to build community and highlight the upcoming adventures.
His students share his enthusiasm. “I have taken classes with Mark and purchased equipment for my interior design business,” says Diane Barber. “His passion for photography extends well beyond working his magic behind the camera lens. Sharing his artistry with his customer and students is definitely his calling, which he does with gusto, wit and technical genius.”
Jane Takagi so enjoyed her first trip to Africa with the CPA that she signed up to go again. Another fan, Tami Johnson, notes Mark’s ability to build a great community of people. She has been on a trip to the Eastern Sierras and met friends she now shoots with regularly.
A wonderful teacher and travel leader, at his foundation Mark is a photographer—a visual storyteller. Through the lens he builds a relationship with the viewer, taking us on both a physical and emotional journey. His photographic artistry and award-winning documentary images will capture your imagination and maybe even inspire you to create your own.