Snap Decisions

Lots of practice makes Joe Chan picture perfect

By Stuart Walthall
July 2019

Joe Chan brings beauty to social media with photographs that compel viewers to look deeply into the compositions captured by his lens. It’s impossible to ignore a Chan photo.

Fascinating, evocative and splashed with colors, the images produced by the Sacramento photographer represent a wayward journey to artistic success. Chan didn’t grow up with a camera. He mastered the challenges of light, shadow and composition after a successful career as a banker and mortgage broker.

“I took every conceivable picture in order to learn,” Chan says. “I took college courses but tired of the curriculum. I read every book I could get my hands on. I studied all notable photographers, analyzed and copied their styles.”

The quest began in 2004 when Chan purchased a Canon digital single-lens reflex camera. The digital market was just heating up—Canon had begun to shift its high-end gear away from film only about three years earlier—so Chan became an early adopter of something new and exciting.

And he wasn’t burdened by technical baggage carried by some old-school film photographers who made the switch to digital. He leaped into the new format and never looked back.

Aside from his books and classes, Chan followed a time-honored path to photographic expertise. He took photographs, lots of them, and learned from his mistakes. His exuberant practice methods would not have been possible in the film era, not without a second mortgage to pay for film and processing.

“During my first six or seven years of photography, I took about 80,000 shots a year,” he says. “You can’t get good unless you practice. I needed to find out where I was at and what I liked.” Chan estimates he has taken more than 500,000 photos in 15 years.

He soon realized he could share his talent, not just by displaying his photography, but by teaching people the skills he had mastered. He volunteered at the Asian Community Center, where he taught beginning, intermediate and advanced photography, and the tricks of Photoshop software.

The lessons continue today. Chan eagerly offers suggestions and advice to any aspiring photographer. Social media postings of his images are often accompanied by specific details such as f-stop, exposure and composition. “I am more than happy to share my knowledge,” he says.

Chan, who lives in Land Park, has three children and seven grandchildren. His route to Sacramento was as interesting as his photography.

He was born in Canton, China, in 1947. His father was a U.S. Army veteran who lived in Canton before and after the war and started a family there. His father was also familiar with the Sacramento region. The elder Chan had been born in Courtland and was determined to bring his young family to California. It took years, but the Chan family at last arrived in 1951. They settled on Levee Street in Locke.

Young Joe started kindergarten in Walnut Grove while his father bagged groceries at a Delta market and his mother picked and packed orchard crops. When Joe entered first grade, the family moved to Oak Park after his father purchased a home on the G.I. Bill.

At Sacramento High School, Chan studied clarinet and percussion. He was placed in accelerated learning classes. But his passion was track and field. He was a sprinter and long jumper. He ran the 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds. “I was the fastest Chinese guy in Sacramento,” he says.

After 35 years as an independent mortgage broker, Chan retired in 2006. By then, he was headed in a new direction, camera in hand.

“To grow as an artist you have to stay outside of the box,” he says. “You have to keep moving. Try not to please everybody, but be the best artist you can be.”

To view Chan’s photographs, visit his Facebook page at or contact Chan at
Stuart Walthall can be reached at

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