Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Let's go with photographer Alec Johnson -- and his mom -- on a tour along the North Shore of Lake Superior

When Alec Johnson spoke with us about the challenging task of writing a blog story to go with his fine art photos, he was told "it's as easy as writing a letter to your Mama." Little did we suspect such a literal response:

Dear Mom,
I canʼt wait for your visit to our northern shore of Lake Superior -- which stretches from Duluth, Minnesota, east to Sault Saint Marie, Ontario. As a landscape photographer, I find as much beauty and joy shooting an old railroad yard as I would get photographing Bad Water in Death Valley. As much as I enjoy hearing your stories about driving through Death Valley with Grandpa, I have made Lake Superior my main source of inspiration. There are not many quilt shops here in St. Paul, but I know of one in Beaver Bay. So I hope you'll settle for a preview of all the wonderful landscapes and scenic beauty in these parts that Iʼve come to know and love. Let's start with some facts about Lake Superior, so you can begin impressing your neighbors when you're chatting up our trip.

Lake Superior is the world's largest fresh-water lake in terms of surface area, so there's a lot to see. Coming from Minneapolis, weʼll start our trip by heading down Thompson Hill and into Duluth, the city known as the Gateway of the North Shore. In pre-historic times, Duluth was deep underwater. The combination of glacial and volcanic activity eventually produced today's large sandy beaches along the south shore and the many high granite bluffs and river systems feeding into the lake along the northern shore. In addition to the various rock formations, vast blue sky and water, and peaceful pine forests, we'll be seeing colorful lighthouses and old Norwegian fishing villages -- youʼll definitely feel like youʼre on the Atlantic coast somewhere in Maine.

The image above of Duluth Harbor was taken using my Canon 1Ds Mk II with a 24-70mm lens equipped with a Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue Polarizer. The one-minute exposure was based on setting the ISO at 100 at f/8. Youʼll no doubt appreciate a few words on how such black and white images are created. First, I approach certain subjects with a black and white image in mind. Color is its own subject. If I donʼt want the final image to be in color, then I immediately start to think and see in monochrome. In the images we see here, color was mostly absent from the original scene (or muted and static at best), but the challenge is that contrast in black and white images usually results from the contrast between colors in the scene. So, I use a Gold-N-Blue Polarizer to actually add color into the scene. If I want more tonal contrast, Iʼll add the Singh-Ray 2-stop Reverse ND Grad filter to hold back the sky. This combination of long exposure and filtering provides me a great starting point for the almost surreal high-contrast black and white images, without inducing too much noise. Iʼll combine the color effects in camera by using different white balance settings to manage sky and water separately in post production. Iʼll shoot a frame for water using my "flash" white balance for the water (to produce a very red/orange result) and "tungsten" for the sky (for a very blue/magenta result) and then combine them in post-production as the starting point for the final black and white conversion.

The Ojibwe Indians called Lake Superior 'Gitchi Gummi,' (Big Water). Later, the Canadian-French voyagers named her Lac Superior to signify the northernmost of the five Great Lakes. To me, the name stands for the very best fresh-water lake in the world. It's also one of the coldest, averaging 42 degrees year round. You won't need your swimming suit, Mom, but bring your quilting. You'll enjoy sitting lakeside under the warm sun with the scent of pine and wildflowers in the air. For some odd reason, the North Shore does not seem to be a national destination -- no national parks -- but plenty of wonderful state parks.

This second image is to the north of Duluth Harbor 200 yards or so. It's known as Fort Whitney. We're looking at all that remains of an old, early 1920ʼs unloading platform for ore boats carrying gravel excavated off the bottom of Lake Superior. This photo was also taken with the Gold-N-Blue. If you take a close look along the horizon, you can see the 100-foot ore ship anchored and waiting for the lake to calm enough to allow safe sailing into Duluth Harbor. Having this tiny ship in the image was just good fortune, but it really makes the photo work for me. I could not have predicted this scene even though Duluth Harbor has a web cam. I left Saint Paul at 2:00 am in the morning to arrive for sunrise.

The first two images above were created under storm conditions that can produce high surf, but I like to catch the surf on the back side of a storm, when waves have calmed to about 5 feet with lighter winds. This creates great, long-exposure motion effects in both the clouds and surf. It also allows the tripod and camera to remain still. By contrast, this next image was made on the front side of a storm, under the strongest wind and surf conditions. In fact, I had previously tried shooting in the wide open near Duluth but couldnʼt control anything. The camera and tripod were shaking in the wind, filters were getting wet. So I began to think about where I could find cover to manage a shot, and still have the wild conditions. A month earlier, during a scouting trip, I had found this spot 25 miles further up the shore in Silver Bay. With a little more than an hour of daylight left I took off. I know, Mom, you are always telling me to slow down, but sometimes this is how shots are created. I used my Canon 5D MkII with a Canon 24-70mm lens and the ISO set at 100 at f/11 for an exposure of 6 seconds. I used the Gold-N-Blue and 2-stop Reverse ND Grad filters.

I've focused on showing you shoreline storm images, but I don't want you to think that the lake shore is the only feature worth seeing here. There are at least 8 river systems between Duluth and Silver Bay (and more further up the shore) which are remnants of the glacial process. They all feature great granite formations, waterfalls and beautiful hiking trails. Here's just one recently shot image in an area new to me on the Beaver River, which the locals call Glen Avon. I used my Canon 16-35mm lens on the Canon 5Ds MkII with a Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer. The exposure at ISO100 was f/16 for 30 seconds. I spent several days shooting in the area and can't wait to go back.

In the meantime, Mom, youʼre only 85 years young and ready for some new excitement. I canʼt believe how quickly youʼve taken to texting and surfing the internet. However, if my explanation of how I shoot my black and white images has been too technical for you then let me simplify it. I use a Gold-N-Blue Polarizer to bring color back into scenes that are lacking much color. This color that's added by the filter allows me to create greater contrast in my black and white images while minimizing the effect of noise. Maybe Iʼll let you play with the filter and try creating a few images of your own. There is no right or wrong here, it's like quilting. There are so many tools to choose from and ways to implement them. You just need to start playing and see what happens.

See you soon Mom,

Alec Johnson is a commercial architecture and portrait photographer based in Saint Paul, MN. His portrait photography earned an honorable mention in the 2009 Lensbaby International competition. You can find more about his photography and his August 2011 Lake Superior Landscape Photography workshop by visiting his blog and viewing his commercial work at acjohnsonphoto.com.


Travis said...


Terrific imagery, makes me want to photograph on the North Shore! That gold and blue is really versatile....

Love the letter to mom.


Keith said...

Beautiful work, Alec. I appreciate your thoughtful insights and great tips on filter utilization. With digital, I tend to limit my use of filters but your approach to composition has given me pause to reconsider that position.