Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Alec Johnson strives to keep his nature photography simple and in the right perspective

Photographer Alec Johnson is based in Saint Paul, MN. where he frequently enjoys squeezing a photo outing to the north shore of Lake Superior in between his full-time work as a professor, his commercial photography work, and the Minnesota weather. "I’m not one to suggest photography-as-a-metaphor-for-life, but I’m afraid this post might read that way. I’m concerned because sometimes we artists tend to think our work is as dramatic and important as, say, being a doctor or a firefighter. Those who are around me while I'm wearing my photography hat have heard me say, 'We ain’t on a life-saving mission here,' as a way to talk myself back into a place where I’m just having fun, enjoying the moment of creating images, and keeping things simple. Photography is not that serious, not that complicated.

"Yet, I can get so focused during a photo shoot that it becomes very serious, because there is a real investment. For me, it is usually a lot of risky hours and miles behind the wheel. Anxiety builds over the perceived need to get a good set of images to justify the investment of time and resources. Then I start to worry. Do I have the right lenses and the right filters to take advantage of anything and everything that might present itself? I better just carry everything I have a mile up that river. The thought process (and extra weight) can be overwhelming.

"So this post is about simplifying. My blog readers ask many questions about choosing filters, which seems to them to be complicated. But the same question comes up over and over. It is the same question I asked my mentor, Craig Tanner, many years ago: I only have a budget for one filter; which is the best filter to have in the bag? Predictably, his answer was along the lines of 'it depends.'

"Here is my simple answer to that question. What do you shoot most often? I shoot what is in my own backyard most often, and that is Lake Superior and the river system associated with its watershed. That means water, lots and lots of water and wet rocks. That means, for me, a really good polarizer. If I had to have only one filter, it would be the Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer. If you live in Las Vegas and shoot big desert-scapes of Death Valley, it might be a 2-stop Reverse Graduated Neutral Density filter. If your budget is limited, as it is for many of us, then go with something that can improve what you shoot most often. That is the one filter you should have in your bag.

"We in the upper midwestern United States can attest to this fact -- we have been experiencing the most glorious, warmest, and earliest spring in our lifetime. That is a fact. The rivers on Lake Superior are open and full of water. The North Shore has experienced a lot of much needed rain in March. My most recent 18-hour round trip to the North Shore reflected this. Rain and fog -- and open raging rivers -- and rain and fog.

"The drive up to the Cascade River from Saint Paul, MN was rain all the way. As I passed Silver Bay, MN, I started calling my photography mate and weather radar guy, Travis in Kansas City, asking for updates on the movement of rain. The forecast was for an easing of rain within the next two hours. Nothing like a tough forecast to take the pressure off a shoot. I just had to sit and take it, waiting out the rain in the car. I was happy to be there, reading a book and waiting. The upside was that the quality of light was not changing rapidly. It was mid-day, cloudy, and foggy -- beautiful soft light for hours on end. No rush. No worries. Just be patient. 'No lives are at stake,' I told myself. I even took a little nap in the car. It was the absence of rain drops hitting my car that woke me up. Time to go shoot. I decided to keep things simple. A tripod, one camera (Canon 5D MkII), one lens (Canon 16-35mm), and one Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer filter. Go. Play. No rush.

"The two photos above were taken at Cascade River State Park, MN (at top) and Gooseberry River State Park, MN. I also took the two images below on the same trip to show my future workshop students the dramatic effect that the polarizer has on wet rocks.

"This upper image was captured using the polarizer, adjusted to fairly strong effect. The image below was taken without the polarizer, showing the glare off the wet rocks. The unpolarized image is generally less attractive and more distracting. The sky reflecting in the puddle is a nuisance and the glare is very busy and competitive with the rest of the scene. In the first image (polarized) everything feels more quiet and calm. Fewer subjects to distract the eye from what is important.

"After an hour and a half of shooting it started to rain again -- and rain hard. By then I had captured some lovely images and gratefully gave the Cascade River one last look. It was just that simple."

There's much more information about Alec's photography and his schedule of workshops, including his Lake Superior Landscape Photography, on his website, blog and facebook.

acjohnsonphoto.com | blog | videos | facebook

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