October 2, 2012

Tutorial - Being Prepared


Being Prepared

(excerpt from the book Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography unreleased revised electronic version)

The photograph you may see will often only be a photograph you make if you are prepared to capture it.

Check existing settings that might be left from a previous situation that may be quite different than what you need now. Common problematic settings may be methods of focus, high ISO setting, Manual vs Auto exposure, Image Stabilization turned on and customized for the movement, or off if on a tripod.

Thinking through the ambient exposure and likely subject matter needs can anticipate a moment so that your camera is preset for what is likely.

Fast moving action means pre-setting a fast shutter speed, and possibly high ISO if limited light needs it.

As you walk down a street, consider what it is you are noticing, and prepare for possible unfolding events that needs quick response. Put on the most likely needed lens, but arrange the pack for other things you may need, the second most likely lens.

Although it may seem an unlikely pairing, being prepared also makes for a greater possibility of serendipity playing a wonderful role in recording the completely unexpected.

The dolphin photograph to the right could not exactly be seen, it was happening too quickly. The settings I set up were able to capture a magic I could intend, but not actually see and react to quickly enough to capture. I had to just set the camera and keep tripping the shutter, sometimes on continuous bursts and hope that some of the magic I was seeing could be held. It was, and more.


The View From Here - September/October 2012


Tuolumne River. Tioga Meadows. Yosemite. 2012.

by Stephen Johnson


I rarely know what these essays will turn toward, as I write from the photographs I make, and the experiences that evolve. Water reflections, movement, flow and its very precious nature seems to be holding my mind the last few days.

A few recent experiences contributed to this. A quick trip just before Labor Day to the high Sierra and Mono Lake brought me back to some deeply inspiring places. The lake water rising, reflections, the streams and rivers of the Sierra, all filled my head. The very life of water running brought relief from the desert heat. Then, just last week, a long awaited whale watch cruise into Monterey Bay with whales and dolphins moving through the blue-green Pacific brought water back into my head.


Last Light Cloud. Mono Lake. 2012.

The constant movement of water is one of its infinite fascinations. In photography, I never know exactly what the result of moving water will look like rendered. Whether it is ocean streaming off a Humpback Whale's fluke as it dives, the tumble of a waterfall, or the laminar flow of water in, and around dolphins speeding through their liquid world.

The dolphins were a great example. They played with the boat, racing along, round in front, speeding so fast it was impossible to understand how they could move so rapidly through the water. I wasn't fully prepared for the photographic opportunity, it all happened so quickly. I had carelessly left a slow card in the camera, and had only a very long lens handy when we encountered the dolphins. Sharp, carefully planned shots with real bursts of exposures, backed off in zoom were not going to happen. So I rolled with the abstraction of some blur and wildly improvisational compositions, largely out of necessity.

We were told they were Common Dolphins. We thought they were anything but.


Common Dolphins, Monterey Bay. 2012.

It reminded me of other experiences and photographs, of mammals, birds, water flow and reflections, even probably inspiring new work over the next few days where form and movement kept playing into the magic of water...

A few from the last two weeks, Monterey Bay, from the Russian River, and the Sonoma Coast seemed worth including here.


White Pelicans. Sonoma Coast. 2012.


Pelicans. Pescadero. 2012.


Great Blue Heron Landing on the Russian River. 2012. ps6CR7hdr

Reflections and Granite Shoreline. Teneya Lake, Yosemite. 2012.

High Sierra and Tioga Pass

Driving over Tioga Pass in Yosemite is always special for me. I have to continually renew my connections to this road that takes me to 10,000 feet amid the mountains that have given me the greatest solace of my life. Just short of Tuolumne Meadows heading from the west is Teneya Lake which happened to have some unusual water color layers and reflections.

Mono Lake

No visit ever fails to deepen my fascination and appreciation of the wonder of Mono Lake. It is curious to see the lake rise and re-flood so many of the familiar tufa formation we came to love. We hoped this would happen, as it is critical for the lake's vitality as an eco-system.

But as trails get reworked and formations start to return to the water of their birth, I am also reminded that getting to know many of these places was a fluke of careless water diversions. Watching them start to disappear under Mono's ancient waters is simply the right course for this precious resource. It does also give us a short window (hopefully) to still see some of these magnificent formations.

Join us if you can on our Mono Lake and the Eastern Sierra Workshop October 13-16, 2012.


Submerging Tufa Towers. Mono Lake. 2012

Last week, revisiting Lee Vining Creek, one of Mono Lake's feeder streams, reminded me of some video I made last year which took me down a meditative path of water movement poetry. Here it is, unedited, for whatever transportive qualities it may have for you.

Lee Vining Creek. Mono Lake. 2011. Canon 5dII. (streaming may be slow)

Tutorial - Black and White or Color


Black and White or Color

(excerpt from the book Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography unreleased revised electronic version)

Black and White or Color? A question that has changed in some fundamental ways in this digital age. Now we almost always make our photographs in color through Bayer pattern filters spread across our sensors filtering the light into red, green and blue.

If we want black and white, for the most part, we are starting in color. This is frustrating on one level, because it means if we want black and white, we have to derive the color first, then transform the photograph into grayscale.. This lowers the resolution of the file as compared to what it would be without the color filters.

But there are also some wonderful advantages. It means the black and white world we derive from color (albeit, now on the computer) can be almost anything we imagine, or stumble into through experimentation. The Black and White Adjustment Layer in Photoshop further enables a level of customization that it is almost unbelievable. We can experiment with conversions, customize different areas with masks, and re-imagine the nature of what a black and white photograph can be.

Although Grayscale (BW) conversion can be done in Camera Raw, Lightroom, Capture One and other raw processors, I prefer Photoshop because of the masking and control, allowing different areas to be converted in different ways, as shown below.


From July 2011 Newsletter: Black and White Selective Conversion. Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park. Maine. 2011.

ps6CR7hdr ps6CR7hdr

Chard, Veggie Series (color). 2012


Chard, Veggie Series (custom black and white with adjustments shown on graphic to the left). 2012

In the example here, the color file provided the raw material for separating the BW conversion into dark stems on glowing leaves. It's a major tonal shift, but demonstrates the flexibility of the process.

The View From Here - August 2012


Pepper. Veggie Series #4. 2012.

by Stephen Johnson

Raw Form 

I've been thinking about form, organic, sensual form, living objects, the things we grow and eat, the things we subconsciously pick up at a market, the fruits and vegetables that make up so much of our diet. Or ought to. The beauty of these objects, their vibrant color, improbable form and connection to the earth are all compelling sources we instinctively seek.

Our new RAW from RAW class and a visit to the San Francisco Farmers Market, brought a plethora of peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and strange fungus into our lives to serve as models for the class. We needed them as subjects, now feel somewhat overwhelmed at their beauty, imminent decay, and the need to act fast to do them photographic justice before they collapse into something quite different.

The class was fun, very hands-on, and filled with immediate feedback on our work, which was wonderful. In the studio, a slight change in approach shows up immediately. Working with depth of field in such a demonstrable and dramatic way was very rewarding. Making photographs as a depth of field expansion set, then demonstrating how to put them together was also very effective, and fun. (see Testimonial by Alan Kushnir).

It makes me want to wander the beach, collect more stuff, go through the rock and artifact collection, get lost in those most curious things we pick up and hold on to. There must be a reason after all, for me to hold onto so many of those precious jewels of the moment for so many years.


Pepper. Veggie Series. 2012.

Help! Bell peppers everywhere!!!!!!

I feel like we're drowning in the veggies we gathered for the class. Although it is shame they are wilting, it is also a delight that we are eating very well.

peppers ps6CR7hdr


Cucumbers, Bitter Melon, and Peppers in color and custom black and white. 2012.

Black and White or Color

With the advent of the Black and White Adjustment Layer in Photoshop, whole new worlds of black and white interpretation have opened up to us. The veggies above are a simple example, the tutorial below explores the possibilities a bit further.


Surf at sunset, north Pacifica.. 2012..

Another Surf Photograph

Why do we keep photographing scenes we've seen a thousand times before? When do they become compelling once again, and what can the photograph be that makes the new particular experience stand out. A topic we'll explore in the Beauty in Photography course coming up November 3rd.