Chris Johnston Photography

Chris Johnston is a landscape photographer and photo educator in South Louisiana.

Why Taking Photographs Isn't About The Image

This morning I was watching the comedian Michael Jr. on YouTube. He said that his career took a turn when he realized that his purpose wasn't to get laughs from people but to give laughs to people. This statement made me realize something about my photography. My job as a photographer is not to take pictures that make me feel good, but to use my photography to make the person I'm taking a picture of feel better about themselves. 

At my last job, one of my duties was to shoot headshots for all new employees. While I was there we decided to redesign the website and take a new headshot for every employee in the company; that's over 200 headshots. For 3-4 days a week, for several weeks, I photographed headshots 6 hours a day. When I wasn't shooting them I was editing them.  

Now, I feel the need to make something clear at this point, I've always enjoyed shooting landscapes and wildlife more than people. Maybe because I'm an introvert, maybe because I can be socially awkward at times, maybe because I have low self confidence, I don't know, I was just never comfortable photographing people I didn't know. The shift came from me when I realized the reason I was uncomfortable was because the focus was on me.

When I focused on them and making them feel good, I had to spend so much energy watching their body language, listening to what they were saying, watching their expressions and listening to their tone of voice, that I didn't have time to worry about how I was feeling. This morning when I heard Michael Jr talk about the shift in his career I realized that I had the same shift in my photography when I was shooting those headshots. 

This sparked an idea in me. I need to think less of my photography as a business and more of my photography as a ministry. My job is not to create beautiful images of people, although that is what's going to happen, my job is to make them feel the best about themselves and in that process a beautiful image will come out.  Now don't get me wrong, this is still a business and I need to make a profit and feed my family. It's just that I finally discovered the why behind the what I'm doing and that makes everything else clearer.  

Getting into a state of flow

Despite a masters in journalism and previous jobs as both a copywriter and newspaper reporter it is still a chore for me to sit down and blog on a daily basis. I'm also a parent of 3 children and finding time outside of work to do this has been difficult.. To remedy that I am going to get up a little early to write (3:30am this morning). 

I've been thinking a lot lately about why I take photographs. It started in 2005 as a hobby but it grew into much more than that. Twelve years later it is an obsession that has taken over my life. In fact it is helping me to define the purpose in my life. 

I only feel truly alive when I'm taking photos. Time disappears, hours go by unnoticed, I get into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of flow.

There have only been a few pursuits in my life when that has happened. The first was when I started learning about wildlife and spending time in nature. I spent evenings glued to my TV watching Marty Stouffer's Wild America and on weekends I would spend hours in the woods trying to get a glimpse of a snake or sitting on the side of a bayou trying to see an alligator. 

This lead to 4 years a volunteer at a local nature center in the wildlife rehab center and 8 years at the local zoo, part of that in the wild bird rehab center. When I took up photography it only seemed natural to combine my love of nature and wildlife with this new hobby.

The problem is that as a parent of 3 children I don't have time to spend hours in the woods scouting locations and building hides and waiting for wildlife to show. If I bring the kids they are so noisy that I can be sure no wildlife will ever be seen. 

This little wrinkle in my plans lead to landscape photography. It is as equally fulfilling as wildlife photography but in a different way. It doesn't have that same excitement as waiting in the nature for the deer to appear or alligator to surface but I get excited when I see the final image. An image that is the culmination of time spent in the field shooting and then post processing in Lightroom and Photoshop back at home. 

I'm on a journey to figure out how to fit wildlife & landscape photography into my life on a daily basis. I'm not sure where this journey will lead but I do know that the outcome will involve me taking photos full-time as a career. I'm not really made for the corporate 9-5.


Captive deer with antlers in velvet at the Global Wildlife Center in Folsom, LA

Captive deer with antlers in velvet at the Global Wildlife Center in Folsom, LA

20 Questions about Chris Johnston

I've fallen in love with the work of Lisa Holloway. When this happens (it happens often) I become obsessed and I search for all the information I can find about that person and their work. I found an interview with Ms. Holloway and I liked the format so I decided to adopt it and answer 20 questions about myself.

Favorite Color: blue

Favorite Season: winter

Biggest Guilty Pleasure: Bacon and eggs for breakfast

The American Alligator (Alligator mississipiensis)

Pet Peeve: People who turn on their turn signal as they are turning the wheel to turn. 

Studio or On location: On location.

What did you want to be when you grew up? A veterinarian, wildlife biologist, or geologist. I’d still love to be an wildlife biologist or geologist. (Ms. Holloway and I both wanted to be veterinarians when we grew up)

The New Orleans Crescent City Connection

One thing no one knows about you is: I once rode a bull in a rodeo when I was in my early 20's.

Pc or Mac: Mac

Lightroom Or Photoshop: BOTH.

White Pelicans in the Louisiana Marsh

Film or Digital: Digital.

Props or No Props: No props.

If you could travel anywhere it would be: Denali National Park in Alaska.

Glass Half Empty or Half Full:  Sadly, half empty.  I’m trying to be more optimistic.

Raw or Jpeg: Raw.

Favorite Music to Edit to: I'm not a big fan of listening to music while I edit but classical relaxes me. 

Frozen Cypress leaves on a rare freezing morning in South Louisiana

Favorite Quote: “Having ADD makes life paradoxical. You can superfocus sometimes, but also space out when you least mean to. You can radiate confidence and also feel as insecure as a cat in a kennel. You can perform at the highest level, feeling incompetent as you do so. You can be loved by many, but feel as if no one really likes you. You can absolutely, totally intend to do something, then forget to do it. You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but feel as if you can't accomplish a thing." -Dr. Edward M. Hallowell

Most valued material possession: My camera gear.

Processing Style: I like deep blacks and a heavy vignette.

Coffee or Tea: Coffee.

If you could photograph a Celebrity who would it be? Mykel Hawke. I know he used to live in NOLA but if anybody has a connection I'd appreciate a hookup. 

Feeling God's Pleasure

Yesterday morning as I was drinking my coffee I looked out the window and I could see a dark fire in the sky to the East. I went outside and the sky was a beautiful range of yellows, reds, and magenta. The combination of the early morning light, and its reflection and diffusion through the clouds, had created a light that had pink quality too.  It was almost magical, and I stood there for several minutes admiring this beautiful sight.

Something occurred to me while doing this...the only thing keeping me from doing what I want with my life is me. It's not God, it's not my circumstances, or the money in the bank, it's me. I've been trying so hard to figure out how to be a professional photographer and everyday I'm trying to figure it out I'm missing opportunities like this awesome sunrise.   I can shoot locally and already do (but not consistently enough). I can blog (I have journalism degree). I can create products that people want (I have a marketing degree). What I need to do is create them and do it consistently. 

In the movie Chariots of Fire, there is a scene where Eric Liddell says, "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." Substitute photography for run and you have me. I don't just like photogrpahy, I feel God's pleasure when I'm shooting.

Agkistrodon piscivorus - the Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin. This one was photographed at Jean Lafitte National Park - Barataria Preserve Unit.

Put some time between taking a picture and sharing it

One of the things that has occurred because of social media is the overwhelming urge to share all of our images. This is a totally new phenomenon.

If you think back to the days of film, we would take a roll of film, send it off, and then in a few days we got back physical object. There was a sense of anticipation. You had a sense of wonder in what was going to appear in that little package and when it did, you look at each picture and examined it and recalled the emotion at the time when it was taken. When you were done the pictures were put away. Maybe in a shoebox, maybe in album, or maybe in a file cabinet.

When we decided to show those pictures to someone it was special. Maybe a vacation image slideshow at a family gathering, maybe in a quiet moment a mother and father would look at pictures of their kids, or after the funeral of a loved one we would sit and look at pictures we captured of that person throughout their life. 

The decision to share was one that was considered and appropriate for the moment. I think in the world today we want to share everything and worry about how many likes or hearts or comments it might get and we make the decision on whether or not to take it based on that metric. The timeframe between capture and share is too short. 

Not every picture needs to be shared. Not every photo is taken for public consumption. Some pictures exist because they will mean something years from now. Some will never mean anything to us but they will mean much to others after we are gone. Stop taking photos for the purpose of sharing and take them for the purpose of remembering. Share some, but some away in a special place just for you.