Chris Johnston Photography

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.  

Off-camera flash and some experimentation in the woods

The final result of my experiment today with my flash

Experimentation is the key to learning, especially with off-camera flash. Today I decided to spend some time trying to replicate something I saw in a YouTube video by Bryan Peterson.

The thing to keep in mind here is that I knew how to use the flash. I knew that shutter speed controls the ambient light and aperture controls the amount of light from the flash. I knew about the inverse square law and how that affects the amount of light that makes it from the flash to the subject and how that light falls off. I knew all of this BUT I STILL HAD TO EXPERIMENT TO GET THE RESULT I WANTED.

I shot all these images in manual on both the camera and the flash. I was using a Canon 580EX (the first one not the II) and a Canon 7D and my 18-135 kit lens. I fired the flash with some cheap Cowboy Studio triggers from Amazon.

The gear didn't matter, what mattered was my desire to go out and experiment. I tried, failed, tried again, failed, tried some more, failed yet again, and kept going until I got the image I wanted.

Is it perfect, NO, but this is the first time I've done this. I want to try it now with different types of leaves, with the flash closer and further away. I want to use my macro lens so close focus is less of problem. I want to use a tripod and buy a pair of extra hands to hold the leaf. The possibilities are endless, but none of that matters if I don't get out and try.

Stop Arguing About Gear

From the last wedding I will ever shoot. Shot with a Canon 18-135 kit lens and edited on my Macbook Pro.. 

There are many debates in photography that people adhere to with a fanaticism often only seen in religion or politics. These fall into a few camps:

  • Full frame vs. crop sensor
  • Nikon vs. Canon vs. Sony
  • DSLR vs. Mirrorless

and for post-processing:

  • Mac vs. PC
  • Lightroom vs. Photoshop, OnOne, Luminar, etc.

These arguments are stupid. I don't see carpenters arguing over which hammer is better. I don't see housekeepers arguing about Hoover vs. Dyson. 

I've used full frame cameras and crop sensors. I've used L-lenses and kit lenses. I've edited photos in Lightroom and OnOne on both a Mac and a PC. The each have idiosyncracies that you may cause you prefer one over the other, but it's just a preference not an absolute. 

Choosing a camera system or a computer system hinges on a variety of factors, and for me it's price. If money were no object, I would shoot a Phase One or Hasselblad medium format and edit in Capture one running on a Mac Pro. That is dictated by what I like to shoot, landscapes. 

Since I live in the real world and money is a factor, I use a 6-year old crop sensor Canon 7D, a 3rd party Tokina lens, and I do most of my editing on Late 2011 15-inch MacBook Pro. 

The number one thing that matters is that you are making the best use of the gear that you have. A new camera system, a new version of Photoshop or Lightroom, or a new lens won't replace hundreds or thousands of hours of practice. 

Shoot every day. Shoot in harsh light, soft light, and low light, and master doing it within the limitations of your gear. Then and only then, should you look to new gear to solve your problems.

My Journey in Photography

As we get close to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina I think might be interesting to shed a little light on how that event is part of the reason I am here today. I owned one camera before Hurricane Katrina, a Canon EOS Rebel II film camera with an 35-80mm lens. I shot a few rolls of film and don't know where any of the prints are today, but it was Hurricane Katrina that really got me into photography. 

My wife and I were evacuated in Houston when we decided to get a digital camera to document the damage to our belongings when we arrived back into town. Luckily, our apartment was in a slightly elevated area and we had no water damage. Since we had nothing to document I decided to photograph the damage to the area I grew up in. 

My parents had over 10 feet of water in their home. Oddly enough, I can't find a picture of the outside of the home I grew up in. The first image I uploaded to Flickr is the one below. 

This was the home of one of my wife's best friends

This was the home of one of my wife's best friends

This was taken with small 5 MP Kodak point and shoot. I took hundreds, maybe thousands, of images with camera. 

In April 2010, a small startup called CreativeLIVE launched. They provided free photography education using an innovative new model. I had never considered becoming a professional photographer before watching CreativeLIVE. I believe the first class I watched was a wedding photography class with Jasmine Star

In September of that year I made the leap and purchased a DSLR. Initially, I wanted to be a wildlife photographer. The first image I can find with my Canon is of duck in City Park.

Mallard duck in New Orleans City Park

Something you learn pretty quickly about wildlife photography is that the camera is only a small part of the equation. You need BIG zoom lenses that have HUGE price tags. I mean 5-figure price tags. Then there is the issue of finding the wildlife. You need to either spend hundreds of hours in the field looking for the best location to put a hide, so you can spend more hours in the hide looking for the perfect shot, or travel to places like Yellowstone where the animals are easily approachable. 

At the time, I was in school full time with two young children at home, so I couldn't afford the lenses or the travel, and I didn't have the time to spend my morning and evenings hanging out in the woods looking for wildlife no matter how much I wanted to be the next Marty Stouffer.

I decided to focus on what I had around me and that was my kids. I was the dad version of the MWAC (mom-with-a-camera).

Since 2010, I have taken over 51,000 images with my camera. I've gone from this

Family portrait in Fontainebleau State Park with moss covered oak trees behind them

To this

I see areas where I need to improve. I see little things wrong, but 50,000 images later I know my purpose. I take pictures of kids and families. I started with my own and branched out to others. This is what I'm good at. This is why I'm excited to get up in the morning. 

The Madisonville Abandoned Boat

On the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain is a small town called Madisonville. It's like the Mayberry of South Louisiana. This boat is staple for area landscape photographers who are willing to take the time to drive out the dock where it sits. 

I prefer to photograph it in the morning at sunrise. Depending on the time of year, it will be front lit and therefore fill in many of the shadows on the boat. It's also far less crowded, especially in the summer when the sun rises very early in the morning. 

I have plan to shoot it later in the year when the sun sets behind the boat but I have to wait for the right timing, the right sky, the appropriate clouds, good sky color, etc. There is an exact mix of conditions that will make the photo what I have envisioned. 

If you would like to shoot it, I've included a Google Map below to the approximate location. If you get there you will see it. Best of luck to you.