Chris Johnston Photography

5 Christmas Gifts For The Nature Photographer On Your List

1. Brian Peterson’s Understanding Exposure

While new gear is good, as David DuChemin would say, "vision is better." I think far too many photographers look at new gear as a way to improve their photography and often they’re not making the best use of the gear currently at their disposal. One of the best ways to make better use of the gear you have is to make certain that you have an understanding of the fundamentals of exposure. Just as a house built on a poor foundation will develop problems as time goes on, a photographic career or hobby will develop problems as you progress if you don’t have a firm foundation of skills built upon good photographic principles; the number of one of those being exposure.  

A firm grasp of exposure will help you avoid blown out highlights, shadows going to black, and noise from said shadows by trying to bring them back in Lightroom or Photoshop. A poor understanding of the exposure triangle leads to blurry photos, an over-reliance on high ISO‘s, and missed opportunities to use exposure as a creative tool. 

Photography is simple. It is about capturing light. Exposure is the way we tell if we have the “correct” light. Bryan Peterson makes it really simple in this book and gives you exercises to help you reinforce the concepts. I believe if you take this book and master the principles in it, you will see a marked improvement in your photography. 


2. A good pair of hiking boots

As nature photographers, we spend a lot of time on our feet out in the field. From scouting locations to early morning hikes in questionable light, and down unmarked trails to get that spectacular sunrise photo. We walk a lot and in places where a misstep could be dangerous to deadly (depending on how remote it is). One way to make the journey more pleasant, and potentially safer, is with a good pair of high-quality hiking boots. 

Consider the terrain in your local area when choosing the boots for your photographer. Wet areas, like the one I live in South Louisiana, require a much different boot than someone working regularly in the Rocky Mountains at or above the tree line. While online is an excellent option, I find it better to go to a specialty store like a Patagonia, North Face, or REI to get fitted by a pro. 


3. A SPOT GPS Messenger

Landscape photographers tend to work in remote areas like national parks, state parks, or wilderness areas. Many of these areas have little to no cell phone coverage, and if you were to get injured, it could be hours or days before another person passes by. Most photographers don’t carry survival gear when traveling (this is not a good idea) and if they break a leg or twist an ankle miles down a mountain trail as they wait for sunset, walking out in the dark is going to be risky.

With a SPOT messenger, you can have peace of mind because with the push of a button search and rescue teams are notified via satellite of your location and will be on the way shortly. In addition to emergency operation, you can also check in with family at home by sending pre-formatted messages to let them know your location and that you are safe. They can even log in to a web interface and track your location. The device can be set to update your location at 60, 30, 10, or 5-minute intervals. For an additional annual fee, it will update at 2.5-minute intervals (not necessary for most users). 


4. A 5C’s Survival Kit

In the survival skills world, the 5 C’s are: cover, cutting tool, combustion, cup, and cordage

Let’s look at these a little further. Cover is some kind of tarp or tent. Cutting tool is a knife. Combustion is a way to start a fire. Cup is some way to carry water AND heat it if you need to boil water to purify it. Cordage is some kind of rope to tie your tarp down, lash pieces of wood together, etc.

I’m not going to go into detail here, but spend an afternoon on YouTube and learn the basics, and you will understand why every photographer should have a survival kit before heading into the outdoors. 


5. The final one is TIME

Give the photographer you love the time to practice their craft. As a father of 3 with Cub Scout meetings, Girls Scout meetings, play rehearsals, dance class, and church activities taking up most of my non-working time, just finding time to shoot can be a challenge. If you love a photographer and you want to give them the best gift of all, give them free time to get out and shoot regularly. 

For the landscape and nature photographer, this is even more critical than it is for a portrait shooter. Sunrise and sunsets only happen at specific times. Weather can make or break a beautiful sunrise, and they have no way of knowing if it will be good or bad until they get there. Also, there is travel time to consider. Unless they happen to live next to National Park, they probably have to travel to a good location, and it could take several hours each way. Give them the freedom to do this. Weekly would be ideal, monthly is probably more realistic, and a least a few times a year is a bare minimum. 

This gift will probably cost more in terms of sacrifice than any other on the list, but it will be more appreciated by the photographer you love than any other. 

Why I Love The Mountains

Trail in the mountains outside of Seattle, WA

I was born and raised in New Orleans. As a kid we took vacations to Florida a couple of times and once to Colorado, but mostly we stayed along the Gulf Coast. From 5 years old to 10 years old I was on a boat every weekend. My dad kept me home from school on the opening day of shrimp season. I was a child of the marsh and the bayou.

With all of that you would think I'm most at home in the South, but you would be wrong. In my 20's, when I returned to college to study geology, I weaseled my way on to every field trip possible. This lead to me to places that when I arrived felt like I had been searching for them my entire life.

I visited the front range of the Rockies, the vast expanses of Eastern Wyoming, the mountains of Glacier National Park, the gorgeous splendor of Banff, the moonlike landscape of the Canadian Badlands, and most recently the Pacific Northwest. I've had the opportunity to explore natural history museums in Houston, Albuquerque, Denver, Bozeman, and Calgary. 

It's my belief that my interest in geology and natural world, and my explorations during the formative years of my adult life, imprinted mountains on me the same way a baby duck imprints on the first thing it sees after hatching. 

My most natural state seems to be exploring a mountain trail looking for a glacier-fed waterfall or hiking through forest of fir and aspen while on the lookout for elk and moose. My desire to explore and live in these places is going to benefit you!

Over the next few weeks I am going to be hard at work developing several photography workshops to be held in a location in Washington, Oregon. Colorado, or Montana. Fill out the form below to be added to my newsletter, so you can be the first to know when my workshops launch.

Snoqualmie River in Washington, just pass the lower falls observation deck

Why I Shoot Landscapes and Wildlife

In 2005 I bought my first digital camera after hurricane Katrina. It was my wife's idea to get the camera, but around 2009 I really started to get into photography and in 2010 I bought my first DSLR, a Canon 7D.

Baby Cottonmouth.jpg

My first love was wildlife photography and even purchased a Canon 100-400mm and it was probably the best purchase I ever made, but I sold it a few months later.  The reason I sold it was because I was following money over passion.

My Bradburn award from the Master Naturalist

My Bradburn award from the Master Naturalist

I thought I could make more money shooting headshots than wildlife and I traded my zoom lens for a couple of portrait lenses and a strobe. The problem was I had no passion for headshots. My passion is not be in a studio shooting headshots but being outdoors. I didn't volunteer at a zoo and nature center for 8 years because I liked the indoors. I didn't join the Society of Environmental Journalist and become a Louisiana Master Naturalist because I wanted to spend my days photographing actors and business people. I want to be in nature, photographing it and sharing it with others. 

I realized that every time I chased money I ended up miserable. A professor I admired got me to go back to college when I was 22 and major in geology. I left that field because I thought I could make more as an engineer but I had no passion for it. I ended up dropping out a few years later with no degree and a bunch of debt. I went back to college later in life and majored in marketing. I even ended up in charge of SEO strategy at the 2nd largest personal injury law firm in the US. I hated EVERY DAMN DAY OF IT. 

Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I'm tired of making the same mistake. I'm pursuing my passion for the outdoors and photography and you get to come along for the journey. 

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.  

Living Out My Dream

Recently I took a trip to Seattle and on that trip I recorded the video below. The video was unlisted on YouTube and no one has seen it publicly since I made it. I feel the need to mention this because of what happened later.


I was in Seattle for a marketing conference but while there I took a side trip to Snoqualmie Falls to photograph the waterfall. It was spectacular and while there I came to the conclusion that this is how i, how I need to spend the rest of my days. 

Snoqualmie Falls, about an hour outside of Seattle, is definitely worth the trip. I plan to go back in the spring when the falls are running at maximum width. 


You see at that time I was working as an SEO strategist at one of the largest personal injury law firms in the US. For most people this would seem like a good job. Four years before I graduated from very respected digital media program and now I was in charge of SEO for a firm with 15 offices in 4 states making a pretty good salary. The problem was I hated it. 


Since graduating, my office jobs had taught me that I'm not suited for the typical 9-5 career. For one, an office feels a lot like a prison and second I don't like someone telling me where i need to be and when. 


Back to my trip. About three or four days after I returned I was terminated. At first I was mad but then I realized this was gift. This was the answer to my prayer to pursue the life I wanted. It certainly wasn't the way I would have chosen to do it but as I've figured out most of the time in life things don't go the way you plan, especially when pursuing your dream.