Chris Johnston Photography

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.

Don't Let Instagram Get You Down

A pic of the PNW that I shot back in June, right before I was fired from my job!

As we go through the Christmas season here in North America people will be sharing beautiful images on Instagram, 500px, and Facebook. While many of these photos are beautiful, just remember they are only a slice of someone's life. A split second in time over a lifetime of images.

I used to get jealous of twentysomethings living carefree in a van shooting beautiful locations all over the Pacific Northwest. Then I remembered that twenty-three years ago I was in a van during college traveling to Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Glacier National Park, and Garden of the Gods. The only difference is photography was harder (mostly film), and there was no Instagram. 

While Instagram, Facebook, and 500px can be great for a building a brand as a photographer, don't let it become a source of depression for you. Do the photography you love, focus on getting better, and stop comparing yourself to others. 

Where I was in my 20's

My 20's

were spent here


and here


and here

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.

The old paths no longer work

A goal I've had for a long time is to be a National Geographic photographer. All the career "experts" give you this old adage "if you want to do something, find someone who’s already done it and do what they did." What I've found, is that regarding careers this is not always the best advice. Let me explain. 

Many National Geographic photographers started out as newspaper photographers. So if you want to follow this advice, you could look for a job as the local newspaper photographer in your town and think that would help you become a National Geographic photographer. The problem with this logic is that many newspapers no longer have photographers! They merely hand and iPhone to the reporter and tell him or her to take a couple of pictures to submit with their story. 

So newspapers are out, what's next. Many of the Nat Geo photographers were biologist, geologist, archeologist, or some other profession that ends in -ist, before they became photographers for the magazine. So if you wanted to follow them you would have to get a masters or Ph.D. in biology or geology and go to work in the field doing photography as a hobby and then transition to working as a freelancer for the magazine. The problem with this model is that the amount of money it cost for you to pursue that degree, unless your family is wealthy and can pay for it, is going to put you in debt for decades and you likely won’t be able to pay that debt off with the income you would make from freelancing as a photographer. 

The beauty of the Internet age and the democratization of media is that there are many more opportunities now to make money online or through ways that just were not possible in the past. The downside to this is that in the past there were clear pathways for how you transitioned from entry-level person to magazine photographer, for instance. People followed this path, and it was a tried and true method for attaining that specific title or job. There have been so many changes in the economics of the photography profession that those paths just don’t work anymore. 

The only way to make it work today is to try many different things and hope that you can figure out a formula that works for you. And there are a lot more formulas that do work in the industry today. 

You can sell presets, training courses, lead workshops, sell prints at art shows or online,  license images, or stock photography. To make a living, you’ll likely need to do a combination of these, but it is possible. 

For far too long I’ve tried to find a path that would work for me and know with certainty that it was going to work before I started. Well, today that ends. 

Products will be going up over the next few weeks; presets will probably come sometime after that, tutorials are going to be showing up in the form of posts and YouTube videos.  I’m going for it and this is it. I’m going to make it or die trying. 

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.