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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The New Traditionalist

In less than a decade, Jim Shoemaker went from being afraid of his SLR to a life filled with landscape photography and creating images that convey what the scene feels like

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Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Jim Shoemaker prefers to work with focal lengths at the extremes. As he explains, "I tend to work on either end of the focal length spectrum, but not in the middle. The bulk of my work resides in the 16mm to 35mm range, then jumps to 100mm to 400mm. I have no prejudice against a 50mm lens; it's just that it doesn't fit the way I see things very well. I'm also a filter junkie, even in this age where they can be applied to some extent in post. I carry a collection of Singh-Ray graduated and reverse graduated ND filters, and a warming polarizer. The desire to get the exposure within the camera goes back to my early exposure to Ansel Adams' writings, but if the situation calls for it and the technique is suitable, I'll use HDR to capture the image."

When Jim Shoemaker relocated from Southern Michigan to Southern California 13 years ago, the move changed his life. A graphic designer by trade, Shoemaker was inspired by the national parks and beautiful scenery he encountered on that journey to pick up a camera for the first time. It was an inauspicious start to what would quickly blossom into a career as a professional photographer.

"My wife had a basic Ricoh SLR," he says, "as she'd taken some photography classes at the University of Michigan. But I was scared of it, so I used a point-and-shoot APS film camera and an incredibly primitive digital camera that produced absolutely useless files. I shot dozens of rolls of film over the course of two weeks, and I couldn't wait until they got back from the lab to see the results."

Natural Bridges, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, Oregon.
What happened next isn't much of a surprise.

"Saying that it all came out a colossal failure is an understatement," he says. "I couldn't understand how I could have shot so many great scenes, yet none of the prints even remotely resembled any of the amazing landscapes I had experienced. In fact, when I looked at many of the prints, I didn't know what it was that had prompted me to take the picture in the first place. I didn't even know what I was looking at."

His conclusion at the time was that perhaps photographs simply couldn't capture the grandeur of what he was seeing. So, Shoemaker invested in a video camera and read every book on composition and cinematography he could find. Reading, it turns out, is also a great way to learn the fundamentals of photography—which he did after realizing he was simply framing still images with a video camera. In 2004 he bought a Canon EOS 10D and read the manual cover to cover.

"The camera manual was followed by several books by Ansel Adams," he says, "from which I was instilled with the notion of getting it right in the camera, learning the mechanics of the camera to the point where they can be operated by instinct and capturing all the necessary information on the digital negative so I could create the print that I visualized during the exposure. As the years passed and I gradually improved, I collected and studied books by other photographers I admired. But books aside, I knew that the most important aspect of learning photography was to just do it."

As it is with many landscape photographers, Shoemaker first concerned himself with simply recording what he saw. As he kept shooting, though, his prowess improved and his mission evolved. Soon he would work to document scenes and to convey what he felt while he experienced nature.


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