Monday, September 1, 2008
The Timeless Nature Of New England
The rolling forest-covered hills and dramatic coastline keep a local photographer energized and shooting in this iconic region of North America
One characteristic that distinguishes professional photographers is knowing when not to take a photograph. “Even though it might be a pretty scene that most people might stop and shoot, I look at it harder,” Johnson explains. “Is it the best it can be, or would it be better in the winter when the sun is to the north, or the spring when the apple trees are in bloom? The secret is knowing when to take it and then putting the time in to be there when it’s at its best. This may be hard to do when traveling, but when it’s in your backyard, there’s no excuse.”
Knowing how the camera and film or image sensor see the light and the limitations this creates is part of deciding when to take the picture. “The eye is a marvelous thing—it will see into the brightest highlights or the deepest shadows,” says Johnson. “However, there are so many nice situations I can’t photograph because I use a contrasty film, Fujichrome Velvia 50, and it can only record about three stops of light.”
For example, Johnson meters a scene using his spot meter and finds a five-stop difference in contrast. He knows he’ll have to sacrifice something because the film doesn’t have the latitude to record it—either the highlights will be blown out or the shadows will go black, so you recompose to minimize these areas. Johnson uses his experience with Fujichrome Velvia to know how it reacts in most situations. He may need to come back when the light matches the characteristics of the film better, such as on an overcast day.
“With Velvia, you always have to be cognizant of the shadows,” says Johnson. His advice is to “know when it’s time to move on because you never know if there’s something better around the next corner.”
Johnson uses a polarizing filter to help deepen the midday sky, an 81B warming filter for use on overcast days, and two- and three-stop graduated (soft) neutral-density filters to help reduce contrast between sky and land near sunrise and sunset.
A Digital Future?
Despite being film-based his entire career, Johnson realized that if he wanted to remain in business for the next 10 years, he needed to go digital for several reasons. First, his main calendar client is requiring all digital submissions for 2009. Second, he hopes it simplifies image management. Third, and most importantly, he hopes a digital sensor can capture a wider range of light than a narrow latitude film like Fujichrome Velvia 50, so there’s more detail in shadows and highlights.
Recently, Johnson purchased a Mamiya RZ Pro IID and a 22-megapixel ZD digital back. The camera gives him the flexibility of shooting either film or digital by changing backs. He plans to use this feature to compare shadow and highlight detail in scanned film and digital capture of the same images captured back to back.
Johnson appreciates how special the fleeting moments are when the light is dramatic. “Exposures are trickier and time is very short, so you have to move fast,” he says. “That all contributes to the feeling of accomplishment when you get it right, which isn’t all the time. I still do it for the joy of it. When my eyes are open, I’m always working. When something gorgeous is happening, I still get excited about it. If I’m happy with it, someone else who wasn’t there will get some of that feeling, too, and say, ‘Wow, it must have been great to see that.’”
William H. Johnson has been involved with photography for more than 40 years. His artistic landscapes capture the spectacular New England coastline and countryside in all seasons, from intimate details to broad scenics.
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