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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

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.

Castro Crest, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California.

“People get hung up on wondering, ‘Did it really look like that?'” he says. “My answer is, ‘Maybe not, but that’s what it felt like.’ A good example is when I was in the North Cascades in Washington last year. [See the photo in the Showcase section of this issue.] I was in the Heather Meadows area one morning before sunrise.

“I had set up my gear and was waiting in silence for the right light when I suddenly heard music from a Native American flute coming from somewhere in the nearby woods. It was amazing. The music was soothing and beautiful, and as the morning alpenglow began to hit the mountains, I wondered if this was a tradition that has been going on for hundreds of years.

“I looked through my viewfinder and considered how I could frame a shot that would transmit the sense of tranquility and serenity that I was feeling. I don’t know that such a thing is possible—to define the combined input of all five senses into the single sense of sight via a two-dimensional image—but I begin framing every location I visit by how it makes me feel to be there.”

With every click of the shutter, Shoemaker feels the weight of every master photographer who came before him. He knew them well, after all, through their books. He may be working with different tools in a whole new era, but he’s quite comfortable walking in their footsteps, carrying on their tradition.

“Considering the bulk of my education came from reading the books and studying the works of photographers like Adams, Weston, Hyde and others,” he says, “I’d say that I’m probably more of a traditionalist when it comes to the style of my framing. But again, I’m more interested in how it feels to be there. It’s an interpretive process, but by ‘interpreting’ I don’t mean ‘fabricating.’ Everything that appears in the image was present when I made the exposure. I’m not interested in stripping in skies that are more dramatic or adding and removing objects in post. I’m also not interested in creating a hyper-reality by overcooking HDR images, oversaturating colors or over-exaggerating the mid-tone contrast in Photoshop. There are a lot of styles that have become popular due to improving technology in cameras and digital darkrooms. Everyone needs to find their own voice, and there’s nothing wrong with pushing boundaries and experimentation, but my subjective preference lies in a slightly more traditional look.”

When it comes to aesthetics, Shoemaker’s 20-year career in graphic design left him with a sensibility that still informs the way he builds compositions. His tend to be formal arrangements, full of rich tonalities that emphasize the beauty of the land.

“I construct images the same way I design a layout,” he says. “I simply put things where I feel they need to be. Understanding color is important. Understanding shape is important.

Understanding how the eye moves over a page, or image, is important. The use of negative space, of symmetrical and asymmetrical balance, shape, form and repetition have to be understood.

The Rule of Thirds doesn’t begin to cut it and, frankly, sometimes a subject placed dead-center in a frame is powerful if you know what you’re doing. I can’t say I see landscapes differently; I just see them my way.

“My preferred lens is the [Canon]16-35mm ƒ/2.8L,” he adds, “and often I place my foreground object at the minimum focusing distance of the lens. This really forces the sense of depth of the image from front to back and makes the foreground feel imposing. I think it also gives the viewer more of a sensation that they’re drawn into the image, and it becomes more of an interactive experience rather than a passive one.”

While Shoemaker’s aesthetics have surely evolved in his nine-year photography career, the real revolution has been in the way he approaches the technical matters of exposure and processing.
“In the beginning,” he says, “I worried too much about what a ‘proper’ exposure was, when there really is no such thing. A ‘proper’ exposure makes the image look the way you visualized it, and a ‘technically proper’ exposure meters at 18% gray. It usually made my images look overexposed and clinical. Now I prefer them slightly darker and more moody. Mystery in an image is good, so long as you intend it to be there!”

Echo Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado. Shoemaker enjoys returning to favorite locations, and he’s not concerned with being cliche or repetitive. As he says, “There’s no guarantee that I’ll see the same landscape twice, even if I want to.”

Shoemaker deliberately plays up the mystery in his photographs by working at the edges of light. He finds them at dawn and dusk, in the transition from shadow to highlight, and when light is coming directly at him.

“Backlight adds mystery,” Shoemaker says, “hiding elements of the landscape in shadow or silhouette. It serves a similar function to fog, which I consider to be nature’s lingerie, but whereas fog is gentle and short scale, backlighting is harsh and dynamic. Both offer only glimpses of what lies beyond the initial tease, but backlight is much more energetic.

“Have you ever seen a Western movie end with the cowboy riding off into a front-lit scene with the sun at his back?” he adds. “All the drama is shooting into the sun. I shoot a lot of my landscapes into the sun, not only at sunrise and sunset, but after the sun has some elevation to it. It works especially well in black-and-white because of the graphic look. All of the shadows come right to the camera, and I like to shoot low to the ground to make them prominent leading lines or design elements.”

When working in such challenging lighting situations, good technique—both in camera and in the computer—becomes paramount. Here, again, Shoemaker defers to the past masters, while harnessing modern means to achieve his traditionalist aesthetic.

“I think a lot of people misinterpret what it means to get it right in-camera,” he says. “I know how I need to expose the image in order to make sure I’m going to get the details in the tones I want. I shoot in RAW, and I think a lot of people assume all you need to do in RAW is ‘expose to the right,’ but that’s not always the best way to do it. Using a cookie-cutter formula just means that much more work on the computer.

Jim Shoemaker’s Equipment
Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Mark III DSLRs
Mamiya 645AFD with Leaf Aptus 17 digital back or film back
On Canon DSLRs: Canon 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L, Canon 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS, Canon 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS (for landscape and wildlife work), Canon 600mm ƒ/4L IS with a 1.4x teleconverter (for wildlife work)
On Mamiya 645AFD: 35mm ƒ/3.5, 55-110mm, 105-210mm lens on occasion
Gitzo GT5561SGT tripod, Manfrotto 468MGRC0 ballhead and Wimberley head for the 600mm when photographing wildlife
Singh-Ray warming polarizer, and graduated and reverse graduated ND filters Cable release

“My settings are pretty tame and understated compared to a lot of work I see today,” Shoemaker continues. “The bulk of my manipulation is similar to what Ansel did: dodging and burning. I put down a layer of 50% gray set to Soft Light blend mode and paint with black or white to adjust tones. This dodge and burn layer has been around for a long time. It’s a more organic way of lightening and darkening portions of the image, and the intensity of each can be controlled by the opacity of the brush. I do use Levels adjustment layers as well for this type of thing, but usually that’s for adjusting a larger area of the image because it’s a uniform adjustment and I use a layer mask to limit it to whatever area I want modified. Since CS6 came out, the ‘new’ way of doing this is to just use a blank layer set to Overlay and then paint black or white directly on this, but for some reason, I don’t think it looks the same, so I stick with the old method of the 50% gray layer.

“I think the modern digital darkroom isn’t all that different from a traditional one,” Shoemaker adds. “It just offers more tools, options and power that enable a lot of photographers to hang themselves with the technology. It’s easy to get carried away.”

Ultimately, Shoemaker says, although he has come far in a short time, he feels like he has only just begun.

“I’m just going on nine years of working with a camera,” he says, “so I’m still a kid in this field. Believe me when I say that when I talk about photography, that I do so with the mind-set of a student, not a master. It’s really not that difficult to go from making bad photographs to making good ones, but it’s extremely difficult to go from making good photographs to making great ones. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. It’s an eternal process that requires a lot of dedication.”

You can see more of Jim Shoemaker’s stunning landscape photography at

Seeing In Black-And-White
While his portfolio is filled with rich and moody color images, Jim Shoemaker is equally comfortable working with black-and-white, but it requires a different way of seeing.”More often than not,” Shoemaker says, “I know at the time of exposure whether I’m going to process an image in color or if I’m going to process it as black-and-white. It’s rare that I discover in post that an image works better without color, and signals that I didn’t give the subject sufficient thought while I was making the image. It’s basically carelessness.

“Generally, a color image should be about color,” he says. “Amazing sunrises and sunsets, fields of flowers, stands of trees in autumn… The story of the image is the color, or at least the color is an integral part of the subject. But black-and-white images are about luminosity, about how the light renders the subject and the interplay of shadow and highlight. It’s shape and form and visual movement. It’s less literal and more graphic, and having worked as a graphic designer for 20 years, I suppose that appeals to me. It forces me to really examine the subject and ‘get’ what’s going on with it, what it’s saying. Color can almost be a crutch by comparison because people can offhandedly dismiss an image as simply a pretty picture. But, with black-and-white, you have to actually have substance to make it work.

“In my opinion,” he says, “long-scale subjects work best for black-and-white. Light direction and texture are also strong indicators that an image may be stronger in black-and-white. For my landscape work, the sky is also an important consideration. In color, cirrus and cirrocumulus clouds often appear weak, but in black-and-white when the sky is darkened, they can become powerful or even surreal. Even a clear sky garners more presence when the tonality falls to almost black, as opposed to even a deep blue in a color image.

“Black-and-white also has a timelessness that color can’t begin to approach,” Shoemaker says. “It strips away the distraction of color and focuses the attention on form, tone, texture and pattern. To me, black-and-white feels more iconic, although that, again, could be an association I make due to the influence Ansel Adams has on me.”