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

William H. Johnson has been shooting in the scenic splendor of New England for more than two decades. Taking advantage of the weather and the landscapes, his images can be moody, quiet, dramatic and serene. Above: Along the banks of the Connecticut River near Pittsburg, New Hampshire, Johnson catches fog rising above the water while Joe-Pye weed wildflowers paint the foreground.

New Hampshire professional photographer William H. Johnson has photographed rural and coastal New England during all four seasons for more than 25 years. Johnson uses natural lighting and weather to capture the mood and spirit of New England, from mountains, lakes and beaches to villages, covered bridges and lighthouses. “In New England, there’s a stunning picture somewhere all the time,” says Johnson. “It’s my job to go find it.”

Johnson’s goal is to locate these timeless images and portray them in a way that encourages people to stop and appreciate the natural beauty. Says Johnson, “I like to shoot a variety of subjects because many things appeal to me. When I start out for a day, I usually have something in mind, but I don’t fixate on it. Finding subject matter is the process of narrowing down the possibilities. I’m always open to whatever nature provides me. I can be driving in the middle of nowhere and see something that attracts my eye, something that makes it special, and I have to listen—even if it’s not on my list.”

Early on, Johnson was inspired by the sharpness and quality of light in Ansel Adams’ black-and-white photos. Taking a cue from those famous images, Johnson enjoys looking for patterns in nature, especially during winter when all the leaves are gone.

“Line, texture and composition become more important and easier to see when you’re not seduced by the bright colors of a summer sunrise or autumn day,” he explains. “The low light that time of year tends to showcase these elements.”

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Cascading falls and fall foliage in the Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont.
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The sun rises over a rockbound beach on Star Island, New Hampshire.

Over time, Johnson has learned how irreplaceable many New England images are because things change. Trees grow up, and old sugar maples in Vermont villages are getting harder to find. Once a favorite focal point for many tourists and photographers, the lobster pots of the coastal Maine lobster industry have gone from wood and hand-twisted wire to sterile plastic. Even the landscape itself is changing. The “Old Man of the Mountain,” an iconic natural granite formation in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, collapsed on May 3, 2003.

Johnson finds it boring to shoot in the same climatic conditions all the time, for example, all blue-sky days. He prefers a mix of weather and loves “interesting” skies, with two levels of clouds and the sun at the horizon lighting up the undersides, bringing out their texture.

Weather And Light
Johnson finds it boring to shoot in the same climatic conditions all the time, for example, all blue-sky days. He prefers a mix of weather and loves “interesting” skies, with two levels of clouds and the sun at the horizon lighting up the undersides, bringing out their texture. However, he notes, “When you’re a thousand miles from home, you have to work with what Mother Nature gives you.”

On blue-sky days, Johnson knows the photographs will have something to do with the quality of last light. If there are some clouds in the sky, he uses a compass, always handy in his vest pocket, to anticipate where the setting sun will be, and will look for a pond, river or bay to catch the reflections. This results in richer, more saturated colors, brighter foregrounds and better overall balance in the exposure. Johnson recently found such a pond 15 minutes from his 1834 farmhouse near Newfound Lake.

“I’ve been by it many times, but never recognized the opportunities,” he says. “The beauty of New England is that there’s such a variety. You can never live long enough to discover them all.” Because of the limited amount of time to work with the rising or setting sun, Johnson’s strategy is to give himself a couple of options by anticipating what the light is going to do based on the weather.

“When the sun is at a right angle, it provides side lighting or the opportunity to use a polarizing filter to dramatically darken the sky and make the clouds pop,” he says. “When the sun is low on the horizon, I take advantage of the warm, glowing light by shooting away from the sun—this is just about the only time I shoot flat lighting. Then I can turn around and shoot toward the sunset when the clouds start to light up.”

For example, on a photo shoot at Cadillac Mountain in Maine, Johnson photographed Bar Harbor and the four Porcupine Islands, with the late-day sun providing sidelighting to bring out the pattern and texture of the huckleberry bushes and the orange glow on the rocks. Just before the sun disappeared below the horizon, he turned around and photographed the sunset across Eagle Lake and Sargent Mountain, shooting into the sun.

“If I had focused on the sunset, I would have missed the Porcupine Island shot, which turned out to be the better of the two,” recalls Johnson. “I keep looking around to see what will work best with the light, and I try to be ready to change at a moment’s notice.”

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Hoya HMC 72mm 81B Warming Filter G
Johnson’s Filters
Johnson uses on-camera filters like polarizers to darken midday skies, the Hoya 81B filter (right) to warm up a shaded scene or an overcast landscape and graduated ND filters to manage the contrast between sky and ground.

Moreover, Johnson doesn’t confine his photo shoots to the magic hour around sunrise and sunset, but shoots during the middle of the day, too. “Although it can be difficult to photograph nature during midday, I still try to be productive,” he says.

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. Recently, he tested hard-edge split ND filters and found they can be very effective in these conditions as well.

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Fall foliage in Split Rock, New Hampshire, as a maple tree sheds its coat of red, yellow and green.

Knowing When To Move On
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.

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The balance of raging water over the fall landscape with the moody natural light and a long exposure is a recipe for a great composition, composed at Crystal Cascade, a 100-foot waterfall in Pinkham Notch State Park, New Hampshire. Fall isn’t the only time of year to see New England’s beauty. With the outcropping of wildflowers and just the right light, Johnson was able to find wild lupines with Cherry Mountain in the background near Jefferson, New Hampshire. New England is known for its Colonial architecture, as well as its rustic architecture. Here, Johnson took a shot of a covered bridge from the 1840s along the shore of the Warner River in Waterloo, New Hampshire.

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.