John Pedersen – Be a student of light

John Pedersen Interview - Wet Boots-M
John Pedersen has been a photography and visual arts enthusiast for as long as he can remember. Photography is a medium for him to portray how he feels and sees the world around him. A completely self-taught photographer, he is constantly pushing himself to “see” what others have failed to see. Needless to say, whenever John comes back from his travels, it is a feast for our eyes.
In this discussion, John discusses his passion, technique and observations on his photography.

John Pederson Interview (coming soon)John Pedersen
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Technique: Landscape (Amateur)

Q. How did you get into landscape photography?
A.  Growing up in the Northwest, most of my life has been spent enjoying the outdoors through various activities such as hiking, mountaineering, kayaking, etc. Also I’ve been taking pictures casually most of my life, so the transition into dedicated photography was easy for me. I have had a love of the visual arts for as long as I can remember. Coupled with the beauty of the Northwest, it is almost a natural combination to want to capture the beauty and tell the story of this beautiful country.
Q. What kinds of gear do you use?
Body – Canon 5DmkII, Canon 7D
I still shoot with the 5DmkII because it’s a known quantity for me, I know the camera inside and out and I know the results I’ll get. I haven’t yet upgraded to the mkIII yet. I’m going to try and wait for the next iteration of this great platform. I bring along my 7D for two reasons. 1) To have a backup body if my primary one fails and 2) Sometimes I want/need a crop sensor for the extra reach (like when shooting wildlife).
Lens – I shoot exclusively with Canon lenses

i. 16-35mm
ii. 24-105mm
iii. 70-200mm
iv. 100-40mm
v. 100 Macro
vi. 500mm

Tripod – Gitzo 3541 with leveling base, RRS BH-55 ballhead as well as an RRS L-Plate attached to the camera.
Filters – Lee and Singh-Ray Graduated ND filters (hard and soft), B+W polarizers and various other specialized filters.
Camera Bag – I use a range of Think Tank bags, depending on where I’m going and how much I have to carry. The Streetwalker Harddrive and Glass Taxis get the most use
Flash – Canon 580EX
Others – Canon remote release and Intervalometer, Sony PM-10 sound recorder, Garmin GPS and Indura “sidekick” gimbal attachment.
John Pedersen Interview - Lightbeam Upper Antelope-M
Q. Which is your favorite lens for landscape?
A.  When I first started shooting seriously, my favorite lens was the 16-35mm because I was captivated by the “grand landscape”, large wide open compositions that showed the grandeur of the scene.
As my creative vision has developed, I find myself shooting more with the 24-105mm and the 70-200mm to capture more of an intimate nature scene.

I find that with tighter compositions, I can tell more of my story, what I want the viewer to focus on.

As photographers, we develop a unique way to see the world, to notice those things that others pass by. I enjoy being able to show the little things in my work or highlight the nuance of a scene for my viewers.
Q. Among the many gadgets that you own, is there something that you wish you hadn’t bought?
A.  Right now, I don’t own anything I wish that I didn’t. I’ve been good about getting rid of those things that were a “bad idea”. Thankfully I made few poor decisions.
John Pedersen Interview - Indian Firestorm-L
The one thing I wish I would have done early on is to buy the best tripod I could, even if it seemed crazy to spend that kind of money. Like many photographers, I have been through many tripods, gradually spending more and more until I’m at a place that I like with what I have. A tripod is the one thing besides the camera itself that you’ll be using the most, carrying it, working with it in challenging positions and I’ve found it really pays to buy the best you possibly can.
Q. When you go in one of your travels, what all do you take with you?
A.  It depends on what I’m going to shoot.
If I’m travelling to a location that I haven’t been before, my standard kit is 2 camera bodies and a range of lenses from 16-200mm, plus my filters and tripod. If there is wildlife or long distance landscapes involved and I want a tight comp, I will bring my longer lenses, up to 500mm.
I always take extra batteries and tons of memory cards. Memory is cheap and I don’t believe in erasing cards while in the field. I’ll wait till I get home and have my images safely stored before I erase any cards. If I’m going for a longer out for a while, I always bring my laptop and another backup device such as a portable hard drive so I can back up my images each night.
Q. How do you prepare yourself for a shoot before starting on the journey?
A.  Before going to a location, I will have done the basic research on the internet about access, any hazards to watch out for etc. I’ll check out the topography and try to get a feel for how the land is shaped around the location. All of this is really just the mechanics and logistics around a shoot.
What I do internally is driven by whether or not I’ve been to the location before. If I have been before and I know what I will see, I will usually develop some pre-conceived ideas about what types of shots I want to try for. A lot depends on the seasons as well, knowing what the weather will be like as well as the condition of the plants/trees around.
John Pedersen Interview - Foggy Sunrise-L
If I have not been to a location before, I won’t be able to pre-visualize specific types of shots, but I will have an idea what “themes” or “moods” I’d like to capture. An example of a theme for me would be to “capture the majesty of the rugged mountains”, or “provide an intimate portrait of a quaint coastal town”.
Perhaps a theme could also just be a mood that I want to capture and convey to my viewers. It really depends on the location, timing and my prior knowledge of the location as to how I prepare for the trip.
Q. Most of the national parks have been photographed many times over. How do you try to distinguish yourself from others?
A.  I agree that the National Parks have been photographed many times over and it is difficult to have your creative vision, your own voice, be heard when shooting popular locations. I have several answers for how I approach this.
– While visiting a popular place, get the popular shots first if you want them, but, make an effort to get off the tourist path and go to less-visited locations within the park as well.
John Pedersen Interview - Teton Sunset-L
– Weather is never the same. So there is a chance that you can be at an iconic location and capture a unique shot just because the weather is different than most other shots that are seen from that location.
– By developing a strong individual creative vision, I feel that I “see” the landscape around me differently than other photographers. The distinction between myself and others might be subtle when shooting popular spots, but I hope to bring this unique vision of how I see the world into my photographs.
Q. In the field what is your
ISO – 100 almost exclusively (except when shooting wildlife)
Metering Mode – Typically Evaluative, though sometimes it varies
Focus – Manual almost exclusively
White Balance – Either set in Auto and I’ll adjust in post processing, or I’ll fix it at around 5200k and adjust in post.
Aperture – Varies depending on the subject and the shot I’m going for. I regularly shoot wide open (f/2.8) to stopped down small (f/22)
Shutter Speed – Varies depending on the subject and the shot I’m going for, from 10 minutes to 1/2500. I do play around a lot with shutter speed when I’m photographing water.

I enjoy getting the perfect shutter speed for just the right amount of water motion blur, which varies depending on the speed of the water and the available light.

Q. How do you post process your shots?
A.  My workflow for shots depends greatly on the shot taken, how good it was captured in camera and what creative touches I want to bring to the image.
John Pedersen Interview - Sunrise Silhoutte-L
For my color processing, my goal is to bring the capture back to what I saw when I was on location. I try not to enhance or boost the image beyond what I saw. This is a tough line to adhere to with the increasingly noisy world out there and the need to get eyes on your work.
Black and White processing is where I take more creative license with my processing since I am already significantly altering it from the original capture.
I use a variety of software to process my shots. I predominantly use Lightroom, Photoshop and Nik Software for the majority of my processing. I will also use more specialized software such as Perfect Resize or Helicon Focus. I am not a big proponent of HDR, though I do use it occasionally.
My workflow starts in Lightroom where I will import the images, apply keywords, review and rank the images, delete the ones that I know I won’t process. I typically don’t process the image in Lightroom, though LightRoom4 has some much improved editing tools that are quite effective. From there I will usually pass through some Nik programs such as Dfine, Viveza or Color Efex to apply some quick and effective edits.
I usually then move into Photoshop to finish my workflow. If the image is already where I like it, I will do some specific crops and output sharpening before saving off the file as complete. If I need to work on the image further and apply some fine tuned edits and adjustments, I will spend considerable time in Photoshop to edit the image. I make extensive use of luminosity masks, targeted tonality adjustments and layer masks to edit the image.

My goals are to create a palette of harmonious tonalities that is pleasing to the eye, yet still very realistic in terms of shadows and highlights (all while keeping the colors accurate and not over-saturated).

Q. Among your works, which one is your favorite?
A.  This question is like asking which one is your favorite child. (laughs)
I like the majority of my images for different reasons and at different times. But honestly, there are several images that have consistently been in my “favorites” list. To me, they also paint a story of where I was at in my photography. I have favorites from early on that are grand, wide, sweeping landscapes. I also have favorites that represent my more recent evolution as a photographer, tighter comps, or natural abstracts, or pure abstracts.
Okay, I’ll give a better answer.
John Pedersen Interview - Trilium Sunset Pinks-M
One of my favorites and perennial best seller is called “Trillium Pinks”, which is a shot from Trillium Lake in Oregon looking towards Mt Hood with a beautiful pink clouds against a blue sky. Besides being a pleasing image to look at, it is also one of the best technical images I have produced – fantastic capture in camera and just the right amount of processing. It’s one I’m proud of and I do enjoy looking at all the time.
John Pedersen Interview - The Power of Three-M
Two of my other favorite images were shot last year in the Eastern Sierras of California in Fall. The first is called “The Power of Three”. It’s an image of three dead tree trunks standing in a lake with the reflections of the trunks in the water and vibrant yellow in the background. The composition is very tight, only showing a portion of the scene and the three vertical lines of the tree trunks feel very powerful and there is good symmetry and balance in the image. The interesting part of this image is that the reflection is so good it’s hard to tell where the trunks end and the reflections begin.
John Pedersen Interview - Twisted Root-M
My other “current” favorite is called “Twisted”. It’s a close-up shot of the root structure at the base of an Ancient Bristlecone Pine tree in the White Mountains. This image, it was fairly easy to shoot, but it’s so complicated to view. It’s sort of a natural abstract, yet it’s more. There is a lot of movement in the image with the branches twisting and curling around. Believe it or not there is an incredible amount of color in the image, from oranges, to blues, black, red, etc. It was a difficult piece to choose a matte color for.
Peoples reaction to this image are amazing. Some don’t give it a second glance, some stare at it for the longest time. So many people have different interpretations of what they are seeing.

For me as a photographer this is what I love. To draw people in and hold their attention, stir their emotions, cause a reaction, move them in some way.

Q. Whose work has influenced you the most?
A.  Like most photographers, I have studied the works of Adams, Weston, Davies and other early pioneers of photography. I really admire their work and what it taught me, though I wouldn’t say I was “inspired or influenced” by them. They are good teachers and true masters.
Of the more modern day photographers, several people have been influential in how I’ve developed in different areas. Art Wolfe has influenced me in the areas of telling a compelling story with imagery and his compositional style. John Shaw and David Muench have influenced some of the technical aspects of my photography. Jack Dykinga has influenced me with his amazing use of color and very strong compositions. Tom Mangelsons wildlife images have taught me a lot in the area of animal photography.
There are also a couple of strong up-and-coming photographers located in the Northwest and Southwest that deserve some mention in influencing my photography. Marc Adamus and Chip Phillips, from the Northwest produce some amazing shots and have mastered the digital darkroom. Guy Tal, who lives in Utah, is an amazing photographer who has really helped me get in touch with the spiritual side of my photography and my connection to the landscapes that I shoot. His images are simple, powerful, soulful and never slap you in the face with over-the-top processing. And on top of this, he is an amazing writer and teacher of photography.
Q. How do you educate yourself to take better shots?
A.  Firstly, I am my harshest critic.
After each shoot as I’m working through my images, I deliver an honest critique of the work I did. I look at technical aspects, composition and execution. Was my head in the game? Was I being lazy? Did I miss a setting or not do something I should have when I took a shot? Did I take too many or too few shots?
All of this helps me for the next time I go out. Each time I go out I try and work on some aspect of my craft to improve it and it just depends on my last critique what I want to work on.
John Pedersen Interview - Bristlecone Bulge-M
One of the other ways I educate to improve myself is to look at others images, either in books or online. For example, has some amazing photographers as members and I spend a few minutes each day looking at images there. Things I look for are things like “What do I like/dislike about the image”, “How is the composition and/or what would I do differently”, “how did they process the image”, etc.
By looking at images critically, it helps to ingrain in me a more creative mindset, helps me to see areas that I could improve in my own photography, inspires me to try new things, and just keeps me excited about photography in general.

Even if it’s not landscape/nature work, seeing an amazing photograph really gets me excited about the craft of photography.

The last thing I do to educate myself to be better is to put my work “out there” for others to look at and provide honest feedback through critiques. We see things in our own images, but you’d be amazed what other see or don’t see in your work. So, I like to share with folks and get feedback about my work.
Q. Where should a newbie start, according to you, if he/she is interested in pursuing landscapes?
A.  My viewpoint on photography and how I shoot, it’s very much from the heart, from a connection with the landscape that I try and bring to my viewers.

I’m not there simply to record nature like a documentary. I want to tell a story, stir emotions, cause people to reflect on the beauty of nature.

That’s what has driven me in my photography.
So to answer the question, from my viewpoint, the first question I usually ask a newbie is “why” they want to shoot, what moves or inspires them about landscape photography. Once they can answer that, then I would suggest spending a lot of time looking at others images. Start developing an idea of what they like and don’t like? From there, it’s get out and shoot, shoot, shoot! Generally people need to develop their own creative vision or style for their photography and this takes time, patience, a critical eye and lots of practice.
John Pedersen Interview - Galens Tree-M
To give a slightly different, more classroom oriented answer, I would say that first thing the person needs to learn is their camera, know all of the settings that are important to landscape photographers and be able to know when to use ISO, aperture, shutter speed, metering, white balance, etc. to achieve the effect they are going for.
My next advice is to become a student of light.

Light is the essence of photography, the amount of it, the quality of it, the direction of it and it has a profound impact on the images we take.

Learn how it changes across the seasons. Pay attention to light as you are driving to work or sitting on the train. Be a student of light! Then, start developing the creative aspects of your photography that I discussed above.
And finally, learn how to thrive in the digital darkroom. Processing skills have become very important in the world of landscape photography. I think it is becoming as important as the actual in-camera capture. Processing can take a really good, technically correct image that looks “fine” and make it into “outstanding”, all while preserving the naturalness and authenticity of the scene.
The downside of this is that processing can take as much or more time than actual photography if you let it. As I was in my initial learning phases, I spent as much time studying processing techniques as I did studying technical and compositional techniques. These days, I’m still studying composition and light, as well as continuing to study new processing techniques. I feel these are never-ending areas of knowledge that keep me constantly learning and evolving as a photographer.
Q. What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking landscapes?
A.  Honestly, none come to mind. For me, photography has been a journey of discovery and learning. I don’t regret not knowing anything when I first started (except to buy the best tripod I could).
Experience is the best teacher and I’m happy for every lesson, both positive and negative, that I’ve learned on my journey.
Q. Can you tell me for which landscape photo you worked a lot? Is there any work of yours that makes you happy every time you look at it?
A. I interpret this question in two ways – an image that I worked hard to capture or an image that I’ve worked hard to process or both.
In terms of working hard to capture an image, I’m not a risk taker so you won’t find me hanging off of a cliff or hiking 3 days into the back country to capture a unique perspective. Though I do spend considerable effort to get off the beaten path to find those areas that move my spirit and compel me to photography.
What I do find as “work” for an image has to do more with timing and creative decisions made to capture. For many Northwest locations that I’ve visited, I will return again and again to the same location in order to capture the scene in ideal conditions for the shot that I have visualized. When on scene, making creative decisions about the composition or setting on the fly as the light is changing rapidly is something I consider as work and can be quite stressful at times. As you know, nature rarely repeats itself so it’s important to me to capture the moment as best I can in the windows of opportunity.
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To answer the second part of the question about being happy with any particular image. I’d have to say that many of my images “please” me for many different reasons; technical, compositional, memories of the outing when it was captured, etc. I wouldn’t say they make me “happy” because I find that many of my images provoke different feelings; happy, contemplative, turbulent, tranquil, calming, chaotic, puzzling and so forth. I find that I can be quite pleased with an image, though it evokes a feeling different than “happy” in me.
I have too many images in my portfolio that I’m quite pleased with, so I can’t single out any particular image. I will say that as a general rule I am especially pleased with images that have water in them. I’m quite connected to water, love photographing it and take great pride in being able to photograph it well and tell a dynamic story using the ever-changing element of water in my images.

Our Favorite John Shot

John Pedersen Interview - Snow Zig-M
I fell in love with this shot after I read the story of its creation from his blog. [blog post]