feeling light

I’ve always been fascinated by light. How it looks shimmering off water, how it takes on the hue of the things it bounces off, the way it changes the entire feeling of a location based on its output and color. It can be an aphrodisiac or a sedative, it can cool you off or it can set you off. If I change the color of a bride’s portrait, or if I change the intensity and direction of the light, it takes on an entirely different meaning.

goose pond, lee masachusetts, fall leaves, njohnston photography, www.njohnstonphotography.com

As a child I remember sitting in a tree and marveling at the light, the colors, and the feeling of the sun as it filtered through the leaves. For me, light more than just gave meaning to things, light was a feeling. I loved the intensity of the feelings it generated in me. Which is probably why I was so interested in photography when my parents gave me my first camera, a little, 35mm point and shoot. Probably an Instamatic or Konica, or something even more obscure like a Ricoh. It was thumb-driven and had no electronic features other than a built in flash. Based on the existing lighting conditions, you’d change a dial on the top according to the picture on it to get the proper exposure. I honestly don’t remember any of the photos I took with it, but it I do remember enjoying capturing moments and then reliving the feeling of those moments when I looked at the developed pictures.

new york city, queens, wedding portrait, water's edge, njohnston photography, nathaniel johnston, www.njohnstonphotography.com

It wasn’t until I was a freshman in high school that the bug actually hit. My parents bought a Minolta 5000 Maxxum and gave me their old Pentax Spotmatic with a 50mm lens on it. We traveled to New Zealand for an extended period of time and I was smitten. Wrapped up in the way the amazing natural environment made me feel, the way the light draped over the land, I shot everything I could. So much so that I remember my mother rationing the film to curb development costs.


I guess you could say my first foray into post production was dropping a roll of film off at the lab and informing the person that I’d “pushed” the film to a higher ISO, or ASA as we called it back then, to adjust for lighting conditions. So even then, I was attempting to control both the production and development process in a very basic manner.

Upon returning to the United States, I signed up for a photography class. There, Spotmatic in hand, I learned about basic photography techniques like framing and composition, and was introduced to the mysteries of the darkroom. I began to develop technical skills in and out of the darkroom and, as I progressed from basic photography to photojournalism in my high school, I entered local photography competitions and took extracurricular classes from local pros. I was inspired by the likes of William Lesch, Ansel AdamsRobert MapplethorpeSalvador Dali and Georgia O’Keeffe. AZ-empty-pool

The first special techniques I learned were “painting” my subject with a flashlight at night, dodging and burning in the darkroom, and painting colors over a black and white print by hand. All these helped me enhance or change the feeling of the images I was capturing. The weirder the better. My photography was always driven by emotion, by “feeling”, by the light, though I had very little conscious idea what I was responding to.


Fast forward a decade and you could find me buying my last 35mm SLR camera. At the time I was living in New York and doing a lot of environmental photography, shooting on the tops of buildings and things. I enjoyed exploring the lonely feeling of the city at night. But, lacking funds and space for things like a darkroom, my photography remained a hobby and not a bonafide creative pursuit. I remember photographing a band and being very disappointed with the result. The light was all wrong and I failed to capture the feeling of the event. Frustrated, I put my camera down.


But, it wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles a few years later and picked up the camera again that I finally gave up on film. My father and I went on a series of hikes in the Colorado Rockies where I took what I expected to be some of the most amazing landscape photos ever. When we got back and I looked at the images, I threw my hands up in disgust. There were some pretty pictures there, but nothing that captured the feeling of being on top of a 14,000 foot peak on a sunny, windswept day. Developing all those rolls was too expensive and the result was too mixed. I put my camera in a box in the closet and focused on my career, which at the time was in post production in Reality TV.

I knew about digital cameras, but swore I’d never sully my creative integrity by using one. After all, despite not actively pursuing it, I still fancied myself an artist. But being a photographer at heart, it’s hard to stifle the urge to create, and when a friend showed me his new digital camera, I was interested. I did a little research and bought a Sony Cyber-shot DSCF717. It was a revelation! That one purchase changed my life. Now I could review my work before deciding on whether or not to have it printed. Not only that, I could make any creative changes I wanted to the images on the computer in my apartment! I’d seen the light, so to speak. Suddenly, my creativity bubbled to the surface and I started carrying my camera again, taking thousands of photos and loving the results because the control I needed was finally there.


Since then, over 10 years has gone by, and my photography has progressed from a creative passion and something I do in my spare time, to an actual career. I’ve gone from bumbling happily around in the Mojave desert, snapping fun photos of interesting things and making them even more interesting in my computer, to creating epic images like a guitarist on the roof with the Manhattan skyline behind him. I’ve gone from taking fun snaps of my friends and family at parties to documenting amazing and intimate moments during weddings and bar mitzvahs, creating beautiful family and baby portraits, and even tapping into my love of environmental photography by shooting real estate. As I continue to chase light, my photography has grown from something purely gratifying and personal to me, into a less selfish, creative outlet that serves my community.

allen childs, new york, manhattan, musician, rooftop, photo, portrait, njohnston photography, www.njohnstonphotography.com

My approach to production is constantly being developed and refined. “Light painting” aside, I used to cover up the fact that I was afraid of using flash by insisting that using existing light was the way to go. Now I eagerly pull my strobes out to create the aesthetic and feeling I’m going for. But I will also happily look for pools of beautiful, natural light. The stillness and simplicity of them always captures me and slows my mind, and the sense of pride I get from capturing a great image in them is like that of a gem hunter who finds a rare crystal. That said, some of my all time favorite images were lit using my strobes. I love it all.

new york city, family, maternity, photo, portrait, njohnston photography, www.njohnstonphotography.com

Likewise, my post production has grown in depth and width thanks largely to the digital revolution. I’ve gone from the camera store to the darkroom to Photoshop Elements to iPhoto, and finally, to a combination of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Though there are few things more gratifying than capturing an amazing shot in the moment that needs no editing, like the above photo of a happily expectant dad, I love planning, shooting and compositing multiple images into one grand vision, like this promotional shot I took of musician Aaron Paul for his record release last summer.

aaron paul, west village, new york, pop, LGBT, musician, photo, portrait, njohnston photography, www.njohnstonphotography.com

I still have my trusty old Pentax Spotmatic as well as a WWII era Leica my father gave me. I keep them because I love them and because they remind me of where I came from. But the tools of my trade are now a trio of Nikon DSLRs. My current kit includes a D750, a D800 and my (now “old”) D7000, six lenses and five strobes. I choose Nikon over Canon or Sony not because I’m under the impression it’s better, but because that’s what I know. They’re all just vehicles for chasing light, an I’m comfortable driving Nikon.

It can be hard to keep up, but as a gearhead and card-carrying photo nerd, I’m happy that the digital revolution is still in full-swing. Every year improvements are made to existing cameras and software, and a whole new generation of technologies are introduced to make our pursuit of light and feeling more interesting and capable. The newest wave of offerings from Nikon and Canon, as well as mirrorless cameras from makers like Sony, Fuji, Panasonic and Olympus challenge the accepted norm when it comes to seeing light and taking photos. Though the idea of a 3D still camera seems to have gone the way of the Dodo, things like the Light and Lytro cameras are pushing our understanding of what it means to capture an image and then adjust it in computer, blurring the line between production and post production. It’s mind-boggling.

Park City bar mitzvah

I love all this stuff. But none of it means a thing if you can’t capture the moment you intended to capture with feeling. Even a poorly framed and lit photo that captures a vibe holds more interest than a sterile, technically perfect shot. I’d know. I’ve taken thousands of both. Emotion, the feeling of the moment wins every time! So I’m not espousing digital over analog and I’m not suggesting an L16 will make me a better photographer than someone with a Mark III, or a pinhole camera for that matter. They’re just different processes, one as old as the art of photography and the other the cutting-edge of technology. They’re different modes of capturing what we all want as photographers: a moment the viewer can experience as if they were right there with us. We want them to feel what we feel, and light is our medium. And as time progresses, the processes of production (capturing light and feeling) and post production (manipulating light and feeling for maximum impact) will change. But one thing will never change, and that’s the feeling of light.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. yoyodreams says:

    Great shots!


  2. Claire Cocke says:


    This post and your writing is very impressive. I hope it is widely read. it’s thoughtful, insightful and shows great spirit and beauty. Maybe it will become a chapter in your future book.

    With admiration, Mom

    Sent from my iPad



    1. nwjohnston says:

      If you’d like to help it be more widely read, copy the link and post it on your Facebook wall and the walls of people you think will appreciate it! Here’s the link:



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