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Moonbow and Clouds (two exposures). Pacifica, CA. 2015. Canon 5DSr. Click to order a print. Next Workshop Pt Lobos December 4-6, 2015.

Welcome to the November 2015 Edition of the Photography Newsletter.

Taking a day or two to pause, amid a whirlwind of travel, and reflect on making art, sustaining creative energy and balancing growth with enthusiasms. Complex times...but now in the Southwest on the road again

This month's View From Here column explores recent travels and the long road of making art. We hope you find the column interesting and will consider sending us some comments. Our Tutorial Section goes through a topic Steve often explains during his field classes Light Meter as Guess, Histogram as Measure.


  • 2016 Winter/Spring Workshop Schedule Posted

photo review

Steve in daily group discussion with his November Image Editing Workshop.
Photos by Fiona McDonnell.

Scholarships and Mentoring

As part of our ongoing commitment to photographic education, there is one student scholarship spot in many of our classes. Please pass the word along.

For discounted time studying with Steve, keep in mind our Mentoring Program.

With all of our busy schedules and limited budgets, destination workshops or classes become a challenge, but many of you still have questions you need answered, or feedback on some new work. We want to remind you of our Virtual Online Consulting Program. This service allows all of you out there around the globe to consult online live with Steve on technical, aesthetic and workflow issues using Skype and your webcam.

Our Essays and Tutorials from the past couple of years can now be found on Google Blogger.

We hope you can come by the gallery and see the new Panoramic Prints we've added to the National Parks Gallery, and the Exquisite Earth exhibition with its accompanying very special Exquisite Earth Portfolio 1. We invite you to join us on a workshop, rent lab space, or just say hello and let us know what you are up to photographically and what you might like to see us offer. We value your input.


Workshop Testimonials

FEATURED PRINT November 2015


Sunrays Pacifica, CA. 2015.

Sunrays through Monterey Pine. GGNRA. 2015
Canon 5DSr

11x13 Pigment Inkjet Print on Cotton paper
$195 each.

Foggy morning light brought us up to the Mori Point Trailhead at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area next to Shelldance Orchid Gardens. The mist was gone after a few minutes of magic.

2015 Workshop Schedule
Point Lobos and Carmel December 4-6, 2015
Fine Art Digital Printing Hands-on. January 16-19, 2016

Death Valley in Winter January 23-26, 2016

Black & White Conversion & Printing: Feb. 27-28, 2016
Golden Gate: March 19-20, 2016
Highway One: May 14-15, 2016
RAW to Print Bootcamp: June 6-10, 2016

printing class

Waiting for Moonrise on Cadillac Mountain. Acadia Workshop. 2015. Peter J Sucy..

Speaking Events (see below)

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Medano Creek. Mount Herard.
Great Sand Dunes National Park. 2015.
Canon 5Dsr


Purchase a print of this photograph


Oil slick Portland Maine. 2015.
iPhone 6.

by Stephen Johnson

Capturing Beauty, Making Art, a Long Road

"In such ugly times as these, the true protest is beauty"
Phil Ochs, folk singer. 1968

As a daily intention, commit an act of beauty...

I've been on the road a lot this year, in the past few weeks that travel has only accelerated. Photography is always involved, squeezed in or the point of the journey. Teaching often drives the agenda and location, but is always co-defined with photographic intention or possibility. Later this week I leave again for lectures, in Ft. Worth and Phoenix, and a connecting drive through the southwest.

I always try to enlarge public speaking and educational endeavors with opportunities to see. Teaching, rightfully often then takes the forefront of responsibility and energy, but wandering the planet has made my life rich. For that matter, teaching has made my life rich. Exploring, no matter where I am or why, is always on my agenda..

Gearing up for another trip, preparing presentations, wrapping up projects in between, and of course planning the photographic possibilities, all give rise to a simple question. What the hell am I doing with all of this complexity in my life when what I deeply care about seems simple? I'm on a mission to share what inspires me, and to empower those inspirations in me, and others. It might be as simple as, "I'm paying the bills and trying to make a difference." But it is more than that, there is an element of soul searching and soul fulfillment a well.

Many questions and thoughts come to mind. As context, last week I was in New York City for the PhotoPlus show, gave two lectures, had many meetings, and started to seriously show some of my friends and colleagues prints form my new Life Form work. The work is sufficiently mature to show, but much opportunity for work remains. So it is with some confidence, some doubt, much work yet to be done, that I am pursuing the project.

I have been hauling around 40 inch prints to my various talks these last 6 months, and have been very pleased at the reaction. I have also been anxious to do more of the work that produced these prints. The Life Form work started from a nursery here on Pacifica, Shelldance Orchid Gardens, so among many other projects this week, I revisited the nursery and to my delight, made new photographs I liked. This wasn't surprising, so much as reassuring. The ideas behind the project continue to seduce and enlarge. I am building a preliminary exhibition from the work, and I think just added to that exhibition. That is deeply gratifying.

New work always helps answer the question of why, but also re-asks the question simultaneously. What meaning does spending a lifetime making photographs really amount to? Certainly filing them away on hard drives does very little.

A conversation last week in New York with my good friend Henry Wilhelm shot right through the middle of these thoughts with how I open my printing classes and how we experience our careers. Henry quite rightly pointed out that the only legacy any photographer is likely to have nowadays, is the prints we make. The electronic versions of the photographs are likely uninterpreted at best, and at worst completely unreadable in the future without great good fortune, care and money. So it is the prints we choose to make, and their longevity that will ultimately define our photographic contribution.

So I print to fix the image. I print to make the photograph physical. I print for the photograph to last.

Printing can be hard. Printing forces us to finish the photograph. Printing cost money. Printing takes time. Finished prints then need to be cared for. All of this is problematic. For me, printing remains a necessity, despite these real challenges.

Part of the challenge is believing, believing that your work is of value, believing that it is uniquely seen from your own heart. Sometimes that can be challenging. Sometimes it is not true, we are unconsciously being derivative and repeating things we've seen before. But striking a balance between the self challenge and faith is critical. I believe it is important to pull yourself forward by demanding of your work everything you can, while still deriving satisfaction, pride and the stimulation to keep working from the well seen. That is not always easy.

Committing an act of art also depends on your aspirations. Some of our work may not be unique, but is personally fulfilling. And that is enough. From my near 40 years of teaching, it seems that is the most common state people find themselves in. The reward is not to remake photography, become famous, or make a living from ones art, but to find personal satisfaction. People still want to grow artistically, but don't envision changing the photographic world.

Those of us who might have more grandiose goals, have a much steeper hill to climb. We may also have to deal with delusions of grandeur, unrealistic expectations, and more hard work than any one lifetime can easily produce.

We need ego enough to believe in ourselves, to recognize success, but sufficient self-criticism to see mediocrity and push harder. We need that internal critic to grow, ask more of ourselves, but sometimes curiosity is more than enough.

Ultimately, the work must be its own reward. Nothing else can be certain.

“It is wrong to expect a reward for your struggles.
The reward is the act of struggle itself, not what you win.”
-Phil Ochs, folk singer, anti-war activist

Why do I photograph? Why I do this? So I get to see it. So I have the distinct privilege of seeing this wonderful form, this gift of this planet. To feel and hear the crunch of ice beneath my feet looking up this frozen stream. The sensual abstraction of the crystals in the morning sun. That's why I do it, to be out here and get to see it.

-Stephen Johnson
Sunrise at Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. 11.10.15


San Francisco to Halifax, to Boston, to Portland, to New York, to Yosemite, back to New York--the itinerary seemed crazy. A lot of stuff got stacked up. The variety of what I saw over a few weeks left me a bit dazed, but the camera kept me grounded. I love filling life with activity, but this was a bit much.

The travels don't easily lend themselves to an overarching narrative, but have resulted in a rather eclectic collection of new photographs.


Old Pier Pilings. Portland Maine. 2015.
Canon 5DSr.

Along the way there was some decay, old stacked up against new, contrast in form that almost seemed like time travel. Getting off a modern ship, then walking past the old harbor pilings in Portland. It was a little strange standing in a cavern of towering modern buildings next to the Old State House in Boston, site of the Boston Massacre.


Old State House. Boston Massacre Site. 2015.
Canon 5DSr.


Animal Wonder. Greenway Carousel. Boston Harbor. 2015.
Canon 5DSr.

The Carousel at Boston Harbor has delighted me for years. I can't pass it without watching in wonder. My photographs have never really captured my delight, but I can't resist trying.


Giant Sequoia Tunnel Tree. Tuolumne Grove
Canon 5DSr.

My Yosemite's Many Faces workshop fell in the middle of those trips and took me to quite another place emotionally. The park is engrained in my soul, and rich with family and career memories. As I usually go in winter, the Glacier Point Road and Teneya Pass is usually not accessible. But this year they were and it was a delight to be there. It did happen that the Mariposa Grove of 2000 year old Giant Sequoias was closed for trail work, so instead we visited the Tuolumne Grove which I had not been to for more than 20 years


Climbers Camped on the Face of El Capitan. Yosemite. 2015.
Canon 5DSr.

Leaving Yosemite on the last night of the workshop, the massive rock of El Capitan was dotted with rock climbers camped on it's cliff sides, lanterns marking their night time attachment point. Looking up at them seemed both amazing and absolutely crazy. Naturally the workshop had to stop to photograph.

The big PhotoPlus trade show took me back to New York again a week later.

...continued top of right column of the essay


Photoshop at 25 Adobe Panel Temple of Dendur. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York.. 2015.
iPhone 6.

Another party celebrating Photoshop's 25th Anniversary was held during the PhotoPlus show in New York in late October. This event featured a panel on the Future of Photography. The event was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Temple of Dendur, as old as some of the Giant Sequoias I had just been standing next to in Yosemite a few days earlier. The mind can get pulled to some very interesting extremes.

The PhotoPlus show was a great time to see friends, and show my new work to many colleagues. Both my talk in the Canon booth and my Fine Art Printing class went well I think and it was a pleasure to be able to show some 40 inch Life Form prints.

I did see an interesting lens development with the Zeiss booth. They have a new lens for the Sony cameras, a Batus 85mm displaying focusing distance and near/far sharp points at your current aperture in an LCD window on the top of the lens. Although a bit of a challenge to see in the sunlight, I applaud the use of technology to empower us.


Gulls and Fish Scraps. Portland, Maine. 2015.
Canon 5DSr.

From birds, to towering cranes and dozens of cityscapes from Portland Maine, to Boston, to New York, what a curious combination of forms we live among. That seems to be the fundamental delight of photography. There is no end of things to see.


From the Highline. Cranes. New York City. 2015.
Canon 5DSr

Pictures within pictures seemed to keep re-appearing walking the streets of New York. One became a photo of a mural from yet another iconic photo. The oil slick from Portland went right into my composition lecture where I talk about everything being legitimate subject matter, not just "important" stuff.


Murals from the Highline. New York City. 2015.

Recently at SJ Photo

A few new Life Form photographs.


Leaves. Shelldance. 2015.
Canon 5DSr.


Tropical Leaves. Pacifica.
Canon 5DSr.

The refuge of the Shelldance Orchid Gardens drew me back in between travels. To my delight, I seemed to have made a few new images I like.


please email your comments to us



Consulting Programs and Speaking Events

Virtual Education: Our Virtual Consulting and Mentoring Program is working well. Readers of this Newsletter can still get a discount by mentioning this reference when you enroll.

Our One on One Program links you up with Steve at his bay area studio, or when he is on the road near you. Keep an eye on when Steve will be near your town.

Catch Steve Live: Steve will be speaking here and there over the next  few months, such as his up coming talks in Phoenix and southern Oregon.

  • Pacifica: At the Gallery
    Come by and talk with Steve about his ongoing Exhibitions of work on display

Canon Sponsors Steve to speak at Universities, Colleges, Photo Groups and various events around the country. If you would like more information on arranging for Steve to do a Canon sponsored event, go to: Canon SJ EOL talk


Steve Lecturing at Photo Plus. New York City. October 2014.

Custom Workshop Scheduling

People often want to take workshops and the dates just don't match up with their schedules. Sometimes they watch the newsletter and webpage for years for their interest, free time and the workshop to all coincide. We've decided to be proactive in creating a forum for potential students to tell us what you need and when you can take a class. Please email us with workshop ideas and suggestions.

More formally, we are experimenting with a workshop poll to determine when interested people can make particular workshops they really want to take.

Currently we have up a few workshops to experiment:

Workshop Polls Homepage


Light Meter Guess, Histogram Measure


In contrasty light, it can be very frustrating to keep chasing the exposure as compositions vary. Differing amounts of highlights and shadows in the frame can produce vastly different light meter readings. This is true even when every frame contains the same extremes under the same light. The meter reading depends on how much shadow and how much highlight are in the frame.

Our light meters, either in camera or hand-held, can easily be fooled by this differing amount of light and dark in the frame. Readings can recommend more exposure when more shadows are present, thus over exposing highlights, and the opposite when the frame is filled mostly with highlights, dropping the exposure leaving the shadows as black holes.

The light meter is a wonderful tool, but it only knows one thing, how to make whatever it is pointed at an 18% reflectance middle gray. If the average of what you're pointing at is lighter, or darker than 18% gray, the meter will be wrong This is true regardless of the meter matrix or spot meter settings you may have set into the camera.

Think of the light meter as a fantastic development in photography in the 1930s, but one whose information needs to be interpreted to be really useful. That's why we use to carry gray cards, to point our meters at the card, take a reading, then use it. That process gives the light meter the subject it is calibrated to read, and then gives you a good exposure to make the gray card look like a gray card.

This all shows up if you watch the histogram in the your camera. In teaching, I tell people the light meter is the guess, the histogram is the measure. Use the measure of the histogram to fine tune your exposures, and from that point forward, ignore the meter.

I set the camera on manual, dial in an exposure that holds the highlights and just go from there. The shadows fall where they do, and if they are too far down I consider doing an HDR exposure set.

This also all relates to the recommendation to expose to the right on the histogram, but that is another discussion which you can explore in a Digital Exposure Tutorial from 2014 and the Checking Exposure and Composition from 2011.


Previous Tutorial and Technique Posts


Beached Seal and Rocks. Pt. Lobos, CA. 2011.
Canon 1Ds III

Getting close to the dead seal dominated the frame with shadow, thus over-exposing this poor bleached white body. As I tried different compositions on this sad scene, the meter was jumping all of over the place. Setting the camera on Manual, and adjusting the exposure to hold the highlights solved the problem.

The Stephen Johnson Photography Gift Shop

Featured Products

gift certificate

Gift Certificates for Prints and Workshops!

Emailed or shipped with beautiful gift notecard.


Life Form Note cards

5x7 inches,



Click to Purchase

12 image Note card set with envelopes featuring photographs from Steve's new Life Form work.

Printed by Steve in his studio in very limited numbers on a color laser digital press


gift certificate

National Park Note cards

note card

National Park Color Note card Set
Stephen Johnson
12 cards/envelopes $20 set

From "With a New Eye" Beautiful 300 line screen offset reproductions with envelopes in clear box. A great gift.


gift certificate



Please come visit us at our gallery and see our original prints in person. The subtle detail of the prints and the beautiful texture of the fine art paper have to be seen to be understood. And while you're here, browse through our books, cards, posters, and specially priced prints.

We're happy to mail you a copy of our product catalog, just send a note to or call us.

We're located at:

Stephen Johnson Photography at the Pacifica Center for the Arts
1220-C Linda Mar Boulevard, Creekside Suites, 5-7
Pacifica, CA 94044
(650) 355-7507



Pacifica Center for the Arts from Linda Mar Boulevard

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Stephen Johnson Photography at the Pacifica Center for the Arts
1220-C Linda Mar Boulevard, Creekside Suites, 5-7
Pacifica, CA 94044 650 355-7507

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Last updated on November 20, 2015 . Mail comments to:
Photographs and Text Copyright ©2015, Stephen Johnson. All Rights Reserved Worldwide