This is totally off topic, but it’s so cool I wanted to share it with you. It’s a 2 minute and 14 second kick butt drum solo taped during my band’s (Big Electric Cat) gig at the Photoshop World attendee party at BB King’s Bar & Grill in Orlando, Florida back in April.

Our drummer is Scott Stahley, whom I’ve played with on/off since he was 17 years old (we’re both…well….a bit older now. Ahem), and he’s been playing as one of the featured drummers in the off Broadway musical “The Rock & The Rabbi” as well as touring with Christian recording artist Darrell Evans, and besides all that, he’s just a heck of a great guy. Take 2 minutes and check this guy out! (You can also see him live when we play “The House of Blues” in Vegas this September).

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The Intrigue of Complexity

Art seems rarely achieved through complex techniques, hidden features or secret workflows. This is particularly true in the digital era where the distraction of the software itself can make the creative process become stymied in menus and self-doubt regarding using the program to its fullest potential. Add to this a steep learning curve inherent in the current transition to digital photography and you have a situation where “tricks” can effect results more than vision.

Any state of technology in flux, and in demand, also produces many willing to share their expertise. The seduction of photography as a career, combined with the vast reach of the internet, has produced a unique opportunity for those interested in a platform from which to pontificate, some well informed, some anxious to be noticed. It could be said that my words here are such a platform.

My concern is the level of distraction I am seeing in people struggling to understand this new medium of digital photography. I’ve seen people expend hours and hundreds of dollars pursuing complex solutions to problems that really didn’t exist. They were sure though, that they had to follow some special path because they read it on the internet, usually from someone with little or no reputation as a photographer or educator. These “special techniques” are often employed before an understanding of Photoshop’s built-in capabilities are understood, adding inexperience to sometimes questionable information, wasting aspiring photographers’ money, time, and more importantly, their emotional commitment which can be heavily impacted from great effort and less than remarkable results.

Contributing to this seems to be a conspiracy of unrealistic expectations. Manufacturers often contribute to this by promising print sizes well beyond their camera’s resolution capability. The seduction of big prints from moderate files leads many to lower their image quality expectations, rather than raise image quality, which is what I think can happen with digital imagery. There is a reason large-format cameras have traditionally been used, to achieve large prints with great detail. That really hasn’t changed. Also contributing is the “Tips and Tricks” mentality that has permeated the Photoshop experience since the early 1990s. Solid image editing is far less about secrets, trickery, hidden features and shortcuts, than it is about starting with a strong photograph, knowing your goals, and methodically working toward them. Craft is not tricky; it is most often plain hard work and care.

In the same sense that many software packages have promised to transform photographs into “art” (without even realizing the insult that statement carries), many workflows, plug-ins and Photoshop Actions now promise truly innovative and professional results if only you will use their stuff instead of the mere pre-packaged Photoshop capabilities. While there is real innovation and sophisticated interaction with digital images made easier by many of these offerings, far more seem to be distracting users from the real issues at hand--making better photographs, heartfelt and strongly seen. There is a presumption that one can process a photograph into significance. Editing rarely creates beauty and saturation controls are not beauty sliders.

More energy seems to be expended on editing the photograph in Photoshop than spending time making the photograph. If a day ends with hundreds of images having been made, you are either in the midst of exploding events, in a place beautiful and complex almost beyond belief, or possibly you are being haphazard in your making of photographs, hoping for one or two to be successful. Casually seen photographs are usually casually appreciated at best. Intensity and strength far more often comes from time spent and care expended.

I would strongly urge people to see simply, and edit simply. Your photographs are your asset, much more so than your Photoshop skills. Those image-editing skills may well be critical to your craft, but they are secondary to your photographic vision. “Fix it in Photoshop” is a prescriptive attitude that often leads to making images not worth investing time trying to salvage through image editing.

Stephen Johnson is a photographer, designer and teacher. His photographic work has concentrated on landscape projects – exploring wild, endangered spaces, and human altered lands, while focusing on soft color and abstract design. He has also worked on refining the new tools of digital photography with the hope of empowering individual artists to use these tools to express their ideas. He has been teaching photography workshops since 1978, digital imaging since 1989, and served as a consultant and advisor to many of the companies involved in the development of digital imaging including Adobe Systems, Agfa, Apple Computer, Eastman Kodak, Epson, Foveon, Gretag-Macbeth, Hewlett Packard, Leaf Systems, Microsoft and X-rite. He is the author of five books, including his seminal “Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography” in 2006. He was named into the Photoshop Hall of Fame in 2003 and by Canon as an Explorer of Light in 2006. For more info, click here.


Great news—I talked with photographer rights and copyright advocate Jack Reznicki yesterday, and he’s going to be a call-in guest on next week’s episode of Photoshop User TV to pick up where attorney Ed Greenberg left off on last week’s show, as he goes through the step-by-step process of registering your work with the Copyright office.

We’re taping the show later today, so if you have any specific questions you’d like me to address with Jack about the filing of copyright, and protecting your work, post it here and I’ll be sure to give a good look before we start the interview.

Also, although the show won’t air until next Monday, I’ll see if I can get the excerpt and post it here on the blog later this week. :)

One more thing: If you get a second; check out Jack’s portfolio—he’s one hell of a photographer! (here’s the link).


When I returned from my vacation in Italy a few weeks ago, I posted some images from the trip, and as I mentioned in my initial post, I wanted to show the things, from a travel photography perspective, that I think of when I think of Italy.

So, I focused primarily on these topics: the architecture, the people of Italy, the food and wine, the history, and of course fashion. During the week of posting different photos, I had a number of questions and emails about the food shots I included in my posts, so I thought I’d cover some of them here.

Q. Did you use a flash for the shots?
A. The shots were all taken with available light. In fact, I didn’t even take an off-camera flash with me on the trip (and I don’t use the pop-up flash on my camera, unless I’m really upset with my subject).

Q. Did you use a Macro lens?
A. I didn’t have one with me, so all the shots were taken with that same 18-200mm f/3.5 to f/5.6 VR zoom lens. It lets you get surprisingly close, but in some instances I had to stand back from the table, and then zoom in to 200mm to get in really tight on the food.

Q. Did you tilt the images in Photoshop or did you shoot them that way?
A. I shot them that way (I hate cropping in Photoshop—-I always feel like I should compose in the camera; not in Photoshop. I will crop if I have to, but I always feel like I’m fixing something I should have done right in the first place). So, to get that look, I just simply rotate the camera 45° in either direction (sometimes I take the same photo twice, once rotated left, once rotated right, so I can choose which one looks better later).

Q. Did you use a reflector?
A. Only once—a makeshift one at that–in the wine shot shown above. The sunlight was pouring in from the window backlighting the wine, which made the wine labels too dark to read. I was whining about that fact, and my brother picked up a map leaning against the wall; flipped it over to the white side, and said “Will this work as a reflector?” It worked like a charm! It just reflected the light from window right back onto the labels.

Q. What f/stop did you use for these shots?
A. I wanted as shallow a depth of field as possible, so I shot wide open all the time (so, if I was using the wide angle end of the zoom, I was at f/3.5, and if I zoomed in tight to around 200mm, I was at f/5.6). I wanted as much of the background out-of-focus as possible, and when I was really zoomed in, I could get often get the front of the food in focus, and the back of the plate out of focus.

Q. What’s the secret to getting great food shots?
A. Shoot great looking food. Seriously, it’s like anything; if you shoot great looking people, your chances of getting a great shot goes way up. It’s the same with food; if it’s great looking food, nicely presented on the plate, it makes your job much easier.

I didn’t shoot the big Calzone they served us at a sidewalk cafe, or the Chicken McNuggets my son had at a local McDonalds. I waited until we were served a wonderful looking dish with a beautiful presentation—-then I grabbed my camera. Sometimes I had to move the food so the natural light lit it nicely, and occasionally I would hold a white napkin up to bounce some light onto the front of the food (I usually like to have the strongest light coming from behind the food), but other than that—it’s just waiting for a dish that looks beautiful when it’s served. Also, plates with small portions look best—it’s much harder to make a big heaping portion look good.

Also, of course it’s easier to shoot food in the daytime, when there’s lot of great natural light. If I sit outside, I try to sit under an umbrella so it’s not harsh direct light. If I sit indoors, I always try to get a window seat.

Q. Is this annoying to the other people at your table?
A. Oh absolutely. My long suffering wife—on this trip as soon as she was served a nice-looking dish, she’d ask, “Do you want to shoot it, or is it OK to eat it?” I’d be really quick about shooting it; especially if it was a hot dish. She was really a trooper, and amazingly accommodating when it comes to me shooting her food.

Q. Did you bring a table-top tripod?
A. I usually have one with me when shooting food on location, but in this case I left mine at home (remember, this was mostly a family vacation, so I didn’t want to press my luck). I have a little Bogen/Monfrotto table-top tripod that works just great, and it’s very small, despite the load it will carry.

Q. What about shooting at dinner time?
A. Then it’s time to crank the ISO, which I did on several occasions. I didn’t have my D3 with me, but I was amazed at how well the D300 did at ISO 800. I was impressed.

Q. Any other food shooting tips?
A. Right before I left for Italy, I was hired by a trendy local restaurant to shoot some of their signature dishes, and I did the entire shoot using two Westcott Spiderlites (my TD5 Scott Kelby StudioKit), and we were literally up and running in five minutes and they worked brilliantly.

The light from these daylight balanced continuous fluorescent lights looked so natural, you’d swear we were using window light, but it was actually shot in the middle of the restaurant, between lunch and dinner, with just these TD-5 Spiderlites. Being able to see the light and shadows live, as you move the light, is a huge advantage. I would recommend these to anyone shooting food, or product shots. It’s like cheating.

(Note: when I do paid shoots, 100% of my fee goes to the Springs of Hope, Kenya, run by some friends of ours who gave up their home, and their comfortable life here in the States, and moved their family to Kenya to build a clinic and orphanage for homeless children. Here’s the link if you want to help and literally put food in the mouthes of children who so desperately need it).

Well, I hope that helps answer some of your questions about shooting food. If you want to learn more, I recommend Lou Manna’s great book, “Digital Food Photography” (here’s the link to it on Barnes & and

…a man who has been called “The modern day Ansel Adams,” renowned landscape photographer, and Photoshop Hall of Famer, Stephen Johnson.

Besides being a remarkable photographer, gifted educator, and author of the highly acclaimed book “Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography,” Stephen brings an unique perspective to our industry, and to the art and craft of photography and digital imaging. I’ve had some really thought-provoking conversations with Stephen over the years and I can’t wait to see what he has to share with us tomorrow, so make sure you stop in and check out his special guest blog.


Last Friday I posted on a blog an exclusive one-on-one interview I did with Intellectual Property Attorney Ed Greenberg, where Ed dispelled many of the most common myths and misconceptions about copyright, shooting in public, model releases, and more.

Well, the response and flood of emails I have gotten on that interview has just been through the roof. Ed was just an absolute wealth of information (it was actually a part part interview running nearly 20 minutes—but worth every minute). Some people are calling it the best thing I’ve run on this blog yet, so if you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the link to the videos I posted on Friday.

The interview will appear in this week’s Episode of Photoshop User TV (posted later today), but you can hear the interview now (I posted it here on the blog on Friday so it would be up for the entire Fourth of July Weekend).

My thanks again to Ed for taking the time to dispel some of the most common myths and misconceptions, and I hope to follow this up with an interview with Jack Reznicki on the step-by-step process of registering your images. Great stuff!