Interview: Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography | WebReference

Interview: Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography

Interview: Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography

By Nathan Segal

A master photographer and teacher since 1977, Stephen Johnson is widely recognized as a pioneer of digital photography. He has taken beautiful landscape photography for decades, and has taught the practical art of image making since 1977. He began his career with traditional film camera techniques, but is now widely recognized as a pioneer of digital photography. I had the opportunity to interview him about his latest book, Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography, published by O'Reilly.

Nathan: What made you decide to write this book?

Stephen: "When I was first approached it was a general question as to whether I would be willing to do a book on digital photography. I said I didn't want to do a book on Photoshop or any other piece of software, but that I might be intrigued by doing a book that reflected the way I had been teaching digital photography for 17 years. That is a much broader, holistic approach that talks as much about why we make a photograph as how we make photographs. It subject would be as much heart and soul, beauty and fatigue, complexity, simplicity and elegance as anything else, all wrapped up into the artistic endeavor."

"Specifically, the book is about where this technology came from, how it connects to the history of photography and electronics, how it actually works, the kind of empowerment it enables and the ethics called into question are important aspects of what I wanted to discuss. Yes, there are technical subjects that are necessary and I think that's covered with about the right degree of exploration for a general text. But the more specific reason for making the book is to try and let people understand why I photograph, the tools that I use, the issues called into question and the inspiration and options I feel like I've gained in the new world of digital photography. I want the book to be inspirational, surprising and to perhaps make us a little uncomfortable."

Nathan: You've mentioned we're in the stone age of digital photography. In your experience, what do you like/dislike about digital photography?

Stephen: "The instantaneous response giving us the ability to see the results on the spot, the color fidelity, the dynamic range, the flexibility after the fact."

"In Chapter 1 of the book under "Why Digital Photography?" There are many substantive reasons for making the transition to digital imaging. For me, the decision has been made."

  • "Immediacy: Seeing as you go is a core reason for the digital craze. Sharing the moment captured, being sure you have it, immediate gratification accounts for much of digital camera sales ascendancy."

  • "Connection to the moment: With digital, photographs can be more connected to the moment than ever before. You can see and understand your results while you're still on site. It's the difference between comparing the image to the experience, instead of the memory of the experience seen weeks later on a screen back in your workplace."

  • "Control over results: Rendering of the photograph can be more effectively controlled with digital. You can easily remake your photographs until you 're satisfied."

  • "Versatility: You can do almost anything you want with a digitized image, and quickly. The photo can be used on a Web page, burned on CD or DVD, printed and framed, or transmitted around the world in minutes."

  • "Accuracy: The digital camera sensor can be matched to the scene to record the light similarly to the human experience of vision and color. This is a major improvement over film. (Although often not recognized as many of the automatic camera settings actually reduce the potential image quality.)"

  • "Fun: The "Gee Whiz" factor. "Wow, we can see the pictures right now!" Photography should be about play too."

Nathan: What are some of the main considerations one should make before entering into digital photography?

Stephen: "Weighing the costs and aesthetic advantages of both media and determining which better suits your needs. For me that clear answer is electronic sensors and digital photography."

Nathan: What is your main camera equipment setup and why do you like working that way?

Stephen: "I use the equipment that I do because of the image quality and the precision of the tools."

Below is a list of the equipment that Stephen uses:

  • Better Light Digital Insert, Super 6K HS (6000x8000 pixel, tri- linear sensor)
  • Modified Dicomed Digital Insert (6000x7520 pixel, tri- linear array sensor)
  • Sinar-X 4x5 Camera
  • Sinaron 65mm, 150mm lens and 300mm lens
  • Schneider 90mm and 210mm lens
  • Goertz Red Dot 600mm lens
  • Gitzo Carbon-Fiber Tripod
  • Panoramic Adapter by Better Light and BayHouse
  • Additional camera: Kodak DCS 460 on Nikon N90 body & Kodak DCS 14n
  • Additional camera: Cambo Wide with 90mm Schneider Super Angulon

Nathan: What computer equipment do you recommend and why?

Stephen: "I've been comfortable with Apple computers for more a decade, so I continue to use the Macintosh as my platform of choice. In the field, I use an Apple PowerBook G4 17 with 1GB RAM, 60 GIG internal hard drive, DVD writer plus a WeibeTech MicroGB 40GB firewire hard drive. In the studio I use a Quad processor, 2.5 GHz Macintosh G5, with 4 GB of RAM, and a 30 Apple Display."

Nathan: What do you like about working with RAW files?

Stephen: "Raw files preserve most of the data that the camera could originally see, much like the latent image of a photograph on film before development. With a raw image processor, you can then develop the photograph into your desired rendition."

Nathan: If there was anything you could have written differently, what would it be?

Stephen: "I wish I didn't have to write the ethics chapter because that would have meant that people were already behaving ethically in this digital age. Unfortunately, the temptation to fool the viewer makes the chapter necessary."

"Overall, I'm pretty happy with the book. However, there is never a work that you can't see where more time spent here and there or more anticipation of a reader's needs might have made it better. We said all through the final few months of production that we'll expand on this or that in the second edition. As with any project, there has to be closure and the product has to get out there. Perfection has its place in art, but it must be coupled with pragmatism to function and communicate."

About the Author

Nathan Segal is an Associate Editor for He is an Artist and Writer who has been writing for computer and photographic magazines for 8+ years. His specialty is taking complex methods and explaining them in clear, easy-to-understand terms.

Created: March 27, 2003
Revised: October 25, 2006