I´m John Pedersen, ask me anything

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Hello Nature Photographers. My name is John Pedersen and I’m here for you to ask me anything (within reason of course). I am a professional photographer located in the beautiful state of Oregon in the wonderland of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve been a working photographer for the last 15 years and within the last 8 years, I finally left the corporate world to pursue photography as my sole source of income and more importantly, the motivation and inspiration for living a wonderful life. I lead photography workshops around the U.S. and abroad as well as actively teach photography and creative thinking in classes and seminars.

I’ve been fascinated with the power of photographs for most of my life, so it was natural to pick up a camera as a youngster. Early on I realized that I have always felt a yearning to express myself through my photography, to share my emotions, feelings, thoughts, and reactions to the beautiful world around us. Do I call myself a “landscape photographer” or “nature photographer”? No, I really don’t. Instead, I prefer to see myself as a communicator and my photography as a form of communication that is expressed through a visual medium. So, my methods of photography are similar to communicating in a short story, with a subject, supporting cast, plot, and storyline, with the visual elements in a composition analogous to those topics in a written story. I focus primarily on landscape and wildlife photography, however, I will photograph anything that moves me in ways that inspire me to capture and communicate what I’m seeing or how I’m reacting to my surroundings. Patterns, shapes, textures, colors, contrast…those are the building blocks I seek out to create some of my most resonant images.

I love the grand landscapes for the majesty and awesomeness that they can convey. Yet I get particularly excited about the small details in the world around us, those things that many would just walk past without noticing. There is a whole world right at our feet if we just slow down and look around. As rewarding as the photographs are, the experience of photography is what I truly cherish. Visiting beautiful areas, helping people unlock their creativity and expression, making new friends and just being in awe of the world we live in…these are the gifts that photography has given me.

I tend towards appreciating subtlety and nuance over loud and bold. Simple can be very strong and I work to eliminate unnecessary elements in my comps, to distill them to the essence of visual information I need to convey my thoughts. Simplify, isolate and speak softly are mantras that I often repeat to myself along with my students to create lasting, meaningful images.

So go ahead, Ask Me Anything and I will do my best to give you an honest and thorough answer.

Website: https://johnpedersenphoto.com

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Great to see this AMA! What would you most attribute your growing success in photography, as a business owner and workshop leader to?

Hey Matt, Thanks! Great question, but also one that’s hard to answer succinctly.

A lot of my success has been as a result of two things: 1. Being a constant learner in search of more and more information on how to improve my craft and my business and 2. Being authentic with what I do and teach. Remaining true to myself and what motivates me and having that reflect in my photography and photo workshops.

I never stop learning and working to improve. I am my harshest critic, but only to the point where I use that criticism as a learning moment, not to beat myself up with. I am constantly striving to improve my technical prowess, but more importantly, my artistic skills through lots of in-field practice as well as studying art. It has helped too that I have had a mentor and developed friendships with folks whose work I admired, which has added to my learning and growth.

Being authentic is important to me and I feel that that authenticity comes through in my work and in turn, attracts those who value that quality. Instead of building a broad superficial audience, I have stayed resolute in remaining authentic to myself and been happier with slower growth, but more sustainable and enduring growth.

The tangential topic to this is my growth and satisfaction as an artist who uses photography as my medium. Lately this has been the area of most growth as I focus on the art and craft of photography (not the technical side) along with the psychology of how we humans process visual information. Bringing those two things together to help me craft more compelling imagery to tell my own personal story…that’s what has been most rewarding in the last few years and one that I think has contributed to my growth in business/workshops. After all, once you become proficient in your camera and the technical sides of photography, what’s left? It’s the creative and artistic side of the equation, which to me, is the hardest to teach/learn, but is the most important for creating amazing photographs or being successful as a visual storyteller.

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What locations are the hardest for you to shoot and why?

Hey John thanks for your work and the inspiration – especially the bit about being true to one’s self and vision. I’ve tried in the past year to up my game in landscapes. The standard rule from a skilled friend of mine is always “point of interest.” A landscape without a strong point of interest, or subject, fails with the viewer, he argues. The whole image can’t be a subject. So my question is, how do you “see” your prospects? Do you hunt first for a point of interest, then frame around it, or do great landscapes happen when your full field of vision identifies several components that hang together (kind of like a quarterback seeing all his receivers and defenders at once)? Or is there some other secret? Thanks!

Hi Dudley,
Love the question! :-). So, here are my top 3 hardest places to shoot. 1) Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park. Tied for 2nd and 3rd…The Palouse in Eastern Washington and Death Valley

For the Hoh, I have shot here so many years and am continually amazed at how difficult it can be to come away with a compelling image that moves me. The reason? There is literally SO MUCH stuff in the forest, which translates to visual information that needs to be processed, that is very difficult to isolate and simplify a subject or story that conveys the feeling of being there. Learning how to “see” in a very complex environment such as this is extremely challenging. I often put on a medium telephoto lens, or a macro lens, to work smaller areas in this complex forest in order to bring out and highlight certain features of it, not the whole thing.

As for the Palouse and Death Valley, the reason they are on the list is because there is no obvious subject to shoot, so many folks struggle in these areas. It’s only rolling fields of shapes. Being successful here is not about an actual subject or “thing” it’s all subtlety and nuance about the shape of the landscape, the nuance of how the light falls across it creating highlights and shadows. You are challenged here to slow down and look for subtle cues across the landscape that could be a compositional element, or focus of the shot, and then try to build a composition of small details around it. It’s about light and shadows and shape…that’s how you shoot these areas successfully.

Thanks for the great question!

Hi James,

Your friends advice is very very good! I agree. Every shot needs to have a “subject” or “story” that is readily identifiable by the viewer. Then, every element around the subject, or in the comp, needs to support that identifiable thing…or at least not conflict with it. Often times, the big wide shots that include the whole landscape are pretty shots for sure, but also I see many that fall flat because it’s not clear why I the viewer should be looking at the image, what am I supposed to see, why did the photographer take the photograph, what am I supposed to walk away with after viewing it. And, with wider fields of view, there are many more compositional elements in the shot that you as the artist need to consider…do they conflict with what I’m trying to do, how is the spatial relationship with the subject, what about visual weight and do they draw the eye away from where you want folks to focus their attention. etc.

I often talk that photography is “visual communication” and just like written or verbal communication, we as communicators need to have good communication practices. What is the subject/what am I trying to say. What is the main subject? What are the supporting characters? Is there a plot or storyline? What emotion am I trying to evoke in the “listener”. I’m also very careful not to use too many “words” to tell my story…words being compositional elements. If I use too many, I might lose a listener who doesn’t want to have to work so hard to sort through all the noise to discern what I’m trying to say. I’m a big proponent of “isolate and simplify” the message so it can be more impactful to more people.

As to the second part of your question, it happens both ways. Often times I’ll be on location and one of the first things I do is not come with pre-conceived notions of what I will shoot. I open myself up to responding to the situation…the light, the environment, the feelings that are coming up in me. If I notice something that is really cool, let’s say the low angle light is casting nice shadows across the landscape, I’ll go look for something to highlight that “feature” that I noticed. Or, if I’ve “slowed down” to be more responsive to the location, I’ll be looking around, down, etc. and if something catches my eye, I will then evaluate what it was and if it is photo worthy, then I’ll evaluate the surroundings to see if I can build a comp around that which caught my eye. Sometimes I’ll see something that is really neat, but the surrounding elements are such that I walk away. For me, I strive to have everything in the comp support the “why am I taking this photograph” and support my main subject/story and if there are things that are incongruous with what I’m trying to do and I cannot eliminate them, then I’ll walk away. I always advise moving your feet or changing lenses for a diff focal length to see if you can distill a scene to the elements that best support what you’re trying to do.

There are times though where I will evaluate a large scene and see several elements that are in harmony and will then shoot that. For instance, at the coast if there are several sea stacks in the water and the shape of the beach is pleasing and I have good wave action, I’ll quickly notice all of those things as I look around and decide that could be a good wider shot.

The biggest advice I have is being “open” and “responsive” to what your senses are picking up, whether it’s a subtle line, the quality of the light, the shape of a hillside, the way leaves have arranged themselves on the forest floor. If you are so focused on getting “THE shot”, you will miss many of the subtle cues the location is pointing out to you. I’m much more of a “responsive” photographer, meaning I don’t do a lot of planning when I go out. Instead, I respond to how I’m feeling and what the landscape is “telling” me, that way I feel I create more authentic work for that time/place/emotion.

Many workshop participants seem to only be interested in going to iconic locations. Without the financial constraint of filling a workshop, what non-iconic locations would you add to your itinerary?

Hi John,

Nature photography often involves patience and the unpredictability of wildlife. Could you share a memorable experience or encounter you’ve had while photographing wildlife in the wild?

Hi Randy,
Insightful question. Yes, many folks want their own version of iconic shots and that’s often something I have to balance when it comes to running a business. I prefer to stay away from iconic locations as they are always overcrowded, expensive to visit, and just don’t give a rich experience because of the hassle.

What non-iconic locations do I want to visit or add to my workshops? That’s a bit tough because so many locations could be considered “iconic” or “popular” just because of the sheer number of people who visit all the pretty places. The California Redwoods are a place I haven’t had a workshop in in a long time and would like to go back there. I’ve got a Ghost Towns of Oregon workshop in '24 through the central part of this state, away from most everyone. There is a lot to do in the Badlands, it’s a target rich environment. Exploring the backroads of Colorado, staying away from the iconic locations. Harbors and shipyards are favorite locations of mine, or recycling yards, to photograph rust, shapes/textures…it’s a place I always take my folks to when we’re on the coast. The coastal areas of Maine are simply gorgeous, away from Arcadia NP. So much to do there. Vancouver Island in BC is another world in terms of photographic potential. And lastly, there are a few international locations that I don’t think have become completely iconic. Norway is a HUGE country and the icon is Hemnoy and the red fishing huts, but everywhere else in the country is so beautiful and has so much potential. And then Greenland, another challenging environment with drop-dead gorgeous scenery with so much to do.

Thanks for the great question Randy!

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Hi Trevor,

Thanks for the cool question. Yep, you nailed it with wildlife photography, patience, some luck and of course unpredictability. I do most of my wildlife photography in Alaska (bears) and Wyoming (bison, moose, fox, etc) and there have been many experiences/encounters that have taken my breath away. One of the things to mention here is that to be out amongst wild animals, it is highly advisable to study a bit about them before you go and also spend time studying them in the wild. The knowledge will do two things: 1. Possibly keep you safe by knowing the warning signs different animals exhibit when threatened or agitated and 2. if you know more of their behavior patterns, you can better set yourself up for amazing photographs. I’m a certified bear guide and also always travel with the appropriate safety measures when I visit Alaska.

When I think about “most memorable”…my thought instantly go to Alaska and photographing grizzly bears in the wild. I typically go to Katmai NP and fly in to remote locations on a float plane to areas where the bears have been spotted. In general, the female bears and their cubs do not feel threatened by humans and in some cases welcome our presence to scare off boars, so their behavior is typically fairly predictable. Honestly, every encounter with the grizzly bears has been awe inspiring for me as I try to be very present in the moment and be thankful for my fortune to be there with these magnificent animals.

First memory: Being chest deep in the water with a grizzly bear swimming 15 yards from me, hearing the bear breathing heavier from the exertion and marveling at how fast they can swim through the water. I had many close experience with the bears, them often approaching to within 15 feet of me, but being deep I the river with my movements restricted by the water, felt even more vulnerable. That bear could have easily changed direction and been on me in a couple of seconds and there wouldn’t be a thing I could do about it. I remained calm and focused on my knowledge of and trust in the animal and worked to focus on my photography.

Second memory: It was a slow bear day in this one area and we had been following a sow and cubs trying to get in to a position to photograph her. In this location, there were multiple creeks all flowing towards a confluence with a larger river. The sow would walk up one creek and then travel through the brush to the next creek and we were trying to keep up hoping that she would settle down and fish with her cubs. Going through the brush is a risky business up there as the only way through is on game trails and the bears use these trails, so our chance of encountering a wild bear on the trail was high!

We followed her back and forth for almost two hours and were about to give up and go in search of other subjects. However, when she headed in to the brush with her cubs, we were downstream and scurried over to the next creek to watch her come out of the brush (again). This time though, she didn’t come out. We were curious and a bit puzzled, so we slowly walked up the creek to where we thought she should have come out. No sign of her. At this point we were done chasing and took a quick break. As we were standing there, we thought we heard faint rustling in the brush where she went in to the brush.

Ever so slowly, a couple of us waded across the water towards the brush. When we got within 10 yards, we detected movement in the brush. Investigating further, and closer, we saw that she was in a grassy area under the brush canopy and was laying down with her cubs nearby. She raised her head slightly to look at us and I made eye contact with her. Our movements were slow and deliberate at this point, not wanting to spook her. She put her head back down and went back to her mid-afternoon nap, realizing we were not a threat to her or her kids. I just stood there trying to soak in the experience. When she breathed, her chest rose and fell a good couple feet, you could hear her breathing and the more rapid breathing of her cubs. You could smell the animals mixed with the wet ground they had dug up to make sleeping areas. At this point, I could care less about photography!!! I did have my camera and took a few handheld shots. We then backed away across the river. I had a small workshop group with me and we then put on longer lenses and waded in to the river a little bit for folks to get some shots, but more so, just to experience this moment on a personal level.

To me, the experience of witnessing these animals in their natural environment, that is the most precious take away from these encounters. I do want a nice photograph sure, but it’s the experience of seeing rutting moose locking horns, wolves on the hunt, bison trudge through 3’ of snow, grizzlies fighting or simply fishing. Just magnificent to witness!


Hi John, thanks for doing this! It appears we both live in the Portland area and I am surprised we have not crossed paths yet. I am intrigued about your transition from the corporate world to a full time photography business. I have a few related questions about your journey. At what point in your life did you decide that you were going to leave the corporate world? What has been the best part about this transition? The most frustrating part? Do you find that running a photography business has diminished your love for making photographs? Thanks, Pat

Hi Pat,

Or should I say, greetings fellow Portlander. I too am surprised we haven’t crossed paths yet. We should connect this winter for some coffee or photos!

It is tough to leave the corporate world! The biggest reason, the golden handcuffs of a good sized steady paycheck, health insurance, stocks, etc. The logical side of my brain had a hard time contemplating leaving as it just “doesn’t make sense” by any normal metric.

For me though, it was about quality of life. I had gotten to the point where I’d seen just about everything more than once and just tired of playing the game. It was wearing on all aspects of my life. As I’ve gotten older, one thing has become crystal clear…we are only on this earth for a short time and we better make the most of it while we are here. I had been mentoring with another photographer who was winding down his workshop business and I learned the ropes from him, knowing how to run a great workshop and deliver maximum value to the clients. This was a big step up for me. I finally reached a point where I was financially secure enough to go out and see if I could make it work. And, my wife was supportive (and has health insurance), which was huge. So I made the decision to leave.

The first few years were good and I was growing the business well. Until a certain Jan/Feb when I was overseas in Iceland and Norway and Covid swept the world. I barely made it home before everything shut down and when I did get back, realized that the photo workshop business was dead until this passed, which at the time nobody knew how long it would be. So I pivoted to online teaching and brought in a meager income, but my bread and butter was dead. Finally we emerged from Covid and am starting to rebuild. it’s not the same as it was, but still trying to make a go of it.

If you’ve never worked for yourself, this is an interesting thing. It can be great and it can be horrible. Great that you can set your own hours and direct your own work. Horrible if you’re not disciplined enough to keep yourself focused on task.

Running a workshop business is super stressful, believe it or not. It’s not the glitz and glamour that people assume when they see you traveling all over. Permits, paperwork, lodging, clients who need extra attention, folks who drop out last minute, getting enough folks to sign up to make the trip worth it, relentless social media posting plus writing and video creation. These days I am almost more of a “content creator” to keep my online presence relevant to the search engines than I am a photographer. Going on a workshop is hard, but it’s a relief from the day to day in the office in a way.

Has it diminished my love for making photographs? A little bit yes, if I’m to be honest. I have far less time to shoot for myself than I used to. I shoot when I’m scouting in prep for a workshop and then also find a few days in between workshops to shoot, but my image creation is less than I used to do. When I’m running a workshop, I’m there for the clients so I’m really not taking many photographs, or photographs that I want to take. I am at locations that are best for the clients shooting stuff that is best for them, and stuff that I can teach them. If I visited these workshop locations, my personal days and locations would look much different.

On the other hand though, since my main focus is photography, I do tend to live and breathe a more creative life, which is highly beneficial. More peace with my body/soul/mind. And, since I have to create and teach so much, it has caused me to delve deeper in to myself and figure out “why” I do things, which has led to a richer understanding of myself. So yea, that’s been a huge bonus.

The one thing I will say though is that the workshop business isn’t what it used to be. Those with time and disposable income are choosing to spend less and less going on trips. YouTube has created a generation of “I can watch it there and learn” instead of the hands on / real world learning in the field that is far more valuable than YouTube. What I do get these days is fewer, but more passionate dedicated folks interested in the art and craft of photography, which is a pure joy to have a clients…

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Hi John, i hope that you’re in good spirits today! I lack confidence in my ability to edit my photos. In your opinion, what’s the most effective way to learn how to edit landscape photos? Conversely, if you had to learn how to start editing your landscape photos again, what would you do/what would your roadmap be?

Thank you so much! : D

Hi Sydney,
Thanks for the great question! This is actually a very challenging topic for new folks since post processing seems to be where a lot of focus is for making the “magic” happen. I could write a veerrrrryyyyyy long response to this, but I’ll try and keep it manageable.

First, I feel that successful editing comes from having a good image file to start with. When I’m in the field, I am aware of the the light, contrast, color, mess, etc of the scene and am already knowing how easy or hard it will be to process. Sometimes I will walk away from shots that I know I cannot process to my liking without severe edits which will destroy image quality and authenticness of the shot. So, getting the shot as “right” in camera as possible is the first step in successful processing. Use GND filters, proper exposures for the story you are trying to tell, etc. Don’t rely on the “fix it in post” mentality.

There are two parts to learning image editing. What to do and How to do it. How do do something is easy as there are a lot of YouTube videos showing you how to do something. Knowing WHAT to do to an image is the hardest part to learn.

One of the ways I learned, that I think is still relevant today, is to examine images that I like the processing of. Look on social media and photo sites and try to figure out 1. Why I like it and 2. What was done to the image. Understanding the WHY I like something helped me understand more about myself and started to define my editing style. Understanding WHAT was done is a bit harder if you aren’t well versed in editing. I used simple terms for myself to help me understand, such as “the lighting is even across the scene” or "there seems to be a glow about the image (which I later learned was the Orton effect).

There are a lot of confusing technical terms and a new language to learn when editing photos and it can be very overwhelming to newer folks. I teach my students to use “normal” words when describing a scene or processed image, don’t get wrapped up in trying to be technical because you will overwhelm yourself. What do you like about the image? “I like that there aren’t a lot of shadows”, “I like the amount of color”, etc. Knowing how to describe a photograph and the various components of light and shadows, color, sharpness and of course composition, that is the first step to breaking down the image in to “topic areas” that you can then address with processing. Image critiques, describing parts of the image, were important for me to begin my processing journey. Once I identified that I liked the “color” of a scene, it’s easy to learn about the various color controls in LR and what they do. One of my biggest suggestion to folks is to learn how to “de-construct” an image my looking at it’s parts (not the overall scene but all the things that go in to making up the photograph like light, color, sharpness, shape, textures, relationships, visual weight, etc). Once you can describe these parts, then you can make choices about what to do with each of these parts. I like to suggest to people that before you start editing, evaluate the image and make a list or recipe of all the things you’d like to see changed in it. Then, figure out how to do it (experiment or YouTube).

As you may know, our eyes go towards the brightest part of an image, and, our eyes follow the light through an image. So, one evaluation I do is “where do my eyes go?” in an image? I pay attention to what objects or areas grab my attention. Then, I ask, are these where I want people to look? Are there bright spots away from my subject that may distract viewers? If yes, I’ll work to tone them down so they don’t grab attention. Or, conversely, are there big dark areas that block the viewer or have too much visual weight? if yes and if I don’t want that, then I’ll brighten them up.

Sorry, starting to go down a deep rabbit hole here. If you use Lightroom, the adjustment panel is laid out in a particular order, one that they think you should follow from top to bottom. Global adjustments, regional adjustments, fine tuning and finishing. Take some time and play around with each slider to see what it does in an image and if it is something that resonates with you that you’d like to use in the future.

Learning WHAT you want to do to an image is much more important than learning HOW to do it. Start by critically evaluating each component and then learning which sliders may affect the adjustment you seek. To learn this, just pick one attribute of an image, either a tonality, color or physical area of the image, and experiment with sliders, masks, etc to try and get that adjusted to where you like it. It can be a fun learning journey for sure! It can also be overwhelming with so much. Take it slow and easy and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. My editing learning has been going on for years and I am always finding new ways to edit my images, but it all starts with a clear idea of “what” I want to do to an image.

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