An Interview with Mark S. Johnson

Mark S. Johnson has been a long-time instructor and friend of RMSP in addition to being one of the most prolific and inspirational digital photographic artists/writers/educators in the industry.  The creator of free-content websites, inspired how-to books, and many useful tools for the digital photographer, he exhibits expertise and passion with everything he does.  We thought our readers would like to get an up close and personal view into his world and find out what he has been up to lately.

Hello, Mark!  For our readers who may not be familiar with you and your work, would you mind giving us a brief background: where you grew up, education, job experience, photography experience?
First of all, I’d like to say thanks for giving me the opportunity to participate in this interview.

For starters, Bob, here is my official bio:

Mark S. Johnson is an Adobe Photoshop luminary, a photographer, an author, and one of the most passionate instructors you will ever encounter.  It is this passion that inspired him to write, photograph, and design the internationally-recognized book, Botanical Dreaming—one of five featured books in Outdoor Photographer’s 2008 Annual Landscape issue.  Mark’s immensely popular eBook, the Photographer’s Photoshop Companion, has helped thousands of photographers from around the globe understand and enjoy Photoshop.  His signature video tutorial series, The Photoshop Workbench, was viewed by half a million unique visitors last year.  Mark’s latest eBook, Illuminating HDR, is one of the most comprehensive HDR resources on the planet.

Through the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, The Radiant Vista, and Boulder Digital Arts, Mark has lectured in front of countless individuals, including Adobe’s Chief Executive Officers and the U.S. Ambassador to Finland.  His articles appear regularly on the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP) website, and his imagery and articles have been featured in Photo Techniques, Nature’s Best, and After Capture magazines.  Mark’s clients include 2009 Academy Award-winning director, Louie Psihoyos.  Watch hundreds of Mark’s free and entertaining Photoshop tutorials at

In addition, my hometown is Williamsburg, VA.  I studied broadcasting communications/visual arts at James Madison University.  From 1994 – 1996, I worked as a television editor, culminating in an opportunity to work for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.  But by 1996, my heart was set on moving from Atlanta to Boulder, CO to pursue my true passions, photography and Photoshop.  I worked for a photo lab from 1997 – 1999, but began teaching Photoshop on the side.  One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was teaching full-time.  Teaching led to book writing and the lecture circuit.  Currently I’m doing most of my teaching locally so that I can watch my beautiful 3 year old daughter, Allie, grow up.

What was your initial introduction to photography? Who or what inspired you in this direction?
 Ever since high school, I’ve been fascinated by visual arts.  At first, I thought I wanted to work with moving pictures, but three things changed that:  1) I fell in love with Photoshop, 2) I saw my first sheet of Velvia 50, and 3) Editing (television) in a dark room all day long wasn’t good for me.  I needed to be outside in nature more often.

Many of us who know you both personally and professionally, and know what you are capable of, recognize the nature of extreme creativity in everything that you do. What is it that drives this sense of creativity of inside you? What inspires you personally?
Creativity brings so much joy to my life that I can’t imagine a life without it.  When I’m being creative, I feel alive.  Color also has a profound impact on my energy level.  When I’m in the presence of vibrant colors, such as flowers or stained glass, I have no choice but to feel inspired.

The subjects that inspire me have evolved over time.  Currently, I’m exploring various forms of multiple exposure (what I call impressionism), high dynamic range (in fact, I just released an eBook called Illuminating HDR), infrared, and compositing techniques so that I can create compelling and unique children’s book illustrations.  When I got started with photography, I was very much a traditional landscape person, but I quickly realized that I require evolving forms of creativity to stay inspired.  So I purchased a digital SLR  and a macro lens and went wild with flowers.  I became so involved with flowers that I created an educational coffee table book titled Botanical Dreaming.

For me, it’s no longer about the camera.  Instead, I use the camera as a means to connect with my subjects.  Then I use Photoshop to transform the images into reflections of my spirit.  I prefer to express what I felt when I captured the scene more so than what I saw.  For me, it’s never been about having expensive cameras and lenses.  Creativity comes from the heart and can’t be purchased in a store.

You have become a master of the technological tools and their creative potential – almost from their inception – available for today’s photographic artist. It is obvious that you possess a love of teaching as well. How did you first discover that these two aspects of your personality could be combined for the benefit of others wanting to learn?
Teaching gives me an opportunity to share what I love with others.  When others get excited, I get even more excited.  It’s a lovely cycle.  There are few things in life more rewarding than witnessing the enthusiasm of a student when she or he grasps a concept.  In my workshops, I strive to make a connection with each student so that we can explore ways to unlock their true potential and tap into what makes each person’s vision unique.

What accomplishments of yours are you most proud of?
My daughter.  She’s three years old and melts my heart every day.

I’m a shy person, so it’s a big accomplishment just for me to stand in front of audiences.
I feel the greatest sense of accomplishment when I experience a true connection with my students.

Can you tell us a bit about the latest tools and resources you’ve created for the digital photographers? Your Illuminating HDR ebook looks particularly exciting! What exactly is HDR for the uninitiated?
My latest eBook, Illuminating HDR, is an educational resource that provides everything a photographer needs to produce breathtaking HDR images!  Illuminating HDR is a revolutionary eBook that features colorfully illustrated step-by-step topics, stunning examples, and work-along images.  Unlike any other HDR reference, Illuminating HDR includes two comprehensive workflows (Bridge > Photomatix > Adobe Camera Raw > Photoshop) and (Lightroom > Photomatix > Lightroom > Photoshop) plus crystal clear techniques for bracketing exposures, reading histograms, replacing unattractive skies, eliminating ghosted subjects, removing halos, fixing blown highlights, batch processing, single image processing, double tone mapping, achieving the “Harry Potter” look, and more.  This fully printable, Mac and PC-compatible eBook covers Photomatix 4, Photoshop CS5, and Lightroom 3.

For those who aren’t familiar with HDR, pop over to my website and download a free excerpt from Illuminating HDR ( ).  By the time you finish reading the excerpt, you’ll probably know enough to either jump right in or run for the hills.  I’ve also included several example HDR images right here.

Would you mind showing us some example images using the techniques you describe in Illuminating HDR?


In June you will be teaching a workshop for RMSP in your hometown of Boulder, Colorado called Creative Compositing. For those interested, can you share with us what you will be teaching the creative souls who will be joining you?
Last year, this was one of my very favorite workshops to teach.  Since Boulder is my home, I know many of the intimate, less-accessible, and beautiful locations.  We shoot in a variety of places, ranging from private gardens to train museums to striking wildflower meadows.  The week consists of field shoots, supportive image evaluations, and hands-on Photoshop lectures.  I focus extensively on techniques for capturing impressionistic and HDR scenes.  Here you’ll find several images that represent the capture and post-capture techniques that I encourage during the workshop.


In addition, here’s last year’s classroom curriculum (this year’s won’t be the same, but should be similar):

Soft-Glow Double-Exposure Montage
Painting with Light
Multi-Image Montage
Mirror Montage
Motion Painting
Multiple-Exposure Impressionism
Multiple-Exposure Rotate and Zoom Montage
Multiple-Exposure Rotate and Zoom Montage with a Mask

Field Shooting and Photoshop:
Simulating a Graduated Neutral Density Filter
Focus Blending
Stitching Panoramas
Combining Two Exposures to Extend the Tonal Latitude
of an Image

HDR Shooting Suggestions
Photomatix Pro Tone Mapping Suggestions

Replacing a Sky Using the Quick Selection Tool and the Paste Into Function
Refine Edge Nirvana
Replacing a Sky Using a Brilliant Blending Mode
Improving a Landscape Photograph with Content-Aware Scaling
Clipping Masks

Color Correction:
Understanding Curves
Selectively Lightening or Darkening a Given Area
One-Click Color Balancing Using a Gray Card and Curves in Color Blend Mode
The Sledge Hammer of Color Correction
Fine Art Color to Black-and-White Conversions
Combining Monochrome with Sepia or Color

Finally, do you have any words of inspiration for those photographers/artists who may find themselves currently “stuck” creatively speaking?
I completely understand being stuck.  I’ve been there several times myself.  Here’s the advice I give myself.  Most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself.  In fact, now is a time to love yourself more than ever.  Know that with time and patience, inspiration will return.  I’m a big believer in creative momentum.  When you’re feeling stuck, make an attempt to discover what you love.  Surf the internet, browse a bookstore, or stroll in a garden.  Once you determine what you love, give yourself a small assignment.  For instance, plan to make one photograph of that subject each day.  As you work through your assignment, notice how creativity invites itself back into your life.  The more you create (even if you miss the mark more often than not), the more creativity you will experience.  The more creativity you experience, the more in tune you will become with the subject that you love.  The more in tune you feel, the more likely you are to create photographs that are a representation of what’s in your heart.

Mark S. Johnson Photography

Many thanks to Mark S. Johnson for his time with the thoughtful and inspiring responses to my questions!  RMSP’s Creative Compositing in Boulder, Colorado workshop with Mark takes place June 4-10, 2011. If interested, you may register online or by calling 800-394-7677.

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Mark S. Johnson

Wesley norman

I had the good fortune of meeting and participating in a workshop with Mark 3 years ago. There is no doubt in my mind that Mark is a gifted teacher and the excitement that he brings into his teaching is so impressive. RMSP is fortunate to have Mark on their staff. I will, no doubt, enjoy another one of his workshops in the future.


Thanks for the article Mark – I have been stuck with my photography creativity and wasn’t sure how to move forward. I appreciate you addressing this issue that gets us all from time to time. I needed the assurance that this too will pass and I can find the creativity again and even deeper than before. Maybe they are really only growth spurts.

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