How do you get your first story published in Surfers Journal, become Patagonia’s pioneer staff photographer or make a photo-documentary tracing your dream journey from California to Chile? In the current age, being labeled an adventure photographer might be a ubiquitous goal, but there is really no one-size-fits-all. To get a look at what it takes to achieve even a fraction of this, we traveled to Santa Barbara, up the narrow, winding hills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, to get some insight into the process of Leica photographer Jeff Johnson as he tested the full-frame mirrorless Leica SL camera system.
Today, Johnson works with brands like Leica, Patagonia, Yeti, Knob Creek and even Urban Outfitters. But his path to such success was less than direct. A self-identified former delinquent skater from Danville, California, it was one teacher’s encouragement for reading and his father’s penchant for storytelling that ultimately led Johnson to his career path. “When I graduated, this teacher would send me books that I was supposed to be reading in her class,” he says, paging through a novel and standing on a short wooden stool in the loft of his restored A-frame. “I started reading incessantly. I started reading Charles Bukowski — it’s barebones prose. That really inspired me to write.”
Johnson moved to Hawaii’s North Shore after high school, began traveling and taking photos of adventures with his friends. “I would make slide shows and show them in my garage. It was just my way of sharing stories,” says Johnson. And when he felt compelled to tell the story of his favorite lesser-known pro-surfer Eric Haas, Johnson wrote the story, compiled photos and flew to California to pitch it to The Surfers Journal in person. “I handed it off to them — typed out and with photos and then I was driving away and they called and said they were going to run it.” That was Johnson’s first story in print. “I thought it would make a better impression — my dad taught me that, to just show up. That began a relationship that [lasts] to this day.” It helps that Johnson is utterly likable and easy-going. But gumption, grind and the will to produce something outside of the status quo is the backbone of his work. That pure tenacity led Patagonia to eventually hire him as its first staff photographer — a relationship that also remains strong to this day.
It’s been just over a decade since Johnson first began his notable relationship with Leica. He was setting out on a 6-month journey making the film and book 180º South in 2007 and he documented it with his first Leica M7. “I contacted them and they loaned the lenses for that trip,” Johnson says. “The relationship has just gotten better and closer over the years.” Today, he’s shooting less with his M7 and relying more on the ease of digital. He’s recently gotten his hands on Leica’s burgeoning SL system. It’s a game changer for reasons such as its ultra-clear, 4.4 million pixel EyeRes® digital viewfinder and an autofocus system that is one of the fastest of all professional cameras on the market.
Having a versatile digital camera is key to his work — Johnson became identified early on as an outdoor photographer. It’s a title he doesn’t necessarily embrace as his work spans the gamut from street photography to lifestyle alongside his mainstay adventure work. Being a climber and surfer is part of his DNA and staying active is as much a way of life as it is essential to capturing footage on outdoor shoots. As we’re visiting, he spends part of the day bouldering and testing his new Leica SL around his Californian neighborhood.
Having come of age in the analog world, Johnson’s style is something of a purist — nothing is overly produced. However, he’s not taking sides in the film or digital debate. Both have their merits. “I don’t think one is better than the other. It really depends on your end goal.” For Johnson, he always puts the story first — and each is an individual process. “I’m motivated just by the simple exercise of sharing stories and hoping to make people laugh, to entertain or inspire or all of the above,” he says. “I have been so moved by stories throughout my life, whether my Dad’s or something I read in a magazine, a film I saw or a book I’ve read.”
In his approach to storytelling, it certainly helps that Johnson is slightly rogue. In fact, it’s been career-defining. “I was asked recently, ‘What would you tell new photographers to do?’ And I said, ‘Go look at what everybody else is doing and don’t do that.’”
Meet the Leica SL
The mirrorless Leica SL combines the precision of Leica lenses with an ultra-fast, high-performing processor, the Maestro II – with quick autofocus and shutter speed to capture whatever it is that you’re getting into. This sleek, durable full-frame digital model is compatible with more than 150 Leica lenses and it’s the first camera made for professional photography that features an electronic viewfinder — boasting a resolution of 4.4 million pixels.