Name your favorite adult (or non-alcoholic) beverage and it’s likely that photographer Jens Johnson has captured it. Jens carries the lighting techniques he’s learned as an accomplished stills shooter into motion. Although his career started early as a stringer for a local newspaper when he was in high school shooting with a Nikon FG his father bought him for his birthday, it didn’t occur to Johnson that photography would become a lifelong passion until he returned from a post-graduation, cross country trip and had his travel images published in the same local paper.
Prior to majoring in photography at a small, Connecticut art school, Johnson was self-taught, staying up nights quickly absorbing articles about f/stops and shutter speeds in photo magazines. But it was in art school that Johnson’s predilection for shooting liquids took hold. While classmates were shooting close ups of tree bark and other “artistic” objects, Johnson was more interested in photographing products and food. His classmates “were a little more artsy than I was. I was more interested in shooting a Coors Light beer can with water droplets on it. . ..They thought it was kind of strange.” But his professors supported his unique interests.
Upon graduation, Johnson pounded the pavements in New York City and got his first job with Hashi (Yasuomi Hashimura), an exceptional photographer who specializes in splash and product photography. Water droplets on beer cans aside, Johnson reports that was when he first became really interested in “liquids and motion and the way things moved.” Working with ASCOR strobes, the pair was able to capture those invisible-to-the-eye frozen “splash” moments. After 1 ½ years, Johnson moved on to work with Michel Tcherevkoff where he shot complex multiple exposures using 4×5 film cameras.
“moving back to Connecticut”
After moving back to Connecticut and freelancing, Johnson decided to go out on his own. His current studio was purpose-built with a top-of-the-line kitchen, as well as a client lounge and a fully equipped prop room. While he and his studio manager/assistant James Burns, who has been with Johnson for 13 years, are at the core of his studio, they will bring in a team on an as-needed basis.
Concentrating on beverages, food and beauty products, Johnson has evolved his work from stills to stop motion to full motion videos. “It was easy to move into stop motion from stills,” says Johnson, “and then from stop motion to full motion.” It was about 4-5 years ago that he began the transition by working on video content. “I saw where things were going and they’re still going that way. Clicks on motion were 3-4 times that of still frames, so I didn’t want to get left behind.”
Additionally, clients on set would say, “Be careful with that bottle because we need it for a video shoot.” Or the bottle would come to his studio from a video shoot. “I started to think, why can’t I do both? In the end, every photographer is a director.” A Phantom was too expensive, a Canon DSLR’s highest frame rate was only 60fps, so Johnson bought a Sony FS700 and started creating content to develop a reel. For still shoots, he prefers his Phase One back on his Sinar 4×5 view camera, which allows him to shift focus.
Importantly, shooting motion helped him learn more about how splashes and droplets work. Actually, he says, capturing the full movement of a splash is much easier than trying to trigger a still camera to freeze a specific moment at 1/7500th of a second.
Johnson brings a lot of his still lighting techniques to his motion capture but while he uses his Broncolor Grafits for still images, he, of course, switches to continuous lighting (usually ARRI LC9’s and Fiilex LEDs), for motion. Rather than having two lighting set-ups, each with their own Chimera light banks, Johnson uses the Triolet, an affordable and effective solution because “I can take any of my Chimera banks and can put different bulbs in them,” adding that, “You can leave the banks where they are and replace them with the Triolet and have continuous light.” Equally as important is the ease with which Johnson can make the switch from still to motion lighting because the Triolet has collapsible speed rings.
A long-time user of Chimera products, Johnson has about 8-9 Chimera banks of different shapes and sizes in his studio lighting kit, along with most of the grid attachments. Generally for splashes and pours, lighting is a main light source with Chimera banks. For bottles, Johnson will use strip lights to illuminate the edges. “We love Chimera’s long edgelights,” says Johnson, “for highlighting and bringing out the product and then use a Chimera on the main light source.”
With more than 27 years of experience, Johnson’s still and motion work is evidence of his expertise. Part of the beauty of Johnson’s splashes and pours is that each image has its own personality as the liquid moves gracefully from the beaker to its final destination.
For Johnson, who would “love to be a tabletop director for some national food and beverage commercials,” he emphasizes that he loves to work with creative people. “I don’t care if it’s the number one brand of whiskey in the world or a company that’s just breaking into the market,” he explains, “I just like to work with creative clients.”