Story by Stephanie Hounsell
Photography by Don Johnston
Whatever it takes
Nature photographer Don Johnston knows the easy way isn’t always the best way
Outdoor photographer Don Johnston has a simple mantra: Photography trumps everything. He’ll do whatever it takes to get the best shot (so long as it’s safe and does not endanger or unduly disturb the natural environment and animals). That was evident last summer when he travelled with his wife, Brenda, on an unforgettable trip to the Northwest Territories.
Flying to their destination would have been quicker, but the Sudbury, ON photographer favours driving, which allows for unexpected experiences — and photographs — along the way. “We prefer to drive for the simple reason that we have an opportunity to see the land,” he says. “You’re driving through uncharted waters, so to speak (and) whatever you happen to get along the way is a little bonus.”
It was in northern Alberta, on his way to the Northwest Territories, that Johnston spotted a vibrant, patriotic storage shed in the midst of a canola field. It got his attention. “You can’t drive by something standing out like that,” he says. “It just screams ‘Photograph me, photograph me.’”
He pulled over the car, got out and started shooting. Part of the allure was how representative of Canada the scene was. “You’ve got agriculture, got the harvest, got the flag,” he says, adding he likes to build extra time into his itineraries so he can stop without worrying about getting off-schedule.
Enduring physical discomfort from time to time is par for the course for nature photographers — think early wake-ups and inclement weather. But Johnston clearly demonstrated his commitment to his craft when he found himself photographing roadside bison under rather trying circumstances.
While packing for the trip, Brenda had asked her husband if they should pack their specialized bug jackets. “Nah,” Don replied. There were very few bugs that time of year in northern Ontario and he didn’t think it would be much different further north. Boy, was he wrong.
He was driving toward Fort Providence, NWT, when he saw the small herd of bison. “I was struck by the light on them. The bison were so beautifully backlit,” he recalls. But that wasn’t all he was struck by. “I was horrified to see a cloud of black flies around each animal.” Despite having no bug protection, Johnston got out of his vehicle and started photographing. Fortunately, he wasn’t bitten too badly, and he ended up with some great photos — and a lesson learned: “Do your homework,” chuckles the former high school biology teacher.
He adds that although researching beforehand is important, there’s often nothing better than talking to locals. While in Enterprise, NWT, Johnston knew he wanted to capture the northern lights reflected in water. But he couldn’t find a small lake or pond. It was only after talking with the motel desk clerk that he knew where to head. A two-minute drive later, he found himself at a picnic area with a pond. Exactly what he needed to capture an unforgettable shot.
To read more of Don Johnston’s interview with Stephanie Hounsell, please pick up a copy of the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of OPC today, or subscribe to never miss an issue!
To see more of Don Johnston’s work please visit www.donjohnstonphotos.com