Last week we said ‘hello’ to Tom Turner, one of a couple of new Photo Guides to join the Backcountry Journeys team in 2021. Within that article, I hinted there would be more folks to meet. Next up, please help me give a warm welcome to John Steitz, a photographer, and adventurer out of Minnesota. How about a quick conversation with John so as to get to know him a bit?
Kenton: Tell us about yourself, John … Where did you grow up? Have you lived elsewhere? How have those places, and the experiences you’ve had affected you as a person?
John: Hey Kenton! Thanks so much for the warm welcome. I couldn’t be happier to be on the team! I grew up in Chicagoland for the first eight (years) of my life, and then my family and I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where I lived for seven years. When I was 15 my family and I ventured back to the Midwest to my current home here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. I think it is safe to assume that upper-Midwest culture has influenced my personality the most (Oh, yah. You betcha!). As wonderful as Minnesota is with the exceptional nature of the Superior National Forest/Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, my time in Utah definitely planted the seed of my adventurous spirit and set the trajectory for my love of all things nature. I have very fond memories of growing up backpacking in the High Uintas and exploring the deserts and canyonlands of Moab. My father had few reservations when it came to having me strap on a pack and head into the mountains with him, and I have those early experiences to credit for feeling so at home in the backcountry today. Put another way, I feel as at home in a canoe as I do in the mountains!
You are an avid backpacker… What would you say is your all-time favorite backpacking route/trip?
This is an incredibly difficult question to answer. An obvious contender would have to be my thru-hike of the John Muir Trail in 2016. As far as awe-inspiring wilderness is concerned, it really is hard to beat 18 days sauntering through the high country of Sequoia and King’s Canyon with the highest peak in the lower 48 tagged on for good measure. However, for the past few summers, I’ve done shorter 6-day routes through the Wind River Range of Wyoming, and this area has quickly become a special place for me as well. In the Winds, somehow every cirque and basin is more magnificent than the last, and the range has plenty of off-trail and lesser-traveled routes for those like me seeking solitude. In 2017, my hiking partner and I just so happened to land alone in the incomparable Titcomb Basin for the total solar eclipse. In what felt like an instant, the day turned to night and the temperature dropped a good 10-15 degrees. Mother Nature gave a command performance for us in a most grand theatre 11,000ft above sea level. We had planned the route before we knew the eclipse was even coming, so this was a fortuitous coincidence and an experience I will never forget.
When did you discover photography? Did you study it in college, if not, what did you study and where did you go to school?
I first discovered photography while taking a couple of college electives in digital and darkroom photography at McNally Smith College of Music where I gained my degree in audio engineering. Mixing audio for local concerts and musical theatre is my primary employment. I’m incredibly grateful to have two great passions in life and somehow get to pursue both!
Can you talk a bit about your growth as a photographer? We have a handful of guests here at BCJ who would consider themselves ‘beginners.’ Between your days as a beginner to now, what would you say has been the biggest factor in your growth as a photographer?
This is an interesting question that has made me pause for some introspection and self-critique. I suppose the biggest factor in my growth has been the 15 years of constant trial and error I’ve undergone between my first DSLR purchase and the work I do today. I’m not sure one’s journey as an artist is ever really over. I believe that each and every photographer out there is constantly refining and expanding their craft. I, for one, know that I’m still growing and learning every day I hit the trail with a camera in hand. That’s just the nature of photography. In regards to my “style”, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, I’ve been learning to do more with less. As the years have gone by, I’ve found value in using a lighter touch in post. I like to think that the faithful and thoughtful capturing and recreation of wild scenery have emerged as the general ethos I approach landscape photography with today.
Would you consider yourself more of a landscape photographer, or do you prefer wildlife? If it’s one clearly over the other, could you expand upon why? What leads you down that artistic path specifically?
While I have experience in wildlife photography, I’m definitely more of a landscape sort of fellow. For one, big telephotos are mighty heavy in the backpack when you’re already carrying a week’s worth of food with you! But aside from the more practical considerations, I have a genuine passion for capturing wonderful backcountry scenes. One of my main drives in life is advocating for the protection of public lands and wilderness areas in the United States, and I think one of the most effective ways that I can do that is to share the beauty of these places with others who might not otherwise get to see them. I’m often reminded of Ansel Adams and the success he had lobbying for wilderness protection through his photography. I think that history is a testament to how art can influence public opinion and, ultimately, the world. That’s a legacy I very much want to continue carrying forward with other like-minded landscape photographers. For me, I am hard-pressed to think of a more worthy mission in life.
You mention advocacy towards conservation being one of your main drives in life. This is an extremely important issue to us at Backcountry Journeys. Can you discuss your motivation and drive to not only educate folks on the importance of conservation but to take part in folks having experiences that will enhance their own understanding of this important mission?
In my view, our public lands serve as a buffer of sorts against an array of crises we’re facing, both environmental and cultural. Firstly, we’re living in hard times as a nation. There’s little we all agree upon these days, it seems. In this era where seemingly there is little that unites us, our parks are something that I think engenders in us all a sense of collective pride. These shared landscapes are something that anchors us here, together. In the National Parks, we’re all just Americans. Secondly, this planet of ours is at an ecological crossroads. It’s absolutely vital we work to maintain the last unspoiled places that remain in order to fight climate change and preserve critically needed habitat for all the endangered species currently threatened by the extinction crisis we face. Lastly, public lands are absolutely essential to the human spirit, including my own. In the hustle and bustle of modern life, I need to be able to break away from time to time and be humbled and reminded of just how infinitesimally small I am in the grand scheme of things. Strangely, I find myself comforted by that fact, and the realization that while I may be small, I am rooted in something infinitely larger and more important. I’m not separate from this larger thing, I am very much a part of it. As John Muir said, “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” Public lands are essential for all these reasons and more.
John, we couldn’t agree more. Do you have a particular image in your portfolio that you would label your ‘favorite’ for whatever reason?
It’s too difficult to pick an all-time favorite, so I’ll take the easy way out and just pick a favorite recent image. This photo was taken a few weeks ago along the shore of Lake Superior, near the very tip of the Minnesota arrowhead. I’m not sure if it’s an image of mine with the most universal appeal, per se, but it is an image I’m proud of because of how challenging it was to execute. We had pulled up just before dawn, and it was an incredibly cold, wintery morning. There was only a brief window of time to pull off what I had envisioned. In order to line the sun up with the island’s arch and catch the sparkling rocks in the foreground, I had to run back and forth between the crashing waves of the freezing lake and hold my camera just above the rocks, all the while frantically wiping drops of water from the lens before they froze to the glass. Meanwhile, the crashing waves of the cold Lake Superior danced very close to my feet, eventually soaking my foot. Those are the type of live-action shots I live for. I came out with a frozen boot, and an image I was incredibly proud of. The things we do for art, am I right?!
What do you feel are the biggest challenges in nature photography?
For me, as a dirtbag backpacker-type photographer, most of my biggest challenges are environmental. Things like keeping my camera safe from the elements or warm enough to function properly in temperatures well below freezing are challenges in and of themselves, along with simply lugging myself, my pack, and the camera into these places. Aside from those sorts of struggles, dealing with my critical self comes in at a close second. It’s true that we are all our own worst critics. For me, I think that’s especially true.
What are you shooting with these days?
A few years ago, I was looking to shed weight and make the switch to mirrorless. My first few cameras were all Canon, but their offerings in the mirrorless world were limited. So, I took the plunge and bought a Sony a7rii. Thus far, I’m loving the 42mp sensor and the flexibility that comes with a mirrorless camera. I still have a soft place in my heart for Canon though, so after I finally run this camera into the ground, I may look at scooping up an R5.
You have a background in teaching, correct? Can you talk a bit about that?
Sure! I’ve worked at a couple of different colleges for the past 5-6 years now teaching live production technologies. Subjects range from audio engineering, system design, to stage lighting. I never thought teaching at the college level would be a viable career path for me, but it turned out I do have a bit of a flair for it! I think it’s fair to say I’ve developed a personable and effective teaching style over the years, particularly when I’m passionate about the subject matter. Nothing is worse than a boring lecture, so I’ve always tried to make my courses engaging and fun for students. I very much look forward to bridging my passions and bringing my experience as a college instructor to the world of photography!
Do you feel your teaching experience gives you additional tools that will translate with guiding BCJ Tours?
Yes! Through my experience as a college instructor, I have gained skills in communication and engagement to nurture people’s learnings in a variety of topics and formats, with the goal of always trying to meet folks where they are at and believe in their abilities and unique skills. Hands-on and demonstrative learning is essential when teaching the type of material I teach, which will translate well at BCJ. I think this background coupled with my fun and energetic approach to teaching will help us all have a great time out in the field!
What would you teach beginner photographers to be most concerned about when working to develop their skills?
While I’ll certainly do my best to impart onto folks some of the conventional wisdom and best practices surrounding composition and various techniques, I think it’s important that folks trust their own vision and create the images they want to create. We don’t all see the world the same way, and that’s a truth I’ll always honor. I firmly believe that all artists will ultimately produce better work when they feel entirely free to experiment and make mistakes along the way. With that said, there are definitely some technical competencies that every photographer should possess regarding settings and camera features. Understanding the equipment is an important prerequisite to being able to execute any vision.
What are you looking forward to most about working as a photo guide for Backcountry Journeys?
I’m most looking forward to getting to meet new folks while reveling in nature’s beauty. As much as I go into the wild to get away from society, I genuinely enjoy the folks I meet on the trail or in the parks who share a passion for the outdoors as much as I do. In my life so far, I’ve come to discover that some of the most interesting people can be found in nature.
Thanks, John! I appreciate you taking the time, and am excited to work with you out in the field! I think Backcountry Journeys’ guests will enjoy your approach not only to photography and instruction but to how you appreciate and experience the natural world. Welcome!
Click here to see a sampling of John’s work.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.