Todd Johnson, owner of Todd Johnson Productions, describes his work as an "uncommon combination of big-production advertising projects for automotive clients spiced with a dash of high-end weddings." At the start of August, Johnson and team were in the midst of producing five ads for Suzuki, while balancing and coordinating wedding shoots.
Over the years, Johnson has created legacy art for such auto industry leaders as Toyota, Bridgestone, Ford, GM, Susuki, Polaris, Sea-Doo, Opel (Germany), Mazda, Infiniti, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Mack Trucks, Mitsubishi, Honda, Mercury, and BF Goodrich. Words such as "ethereal," "intense," "energetic," and "surreal" describe his color-saturated creations. A favorite client, Harley-Davidson, states that Johnson's imagery is their most requested.
One might think that the skills required to shoot big-production automobile ads would differ dramatically from those needed to capture emotional wedding moments. Yet, Johnson has artfully adapted the planning and technical skills he cultivated over 18 years working with the auto industry to the wedding photography he began creating five years ago. His trademark precision and flair are sirens to a growing set of couples in search of wedding imagery that's different from the norm.
Why did this L.A. veteran of hard-edged commercial imagery decide to get in touch with his softer side?
"After my son was born, I thought a lot about what I wanted to teach him in the very brief time he'd want to learn from me. I wanted him to understand his impact on society as he developed personal values, goals, and interests," says Johnson, claiming that he's always been a bit uncomfortable putting all of his creative energy into images that get people to "buy more stuff." During his period of reflection, a devastating fire hit the L.A. hills. When he listened to residents being interviewed, they all cited their photographs as their most valuable items and, in many cases, were the only things they saved.
Johnson finds fun ways to overlap and integrate auto and wedding photography. "I think one makes me better at the other," he says. Commercial shoots and weddings both survive on a time line, so detailed planning and scheduling skills are a must. Both events are collaborative, requiring him to determine the best opportunities to create powerful images. But whereas ad photography demands detailed planning to determine exact composition and lighting to support the needs of the client and agency, planning composition for weddings tends to be far less controlled. Success in the wedding business requires a sensitivity to what's going to happen in a split second and the agility to capture it all.
Johnson also has begun to port his wedding agility to his commercial shoots. Once the committee has approved the shot and the team is waiting for the light, he'll ask the crew to take care of the technical process. "I then look around and find additional ways to take advantage of what other shots can be had," he says.
A carry-over from Johnson's advertising work is his pricing philosophy. "For wedding photography, I essentially charge a creative fee or day rate. It's my job to do whatever it takes to tell the story the best way possible. Wedding couples don't know how much time will be required to capture their day."
Photography for auto advertising is hyper-detailed, and each shot must meet the exacting expectations of many people, who sometimes may have conflicting needs. Location scouting, light mapping, and planning down to the minute are a must.
For both types of clients, work starts with strategy sessions and conversations. Johnson and his team then scout locations and coordinate a time line. Since a majority of auto campaigns are shot outdoors, Johnson benefits from technology to help him anticipate changes in weather and lighting. He uses a software package called sunPATH to plot the movement of the sun at any location in the world throughout any specific day. An Autohelm digital compass and clinometer light-map the area
"In an automotive shoot, these tools help us plan the day, map the set, and determine the time of the shoot for perfect light. For a wedding, we follow the same mapping preparation steps to know where and when the greatest opportunities will be for certain shots at points throughout the day. I can go to the bride and groom with prints of the locations I have in mind and suggest that a certain location will have perfect light on their wedding day at 4:23 p.m. They take it seriously, and this encourages them to be ready for specific shots on time." Of course, wedding agendas change, so Johnson keeps several prime locations in a back pocket for times throughout the day.
To illustrate perfect preparation, look at the Toyota truck photograph. Explains Johnson, "Dark-green vehicles are among the hardest to light and accurately show color. By using sunPATH we were able to scout a location that effectively lit the truck using dawn's breaking light." The team masterfully engineered and rigged gear at 2:00 a.m., while positioning a train, truck, and everything else for the scant moments of optimal lighting.
To illustrate his studio's skill with wedding photography, note the black-and-white image (above middle). At first glance, Johnson felt this spot was graphically interesting, but flat and unlikely to translate well to a still image. With a bit of light mapping, he calculated that the sun would briefly break through a small opening in the trees for about eight minutes on the day of the wedding. By advantageously positioning himself, Johnson captured a halo effect. Bride Dana Rosini-a photographer herself-was happy to play along in staging the scene.
A Signature Look
Johnson's wedding clients tend to be photography and art enthusiasts who appreciate his collaborative approach, and more often than not it's the groom who tracks down his contact information. Images start in the camera, and Johnson utilizes a combination of filtering at the lens and custom white balance to capture a file close to infrared, but retaining the full spectrum of visible light and color.