A photographer since 11, San Francisco-based Mike James writes with the same passion as he shoots his Leica. As Principal at Thomas Burke & Others (TB&O), James says he loves what he does, but always looks forward to Friday evening, when the weekend begins and his creative juices allow him to take more artistic and experimental risks. With a keen sense for black and white photography and having exhibited in Paris, L.A., and San Francisco, he now shares with us a collection of images that take us deep into nature. Deep into the “raging waterfalls and the majesty of the mountains” of Quesnel Lake, British Columbia.

As an avid Monochrom user, you say it has freed you to think about composition and tone, always trying to depict a mood with your images. How are you achieving this through the Quesnel Lake collection?

Quesnel Lake has moods and a black and white camera, like the Leica Monochrom I use, frees me to focus on compositions and tones that depict the mood I’m trying hard to capture. The lake is a large body of water surrounded by dense forest and high peaks. The weather changes rapidly and the results can be very intense–best watched from the safety of a cabin porch.

I’ve avoided trying to capture nature’s fury on the lake for practical reasons. But, this is something that intrigues me and might end up being a future project. The scale of Quesnel Lake is immense and storms can be intense. To record this in a meaningful way is not only a practical challenge but an artistic one as well.

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I’ve tried to document what I experience being on the lake, in the woods, or up in the mountains. Generally, this means the beauty of big sky cloud formations, raging waterfalls, or the majesty of the mountains. I’d like there to be a sense in the images of the raw power of the environment juxtaposed with the serenity one feels being immersed in it. It is really a very peaceful place until a storm comes up. In the midst of a storm the normal sense of awe that comes from the beauty and serenity changes to an awe of the power of nature.

One of the things that made me uncomfortable shooting landscapes over the years is that so many people have done it so well (and still others continue this tradition). Grand landscapes can be stunning. I don’t see myself bettering what has already been done so exquisitely. Rather, I’d like my landscapes to be unique but in a relaxed, almost pedestrian sort of way. I want them to be comfortable–I’m thinking of the well-worn khakis metaphor. Ideally, the viewer will feel a bit like they were standing behind the camera and taking the picture for themselves.

Presumably only some fellow photographers will agree with me on this, but I believe that color can get in the way when your ultimate objective is to produce a black and white image. It’s a challenge to see a black and white image when you are looking at a color capture. So, removing that hurdle makes it easier to just focus on a winning combination of tone and composition.

There are several long-exposure images. The white tonality obtained from the water is soothing to the eye. How was your experience shooting in Quesnel Lake?

Some photographers create beautiful long exposure images. Breathtaking really. They practice the art and get really good at it. I use it more as a necessity. Generally, rough water in my images is jarring to me. I don’t like those images; perhaps because they feel too much like one moment in time. Whereas, slowing the water down results in a more peaceful feeling. When I’m there, one moment stretching into the next and the next. This is a feeling that I’d like to have come across–tranquil and void of time.

© Mike James

There is one image in the bunch where I used a long exposure and this is possibly an interesting story. I am referring to the image of the log receding into the white background. This was shot during a period of time when there were hundreds of large (and small) forest fires all over British Columbia. The lake was super smokey. It was so smokey that it was difficult to find anything worth shooting. But, I loved the texture of this log and I wondered if juxtaposing it against smooth water and a vanished background would create an interestingly ethereal image. In color this would have be pretty ugly. Being in all of this smoke was apocalyptic. You couldn’t see very far and what you did see was very brown. It was almost claustrophobic. Yet, the image that resulted came out quite nice. This reminds me that there is a picture everywhere and at every moment. One just has to be willing to let themselves see it.

How does this work compare to your client work? Also in regards to the fact that you are inclined to use most of the time the Leica MM?

The client work that we do tends to involve a fair bit of planning and when we start shooting we spend a lot of time getting everything just right. We primarily shoot products. Products for catalogs and for the Internet. We shoot products in contextual situations. We shoot people using products. Our job is to create compelling imagery that will sell a client’s product. We also do a lot of computer generated imagery (CGI) from CAD files our clients supply. But, just sticking with photography, there are a lot of variables in our commercial work.

My personal work is the opposite. I try not to have a plan. I don’t feel any pressure to get a shot. I’m more interested in trying things that I’m not even sure will work. I want people to like what I’ve produced, but it isn’t essential (like it is in our commercial work).

So, for my personal work, I want things to be simple. And, I want to be as mobile as possible. I don’t use artificial light. I rely upon ambient light and maybe a bounce card or small flag that I carry with me. Even though I carry four or five lenses, I really try to be minimalist. I think I carry the lenses mostly out of fear of missing a shot that one of them could be perfect for.

(If I was really trying to be a minimalist, I would limit myself to my MM and 50mm Summicron. But, I seldom do this. I guess that makes me a semi-minimalist.)

Part of this romantic notion of being a minimalist is using one camera that shoots just black and white. It’s simple, but more important to me, it’s liberating. The combination of the Monochrom and my favorite lenses produce great results. It helps that I love black and white imagery and that we seldom get the chance to shoot black and white for our clients. Beyond these points, what I get from the Monochrom, I can’t get with the other cameras we use. Lots of people talk about this sort of Leica aesthetic. I try not to talk about it a lot, but I do love how it works for me.

Describe your creative and technical process to achieve the pictures at Quesnel Lake.

Firstly, and weirdly for a Leica shooter, I have a thing for shooting with a tripod. Largely I am doing this to be able to contemplate the scene and make minor adjustments. It also gives me the opportunity to shoot multiple exposures and to use filters. Since I shoot mainly during the day, I carry several neutral density filters.

My go-to tripod is a super small Gitzo travel tripod with four stages and a center column. I’ve got a very small Really Right Stuff ball head on it. It’s a great combination of form and function. That said, it’s a compromise. It doesn’t extend as high as I would like and it’s not as stable as I would like, but it is small and light.

The red filter I use was initially designed for infrared film, I believe. It’s from B+W, the 092 IR 695. I really like the results I get with it. In general, this filter adds a nice amount of contrast, particularly in the sky. Green foliage renders differently through this filter. Sometimes this is just what I want. It does behave differently than a traditional red filter because it’s job is to block a small portion of the spectrum of light trying to pass through.

My one filter trick is that I only carry 46mm filters. I carry a step ring (39-46) to accommodate the Leica lenses I have. If you go this route, I’d recommend getting the best ring you can find. I use this nice robust ring from Heliopan. Cheap rings can ruin the treads of your filters and of your lenses. (Of course, I’ve only read this and never experienced it first hand.)

With the Monochrom, I prefer to shoot in aperture priority unless I’m using filters and then I rely on manually setting the aperture and shutter speed. I generally guess manual exposures of a scene and then check the histogram to see how close I am. Then I bracket. Often my exposures are longer than the eight seconds that the Monochrom allows. I put it in bulb mode and use my watch to time the exposure. It doesn’t get any simpler than this. The key thing is reading the histogram unless using a light meter brings you joy. A light meter is one thing I’d rather not carry and fumble with. It’s also one more thing to drop in the water, step on, or leave behind.

As far as lenses go, I shoot with the 21mm quite a bit when I’m in the woods. I seldom use the 35mm. The 35mm Summilux is such a great lens. I carry it with me hoping that one day we will bond and do great things together. I find myself using the 50mm, 90mm, and even the 135mm for expansive scenes. My 90mm is a macro and it’s great if I want to get close to something. But, it is also a super standard 90mm as well.

My preference is to shoot a lens at the f-stop that is sharpest. So, I’ve tested each of my lenses for sharpest close-focus and sharpest long-distance. I carry a small laminated card in my bag with these f-stops for each lens. I’d love to have the information on the lens barrel, but I’ve found tape to be a poor solution. So, the card is handy enough until I find a better solution. Memorizing this information is out of the question. I’m not hyper about hyper-focal distance, but I do consider it as I’m setting up my shot particularly since I’m generally trying not to stop the lens all the way down.

I love the low contrast images that come out of the Monochrom. It’s pretty easy to look at your gallery of shots in Lightroom and think, “Yuck, that’s not what I saw.” But, really, it’s those seemingly bland tones that create the most opportunity to work the images up the way that I want them. There is so much great detail in those subtle tones–they’re there and just waiting to be exploited. I generally use Lightroom to sort and manage my images. I might do a few adjustments to the image in Lightroom, but I pretty quickly move the image to Photoshop where I feel I have the best control and most flexibility working with layers. Old school, I know.

To give a more concrete example, here are specifics about the image of the bush in the foreground and the lake behind:

© Mike James

What I saw in this shot was an opportunity to convey the changing seasons in a unique way. This was shot with the 21mm Super-Elmar. I did stop down all the way to f/32 because I wanted the leaves to be sharp and the rocks in the water below to be fairly sharp. The exposure was for one second and I was using the red 092 IR 695 filter. I also shot the scene without the filter. This allowed me to do some blending to the leaves and create a bit more intrigue.

This is a good example of wanting to tell a story about something in the foreground and be pretty relaxed about the water and mountains in the background. I wasn’t trying to create an iconic shot where your eyes move around and everything is in focus and the water is beautifully smooth. Rather, I wanted this to be more documentary where the leaves tell the story and then let everything else be just enough to convey how beautiful the whole scene is.

© Mike James

The image with the wooden cross – what does it represent?

I was out shooting a set of abandoned cabins with my son when we came across this cross in the adjacent woods. At first, it was a bit freaky. A few moments before, we’d found a large pile of animal bones. So, we probably let our imaginations get the best of us. What I saw immediately were the cords at the end of the cross. Of course, I wondered what was the cross for. What are the cords for? And, I couldn’t help but look around to make sure we were alone. Once we got our wits about us, we concluded that a logical explanation was that this cross was to hold up this heavy, leaning part of the tree. While we wanted to be rational, our imaginations kept taking us to other places. We didn’t stay long.

But, before we left, I had to shoot the cross. I was hoping to capture a bit of the anxiety we initially felt. I still think of it as creepy. The cross piece serves no obvious structural purpose. The nylon cords hanging down don’t seem to have a clear purpose either. So, was it used for some nefarious purpose? Was it meant to be symbolic? Was it an altar? The sight of it raised a lot of questions for us. To this day, the image conjures up the same set of questions. Finding it, in the way that we did, probably ranks up there as one of, if not the most, weirdly memorable moments I’ve had as a photographer. I’m just glad I wasn’t alone when I came across it.

Is there anything else you’d like to add for readers to know about – maybe other projects in the pipeline?

My pipeline is choke full of ideas for which there will likely never be enough time. But, I’m comfortable with that. And, I find that I get enough satisfaction from the gratification of our commercial clients. So, when it comes to my personal work, I want to experiment and have fun. When I’m on my own shooting, I tend to push myself to experiment. But, what I really enjoy is shooting with my kids or with friends. When I’m out with my kids or friends, I’m more relaxed and try to take in what they are interested in. I generally get lucky and get some good stuff; I attribute that to the camaraderie (and the good eye of those I’m with). Of course, even when I don’t need it, I pull out the tripod–just to annoy them.

Thanks Mike!

To know more about Mike James’ work, please visit his personal website, his professional site, and follow him on Instagram.