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“An image is a window into another world”

Interview with the Swedish photographer Erik Johansson

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Published: 15 Apr 2020
Can the impossible look realistic? Yes, of course. The laws that govern the world of fiction are often very distant from those we know in the real world, but if they are consistent, we are ready to accept them and let ourselves engage in the narrative. Constructed according to this principle, Erik Johansson, photographs engage, amaze and tell stories. And to achieve this, the lighting is always handled meticulously.

Born in Sweden in 1985, Johansson lives and works in the Czech Republic. He has been commissioned to create images for customers such as Volvo, Toyota, Google, Adobe, Microsoft and National Geographic, but he dedicates most of his time to his personal artistic projects. In 2016 he collected some of these in his first book, IMAGINE.
 
“An image is a window into another world”

The Reset (2020), Erik Johansson

“My way of creating images,” he says, “is not so different from that of a painter. They spread colours over a canvas, and I layout the photograph on mine.” Each of his works features an assembly of numerous shots, and Johansson uses only photos he has taken personally. He does this, partly because he wants to feel that he has taken part in every stage of the creative process, and partly because the images are designed for large-size prints, so it is impossible to find stock material with a high enough resolution and which captures the subjects from the right angle and in the right light.

Johansson generally starts the creative process by sketching the idea he has in mind. Then, he breaks it down into the separate elements that need to be photographed and plans one set after another. The last step is post production, in which he assembles all the different parts into a single scene, so it looks as though it is shot from real life. Johansson documents the development of every image he creates in a series of backstage videos. Looking at these reveals the complexity and materiality of the work involved in producing these works that otherwise might seem like they were created in Photoshop.

To achieve a sense of realism, “perspective, of course, is important but it’s not so hard,” explains Johansson. “You just have to have the camera in about the same position and be aware of the different elements you want to combine.” The lighting, however, requires more complex assessments as, “it’s not just the direction of the light, it’s also the colour, quality and kind of light. I use flashes a lot, combined with natural light, when shooting out on location.”

“I feel like I’m learning things with every new project. In recent years I have become more aware, in a more sophisticated way, of light and colour. And of the importance of using gels on light, already on location, rather than changing the colour in post-production. It usually creates a better result.

It becomes realistic by default because it’s already there. Light is a really fun subject to explore in photography, I encourage people more and more to see what happens when you throw in some flashes and take it from there.” Carefully planning light from the start, simplifies the post-production phase as, “if a flash is hitting a face and you have to change its colour in post-production it’s not so complicated, but if it’s hitting grass
“An image is a window into another world”

Above All (2019), Erik Johansson

"Light is a really fun subject to explore in photography, I encourage people more and more to see what happens when you throw in some flashes and take it from there. If a flash is hitting a face and you have to change its colour in post-production it’s not so complicated, but if it’s hitting grass or more complicated structures it can be quite difficult, if it’s mixed with ambient light."
So, we go back to the problem of realism. The fact that the scenes are surreal does not mean that any kind of lighting is justified. “Light has to have a purpose,” says Johansson. “If I have a person in a forest, I don’t throw in a softbox just for the sake of giving them some light. I always try to ask myself where the light is coming from and why is it coming from there. If the person is lit there has to be a source of light in that direction.”

“The story plays a central role. When I come up with an idea I usually start with a combination of things, or a very rough concept about something I would like to create a story around. Creating this story really takes a long time, to find the little things that help move the story forward. And in a way every image is supposed to be a window into another world, but you only see that world for a moment. What I find important is which moment of the story I choose to show.”
“An image is a window into another world”

Leap of Faith (2018), Erik Johansson

“With the image Leap of Faith you have this man walking off a high dive tower holding a balloon. I asked myself which moment I wanted to capture: the one right before he steps off, when he’s deciding if he’ll take the step, or right after, so that you see him falling or flying? In the end, I thought the most interesting part of this story would be when he takes the step and you don’t really know if he’ll fall or not, but there’s no point of return. I think a good image is an image where you ask questions like "how did the person get there" and "what will happen afterwards". That way, people can give their own answers.”