Canadian Geographic Photo Club - Interview with John Sylvester

Interview with John Sylvester


John Sylvester stumbled across photography when he took time off from university to travel. While lugging around equipment for two photojournalists on assignment in northern Europe, he picked up some photography skills and eventually bought his own camera. Today, he specializes in travel, tourism and landscape photos. While he's quite the globetrotter, his niche is the East Coast. Sylvester has contributed to a number of magazines including Canadian Living, Time and National Post Business magazine. He never went back to finish that university degree and says he's still on his 'year off.'

John Sylvester

John Sylvester was seeking a way to merge his interests in the arts and the sciences when he took a year off from university to travel. Photography, he found, was a perfect merger of the two. To this day, a poster on his office wall reminds him that 'art and science are sisters, and imagination is the mother of both.'

To see more of Sylvester's photos, check out the fall 2011 issue of Canadian Geographic Travel or visit his website.

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Q How do you approach a photo shoot when your subject is food?

AI think you can take nice pictures of food, but it's about everything that happens around it that makes the story interesting.

The photos are really about people: The people who prepare and make the food, and the people who eat the food.

Q Can you give us an example of that in this CG assignment?

AMy favourite image of the shoot is the cowboy from the western United States, and there he was having his first oyster ever. He and his wife were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary at the North Shore culinary tour. I asked if I could take a photo of him trying an oyster, and he said, 'Yeah, this is my first time trying one.' You remember those stories.

QThroughout your career, you've captured many scenes on the East Coast. What makes the region photogenic?

AThe water and the coast. I love the movement we have in water, whether it's waves breaking on the shore or the movement of the tide. When we get good light coming up over the water during the magic hour, it can really be something spectacular.

The magic hour comes an hour after sunrise or before sunset. I've experienced it in every coast and in Atlantic Canada pretty well, and whether it's on a beach in PEI or the rocky shores in Newfoundland, it's really something special.

QHow did you get into photography?

AMany years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I took a year off from university to travel. When I was in Europe, by sheer coincidence I met photographers Bryan and Cherry Alexander, two British photojournalists who specialize in polar regions of the world. We had lots of interests in common, and I didn't even own a camera at that point in my life.

When I went back to Canada, I got a letter from Bryan asking if I would be his assistant in a photography trip to Lapland (a region stretching across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia).

I bought a camera, and by the end of the trip I was hooked.

QWhat was that first photography trip like?

ALapland was amazing. It was my first time above the Arctic Circle. In Europe, when you go that far north the climate is a little gentler than in Canada. And it was remarkable.

We were photographing the Sami, the indigenous reindeer herders in the North. We were there in April, but it was still -30 degrees C and we were camping. It was quite an adventure, even for a Canadian used to winter!

Some of the coastal areas in northern Norway were quite spectacular: Dramatic, jagged peak mountains along the coast, almost like the Torngat mountains.

I went to work with Bryan and Cherry on other assignments in Canada photographing bears in Churchill, humpback whales and seabird colonies.

I then went on to do freelance assignments for various magazines.

QHow did you pick up photography skills while working as an assistant?

AI have always been fairly artistic and visually inclined. What I did was I would just observe [Bryan] and I started to anticipate where he was going to look. I was there beside him and I would think, 'That would make a nice image.' I began to develop my eye just observing him.

An important thing for beginning photographers is understanding light. That was something I learned from Bryan. He was using Kodachrome film. You have to understand light and how it ends up looking on film or on a sensor.

QYou once wrote in your blog that Kodachrome was like an old friend to you. What do you miss about film?

AWith digital cameras, it's easy to take more images out in field, but then you go back and sit in front of computer for hours. You don't get paid for that time.

When I shot film, I was always surprised when I developed the photos. Now with digital photos, it doesn't seem that there are any surprises. That's why I love photographing waves and movement. They're unpredictable; you still get surprises.

I still have a soft spot in my heart for Kodachrome. But when we switched to Fujichrome, which had a very rich colour palette, and then to digital, I realized that you can't go back.



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