This time, we're meeting Jon Holiday, whom we discovered while browsing Etsy for new cityscapes. As soon as we saw his stuff, we knew we'd love to get to know him and find out how he works. Jon takes some incredible photos of big cities across America. His skylines are simply breathtaking. So, without further ado, let's head to Texas to learn more about this fantastic snapper...
Thank you so much for joining us at City Edge Scenes. We were looking around for decent night-time cityscapes and came across your work. We were totally blown away by the amazing number of cities you managed to capture at their night-time peak. So...
According to what we've gathered so far, you're a pretty versatile photographer. What do you do besides taking amazing photos of city scenes?
JH: I enjoy all kinds of photography really… Traditional landscapes and nature scenes of course. And for hire, I've also done weddings, portraits, and special events, although I do fewer of those types of things since my focus has shifted.
I also enjoy what I call TexasScapes… just capturing the beauty and uniqueness of Texas. This includes things like traditional landscapes, Longhorn steers, and wildflowers... Longhorns sitting in wildflowers... that sort of thing.
How long have you been taking photos of city scenes and skylines, and what first inspired you to do so?
JH: I discovered urban photography as a teenager on a ministry trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota. There were so many diverse and interesting subjects. And I've always enjoyed traveling to big cities. Soon my interest developed into capturing "profiles" of some of the largest cities and that became something I really wanted to do. I never really got to travel all that much until my 30s when I was usually able to take about two trips a year. So capturing skylines became something of a hobby. At some point, I wondered if I might be able to actually sell them, and once I figured out that I could, well then, I decided to go forward and try to obtain as many as possible.
You seem pretty well-travelled now - you have brilliant photos of various cities throughout the United States - how do you get these gigs?
JH: I still have a business trip or two per year that I can take advantage of to shoot more cityscapes. But mostly now, I actually take trips for that express purpose. I will schedule a 6-10 day period in one area, and drive to several different cities during that trip.
Because one has to plan travel a few weeks out, the weather and shooting conditions are totally unknown... sometimes it works out... and sometimes it doesn't.
Do you have a back-up plan for lousy weather?
JH: Well, I try to have one, and it all depends on what the issue is. Sometimes I can double back through that particular city on another day. For rain - I use gadgets that allow me to shoot anyway, and if it's cold...well, it's just downright miserable. At times it snowed so hard that visibility was zero, so there's not much one can do.
Other times, I've waited as long as a couple of hours in my car for the snow to stop, revealing clearing skies. One of my favorite things though is to shoot anyway whenever conditions are foggy at night. One can get some really unique images that way. For example, when there are low clouds or fog in Los Angeles, it comes off looking like "Gotham City".
Taking photos at night is rather a daunting task, yet your photos appear so plainly and effortlessly snapped. How the heck do you manage that?
JH: Well, I learned a lot over the years. Skyline photography is largely technical; especially when you think in terms of logistics, you know, exactly where to shoot from, and how to handle conditions, and so forth.
Sometimes the work is is cold, or wet, or lonely, or all of the above. But mostly it's all about understanding light. I work in that "magical" narrow time frame when the daylight fades and the artificial light begins to glow. Those lights are very different in color so learning to balance that as I expose, and also considering composition, structure, textures, color and all the rest...is what makes urban photography really interesting to me.
It can be challenging, but I really love being on a hillside or a parking garage with a large city before me as the light is changing around dusk. And then I will shoot into the night as well. And as it gets darker, the management of the light becomes different, so my workflow varies.
I'm guessing that there are background stories to some of these images? Or some interesting events that go along with your quest to get these?
JH: Ohhh yeah there are! Too many to share here, but everything from crazy weather, to unplanned locations that actually work out, to almost being hit by a train, to "losing" all my equipment for a night... well, you get the idea.
Hahaha - Yeah, maybe we can do a follow up later; like let us know when you have another exciting episode? Anyway, what gear do you use (cameras, lenses, tripods, etc.) to get 'the right shot'?
JH: I shoot with a Nikon D800… That's a 36 megapixel camera, so I can handle really large prints. But my first skyline images were with a six megapixel digital camera...the point being that the best cameras aren't what's required necessarily. Even simple cameras can produce good results if you understand light. It's also a lot about how one "sees" things.
Lenses? Honestly, I really like shooting with prime lenses [fixed focal length] just because they're so stinkin' sharp. One of my favorite ones is the 50mm 1.8, and I will shoot multiple images to span a wide subject and stitch them together for the wide panoramas.
A good tripod of course is essential. I use a light-weight carbon fiber one, that is also small so its easy to carry around crowded cities. This particular one though is also quite sturdy for it's size. I always joke that I can use that as a weapon in case I'm in a shady area and a shady local gets ideas 🙂
What software do you use to enhance your images (if any)? And what process do you follow (if any)?
JH: Well of course Photoshop, and for HDR there's Photomatix, and for stitching, I actually use a free program by Microsoft called ICE. The process is basically taking a lot of images, and then using the best parts of different ones. I get pretty detailed and picky sometimes... I will manually "fix" certain areas...
I try really hard to bring something of myself to any image, to keep it from being "run-of-the-mill". It may be as simple as a color balance that may be slightly unexpected. Or perhaps some detail work that would probably not be part of a normal workflow.
Have there ever been any instances of skylines that were just too boring or ugly to photograph? If so, which ones?
JH (chuckling): Well, I would hate to say which cities at the risk of offending someone, but they exist. I just work really hard at trying to find the vantage point which shows it the best, and perhaps include some other elements in the exposure which add interest, such as car light trails or interesting clouds, etc.
We've suggested one of your night-time cityscapes for the bedroom, but obviously much of your work would look great in more 'public' areas, such as the living room and hallway (for example). Do you have any other thoughts about where and/or how to mount your images?
JH: City scenes work almost anywhere really. Folks get them because they have pride in their hometown, or they need a reminder of "home".
They also work really well in commercial spaces like restaurants, hotels, and hospitals. They are often simply matted/framed, but canvas is also quite popular. Vibrant city images look great on things like aluminum and acrylic as well. That's more expensive, but they can be absolutely stunning.
I've had several that have printed quite large, as in 12 feet (3.6m), or even 30 feet (9m). That is always fun to see. One of the coolest uses I think was my NYC Midtown at night in B&W...it was printed on a translucent film, and was used as a backlit backdrop on a jazz club stage in Italy.
Wow - that's very cool. Kudos! So, what's next, Jon? Any plans to conquer Europe? You'd definitely be welcome here in Sweden (turn left at England) if you'd like to try something different. And Copenhagen's just across the bridge from Malmö...
JH: Of course I would love to do other countries and as I have the time and money. I'm hopeful that I will get around to that. I guess that would happen a lot faster if someone out there might like to commission me to do so 🙂
One can only hope, eh? Thank you so much for agreeing to sit with us for a while on our virtual park bench. And we hope you keep snappy for many years to come.
See more of Jon's beautiful work at www.photosbyjon.com.
A large assortment of images for viewing or purchase are: