Nate Johnson is the man behind Nate Photographic - an American-based company that provides presets for photography and video.
After graduating from university Nate became a marketing manager at Johnson & Johnson. Since 2011 he has worked on a number of start-ups - both as a developer as well as a founder - as well as running his own marketing consultancy.
1) When did you first become interested in photography?
I've always had an interest in photography. Growing up, I was the official 'videographer' of the family on our vacations. And in college, I spent a lot of time making short videos with friends just for fun. It wasn't until after college that I got my first nice camera. The camera was actually a gift for my wife, but secretly it was for me.
Since then, I shoot at every opportunity I get. Even while I worked a corporate job at Johnson & Johnson, I would get up early to shoot whenever I was on corporate trips.
There's just something transformative about the act of photography. It makes me feel rooted in a particular place and time like I wouldn't be otherwise. It helps me see details and perspectives that I'd typically overlook.
I've also always been a huge nerd. I'm drawn as much (probably more) to the technical side of photography. I always end up spending more time playing with equipment and processing techniques than I do actually out shooting.
2) How did you get into initially trying to make presets?
It really began with the question 'why don't my photos look the way I want them to?' I'd see photos other people posted on Instagram or Flickr and I would want my photos to look the same way.
It always felt like I was always just one Lightroom setting away from magic, but I could never get there.
I thought VSCO Film would be the solution when that came out. I really like VSCO Film. But my process was still hit or miss. I would randomly try out a few VSCO Film presets on photos. There were just so many options. After a while of fiddling between presets, they all just started to blend together. And as someone whose first camera was digital, I didn't really know how a particular film was supposed to look. Should I use the AGFA Vista 100 [+] or the Kodak Portra 400UC [-]? I had no clue.
So for about a year, I started studying the actual films behind the VSCO Film emulation. I went through each film one by one and kept notes in Evernote on everything I learned. It was something I really enjoyed. There just wasn't much information easily available on the films themselves, particularly some of the older films, so I really had to dig. I found all the actual film examples I could, original write-ups and reviews, the old tech specs from the manufacturers, articles from photography magazines in the 90s - really anything I could find about a particular film.
My initial goal was just to improve my ability to use VSCO Film. But this time studying analog film is really what developed my chops at developing presets.
Because the most important thing in post-processing is your own eye.
Sounds weird, but I really enjoy it.
Once I had developed my eye, it was just a matter of finding the best ways to implement the changes I wanted in Lightroom. I tried a lot of different ways and eventually developed my own methods that lets me consistently get the looks I wanted.
I think my time and experience developing software really helped here with the more technical parts of preset development.
I spent a lot of time reading documentation on Adobe's DNG specs as well as time learning about how analog film achieved their look. I wrote my own Ruby scripts and Excel spreadsheets that I use to make calculations on tone curves. I learned how to edit the preset files directly which let me make changes that wouldn't be possible inside of Lightroom.
Somehow, all of my previous experience and skill-sets just converged over time into the area of making presets.
3) What made you realise the time was right to start your own presets business?
At the beginning of 2016, I had all these notes on films I had been studying and I thought it may be nice for other people to have access to what I had learned. I didn't have any kind of 'masterplan', I just thought others would appreciate it.
That's when I launched Nate Photographic.
I posted my first VSCO Film guide in January 2016 and put a link up on Reddit. People seemed to like it, so I posted two more (in February and April).
By the time of my third post, I had really started to develop a reputation for being an authority on presets. Strangers started asking me for post-processing advice. People wanted to know how they could get certain looks in their photos.
They were asking if I was going to sell any of my own presets. I was like, 'hmm, that's not a bad idea.'
4) Can you talk about your free NATE CAM Starter Pack for Lightroom? How did you capture the stylised film vibe of the VSCO Cam app?
The NATE CAM Starter Pack is something I'm really proud of. To me it's a proof of the concept of how powerful Lightroom is if you know how to manipulate it.
I should say, I have zero idea how VSCO Cam does what it does. It's a closed system. And when people post comparisons between my Starter Pack and VSCO Cam, I think to myself, 'man, these look way different.' But my eyes are sensitive to the differences. (You also have a RAW conversion process in Lightroom that opens up all kinds of possibilities that simply aren't relevant to VSCO Cam.)
The key thing is getting down to the root of why a particular analog film or a particular preset works. Is it the fade levels? Is it the tinting in the shadows or the highlights? It is saturated or muted? Is it the colour palette?
Having studied analog film so much, I could easily see the analog films and processing techniques that the VSCO Cam presets were using for inspiration. Then it's just a matter of turning that inspiration into good Lightroom presets.
In terms of making the presets themselves, I have a very strong opinion about what goes into making good presets. I made a blog post about my Lightroom process that gives a pretty good overview.
I'm going to go much more into the details of my process in a course I'm working on right now. I'm calling the course 'Lightroom Mastery' and it will have advanced training to help photographers build any look they want in Lightroom.
But with enough practice and training, I believe that any photographer should be able to learn how to do the same thing I did.
5) Our photographer Louis Brindle loves the E-Chrome collection, especially EX03 [Perfect Portra]. Do you have a personal favourite and why?
It really depends on the situation. But from E-Chrome, I really love EX04 [Impossible Warm and Moody] and EX07 [Extra Golden Kodak]. In the right situation, these presets really do feel like magic.
6) How did you go about turning the E-Chrome pack into 3D Luts?
Funnily enough, a number of videographers told me how much they loved using my presets on their videos. I was like: "Hey, that's awesome. And, um... how did you do that?"
I ended up using LUT Generator for Mac. It's free and with a little prodding, it works great. I want to get more into video. It's something I'm just scratching the surface of now.
7) Do you believe film will survive beyond the next generation of photographers now digital cameras can replicate analogue so precisely?
There's still something magical about real, analog film. I think there will always be photographers who want to shoot it. This year, I'm planning on picking up a medium format analog film camera and starting to process film myself in a darkroom at my office. From a cost perspective, it's pretty reasonable to do this.
So I don't think film will ever lose its appeal. From a business perspective, though, I think we'll continue to see the market narrow, and fewer film options become available.
8) What is your go-to camera set up?
I actually just picked up a Fuji X-T2 and I love using it. Every aspect of it is a pleasure to use. The components just feel right in your hand and it's so much easier to make setting adjustments to physical dials than it is to make adjustments on the digital display on my Nikon D700.
I'd love to see more camera manufacturers going in the direction Fuji is heading. My favourite lens so far is the 23MM F2.0 (I also have the 35MM F1.4 and 56MM F1.2). It's a great set up for street photography because it's so small and inconspicuous and I love the 35MM equivalent focal length of the 23MM.
When size isn't a concern, I shoot with a Nikon D700, but I'm really itching to upgrade this to a newer Nikon model.
9) What is the favourite photo you have taken and why?
It's hard to pick a favourite, but I really love the picture below that I took in Venice Beach, California.
It's also the cover photo I chose for E-Chrome. It just captures the magic of that spot and that moment. It was completely spontaneous and unscripted, but it still feels thoughtfully composed.
10) What's next for Nate Photographic? Do you see further opportunities in the video sector or mainly extra areas to explore in photography?
Right now, I'm working on a new Lightroom course. It's going to be really unlike any other Lightroom course I've seen.
There are a lot of Lightroom courses already for beginners, but this course will be a masterclass in post-processing and get into more advanced topics that I haven't seen covered well anywhere else. I'm going to show photographers my process to emulate any look they want. We're going to build custom calibration profiles for greater control over their RAW files. We're going to go super in-depth with tone curves and the HSL panel. I really think it is going to transform thousands of photographers' post-processing skills.
I know there is a segment of photographers who just want presets, and that's great. I've got some really amazing new packs in the works (including 3D Luts).
But I know most photographers want to develop the skill-set to build their own unique look, or edit an existing look better to suit their taste. In fact, many photographers who buy presets tell me they do it to try to learn what settings to use. But if you don't know how a preset developer made the colour palette or built the tone curves, it actually isn't as enlightening as you might think to see the settings themselves.
So there really hasn't been a clear path for photographers looking to master the skills of post-processing. Most preset developers don't share their secrets (for obvious reasons). But that's exactly what I want to do.
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