Jon Sachs

Jon Sachs, the Madman Behind PhotoMatters

jon in africa

I am a pretty avid photographer, but I don't make my primary living through photography. Most often I am busy creating websites, and often do the photography needed for my websites. Recently, I created a portfolio site for my client-based photography. 

Years ago, when I was heading toward a purely photographic practice I got stuck in my studio, with a very young art director, who kept making me reshoot and reshoot — just out of her own insecurity. After endless unpleasant hours of being "trapped" in my own studio I decided that I loved photography too much to subject myself to that sort of thing again. So I have generally avoided photography as a sole profession, but have never stopped taking pictures — photography is what I do whenever I can.

Am I the most qualified photographer to author a site that explores — in depth — the variables in photography? Hardly. But I went ahead and did it. And my web design experience was critical to approaching this project. I'm sure you could do a better job. Go do it — I dare you.

And I need to mention that I am the other Jonathan Sachs, not the fellow who wrote Lotus 1-2-3, and now has a neat company that creates photo software called Digital Light and Color.

(Left: a self-portrait from a trip to Africa, back when I had Nikon gear — and hair.)

informal portraits

Informal Portraits
I often take informal portraits of people for my web projects. This means interrupting very busy people — who are often not interested in having a photo taken — and getting a good shot as quickly as possible.

I have learned to look first for good light and second for a good setting. If the light is really good,you might be able to throw a bad background out of focus. But with bad light, you are in trouble.

If I have to, I will use a small flash to help out, but it makes the subject more nervous and adds another technical issue to think about. So I try to use available light first, often indirect light from a window.

It has often surprised me how with post-processing I can get away with what was unworkable light back in the days of film. I will sometimes photograph someone entirely backlit by a window, relying on whatever light spills around them and bounces back to fill in their features.


Occasional Published Work
Every now and then something I shot winds up in print, which is always great to see.

Tilting at the Stock Photo Biz
I made some effort to enter the stock image business, just as the market largely collapsed due to digital crowdsourcing sites, primarily iStockphoto. However, as a web designer I am often a client of iStockphoto. If a client of mine needs a photo of a red barn and I don't have one, it is difficult to justify paying $50 to $500 for a photo if we can find a workable one for $2 on iStock. Oh well.

Soul Catcher
The cover of Soul Catcher was taken on a trip from Washington D.C. over the mountains to Kentucky. It had rained heavily for a few days, and we started out early. As the sun came up we were climbing into the hills; the misty ridges showed up in the rear view mirror. We pulled over and spent half an hour gorging on the spectacular site of infinite rows of ridges defined by mist. Fog is my favorite photographic weather. I should move somewhere where it is more foggy.

The Dolphin and Hands
The photo of the hands on the dolphin ended up on the cover of Earthwatch magazine after I did an Earthwatch research trip. (Earthwatch is a terrific way to get in front of subjects you are unlikely to come across in your living room or backyard. Just realize that if you sign up to help out you need to help out first and take photos on your own time. Note that they give you plenty of time on your own.)


MIT website Website Development
My primary work is planning and designing websites for clients as varied as MIT and the Great American Dollhouse Museum. You can learn more than you want to know about me and my web work here.
poison ivy

Poison Ivy
Some years ago while out taking pictures in the woods I ran into an immigrant family who asked what I was photographing. When I explained that this was a nice example of a poison ivy plant, this family got all excited and told me that they heard about this plant, but had no idea what it looked like. So I combined by photo and web skills and built an infamous site all about poison ivy.

That site is very busy, though mostly in the summer. At almost 10 years old, it needs a refresh. But it gave me the idea to build another educational site, one about photography...

ant on fungus

Macro and Nature Photography
Left on my own I would spend much of every day wandering the woods and fields with a macro lens looking for bugs and other stuff that you can only see with a close-up lens.

Here is the thing about macro photography: you hunker down with your macro lens set at about life size, with the focus on manual (autofocus at 1:1 is difficult). You gaze through the camera seeing what things look like up close and often you find little magical scenes.

Often an insect walks into your view, sent by some higher power. You thank the higher power and shoot until you enter another world. Eventually your legs give out, or the sun sets, or you get bit by too many bugs. You pull back from the viewfinder and find yourself back on planet Earth, right where you were an hour ago.

It's like visiting another world, probably like reef diving, but safer and cheaper.

(The image at left of an ant on a fungus was taken in Panama on an Earthwatch trip. I was shooting the fungus when the ant walked into the frame and posed for me. Makes you feel like you are magically in tune with Nature when this happens.)


Aerial Photography
I have been doing some aerial photography, both from helicopters and small planes. It's a bit costly, but talk about getting another perspective on things. I love the patterns and textures, and tend to shoot almost abstract images.

Other than shooting at the fastest speeds you can to avoid camera shake, I have not found a need for special equipment or techniques. With computer post-processing you can improve difficult exposures, such as situations with too little or too much contrast.

I sit inside the plane or chopper and shoot either with the door removed, or through a small open window. I have a tendency toward motion sickness on boats, but have had little problem with aerial.

(The image at left is farm fields near Cortona, Italy.)


While jewelry is hardly a specialty of mine, I shoot jewelry for the Women's Craft Cooperative of Rosie's Place. Jewelry is challenging because it's small and often reflective.

Small things tend to show defects, so that takes care. And you have to be very alert with reflective items to have something appropriate in the reflections — and still looking like metal, glass or whatever material it is.



head shots

I have shot hundreds of headshots for community theatre actors. Sometimes we do "normal" shots; other times we create a theme and I combine the headshots with other graphic elements, as in the image of Melissa Sine at left.

Typically I shoot just before the dress rehearsal and have very little time, so we set up a lighting situation and run the actors through a set of poses: left side, right side, don't smile, smile a bit, smile a lot. You never know which pose is going to work for a given face.

theatre by Jon Sachs

Theatre Photography
Taking photos of a play is pretty difficult, as with sports. The lighting is often of a very strange color, and differs across the stage. It is usually fairly dark. Before digital it was REALLY hard. I shot ISO 1600 speed film, which produced horribly grainy, contrasty images. Today we can shoot at 3200 and get hardly any grain.

Again, the post-processing in programs like Lightroom or Aperture allows you massive control over difficult lighting and exposure — much more so if you shoot RAW than JPEG.

Theatre shooting is a matter of timing, looking for the moment when actors hold still for a critical instant, either alone or in a group. Watching the show before you shoot is helpful, but I never get to.

Quannapowitt Players allows me to walk anywhere onstage or offstage during a dress rehearsal. This is extremely useful, but many theatres won't allow it.

Most of my theatre work has been done for Quannapowitt Players, a community theatre in Reading, Massachusetts that puts on many wonderful shows. (Community theatre, when good, is the best: you can see, you can hear, and you can afford it.)