Behind the camera: Barbara Johnston, University photographer

Barbara Johnston Web

Barbara Johnston is a visual storyteller — capturing people, moments and daily experiences on Notre Dame's campus. Johnston has been a University photographer for nine years, moving from Philadelphia where she spent 20 years with the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her award-winning career has spanned from being a stringer to covering the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. She’s photographed professional athletes, several presidents and has gotten up close with butterflies. We caught up with Johnston, pulling her from behind the camera to tell us her story.

NDW: What is the best part of your job at Notre Dame?

BJ: I think the variety of assignments. And the privilege of interfacing with everybody on campus, from the president to faculty, staff and students. And there has been the opportunity to travel abroad. Those experiences have been enriching and life-changing. I've been to some incredible places around the world. I really enjoyed a story we did in Ghana where I shot photos of female cocoa farmers for the Keough School of Global Affairs.

NDW: What was one of your favorite assignments and why?

BJ: My favorite assignment was the winter Olympics in Torino, Italy in 2006. It was my favorite assignment for different reasons, but what I enjoyed the most was being able to meet so many different photographers whose bylines I recognized from all the major news outlets that we’re all familiar with. The top tier photographers are typically assigned to the Olympics. So, I got to meet all these photographers whose work I had admired for years, and I got to know them on a personal level.

So, at the Olympics, you scout your shooting position, sometimes a day before the event. And on the day of the event, you get there sometimes eight hours beforehand, just to guard your shooting position. 

NDW: So that no one else takes it?

BJ: Yes. But a well known and highly talented photographer that every photojournalist admires insisted my position was his when he showed up for the event an hour before it started. Needless to say a professional but tension-filled exchange broke out between the two of us. Fortunately the other photographers that I had camped out with for most of the day came to my defense saying “No, no, no — that’s Barbara Johnston’s spot.” He eventually backed down and later apologized to me. It was very, very stressful, and challenging but also extremely rewarding, especially when I saw my photos on the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer and other major publications the following day. It’s such an awesome feeling.

NDW: Are there times when you don’t take the shot and just enjoy the moment?

Barbara Johnston’s Tips for Great Pics  with Your Cell Phone Camera  ·          Use the rule of thirds. Make sure your  subject is a little off center, left or right. Everybody tends to put their subject at center.  ·          Be very conscious of what is in the frame.  If it's a busy background, move your subjects. Try to get a clean background.  ·           Don't be afraid to shoot things that  are backlit. Backlit photography is beautiful.  ·          You have to understand light; just look  at how the light scatters. Get your subjects out of direct sun. Put them in the shade or find an area where the light is nice and easy or shoot very early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

BJ: When I am hiking, I usually have my iPhone in case of an emergency, but I seldom take photos with it. I can’t take photos the way I want with an iPhone. I'm particular about wildlife and landscape photography which requires different focal lengths. If I'm going for a hike, I'm going exclusively for a hike, but if I'm going to shoot wildlife photography, then I'm going to pack a backpack and just go by myself. It has to be one or the other. I don’t like to combine them because I do not want to carry heavy gear on hikes and I don’t want to keep stopping for photos….I just want to enjoy the outdoors and conversation with the people I am with while getting some exercise too. 

NDW: What do you like to do beyond photography?

BJ:  I love to be outdoors — any outdoor activity. I like to bike on trails and I do a lot of hiking and kayaking. I live on the St. Joe River, so I just kayak right off my backyard.

NDW: What do you like to shoot outside of work assignments?

BJ: Nature. There’s a marsh close to where I live, which draws in a lot of wildlife. I have bald eagles that land on a tree branch that washed up on my shoreline. I decided to keep it because the birds love it. I have blue herons every evening that perch on that branch to fish. This time of year, I have turtles. But I don’t have photos of the turtles, because they’re very shy. As soon as I walk out my back door, they are in the water. I could shoot them through the window, which is what I had to do with a bald eagle. I have an incredible shot of a bald eagle, sitting on the driftwood, looking right at me.

NDW: What’s the most “different” photo you’ve taken?

BJ: When I worked at the newspaper in Philadelphia, I would go out for an entire day just hunting for photos. They sent me out to get what we call weather art, and it was raining. I had to get something that said, ‘It’s raining — a lot today.’ And there was a guy riding a bicycle with a big box over his head, with a square cut out. It ran on the front page of the Inquirer the next day, because they just thought it was hilarious.

NDW: Do you have tips for the average person taking pictures with an iPhone?

BJ: Something for you?

NDW: Sure. Why not?

In addition to tips for great cell phone photos, Johnston shared some of her favorite photos below. To view more of her work, visit