Photograph Acadia National Park with John K. Putnam

John has dedicated himself to documenting Acadia National Park; photographing its flora, fauna, landscapes, and hidden details.

John K. Putnam is a professional nature and landscape photographer based on Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park, where he leads tours and teaches photography workshops while also operating a gallery of his own work. John has been a working photographer for close to two decades and in that time has amassed an image collection that spans five continents, six countries, 20 states, and more than 30 national parks, while his work has been published, awarded, and exhibited internationally. However, in recent years John has dedicated himself to documenting Acadia National Park; photographing its flora, fauna, landscapes, and hidden details.  He loves teaching, showing off Acadia, and, most importantly, gets outside to photograph every day.

How long have you been doing photography?

I’ve been a full-time photographer in Maine for 9 years, with most of my work based in Acadia during that time. Before that, I worked part-time as a photographer in New York City for another 9 years. During that time I mostly worked with publishing companies creating images for art and design books, but I spent every vacation near wilderness practicing nature photography.

What’s been your most memorable photo assignment?

I work mostly for myself these days so it is up to me to give myself assignments, most of which involve scouting new places for future photography workshops. With two small children and my busy season being summer, we don’t have much time for family trips so my scouting missions are often a hybrid of the two… family vacation meets photo trip. Last June we took a two-week-long road trip through Quebec (our youngest was only two months old. Yes, we’re very brave). One of our stops was an Atlantic puffin nesting colony. We were basically “trapped” on an island together among thousands of birds for three nights. It was wonderful.

In your opinion, what’s the biggest learning curve for photography?

It differs from person to person. It took a long time for me to learn how to truly express myself through my work. The same goes for many others. For some, it’s post-processing. Post-processing our images is an important step in the photographic process, which is the first thing folks need to accept. After that, it’s learning the technical side of the software, followed by how to use it creatively to support the stories and emotions you’re trying to express.

You’ve established a successful business as a full-time photographer, with your own gallery and photo tour operation on Mount Desert Island. Were you full-time before moving to Maine? Did you move here just for photography?

Yes, in 2015 when my wife, Alli, and I chose MDI to live, full-time photography was my plan. I had no idea if I could make it work, but I gave myself no other option… so it had to. I had been photographing part-time in New York City before that, producing work for a handful of publishing companies (mostly filling in the blanks on books, but occasionally shooting them in their entirety), plus some random events like runway shows and award galas. Any vacations we took revolved around photography and national parks, those were the times I was able to work on nature photography.

Our full-day Acadia Photography Workshops with J.K. Putnam are designed to maximize learning opportunities and provide guidance on creating the kind of images you want to create. From sunrise to sunset, you will alternate between traveling around Acadia taking photos and classroom time where we discuss a range of topics that lead to successful image making. There will also be individual instruction based on your goals and your questions.

Sign up for one of his 2024 Acadia Photography Workshops!

How would you describe your approach to teaching? Who are your favorite photography educators and what have you learned from them?

A: When teaching group photography, I have to learn everyone’s goals very quickly. More skilled photographers who need space to work get just that, which gives me the opportunity to work closely with those who need more of my time. That said, I stay available to everyone, bouncing from person to person answering questions and sharing ideas. We all have to be on the same page though, and our locations do that. We’re all faced with the same landscapes, conditions, and light. When we arrive at a location, we talk about what to expect and what to look for, after that everyone is free to search out their own scenes and images. I take my students to some very classic places around Acadia and use these well-known spots to talk about why they work so well photographically, whether it be compositional elements, the way light works with the landscape, or both. We also seek out the unseen, those details missed by most, searching for unique ways to show the scene.

Frans Lanting was a great inspiration to me early on in my career. Viewing his work showed me how documentary photography can also be artistic. You can teach a lesson, tell a story, and create something moving all in a single image. I learned to pay attention to my environment and to recognize unique conditions within. He taught me to look beyond what was in front of me and to consider every element involved in its creation.

What’s a piece of gear you can’t live without?

A sturdy tripod and ball head. I think I’d take a cheap lens over a cheap tripod. My tripod is my workbench. It has to support my camera and lens without fail. I can’t have it wiggling around on a windy day while I’m zoomed to 400mm and shooting slow shutter speeds. This is my tripod, there are many like it, but this one is mine… anyway, I also love my insulated muck boots. They let me tramp around in the water, comfortably, all winter long. They get me places I otherwise wouldn’t be able to go safely. Footwear is so important.

Do you have a favorite spot in Acadia National Park to photograph or just enjoy?

There is no end to my list of favorite spots in Acadia, but Sand Beach is towards the top, I can spend hours there… and I often do! It’s also a great place for teaching photography. There is room to spread out, it has multiple options for landscape photos, and it works well under any conditions and at any time of year.

Photo by J.K. Putnam

What’s the magic about Acadia in spring?

Acadia is still really quiet in April. Visitation is low, leaving plenty of room for those who do visit. Places like Bass Harbor Head Light and Cadillac Mountain are accessible at the end of April but not yet overrun with people. The second half of April is your last chance to see the sun setting on the horizon at Bass Harbor Head, after that and through the summer it’s hidden behind the point as it goes down. The road to the top of Cadillac is open but does not require reservations yet, so if conditions look right it’s a great option for sunrise or sunset. In April, there is also a chance of having high water in the brooks and streams making places like Jordan Pond Stream and the Cobblestone Bridge productive places to photograph. 

Where are your favorite places to take photos outside of Acadia?

The Bold Coast of Maine is high on that list. The Bold Coast Scenic Byway runs from Milbridge to Calais and is an endless stretch of rocky coastline, dense forests, and quiet trails. The area between Cutler and Lubec along that route is arguably more beautiful and more dramatic than even Acadia. Ten miles off the coast of Cutler is Machias Seal Island, well known for its large nesting colony of Atlantic puffins. MSI in particular is a favorite place of mine to visit.

Out of all your photos, do you have a favorite?

I’m asked this often and my answer is usually whichever is my most recent, haha. As much as I love a good sunrise or, as we’re learning, puffins… my favorite subjects tend to be those quiet scenes that are missed by most… an arrangement of rocks, patterns of foam in water, a patch of ice, etc. Also, anything involving fog… or puffins.

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