She Shoots Wild Bears — and It’s Hard to Look Away

April Johnson says she is “not disturbed whatsoever” by sustained close contact with 800-pound wild animals. Portrait by Rachel Pressley

 

April Johnson earned a degree in Fine Arts and Photography from
the School of Visual Arts in NYC. While still in college, she was hired to photograph architecture for a graphic-design company representing CitiCorp. That led to a career as an international corporate photographer for companies including Apple, Minolta Camera, and Caterpillar. But when she moved to Asheville about 11 years ago, she shifted her focus to animals and launched Asheville Pet Photography. 

With her life and business partner, Jeff Miller, Johnson also runs Mountain Lens, a high-tech, upscale residential retreat for hobby and professional photographers on 20 forested acres near Hendersonville. 

When she heads into the woods to shoot wildlife, however, she takes only her SONY Alpha a7R III mirrorless camera, a nonchalant vibe, and the hope for chance encounters — “lovely moments of mutual co-existence.”

Buddha Bear

Why animals?

I lost a pet, so I realized how much it meant to have pictures. 

How do you capture an animal’s personality?

I get them to kind of talk with me. To trust me and reveal themselves and give me great eye contact. They relax and you can see their shoulders drop. Over time I’ve learned to anticipate their behaviors and attention span.

That’s a rare skill.

You have to have patience and compassion. When it comes to bears, they size you up real quick. Let them know you aren’t there to hurt them in any way at all.

World Equestrian Games

You photograph bears in a nature preserve or in the wild?

Always in the wild. This one bear was asleep and woke up … I started to talk quietly so I wouldn’t alarm her.  She saw me and was not disturbed whatsoever; a bear can size you up in a nanosecond. I was calm and non-threatening, and she carried on unconcerned about my being there, and gave me all these different poses. 

Like what?

She stuck her tongue out at me. They do that when they’re trying to absorb scent and gain information about you. She leaned in and wanted eye contact. We had a wonderful time. I was there for 45 minutes, 15 feet away. 

Bono

But your equestrian work is fast-moving sports photography.

It’s exciting, breathtaking. But you have to be still and freeze yourself for the whole length of the race, because well-trained horses are very sensitive to movement on the sidelines. 

So how do you get those action shots in mid-jump?

One eye is off camera and the other is in the view finder. You hear the horse’s hooves and anticipate the rhythm of the rider, and how many steps it will take for them to reach the high point of their jump. It’s got to be automatic.

Is it harder to photograph people or animals?

It’s super challenging to photograph humans with animals. But animals don’t complain about “Do I have a double chin?” It’s hard to make humans happy. But animals don’t have high expectations. 

Star Tongue Out

Are there some pets that just aren’t photogenic, though?

(Laughs) Some are afraid of the lens because it looks like a big eye, a predator staring at them. That’s rare, but when I see that, we don’t even continue. It’s impossible — and I don’t want to stress them out.

I don’t like being photographed either, do you?

Oh, heck no! Its really tough on me. 

Fletcher

April Johnson, Asheville Pet Photography. To learn more, visit ashevillepetphotography.com or check out Asheville Pet Photography NC on Facebook or @avlpetphoto on Instagram. Contact Johnson at april@ashevillepetphotography.com or 828-230-3685. The photographer’s work is exhibited in Asheville at Woolworth Walk Gallery; Omni Grove Park Inn;  Asheville Chamber of Commerce Gift Shop; Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe; Mountain Made Art Gallery; Asheville Emporium; Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar; The Compleat Naturalist; and Happy Tails Country Club West. Also in Brevard at Highland Books, and Blue Moon Gallery.

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