Mr. Payne, your studio is housed in an impressive historical building, which was once a theater. Please tell us a little about how you came to setup your studio in this venue.
I bought the building in February of 1988, which was about five years after my photography business started taking off. The furniture manufacturing industry was big in North Carolina back then, so I was looking for a building with tall ceilings and big open spaces without columns. What came to mind first were churches and warehouses; theaters didn’t even cross my mind. But one day, I passed by this building and there was a “for sale” sign in the window so I contacted the realtor and was given a tour of the premises. I was overwhelmed by the spaciousness; 25 foot (7.6 meters) ceilings and about 6,000 square feet (557 square meters) of vast space. That was enough to sell me on it. Although it took a lot of refurbishing to make it usable while maintaining the historical value of the Art Deco era building, I managed to bring it to a point where it could function as a studio as well as a gallery to display my work, and I was able to open to the public in January of 1989.
By the mid-90’s, I had what would be called a collection, a small one at the time. Though, it just grew over time, and now it is quite extensive and unique in my opinion. But what makes it special is this grand venue to display all my collection. To me, the studio is not only a place to shoot but also to sit down, relax, and enjoy my collection.
My work had gradually steered more towards shooting portraits. The walls for the studio are filled with large format portraits of clients, both past and present.
A feeling of trust, and Nikon cameras—the essentials of portrait shooting
What kind of portraits do you shoot now? What aspect do you focus your attention on, and is there anything you have to take particular care with when shooting portraits?
In addition to commercial head shots, I photograph everything from family portraits to children, to high school seniors. Typically, the first thing that catches my eye is going to be expression. When you talk to a lot of portrait photographers, they’re going to say the “eyes” but for me, I take that a step further to not just the eyes, but to include the rest of the face. The part that I think is most important is the connection between the photographer and the subject. For that I try to get the person relax and let their guard down, so they give me a great expression. And for this I need to concentrate totally on the subject instead of on the technical and gear-oriented aspects of the job. Nikon products offer the dependability I need day in and day out; they’re indispensable. As for the quality of the shots, I can totally concentrate on communicating with the person in front of me because I can completely rely on the camera. This is because Nikon cameras allowed me to grow, together with truly reliable NIKKOR lenses. Nikon has been a brand that I’ve relied on and used for over 40 years. And the reason I can engage with my profession as portrait photographer due in no small part to the trust-based relationship I’ve built with Nikon products over a long period of time.
Which cameras do you use for portraits?
The majority of my portrait work is done with a Nikon D4. I’ve always favored the build quality and the feel of the professional bodies. And, the responsiveness is great as is the AF system. In situations where I need to deliver a large portrait for a client, I would select my D800E. Shortly, I plan on upgrading to the D850. Lens choices vary between 70-200mm f/2.8 VRⅡ, 105mm f/1.4, and 24-70mm f/2.8.
Encountering Nikon changed my life
Can you tell us your encounters with Nikon and your thoughts toward Nikon?
I first became aware of Nikon cameras when I was around 11 years old. My brother, who is 8 years my senior, was an avid photographer. His camera of choice was Nikon and that led me to follow in his footsteps. That was the beginning of my relationship with Nikon cameras and NIKKOR lenses.
The first Nikon product I got a hold of was the Nikkormat FT2, when I was a seventh grader. It was the entry level Nikon but to me it was the Nikon I’d always dreamed of. This is what got me started and it was a camera that would allow me to grow my skills.
Since then, it was always Nikon cameras that captured my enthusiasm for photography. They are wonderfully crafted instruments that have served me for over 40 years and supported me to have a successful career in photography, and even now, they allow me to pursue my visual art form.
Tell us about the points on which Nikon is superior as a work tool for you?
Nikon was definitely a part of me for over 40 years. When I decided to aim to become a professional photographer, I thought Nikon was the best suited gear for me with their systematic consistency; like their commitment to continue with the “F” bayonet mount. Nikon’s build quality and extensive array of accessories, and most of all, the unwavering dependability, has helped me to bring any concept within reach.
Nikon build quality is tremendous and they work flawlessly – that’s something I feel more acutely after becoming a professional photographer. You have to be able to rely on the equipment to pursue the work but Nikon has always provided superb products that can be used with peace of mind in any given situation. And, the way the cameras work, I think is very nice. For instance, I can pick up and use, say, an older digital camera like the D300 or D2X and use the controls just as seamlessly now as I did eight or nine years ago, because everything, whether it’s old or new, is laid out in a similar manner.
And, best of all, NIKKOR lenses are so superb. Their high technical prowess is apparent with the optical quality, and very robust mounts. When using professional cameras and pro series lenses, you need options; lenses that are going to do the job that I envision in my mind. All lenses must satisfy the imaging power and reliability that professionals demand. In this sense, NIKKOR lenses are dependable. I can trust in NIKKOR lenses and the overall craftsmanship is something that stands out to me. One of the big reasons in choosing Nikon was because of my brother; I could borrow lenses from him whenever I needed to. In the darkroom, I’ve been using nothing but EL NIKKOR lenses for over 25 years, even after turning professional. When I shoot film, the lenses on my view camera are also all NIKKOR. Looking back I realize that I’ve worked with NIKKOR lenses in all aspects of my photographic life, and as a result, grown as a photographer.
My Nikon collection now contains over 350 items
You have quite an extensive number of Nikon products as a collector. Which Nikon products made the greatest impression on you?
Ever since I started photography, I was not good at buying a camera, using it and selling it off for an upgrade. I hung onto what I owned and this is how the collection grew over time. I still own the very first camera that I bought back in 1975.
Currently my Nikon collection contains over 350 cameras and lenses. My collection did not grow systematically but rather it was based on the items that I actually used or wanted. This must be an eye opener for those seeing the collection for the first time as I have variants of same camera models, and several lenses that are of repeated focal length with different design or elements and so forth.
The camera that made the greatest impression on me is the Nikon F. It is the core of my collection and it literally works flawlessly today. The build quality is tremendous. This camera certainly had a big influence, in my opinion, of the cameras of today.
Because my collection is always on display at my studio, I enjoy being able to go to the shelves and select a 40-year-old lens and get really nice results if I wanted a different look during a shoot. So-called classic lenses can literally be used on a current camera. System compatibility across time is something that I’m truly fond of, and is something Nikon can be proud of. It’s a cornerstone of the Nikon philosophy that supports the original style.
If you had to choose three Nikon Products out of your vast collection, which ones would they be?
The black-body 1959 Nikon F I have is a rare gem. It’s one of the earliest, from the 640 serial block. You can find cameras from that era without too much searching, but what you don’t see often is the black finish. Also, I’ve got the F-36 motor drive attached to it. That would probably be my number one item.
An 8mm f/2.8 fish eye would be another one. And, for the third, I’m going to say the limited edition F3/T, that’s a T for titanium, with matching lens, which was sold as a set in a presentation box.
What expectations do you have for Nikon products in the future? And what kinds of products do you want to see?
As for lenses, a wide angle lens in FX format would be nice. One that is a little bit wider than what they offer. Currently, other manufacturers are putting out 11 and 12mm lenses, though it’s something I’d like to see from Nikon too. Nikon makes a wonderful 14 to 24mm lens. However I’d love to see a 12 to 20mm, you know, as bright as f/2.8, that would be a very sellable lens for people who shoot wide angles.
As for cameras, I’d like to see mirrorless digital cameras along the lines of the Df. It would be nice if they’re cosmetically geared towards either a Nikon F or Nikon FM. I’ve got some experience in retail sales and looking at it from a standpoint of not only what I would like but what other people would like, I think it would be something that will just fly off the shelf. And, I think Nikon can make it at a price point that isn’t going to be too off-putting to people.
I got into photography as a way to be creatively expressive. Ever since, for 40 years, I’ve worked hard to be able to do the job the way I envision it. I’ve always given priority to taking photos with a Nikon camera. For that reason, my thoughts towards the camera and photography are twice as deep. I hope Nikon will continue to keep its ears and eyes open to the thoughts of working photographers. Talking to people in the field and listening to what they have to say. That dedication and attitude, I think is a big part of the research and development at Nikon. This kind of approach to product development, I feel, is something that keeps the brand very vibrant and very competitive. I hope that Nikon will continue to make better products for those of us who love Nikon.
Mr. John S. Payne
Education: Bachelor of Science in Professional Photography, 1985; Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY
John S. Payne is a member of:
Professional Photographers of America (PPA)