Capturing Life: Using your camera's zoom functions creates better nature photos

Perham's Chuck Johnson shares some of his nature photography tips.

Chuck Johnson poses for a portrait at his home north of Perham. "I'm known for my woodpile," Johnson said. (Carter Jones/ FOCUS)
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When I first met Chuck Johnson, he was Abraham Lincoln. He shared a history lesson in the form of a theatre production called “ The Night Before Gettysburg .” And today he’s giving us a lesson on close-up nature photography.

The photos you’ll see are all from his phone. None of these photos happen in one shot, it’s lots of takes to find the magic moment. He honed his craft through 21 years as a journalist at the Perham Enterprise-Bulletin, and through experiencing life with his family.

He loves taking walks and hikes near his home in Perham and visiting the Glendalough, Maplewood and Itasca state parks.

“We’re walkers, hikers,” Johnson said. “Maplewood might be the best hiking state park in the state of Minnesota and it’s 25 miles away, and it’s like holy moly we’re blessed.”


A large cedar tree in Glacier National Park. Contributed / Chuck Johnson

Frosty Morning.jpeg
Mother nature’s overnight artistry was on display on the morning of Dec. 11, 2021. Contributed / Chuck Johnson

You’ll often find him making an adventure out of simple moments like surprising their grandchildren with pumpkins to decorate, and taking photos for people to enjoy. The difference, he says, is a snapshot versus a photograph.

“A snapshot is smile! and the only person that really likes a snapshot is your Grandma and your Uncle and your Mom,” Johnson said. “A photograph is something that anybody can look at. That’s my goal, is to shoot photographs.”

While looking through his almost full camera roll, I was again reminded how much there is to see in the United States. There’s plenty of travel lists to send you around the world but maybe all you need is a drive down a back road.

Whether you’re in your backyard, on a trail or on a trip, if you want to experience nature in a new way take lots of photos and narrow them down to your favorites later. Johnson recommends zooming as much as possible with your phone to end up with a completely different perspective.

You might find you’re seeing something small like a bee for the first time with the details you’ll notice in the photos. Or seeing a photo of a bug so close that it looks like a person rock climbing instead of it’s true form as a box elder bug. Remember, photos take time and zooming.


Johnson used the maximum zoom on his phone to capture the water beads on this spiderweb. He recommends using zoom for objects that are already close to you. Contributed / Chuck Johnson

A close-up photo of a butterfly. Contributed / Chuck Johnson

Johnson said you can make unique photographs with views that people share all the time, like sunsets or a maple tree. You can still have the radiantly colored sky but a plant in the foreground. As you experiment with photos, you’ll find your style.

“Me and the sun would have stuff happen,” Johnson described of his time at Voyageurs National Park in summer 2021. “That’s the lower unit of my motor just at sunrise. You can shoot the picture of the sun rising but if you bring a different element into it, it becomes a way better photo.”

Boat Sunrise.jpeg
On a summer 2021 trip to Voyageurs National Park, Chuck Johnson enjoyed early morning sunrises on the water. Contributed / Chuck Johnson


Johnson’s top advice for nature photography:

  • Always, always zoom in as far as you can on your phone

  • Look for personal and spontaneous moments

  • Take different and unique photos

Got a park or trail recommendation you’d like to see featured? Send them to .

Rebecca Mitchell is a Multimedia Reporter for the Wadena Pioneer Journal and Perham Focus. She loves capturing local stories through words, photos and videos, and providing resources for the community.
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