Featured Artist - John Keefover
For those who don't know John "Keef" Keefover, he is a man of prolific and profound talents. While his vigorous voracity for vast vistas is visually evident with even the most graceful of glances at his grid on the gram, he is also a kind spirited mentor, happy to share his wisdom with anyone willing to listen; a commander of content creation, helping brands share their wares from here to there and everywhere; and a community gathering guru, always looking to meet a fellow photography enthusiast. We could go on, but luckily we won't have to... we'll let Keef tell you plenty more about himself, and handle most of the writing from here. 😉😄
Been a while since we did this so forgive me if I’m a little rusty. Always seems like a good idea to start at the beginning. So if you don’t mind ... can you tell us a little about yourself and how it is you managed to get into photography?
Sure thing! My name is John Keefover. Most people just call me Keef... It stands out more, and that’s what I hope to achieve with my photos. I’m a Freelance Photographer that mainly focuses on Landscape Photography. I started Keefography, my photography business, around this time last year. The support and following I’ve received since then has been incredible! All of the positivity in the community really helps keep me going. I’m working hard to one day turn this dream into a sustainable career. It would be great to be able to do something I love while traveling and spending quality time with like-minded people!
I got into photography around 20 years ago now. Maybe I’m dating myself here with that… I’ll be 33 pretty soon, but really who’s counting anymore right? I started taking pictures back in middle school when I got my first film camera! Back then I was all about taking abstract pictures and shooting my friends skateboarding, biking, and goofing off on the Iron Range up in Hibbing, MN. I even made my own skate/bike/snowboard “magazine” which I put in quotation marks because it was just a bunch of double printed black and white papers stapled together... I called it Can’t Afford a Ride, because we were like 12 and couldn’t drive, and definitely could not afford a car. It was terrible, but I’ll tell you what.. the passion was there!
In high school I took all of the art classes I possibly could including 4 years of Photography. I spent a lot of time in the Dark Room there developing and editing my own film. I found it sad that years after I graduated the school got rid of the darkroom and switched to a completely digital curriculum. Film is a lost art on this newer generation. Alright now I’m starting to sound like an old man. Really though, that hands on approach had a major influence in how I post process today.
For awhile after that, I struggled in my personal life getting into trouble and not doing much with myself. 5 years ago I got out of a major rut and moved to Duluth. It’s such a cool city and a great location for the North and South Shore. I’ve always been drawn to the area since I was a kid taking trips Up North with friends and family. I’ve met a lot of amazing people here, including my partner, and have since rekindled my love for photography in what is considered the best outdoor town in America.
What do you typically bring with you when you go out for a shoot? How different is your setup for shooting night sky versus day hiking?
Depends on the location really. I just picked up an Atlas Athlete bag that is perfect as a standalone camera bag, a day hiking bag, and expandable enough for all of my backpacking gear as well. If I’m just going out somewhere close in Duluth I have my tripod, filters, spare battery and memory card, camera (Canon 5D Mark IV) with the holy trinity of f/2.8 lenses (16-35, 24-70, 70-200). Those f/2.8 lenses are heavy, but as a photographer who shoots multiple different genres on a budget, they’re my go to all-around lenses. If I’m going out backpacking I might leave 1 or 2 lenses behind. I always bring the 16-35 because I love wide angle photography, and it doubles as my astrophotography lens. I like to bring the 70-200 as well to pick off any far-away details in the landscape or in case I come across any wildlife. It’s the heaviest of the bunch though, and it doesn’t quite have the reach to photograph wildlife safely or discretely. I sacrifice the weight of lenses in exchange for all of my camping gear, food, and clothing that comes along with me on longer hikes. When camping my camera gear is more than a third of the weight of my bag which is usually around 30 pounds… Heck, we could do a whole blog post just on what’s in my bag!
You recently decided to take on the endeavor of starting your own photography blog on your website (keefography.com) so of course, as a fellow blogger, I have to ask... what were you thinking?
Why didn’t you ask me this before I started the blog! Nah, I actually really enjoy the process of it all. I like writing almost as much as photography so I figured it would be a good way to incorporate that into my work more than a simple Social Media caption can.
As you have probably already found out it is a ton more work than you might think to keep up the content. Did you have any idea what you were in for?
I thought I did, but apparently not! As I said I love writing, but formatting and arranging the layout takes a lot of time. Finding time is the hardest part. I’ve always been sort of a night owl though so I’m usually up until 3 AM editing, doing administration type work, or writing this interview! It makes getting up early for sunrises a bit of a challenge, but we have to do what we do to get the shot. I started the blog while on furlough during the stay at home order, and I got so much other stuff done during that time. Now that we’re all back to work it’s hard to find the time to do anything. It’s been too long since I put out that first and only blog, but there are more coming soon!
Your first article is a fairly in-depth piece on your knowledge of and experience with astrophotography. How long have you been “shooting for the stars” and how did you get into it in the first place? What challenges you the most when shooting astro?
Astrophotography, and the night sky itself, is something that I’ve always been interested in, but never really had the right gear for it. Back when I was first getting into photography on film it was pretty much unheard of, at least to the extent we’re at today. I’m still blown away when I press that shutter button and see what the camera is able to pick up! I’ve only actively been shooting the Night Sky for the past year or so. I kind of obsess over things though and do a lot of research into anything I dive into. I compiled all of that research and experimentation into the free Night Sky Photography Guide I put out in hopes of helping others cut down on a lot of trial & error I had with it at first!
My biggest challenge for myself in astro-photography is trying to shoot the scene in one single exposure. I feel like that often times gives you the truest representation of what it looked and felt like in person. It’s also much less editing work instead of blending and stacking multiple images together so that’s nice…
What are your hopes and dreams for the blog? What type of audience are you seeking and speaking to when you write?
My hopes are to reach out to as many people as I can to not only get my name out there in the world, but to help others learn something new as well. I have a few other photography guides planned out that I’ll be working on soon. Though I am a photographer, I don’t want to get pigeonholed into only writing about photography. I plan on doing interviews like these that you do so well with other local artists, businesses, or anyone else who has a good story to tell!
What types of articles do you have planned for the future?
My next blog is all about the Superior Hiking Trail and will be announcing something I’m really proud of so stay tuned for that! After that I’ll be writing about my recent BWCA trip with Voyageur Canoe Outfitters. Then there’s an upcoming interview about Nomadic Living in a bus with the one and only Ian Lundborg, who designed my logo! An interview with the new lighthouse keeper at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Hayes Scriven, to get a bit of a history lesson and behind the scenes shots of the iconic location. The next photography guide will likely be about photographing Waterfalls.
In addition to landscape photography, you also do a fair amount of brand and band photography as well as a bit of portraiture. Which subject matter do you prefer and which challenges you the most?
I like to shoot just about anything! Landscape photography is by far my favorite genre because I love being outside. After that I really enjoy concert and sports photography. It pushes you and your gear because you need to capture an exact moment and often time it’s in very difficult conditions with low light, weather, or rowdy crowds. Portrait photography is probably the hardest for me personally. You really need to be on the same page as the subject and be able to guide them into a good pose and facial expression. Juggling around with all of these different genres helps keep everything fresh for me. If you feel like you’re in a photographic slump, and believe me it happens to everyone, try something new!
What bands have been your favorite to shoot?
My favorite bands to shoot are ones that my friends are in. We kind of feed off of our chemistry and energy, and I just want to see them all succeed! More notably though last year Save The Boundary Waters had me photograph their music festival at Bayfront Park in Duluth and Atmosphere was a big highlight as a long-time fan. In that same realm Brother Ali at Earth Rider
Brewery Fest Grounds was also a treat. His shows are like going to church, and I have a tattoo of one of his lyrics.
How about which brands?
My favorite brand to work with was probably Ursa Minor Brewing. Before they opened and for their first year of operation, I was their Photographer & Social Media Manager. I really enjoyed creating content and engaging captions, as well as interacting with the audience in a fun way. I also booked all of the bands that played there every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It turned me onto a lot of local music and led to some more portraiture work for a few bands. Before their shows I would often offer to take a promo photo in front of the big, blue brick wall of the building to use for the event pages. It all really helped me when it came to creating and marketing my own business here at Keefography. Plus, Ursa Minor makes really good beer!
And what brand or band would you love to shoot for one day in the future? (Excluding UNTC of course 😉😁)
Oh of course, that’s a no brainer! Most photographers out there would probably want to shoot for any of the big camera system companies, and I obviously would enjoy that too. I would love to be able to work with Canon. They make some great lenses, and I’m really eyeballing their new mirrorless camera bodies coming out soon! Honestly though I enjoy working with other local brands because I want to support them and see us all grow together.
As far as bands I’d like to photograph, I’d probably go with a mix of nostalgia and action, NOFX comes to mind. I heard they suck live though. I do however, have it on vinyl.
As beer and coffee seem to be your most photographed products, we are definitely going to have to inquire as to what your favorite brews are of each?
I’m not too picky when it comes to beer, and it’s hard to pick a favorite. Give me a good IPA or a tasty fruited sour and I’m good! For coffee I really like Almanac Coffee here in Duluth. It’s a micro-roaster based inside of the Duluth Folk School which also focuses on everything local. I particularly enjoy their Honduras roast. It has notes of milk chocolate and graham cracker flavorings which are great with a little bit of creamer. I’m sort of a baby when it comes to coffee… It has to be loaded with sugar and cream!
Having followed you for quite a while now, it is obvious that community means a great deal to you. Where some photographers have somewhat of a lone wolf mindset, you are very vocal about gathering together, scheduling meetups and cavorting with other camera carrying cohorts. (Pre-lockdown that is) What is it about the local photo community that makes them such a great hang?
I think what makes the Landscape Photography Community up here so great is that everyone is already in love with the area and photography. It’s those two things we can all relate with and appreciate which makes it easier to get to know each other better. I always say community over competition. It’s easy to fall into the trap of Social Media where you compare yourself to others. I find myself doing it every once in awhile. Once you get to know a person and connect an actual face to some Social Media account it makes it so much more personal. The landscape photography community as a whole is usually pretty nice, but photography in general does tend to have some toxic energy, especially when it comes to stuff like gear or editing. My rule in photography, and life, is don’t be a dick. Can I say that on here? You can delete that if not. Sometimes that can be difficult for some people, especially after a few of those IPAs I mentioned earlier…
I’m a bit of both of those two types of photographers you mentioned regarding shooting solo or with a group. I do like going out solo. I feel like you can really focus more on the process when you’re out on your own. Having said that though it’s so much more fun going out with a group of people! It can sometimes get a bit distracting though so even when I’m in a group I’ll sometimes wander off on my own. The cool thing about photography though is if you’re with a group of people, no two photos will look the same. Everyone kind of has their own eye and take on things, both in camera and post processing.
What have you learned the most from the community?
Conservation and protecting locations. Minnesotans are proud of our lands, and we tend to treat it with great respect. Most of us photographers and outdoor people abide by the rules of Leave No Trace and to pack it in, pack it out- often times including other people’s trash as well. The North Shore is starting to become a more popular destination, bringing more people and more disrespect to the land. This year especially I’ve seen way more litter at some of the more visited locations, and even in the more remote spots. It’s frustrating. You’d think people going out to enjoy these beautiful places wouldn’t tarnish it by throwing out their trash. I’ve started bringing garbage bags with me to clean up after these careless people.
A lot of us in the community also don’t disclose locations, or geo-tag where they are on Social Media. It’s not that we don’t want others to enjoy them, but because we want to protect them. Increased foot traffic to some of these places can really damage the environment. Most notably is a spot at Tettegouche State Park. Since the old Sea Stack collapsed in last year’s storm everyone has shifted to another spot, causing nearly the whole hillside going to it to erode. It’s gotten really bad.
Speaking of the community, as you’re well aware we asked our Instagram followers if they happened to have any questions for you. Here’s what the readers really want to know...
Have you ever been to Betty’s Pies? (Martin is asking)
Martin would ask that, because he knows the answer. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I have never been to Betty’s Pies… but neither has he! We talk about it every time we go by. Honestly every time I drive by it’s always super busy and I’m either dead set on getting “Up North” or back home.
Have you ever gotten your beard caught in the zipper of your coat while shooting Lake Superior in the winter??
Oh yes. Have you seen There’s Something About Mary? It was kind of like that… Hmm, my partner says most of my vocabulary is made up movie quotes, and I’m starting to understand.
What is your favorite snack to help you refuel on the trail?
My food is typically the same for every trip. For snacks during the day it’s jerky, trail mix, fruit leather and cliff bars. At night I like to have a warm meal after a long day of hiking. I’ll heat up a backpacking freeze-dried meal or bring in something like a steak cooked over the fire if I want to get real fancy out there! Before bed I’ll drink a hot chocolate or cup of tea to relax. For breakfast I mix oatmeal with a scoop of protein powder and a Poptart on the side. Can’t forget the morning coffee either for a quick pick me up. When you’re camping always hang or properly store in a bear canister your food, garbage and other scented items. I’ve recently opted for a BearVault 450 bear canister. It’s a bit heavy and overkill for Black Bear country here in Minnesota, but I suck at hanging a bag so I’ll gladly take the convenience of just stashing the canister away from camp.
What draws you to waterfalls so much?! Have you been seeing many lately?
I really enjoy long exposure photography and photographing waterfalls really challenges you. To me there’s a thin line choosing the correct exposure. Too long and the water is just way too smooth and milky, too quick and it looks chaotic. I like to find that sweet spot where the water is smoothed out, but it still shows the detail of the movement. Usually it’s around a half second or so. In order to get to that specific exposure you often need the right filter for the job. Sometimes just a Circular Polarizer is needed to cut out the glare on wet rocks and to saturate some colors. I’ll be writing a Waterfall Photography Guide soon so if you’re interested watch for that! I’ve come across many waterfalls this summer on my travels along the SHT.
What is your favorite trail in MN?
Is it cheating if I just say the Superior Hiking Trail? Again, speaking on sharing locations, I’d rather not get into specifics. What I’ve been doing though is researching and reading through the SHT guidebook on trails I’d like to check out. Finding these spots on your own makes it so much more rewarding!
Are you glad your name doesn’t start with a “B” ?
I’ve been called worse…
Who made that sweet logo of yours? Please tell us all about it and him 😁
Ian Lundborg designed that Keefography logo for me! I love his style and own some of his wood burned artwork that I picked up at the Back Alley in Duluth. I met him at one of the North Shore Photographer meet ups I put together and we hit it off. Knew that’s who I wanted to represent my brand! You’ll be able to find out more about him in the blog we’re working on together about his bus life.
Alright getting back to the script...
What in photography would you say challenges you? What do you see as your strengths? And what resources do you use for improving your skills?
What challenges me the most is setting high expectations for myself. It might look like us landscape photographers are always in the right place at the right time, but you’re only seeing our best images. There are so many times we go out and don’t get the conditions were hoping for. Often times we’ll go to the same spot over and over just to get the right light or colors we’re looking for!
I’d say finding a good composition is one of my biggest strengths. If you don’t look absolutely ridiculous in some crazy position you’re not doing it right! I also take pride in my editing in which I feel like I’ve finally got my style down to something I really like and connect with.
As far as resources go I pretty much just watch YouTube videos constantly. I always have some photography vlogger or tutorial on in the background while I work on other things. I’ve also bought a few Photography Tutorials that really helped as well. Honestly, investing into tutorials from one of your favorite photographers can be more worthwhile than a new piece of gear. You’ll gain so much knowledge out of what makes those photos you like so good.
Not exactly sure why I enjoy asking this pseudo polarizing question so much but Lightroom Classic or CC and why? And what is your approach to editing?
Lightroom Classic for sure. Lightroom CC is fine for starting out, but it’s lacking in some of the more advanced features that really help control the editing process. I start off all of my editing in Lightroom Classic using some custom presets I’ve made mostly adjusting white balance, exposure, adding a slight vignette, and adjusting the tone curve. Once I’m happy with it there I bring it over to Photoshop where I do a very selective dodging & burning with Luminosity Masks using the plugin Lumenzia for both light and color. That’s my favorite part of post processing as it brings me back to dodging & burning in the darkroom when I first got into photography almost 20 years ago. One thing I spend a lot time doing is cloning out distractions, especially near the borders of the photo. I like a clean image.
What would you say is your favorite season? Favorite thing about shooting in Minnesota?
I enjoy all of the seasons because they’re all so different but would have to say fall is my favorite for two reasons: one obviously is the fall colors, but the other reason is the temperature. I enjoy a nice, cool fall day wearing say an ‘Up North’ hoodie!
You really can’t beat summer in Duluth though. I’ve been loving all of the lush greens and blue skies lately. Winter is challenging, but so rewarding to shoot in. Freezing mornings with Sea Smoke coming off of Lake Superior is one of the best times to be out! It seems that locations change almost every day in the winter time too with the ice and snow. It makes it very unique. Spring is probably my least favorite when it comes to photography. I appreciate that it signifies the coming of summer and hope after a long winter, but I find it hard to get motivated when everything is mostly dead and brown on the ground still. I do like the heavy flow from spring thaw in the rivers, and when wildflowers are starting to bloom though!
Do you happen have a favorite photo you’ve ever taken?
I’d have to say one of the recent photos I took of the Comet NEOWISE inside of the Northern Lights and reflecting in the calm waters of Lake Vermillion. My friend’s family owns some land up there and they built a beautiful log cabin by hand. We were staying there and enjoying some drinks around the fire when we noticed the comet right across the lake. We took some test shots and saw a faint glow of Northern Lights on the horizon when we reviewed the photos. A few hours later they completely flared up! They were vibrant to the naked eye and dancing all around. It didn’t last very long, but it was such a cool experience, and a once in a lifetime shot with the comet that comes around every 6,800 years! It’s also a shot that I didn’t plan at all, it was pure luck.
Who are your heroes?
My photography heroes are the vloggers and photographers I watch and look up to on YouTube. Thomas Heaton for his backpacking landscape photography, Gavin Hardcastle for his comical edutainment videos, Michael Shainblum for his absolutely incredible time lapses, and Ben Horne for his calm demeaner and Large Format Film Photography. I could go on and on, there are many more out there.
Any bucket shots on your list?
Besides photographing some wildlife, I don’t really have specific shots on a list. Talking about places though, absolutely! Someday I’d love to go to Patagonia, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Lofoten, the Italian Dolomites, and New Zealand. Basically anywhere there are remote mountains I guess?
What’s one piece of advice you would offer someone who is just starting out as a photographer?
It’s important to understand the basics of light and composition. If you can comprehend those two things you will create some compelling images!
This one comes from our previous featured artist Amanda Taivalkoski who would like to know ...What are you most excited to do when life goes back to normal?
Traveling for sure! There are so many places I want to see. I had a trip planned for Glacier National Park and then was supposed to head into Banff, but that got put on pause. Definitely need to follow up on that and go further West as well. One thing these times have showed us is the things that we take for granted!
What one question would you ask our next featured artist? (Anything you like)
It depends, who’s the next featured artist? I would probably ask, “what’s the most work you’ve put into one photo?”
Time to pay it forward... who else would you like to see featured on this blog?
For a little bit of a different perspective on things I’d like to see Ken Harmon on here. He’s retired and spending his time exploring and enjoying the North Shore in either a kayak, via drone, or on land. He specializes in long exposure shots along the rugged shores of Lake Superior. I met him at a Destination Duluth event, and he was just a really nice person. It’s nice to have that positivity and support from area photographers, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.
Thank you so much for your time.
For more Keefography goodness checkout John in these places online...