In the parlance of photography, it’s called capturing the “decisive moment,” the split-second when the composition, emotion and technical elements come together in a perfectly timed image.
You know it when you see it.
Photographer Mike Eliason, 54, has been capturing decisive moments for the past 30 years, as a photojournalist, public information officer and hobbyist, earning a reputation as a top-tier photojournalist.
At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Chaucer’s in Loreto Plaza, Eliason, an interminable introvert with a big smile and jolly disposition, will experience yet another special moment, but this time, he’ll be in front of the camera, with all eyes looking looking at him.
Eliason will sign copies of his first photography book, published by Shoreline Publishing Group. The book — “Santa Barbara and Beyond: The Photography of Mike Eliason” — costs $40.
“It’s very humbling,” Eliason said. “I’ve always felt very humbled by people’s reactions when they say, ‘Hey, I have that picture you took 20 years ago.'”
The photos in the book are broken into sections, Nature, Ocean, Valley, People and Places, United States and International Sights.
One of Mike Eliason’s most compelling images in his book was a time-lapse shot of a lightning storm. (Mike Eliason photo)
Eliason, like his photography, has had an eclectic career.
He’s a former reserve firefighter for the Carpinteria Fire Protection District, a photojournalist at the Santa Barbara News-Press for more than two decades, an instructor at Santa Barbara City College, and now is public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
He’s also freelanced for a number of publications, including Noozhawk, and his work has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country.
For the Generation-Xers and Baby Boomers, he’s legendary for his years of news and feature photos, capturing fires and public safety rescues, along with environmental portraits and wild art of community life.
His photos regularly appeared on the front page, stretched across multiple columns, some of them award-winning. But to millennials and Generation Y, he’s gained a following on Instagram, where photos of sunsets, birds or lightning storms, regularly spark several hundred likes.
With perfect timing, Eliason captured waves colliding at the Santa Barbara Harbor breakwater. (Mike Eliason photo)
In an era when everyone is a photographer, Eliason’s work dazzles.
“I know there’s a lot to look at on the internet, so I appreciate that people can spend a couple seconds of a distraction that I give them to hopefully make their day a little brighter,” Eliason said.
So how did Eliason get so good? It wasn’t from sitting in an office all day looking at photos studying the rule of thirds. Eliason is a doer, and he credits the pressure of daily newspaper deadlines for propelling him to premiere status.
“It’s the learned behavior of being conditioned to having to deliver images for so many years,” Eliason said. “A lot of it is I will drive by and I will see something, and I will stop. But a lot of it, too, is if you know when the weather is going to be bad, you kind of set up where the people are.”
His photos are more than just eye candy.
Eliason photographed a crowd on the beach at sunset during an extreme low tide. (Mike Eliason photo)
“I try to not just make them beauty shots,” Eliason said. “I try to have the human element in there to give it scale, and try to show where it is for people.”
With so many photos easily accessible on the web, Eliason works hard daily to come up with something only his eye can see.
“I just try to approach mine the same way I always have, just trying to create some kind of compelling image that people will respond to, of something that we have all seen before, but try to make it look different.”
Those photos are taken with a variety of equipment.
The book features photos shot with his digital single-lens reflex camera, or DSLR, a drone and his iPhone.
He’s also tends not to overshoot. He shoots tight and just enough, largely because he learned during the film era, when there was a limit to the capacity of the rolls, and he had to develop every single one of those photos.
“I don’t shoot a lot of images,” he said. “I just kind of pick and choose when I am shooting. Even now, in the digital age, when you have a card with 50,000 images on them, well you have to edit those afterwards.”
The only exception, he said, is sports, or subjects where’s there’s a lot of motion involved.
One of Eliason’s most compelling images in the book is of the recent lightning storm.
Eliason, hearkening back to his photojournalism days, knew the lightning storm was coming, so he headed out to Stearns Wharf.
There he was, standing in a puddle, holding a tripod, on a wooden wharf, with lightning on three sides of him.
He shot the spider-like lightning bolts using a 60-second exposure and a remote trigger. The stunning image ran in newspapers around the country, and captured the novelty of a relentless lightning storm electrifying Santa Barbara.
The book also features photos of Summer Solstice, holiday celebrations and parades.
Tuesday night at Chaucer’s, Eliason will play the role of book author, enjoying a moment of acknowledgement for decades of journalistic service.
Journalist Jerry Roberts wrote introduction to the book, and TV journalist John Palminteri wrote the forward.
All of the attention over the book is still a bit uncomfortable for Eliason. He’s admittedly not a book-signing kind of guy, and much more prefers choosing his subjects, rather than being one.
“Believe it or not, I am the most introverted, shyest person you will ever know,” Eliason said.
He took drama classes in high school, with parts in Annie, Fiddler on the Roof and Westside Story, to help come out of his shell.
“It was a role,” Eliason said. “That’s how I take the job of photography. I am playing a role.”
The acting helped his photography in other ways. It cultivated his ability to adjust and respond quickly—skills needed in photography.
If someone forgot a line on stage, Eliason said, he had to improvise and adjust. An actor needs to know stage direction, a skill that he used when shooting environmental portraits of people.
“If you have to stand up in a board room in front of CEOs and say, ‘I need you all to listen to me,’ and ‘stand here and stand there and look this way,’ and direct, that really helped with photography,” Eliason said.
“You learned how to direct, you learned how to use your voice, how to take control of a situation, overcome adversity, overcome something you weren’t anticipating, and then play that role that you need to play of being the photographer.”
Eliason’s life these says is a bit simpler, working four days a week, and 10 hours a day. He’s up about 5:30 a.m. and ready to find the picture of the day. He’s in bed by 9 p.m.
He told Noozhawk that he’s looking forward to traveling, and is likely to retire at age 55, a year from now in December.
“I have been working since I was 16, at some points I had three jobs at a time, working seven days a week,” Eliason said.
He said the county fire community has been incredibly supportive of him. Eliason said he wants to try some new things and travel.
“That will probably last six months, and I will be bored and ask if I could come back part-time to take pictures or something,” Eliason said.