Early cannabis media may have helped popularize bud porn, but Erik Christiansen definitely helped create bud art. Known for his exhaustive library of live and cured cannabis photos, Christiansen captures the intricate details of cannabis with close-up shots of the plant's trichomes, seeds and rich color profiles, which of course vary by strain. The Oregon-based photographer works with many top growers, co-authored Green: A Field Guide to Marijuana and just released a 2019 Cannabis Macro Calendar, and wall art might be next. PRØHBTD spoke with Christiansen to learn more.
Were you a working photographer before you started capturing cannabis images?
Photography was always a hobby. I always did astrophotography, with long-exposure times. In college, I worked as an assistant photo editor for the campus newspaper. At the end of high school, a friend and had a little off-road media company, and we went to all the races and took pictures and video work, but it didn’t pay much. It wasn't until about two years later that the cannabis aspect became my full-time job.
So you were actually able to create a paying job for yourself.
Exactly. My cannabis work started in 2009. I had started smoking weed myself and was fascinated by the diverse thoughts it offered. I remember the first time I saw a purple bud, I was completely blown away and I had to take a picture, and that’s where it all started. Then I went to dispensaries and sought out the prettiest buds to shoot. I got some weird looks from budtenders when I asked if I could buy a particular nug just so I could take a picture of it. I feel that cannabis photography has come so far since those days, and now budtenders don’t look at me strangely.
You definitely witnessed a change in the cannabis culture over the past 10 years. Why did you start to smoke? Was it your own interest, a friend's or for medical reasons?
It was kind of a mix. It was always stigmatized when I was growing up, and I personally bought into those views, so I thought my friends who smoked weed were damaging themselves. Then I found out that my brother smoked weed every day, and he was still getting straight As and [acted] normal, and then I started hearing about more of my friends doing it. That got me thinking. Eventually I just decided I wanted to try it. It didn't really affect me the first few times, but then I felt the elevated mood and really enjoyed it. Physically, it also helped me sleep. Before, it took me awhile to fall asleep, but cannabis put me out quickly, and it was like a life saver. I started smoking a little every day to help me sleep.
You had a use for it, and it worked for you.
Migraines also run in my family, especially for my mom and me, but my mom can still function with them for three days and go about her daily life. I was completely debilitated by them, but cannabis cures them immediately.
So you fell in love with cannabis’ effects over time?
Yeah, and some smell fruity or gassy, so I was addicted to trying out all the diverse flavors and looks of cannabis and tried to find the next new thing or flavor.
Did you always have a nice macro lens, or did you start with your iPhone when you asked budtenders if you could photograph their bud?
During that first photo shoot of the purple bud, I experienced some issues that now I know are common for macro. I was getting a shallow depth of field, couldn't get everything in focus, except the very front nug, and it was a complicated process.
I didn't take too many other pictures of cannabis until six months later. I was at a dispensary talking with the budtender, and he told me a photographer set up on the counter and just left. I thought it needed a lot of equipment, but that moment made me realize I just had to figure out how to do it. I started doing research.
I was in my early 20s and didn't have a lot of money, so I had to go with the cheapest route, which forced me to be extra creative. I took a cardboard box, spray painted the inside white, got some cheap lights and made my own light box. As I progressed, I added some more gear. I got extension tubes to move the lens away from the sensor, so that any lens would keep the focus closer.
I finally got a good macro lens through a trade. I shot pictures for somebody who had a macro lens they weren’t using so we worked out a deal. As the years went on and the industry started changing and people were paying for shoots, I got better gear. Now cannabis photography is all I do, so that's what my gear is specialized for.
That's incredible. You created your own career in the cannabis business. How did you get your clients?
That was really all because of Instagram. I was one of the very few people taking pictures of trichomes and what people checked when [it's time] to harvest the plants. It's stuff you can't see with the naked eye. You need a magnifying glass or a macro lens.
Being one of the first to show these things that you can't see with the naked eye really helped people want to spread my images and share them with their friends. I got on the radar of a lot of bigger growers that contacted me, and it just spread from there.
I started off with the nugshots account. As I saw the industry changing and a real, viable business emerging, I knew I didn't really want to do the business side of things as much as I wanted to do the creative side. I partnered with a friend to take the business to the next level, but it turned out to be a really toxic partnership, so now he’s out of the picture. That's how the split in accounts came about. I had to leave the nugshots account dormant so I started the erik.nugshots account.
You've shot a lot of cool things, like the surface of seeds and the trichomes in all their glory. What else have you shot that has been really challenging but cool?
The most challenging is the single trichome work because the more magnification you push, the shallower the depth of field gets. You need to shoot more and more pictures the more you zoom in. I'm using a 50x microscope lens on one of my other lenses, and then I stack five or six hundred pictures together to get a single trichome in focus.
I move the camera one micron between each shot. At that level, if somebody's breathing on the other side of the room, it might diffuse vibrations and throw the whole thing off, so I have to minimize the vibrations and air movement. I’m interested in a scanning electron microscope because that's another level of complexity.
How do you move the camera a micron?
I have a fully computer-controlled set-up and a StackShot rail to move the stage forward and back. It's maxed out at one micron of resolution. It doesn't perform perfectly, but it works just enough to produce a picture.
I read on your Instagram account that you're starting to shoot some stuff you grew yourself.
Before I moved to Oregon, I had my little grow to put the pieces of cannabis together. When I started out, I had never seen a plant before, I was just going in the dispensary and getting dried buds. I'd see the differences, like some of them had red stigmas, some of them were orange, some were purple or green. I didn't understand how it went from a plant to these dried buds.
Growing put all those pieces together for me. I saw how it grows from the clone all the way up. You veg it out under 24 hours light, and then when you're ready to flower, you change that lighting cycle and something completely different happens. It helped me better understand how cannabis grows and how you get to the dried bud. It also gave me greater respect for the growers out there producing stellar product. I love interacting and connecting with those growers, and I feel they have the same level of dedication that I do with my macro work, but I consider their job a lot harder. They have to keep it perfect for a month, whereas I just have to keep it perfect for 15 minutes.
Do you feel you've formed your own aesthetic now in the way you shoot?
I think I have my own kind of style, with the black background, although I have done a little bit with white backgrounds. It all comes down to the photo production, not just how you position the lighting and capture the photo, but also the post-processing where it really emerges. A lot of photographers are doing incredible work in the industry, but everybody has their own look and feel. You can tell who shot each picture even though we're all shooting the same kind of thing.
You definitely have an interesting approach that’s kind of scientific but also artistic.
I do try and have a scientific approach to shoot everything the exact same way so that I can compare and contrast strains. I just continued from the buds to live plants and concentrate, and I keep everything consistent. I’ve shot 207 different strains of live plants and probably more than 800 on the dried side.
I do think there's something to photographing concentrates. When you're looking at the flower, there's a lot to see, and then when you look at concentrates, you don't necessarily think that. It's all one color and not as intricate as a flower.
On the concentrate side, there's so much more you can't see. Stacking concentrates doesn't work that well because they're moving and more oily and you can clearly see crystals floating inside the terpene on the surface. I've talked to other concentrate photographers that shoot it in a freezer to try and prevent that movement.
How do you light the dark cycle? Unless the moon is out and you're outdoors...
With the light falling during the day, the color is slightly different. I've asked growers if using a flash during the dark cycle would screw up the plant, but no one is sure.
You're located in Oregon?
I'm in Bend, Oregon, and I travel all over California, Washington, Nevada and anywhere else that needs a shoot. This is my job, so I'm happy to travel anywhere. I did live in San Diego, but there just wasn't much of a market there. I was always going to NorCal to do shoots, and my girlfriend suggested we relocate to make our drives shorter.
Where's the farthest you've traveled for a shoot?
British Columbia, Canada.
Did you make it to the East Coast yet?
Not yet. We have a couple of potential people in Michigan but nobody that's booked. We're potentially doing Spannabis in Spain this year, but I don't have any clients there yet. I could definitely bring my studio out there and try and line up some shoots. That would be fascinating to see what that market looks like. They'll probably have a lot of the same strains because of globalization, but it'll still be fascinating to see.
Your shots are so artistic, I feel like you should have an art show with enlarged photos.
That's something brewing here in Bend. A smoking lounge is opening up, and I'm collaborating with the owner there. We're going to have probably 20 different prints of my work on the wall as an interactive art installation. It'll be like an art gallery/smoking lounge space once it opens.
Anything that you're currently working on or that you're excited to potentially shoot that you haven't shot yet?
I have a lot of stuff that I want to shoot, but I don't quite know how, or I would need a special rig. There's one project I want to do, which is a time lapse of a single plant growing in 360 degrees, but the light and dark cycle is still an issue. I have many projects in mind that I haven't quite figured out how to do yet. I'm still figuring out the kinks to get there.
Interview conducted by Trina Calderon.