Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys?

In the first of what I hope could have the potential to be a nice series of posts I would like to take questions asked of me through email and answer them publicly here on 50ft. Sometimes I am asked things that I feel could benefit others and figured now is as good of time as any to give it a shot. In the future I hope to continue to answer questions like this so others can benefit from any advice given as well. The question asked is as follows:

Hi John, Would it be possible for you to list the settings you used to take your fantastic images? I’m a medium grade photographer and I always enjoy learning how experts achieve their effects. Example: AV mode, 100 ISO, F16, 1/500

I have long been asked about the technical side of my photography and aside from the occasional private answer through emails I have stayed pretty reserved about it over the years. Not particularly because I have any grand secrets I am hiding, quite the opposite in fact. I like to keep things as simple as I can manage in the process of shooting. This and the web seems so crowded when it comes to people offering photography advice, I simply choose to distance myself from that kind of gimmicky writing here on 50ft. As I glance through photography sites from day to day all I ever see are endless tips and tricks or collections of photographs within posts eager to show off that they found the coolest new photographer on the scene.  You have to admit this gets tiresome. Books are still the best place for good technical information about shooting and maybe in the future I will gather a few recommendations. In light of the question asked of me today I thought I could touch on the basics of how I shoot for those of you who may be curious.

When it comes to making photographs, personally, I like to rely as little as possible on post editing work. If I look through images on my camera while out shooting and catch myself thinking, “oh I’ll just brighten that up later” or anything to that effect then I know I am getting lazy and take a moment rethink my approach. In the age of digital shooting laziness has taken a stronghold on photography as a whole. The fact remains that the core principles of photography have not changed since the film days. To get the best possible photograph of a scene you need the best possible negative to work with. Nothing is more essential than getting a good exposure. The ratio of time spent out shooting versus time spent in front of a computer editing should always leave you out in the field more than at home or in the office messing about with post work and the key to achieving this is getting good at making great photographs within the camera.

I feel as though the best place to start is by mentioning the love I have for prime lenses. Combine this with an intimate knowledge of my current digital camera of choice, the original Canon 5D and you now know the secret of my digital photographic work. After a brief interlude using a 24mm f/1.4L and 50mm f/1.2L I am back to using a 35mm 1.4L because it offers me a great balance of being wide enough without being wide to the point of distortion and offers a satisfying range of focus before hitting infinity. This allows me to get in tight enough on a subject for many to mistake the shot for a macro but also wide enough to shoot larger subjects or portraits while still maintaining the simplified look of a shallow depth of field. It is currently the one and only lens I use on my 5D. I would much rather have a film body tucked into the extra space in my camera bag rather than another heavy lens I don’t really need.

I wanted to start off with that because lens choice is a valuable ingredient in defining the look of an image. This combined with the performance of the sensor or type of film inside the camera sets the stage for how images will render. Prime lenses give me that characteristic shallow depth of field, vignetting, and contrast that you find so often in my images. I typically work within a range of f/1.4-2.8 while using aperture priority and usually have a finger on the EV compensation scale to compensate for the light or composition at hand.

As I have mentioned in the past, using the ISO expansion on the 5D I commonly shoot at ISO 50 (heh, the irony just hit me) to shoot with wide apertures in brighter/daylight conditions. This was once done much more often back when ISO 50 or 25 were the average film speeds being used in cameras. This is part of the reason many vintage family photos have a nice vivid softness to the color and focus. White balance is also important to keep an eye on and you will find my camera often set to a custom WB which rests at an overly warm temperature, something I have been starting to tire of and play with again lately. I also shoot using the center focal point exclusively when using auto focus and always shoot RAW images.

As for post work, once I narrow down key images I sometimes make adjustments that usually don’t take more than a couple of minutes to administer. I have no default settings that I use, no presets or filter packs of any kind. I have been using Photoshop and computers to edit images for somewhere around 15 years now and have experimented endlessly with the amount of post work it takes to make images look their best only to come full circle and end up looking to the basics to achieve the best results. There isn’t much of a secret formula here.

The most I typically do to an image is some basic work with curves, which can be your best friend when editing an image. My most common adjustment involves a gentle dip or anchor placed in the shadows and a sometimes healthy boost in the brighter side of the image, this brings forth a nice contrast of which I have total control over unlike the crude adjustments offered in the default contrast slider. At times, color specific adjustments go a long way to even out a strange white balance as well but with any adjustments you make, a little goes a long way and its important not to overdo it. Other edits may include a touch of sharpening at times, or if I am feeling adventurous I will add a color tint to the shadows of an image in Aperture to give it that slightly washed out look rather than having deep blacks in an image.

Presets are fun but form bad habits in shooting and there is never one preset that works for all images. Each instance is unique and should be treated as such.

So there you have it, like a good healthy meal made from basic, fresh ingredients you can achieve wonderful photographic results with basic editing if you find the right balance of lens and camera for your style and pair this with good exposures.

Perhaps in the future I will go into further detail with more specifics but this represents my overall approach to digital shooting both for 50ft and in general. It has been refined quite a bit over the years and continues to evolve as my taste evolve but this is about as close a look into the details of my process as I have ever given in the past so hopefully there was something of interest in here for you guys wondering.


  1. Kyle - June 5, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    Fantastic post John; I’m sure these will amount to an inspiring and insightful series.

  2. Anonymous - August 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    […] ☞ Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys? […]

  3. Heiko Rademacher - November 19, 2012 at 7:16 am

    Thanks for this. I have been wondering what kind of settings you might use to get the kind of results you are getting. It’s not magic then after all.
    When I purchased my DSLR, I had an idea of the kind of Photographs I wanted to take, not a subject in particular, more a feeling I wanted to submit to the viewer. Kinda like the feeling you get in winter, curled up in a blanket and holding a hot cup of coco in your hands and the rooms are filled with a hinted smell of cinnamon. I read in one of your other posts that skimming trough 500px is more like a people showing off, rarely a picture that transmits a certain kind of feeling. All I am saying is I really like your Photographs and that is the kinda style/feel I was looking for. I took the liberty to link your blog from my blog.. hope that is ok with you :)

  4. Five D Mark - August 5, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    […] I feel like I have answered this a number of times in different posts here on 50ft such as this post about my gear in general, but there is one camera that has transformed me as a photographer and […]

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