The Adaptive’s Guide to Photography, Part 1: The Basics

Train Tracks in Great Falls, MontanaI was preparing a quick e-mail about Lightroom for the talented Scott Chumley, who makes incredible effect-pedal boards for great bands like This Patch Of Sky (and with a bit of luck, yours truly). I decided that instead of sharing this e-mail with one dude, why not get my sh** together and start using my blog the way it was intended?

My Take on Photography

I approach photography in a similar fashion to the way I make music. That is, I use a wide variety of tools in a wide variety of ways, and I take every bit of feedback and advice from others with a great big grain of salt. I’ve had to un-learn some strict rules that used to hold back or complicate my creative flow, and I’ll likely learn and un-learn many others over the years.

Before I knew any better, I assumed a person’s camera decided whether or not a photograph looks good. Oops. No way, Jose (but a good camera and lens can help increase your chances of getting a good photo, especially when you’ve learned the technical side of things). I won’t get into the details of how to take pictures just yet, but let’s just say that the options are vast when it comes to most photos.

The Real Basics: Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO (short version)

If you don’t feel you’ve mastered the technical side of photography, then stop right here. Read this book:

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Between the book “Understanding Exposure” (3rd Edition, in my case) and a workshop with the legendary Starving Photographer in 2015, I finally felt comfortable with my skills after years of guesswork and frustration. Once you understand how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together, you will feel like a whole new photog. You’ll also realize that you don’t have to spend a ton of money on gear to create great photos. I went from spending too little to spending too much, and have since found the middle ground. More details below.

General Habits

These days, I don’t generally use a tripod until night time, I sold all my polarizers (though I miss them and at least one might have to be re-bought), and I regularly use my Canon 6D‘s “Tv” mode (Shutter Priority) without thinking about much else. One or more of these things might make some expert photographers cringe, but not me. I switch over to manual when I can’t get what I need in Tv mode.

Update March 11, 2018: I now use Manual mode almost exclusively.

One of the niftier features of the 6D is the Automatic ISO Range setting. I keep mine at 100-400 when walking around in the day time in Tv mode, then raise the upper end to ISO 800, 1600 or higher (depending on the situation) at night. Because let’s face it — if you have to choose between no shot at all and ISO 1 zillion, you might as well get the shot, noise and all. If your camera only has manual ISO, just pay attention to how the photos turn out when the ISO goes too high. The grain can be a nice touch, or it can ruin the shot.


I was lucky to find a killer deal on a refurbished Canon 6D. As much as I love Zeiss, Canon, and the other high-roller lenses, I no longer have to fight the feeling that I need them. Rokinon, Sigma, and Tamron make some great glass. Spend some time figuring out what you really need in lenses, because you might find that one lens does everything you ever wanted. If you’re like me, one workhorse lens and two specialty lenses will get you through nearly every photography situation you encounter. Use photography sites like Flickr to search for the lens you’re interested in (and try adding your camera make & model to the search) to see some real-life examples of what you could do with it.

My Photography Arsenal

Canon 6D

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Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II

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Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 SP Di VC USD XLD

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Rokinon 24mm F/1.4 (RK24M-C)

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Sigma 14mm Wide Angle

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IMG_4483Processing Principles

I generally like photos that might be described as “film-like” or faded. Many of my photos have that look. I used to depend on VSCO or VSCO-like presets to get that faded film look, but now I understand how to create the effect using programs like Lightroom or Photoshop. I’ll describe that in the next post. While I used to focus on getting a surreal or hyper-detailed photo each time, I currently enjoy shooting fairly underexposed shots and working with the dark tones to create what is commonly called a “moody” vibe.

My Workflow in Adobe Lightroom

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I found myself repeating the same general workflow in Lightroom, so I made a few of my own Presets to handle stuff like Auto Exposure (which I start with and tweak heavily), Tone Curves that provide a lightly faded/film-ish look, Camera Correction, and so on. I’ll walk through these in my next post in this series.


4 thoughts on “The Adaptive’s Guide to Photography, Part 1: The Basics

  1. Scott Chumley says:

    This is awesome brother! And thanks for the shoutout! I really like that film look as well and usually lean more toward the darker side of editing as well. I just depends on the shot I guess. I have an old Canon rebel 450D with a 18-55mm kit lens, a 50mm/1.8 and an awesome 55-200mm (<–I think) zoom lens/4.5. I love the zoom lens for its flat compression, the kit lens for its wide field of view, and the 50 for that low aperture. Lately I've just been using the kit lens because its so versatile. The image quality is a bit grainy with it, but I kind of like it. Altogether, the entire kit (minus the 50mm lens) was about $200 on eBay. I love having my camera with me and taking photos of anything.

    1. shane says:

      You’re welcome! Sounds like a great setup for almost any situation. $200 sounds like a steal, but then again, technology has come so far that I’m not surprised. Cheers.

  2. Scott Chumley says:

    Oh and I also have a polarizer I just got a few weeks ago, and I’ve grown really fond of it. I leave it on probably way too much, but I really like the darker look it gives me with the richer colors.

    1. shane says:

      I can’t wait to pick up a polarizer for my 24-70mm f/2.8 II. That may be the only one I need. They definitely have their place in bright-sky photography, hazy days, and around reflective surfaces like water.

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