Shallow DOF with Joseph James

Posted by The A-Team on

For our 50th blog post and this week’s shooter spotlight feature, we’ve got a special interview lined up for you. Several years ago while participating in the forums of dpreview, we came across the work of Joseph James, and have been a fan ever since. Shallow depth-of-field, available light, candid shooting is the name of the game here, and it has steered us in the same direction – as well as lusting for a 50 f/1.2L! His images have a signature feel, and oddly enough, doesn’t use Photoshop in post-production, instead using PhotoLine. He takes magical photos of his children, and it’s been interesting to see them grow up over the years. Although not a professional, he puts many of them to shame with fast glass. Joe has somehow run afoul of the censors at dpreview, but not before sharing extensive amounts of useful information, beautiful photos, and earning support on the forums. He now posts as Great Bustard there. Learn more about the man shooting almost exclusively wide open with primes below…

Joe & Daughter © Joseph James

Name: Joseph James.

Hometown: San Diego, CA

Tell us about yourself: I don’t like to divulge too much personal information, but I’ll discuss a few relevant points.  My day job is teaching math and physics.  On the intellectual side, my passion is Cosmology, but I have an intense interest in most science.  I don’t have any artistic talents except photography, which I stumbled into by pure chance.  My big “claim to fame” (or infamy, depending on who you are!) is the Equivalence Essay. Here, you can see where I apply my passion for science to the technical side of photography. However, many take my interest in the technical aspects of photography to mean that I forsake the artistic.  I like to think that my photography would put to rest any doubts someone might have on my interest of the artistic side of photography.  It’s just that I talk a lot about the technical side of photography, whereas I don’t talk a lot about the artistic side. In more personal terms, I guess I would have to say that I’m unusually gorgeous — feel free to interpret “unusually” as you see fit.  :  )  That said, my two kids are the real deal.  No joke — I can’t go anywhere without people saying something.

Mama's Girl © Joseph James

How did you get started? Now this is a weird story.  I liked rocks ever since I was a kid.  There was this one rock store that I would pop into every now and then, but I couldn’t afford the ones I liked.  One day, I said to the owner, how about I take some pictures of your rocks, sell them on ebay, and you give me some for free?  And that is how I got into photography! Of course, I took pictures of things other than rocks, but not people.  After my daughter was born, I started taking pics of family and friends, and eventually became more of a people photographer (but I’m still too shy to do much street).

Favorite camera and lens? Why? Well, my favorite camera is the Canon 5D, because it’s the best I’ve owned.  As for a favorite lens, I can’t say — I love all of mine.  But, I’ll try to put them in order of use:  50 / 1.2L, 24 / 1.4L, 70 / 2.8 macro, 200 / 2.8L, 15 / 2.8 FE, 100 / 2.  However, that order reflects more the types of subjects and scenes I’m shooting than my affinity for the lens. Of course, one can’t overlook the fact that I use a FF DSLR and primes.  The reason is that I love shallow DOF, and there’s no better way to get that than FF and fast primes.  That’s not to say that I shoot shallow DOF exclusively, but I can stop down when the situation calls for it.  I do, however, have to give up the convenience of zoom, but found that’s not a big deal.  Even when I used zooms in the past, I found I used them like primes — I’d select a focal length and stay with that focal length until I couldn’t get a shot, then change focal lengths.  So, even when I used zooms, I thought in terms of a fixed focal length.

Ennui © Joseph James

If you could shoot anywhere/anyone/anything, what would it be? I think what I’d really like to do is be a combat photographer.  Of course, I know the reality of the job is different than the image it has, but let’s just say I have some (not a lot) of experience with the reality end, but I wasn’t carrying a camera at the time.

What’s your shooting style? Primarily ultra shallow DOF.  But once, when I was trying to think of what single aspect defined my photography, I was surprised that the answer wasn’t shallow DOF, it was the light.  Shallow DOF is a technique I use, but often it is the lighting of a scene that inspires me.

What’s your favorite photo? Why? The photo of Kim Phuc.  It’s the Vietnam pic of the naked girl running from her naped village.  What makes the photo so astounding is the nonchalance expressions of the soldiers in stark contrast to the kids.  I’m looking at the pic right now, and, damn if it’s not having an effect.

Kublai Khan © Joseph James

What’s your most memorable shooting gig? I’m not a pro, so I don’t have any memorable “gigs”.  As for a most memorable photographic experience, well, I don’t think I have one.  I’ve shot some memorable models, but let’s just say that what made the shoot memorable had nothing to do with photography.  : )

(Editor’s note: Read this for Joe’s account of the profile picture of him and his daughter at the top of the page)

Who is your favorite photographer? Why? Now I guess I have to come clean.  I don’t have a clue.  I don’t even know who the greats are, and probably wouldn’t recognize their photos if I saw them.  In fact, I would have made many of the same comments as the people on this page did:  Anyway, there are just so many unbelievably talented amateurs out there that there’s no way I could single any one, or any hundred, of them out from the others.

The Surfer © Joseph James

What does the future hold for you? Not a clue.  Unfortunately, that’s an honest answer, and it pisses my wife off!

Where can we see your work: My website is and I have some galleries there.  However, most of my work is at

A couple of our favorites from Joe (click the image for larger):

Be sure to check out more on his website. And go get busy with your fast glass!

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