California Dreaming

Posted by on Mar 20, 2016 in Projects | 62 Comments
California Dreaming

Our road trip through the United States ended with a drive along the west coast, visiting both Los Angeles and San Francisco for a few days. I was really astounded by the drive through Santa Ynez Valley, a part of California that is world famous for being the set for many movies. The rolling hills and beautiful lush countryside were such a strong contrast to the desert we had just experienced in Death Valley and to the mountains and pines of Sierra Nevada.

San Francisco was an incredible experience. The city itself felt much smaller than I had pictured it and everything seemed so familiar, most likely because I recognized a lot of things and scenes from movies I have seen growing up. San Francisco is by far the most diverse and colorful place I have visited in the United States and makes for a really interesting mix of people. We stayed in a small hotel for just three nights and were able to walk almost everywhere without having to use our car.

Besides the amazing coffee and food culture, one of the highlights was definitely meeting our friends Cindy, Seth and their daughter Olive (who loves crocodiles) and our friend Pei, all of whom we had known online through their incredible work for years but never had a chance to meet in person before. We had such a wonderful time with them.

As with many of the other places we’ve visited on this trip, I wish we would have had more time to stay just a little bit longer. I feel that the photographs I was able to share barely scratch the surface of what all there is to see and explore. I’m really looking forward to going back soon and revisiting this beautiful part of the world.

All images below were either taken with the Hasselblad 503CW and the Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2.8/80 or with the Leica MP and the Carl Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM on Kodak Portra 400. All images scanned and processed by Richard Photo Lab in California:

























  1. Salvador Vega
    20. March 2016

    SO nice and light! I strive to emulate your tones on digital, as shooting MF is not always feasible. I wish I could be as committed as you are.

  2. Johnny
    20. March 2016

    Thank you very much for your kind words, Salvador.

    I’m very lucky that what and how I like to shoot works best on film, that’s why I am so committed to it. But I don’t think a beautiful color palette is only achievable by shooting film.

    For me the frustration with digital always came from trying to emulate film and turning my digital results into something they can’t be. Instead of looking at the advantages and disadvantages of each medium and choosing what really works best for me.

  3. Cindy
    20. March 2016

    Love seeing our state and city through your eyes. Beautiful images, Johnny. I think California is very much the tones of Porta. We hope you get to visit us again.

  4. Johnny
    20. March 2016

    Cindy, thank you so much for your kind feedback and again to both of you for making the time to meet up with us. We enjoyed that so much and we’re really looking forward to going back. Hopefully sometime this year.

    I loved the light and color palette in California, just amazing. And I agree – it’s very Portra! :)

  5. Robert Kwolek
    20. March 2016

    Still something about film that turns the ordinary into something special. Not that the photographer behind the lens didn’t work his magic!

  6. Johnny
    20. March 2016

    Thank you, Robert! I’m very happy that you enjoyed the pictures. And I agree, film is definitely magical in every way. :)

  7. Stephanie
    20. March 2016

    Love how you captured our beautiful city.

  8. Johnny
    20. March 2016

    Stephanie, thank you very much. I really appreciate your kind feedback! San Francisco was a wonderful experience.

  9. Robert-Paul
    20. March 2016

    You’ve captured so many great moments. So bright and beautiful! I usually pick a favorite, but there are so many… the FedEx truck, the lemon tree, Golden Gate Bridge… great set of photos Johnny!

  10. Johnny
    20. March 2016

    Thanks very much, Robert-Paul.

    I’m very happy to hear that you like so many of the pictures from this post. California was so much fun to shoot, I’m already looking forward to going back soon!

  11. Lorant
    20. March 2016

    These images are so wonderful, Johnny. They bring back a lots of memories from San Francisco. It was a unique experience for me too visiting it. Lovely work as always!

  12. Johnny
    20. March 2016

    Lorant, thanks for your kind words.

    A unique experience is a good way to describe it, Rebecca and I really enjoyed it too. I often feel like I am stepping into a movie scene when I shoot in the US. San Francisco definitely has that feel to it.

  13. Joey Pasco
    20. March 2016

    Gee, thanks, Johnny. As I sit here planning a trip to Tuscany, you’ve made me want to go to California! ;)

    In other words, amazing work as always. You really do have a knack for capturing the beauty in everything.

  14. Johnny
    20. March 2016

    Thanks very much for your visit and your feedback, Joey. :)

    California probably appeals to me being European as much as Tuscany appeals to you being American. Both are really interesting and beautiful in their own way. I’m sure you will have a wonderful trip to Europe. I’m looking forward to seeing your pictures and hearing what you think.

  15. Bill McCarroll
    21. March 2016

    Great to see your work on the west coast Johnny. It makes me realize how much I need to appreciate what we have here. The colors and compositions are incredible. My absolute favorites are the trailer and the old cars (of course), especially the Rambler. The postman is so San Francisco too.

    Thanks for always being an inspiration.

  16. Johnny
    21. March 2016

    Thank you so much for your kind words, Bill. I appreciate your time and your feedback.

    I was always intrigued by California and I had dreamed about visiting the west coast so many times. For years, basically all growing up. It makes me so happy to hear that you enjoyed my pictures from a part of the world that is so familiar to you. And I think what you have is indeed very special.

  17. Elan Cohen
    21. March 2016

    Simply stunning.

  18. Johnny
    21. March 2016

    Thank you very much my friend. I was so curious to hear what you would think about these pictures! I can’t wait to go back and spend time with you guys. :)

  19. Sebastian Schlueter
    21. March 2016

    Johnny, I think it is quite difficult to catch a different take on a city that has been photographed over centuries and is still photographed by thousands of people everyday.

    Your images show a good mixture of iconic places or symbols all of us connect with San Francisco and unique images that show maybe even banal locations or situations. These images are my favorites as they allow a different view on the city. They bring life and a certain amount of authenticity to this series. I have the feeling this series is alive. It is like going on a walk with you through the city.

    I am regularly in the city and I enjoy it as much as you do. A refreshing take on the well known locations, streets and houses. A great series, well captured and nicely processed as usual.

  20. Johnny
    21. March 2016

    Sebastian, thanks very much for your comment.

    You are absolutely right, San Francisco is probably one of the most photographed cities in the world and I always love your amazing pictures of this great place. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed my take on this city, especially because you seem to know it very well.

    I usually try to avoid shooting anything too obvious about a place to make it more relatable, maybe even create a feeling of intimacy. But that’s not easy to do in San Francisco since it’s so iconic. You describing the casual feeling of taking a walk together is wonderful. Thank you! :)

  21. Walker
    21. March 2016

    All the magic of these wonderful pics is in between forefinger and viewfinder!

  22. Johnny
    21. March 2016

    Thank you so much, Walker. :)

  23. Bijan Sabet
    22. March 2016

    Hi Johnny.

    These photographs are really beautiful. I first saw them on my iPhone and wanted to make sure to view them again on my iMac. They are truly stunning.

    I love how you captured my favorite part of this country.

    Thanks so much for sharing these.

  24. Johnny
    22. March 2016

    Bijan, thank you so much for your kind words.

    I’m so happy that you feel that way. I always loved looking at your work from California and was excited to share this with you. I have often imagined how it would feel to go shooting there together. I can see your love for this place so clearly in every picture you take, just as much as I can in the pictures you take of your family. Thank you for stopping by.

  25. Alex
    23. March 2016

    I dipped back into black and white film photography a few years ago and was quite happy in my monochrome world until I found your blog, Johnny. The ethereal beauty and simplicity of your photos has made me realize how much I miss colour. I revisit your blog often to find inspiration. Thank you for sharing your remarkable work.

    P.S. After countless lacklustre rolls of film, I took your metering advice and now have perfect b/w negatives – can’t thank you enough!

  26. Johnny
    24. March 2016

    That’s so fantastic to hear, Alex! Thank you very much.

    I often shoot a mix between color and B&W because the two carry emotions differently for me. I love both worlds equally, though, and what I shoot really depends on the mood I feel. Either one never takes from the other for me, they both only ever add.

    I’m glad that you found my thoughts on metering and exposure helpful! :)

  27. Robert Quiet
    24. March 2016

    Lovely images, the composition and the colors are really special. I really like the trailer photo and the one with the FedEx truck, they are as I imagine San Francisco!


  28. Johnny
    25. March 2016

    Robert, thank you very much. :)

    Wonderful that you enjoyed the pictures. I cannot wait to get back to California…

  29. Shanti
    27. March 2016

    Wonderful work Johnny. I love the way you capture the city, but what I find most intriguing is your use of composition. Every time you post I continue to learn.

  30. Johnny
    28. March 2016

    Thank you so much for your kind feedback, Shanti. I’m very happy that you feel that way!

  31. Dan Hawk
    28. March 2016

    Johnny, this set is fantastic! I really love the colors, but I also find myself really admiring the framing and perspective in these images quite a bit. Nicely done!

  32. Johnny
    29. March 2016

    Thanks so much, Dan! I really appreciate it. :)

  33. Andrew Jacona
    1. April 2016

    These images are wonderful Johnny. I love your compositions and the way you form your images, they are relaxing and so well balanced. It’s a pleasure seeing your work and I hope to see more.

  34. Johnny
    2. April 2016

    Andrew, I’m so happy to hear from you! Thank you for stopping by and for your kind words. I hope to pick our correspondence back up soon and have been enjoying your beautiful pictures from India meanwhile.

    I hope you and yours are good!

  35. Chi Fung Leung
    19. April 2016

    I’ve only been to San Francisco a couple of times and have recalled it as being a hectic, fast paced city. Your pictures show a nice calm quality to it which makes me just want to hit the road and visit again. Thank you for sharing these.

  36. Johnny
    20. April 2016

    Thanks very much, Chi Fung. I’m glad you enjoyed my pictures.

    San Francisco had both facets to me, personally, but I felt relaxed there for most of the time. Definitely no comparison to New York City. We were there a few months later and it felt really crazy at first. I hope you’ll get a chance to go back to California soon!

  37. Amy Cherry
    24. April 2016

    One of my favorite cities! It was also one of the first cities I shot all film when visiting. Seeing these photographs brings so much joy. It’s a city full of SO many different people, which is my favorite thing about it. It’s nice to not be surrounded by a lot of one group of people, but rather a bunch of people who truly seem to be doing their own thing, their own life, their own way. Simply beautiful storytelling!

  38. Johnny
    26. April 2016

    Amy, thank you very much for your kind words. That’s so great to hear!

    Yes, I completely agree. San Francisco is so colorful and it definitely has its very own vibe. It struck me as being very European and American at the same time. Very open, vibrant and multicultural.

  39. Rebecca
    4. May 2016

    Johnny, you are such a star. I’m so amazed by how well you can document a place, carrying the essence of it into your pictures and storytelling. It’s been over a year since we were in San Francisco and I can still feel the vibe of the city when I look at these. I remember how difficult it was to shoot there because of its compactness and pace, yet you somehow managed to bring in a sense of openness and calm that I can only guess is a result of how you felt while you were shooting. Even the postman in his mail truck looks relaxed, open. You show America at its best.

    I also love how you’ve seen light in these; in some of the pictures it literally seems as though the light glimmers on my screen. It makes these photographs feel very alive. Wonderful work.

  40. Johnny
    5. May 2016

    Thank you so much for your wonderful feedback, Rebecca.

    It means the world to me that you feel that way. I loved every minute of being there with you. Let’s please go back soon, I miss exploring with you! :)

  41. James
    15. June 2016

    Just discovered your work via Twitter Johnny, totally love your film work with the Leica and Hasselblad. Makes me want to save for a Leica! :-)

  42. Johnny
    15. June 2016

    Thanks so much, James! I’m very happy to hear that. Maybe you should do just that! ;)

  43. Jason
    20. June 2016

    I just came across your site when I was reading up on metering. What a fabulous set of images, ideas and knowledge. Thank you for ‘humanising’ what you do with photography and connecting to us all with your beautiful work. Your explanations combined with your keen sense of aesthetic value make for an easy read and incite more possibility and wonder.


  44. Johnny
    20. June 2016

    Thanks very much for stopping by, Jason. Your feedback made me really happy. Glad to hear that you enjoyed my posts and feel that way!

  45. Adam White
    22. June 2016


    Was researching some things to help get back to basics in this crazy world. Came across your blog and glad I did. Really dug the metering post (simplest explanation I have seen so far) and the images here are stellar. Guess you rated at 200 for all of it?

    I have used RPL once and liked their service and results. Might need to go back to them for this next set of rolls I shoot!

    Once again thank you for the sharing of knowledge and for the love of film.


    P.S. You might think about driving through New Mexico on a trip sometime.

  46. Johnny
    23. June 2016

    Adam, thank you for your kind comment. I’d love to see New Mexico!

    All of my images are Portra 400 rated at 200 and exposed for the shadows as shared in my blog post about metering.

    If you are sending your film to Richard Photo Lab, please feel free to use my color PAC for your own scans if you like and you’ll get my exact scanning preferences too (make sure to also check “Frontier”, as that’s the scanner I ask them to use for my work).

  47. Adam White
    29. June 2016


    You’re welcome. I will definitely give that try for RPL. The lower SE corner of NM is desert like the rest of the Desert Southwest and we have the Caverns here as well… Ansel shot them for the Parks and his books.


  48. Johnny
    30. June 2016

    Wonderful, Adam. Thanks again for your recommendation! :)

  49. Jarrod
    10. July 2016

    Are you hand holding the Hasselblad or using a tripod/monopod?

  50. Johnny
    11. July 2016

    Jarrod, thanks for your question.

    I don’t own a tripod or a monopod, I shoot everything handheld.

  51. Matt
    14. August 2016


    I keep returning to the portrait of the mailman.


    Las Vegas

  52. Johnny
    14. August 2016

    Thanks very much, Matt! I’m so happy to hear that. :)

    All the best to Las Vegas!

  53. Daniel Balteanu
    29. August 2016

    Stunning work. Really beautiful and it is motivating me to get up my bottom and go out shooting.

    Keep up the good work.

  54. Johnny
    30. August 2016

    Thank you, Daniel. I appreciate your kind words!

  55. Frank
    16. September 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    Just having a look through these images again (love looking at your photos!) and was trying to work out why some retained a nice pastel blue sky and others had the dreamy, more washed out looking sky. It seems that shooting with the sun to the side of you or behind you will keep the detail whereas shooting into the sun will lose the blue when you overexpose. Is that pretty much what you find?

    I have shot a couple of rolls of Fuji Superia 400 film with a point and shoot 35mm Canon camera and there’s a couple of shots that look really nice as the weather was cloudy. With the bright sunny days, the contrast seems to get pushed a lot with that film but perhaps not shooting into the sun will help prevent the camera from metering with underexposure (I assume it’s just an average reading across the frame as there’s only an auto focus feature and a shutter button).

    I tried taping up the code on the canister to shoot it at 200 last time but this time I’ve taped it up to read as 25 speed film and even if the camera meters a stop or two under what would be the bang on exposure, I’m hoping the extra couple of stops in my pocket will still give me a bit of overexposure. ;)

    Let’s see how it goes!

  56. Johnny
    16. September 2016

    Thank you for your feedback and your question, Frank.

    How the sky came out has nothing to do with overexposure. If anything, you will retain more detail across the range by increasing your exposure. The scanner hits its limit before the film does (you can see that sometimes when you take picture in a room and lose detail in the windows).

    With film most images are a pretty accurate representation of the contrast of a scene. It’s the same with your eye, these relations change when you move your position to the sun.

    Going from 200 to 25 will definitely give you enough exposure. But you’re right, Superia in 200 gets very contrasty and saturated if you overexpose it a lot.

  57. Stanislas
    26. October 2016

    I’ve just discovered your website and your work and I gotta say that I love your photographs.

    Looking at them, I feel like it’s a real human work, there’s a great natural feeling coming outta them, unlike lots of things found on the web – which sometimes are great but unnatural. Heart and soul in each shot: not so common!


  58. Johnny
    26. October 2016

    Stanislas, thanks so much for your kind words.

    I’m really glad to hear that you’re enjoying my photographs! I appreciate your feedback. :)

  59. Niklas Schmidt
    24. March 2017

    This look fits just so good for California! Do you create it by overexposing? And can you tell me what film you use?

  60. Johnny
    25. March 2017

    Thanks very much for your feedback, Niklas. I shoot Portra 400 and Tri-X 400, you can find more information on my process here if you’re interested.

  61. Richard Montgomery
    28. April 2017

    I so love this blog!

    And every time I look at SF photos, I want to invent something useful so I can move there! :D


  62. Johnny
    29. April 2017

    Many thanks, Richard! I really appreciate your kind feedback.

    Even just visiting San Francisco is really fun! :)

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