On Hasselblads, Noh, and freelancing for a living

Sometimes I wonder if being a freelance photographer these days is a bad idea. Honestly, I do. I could count off the number of gripes I have about my chosen career and you’d have walked off in disgust before I’d even got started. To list of the main ones; it’s a terrifying world with no one to take you by the hand and guide you. Work and money don’t just fall into your lap – you have to go out and find it, and once you do, you have to fight off other photographers to keep it. You don’t get paid when you take time off to go on holiday. And then there’s the endless amount of drudge-work to do in between shooting that never seems to end or dry up. Taxes, insurance, rent payments, gear payments, more taxes – and in my case, visa applications, all sapping away at the resources you need to keep yourself motivated to get out there and keep that momentum up. A lot of people out there romanticize the idea of the freelance life and think that you get to do whatever you want. Hah! I can never do anything I want. I’m married to this job, and its needs are insatiable.

When you have a real job, things are taken care of for you (don’t think so? Think: pension). Your work has a nice cut-off point when you get in your car to go home. Life is ordered, scheduled and categorized for you, and you know when your paycheck comes and exactly how much you’re getting. Sometimes I wish for that kind of security and stability. Sometimes I wonder if I’d take up an offer for a full time job if it was offered to me. Sometimes I wonder if I should just go back to photography as a hobby. You know, not having the constant pressure of improving upon my images every time I go out and shoot. It’s a thought that haunts me in my darker moments, when the phone isn’t ringing and the work isn’t flowing.

Another thing we freelancers have to deal with are the crazy work schedules that sometimes seem to materialize out of nothing, with very little notice. Case in point, a couple of months ago I find myself talking with the guys at Hasselblad Japan. The new CMOS sensor H5D-50c is coming out in a week and they have 0ne of the pre-production bodies. Somehow during the conversation they mention that they have a budget for someone to go out and shoot some promotional photos, would I like to do it?

I get paid to go and shoot anything I want, with a camera worth more than a Mercedes? Sounded like the dream assignment to me.

Except for the fact that my current schedule made it all but impossible to fit it in.  Here’s what they wanted:

1. They wanted a BTS video as well.
2. They needed both photos and video edited and delivered by next week, before the launch of the camera
3. Within that week you need to find a suitable subject, and get said subject approved and booked
4. Oh and we are having a landscape photographer use the camera this week as well, so you’ll have to schedule your shoot around his shoot

It sounded ok up to that point, until I realized that it was also the week that I happened to be moving house. Not to mention I had to juggle the several other jobs I had booked in during that week as well.

Shit had hit the mother-flippin’ fan, all at once.

Could I even manage to pull together a shoot worthy of the project, in such a short time?  Let alone edit and deliver the photos and video, in between moving house? Was it even ethical for me to take the job, given that I had so much going on and wasn’t even sure I could crowbar the tight schedule into my already insane one? Ah what the hell. I took the job anyway. LOL.

And let me tell you, it was tough getting everything done. My hair was turning grey trying to organize and plan everything in and around packing my life into cardboard boxes. Plans that were made last minute had to be changed at the last-second to accommodate some schedule changes from the subject and the other photographer using the camera. I had to shoot and edit other shoots that were already scheduled during that week.

Still, I managed to organize a shoot with one of the most respected practitioners of the Japanese theatre art of Noh, and things were looking good. All that was left was to go to Kyoto and do the shoot, then go back and have the photos and video edited in the next two days. No problem, except the mover’s trucks were scheduled to arrive the morning after I got back from Kyoto. Needless to say, the only thing I bothered to get set up in my new apartment for a few days was my computer. So, it was a bit of a logistical nightmare and I almost keeled over from the stress of it all but you know what? It was fucking awesome. Every single glorious, stressful moment of it. We freelancers don’t have a lot but we know when to count our blessings. How many times do I get to hold a pre-production Hasselblad? How often do I get the freedom to go out and shoot pretty much anything I want. How many times do I get to work with some freaking amazing practitioners of an ancient and traditional artform?

I nearly killed myself just so I could have that experience. I guess that’s the foundation that the makes the freelance photographer life worth it. Somewhere along the line I decided that the actual journey meant more to me than whatever I had accumulated by the time I reached my final destination. Hell, don’t get me wrong, I freaking love money. Oh boy. But I’m not ok with trading my life doing something I’m not invested in for a steady paycheck. Sure, there’s a lot of drudgework and paperwork involved in staying afloat when you work for yourself, but I put up with all of that because the moments in between all of that crap, when I’m shooting, are sublime.

I guess that’s something I should never take for granted, even if it means writing myself a lengthy blog post to remind myself of it :D

Video: Keiichi Kondo
Gear:
- Hasselblad H5D-50c pre-production
- HCD 4.8/24mm
- HCD 4-5.6/35-90mm
- HC 2.8/80mm
- HC Macro 4/120mm II

Lighting:
- Profoto B1 + standard zoom reflector and 15 degree grid, taped down to a 10cm slit
- Einstein + 4 foot Profot octabox as fill light
- Lumopro LP180 + snoot for accent, or rim, or whatever I needed it for

All three lights were used for every shot except the final group shot of Udaka-san and his sons, in which I swapped out the grid reflector combo for Photek Softlighter.

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NOT a list of 10 things I’ve learnt from shooting 4×5

*Warning: sanctimonious rant ahead*

I don’t know what the heck is the deal with people on the Internet these days, but there seems to be an overabundance of ‘wisdom lists’ propagating amongst photography blogs in particular. ’10 things I’ve learnt from street photography’, ’9 things I’ve learnt from developing film’, ’26 life lessons I’ve learnt from greasing my shutter button’ etc. ad infinitum ad nauseam. People like this kind of thing I guess. Numbers, metrics, concrete results – if you’re shooting photos and spending the nest egg on gear and workshops then I guess being able to quantify your progress into discrete bullet points makes the whole game of photography a little more palatable for the average weekend warrior/aspiring photographer. Also, I hear the list thing is good for search engines, so if increasing that statistic is your focus as a photographer, good luck to you.

So, lists. I dislike them for no rational reason and thusly have taken my first good step into crotchety old man territory. Frankly though, if we’re talking about things we learn from photography, then really, the idea of making lists of things you’ve learnt seems ludicrous. Every time you go out and shoot you should be learning dozens of little things about the way you work, the way you interact with people and how you can manipulate light and your images in post-production. If you’re not learning anything then you’re not challenging yourself, and you’re only standing still as others move forward. If you are learning, then great, keep at it, and enjoy yourself. There’s no need to make an onanistic list every single time congratulating yourself on coming to terms with rudimentary truths about photography. “Shooting film makes me slow down”. Well, no shit!  Here’s another one: pictures are generally better in focus, didja think to include that in your list of epiphanies??

…phew.

I wonder if anyone is still reading?

Anyway guys, guess what? I’ve been heavily shooting 4×5 recently. For those unfamiliar, 4×5 is a size of film even bigger than medium format, which brings its own set of challenges completely different to largely automatic cameras these days. So yes, I’ve gone back to film, and a particularly fiddly version of it as well. And guess what? I’ve been learning things about photography. A crapload of things about photography that if I were to make a list of them there would be at least 100 bullet points long (think of the search engine rankings!), and as much as everyone likes lists, I don’t think the lolcat generation has the patience to sit through one. So screw it, I’m doing it the old fashioned way – big, motherlovin’ chunks of text straight from my stream of consciousness (although some would argue it’s a different type of stream). Also, here’s some camera pr0n to congratulate you for reading this far.

photo-4

4×5 photography, for those unfamiliar, has been around since pretty much the beginning of photography. It involves those quaint cameras with the adjustable bellows and the guy hiding under a sheet of cloth trying to focus through the dim ground glass in the back. You might think that the camera size is prohibitively large, but to be honest they’re no bigger than the digital kit that I carry around to most of my jobs. It’s portable enough that you shouldn’t whining about it if you own a DSLR with more than one lens. Anyway, that’s not really the problem. The problem is that they’re fiddly, and expensive to keep putting film through. And the film, while it is breathtaking and beautiful as all large format films are, isn’t beautiful enough on its own to make the average superbowl fan gasp and exclaim “now I see why photography is amazing!” This is not a slight against the image quality of 4×5 film, which is beyond fantastic – the truth is that 9 times out of 10 the medium that the image is captured on is not going to affect its critical reception.

So basically there is no incredible return for switching to a far more expensive and work-intensive format of photography. Your photography peers may appreciate it and distinguish the difference, but realistically my Nikon D4 is no image slouch either, and equally capable of beautiful photos. So why am I bothering with the extra trouble and expense of 4×5? I’ll tell you why: it changes the way I shoot, and that means it changes the way I think about making photos. Ok, it sounds a little esoteric (read: wanky) when I say it like that so why don’t I just explain the process of shooting 4×5 to you so you get what I mean.

Ok – so first thing you gotta do is go out to one of your local photography shops and buy some sheet film. Then you gotta load them into these holders. No big woop, but  here’s thing about these holders – each of them only holds two exposures of film; one sheet in the back and one in the front. 36 shot canister of 35mm film? Hilarious. 12 shot roll of 120 film? Don’t make me laugh. You only get two shots with each holder, so you’d better stock up on them if you plan on doing a lot of photographing.

Then assuming you’ve got a willing subject and some lights, you put your smexy 4×5 camera up on a tripod, set up your lighting and do your composing – all regular things that I assume you do with every camera. 4×5 is a little fiddly though and there are quite a few things that you need make sure to remember lest you forget and ruin a sheet of expensive film. Let me explain:

Firstly, the viewfinder isn’t really a viewfinder – it’s more like a piece of frosted glass that the lens is projecting the image on. You can see the image pretty clearly, but it’s a little dim, and it’s also upside down. Forget being able to focus it on a sunny day without a hood or a cloth to cover your head. Also, forget about focusing it with the aperture stopped down – the lenses are obviously manual so the blades close whenever you stop it down, making the image on the back dimmer. You have to focus wide open and then remember to reset to your desired aperture before you release the shutter, or you’re going to have some very overexposed, expensive failures.

Focusing with the 4×5 isn’t too difficult unless you don’t know what the word ‘focusing’ means. The larger format means you get thinner depth of field compared to smaller cameras at equivalent f-stops, but it doesn’t matter – focusing is focusing, it just takes a little longer in this case. Plus you get the added benefit of the camera movements to help refine your plane of focus. It’s incredibly liberating to have these options of tilting, shifting or swinging the front or the back of the camera – it’s a little like cheating and gives you numerous options for maintaining critical focus on things you may not otherwise have the depth of field for. Either way though it’s simply another factor, another problem for solving, and yes it takes time, no matter how fast you are.

So you’re doing all of this focusing, checking the glass with a loupe, fiddling with all sorts of stoppers and knobs to tilt your lens forwards and then refocus because it put your subject’s eyes out of focus again. All the while your face is completely obscured behind this big camera, if not hidden under a blanket, and your subject – sitting or standing – is under strict instructions not to move because any slight movement throws everything out of focus and you have to twist some more knobs and fiddle around a bit more. You’re not even half way towards making an exposure and yet the camera has grown into this huge obstacle between you and your subject. It’s in the way. You change one thing and it messes up another. So much attention needs to be lavished upon this machine to make sure you’re even ready to click the shutter (noticed how I haven’t even bothered mentioning taking light readings and setting up your exposure?) that suddenly what your subject is doing or feeling seems like a very far away thing. Some portrait photographer you are – hopefully you’ve had the presence of mind to keep up at least a senseless babble so your subject doesn’t feel abandoned in front of the lens while you fiddle about behind it. If not, then well, then you have a few more valuable opportunities to get them back, because here is where the fun starts :D

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Eventually you’re going to get to the point where further fiddling is useless and you’re more or less ready to shoot your photo. Time to load your film. Yup. Slide in that big film holder right in front of your ground glass. Wait what? You heard me. The film holder goes between the ground glass and the lens. Blocking the light, and hence your view through the lens. You can’t see through the viewfinder anymore. Hear that? You can’t. see. through. the motherflippin’ viewfinder. And you can’t touch anything either, lest you ruin your painstaking work of focusing. Suddenly the camera, which up until a couple of moments ago was such a dominating, needy presence, has virtually vanished. At this point, with no viewfinder to hide behind, you are put right in front of your subject. You are forced to be present, in the moment with the person in front of your lens and if you don’t have some kind of gameplan for getting some kind of reaction worthy of clicking the shutter and exposing a pricey sheet of film, then things are gonna get awkward real easy, real fast. Timing becomes paramount, as you can’t just snap off another shot straightaway. Only one exposure at a time. As Alec Baldwin put it in one of my favorite film monologues of all time; “it’s f*ck or walk.”

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (14)

Do you see why I love this particular method of portraiture? The entire process is so different, so far removed from gunning it with a DSLR that it can’t help but put you in a different frame of mind. It’s more deliberate, and you have to think ahead a little more. It gives you another perspective to help you break down your current portraiture method and reconstruct your habits. Never a bad thing.

But wait, we’re not finished! Assuming you’ve got some kind of rapport with your subject and are confident enough to expose a sheet (are you sure your focus is still dead on?), it’s time to click the shutter! Hold on just a moment though, don’t forget to close the shutter before you take out the darkslide, lest you expose your film accidentally. Oh, and make sure you prime your shutter, otherwise it won’t release when you finally do get that elusive, decisive moment. Oh, and almost forgot – your aperture was wide open for focusing, better remember to reset it otherwise you’ll end up with overexposed shots. NOW you’re ready to press the shutter. Everything has been leading up to this moment.

Click. The quiet whisper of the copal shutter snapping open and closed, flashes triggering in sync.

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And that’s it. For better or worse, one image exposed. One more photo created. And it’s at that moment you realize that for all the fiddly bits it’s the same as all other photography. Same as using a DSLR, same as shooting a photo with an iPhone, same as using one of those Samsung abominations. Press a button, immortalize a moment. The only difference being the amount of care you put into it, or, how you approach it. In a way, 4×5 format or larger doesn’t give you the option of not caring (unless you like burning expensive film). It’s refreshing that a camera forces you through the motions so thoroughly, before taking away your ability to hide behind the camera, forcing you to be face to face with your subject. I love it. And it’s teaching me heaps. Not that I’m saying that I switched to this camera and now all my photos are amazing. Far from it – no camera will turn you into a genius straight away. But it’s teaching me a few things that might help me be a better portrait photographer, and I’ll take it.

So, despite my professed hatred of lists I’m going to end with one, because hey, we’re allowed to change our opinions and I think of myself as an open-minded person. Here’s my definitive list of life lessons I’ve learnt from shooting 4×5:

1. It helps if you give a sh*t about what you are photographing.

That’s all I can think of, without including points that overlap each other. But aren’t you glad I tried?

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It’s…THE YEAR OF THE HORSE!

Happy New Year everyone!

In keeping with my tradition of shooting a new year’s card with my team (see last one here) – I’ve gone and shot something in keeping with this year’s theme according to the Chinese zodiac – the year of the horse!

Once again, I featured my team in a movie poster, this time with a WWII theme (only because the costumes were the only ones within my budget) and I decided to up the ante a little by including a live animal in the shoot this time. So we all jumped into a car and drove down to a farm in Chiba where I had booked a horse for the shoot. Given that I’m no horse-whisperer there were quite a few risks involved in going forward with this idea – firstly, the fact that it was my first time working with such a large live animal on set with some super expensive gear gave me the f/64 pucker factor, not to mention the fact that it was my first time riding a horse, ever, made me more than a little nervous. Horses are known to be skittish around flashes, but luckily for me the handler there did an amazing job of keeping Merry (the horse’s name) under control and relatively calm. Still, we only managed to get around 8 shots of me atop the horse before she decided she’d had enough and started getting restless.

We also had Profoto and Hasselblad lend me some pretty amazing gear for the shoot;  we got the new B1 battery-powered monoblocs, which were really, really handy in the middle of nowhere with no plugs in sight. From Hasselblad we had the pleasure of using an H5D-40, which has made it very difficult to go back to shooting with my Nikon (although yes, I realize that there are practical differences between the cameras that make it difficult to justify selling all my gear for one)

Anyway, I’ve had a lot of support and help in the past year from all sorts of different and unexpected avenues – I’ve certainly realized that being a freelancer these days is more than ever about connecting with people and finding opportunities to work together. I definitely couldn’t have come this far without all of the people that have for some reason or the other have stuck by me or otherwise put their faith in me. So, thank you very much, and I hope we can all achieve even greater heights in the year of the horse!

Below is the actual poster and there is an intro to each person as you scroll down. Skip to the bottom for a BTS video!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong

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Irwin: Yes, this is me, me use camera, take photo, scratch head, push button, make hooting noise. Nothing special here.

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Asuka: [Borat voice]She is my wife! [/Borat voice]. What can I say, except that I’d be a complete mess without her! She puts up with my terrible ideas and bouts of self-loathing that I occasionally go through as a photographer. Anyway she keeps me going and is an endless source of support, and she’s amazing!

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Michio: Michio helps me with a lot of different things – a capable assistant and photographer, his main skill is retouching. In fact, most of the retouching on the poster and these headshots is by him! I’ll be working with him a lot more in the coming year, hopefully on some even bigger projects.

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Keiichi: Keiichi does everything video related for me – he’s a hardworking honest dude who always seems to be cleaning his room. I wonder if that’s a euphemism for something?  Anyway, he shot 99% of the behind the scenes video at the bottom of this post.

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Maiko: Maiko is my hair and makeup specialist. I work with Maiko all the time – she’s reliable, talented and easygoing, not to mention almost always has a solution for almost any of my random ideas or requests. She is almost always the first person I call if some special makeup is needed on a photoshoot, such as this one.

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Will: My frequent collaborator and raconteur, Will is one of the most dependable guys I know, always down to help me out on whatever stupid idea or project I’ve cooked up – such as this one. We’ve got a few things in the works that might take a while to gestate, but looking forward to moving on with those projects this year!

Anyway, that’s it! Looking forward to working with these guys this coming year, other than that, I just want to thank the people who have helped me grow myself as a photographer over the past year – I’m looking forward to more good times, cool projects and meeting new faces this year. Check out the behind the scenes video below, and more importantly, have a happy new year!

More to come soon!

Japanese Celebrities – Dave Specter

Not-so-recently I had the pleasure of photographing Dave Specter -one of the rare but rising number of foreign タレント (or ‘talent’) in Japan. Dave however is a little bit different from all the others – when he got started in the entertainment business 30 years ago he was the only foreigner on Japanese TV on a regular basis. The Japanese ‘talent’ industry is a peculiar one of hierarchies and strict observances of rankings of seniority, and for a non-Japanese to break into that world several decades ago was probably extraordinary. Of course, Dave’s Japanese is impeccable – beyond the level even of the average Japanese person – but Dave puts it down to ‘being in the right place at the right time’. Back in the 1980s there were few foreigners in Japan and even fewer actively working in the media with fluent Japanese. Dave Specter quickly became the go-to guy for non-domestic related news and has been around ever since. So not only is he the elder statesman for all foreign talent all TV today (after all, he kind of blazed the trail for them), but his longevity in the business grants him serious senpai (or seniority) status over pretty much anyone else in the industry.

Now in his 60′s, he runs a media production company, makes daily appearances on TV, devours current affairs voraciously, and sleeps about 4 hours a day. We shot the below photos in his office (yep – all of those TVs are real, old-school CRTs, and they are on all the time), while he kept us entertained with stories about the good old days of Japanese TV in the bubble economy.

Photo Tip Of The Day:
When shooting into a bank of old TVs like this you have to pay close attention to your shutter speed. Especially with those old tubes – remember – the big fat ones (80′s kids will know)? The reason why, is that those old TVs typically have a screen refresh rate of 60hz (or 50 in some parts of the world) – meaning that 60 times a second the image on the TV screen is repainted by the electron gun in the back of the TV. This imposes limits onto your maximum shutter speed if you want to capture the TV screen as you see it – too fast and your shutter will close before the the electron gun has had time to time to paint the entire screen – leading to parts of the screen being blank. The safest shutter speed to use? Well given that most TVs in Japan have a refresh rate of 60Hz (ie, 60 times a second), it stands to reason that setting your shutter to 1/60 seconds will give your camera enough time to capture a full refresh cycle on the TV. Too much slower than that and the images on the TV start to blur together – any faster and bits of the TV will be blank.

Dealing with reflections in the screens is another issue -especially given that we are using a strobe-heavy kit here. So – let’s use our brain a little bit here; big, soft light sources are out of the question because, well, they are big, and that causes a shitload of problems when dealing with reflections. For example – the bigger your light source the larger the specular reflection in the TV screens, also, angling a large light source so the screens can’t ‘see’ the light (and hence reflect it) becomes a nightmare if you’re spraying your light everywhere. Solution? Reflector and grid combination on my Einstein as a keylight – this combo doesn’t leave any exposed diffusion surfaces to show up in random reflections, and keeps the light going where I want it: on my subject’s face. Bare girds are known to produce extremely harsh, deep shadows though, which generally look ugly and undesirable, so as a fill-light I used an Orbis ring flash on lens axis to open up the shadow side of Dave’s face. Gasp! – you might say. But surely if I place the ring flash directly in front of the TV screens you’ll almost certainly see the reflection of the ring in the screens? Well, the solution here is easy enough – if I put Dave between the flash and the TV screens, he effectively blocks the multiple TV screens from seeing the flash and reflecting it. Thanks Dave!

Anyway – hope you enjoyed this post – if you want some more mini-explanations of my technique (because there aren’t enough of them on the ‘net already), let me know!

More to come soon.

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (1)

 

GAIJIN – James H Catchpole – Mr OK Jazz Tokyo

I present to you another portrait in my GAIJIN series!

This time we have James H Catchpole – otherwise known as Mr Ok Jazz – he’s an extremely cool guy and a treasure trove of information about all of the underground, obscure live jazz houses dotted around and about Tokyo. He should be – he’s been living here since his university days at Waseda and has been constantly exploring and documenting jazz bars and cafes all over Tokyo for more than a decade. Whether you’re in the mood to hear some live experimental jazz, blues, soul or whatever – go to his website for a comprehensive list of major and minor jazz sites around Tokyo. The list he has built and is still building is quite extraordinary.

As well as maintaining this blog, James also does fixing and consulting for foreign TV productions in Japan, and also hosts a weekly radio program on Inter FM 76.1 – which, in my opinion, is the only channel worth listening to in Tokyo.

Follow James for all things jazz and Tokyo-related on Twitter at @MrOKJazzTokyo, and definitely check out his (under renovation) homepage here, for a step into the deep, deep rabbithole that is the Tokyo live jazz scene.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong

We made this shot in Samurai, otherwise known as the Maneki Neko (lucky cat figurine) bar in Shinjuku. It’s an old hangout of James and he gets along well with the owner. Of course, it’s featured on James’ website and he describes the place perfectly when he says “…the Samurai is a treasure. When you enter to the left off the elevator you immediately are taken into another era, face to face with a 5-foot manneke-neko (招き猫`lucky cat figurine`). These cat figurines are omnipresent at the entrance to Japanese eateries and shops, beckoning in customers with a raised paw. Inside the Samurai are more than 2500 of these lucky cat figurines spread throughout the interior, hanging from the walls, piled in cabinets, in paintings and in photos. Some frowning, some scowling, some with a serene smile..it’s an awesome site. Hanging on the walls are scrolls of haiku calligraphy, adding to the mysterious atmosphere.”  The rest of the description on James’ website is here, and if it doesn’t make you want to go, then you have no sense of awesomeness and possibly need to rethink your life.

As for how I made this shot, the above, final shot was composited from three separate shots. I probably could have done it all in one go, but I didn’t have enough speedlights and I like to make things difficult for myself. To illuminate James himself, I used three speedlights – the main light had a Lumiquest Softbox III attached and gelled full CTO to mimic the tungsten lighting in the venue. A similarly gelled Orbis was used as fill light to bring detail out of the hands and suit. A fluorescent green gelled light in a 4 inch shortsnoot gave the left side of James’ suit and face a little separation from the background. Why green? Well, there’s some strong fluorescent lighting in the back of the frame, and that’s enough motivation to use a green tint as a wraparound light on James. Using yet another orange colored light for separation would have been fatally dull, and robbed much of the three-dimensionality from his face.

Afterwards all I had left was to shoot some plates of the scene with my camera locked down on a tripod, so I could blend them into the one frame to better represent what the scene before my eyes. The first one below is exposed for just ambient light, and the second one below is light with a red gelled strobe to just subtly bring out the two customers left of frame, just so the eye has something the wander over when not looking at James. The frames were blended very simply in Photoshop using layer masks, and a little dodging and burning to various areas of the frame hopefully ensures that the eye is directed to all of the right places. And that’s pretty much it!

If you’re a gaijin in Japan doing cool or interesting things for the love of living here, or if you know someone who would be a great fit for this project, shoot me an email at irwin@irwinwong.com!

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Here’s an outtake that I wasn’t too happy with, but it shows you another angle of Samurai. It really is an awesome place, go check it out!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong

Printing Dat Portfolio

I’d like to introduce my portfolio – I’m super proud of it and yet it’s still nowhere near where I’d like to be, but it’s exciting to have it up regardless.

At the risk of repeating every other photographer on the Internet, print portfolios are super important and here’s why:

1. It shows that your work looks good on paper (that is, if your work looks good to begin with)

2. It makes you feel good to have one.

3. You don’t look like a doofus walking into a meeting with nothing but an iPad, or worse, a laptop.

I bet some of you bristled when I mentioned that last point right? Don’t delude yourself into thinking an iPad is a worthy substitute for a book. YOU NEED A BOOK. The very fact that the word ‘substitute’ is part of the equation means that you’re compromising, and you should never compromise when it comes to showing your work off to people who you want to get money from. And let’s face it, if you’re putting your effort into printing and editing your own portfolio, at least you look like you care. Also, prints are special, in a way that stuff on a screen is not. If you want to show your work in the its most flattering form, then some lovingly made prints are the only way forward.

That said portfolios are expensive to make and it can be tough to get one up. Don’t despair, it’s not worth making one until you have enough decent photos to put into it so until then just keep shooting new work and get by on whatever small jobs you can manage. You’ll know once you have the photos and money to put together a decent book – and it won’t be when you’re first starting out.

Anyway what’s different about this newest iteration of my portfolio is that I took complete control over the printing, which up until now I had been outsourcing at exorbitant rates – something like 4000+yen for an A3 print. You can see if you’re ending up with 40 or so prints that cost will add up, to the point where I can buy my own printer, some ink, and take some courses to learn how to print. Which is exactly what I ended up doing. In other words I’m taking that money and investing it back into myself, (hopefully) giving myself a new skill which will grow along with me.

Anyway, here’s the portfolio itself:

Tokyo Editorial Photographer Irwin Wong (10)

Tokyo Editorial Photographer Irwin Wong (11)

Tokyo Editorial Photographer Irwin Wong (2)

Tokyo Editorial Photographer Irwin Wong (8)

Let’s go into the process of making a portfolio a little bit:

Editing down:

This is DEFINITELY the hardest part of making any portfolio. Assuming you have more than 40 or so good photos to begin with, trimming them down into a cohesive collection that showcases both your versatility and your uniqueness is definitely one of the most difficult things you can do. I certainly haven’t mastered it, and I’ve had some harsh reviews that made me swear a lot at myself. Also, it’s difficult because forcing yourself to take stock of your current body of work really makes you depressed about how far you still have to go. Swear a lot at yourself and then go out and shoot :)

Anyway, the first step in this process is the culling. A lot of photographers say how hard it is to pick and choose amongst their babies, but you really shouldn’t be thinking like that. Your photos are not your babies. They are your bitches. They are your unfortunate red-headed stepchildren that you clumsily gave birth to. Your ideas are your babies in a perfect world, and your photos are born from them but happen to be missing a chromosome or two. So, pick and choose wisely. Keep the stepchildren that work well for you, and work well with each other. If one looks too different to the others (ie: looks like another photographer gave birth to it), then throw it out. Don’t keep any ugly ones just because of the effort required during the birthing process. No one cares about anything but the finished product.  Also, keep the stepchildren who can stand up and speak for themselves – you shouldn’t have to explain or make excuses for your ugly stepchildren. If you’re required to step in and speak for them then they’re not pulling their own weight and it’s off to the coal mines with them :D

Also, here’s another thing – I tend to shoot a lot of prototypes and tests for my own amusement, but don’t take them too much further – which tends to shoot me in the foot a little bit. In a world saturated with pretty pictures with no end in sight, people want to see in-depth projects that you’ve stuck with for a while. So if you really want to differentiate yourself from the rest of the books filled with pretty pictures, that’s just what you’re going to have to do.

Tokyo Editorial Photographer Irwin Wong

Seriously though, treat your photos with disdain and a vague sense of shame (they are your photos after all), and it should make it a little easier to cut out the ones you don’t need.  Have fun editing, and once you’re down to 30-40 solid images then it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to represent them. If you don’t have 30-40 solid images, swear at yourself a little bit and go out and shoot :) (story of my life)

The cover:

There are a ton of creative ways to represent your work depending on your budget; mahogany boxes with prints made of unicorn leather etc, but seeing that I am just a lowly editorial photographer I just bought the most expensive regular binder that I could afford.

The cover is synthetic leather with my name embossed – the good folks at Brewer Cantelmo in New York helped me put it together with the help of Cosmo Int. Tokyo. I’d recommend any Tokyo photographer to go get their portfolio cover there – they are super helpful and there are a lot of options for people with all sorts of budgets.

The paper and printing:

All of the prints were made on my own Epson R3000. Paper choice was a little bit more difficult – I was originally set on using Ilford Gold Fibre Silk but for some weird reason, they don’t make it in A3 sizes (at least for the Japan market). They only have A3+, which would have looked kind of silly in my A3 sized binder.

That kind of forced my hand a little and I had to consider other options, which is how I eventually settled on Pictran Baryta. Never heard of it? Neither had I – it’s a special paper, made entirely in Japan with traditional washi techniques, and it’s amazingly easy to print with. Also, it smells like baryta paper should – tangy and and a little bit like fixer. From what I could gather on their website (all in Japanese, which I am too lazy to read :D), ICC profiles are not necessary because of the incredibly high absorbency of these papers, allowing the ink to really show up well on the paper…or something? I don’t know too much about the finer details – all I know is that the paper feels weighty and expensive, looks amazing, and reproduces my photos pretty much dead on to what I see on my calibrated monitor. If you’re interested in trying out these papers here’s a US based site that stocks them. There are some closeups of my prints so you can check them out – it doesn’t do the paper justice but hopefully you can see the lustre and definition that you get printing with this stuff.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong

Tokyo Editorial Photographer Irwin Wong (3)

 

Tokyo Editorial Photographer Irwin Wong (4)

I can’t stress the importance of a book enough. Even if you don’t have enough to afford one right now, you should start planning for one and keeping a folder on the desktop full of your best photos – that way you’ll get used to the idea of editing down your own work and you’ll have a better idea of what your body of work is lacking, plus the overall direction you want to take your work in the future. Think about it!

The next step is obviously getting the book in front of people and that could be a separate blogpost all on its own – hustle. No point having the greatest book in the world if you can’t hustle enough to get your book in front of people who can give you work. I’ll leave you with a tip though – here’s what I did in my first years as an aspiring photographer: I went to bookstores, browsed the magazine stands and wrote down the phone number of magazines I wanted to work for. Then I went home and called them. Not sure how that works in the US, but it got me my first real gigs in Tokyo.

Hustle! :D

 

How the Fuji X-series made me feel inadequate

You know recently there’s been a fair bit of hullaballoo about these new cameras Fuji has been bringing out – the X-series. X100, X-Pro 1, XE-1 and most recently the X-M1 or something like that. All touted as great cameras – the perfect blend of retro styling and cutting edge sensor technology, paring away anything extraneous to the act of shooting. The Fuji X series – peerless walk-around cameras that can be adapted for wedding work, editorial work heck, even commercial work. Photography bloggers whom I respect and admire all clambered over each other to shout the praises of these lightweight wonder-cameras. They could do no wrong on the digital camera review sites, and quickly developed a cult following which exploded into a massive fanbase. The Fuji X-series. Messianic.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (1)

Of course, being easily swayed and ever-eager to spend money on new gear, I bought a pair of these exciting new cameras. The Fuji X100s, and the XE-1 with an M-mount adaptor. Now, let me begin with a caveat: these cameras are great. They are. For what you pay, these cameras perform well in pretty much every aspect. And the new sensor is great too. Just great. The retro styling reminded me of my Bessa rangefinder, which made it super intuitive to use and the slim form factor (relative to a DSLR) made it easy to carry around all day. The perfect blend of everything I needed in a camera, or at least thought I needed. An affordable Leica that delivered the goods at a mere fraction of the price. With these cameras I would be unstoppable. Invincible. No longer would I balk at the thought of lugging a DSLR around all day – with these cameras I could carry an entire kit in a shoulder bag and never tire. With these cameras I would never miss a photo because I would always have a camera with me – I would become a street photography god and everyone would respect me. With these cameras I would be stealthy, quick, unobtrusive, silent, a vessel for recording the extraordinary in the mundane of the everyday. My photography would change, my life would change, and happiness was just around the corner.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (6)

And yet the thing is, contrary to all my expectations, having bought these cameras, I did not morph into some Godzilla of street photography, or urban photography, or anything. Quite the opposite actually: I realized that my photos suck, although this didn’t happen immediately either. I must have been in some gear-wanker denial stage – more in love with the perfect white-balance and skin tones that the X-trans sensor produced, than actually looking at what I was shooting. But slowly I realized – as I eagerly went back through the photos I had taken with these revolutionary new cameras – that I sucked, truly sucked, at photography. Everything sucked, and was a complete cliche; the backs of people’s heads at a pedestrian crossing. Some perfunctory shots on a platform while waiting for my next train. The same photos from the same bar that I drink at regularly. OMG. It was sickening. Sure I carried a camera with me everywhere, but nothing had changed. I was still checking my phone more than paying attention to my surroundings. The only times I used the camera was when I was standing still between point A and point B ie: waiting at a crosswalk or waiting for a train. I had sold myself some ridiculous theory that the new gear would change my approach to photography, would make me suddenly sit up and notice all of the cool photographic opportunities that happen on the street. No, in fact, what the Fuji X-series succeeded in doing was to remind me how bad I am at this craft, and how far I have to go.

Here are some photos from me in try-hard mode to break up all this text :)

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (9)

 

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (4)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (12)

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (20)

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Back to the Fujis kicking my ass and reminding me that I need to grow up a little more. This is a good thing for me. It was stupid of me to think that simply carrying around a camera from point A to point B will lead to better photos. I was drawn into the hype, even though I should have known better. Any type of photography, whether it be portrait, wedding or street photography requires discipline and focus to improve and polish. Street photography requires you to be out and about, searching for interesting spots and interesting people. It requires you to GROW A PAIR OF NUTS and go and talk to people on the street. This is difficult for me. But in the grand scheme of things, amongst the endless variety of thankless, demeaning, menial or dangerous jobs that I could be doing, it isn’t all that difficult a task to chat to a random stranger in order to get a photo. So I have the choice to pick up my socks, get out on the streets and really try to nail some work that I’m proud of, or I can sit back in my comfort zone and not create anything. Which to me is the equivalent of basically giving up water. So, I guess I really only have one choice then ;)

What I originally wanted from my X100s, and what I got from it are two very different things. What I wanted was the camera that would be the extension of my will, a camera that would make great images as long as I had it with me.  What I got instead was the message that my will was weak, that I was spoilt from having too many great photographic subjects handed to me on a platter without having to go after them myself. There’s a Japanese phrase that goes 「初心に戻る」Shoshin ni modoru, which means to go back and remember the feeling of being a beginner. It means that no matter how far you’ve come you shouldn’t forget the humility of starting out on something new. The Fuji X100s is a camera that will make you live that phrase. It’ll remind you that you still have a ways to go with your photography. The fixed 35mm equivalent lens forces you to get close and shoot, or not even bother. It won’t listen to your excuses. It’s a great camera if you’re hard on yourself and willing to do something about it.

I never expect street photography to be some kind of money maker for me – I don’t even expect it to get me any page views, ‘Likes’, or even teach a workshop about it, although I’m obviously qualified :D. What I really want is to make some photos that I’m proud of, and have intrinsic meaning to me. The X100s will make it difficult, but I’m pretty sure I can rise to its challenge.

Rim Jobs

You know you’re off to a classy blog post when the title is a scatological pun. Sorry about that guys. There are some thoughts below about the craft of photography though so please don’t leave in disgust just yet.

Anyway as some of you guys know I on rare occasions shoot for car magazines. This is interesting to me because it requires me to change up my thinking a great deal. Editorial portraiture has always been my strength and my passion so my first instinct on a photoshoot is to size up the location for the best ways to frame a person in the coolest/most interesting way possible. The thing about car magazines however – is that the focus isn’t on the person. Car magazine readers want to see cars, or car parts, or car bits and even on a shoot where the focus is to profile a custom car designer, a solid portrait of the subject concerned is a good bonus but really it’s still all about that sweet sweet car pr0n. So, composition, lighting and all that stuff really need to be reconsidered in order to make things work well in the article.

So – how to light and shoot a car on a quick, no budget editorial shoot? Best advice – bring a tripod. Tripods give you the option to lock down the camera and shoot different exposures of the same frame which you can then blend together in photoshop – a life saver if you have no idea how to light your car. If you absolutely must light up your car and have only speedlights then direct flash works surprisingly well, such as in the photos below.  But if you’re not equipped for a big shoot then you’re going to want to let the available light do the lifting. Luckily such as in the particular shoot below, the garage was an awesome mancave filled with excellent lighting and random paraphernalia that made location shooting easy.

Once again, I only shoot cars very occasionally and I’m much more comfortable with a live person in front of the lens. That said switching itup for a change is a fun way to get my brain thinking in different directions, which is something all creatives shouldn’t underestimate.

More to come soon!

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Tokyo Editorial Photographer Irwin Wong (5)

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Tokyo Editorial Photographer Irwin Wong (2)

Tokyo Editorial Photographer Irwin Wong (1)

GAIJIN – James Hadfield

In keeping with my side-project of making portraits of GAIJIN (foreigners), I present to you: James Hadfield. Once again, in this series I’m trying to avoid photographing ex-pats or people who have just been sent here by their company and are just serving time for their bosses. I’m more interested in the Gaijin who have come to Japan for some reason or the other…and are still here. Whether they have fallen in love with the country and are determined to stay no matter what, or whether they have found a niche in the market here d0ing interesting or wacky things, stories of Gaijin here in immigrant-unfriendly Japan are quite interesting to me.

Meet James Hadfield, Englishman, erstwhile model, writer for the once-venerable foreigner rag Metropolis (before everyone started hating it), and currently staff-writer for Tokyo Timeout, and has done who knows what in between. I’ve worked with James on a few occasions (when Metropolis had a tiny budget for photography), but he’s always been a constant, friendly presence in the creative Gaijin community and somehow always seems to know exactly what bands or DJs are playing in Tokyo at any time.  His Twitter account at @JamesHadfield is a great place to find out about gigs or events happening around Tokyo, plus, he’s generally a funny guy. Also, I don’t think his hairstyle has changed since I first met him years ago.

If you’re a Gaijin doing anything interesting or know of anyone that would be a cool topic subject for this portrait series get in touch at irwin@irwinwong.com! In particular I’m looking for female Gaijin, since I’ve only photographed guys up till now!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Gaijin JamesHadfield1

Here’s a bonus shot that I didn’t get around to editing:

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong

Career milestones as a photographer

So, recently I felt like I had hit some kind of milestone in my photography career, so I’m going to talk about that a little bit. It wasn’t my first one, and I’m really hoping that it won’t be my last one, but somehow this one was important to me.

Late last year Japanese magazine and newsstand fixture AERA let me shoot one of their longest running regular articles called ‘Gendai no Shouzou’ (現代の肖像 translated: Portrait of the Times) – which basically is an in-depth profile on someone prominent in Japan at that moment. Usually it takes a few months to shoot and write the story, which means hanging out with the subject a lot and finding a good way to shoot some kind of iconic portrait.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong

I’ve shot regularly for AERA for a while now, but this was kind of the first time I really felt I’d had real trust invested in me. Like I’d made it to the next level in a video game suddenly. The milestone for me was not being able to shoot these portraits – rather that I finally felt some kind of acceptance within that Japanese publication. This is a huge deal for me because it was a goal that I always had doubts about being able to achieve, which might be hard to get for some people but those that live here will understand.

Granted, it may not seem like a big thing, but to me it meant that my hard work was vindicated, at least in part. It told me that things will happen if I keep my head down, concentrate on shooting, and continue to get my work in front of people I want to work with. It told me that I didn’t have to host exhibitions and enter competitions to get noticed and hired. Most importantly, it told me that progress was being made.

Progress – more accurately the feeling of progress – is an extremely powerful form of motivation for freelancers, and I’ve learnt to never take it for granted. There are a lot of us out there who want to become photographers, and every one of us is going to walk a different path towards that goal. Some of us won’t make it, because this shit is hard and being a photographer requires much more discipline that many people imagine starting out. But we all have to try, and in the end, we can only measure our weird career by the personal milestones we’ve struck along the way.  It could be the first time you scored a paying job on your terms; it could be the first tax return you file with just photography earnings; it could even be the first time you nail that off-camera flash portrait that you were sweating over the night before (I remember my very first photo shoot: portrait of a chef at an Indian restaurant, one light into a shoot-thru umbrella, I couldn’t sleep the night before, which to me is hilarious now). Whatever the case, these little career markers dotted along the trail are important, and I hope any of you aspiring photographers out there are keeping track of them. It’ll help you keep going.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Portraits Editorial

If you’re out there struggling with the rest of us, share some inspiration and drop us a line in the comments with any milestones in your career you might have hit recently. Don’t worry if it doesn’t seem too much of a big deal – what is success but the slow and steady accumulation of small triumphs over time?  Just keep at it, don’t sweat, and count the good things that happen. Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll all make it.

Also, for those curious – the person in these portraits is Sadahiro Nakamura, CEO of TRANSIT General Office, a design company that’s been responsible for producing some of the most popular restaurants/venues in Tokyo recently. Bills in Omotesando is a good example. If you’re in Tokyo and have a penchant for design-centric interiors as well as good food, then you’ve most likely been to one of his restaurants. Over the course of the 3 months that we covered him for the story I shot a variety of portraits of him as well as a ton of documentary shots –  here are three portraits of him that I think worked out pretty well.

More to come soon!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - editorial portraits

The blog of Tokyo-based editorial photographer Irwin Wong