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.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Noh masks, Noh actors, Kyoto (57)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Noh masks, Noh actors, Kyoto (56)

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Noh masks, Noh actors, Kyoto (40)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Noh masks, Noh actors, Kyoto (37)

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Noh masks, Noh actors, Kyoto (27)

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Noh masks, Noh actors, Kyoto (3)

 

2 Comments

  1. Reply
    Alex May 31, 2014

    Impressive photos! It takes a lot of confidence and experience to do what you did. I imagine you are fluent in Japanese? FOrgive me first time reader, cool blog so far I will delve in deeper soon. Thanks for sharing your experiences very interesting!

    • Reply
      admin June 2, 2014

      Hey there, thanks for stopping by! Yes finally able to call myself living after close to 9 years of living here!

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