Becoming a Photographer

I bought my first camera when I was in 6th grade. I saved all of my Christmas money, birthday money and otoshidama to be the proud owner of a Yashica FX-3 with a Tokina 35-105 zoom lens. Ever since, I've loved photography as a hobby. We only had film cameras back then, so getting your photos back from the developer was like opening a present with your fingers crossed and occasionally finding something special in the 24 or 36 exposures of film.

In 2014 I signed up for a 10 hour course at a random photography school in Shibuya hoping to take better pictures of family and my students. After the second class, my teacher (a studio photographer) pulled me aside and told me I should consider photography as a career and suggested I enrol in the professional photography department. He said that over the decades I have obtained pretty much everything I needed to be a paid photographer, except for the important stuff. I chuckled - I was 45 at the time and this would mean a whole year of 3 hour classes 5 days a week after work learning the important stuff!! But then I realized that I've been late for everything else in my life up to this point anyway. I'm a guy who started his first class in college when he was 30.

The following week I started classes in the professional photography department of the Tokyo School of Photography. At the time I had no idea that this school was owned by one of the most prestigious photo studios and publishers in Tokyo. The many professors are all established photographers and brought different challenges to the table every class. We learned to shoot food, commercial merchandise, small things big things, male models, female models, young models, old models, etc, it was something different every session. We also had access to the very best equipment on the market. Who knew one of the six generator and flash combos used for a basic model magazine shoot costs the same as a Mercedes?

One segment of the final exam is still fresh in my mind. It was 6 hours of running around under stress and frustration. The prompt was simple, the prof gave us a commercial fashion magazine (shot in the same studio) with a book mark in it and said, open the magazine to the bookmarked page and replicate the lighting, colors and feel. Another segment was "you have exactly 30 minutes to shoot a magazine centerfold". I still get nervous thinking about it.

I learned a lot during the year but there were 3 main concepts about a camera and 3 main concepts about light I learned that have become the framework of my photography.

Camera: In general, all you can control on your camera is shutter speed, aperture and sensitivity. These controls are mathematically proportionate and If you aren't controlling all three, your camera is taking the photo, not you. So if you are shooting in the P mode or the green box mode, you have reduced your DSLR to a big "compact" digital camera or what I call a Ph.D camera.....

Light: There are only three kinds of light: bounce, diffuse and direct, and mastering the light is a lifelong theme for photographers.

It's amusing how many people will say "I love your pictures! You must have a really nice camera" without realizing it's pretty much the same as saying, "Wow, you're such a good tennis player, you must have a really nice racket".

The light is going to be the same for everyone. In other words, the light isn't going to change around me just because I have a nice camera. Furthermore, If I can manipulate the shutter speed, aperture and sensitivity on any camera, the results are going to be pretty much the same. One of the soccer events I shot that received the most likes on Facebook this year was captured on an 8 year old Kiss x4 (Canon entry level DSLR) that wouldn't focus properly. So like most things, it's not the equipment. For photography it's mastering the 3 concepts, at least it is for me.

Photography is hard work. If you are doing it right, you will probably be the first one up in the morning and the last one to go to bed. Light is very specific to the time of the day. Early morning sunlight creates a sweet spot. So a model shoot would typically start at around 7:00 in the morning outside. The light becomes harsh by 9:00 so the shooting moves inside to a studio where the photographer can create the light. Once the shooting is over, it's meeting time with the manager and publisher to select 5-20 photos from the day. Then the photographer can finally go home and spend hours editing the photos. For publications, each photo will take at least 30 minutes to an hour to clean up.

School photography is hard work too because of the volume of photos. I'll shoot anywhere from 300-500 photos at any event and choose around 100 photos to share. I have a rule of not spending more than 3 minutes editing any photo due to the ridiculous volume. So if I post an album of 100 photos on Facebook, it's safe to assume that at least 5 hours were spent on the computer editing them. Another unique thing about school photography is that the photographer is forced to share photos they are not happy with. It's all about coverage, so even if I don't like a certain photo but it's the only one capturing a significant person, place or action, it has to be shared.

I guess the reason why I chose to go this route so late in my life is because even after week-long trips with students to Sendai, Okinawa or Thailand, where I shoot thousands of pictures and then edit them for hours and hours, I'm excited to pick up my camera the next morning. While many things start to "get old" in my life, photography continues to energize me after 35 years. There is not a day in my life that I leave the house without my camera bag.

If you love something, are good at it and people appreciate what you do, it's probably what you should be doing.

Photo by Mayu O


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