Getting great shots myself is a buzz but nowhere near the buzz of teaching others to get great shots.
When I started teaching photography, I was asked by a few fellow professionals ‘…aren’t you afraid you’ll give all your tricks away and end up teaching who turns out to be your competition?’
I don’t see it that way and never have. My reply to them was that ‘…tricks can be learned, my eyes are mine’.
Someone else also once asked me ‘…do you ever stop teaching someone when it looks like they’ll end up better than you?’
That was an even dafter question than the first one. As a parent, would I stop teaching my kids because one day they might turn out to be smarter than me? No. It’s the same with teaching strangers. The kick I get from teaching anyone, anything, is the kick of passing knowledge and skills on in the hope that the person I am teaching improves and gets more out of what they do.
The other great thing about teaching photography in a city like Tokyo is that I get to meet a lot of very nice people; some who live here, some who are passing through. Others, like Liam, who may well one day call Tokyo their home.
Liam is Australian, with a Japanese wife and a young family. He got in touch with me a while ago, ahead of their latest trip to Japan. We arranged to hook-up. Liam had some things he wanted to learn, to take his photography farther.
Turns out that Liam is pretty damn good with the camera already. I checked out his Flickr stream and it was obvious he had ‘the eye’. I was keen to meet him and see what he wanted to do whilst he was in town.
He and his family were staying near Tsukiji so we decided to meet there for the first lesson, which was basically a full day of one-to-one tuition. We didn’t do the market but met in the mid-morning with a plan to shoot around the sidestreets outside the market and head to Ginza later.
My plan was for Liam to shoot a ‘magazine story’. The story being ‘A Walk from Tsukiji to Ginza’. Simple enough but with enough of a purpose for him to apply his skills to a specific task. I was his instructor but also his ‘editor’. I’d be making the shots into a mock-up of a magazine layout. He’d have four double-page spreads of space to fill.
It was a good morning. I showed him some of my favourite spots for walking and for sitting. I sit a lot when I shoot stories, especially street orientated stories. It’s good to be still and watch the world move around you. You feel the flow of people, you get a pulse from the street. Watch, observe the behaviour then pick up the camera and shoot.
Tokyo for me is like one, giant film-set. I pick my spots according to the quality of the light, the flow of people. Then I watch for a while and wait for my ‘actors’ to walk in.
After Tsukiji we headed for Ginza which, as those of you who know Tokyo will be aware, is pedestrianised on the weekends and which becomes – along the main street at least – a photographer’s paradise.
The shots Liam sent me and from which I selected those to be used in my magazine mock-up, which is below the gallery. I edited the colour and tone on three of the pics, just to make them pop a little more. See if you can spot those ones….
Here’s the magazine mock-up I made for Liam: A4 size, four double-page spreads seen here one above the other.
I’d asked Liam to bring just wide-angle and 50mm for the first lesson, so I got him going on a little hip-shooting: fix the focus at 3metres and shoot without the camera to his face. It’s not a gimmick and I know street photography purists sneer at hip-shooters. But with the camera down by your side, guessing when people are 3metres away from you…. it’s like having your eye on the end of your arm. For me, when I was learning, this was my way of training myself to react instinctively to shots. To be able to think of the framing and all the components of my shot without looking through the viewfinder. Having been in the army and been trained to strip down a rifle and put it back together blindfold, hip-shooting was sort of a similar excercise: the camera is removed from the eye. It’s all about touch, feel. I can frame a shot from the hip as perfectly – when I am on good form – as I can from the eye.
Liam warmed to the idea quickly. He got some great shots. He was guessing the distance to his subjects perfectly but his framing was off. He’s been nailing that pretty good since, though, and the experience has helped him become even more comfortable with his gear. For the gear to feel more like a part of him.
I went out with Liam again – on typhoon day – and my shots from that outing are here. Liam has a gallery in that page now as well. Day 2 of shooting together was more about shooting from fixed positions instead of walking. It’s a different skill-set from walking with a wide or a fifty in the street.
This is the mindset of the sniper…. pick a great spot, with good cover [from the rain in this case] and which affords a perfect view of your targets. Read all about that here…..
Liam was nice enough to send me some words about his experience shooting with me. Thanks mate. It was a pleasure to meet you and be of help. Looking forward to seeing you back here next year.
“My lesson gave me many little (and not so little) nuggets of information that assisted both my technical and creative capabilities. Initially by standing back and soaking up the seen while pre-visualising a shot, then emerging yourself in it to capture the image the way imagined. I was a somewhat lazy photographer from a technical prospective and kept the cameras setting on AE 90% of the time. This has now changed and I’m using manual settings all the time.
Although I have missed a few shots fiddling with the cameras settings (not quite a camera Jedi yet), I have captured more images the way I intended, which has been far more satisfying overall. Stepping out of my comfort zone of Landscape and Portraits into street photography has also given me a new perspective and passion towards photography that I never new I had. I went into this lesson looking to make some incremental improvements and have come out with a major step-change in the way I shoot.
Alfie is a patient and experienced teacher with an easy going approach that made the whole experience highly enjoyable. His local knowledge of the best places to shot in Tokyo in varying weather conditions is exceptional. If you’re thinking of taking a lesson in Japan, then you won’t be disappointed taking one with Alfie.”