Fall in love with light, and people will fall in love with your portraits

Light is everything in photography. There is no images without any light, just black abyss. It sets the mood, it defines the scene and story, it shapes your thoughts, it directs you eyes, it moves your soul, it determines the energy flow throughout the image, it defines and complements the body language. Everything revolves around light and its quality in a photo. I am often asked by my photography students, what settings did you use for this image, or worse - what camera settings and aperture do you use in your portraits. And I hate hearing those questions not because the answer to it is I do not know but I do not want to know. I simply do not care. Neither should you. I honestly do not remember my camera settings because they are so deliciously unimportant. Instead, I remember the atmosphere, the shadows and how light fell on the model, or what shapes I saw, moments and flashes of images that my mind captured first and then they were recorded with a camera. Camera is a just tool, light is a journey. if you are lost in the scenery, you will not remember that you even hold a walking stick, let alone being aware of how you should be using it.

 model: Anna Mitzel

model: Anna Mitzel

Learning your camera essentials is important, naturally, but to be honest, once the camera is set and all the annoying deep menu options and whistles are sorted out, all you will fiddle with is three values, shutter speed, aperture and ISO. So instead of thinking what camera settings you should be using, think of how the scene that you see feels. Is the light falling on your model in away that everything looks balanced and seems harmonious? If not, then change the lights, move yourself, change the angle. Learn how camera sees the world through the specific focal length and aperture and use it creatively. Learn to capture what you want by experimenting wit the camera settings and lenses, not the other way round.

 model: Viktoria

model: Viktoria

Do not let the camera hold you back or define the limits of your artistic sense. It may take time, but it is worth it. I had a client recently who asked me if I have experience shooting Asians. It was so clear to me she had no clue on what it is all about. I replied: I shoot personalities not races, I shoot moments not expectations. Every time I shoot, I always bear two things in mind - light quality and environment. Model is my last worry, though it is very important to have all 3 elements in sync, other wise your images may not make much sense. It is the emphasis that you put on the subject of your photo by means of light what matters, and it is irrelevant whether it is a face, a gesture, a vista, or just few random stones on a beach. Fall in love with light and how it is being cast, and the rest will fall into place.

 model: Erika Ito

model: Erika Ito

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How to take portrait photographs of professional artists and performers

This is by far one of the most demanding and yet the most rewarding type of portrait photography that you can get into. Most of the people have no idea what portrait photography is all about, hell, they even do not know what they want. Everyone has their own style and they know what they like when they see it, but have difficulties with envisioning it. Just like you buy furniture in a store, when you see a sofa on its own it may not do much for you, but if you see the same sofa in a context of other complementing furniture, then it may make you think - oh wow this would be perfect for my house.

See Artists are different. We do not see trees, we see light synchronizing with amazing maze of shapes and shadows. We do not see city streets and cars, we see art in motion, a happening of movement, a game of kinetic energy and 100s of unique face expressions passing by. A true artist will never tell you, "man, just make me look good", most of them have a vision of what they want, but they are more than excited about bouncing ideas on the go with you. It feels like long vacations on Maldives for the soul.

So how do you shoot artists, performers, singers, and so on. Well, first do not get intimidated, get excited instead. This is the time when you can let your creativity go mustang. Remeber that it is essential to go outside your comfort zone EVERY time you shoot, otherwise you will not grow. On the other hand you need need to stay composed and know exactly what your client or model is after. Do a research on what they do and ask them all questions that you need to know regarding why and what for they need a portrait photo. It is challenging because you have to take their specific or abstract and loose ideas on board, and then imbue it with your own style. Photographers are, or should be, chosen by their portfolio. You are not going to book a photographer whose style is not appealing to you. It makes no sense.

Above is a portrait shot of Dobolo, a hip hop artist from Tokyo, who needed a photo for promoting his new song About to Blow (you can see the video clip below, created by a really talented videographer Jeremy Rubier. Dobolo needed a metro / urban portrait shot, that will be powerful but at the same time simple in form. It had to be a photo that will go well with the theme, message and vibe of the song. I used natural lighting only, breaking all rules of what you will learn when you start with portrait photography, which are to avoid hard sunlight, and always position your subject face towards the light. Well soft light would not work here at all. I had flash guns with me but I figured that the massive contrast between dark and light tones will actually bring this photo closer to black and white, making it way more impactful in terns of tonal difference. I needed space for the text but I did not want it to clutter the breathing space around him, so I was shooting with 16:9 ratio in mind. Also, I knew how I willl do the toning of this photo inside of photoshop and also that bringing down saturation and shifting tones in the photo will only emphasize light qualities.

Tiny angle change of the portrait gives it a bit more energy and modern look. It is a slight tilt, nothing too aggressive. It it were, then it would overpower the model, and since this is not high fashion, the model is actually important. It is not that in high fashion models are not important, it is just that the message being conveyed usually overpowers all other elements, and the model becomes an integral part of the image. In fashion photography it is about the art, not about models. Last but not least, notice how the fence behind Dobolo imitates a keyboard. It is not supposed to be evident but subliminal in a way.

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Use photoshop to create what you want, not what others tell you is right.

If I do not say this no one else will. Fuck what others think. Photo retouching is an art and as an artist you are free to do what you feel is right. It is you who decides which way to go, and all you need to listen to is your intuition and heart. Art is about searching your path, constant improvement via experimenting. There is no room for fear and concern about what someone may think. Most of the people have an artistic sense of a boiled potato anyways, and are so jaded and brainwashed with constant flow of junk on Instacrap that they do not know what is art and what isn't anymore. They cannot function without being told, because it makes them feel safe and attached to a trend or social circle. There will always be those who appreciate your art and those who don't. You do not create for them, you create to stay alive and content. you create because you cannot live otherwise.

 model: Apple

model: Apple

For me photoshop is like a gateway to freedom of expression. It all starts with a blank sheet or some raw ingredients in a form of images and I can do whatever I please. Every image has its energy, its aura and it will guide you though the process. Sometimes I immediately know how I want to edit an image, and often I shoot with a vision of editing. Nonetheless I may just change my mind half way, or wait even few weeks until I grow up to editing certain photo. Just like a seed planted in your imagination photos will grow on you.

All that however does not excuse ignorance and pigheadedness. Keep learning, discovering, looking around you and listening to your models. Some of them can have seriously cool ideas, just like the model you see on the photo above. She said "can you make me matte black in photoshop?" And I thought "hell yeah". Lots of them are performers or artists. Those ideas will challenge your creativity and skill. Artists should be like kids who learn while and through playing. Be mindful in your play but at the same time lose yourself in it.

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Harmony between soft and dramatic light in balck and white portrait photography

Two extremes co-existing together in perfect harmony. Symbiosis in dichotomy. This photo is from a recent shoot with an American artist and model Mandy Jane. We set the shoot for 7 am in Yokohama. It was gloomy, rainy and cold, so we had to shoot anywhere with a roof over our heads. Most of the shots are from the underground tunnels in Minato Mirai. We searched for any place with good light, be it natural from outside, artificial or mixed. There is no perfect weather, light or place to shoot. If you understand how light works and how to control it or use it to your advantage, then you can shoot anywhere and anytime. But you can go even one step further, and reshape the light or change the quality of light in photoshop. This is why the skill of shooting with a vision of post processing is so important in my workflow.

Taking a great photo is as complex as sensing how to post process it. This shot was lit by natural light, with delicate influence of artificial ambient light. Light is soft and supple. It was coming through a huge entrance to the underground passages. Now, the light on Mandy's face is soft and delicate, just like her distant and remote expression. Light on the metal blinds at the background, is also soft, but their shape creates dramatic conversation between light and shadow. I purposely softened the light hitting the model even further, because I knew that I want to change the light quality of the background to much more powerful and hard. Parallel horizontal lines create another contrast, because they introduce stability and harmony. This photo expresses a quite intimate moment in a powerful and dramatic setting, but cocooned in a strong vignette which encloses the scene. This is also why I photoshopped out the bottom line which was too bright, and darkened the top one, and also warped the whole left hand side of the photo outwards.

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How to retouch a male portrait in photoshop - a few quick tips & speed art video

First thing to realize is that you should usually retouch women and men differently. Most of the retouching techniques are identical, but they are applied with different strength or in a slightly different manner. For instance, the most obvious would be skin retouching, which is a huge part of any portrait editing workflow in photoshop. In most cases, for girls, you will emphasize smoothing not only tonal transitions but also invest lots of time on skin texture smoothing, preferably via the taxing process of micro dodging and burning. Now, men usually look better in hard light and with rougher skin texture. Sometimes you will even want to enhance that roughness, it all depends on what sort of effect you want to achieve. Since women look better in soft light (although not always), naturally you will want to make therm appeal softer. That leads to the contrast (for example though macro dodging and burning) and micro contrast intensity issue (it is a rather vulgar comparison but think here in terms of clarity slider), which can be easily cranked up when you work on male portraits. Even tonal transitions can be harsher in male portraits, but this is not always the case. You will also spend more time on removing imperfections and skin blemishes in female portraits. For men, you can either remove them, or reduce their visual impact, or leave them as they are. Regardless on what you decide, always pay attention to the mood and light

quality in the photo, and the purpose the photo will serve. This applies to both sexes. For instance if you are shooting a headshot for an actor, you will want to stick to the original as close as possible, where in a promotional portrait for commercial website, you will want to make your model look as good as possible, and draw the attention of the viewer to their personality and aura, rather than face features. Below video is a speed art of a portrait edit in photoshop that I did for a friend of mine, a fellow photographer John Becker. The aim of the photo was to display him as a professional with a really sunny and outgoing personality (a mixture of confidence with accessibility), which is exactly who he is in reality.. Black and white high contrast edit allowed me to redirect the attention from the face features to face expression and the eyes. I also lowered the tonal value of the background. The light was very soft, so soft you could call it dull. I had to be really careful with skin retouching and I did very little of micro dodging. At the end of the video you can see a RAW file and final image comparison, so you can easily assess how soft the light was (only ambient light was used, no modifiers or reflectors). If you would like to learn more about professional portrait editing techniques watch my full length in-depth 5.5h long tutorial. Here is a link to a quick guide video.

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How to capture movement on photos and make it look natural and balanced

When you film moving people in any type of motion, there is a good chance that they will look natural. Now a still photo is a whole different story. Most of photos showing movement will look unnatural and unbalanced, and that is because they freeze one frame of a sequence of moves that only if combined together in fast motion bring balance to that action. In this photo I was photographing a performing belly dancer and shot maybe 25 frames out of which 2 were fairly good, but still not good enough for me to call it a perfect shot. So, I realized that if I combine 3 photos into one in photoshop and select gestures that would show continuity and add some meaning and reason for this pose it will make more sense and balance the photo. Knowledge of how to post process your photos will not only vastly improve the look of your images and give them a unique look, but it gives you freedom of following your vision as an artist, not just a photographer. If you are interested in learning photoshop, contact me for more info.

 model: Lena

model: Lena

Ancient art + portraiture = photography on a different level

Everyone can take a snapshot, a few can take a photograph, even fewer can make it fine art image. But for me capturing a photo is merely half way, if not less. Photo editing this days is either abused by those who search for shortcuts, photographers who want to mass produce their images by one-clicking a preset in Lightroom that will edit 100s of photos in minutes, or underestimated by the viewers. We live in era of Instagram garbage, small screens on which you can barely see anything, and so many photos online that no wonder people have troubles with recognizing what is the difference between quality work and something rather dull just colorful. Editing for me is an art form, and one has to be an artist to be able to edit images with a vision, sense of beauty and consistency of ever-evolving style. Being a multi-genre artist, I enjoy merging various forms of visual arts together, be it digital art and photography, creating photo manipulations, or by merging Japanese or Chinese calligraphy art of my authorship with my photography. Calligraphy can be intimidating due to its highly abstract nature, but when accompanied by an image, it much more approachable and perhaps can be appreciated from a different angle.

Calligraphy art in semi-cursive script: 雲中白鶴 (lit. white crane in clouds / meaning; someone of pure heart and transcendent character)

 model: Lena

model: Lena

My Japanese calligraphy teacher - Grand Master Kajita Esshuu (梶田越舟)

I have been studying Japanese calligraphy for about 14 years now, and from the very beginning I was extremely lucky to be accepted by Grand Master Kajita Esshuu (梶田越舟) .as his disciple.  I have spent over 20 years of my life in various schools, including two universities, overseas schools, etc., yet still he is hands down the best teacher and mentor I have ever head. Grand Master Esshuu is so peaceful and humble that one can almost forget how insanely knowledgeable this man really is. He is a descendant of great Japanese Masters, historical Japanese calligraphers, such as Grand Master Kusabe Meikaku 日下部鳴鶴 (1938 - 1922), who had 3000 disciples and was known as one of the Three Brushes of Meiji Era (three greatest calligraphers of Meiji Era), Grand Master Hidai Tenrai (比田井天来, 1972 - 1939), who was known as the father of modern Japanese calligraphy, and Grand Master Kuwahara Suihou (桑原翠邦, 1906 - 1995), who was so respected in Japan, that he was asked by the Imperial couple to assist them to the mausoleum of Hidai Tenrai and introduce them to his works. Here is a portrait of Esshuu sensei that I took recently. I made it into a faded and slightly damaged photo, and contrasted it against his genuine carefree smile, which is something you cannot find on antique photographs. I thought it would bridge between what is in the past and the present times.

Finally found time to take a new updated profile photo for all of my websites

For some time now I was meaning to take a new profile photo, that would be lighter in form, more clear, but at the same time a photo that would stay in the artsy mood and would reflect my personality and character. My current one was a bit too gloomy and dark, and even I was getting scared looking at it at 12am in the evening. I looked a bit like a Frankenstein suffering from s social phobia. Portraits and headshots are really important in the modern age of the Internet, where most of the people will see your photo before meeting you, so it is always good to leave a half decent impression with your profile shot. Browsing the net or social sites, or even professional sites like LinkedIn, one can easily see that there are tons of people out there who really need a new headshot. So I asked my wife to take me a new one and she did a really fantastic job. Now I have to update all 560 million of my websites.... now you know why I was putting it off :-)

 Ponte Ryuurui (品天龍涙)

Ponte Ryuurui (品天龍涙)

Portrait photography at cosplay Event in Tokyo in Kaihim Makuhari Messe

Every large city is full of characters and fun events. Tokyo is just crazy, you can find literally everything here. Cosplay events are extremely popular, and are a phenomenal feast for portrait or event photographers. They are loaded with exhibitionists who love to perform, and have their photos taken. Here things are very organized, and one has to stand in line to wait for his or her turn to photograph a model. The business cards are exchanged, the bows are being performed and photographer after photographer is taking exactly the same photos, because the cosplay artists have only set poses and they stick to them. Now what is curious, taking photographs before your turn comes up is seen as impolite, which is rather disappointing because the best photos that I took during this event, were taken when I was not supposed to take them. The best portrait photos are usually taken when the model does not expect it. They feel natural and interesting, especially when captured from a third person view, like this one, which turns the photo from a simple headshot, into a much more complex story. 

 Cosplay artist posing for a photographer in Tokyo

Cosplay artist posing for a photographer in Tokyo