There is an old adage – “Life is a journey – and not a destination”. I think a lot of photographers would agree that photography can borrow the same travel-related axiom, but include several more metaphors. Our journey as photographers includes a lot of tollgates (buying gear), traffic lights (time and commitment barriers) and multiple intersections that need to be navigated during the trip. It was the intersection of three different events in my life that shaped my passion for street photography in China & Hong Kong using Fuji X gear. Each event separately would not have gotten me here – but the combination of all three has shaped the photographer that I am now.
First – I was a relatively serious photographer in high school and college. I used Canon gear back in the ‘70’s to shoot film. I had my own darkroom and printed black & white, then color prints while in college. When I was a teenager I met a local newspaper editor who gave me press passes to photograph rock concerts. Photographing so many big rock stars up close was an amazing opportunity for a teenager in the 70’s! I was a double major at the University of Notre Dame – studying both industrial design and photography. After graduation I wanted to work at one of the big photography studios in Chicago. After interviewing with a couple studios I discovered that I would be trading my diploma from a prestigious university for a job that would require me to live at the poverty level because the wages were so low. I quickly pivoted back to industrial design, which was a significantly more lucrative career path. Over the years I’ve blended photography with design, but never at a very serious level.
Second – My career in industrial design quickly evolved into a combination of design and product sourcing in Asia. I’ve designed many types of consumer products in my career and part of my job has involved getting the products manufactured in China. I’ve been working with Chinese factories for the last 30 years. After my team completes the designs in the US we travel to China to manage the ramp-up process. This can be either a very busy period, or it could involve waiting for long stretches of time to review samples. It was during the slow times that I began photographing China.
Third – About seven years ago my wife and I separated and later divorced. I realized I would have a gap in my life that needed to be filled with something constructive, so I decided to re-enter the world of photography. I finally had the time to devote to something that I was once very passionate about. I possessed the age, wisdom and patience to do it right this time. I bought some medium-grade Nikon gear and started re-learning photography. I committed myself to learning both the current methods as well as the history of photography.
These three elements have provided me with the necessary pieces to begin some serious work – but what kind of photography would I pursue? I guess you could say that I “tripped over street photography.” I didn’t even know it was a genre of photography when I began photographing people in the village where I worked near Shenzhen. I would stroll the alleys and photograph the friendly faces of the people in the shops and restaurants that I frequented. After doing this for several months I decided this was going to be the direction I would take and began researching street photography on the internet. I started studying the masters in the field and poured over thousands of images on the web to develop inspiration for my work. I decided to merge my China travel with street photography so I was more productive during my frequent trips. Instead of sitting in my hotel room watching CNN I was now out creating street photos. Mostly bad ones in the beginning.
I live in the US, but I spend about 3 months every year working and traveling in China. In the beginning I was rather timid and would take photos from a distance. Over the years I’ve become more-and-more confident and now I get very close to people when I take a photo. After traveling to China for so many years I’m now sorry I hadn’t begun taking photos earlier so I could have documented the evolution of the country during the rapid growth years in cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai.
I typically spend most of my time in “factory cities” like Shenzhen, Dongguan, Ningbo and Yangjiang. Over the years I’ve traveled to most of the big cities in China (Beijing, Guangzhou & Shanghai), but still prefer the smaller working towns. I don’t speak very much Chinese, but I know how to ask permission to take a photo – which I’ve only used three times. The rest of the time I quickly take a photo, give the person a “thank you smile” and move on.
My work is probably best categorized as street photography, but some of it could also be called photo journalism or “street portraiture.” It seems those genres are all blurred together these days. I try to single out people instead of shooting large crowds. It’s important to me that you can see people’s faces – especially their eyes. I rarely take photos of the back of people’s heads. Most of the time I use a wide angle lens so I can capture both the person as well as their environment. I typically crop the image so I can craft the composition twice – once when I take the photo and a second time on the computer. This give me a lot of control when shooting quickly. When I was shooting with a Nikon I would use the 11-16mm Tokina zoom lens. About a year and a half ago I made the transition to using Fuji gear when I travel. I began by using the X-E2s, but then upgraded to the X-Pro2 after 9 months. The X-E2s was an okay camera, but the X-Pro2 has turned out to be the perfect camera for me. I use the (underrated) 14mm f2.8 lens for about ninety percent of my street photos. Sometimes I shoot street portraits with the absolutely brilliant 56mm f1.2 lens, but I prefer to get up close and shoot wider with the 14mm. All I carry in my bag is the X-Pro2 with two lenses, plus the new Godox TT350F for night & fill shots. This system is so much smaller and lighter than the big Nikon cameras I used to carry. The X-Pro2 body with a wrist strap is also small enough that I can “palm” the camera and point it in any direction – including behind me. (Yes – I have large hands.)
I also own the 18-55 zoom lens (which stays on my back-up X-E2s), the 35mm f2 (not my favorite focal length, but it’s my only weather sealed lens), the 27mm pancake, and the 55-230mm zoom (an incredible value when it’s on sale for US$199). These lenses usually stay at home when I travel to China unless I know I need a unique focal length. I bought the 55-230mm specifically for a couple shots I wanted in Beijing.
Some of my favorite photographs have come from crowded locations where I can get lost in the crowd and wander unnoticed. Grocery stores, wet markets, shopping malls and public parks are my go-to locations in a city. Now that I shoot with a smaller camera I don’t get noticed as often – except for the fact that I may be the only western person within 10 kilometers. People are curious as to why I’m there and forget about the camera I’m holding. My absolute favorite location is in Hong Kong, which is a street shooters paradise. Earlier this year I spent an afternoon in Mong Kok shooting about 1,200 frames using the 14mm lens. After processing the photos I edited most of the keepers into a short Adobe Spark video that documents my journey.
About 4 years ago I decided I wanted to enjoy photography both in China and the US, so I built my own studio and began taking portraits. This quickly evolved into a commercial photography studio so I could also take product photos for my company. I now take all of the tabletop photos for our catalog and website. Compared to street photography in China this seems pretty boring, but it has taught me a lot about lighting. I can take that knowledge to the streets and become a better photographer at remote locations. When you think about these two genres of photography they are at the two opposite ends of the spectrum. You have complete control over all the elements in the studio – but have virtually no control over anything in street photography.
I convert about 60% of my street photos to black and white images to simplify the composition. If I keep the color in the photo it’s because it adds to the composition. Those are the very simple guidelines I use in processing my images. I catalog everything in Lightroom and do some very light processing. Then I transfer the file to Photoshop for any final editing, often using Silver Efex Pro2 in the NIK collection for black & white conversion. I rarely spend more than 2 minutes processing any image. I typically process my RAW photos the same day I take them so I remember the experience and can capture the feeling of the moment. Usually I know if I’ve taken a “keeper” the instant I push the shutter release, so I always process those first. I feel like a child unwrapping an epic gift on Christmas morning.
I’ve tested other genres of photography, but keep coming back to street and studio. Recently I traveled to Iceland because I’ve seen so many beautiful photos of the island. During the trip I took a lot of landscape photos and realized that wasn’t for me. I would rather enjoy the beauty of the moment instead of taking photos. Most of my images looked like postcards that I could buy at a gift shop. So at the end of the trip I returned to Reykjavik, and took street photos for a day. I was finally back in my comfort zone.