Flower-Powered Therapeutic Photography (Podcast 733)

Flower-Powered Therapeutic Photography (Podcast 733)

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Still going stir-crazy here in Tokyo as the government swings between trying to keep the economy alive and trying to keep the population alive, I am watching the winter flush down the toilet, and having spent 20 hours straight on Monday trying to fix a broken website, I needed some therapeutic relief, and it needed to involve my camera and something pretty. My car battery has shuffled off its mortal coil too with me not driving it enough, so I took my trusty jump starter battery down to our car park, lifted the hood and started the car, then drove to my local garden center.

Somewhat disappointed that they only had a few bunches of flowers left, I reminded myself that it was already after 3 pm and bought two bunches then jumped back into my car before the brief charge the battery had received from the 10-minute drive was depleted, and drove back home to my studio. My Profoto strobe was already set up in a softbox, so I drew down my dark cloth background, placed the flowers on the table, and grabbed my macro lenses. I selected a Jazz album from trumpet player Ibrahim Mallouf to keep me company as I set about the task of driving myself sane with my camera and the newly acquired flowers.

I had two goals, which I’ll talk about in detail as we work through this today. The first was to shoot some soothing bokeh-filled abstract images which generally require a relatively shallow depth of field, and that isn’t difficult to achieve with macro photography, although the balance can be a bit tricky. The second goal was to finally figure out how to shoot another flower reflected in a water droplet. I’d tried this a number of times in the past but the technique had somehow escaped me until now, so I was determined to get this new arrow into my quiver. My plan was to spend the rest of my Thursday afternoon shooting and then create a Podcast about the experience on Friday. By the end of Thursday, I had my dreamy bokeh shots, but the droplet reflection required more time, so I picked up the process on Friday morning. I had a lot of fun and figured it all out, but as I sat down to prepare for this post it was already after 4 pm on Friday, so I had to finish and release this over the weekend.

We’ll start actually with this shot of my setup, as it’s important to understand how I got the look that I did in these images. As you know, I’ve switched to the Canon Mirrorless system and now using the EOS R5 as my main camera. I’ve replaced most of my EF lenses with RF lenses, but the Canon RF 85mm macro lens is not going to be a part of that. I don’t need a macro lens that can not shoot 1:1 or life-size images, and the 85mm only goes to 0.5 magnification, not 1:1, so it doesn’t really interest me.

Lifesize means that at the closest focus distance of the Macro lens, the subject on the sensor will be exactly the same size as it is in real life. So, for example, if I was to photograph a coin that measures say 20mm across, it will measure 20 mm on the sensor. A full-frame 35mm sensor is 24mm x 36mm, so that would leave 8mm on either side of the subject. I am still using my EF 100mm ƒ/2.8 Macro L lens, which takes me to life-size, or 1:1 magnification, and what’s even more fun, is that I still have my MP-E65mm ƒ/2.8 1-5X Macro lens, which is what you can see in this photo attached to my Canon EOS R5 via the EF to RF Control Ring Mount Adapter. I enjoy not having to use the adapter for my RF lenses, but for this work, I am happy to have the option to continue to use my old lenses.

The MP-E65mm ƒ/2.8 1-5X Macro lens with Canon EOS R5
The MP-E65mm ƒ/2.8 1-5X Macro lens with Canon EOS R5

The 1-5X designation in the lens name actually indicates that this lens enables me to photograph subjects up to 5X life-size, and as you’ll see, that enables some pretty close macro work, almost in the microscopic range. In this photo, I have extended the lens to 5X magnification. You can see the five yellow markers on the top of the lens barrel, and note how the front of the lens protrudes out almost as far as the length of the main lens barrel. The other thing to note about this lens is that there is no focus mechanism as such. You move the lens back and forth until the subject is in focus, and you can actually use the magnification zoom to focus as well, but that, of course, also changes the magnification, so if you don’t want that to happen, you move the lens.

That’s where the Macro Rail that you see the lens mounted on also comes in useful. With that, you can fine-tune the distance of the lens from the subject with the screws at the front and back of the Macro Rail. I used this setup for most of the images that we’ll look at from the first day of shooting, but for the droplet shots that we’ll also look at, I was mostly hand-holding the lens. That is possible because I was using a studio flash in a softbox, as opposed to natural light, which would have required me to continue to use the tripod and Macro Rail.

This first flower photo was shot with the lens set to 1X so this is exactly life-size, as in the flower is recorded on my sensor at exactly the same size that it is in real life. This shot is really to show you some detail before we dive into higher magnification. I left the aperture at ƒ/4, as I wanted to start to introduce some soft bokeh, but at this magnification, we still see a fair amount of detail. I enjoy how the tips of the petals are gradually reaching out of the bokeh though, and the top right and bottom center are starting to get a little bit dreamy too.

1:1 Lifesize
1:1 Lifesize

I’m not aware of any way to find out what magnification I was shooting at just from looking at the EXIF data in Capture One Pro. I’m using RawDigger to dive in find that information from deeper in the EXIF data than most image editing software will allow me to see. If I’m not mistaken, it was my friend Don Komarechka that originally put me on to RawDigger for this very reason.

This next image is actually closer to what I wanted to achieve with my dreamy bokeh shots. This was at 2X magnification, and as you can see, just doubling the magnification makes a huge difference as you dive into the double life-size macro realm. Note that I have increased the Clarity a little and added a subtle Luma Tonecurve to these shots in Capture One Pro, just to increase the tonality a little. As dreamy as I want these to be, I feel they need a little bit of help to enable us to appreciate the detail.

Dreamy Petals
Dreamy Petals

This next image was slightly more magnified at 2.4X life-size, and I have left my aperture at ƒ/4 to really start to emphasize the dreamy feel of the bokeh, achieving my goals still. I didn’t want too much detail in these images.

2.4X Magnification - Dreamier Still
2.4X Magnification – Dreamier Still

This next image was at 3X life-size now, still at ƒ/4 so the depth of field is now Razer-thin. I can learn from my Photographer’s Friend app that at 26 cm, which is the distance of the flower from the sensor, at 65mm with an aperture of ƒ/4 I had a depth of field of just 1mm. This look isn’t for everyone, I’m sure, but I really like this level of dreamy bokeh. I find this aesthetic really pleasing, and needless to say, I was having a lot of fun, chuckling to myself as I peered through the viewfinder and adjusted the Macro Rail and watched different parts of this flower come into, and go out, of focus.

3X Magnification - 1mm Depth of Field
3X Magnification – 1mm Depth of Field

For my next trick, we jump straight to 5X magnification, and I stopped down my aperture another stop to ƒ/5.6, which at the slightly longer distance of 30 cm gives me a depth of field of 2 mm.

5X Magnification - 2mm Depth of Field
5X Magnification – 2mm Depth of Field

OK, so I realize that I’m probably boring at least some of you now with these images being so similar, so let’s move on. I’d achieved my first goal of getting some dreamy bokeh shots. I continued on Thursday to try and get some flower reflected in water droplet shots, but the results weren’t great, and I was determined to figure this out for myself, rather than just going online and reading a tutorial, so I switched off my Profoto strobe and went downstairs for dinner.

Chrysanthemum Japonense

I started again on Friday morning with my EF 100mm f/2.8 L macro lens, as I wanted just a straight shot of one of the flowers, and you can see in this first photo from the morning. I like black and white flower shots as well as color, and I originally converted this first shot to black and white, but I wasn’t too happy about losing the yellow center. In the black and white shot, I’d used a tone curve on the entire image to increase contrast and used a Radial Mask to darken the tips of the petals a little to keep the eye in the middle of the image, so I decided to leave those in place and just go back to color, leaving me with the enhanced tones in the petals which I quite like. I stopped down to ƒ/10 for this shot to get a bit more depth of field, as I wanted more detail for this image.

Chrysanthemum Japonense
Chrysanthemum Japonense

If you are wondering how I get that black background in these images, I use a black cloth background that I have permanently set in my background pulley system along with a white background, but I also use a piece of black velvet with a slit cut into it, which I drape around the base the base of the flower, so that it’s completely encompassed by the black velvet. In fact, we’ll jump ahead and show you an iPhone photo that I was going to show you later, as this includes the background so that you can see what I’m talking about.

Placing a Droplet
Placing a Droplet

As you can see, the black cloth actually looks like a mid-grey in this shot, and the velvet appears much darker. When the bright light of the strobe in the soft-box hits the white of the flower, the contrast becomes so great that even the folds in the velvet pretty much disappear, leaving me with a clean black background. See here too that I used a syringe to place a droplet on the tip of a petal on the foreground flower and this is the actual positioning that I used for the following shot, in which you can see the results of my experimentation.

The syringe isn’t sharp. It has a dull needle, bought from the film development section of my local camera store. Its main purpose is measuring out small amounts of development chemicals, but I found it to be really good for placing a large droplet of water onto the petals of a flower for these droplet reflection shots. We’ll step back a few hours though, as I want to share one of the first images that I shot as I started to understand the technique. I shot this with my 100mm Macro lens and the aperture set to ƒ/14 for deeper depth of field. This is close to life-size magnification.

Flower in Droplet #1
Flower in Droplet #1

As you can see, the position of the two flowers is similar to the iPhone shot, and I was basically using the droplet like a little lens, through which the flower in the background was being focussed. I initially had the background flower much further away, and tried all sorts of positions, but this was the first time that I got a nicely shaped flower in the droplet, although I was also getting a reflection of parts of the nearby petals etc. and I really wanted to get a cleaner shot of the droplet with less distracting elements.

I found that I could move the background subject flower out of the frame if necessary, and still get a reflection, as you can see in this shot, but the reflected flower is facing downwards at a more acute angle, and I didn’t find that as pleasing to look at. I do like the overall composition though, with the out-of-focus petals on the foreground flower positioned nicely in the frame.

Flower in Droplet #2
Flower in Droplet #2

You might notice that I numbered my selects, and we’ll actually skip number three to save time, and that takes us to number four, which is the image that I shot shortly before getting my wife to photograph me putting the droplet on the flower which was the iPhone shot that I shared earlier. This was probably the first shot that I was really starting to feel happy with. The reflected flower was nice and clean, although I did have to clone out the reflection of my softbox, which crept into some of the droplets.

Flower in Droplet #4 (2.4X)
Flower in Droplet #4 (2.4X)

I continued to shoot and got a few more images that I like enough to add to my final selection. We’ll skip number five and take a look here at number six, in which I placed a huge droplet and learned that larger droplets tend to disfigure the reflected subject a little bit more as you place the subject away from the center of the droplet. This was shot at life-size, 1:1 magnification.

Flower in Droplet #6
Flower in Droplet #6

It’s fun to use the big droplets though, so I continued with this next shot, using a pink flower instead of white. I like the contrast in the colors in this shot, so although the reflected flower is cut off, I quite like the image overall. It was shot at 2X life-size with the 65mm macro lens.

Flower in Droplet #7
Flower in Droplet #7 (2X)

Finally, I reached for one of the yellow flowers that I had and created a huge droplet on the tip of a petal to create this last image that I wanted to share. As you can also see, I had moved the flower that I was reflecting in the droplet completely out of the frame, so I was pleased that I was able to under the positioning enough to do this. You can actually see the reflected flower with the naked eye as you line these shots up, so once I’d figured out the optimal distance to place the flowers apart, the rest was really just a case of experimenting and shooting, and repeating the process.

Flower in Droplet #8 (2.4X)
Flower in Droplet #8 (2.4X)

This was shot at 2.4X life-size with the 65mm lens again, and the aperture set to ƒ/11, for a deepish depth of field, but still plenty of dreamy bokeh, so this kind of wrapped up my day and a half of shooting with an image that realized both of my goals.

Of course, the bigger goal for the almost day and a half of shooting that I did, as I eluded to in the title of this post, was the therapeutic benefits of just having a camera in my hand. It’s been tough to watch the winter go by not being able to go out on tour with my guests that had booked on this year’s tours. I keep dreaming of being in the field with them, but things go wrong, and we can’t take photos, or can’t get to our destination etc. Almost every night my dreams remind me of where I’d rather be right now, and watching the Japanese government make one bad decision after another isn’t helping. There is a new minister in charge of getting the vaccinations done who I trust will do a better job, but with the government now prematurely lifting our state of emergency, I fear that things are going to get worse again before they get better.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to get some cherry blossom photos in our local park as we are allowed out again, and I’m pretty sure that next year’s winter tours will be fine, but it’s going to be a while before things are back to normal, and I really needed to just relax and enjoy some photography, so that was what I did, and I felt much better for it. If you are stuck indoors too, I hope that this might help to give you some ideas on how to relax with your camera. I’m a big believer in shooting what we love, and although flowers are low-hanging fruit, I generally enjoy photographing them, so all is good right now.

Show Notes

Get the MP-E65mm Macro Lens on B&H here: https://mbp.ac/mpe65mm

Here too is the 100mm Macro lens that I also used: https://mbp.ac/100mmMacro

Music by Martin Bailey


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Reflecting on 2019 and Looking Forward to 2020 (Podcast 691)

Reflecting on 2019 and Looking Forward to 2020 (Podcast 691)

As I sit in my studio on New Year’s Eve, 2019, writing the post for the last Podcast of the year, I’m feeling somewhat overwhelmed as I reflect on the year, and try to figure out where the last twelve months have gone. My plan for this post was to share my personal top ten photos for the year, but by the time I’d finished writing what I expected to be a few short paragraphs of reflection, I found myself with a full episode, so I’ll share my top ten next week.

2019 wasn’t a bad year, but as 2018 ended, I remember telling myself that 2019 was going to be better, and it was, although I was hoping it would be much better, not marginally. You might recall that I had issues in Morocco in 2018, both with the bullies on the Customs gate, and with a mysterious illness that knocked me for six towards the end of the tour, and kept me from doing anything at all for two full weeks after I returned home.

We never did find out what it was, but it took a seven-day course of antibiotics to rid me of the cough and congestion, and I was still as week as a kitten when we finally got rid of it by around the end of the first week of December. A doctor would later look at my blood test results and tell me in hindsight that I should have been hospitalized. I was really ill, my wife and I both knew that, but the doctor that I did see apparently didn’t have it in him to read my blood test results.

As weak as I felt though, here in Japan, it’s customary to clean the house before the year ends, so that we leave our dirt in the previous year and enter the New Year clean. One of my main jobs in this period is to clean our windows. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I only clean our windows once a year, at this time, but like the elderly Japanese men that make their wives cry by saying thank you very seldom, it’s always really nice to see the crisp winter sun shining through our freshly cleaned windows as we wind down for the year.

I was so weak at the end of 2018 I recall really struggling to clean my windows, and I really only started to get my strength back as I embarked on the first of my three winter tours here in Japan. I’m setting off for the first of the 2020 tours in less than a week now, and I am looking forward immensely to meeting this year’s groups and spending some time with Brian Matiash on our Landscape Tour, which is going to be a blast. I intend to take my new Rollei TLR camera and a box of film too, and I hope to get some nice medium format shots of the winter landscape, as time allows.

The tours went great in 2019 as did my Namibia Tour in May, and I’d looked forward to spending the second half of 2019 completing my new Mentorship system, but a number of hiccups prevented me from completing the final steps, so that’s coming in the Spring of 2020 now. Despite my not planning an autumn tour to make time to complete it, that time ran away from me due to various personal issues. I’m not going to go into detail, but let’s just say that the mid-fifties for turned out to be very tough on my wife and I as we came to terms with getting older.

I’d also had a runny-nose after my Moroccan malaise, and thought it was some kind of allergy, until a hospital visit between my second and third winter tours resulting in us finding out that I was leaking cerebrospinal fluid. It turns out that there’s a hole in my dura mater left by the brain tumor that I had surgery to remove nine years ago, and the coughing in November and December had torn the wound from the surgery at the back of my nose, allowing the fluid to leak out.

The doctors wanted to operate to block it up, but I asked them to get my historical yearly MRI files from their main hospital and when I returned from my third winter tour an inspection of the files shows that I’ve been leaking CSF for around five years now, and I’ve been fine, the main problem was the tear from the coughing, which I opened up myself, so I figured I could also close it up, and so that’s what I did. I took it easy for a few months, and by April the leak sealed itself. That was a bit scary again for a while, but all is good again now, so nothing to worry about. It’s going to take more than a hole in my brain to stop this photographer from enjoying life to the full.

I did learn a few things from this last year though, and apart from the importance of not coughing too hard and too often, I learned that I need to spend more quality time with my wife, and I also learned that my time management skills are going to pot. There’s probably a disorder name for what I have, but I tend to work way too hard on projects that I dream up, and they completely consume me until I reach a point where I can back off from them again.

My latest project started around 10 days ago and has pretty much kept me down-periscope until today. I was working on a shell script to update the EXIF data in images that I’ve shot on film and scanned into my computer. I am relatively accustomed to updating EXIF data with ExifTool by Phil Harvey but remembering the commands and keeping snippets for the various things that I do is tedious and error-prone.

I decided to write myself a shell-script so that I could easily recall commands and apply changes to my scanned film images, but after writing that for a day, I had something that I realized would be useful for others shooting film, and the following nine days disappeared down a black hole as I wrote over 500 lines of code to enable the script to ask the user for answers to some generic information about themselves, like their name and camera model etc. and then store that in a file for future use, before moving on to ask information about each individual image.

MBP Exif Updater
MBP Exif Updater

The script now traverses a directory of images and asks for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO information as well as focal length, date and time and then embeds the information into the EXIF data before automatically moving to the next image. There are a few finishing touches to be coded, but I intend to start selling the script for a small payment over the next few days, so stay tuned for that if you shoot film and have been looking for an easy way to input your shooting information. I know that there are other tools available, but none of them work the way my new script does, and I personally prefer what I’ve created, so I hope others find it useful too.

Back to my point though, I am going to back off from this for the next day or so, to ensure that I enjoy the year-end and New Year celebrations with my wife, especially as I’ll be leaving her alone as I travel with my winter tour groups, and that’s always somewhat stressful for her as well.

As I’m talking about my wife, I wanted to mention one last thing related to my reflection of the last year, and that is that someone emailed me during the year to say that they were disappointed about the fact that I’d said that my wife isn’t able to help much with my business. They felt that I’d been unkind in my remark because there must be ways in which she helps me. I sent a detailed reply spelling out the reasons for the comment, but didn’t receive a reply, so I wanted to mention it here in case that person is still listening, but also, in case I happened to offend anyone else with my remark.

I’d basically said that I’d really like to be able to hire someone to help out because my wife can’t help with much of what I do. To hopefully avoid misunderstanding, I wanted to add that my wife cannot use a computer. She can send text messages on her phone and knows how to use some of our electronic appliances better than me, but when it comes to computers, she is not able to use them, at all. I’m not saying that to put her down. I’m just stating a fact. And it’s that fact that prevents her from being able to do many of the tasks that I would like to get help with. Financially, I’m still not in a position to hire anyone full-time, but if I was, realistically why would I hire someone that cannot use a computer when 90% of the work I need help with is performed on a computer?

Having said that, in my brevity I upset this particular listener by not going on to say that there are things that my wife helps with and that I am incredibly grateful for. She keeps our receipts in order to take them to our accountant. I have to input the information into our accounts, as that’s a computer job, but she makes sure that they are all in order and nothing is missing. On the rare occasion now that I do a commercial shoot, she does a great job of helping me to set up studio gear, and there is a certain amount of paperwork that we do each month that involves handwriting documents. Although I can read and write Japanese, her hand-writing is much neater than mine, so it always looks better if she does this. We pay her a part-time salary for her time and I do really appreciate the work that she does, so I’m sorry if anyone else thought I was disrespectful with my comment.

I do wonder if this person had listened to many other episodes though. I would hope that a long time listener would also have heard me talk about how much I respect my wife’s opinion on my images. When I have an important image selection process to complete, I always ask her opinion before finalizing the edit. She is not only impartial, but she also has a great eye, and most importantly, she is not afraid to tell me when something sucks. In any creative pursuit, it’s vitally important to have a trusted critique to provide advice, and in my life, that is one of the rolls that my wife is great at.

Having said that much, I should also go on to say that she’s also my best friend. We have long talks, which we both enjoy, and she sometimes makes me laugh so hard that we both end up crying. And sometimes she is so deep and profound, that we once again both end up crying. If I ever made anyone think that she’s anything less than amazing and the most important thing to me on this planet, then I apologize, and I assure you, it was purely unintentional. Unfortunately, like my late father, I sometimes have trouble talking properly because of the foot that ends up in my mouth a little more than most people.

Anyway, we’ll wrap it up there for this year. I hope 2020 brings us all everything that we hope for, and more importantly, that we and our loved ones enjoy good health throughout the year and beyond. All the best!

Show Notes

Music by Martin Bailey


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My Journey – Just Getting Started (Podcast 402)

My Journey – Just Getting Started (Podcast 402)

Having just achieved that major milestone of 400 Podcast episodes, a lot of people have asked me to reflect on my journey and how I go to this point in my life. The end of a year is always a good time to reflect on what got us to where we are, so I thought this would be a good time to do this, as we set our sites firmly on the future.

Use this audio player if you’d prefer to listen:

There’s not a lot of photography related information for the first part of this, but I do want to give you a bit of information on my early years, because they were an important aspect in shaping who I am today. Although not totally relevant, I’ve been asked enough times to talk more about this, so here we go…

I was born obviously in England, in a small town called Long Eaton, between Nottingham and Derby. I spent a lot of time in the local park and countryside as a kid, getting filthy in the woods, and swimming in the canal etc. I left high school at 16, as we do in England, and this was in 1983, in the middle of Thatcher’s Britain.

Unemployment was at record highs, and there were strikes and riots happening all over the country. No-one that I can recall from School went to university. I myself was a terrible student. I was more interested in showing off in front of my friends than studying, but there seemed little point anyway, with no jobs waiting for us, and I hadn’t yet learned the worth of an education and making your own future.

My first job was a training scheme working as a mechanic, for which I earned a whopping £25 a week, which is about $40. This was for a 40 hour week, so about a dollar an hour. I moved on to a slightly better job fitting burglar alarms and after doing that for a while, I went self employed, on the advice of the owner of the company, with the promise of higher pay. It was a three man company. Two partners and me, and they split the partnership and I went to work for one of the partners.

Lessons Learned

It wasn’t until I went self-employed that I realized that this was just a way of letting me go without any severance. Pretty much as soon as I was no longer an employee, the contracts dried up, and I had to start thinking of my next job, and learned an important lesson in trust and business, although it wouldn’t be the last time I’d fall foul like this.

I didn’t resent the old boss at all. I didn’t want a hand-out. It was one man trying to feed his family, and although I should have been smarter, the lesson I learned was worth more than any pittance of severance pay that he could have offered. I’d probably not have taken it anyway, however entitled I might have been.

I learned a lot of things as a result of my own naivety, and my parents left me to make my own mistakes. I was still only 17, but I didn’t really talk with my parents about stuff like this. They had been divorced for a few years and although I still saw my Dad regularly, neither of them ever tried to steer me in any direction. Their philosophy was to let me make my own mistakes, and then I’d have no one to blame but myself when things went wrong.

I didn’t want a factory job, but with nothing else available, I took a job at the Leavers Lace factory where my Mum worked doing accounts. At least there was a chance of making a trade out of this job though. I quickly moved into a position where I would apprentice as a Leavers Lace engineer, or a Twist-hand, as they’re known. As I learned the trade my salary increased to a point where I was earning more than all of my friends.

At the end of the day though, it was still a factory job, and once you learned how to run the big old lace machines, it wasn’t very challenging. Despite being a terrible student at school, I found myself wanting to use my brain. I had started to look into going to classes to learn German, when I walked into the factory canteen one Monday morning and saw an ad in the local paper for a job in Japan, making lace.

Life Changing Move

I went for the interview, and within a week I landed in Tokyo, and was whisked off to Fukushima, where I worked doing the same job, making lace, on 100 year old Nottingham lace machines, for a further four years. Now though, I was in a position to learn Japanese, which I thought was pretty cool. I did the job, and in the evenings spent hours each day studying Japanese. I learned a lot of vocabulary and grammar in the first year, and then started to study reading and writing, taking another two years to learn all 2,000 or so daily use Kanji characters.

After almost four years though, the contract was not extended, and as the other five Englishman that I’d spent the last few years working with left for home, I moved to Sendai, and put my savings towards putting myself through college. Moving to Japan had changed my life. I finally understood the worth of studying.

College was great. I was finally able to give the old grey matter a workout. I spent a couple of years learning multimedia, including computer science, computer graphics and even Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. This gave me a great base, and having learned Japanese, and now having a good foundation in computer skills, I was snapped up by a new company being formed in Tokyo when I graduated.

It was at this point that I found out that I’d been lied to again. When I joined the college the guy that was recruiting foreign students, mainly Korean and Chinese students, had told me that I’d qualify for a visa to work in Japan when I graduated, but this wasn’t true. It was only a 2 year college course, and although if it had been a 2 year university course I would have qualified, college doesn’t mean zip in Japan, so I had to go back to England.

That didn’t turn out to be a bad thing though. I was able to renovate the old house that I’d bought when I was 19 and most importantly I was able to be with my Dad when he died of cancer. Within a few months of arriving back in England in April 1997 he was diagnosed with stomach cancer that had spread to his spine. He died six months later, but I spend his last night at the side of his hospital bed, which would never have happened if I’d still been in Japan.

I got a job supporting the Japanese translation team at an AS400 software company in Birmingham, which I did for two years, while almost daily refusing contracts for work in the London area. I’d signed up with a bunch of recruiting agencies when I first arrived back in England, and got calls literally almost daily. Continuing the education theme, I studied for and passed then six Microsoft exams to obtain an MSCE or Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer qualification, which I was really proud of at the time, and it was making me more enticing to various companies.

I didn’t want to move to London, and so had refused them all, until one day I received a call from a UK R&D center for a Florida company called Citrix Systems, and for some reason, the job just felt right. I went for the interview, got the job, and worked for them as a contractor for a year, but I was commuting and working four days each week from Monday to Thursday, staying in a bed and breakfast and then going home to Nottingham for the weekend.

Although I was enjoying the work, the commute started to become a bit tedious, so I was ready to start looking for work closer to home when the director called me into his office and asked me if I was interested in working in Tokyo on a new R&D team they were starting. I just asked where I needed to sign. I worked in the UK for a few more months as we sorted out my visa, and then returned to Japan, to Tokyo in August 2000.

The Cocoon Building

The Cocoon Building

The city was a lot different to Fukushima in the countryside, and even Sendai, which is the largest city in Tohoku, the north-eastern part of Japan, but I got used to it, and my wife and I settled down in an apartment in Meguro for the next ten years. I continued to enjoy the work, but during those ten years photography became an increasingly important part of my life.

The Photography

Stepping back in time again now, I had my first exposure to photography on holidays with my friend Jim and his parents. Jim’s dad, also Jim (actually Robert, but we called him Jim), had an old Russian Zenit camera, and would sometimes allow me to look through the viewfinder and release the shutter as he photographed the landscapes in Cornwall. These memories were from holidays when I was 10 and 11, so back in 1978, 79.

I’d actually played with an old Polaroid years before, that my Dad brought home, but then promptly sold when he realized how expensive the film was. This recollection was way too faint to be able to claim that I’d been “into” photography since I was a kid though. After the occasional frame with my friend’s Dad’s Zenit, I bought a crappy 110 film camera when I was about 15, and enjoyed capturing holiday snaps with that too, but didn’t really start to seriously consider what I was doing photographically until I was in my early twenties.

I had started hiking in the Peak District in Derbyshire and took with me literally a plastic 35mm film camera with a plastic lens, but I really started to think about my subjects and framing from this time. For the next few years though, my successes were more happy accidents, but I was starting to develop my eye from around this time.

Shortly after this, I moved to Japan the first time in 1991, when I was 24, and the totally different culture and beautiful countryside of northern Japan screamed out to be photographed. I bought my first SLR camera in the first year in Fukushima, and started hiking in the nearby mountains.

My brother had given me a book on photography for Christmas, I think it was the Christmas that I came to Japan, and I went through that book with a fine-toothed comb while staying in the hotel that was my home for the first six months in Fukushima. I learned a lot of good basics, and also read that serious photographers used slide film, and having given FujiChrome Velvia a try early on I was hooked on the quality. I also found the necessity to get the exposure just right a stimulating challenge and this is probably why “ideal” exposure and exposing to the right has been such a large part of my photography to the present.

After I’d been in Japan for just over a year, in 1992 I made a trip to Mount Fuji and climbed through the night with two friends then froze our asses off as we waited for the sun to rise. When it did, there was a wave of warmth as welcomed as the beauty of that sunrise–both of which are still very fond memories. It’s hard to believe thinking back that this was almost 22 years ago now.

One Camera and Three Lenses for 10 Years!

Considering the pace at which we go through camera bodies and lenses as the resolution of digital increases, my second SLR camera that I bought back then, an EOS 1oo, was my only camera for 10 years. I owned three lenses too. A 24mm f/2.8 prime lens, and a 35-135mm and a 100-300mm zoom. The 24mm was a great lens for the price, but the two zooms were absolute crap. I was happy enough with them though, until digital showed me their flaws.

Probably one of my favorite photos from these early years is this one (below), shot an hour or so after sunrise, as we started our decent from the summit of Mount Fuji. I’d been learning composition and lighting and knew enough by this point to frame the shot in a pretty pleasing way, and I placed the sun behind the bar of the Torii, which is a Shinto Gate, to stop the flare and so was starting to understand techniques and think about how I made my images. I was obviously drawn to the shot by this western couple hugging as they enjoyed the sunrise.

Mount Fuji Torii Hug

Mount Fuji Torii Hug

I had a couple of dry years while attending the college in Sendai. Not only could I not afford to buy film or get it processed, I was working in a bar for a while, and then as an English Conversation teacher for the last 18 months of college to help pay my tuition fees. I was at college all day and at the school until after nine every night, and worked Saturdays too, and Sunday’s become my only day to do household chores and have a bit of a rest, so photography was forced to the back burner.

I took my camera back to England too, but was too busy working and trying to build a life to really do much photography during those three years as well. I bought my first digital camera, a Canon PowerShot S10, during a business trip to Florida  just before I came back to Japan in 2000. That was a piece of crap too, but it was enough to get me started in digital, and got me thinking about buying my first Digital SLR, which was the incredibly expensive at the time, EOS D30.

This was only 3 megapixel camera, but it really pulled me back into photography with a vengeance. It was from this time that I started to make the effort to get up at ridiculous hours and drive through the night for a dawn shoot. I started to spend weekends out doing photography, and one of my earliest favorites with the D30 was this photo of Mount Fuji at dawn. By this time I was really appreciating how light effects the scene, and how adding an additional element like the fisherman in the boat to the left of this image, can really help to build their appeal.

Mount Fuji at Dawn

Mount Fuji at Dawn

The cameras started to change faster, with resolution doubling every few years, and with that the flaws in even the early L lenses started to show. I remember an early argument with my wife about buying new lenses. When I bought the D30, I thought that I would only need to replace the body, because I already had three lenses that had been fine for the previous 10 years to that point. I soon found that the quality just wasn’t up to scratch though, and started down the slippery L lens slope, and then as resolution increased, even had to start replacing them.

Luckily for me, I was in a good job, and was able to buy a few key items, and as the quality of my images increased, sharing images on the Internet started to become much easier and more accessible. Towards the end of 2003, I felt as though it was time to start and build a Web presence, so 10 years ago now, was when I registered and started to build Martin Bailey Photography, with the current domain name.

I built in the ability to sell prints, and started to make the occasional sale, which was incredibly confidence building. Then, almost two years after that, a friend from the UK sent me a short email that would change my life. He introduced me to Podcasts.

As soon as I heard Brooks Jensen’s LensWork Podcast and Chris Marquardt’s Tips From the Top Floor podcast, I knew that this was something that I needed to start. Before the end of the week I had built a back-end to register and maintain my Podcast entries in a database, and build a feed for iTunes, and a Podcasts page for people to download the media files directly.

I recorded Episode #1 The Pink Flamingo’s Stare and released it shortly before another business trip to Florida. The response blew me away. It was a time when Podcasts were new, and people were hungry for them. Most of all, I produced the third Photography related Podcast available, so people picked up on it quickly. There was still no way to see just how many people were downloading the episodes, but the amount of email of support that I received blew me away.

The Pink Flamingo's Stare

The Pink Flamingo’s Stare

Honestly though, I can’t listen to that original episode. The audio quality and production make me cringe, but it was a start. It turned out to be not just the start of a new Podcast, but the start of my road to a more enriched and fulfilling photographic life. I won’t go into detail here, but in the Craft & Vision PHOTOGRAPH digital magazine, Issue #5, I wrote about The Mental Checklist.

Although my goal with the Podcast was to help others based on my own photography related experiences, I started to find myself running through a mental checklist as I worked, and started to prevent mistakes in my photography and improve my composition etc. just by thinking through each step, as though I was preparing to record the next episode of the Podcast. There’s a huge lesson to be learned here, as we can all do this, and this is what my article in PHOTOGRAPH was all about, so do grab a copy if you are interested in hearing more.

Never Stop Learning

It’s ironic though, that I thought I was a good enough photographer to try to help others when I started the Podcast in September 2005, but that same Podcast then went on to help me improve my photography. It also goes to show that we never “arrive” as such. I’m still learning every time I pick up my camera, or when I open a new book or ebook on photography.

I talked about some of my other major turning points in August (2013) in Episode #383, so again, I won’t go into too much detail, but things continued to grow, and I found myself doing our first Hokkaido Winter Wonderland Workshop  at the end of January in 2008, almost two and a half years after starting the Podcast. I just about broke even if you don’t include all the gear I bought based on what I’d seen the participants bring along with them, but the money was not the important part of this first tour.

Starting is the Most Important Part

One of the most difficult things to do is to actually start something. People spend so much time dreaming of what they want to do, and often spend countless hours even planning how to make it happen, but then fail to take that final step, and actually start the wheels in motion. Needless to say, if you don’t start, you’ll never know if it would have been a success or a failure.

The worst part about that is that because you didn’t actually fail, you move on to the next idea with a faint feeling of success and satisfaction, but because you didn’t actually do anything, you don’t have the confidence to start the next project either. I think it’s vitally important to actually start something, and see how it flies. If it doesn’t fly, at least then you’ll learn what doesn’t work, and hopefully apply that experience to your next idea.

Apart from my tendency to over-trust people sometimes, another thing that I’ve learned over the last ten years is that people are much faster with their mouths than their wallets. When I first started to talk about that first Hokkaido Workshop, I had twelve people that had told me that they would definitely come if I did the planning and made it happen. Even though everyone knew when it was going to happen, I ran that tour with 5 participants.

Manhattan Skyline

Manhattan Skyline

The same thing happened when I planned the Pixels 2 Pigment workshops in 2012. Those workshops and the tour was a huge success in that I paid for a world tour and met some amazing people as well as getting to meet a lot of business associates and friends in person for the first time, but it cost me a couple of thousand dollars in the end.

Why? Because I didn’t have a booking page ready when I did my Webinar with Photoshelter and X-Rite. We had hundreds of people watching, and I knew that I had to have a registration button ready and actually get a deposit from people as we were live, but one of the venues did not get back to me in time for me to lock in on the schedule.

Force Commitment

I knew this was a huge risk, but the dates of the Webinar were set, so we went ahead, and I asked people to sign up for a newsletter, if they were definitely ready to sign up for the tour once I was able to send them a registration link. The Webinar resulted in over a hundred registrations, and by the time we were able to lock in on the dates I had enough people signed up to make the tour relatively profitable.

Remember that each of these people had signed up on the understanding that I only wanted to hear from people that would definitely attend the workshop, but when I send out the final notification and request, only 20% of the list signed up. Of course, I totally appreciate those people coming on board, but 80% of the definite attendees didn’t come. Some of them even emailed terse replies that they could not even remember signing up for the newsletter.

This is how it is. If you want to make something happen, have a sign up button in place from the start. You might get less people actually signing up, but if you ask for money to force the commitment, you reduce the number of tire-kickers considerably.

No Complaints

The last thing that I want you do here though, is think that I’m complaining–far from it. I learned an important lesson early on, and then confirmed what I already knew with the Pixels 2 Pigment sign-up process. At the end of the day though, I am eternally grateful to those first five Hokkaido Workshop participants, and to every person that has joined my subsequent tours. Every person that joined the Pixels 2 Pigment workshops too.

Remember, that every person that attends something like this is trusting you with their hard earned money. Every one of you that is currently listening to or reading this Podcast, is giving me your precious time, and I’m incredibly humbled by the fact that you do that, and I’m always over the moon when I’m able to help or inspire people in any way.

In Japan they have a saying that kindness is not for the sake of the receiver. This is often misunderstood these days, as people think that it means you shouldn’t spoil people by being kind to them, but the original meaning is that being kind to others is for your own sake, not theirs. I’m a firm believer in this philosophy. It always feels good to help others, and although as a business we have to make money with some of our services and products,  just the fact that I’m able to help so many people with their photographic lives is compensation enough.

Nothing More Expensive Than Free!

Another thing that I’ve not done often but have learned the hard way recently, is not to try to cut corners financially. Until about two years ago, I used to pay for a Vimeo Plus account, that gave me the ability to upload and display full 1080p HD video. This used to cost me just $49 a year. Then, Google Plus came along and shortly after the ability to record Hangouts on Air, which is basically live video streamed and recorded to YouTube. I’d never been a huge fan of YouTube, but decided make a go of it, and uploaded most of my videos there, after all, it’s free!

Almost immediately I started to copyright strikes against my The Moon video, a simple but quite beautiful bit of video footage of the moon traversing the frame of the camera over 5 minutes, which I set to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I bought a license for the music from UniqueTracks, and included the license information in the credits of the video as per instructions in the License document.

Unfortunately the robots that listen to the audio in videos don’t read the credits, and I was plagued by these claims from the word go. Although these claims were often dropped quite quickly, this problem came to a head at the beginning of December, when UMG refused to release their claim. At the risk of having to fight this case in a court of law, I countered the claim and caused a bit of a stir with an open letter to YouTube and Google about this issue.

Finally, on the morning of Dec 26 the claim was released, so I went to the video to delete to stop myself from getting another copyright strike, only to find that another robot had already tagged the video. The problem here is that if you have a copyright strike against your YouTube account, you can’t record Hangouts on Air, and I need to be able to do that, so I couldn’t delete the video while it had a strike against it or the strike would remain on my account.

Finally yesterday, I checked my YouTube account and found that this last claim had been released, so I deleted the video while I could. It’s a shame that Google’s business model for YouTube is based on slapping ads on videos that infringe copyright laws, and have no way of protecting honest content creators, but the reason I raise this today, is to make the point, as my wife often says, sometimes “nothing is as expensive as free”.

Although somewhat out of characters, I’d figured that it would be a good idea to save $49 a year by moving to YouTube. After all, every yen that comes into this household is now much harder to earn than it ever was. Ultimately though, if you calculate the amount of time I’ve spend fighting more than 10 copyright claims over the last few years, we’re probably talking well over $4,000 worth of my time, not to mention all the stress this has caused me.

I’m not usually that frugal a person, and I’ve never been afraid of investing a little money here and there to help with my business, but this time I screwed up. I’ve recently just paid $199 to Vimeo for their PRO account, and unless they let the copyright vultures in like YouTube, I’ll be happy to continue to pay this for the foreseeable future.

The Jump to Full Time

Anyway, moving on, so I started my workshops, and I started to attract the occasional sponsor for the Podcast, and print sales started to increase. I started to feel as though there was a possibility of going full time with my photography. Having lived in Japan for 10 years, I’d just taken Japanese citizenship, as I never wanted to have to worry about visas again.

Although I was mostly still happy in my old job, I started to feel confident that I was close enough to making a go of photography full time, if I could use all of my time to forward my business. Plus, I had my first Antarctica tour coming up, and I did not have enough paid leave left to do it after taking time off to run my Japan Winter Wonderland tours and a few photography assignments here and there. The time had come to cut the cord.

I handed in my notice and left my old job towards the end of 2010, and incorporated Martin Bailey Photography K.K. The K.K. is the Japanese Kabushiki Kaisha, more commonly spoken as Kabushikigaisha, which is the same as adding Inc. to the end of a western company name.

Work Hard and Make It Happen!

It’s not been easy, but with a lot of hard work, we’re now in the black, at the start of our fourth fiscal year. Writing for Craft & Vision has been incredibly enabling for me, and I’m eternally grateful to David duChemin and the Craft & Vision team for inviting me on board. It was of course the hard work that I’d put in to creating and putting out content, and proving that I could write and teach that contributed to this happening.

I’ve worked harder over the last three and a half years since making the jump than I have ever done in my life. But it’s been a labor of love. I can’t stress enough how unbelievably liberating it is to steer your own ship on the seas of business. One of the things that was starting to get frustrating in my old job, was not having the power to decide the direction of my team, even as a senior manager.

Now I decide what gets done and what doesn’t. I am of course the one that has to do that work too, but when it’s work you decide needs doing, you put your back into it and get it done, one task as a time. One of the biggest misconceptions that I had though, was that I’d have more time for photography once this was all I had to do. That just isn’t the case. I spent the whole of Christmas day this year preparing my accounts for a boxing day visit to my accountant.

Fortune Favors the Hard Worker

There is no doubt that a good part of my success so far, comes down to the kindness of people like David and the Craft & Vision team for giving me a chance to write for them, as well as people that have teamed up with me to make some of my international tours possible, and of course to every person that has attended my tours and workshops, or buys a print or product from us. Some people probably consider me lucky for having been presented with these opportunities, and I agree, but I’m a bit believer in the old adage, that fortune favors the hard worker.

Although I’ve ended up shooting less when I’m not actively on tours or workshops, my life is more photography centric than it’s ever been. I’ve just completed my third Craft & Vision ebook that should be released early next year, and I have a few new products in the pipeline that I’m confident will be a hit once I can get them completed.

I’ve stopped trying to get photography assignment work as such. I find the conversations with people that have no idea how to work with photographers or why photography costs money frustrating, and my business model has morphed to the point where it’s no longer necessary to do those assignments to help pay the rent. I teach and tour, and make photography primarily for myself, but that now makes it’s way into my Offset stock library, which has started to pay nicely.

Of course, I use my own images to illustrate not only my tour and workshop pages, but my Craft & Vision ebooks and magazine articles are illustrated with my own photography. Not only am I being paid for the articles and ebooks, because I’m not too shabby a photographer, people that read these articles are now booking on my tours, so it’s all starting to self-perpetuate.

Perseverance is Key

OK, so let’s start to wrap this up, with just a few more things I’d like to cover. Firstly, do remember that this is my journey, and not necessarily going to be the way you might transition into a full time photography career. I made my own opportunities or had the guts to act on opportunities that opened up to me. Your opportunities are going to be different, based on your own location and your specific circles of influence.

I’m a big believer in perseverance as a key to success. I’ve helped countless people to start their own Podcasts for example, all started with excitement and the best intentions, and few lasting more than four or five episodes. If you start a Podcast hoping to increase your audience as I did, make sure you have more than a few week’s of ideas on your list. Podcasting about something you are passionate about will help, because if it becomes a pain to do each week you won’t stick with it.

I mentioned earlier that it’s important to start, and it is. You’ll obviously not get to episode 5 if you don’t do episode 1, but if you stop at episode 5, you’ll be giving yourself a failure experience. Having the confidence to execute and act on your opportunities is vitally important. This is how we get the guts to start stuff.

Have the Courage to Fail Too

Having said that, it can often take even more courage to fail. We all make mistakes, and need to be strong enough to admit to ourselves and others when things don’t go according to plan. Learn from your mistakes. Figure out what you did wrong, then cut the cord and move on. It helps you to do this if you are able to develop multiple revenue streams, then when one doesn’t work out, it’s not going to take you down. If you rely on only one form of work, that reliance can be paralyzing.

My Journey, and I’m Just Getting Started

So, as I said, this is an outline of my journey so far. It’s infinitely more complex than I’ve been able to cover here, but I wanted to touch on some of the key points. This is my journey though, and I wanted to finish by saying that I’m just getting started. I’m just another guy with a camera, just like you, doing my best to make images that mean something to me, and can hopefully cause an emotional reaction in others.

Martin in Landmannalaugur

Martin in Landmannalaugur

The important thing to note here is that I’m not heading towards a final goal. To me the Journey is the goal. I want to be an eternal student, always striving to improve my craft, and to be a better person. I think the best photography comes from the heart, and we can only make our best photography when we understand what we love to photograph, and put ourselves in a position to make those photographs.

It can be hard to do that sometimes, especially when it might mean spending money to get to a specific location, but that is all part of the journey. You might remember that when I found out that I had that pesky brain tumor in 2011, the first time I cried was when I realized that I’d not yet been to Africa. Antarctica, Africa and Iceland where my three bucket list locations, and had been for many years.

Luckily for me, the tumor wasn’t malignant, and we were able to remove the majority of it with surgery and work on the rest with medication. I’m still taking the medication, and probably will be for life, but this enabled me to continue to work hard and create opportunities. I was only my way home from Antarctica when the tumor started to play up. Since then I’ve been to Antarctica a further three times, and this year I was fortunate enough to visit both Namibia and Iceland.

There’s that word again–Fortunate. We all have a finite number of days on this planet. At the end of 2013, I feel incredibly fortunate to be living my dream, and I hope that some of my experiences help in some small way to give you the courage to live yours.

Show Notes

Music by UniqueTracks


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