Legendary Japan photo blogger Martin Bailey has managed to accomplish what every photo bloggers dreams of doing. Well, yes, he does capture breathtaking photos of Japan and publish a popular weekly podcast… but that’s not what I mean. The remarkable thing about Martin is that he is now fully supported by his photography. As he describes below, it didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t easy. Hearing him talk about how everything evolved, his life abroad, and insight into his photographic process really motivates me to keep pursuing my own path with a fresh determination. Hopefully it will do the same for you. And ya… the Japan photos helped a lot too. They always remind me of the few years I lived there right after college and my 43 day, end to end cycle tour of the country. Thanks again Martin. Keep it up!
Name: Martin Bailey Occupation: Photographer Location: Tokyo, Japan Key Links:
- Google +
- Podcast on iTunes (This is worth subscribing to. ~Andrew)
Favorite Color: Red Describe yourself in three words: Impulsive, Persistent, Hard-Worker Hidden Talents: I play the Didgeridoo Irrational Fears: Very deep water, but only if I’m in it.
Living in Japan
Andrew: Thanks for taking time for this interview Martin. Martin: You’re very welcome Andrew. Thanks for inviting me. Andrew: It seems like you’ve really embraced life in Japan. Tell us wwhat brought you there and life as a permanent ex-pat. Martin: I was born in England in 1967, and found myself working in the local Nottingham Lace trade after leaving high school. I went into the canteen at work one Monday morning and saw an advert for “Working in Japan” in the local newspaper. I went for an interview that afternoon and got the job, went back to the factory and handed my notice and landed in Tokyo the following Saturday. I had been thinking to learn a language, and you don’t get much cooler than Japanese as a second language to learn. On the plane over here, I read a book on Japanese etiquette, and a phrase book. Both of which helped me a lot in the early stages.
I worked for the first four years in a factory in Fukushima, having gotten a working visa based on my work experience. Then, when that work finished, I decided to use the money I’d saved and go to College, in Sendai, where I learned computers and Multimedia. After spending my first year learning conversational Japanese, then the following two years studying reading and writing, at the end of my fourth year, as I joined the college, I took Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and passed. I hadn’t taken any of the lower levels. The college was entirely in Japanese, with no help for me as a foreigner, exactly how I like it. I graduated second in a class of thirty mainly Japanese students, and I’d paid my way with savings, and working in a bar and other part-time jobs. I never asked my family for help. That’s not something I’m OK with. Having given up my work visa for a student visa to go to the college, I was horrified to find that the two year college course did not qualify me to get a working visa in computers. Two year Uni courses are enough here, but not private colleges, so I had to go back to England from 1997, despite already having already landed a job in Tokyo, that I was not able to start. Things turned out well though. I was able to be there for my dad as he past away at the end of that year, and I was able to renovate and sell the house that I’d bought eight years earlier, before moving back to Japan. Also during that time, I got a job with a US based software company that would bring me back to Japan in 2000, and I worked for them in Tokyo before becoming a full time photographer. I decided to apply for Japanese citizenship, but because Japan doesn’t allow dual nationality for most countries, I had to renounce my English nationality. I was fine with that though. I love Britain, but by this time I’d spend 17 of the last twenty years in Japan, so I feel more at home here than England. I have done since I first arrived here for that matter. Japan never lets you forget that you are a foreigner though, even if you have a Japanese passport. There is no malice in most Japanese people, and they certainly don’t mean anything by it, but whenever you leave the house, you’ll get one or two strange looks, or people will stand on the train rather than sitting next to the foreigner. You can have fun with it too though. One guy at the Tsukiji Fish Market was calling a group of foreigners names recently when I turned to him and started speaking fluent Japanese. I was laughing of course, as I fully understood that he was only joking, and we ended up chatting for quite a while. He was a really nice guy. If you want to live with a chip on your shoulder here, it’s very easy to do. I’ve met many foreigners here that do nothing but bitch about their lives here. My suggestion to these people never changes – if you are so unhappy here, why don’t you just go home? It certainly helps to speak the language though. I often see the fear and tension from having to speak English disappear from people’s faces as I start to speak to them, and have had many, many warm interactions with the wonderful people that I am now proud to call my countrymen, if only on paper. Andrew: Having lived in Japan for a couple years myself, the most pressing question on my mind is: Do they still have that delicious azuki bean paste filled waffle ice cream in 7-11?! Martin: Good question – we don’t have a 7-11 near us, and I rarely go in others, so I don’t know. If it was as good as that though, I’m sure it’s still available. Andrew: No worries, I’ll survive somehow
Andrew: When you’re out photographing, what are some of your strategies for capturing nature and wildlife images? Martin: Japan is 70% mountain, mostly forest, so everyone lives or farms most of the gaps in between. Wildlife tends to be concentrated in spots reserved especially for them, so it’s not difficult to find if you go to the right spots. I started doing my wildlife work by joining workshops of Japanese photographers Yoshiaki Kobayashi and Hiroshi Yokoyama, who I’m now proud to call my friends. These gentlemen took me to some amazing places, many of which I now take my own tours too, and there is beautiful wildlife there. Once you know where the wildlife might be, the trick is to learn the best times of day to visit certain places, and this usually comes from local advice, or advice of other photographers that know the area. For example, there is a bridge in Tsurui in Hokkaido where mist can form on the river and frost on the trees on cold mornings, but it wasn’t until I asked the Photographer and hotelier Wada-san, that I learned that it has to be -15 degrees Celsius or below, with no wind, for this to happen. By the way, I’ve visited the bridge from 4:30am around 20 times over the last six years, and there’s only been mist on the river and frost on the trees twice. It was spectacular both times, but this proves that even with the best local knowledge, mother nature is still only cooperative when she wants to be.
You learn where to go at different times of the day for the best shots, and once you have the animals in front of you, you need to learn their mannerisms, so that you can prepare yourself for something special to happen before it does. For example birds generally defecate before they take flight, so if you see a bird lean forward slightly, and poop, it’s a good indicator that it’s about to take off, so you get your camera pointed at it, get the bird in focus and compose a nice shot , then wait a little longer, to photograph the birds with wings spread and as it takes off. Andrew: What sort of research and planning usually goes into a shoot before you head out? Martin: Before I go to any location that I want to shoot landscapes in, I look up the sunrise and sunset times, and azimuth (the location on the horizon) at which the sun will rise and fall. If I’m traveling alone, I also sometimes just use an app on my iPhone (VelaClock) to get this information at each location, but if I have time to do it beforehand, it helps me to visualize and think about my possibilities. I generally already know what could be interesting to photograph in the area, and that’s why I plan to visit, but I try to find as much information on the subject as possible so as not to miss something special. The Internet is great for this, be it looking at other peoples’ images from the location, to blogs and even local tourist information guides etc. You don’t want to over do it, and form too many preconceptions that could sway your own judgement, but it’s best to learn what you can, and then be open to the location once you arrive. Andrew: Which gear and equipment do you usually bring with you when shooting? Martin: If I’m going to be photographing wildlife, I usually take my 600mm lens, to get in really close, especially with small birds, but that’s a big lens, and I only take it if I know I’m going to need it. If I do though, I usually use a long lens support from Really Right Stuff, to support the front of the lens as well as the back. This stops that long lens from vibrating too much while shooting, causing blurred shots. Whether I have the 600mm or not, I generally take a range of lenses from 14mm to 300mm and some 1.4X and 2.0X Extenders. I also usually take at least two, usually three camera bodies, because there’s rarely time to change lenses when shooting wildlife. So, I usually have a long lens on one camera, and something wider on another. I usually take a photograph of the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport with each camera at each location too. It’s not so necessary if the light is similar to another location, but having a ColorChecker Passport shot from each camera helps you to ensure that the color of the images from multiple cameras is accurate, and more importantly, the same as the other bodies. To do this, using the photos of the ColorChecker Passport, you create a profile in Adobe Lightroom or an X-Rite standalone utility, and you can apply these to images in Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW, standardizing the look of your images and bringing multiple camera bodies in line. I also always take my MacBook Pro and two more external hard drives, especially on long trips, like two weeks in Hokkaido, or a month in Antarctica. After a day in the field, I transfer all of my images to my computer first, but then I synchronize all of the image on my hard drive to an external hard disk, and then synchronize that hard disk to a second hard disk, before I delete the images from my camera’s compact flash cards. This way, if the internal hard disk gets full during the trip, I can delete images from the internal hard disk, and still have two copies on my external drives. Two copies is the minimum that I like to trust my images to while on the road, and actually in practice, I start to delete music etc. before removing my images from the computer hard drive, so I generally have three copies while traveling, and this feels good. Note too that although they are usually smaller volume, I use the smaller 2.5″ external hard drives, because they are not only lighter, they are small enough to slip into your pocket, so I usually keep one with me at all times, even if I have to leave my computer and the second hard drive on the ship, or back at the car or hotel. It’s all about increasing your chances of keeping a copy if something should happen to the other drives. Andrew: Here’s a fun one, if you were confined to a single 1km x 1km area to photograph for the rest of your life, where would you pick? Martin: Wow! That is a hard question, but only because I’d hate to be confined to one place for the rest of my life. The answer isn’t too difficult though. It would have to be the 1km surrounding the fishing port of Rausu, in Hokkaido. This would give me access to Steller’s Sea Eagles, White-Tailed Eagles, Blakiston’s Fish Owls and Ezo Deer, as well as landscape opportunities. In the summer, they have many species of wales, including Orca, and they are probably all shootable in one square kilometer. Of course, I could also shoot the amazing characters of the people in this small fishing village, so I’d be happy as can be. There are probably few other places like Rausu on earth.
Andrew: Your photographs are quite beautiful and serene. What is your normal post-processing workflow like? Martin: Thanks for the kind words! My workflow revolves around Adobe Lightroom. I import my images using Lightroom, and manage all of my collections, as well as editing and printing right there in Lightroom. The only time I leave Lightroom is to edit in Photoshop or round-trip to Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro to enhance color and detail or Silver Efex Pro to create my black and white images. I don’t usually do a lot to my images though. Most of them are just processed in Lightroom, with a few slider tweaks. I usually nail the exposure in camera, but if necessary, I’ll tweak the exposure slider, as well as adjusting the highlights and shadows if necessary. I do my dust spot removal and and rotation or cropping in Lightroom too. The more you can do in Lightroom against the original RAW files the better. Not only does this mean you don’t have to create a TIFF or PSD file, using up disk space, but you can also benefit from updates in the RAW processing engine, without having to do all of your dust removal etc. again. Each version of the processing engine seems to bring out more in the image, so I generally want to use it, with as little additional effort as possible.
The only time I use Photoshop really is if I have to clone something out that I couldn’t avoid in the field, and it’s too big or complicated to remove in Lightroom. I also sometimes do a bit of masking and blending of images or use Color Efex Pro and Siliver Efex Pro from Photoshop, with the base RAW file as a Smart Object. This gives me the ability to go back to the Color Efex or Silver Efex conversion and make adjustments later, which is something that you can’t do in the stand alone plugin as a round-trip from Lightroom. I’d say I generally spend less than 30 seconds thinking about and tweaking an image in Lightroom, and if there’s nothing that needs to change, it’s zero time once the image has been selected. The most I’ll spend is a few minutes, if I have to do some cloning, or work in Nik’s plugins. If an image takes more time that that, it has to be very special, or I generally leave it out of my final selection of images.
BUILDING A PHOTO BUSINESS
Andrew: Your photo blog is quite popular and professional. Walk us through how that came about and how you’ve grown it to be the well-trafficked professional site it is now.
Martin: My blog and Podcast came about, when a friend introduced me to Podcasts in August 2005. At the time there was only Chris Marquardt doing Tips from the Top Floor, and Brooks Jensen doing Lenswork, and I figured that there was room in between there for something a little more serious than TFTTF was at the time, and a little longer than Lenswork, but that also sometimes discussed the artistic and philosophical side of photography. By the beginning of September, I’d created a management database and scripts to update my Podcast feeds and Web page, and started to release an episode every week, for at least 50 weeks a year. It’s taken a lot of dedication and time though. There have been times when it’s been difficult, but I think the biggest key to my success is persistence. If you believe in something, you should stick with it, at least until it becomes blatantly obvious that there is no longer any value in what you are doing, to either yourself, or your audience, or of course, until it’s a raging success and continuing is a no-brainer. Andrew: Your life as a photographer goes much deeper than blog posts and podcasts. How did you create a business around your photography that now fully supports you? Martin: One of my biggest strengths is my attention to detail and ability to create and deliver a quality product. I know I’m not the best photographer on the planet, but I have spent a lot of time learning how to create images that match and often exceed my expectations. I’m a firm believer that your most recent work should be your best, and if you aren’t moving forward, you’re stagnating. Always strive to get better and better, and continue to hone your craft. Without being able to deliver the goods, the rest of your hard work will fall flat. To be able to sell your services or products though, people need to know about you. If your target is local, you need to network, and find ways to make the local market aware of you. If you want to target a wider audience, find something like the Podcast that I started as a vehicle to get your work out there. If you work hard and stick with it, people will start to notice you, and if your work is good enough to back that up, good things should start to happen. Finally though, you need to understand the business side. I am lucky in that I was able to hone my business skills during the time I was working before going full time with my photography, and I continue to study business and marketing techniques as I build my business. I think the important thing is to continue to learn, and further your craft and business skills all the time. Andrew: Last question, what’s your top advice for aspiring photographers looking to do what you do? Martin: Be nice. Unless you are going to build a business around being a curmudgeon, don’t bad mouth people, or attack people that disagree with your views. There are times when I want to jump down someone’s throat, especially when they think that their opinion is the only possible solution or way of doing something, but getting all negative only breeds more negativity. You’ll generally just be inviting further attacks from the pedant or troll you react too, and people that see that won’t like it either. You also generally feel bad yourself after you’ve lost it with someone, for whatever reason. Be nice and you’ll attract nice people, and that makes it a lot easier to put yourself out there and build an audience, and in turn, build a successful business. Andrew: Thanks so much Martin, it was a pleasure! Martin: My pleasure Andrew. I hope your readers find this helpful in some way.