(9 Minute Read)
The Beginning: Pokemon and Geese
As an Asian kid growing up, Pokemon was everything. I had a Nintendo 64 and played every Pokemon game I could get my hands on. "Pokemon Snap" was one of them. In this game, you played a photographer who drove through different safaris and habitats where wild Pokemon ran far and wide. The goal was to snap photos of all the Pokemon you saw. If your shot looked like a giant pink Jigglypuff in the middle of the frame, you scored high. If your shot looked like Jigglypuff was alone in the corner and depressed, you scored low. Although I think kids today would rather eat grass than play a game like this, I loved it.
I enjoyed playing so much I once beat the entire game in a single afternoon. Upon completion, I proceeded to start over and beat the entire game again, all before it was time for dinner. I think this is where my interest in photography was subconsciously born.
Fast forward five years and this might sound strange, but when I was a fourteen I was also obsessed with geese. I'm hoping you didn't close your browser because I'm kidding. Keep reading, I'll explain.
I was at a random picnic with some family friends at Lake Elizabeth and I noticed that one of the adults was taking pictures with a cool looking camera. After asking him a bunch of questions he eventually let me use it. I looked around, saw a flock of geese and took my first few shots. I gave him his camera back and he sounded pleasantly surprised when he told me that the shots I took were actually "good"! I felt like everything I touched would turn to gold, and I was young King Midas himself. That day I told myself that I would buy one of those cool looking cameras before my 20th birthday.
And so I saved money from Christmas, birthdays, and lucky for me, Chinese New Year too. Once I had the money, my next step was to convince my mom to let me pull the trigger on the purchase. When my mom heard the question, she paused for a moment and responded with a challenge. I had to make a powerpoint that listed all the reasons why it was a good idea.
So I made a gigantic "pros" list and a tiny "cons" list that consisted of just one item—the price tag. With a huge smile on my face, I showed her the powerpoint and told her that the camera would last me ten years and that I would be able to capture memories of our family that could last forever. She was convinced and it felt like Christmas Eve.
So at sixteen years old I bought a Canon Rebel XS. It was the most expensive thing I had ever owned. I took shot after shot and never learned to pace myself. (This lesson didn't come until college when I once pre-gamed the entire game).
A Couple Early Lessons: Education and Creative Constraints
In the beginning, I took pictures of every stupid raindrop on every stupid flower I could find. I think often that's the first step in learning any art, to copy what you think is great. One time, I even used a spray bottle to make fake rain in my front yard.
There were two major influences on my learning process during that first year.
The first was reading, "The Digital Photography Book: Part 1" by Scott Kelby. I actually sat on a couch in Barnes and Nobles and read the whole book before I ever thought about buying a camera. It spoke plain English and taught you "how to get this type of shot" and covered portraits, landscapes, and other subjects. Another great resource that helped me learn was digital-photography-school.com. This site exposed me to great images and articles on elements of craft, like exposure or composition.
The second was a creative constraint. In my attempt to copy the greats, I wanted my flower pictures to look like a rose in focus, but with a background looking like a smooth buttery blur. So I sold the only lens I had and bought myself a 50mm f/1.8. With this new lens, I traded the ability to zoom in and out with the ability to achieve that buttery goodness.
For an entire year, I shot with just that lens. With a fixed lens (no zoom), I had to actually move around to frame each shot and this forced me to try harder.
If you're ever in a creative rut, creative constraints can be a simple way of removing the paradox of choice. The paradox of choice states that the more choices we have, the harder it is to make a decision. For example, it'll probably be more intimidating to face a blank canvas with unlimited possibilities than to experiment with the color red just for today.
With a creative constraint, the question of "What should I do?" disappears and the path becomes clear.
Too Much of Something Good
For years I carried my camera around everywhere I went, in search of the perfect shot. As my friends climbed trees and rolled around I was always in the back taking photos. My camera was my ball and chain and I felt like it took away my freedom and the spontaneity I once had. As I approached my senior year of high school, I began to resent being "the photographer" all the time and since I was going to college, the desire for freedom and adventure was stronger than ever.
So upon graduation, I sold my camera and all my gear.
Once college started, I honed my craft in "iphoneography" instead of lugging around that ball and chain. (You can still see some of my old iPhone shots if you scroll down on my Instagram page @probablyjosh)
Although I didn't have a cool looking camera anymore, I never stopped trying to make beautiful photos, even with the iPhone. (The camera is pretty damn good now). I wanted to start shooting again, but I didn't want to spend a thousand dollars on a new shiny DSLR. What other options did I have?
The idea of "vintage" always appealed to me, so naturally, I looked into film photography. I learned that film was still comparable to the quality of cameras we have today. It didn't make any sense. How could a vinyl record emit sound quality that compares to today's technology? How did the ancient Mayas make a clock as accurate as the clocks we have right now? And how could a six-year-old MacBook be called a dinosaur?
As I was surfing the web, I stumbled upon a great little documentary on youtube called, "Long Live Film". It resonated with everything I loved.
I loved that I could travel abroad and couldn't spend my nights on a computer looking at the shots from the day. I loved that I didn't have to worry about charging a battery. I loved that I could snap a shot and return to that moment of life happening right in front of me. I loved the simplicity. I loved that every click of the shutter carried a price tag, which meant I had to be careful with every shot.
So in September of 2015, I bought myself a Canon AE-1 with a fixed 50mm f/1.4 for a little over $100. It came in the mail just in time for my Taiwan trip.
In those ten days in Taiwan, I shot a total of 11 rolls of Fujifilm 400. When I got back home, I paid over $150 to get them developed/scanned and was eager to get the results back. They were horrible. And I was ecstatic. Most of my shots were way too dark, and I knew I had learned a valuable lesson.
I continued shooting film all year in 2016 in major cities like Prague, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. I also got to go to a couple National Parks like Joshua Tree and Zion. It was just the beginning.
Problem or Challenge?
Film developing/scanning services in California cost about $13-18 a roll depending on where you go. I didn't have any plan to pay for it all, but I didn't want to stop shooting.
At the time, I also read Eric Kim's blog post on, "What I Learned Processing 164 Rolls of Film After Waiting a Year".(http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2015/03/23/what-i-learned-processing-164-rolls-of-film-after-waiting-a-year/)
The idea of letting my film "marinate" before getting them developed intrigued me, but honestly, I didn't have the money anyway. So I kept shooting. One day, I counted the pile of film I had in my shoebox and realized I was approaching 50 rolls of undeveloped film. The cost would be about $750 to see my shots.
I didn't know how I was going to pull it off. But one day, I literally had a lightbulb moment when I was driving home and my tail light suddenly exploded. I was so mad I cried. Okay, nothing really exploded and I didn't cry, but when I got the answer, I felt like I heard the voice of Morgan Freeman.
Taiwan was the answer. I knew a lot of things were cheaper there since I had visited in the past. I did some asking around and found out that the cost was about $5 to get a roll developed/scanned. The best thing was, I already booked a flight a few months before for a trip at the end of the year. Everything was falling into place.
Finally, here I am publishing this website and kicking off my blog with this post. I'm still not sure where the journey will take me and I've played some ideas of learning to shoot weddings or creating fine art wedding albums or shooting babies and families (with a camera of course), selling prints, or perhaps teaching workshops.
The latter sounds exciting, but we'll see where this year takes me. I have no idea what's ahead, but I've never been more passionate about this art form than in this moment as I write these final words.
Thanks for reading!