What inspired you to be a photographer?
When I was at university (St-Andrews in Scotland), I spent the summer before my final year traveling in Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and Singapore. It was my first time in Asia, the first time I traveled alone and the first time I took photographs. I was amazed by the travel images in my Lonely Planet guidebooks and I would go to places based on the photos I saw, rather than the write ups I read. When I arrived somewhere that I saw in my guidebooks I would try to think how the photographers had taken the images and I tried to copy the style. I liked my results and I thought then that being a travel photographer would be an amazing job. Two years ago I signed on as a contract photographer for Lonely Planet and this spring I shot the cover of their next “Tokyo Encounters” guidebook (to be released later this year), I’m very happy about working for the people who first inspired me.
How long have you been working in Japan?
I’ve been working in Japan as a photographer for about 7 years now. I arrived 10 years ago and like many others I started out teaching in a language school, moved on to university work and the long holidays allowed me time to pursue my dream. I started off getting small gigs here and there, but over time I started getting a lot of repeat customers, my client base grew and now I have a wide base of regular customers that keeps me busy. Tokyofashion.com sends me to cover Japan Fashion Week, Tokyo Girls Collection and reviews of a variety of stores around Tokyo. I’m the chief photographer for Whisky Magazine Japan and have recently been doing assignments for them in Hokkaido and Scotland. I regularly work for a variety of newspapers and magazines in Japan and overseas and in addition to this, I work with my wife Sue doing portraits, maternity and wedding shoots. Sue’s a great photographer, but she’s also amazing at coming up with the concepts for portrait and maternity shoots, she has an ability to bring the best out of people and together we make a great team.
When you were starting out, did you have any mishaps or disasters?
I was in Iraq in 2006 and had a few near disaster moments. One day I was trying to get a shot of an angry mob from a dark side street when someone saw me and in no time I was surrounded and getting a bit of a beating. For some reason I started shouting “I’m Scottish” and luckily one of the group spoke good English, stopped everyone else then started talking to me about Glasgow Celtic Football Club and his hero, Henrik Larson (whom I think had actually left Celtic then, but I didn’t want to point that out). After that they all took me out for tea and a nice chat and at the end told me very matter of factly “we were going to kill you, but you are Scottish so you are our friend.” A very quick reversal of fortunes for me, partly thanks to Henrik Larson, I owe him a drink if I ever meet him.
Favorite location to shoot in Tokyo?
I really like the old parts of town, like Asakusa or Golden Gai in Shinjuku for doing portraits. You get so much atmosphere from these old places that just adds so much more to a photo than a straight studio background.
You shoot a wide variety of work, which is your favorite type of photography and why?
I love telling stories through photographing people. When I started out in photography, I focused on photojournalism and each story revolved around people. Even now, whether it be fashion, whisky tasting or travel stories, I try and tell the story of what is going on through the people involved. When I started doing wedding photography a couple of years ago and I tried to bring in my experience from photojournalism to tell the story of each couple’s big day. For me the posed portraits after a ceremony are great, I get to be creative to come up with something special for each couple to hang on their wall, but to tell the full story of the day it’s all the little moments you can capture during the ceremony when the air is a bit tense, or at the reception when the pressure is off and everyone is having fun that combines with the posed shots to make it a real special memory of the big day.
Japanese people are famously camera-crazy, does a good camera mean good photos are easy to take?
Not necessarily. If you know what you are doing a good camera makes a huge difference. If you don’t know what your are doing, I think a good camera actually makes your photos worse. These days compact digital cameras are pretty good and almost anyone can take a good photo as the camera does most of the work. With a big DSLR camera, there are a lot of manual settings, you have to understand about light and focus and they aren’t that easy to use without practice. When we travel, sometimes I will ask someone to take a photo of my wife and I with my DSLR and we get nasty blurred photos. Now if we ask someone to take our photo, we give them a compact camera—it guarantees a good result.
What camera do you use?
For most of our work we use canon digital equipment. A canon 5DmkII, a 7D, a wide series of L series lenses (expensive but real work horses) and a lot of lighting gear. Sometimes I still shoot film as well. I recently sold all my 35mm gear as I hadn’t used it for a couple of years, but I have a Mamiya 7ii medium format camera which gives beautiful results. Most clients want digital images so that’s the way work goes, but every now and again I get to use film and I really enjoy doing so.
Any tips for people wanting to improve their wedding or party shots?
You have to have a balance between posed and candid shots. For the former, you have to be good at engaging with people and getting the best out of the them. For the latter, you have to be good at seeing a moment that is about to happen and getting yourself into the right position and being ready. In addition to these points, light is the most important thing in any photo, whether it be using the light available to you or bringing your own with you, you have to work with light to get the best possible results.
Let’s talk money. Japanese weddings are very expensive, how much do you charge per shoot?
We offer different packages for weddings, the cheapest starting at ¥99,000 and the most expensive for a full day package going up to ¥349,000 yen. However, we are very flexible and listen to what each client wants and our prices vary accordingly.
Will Robb is a professional photographer based in Tokyo
online portfolio: willrobb.com
Tel (+81) 080-3395-8203