As a busy executive at YouTube, David Powell often found himself caught up in the hustle and bustle of his daily life in Tokyo: commuting, meetings, travel, more meetings, home, sleep. Seeking a better balance between work and life, he decided to pick up photography as a creative outlet. Since he could take his camera anywhere, it didn’t disrupt his busy schedule. It grew into a successful blog: ShootTokyo. There David shares his glimpses of the city he calls home and his travels around the world, offering business insights and other random thoughts each photo sparks.
SmugMug had the chance to tag along through the back alleys and side streets of Tokyo, discovering what makes David’s photos so intimate and compelling. Watch him in action in our latest SmugMug Film.
How would you describe your photography?
For me, it’s an expressive outlet. I was one of those people who always worked non-stop: 12-hour days, 7 days a week. Traveled a lot and never got to see a lot of places I was visiting. I would come back from Beijing and people would ask, “How was the Great Wall?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, the Great Wall is in China. Missed it.” I started thinking about how I could get a better work–life balance and see the places I was visiting. My schedule can often be erratic, and photography was something I could do on my own time whenever and wherever I wanted. Whether it’s two in the morning or midday, as long as I had a camera I could go out and photograph no matter where I was.
Photography, for me, is easy because it’s simple to always have a camera in your bag. It forces you to slow down, to explore. I tend to be a structured person, so when I started photography, I thought about doing a 365 project but quickly realized I had no time for that. I thought a blog would be easier. When I started blogging, I realized I needed to blog on a regular basis in order to keep at the photography and make blogging worth my time and investment.
How has your blog evolved?
In my first posts, I was trying to figure out what to do. I was writing a “how to,” or I was putting pictures up without many words. What started resonating with me and the readers was posting photos I took as I was out and about and talking about my day, mixed with some random thoughts.
I’m not a technical photographer. I’m never talking about what settings I used, and I don’t do a lot of post-processing. Instead, I focus on productivity tips: how I manage and think about things, or how I see something as I’m going about my day. I mix my thoughts on business in with my photography, which is a bit unique. Someone once referred to my blog as a photography blog with an MBA ethos, and I think that sums it up well.
When did you move to Tokyo, and how have you liked living there?
I moved here in 2001. I was living in New Jersey, working in New York City, and was asked to move to help the company in Asia. They initially put me in Singapore, but I found myself on a plane to Tokyo every two weeks. Being in Tokyo made more sense than being in Singapore. I wanted to be in North Asia because I think that’s where the living is most exciting; I really enjoy it. It’s a nice place to live as Tokyo is a very clean, safe city. It’s a nice lifestyle. You have to work hard, but you can enjoy your life here as well.
What do you usually look for when you’re out exploring the city?
I don’t go looking for anything in particular. Photography makes me slow down. I want to make sure I post on my blog once a week, which means making sure I’m observing the world around me, looking for interesting things to photograph. If I was on the train before, I would have my head over my phone reading or responding to emails. Now, I almost never do that. I usually have the camera in my hand, looking around for something interesting or funny or pretty.
What usually catches your eye?
It might be an interaction between people. It might be the absence of people. A lot of people look at my work and ask, “How did you set up that shot?” I don’t. I went to a photography workshop a few years ago with Jay Maisel, and he said the objective is to take the photo that nobody else is taking. We were on one of the top floors of Trump Tower overlooking Central Park. Everyone was shooting straight out at the amazing view in front of us, and I remember wondering what it would look like if you shot straight down to capture the reflection in the building. That ended up being one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. I try to see things how other people might not see them.
Are there any photos you didn’t get to take or haven’t taken yet?
The one I always wanted to take was a photo of a geisha. It might be cliché, but it was something I always wanted to photograph. There aren’t many opportunities to photograph geishas in Tokyo, so I went to Kyoto. There were more tourists than I expected, and many people were hanging out trying to take photos. I knew I was never going to get what I wanted there or, if I did, there would be 200 tourists in the photo. So I started walking the back alleys of Gion seeing if I could find a better shot.
I ended up getting a picture of a geisha entering a tea house, and I got her profile from behind as she entered. I was shooting on film at dusk with a manual-focus lens—it was the worst possible conditions for taking the photo. She was moving very fast, and I wasn’t shooting with a fast film. It ended up being a really cool photo. That was the photo I always wanted. Once I got it, I was super happy I did.
Do you have a favorite location your wandering has led you to so far?
Shinjuku is great for photography because there are so many great scenes out there. You can walk through an iconic district, and there’s lots of stuff to photograph. Like Yakitori Alley. Golden-Gai used to be fun, but it’s a bit overrun now. Yurakucho is also great. It’s an area between Shimbashi and Ginza.
Ginza’s the really high-end fashion district, and Shimbashi is a business area. There’s a train line that runs between them, and underneath the train line, weaving in and out, are all these little restaurants and alleys. It’s always a really fun place to go shooting. It’s smoky, it’s pretty, it’s a bit dirty, and it’s full of little restaurants. It’s an awesome atmosphere. You can loop through these little alleys and each time you’re going to see something different.
One of the things that make any big city good for photography is its repetition. If you find an alley that looks nice and it has the right light, you know a pocket of smoke from the yakitori restaurant is going to come out every few seconds. A businessman in a suit will walk through every few minutes and give you the opportunity to capture great photos.
Do you ever make a plan before you go out wandering the city? For example, this is a shot you might try to get today?
No, only locations. If somebody says, “Hey, let’s go to dinner,” and I’ve been to dinner in Shinjuku three times in a row, I’ll say, “Let’s go to Yurakucho or some other area.” I do think about what would be an interesting spot to photograph on the way. I’ll avoid very stale hotel or office areas for the alternative to find something a little more interesting. I try to be efficient because I don’t have a lot of personal time to go out shooting. I get a lot of emails asking, “Wow, how do you have the time to go out shooting?” I don’t. I simply always have my camera with me, and it’s not in a bag. It’s in my hand or around my shoulder or around my neck.
Has there been a photo that’s been particularly challenging for you to get?
There’s one from Singapore I really like and found particularly challenging, because it took persistence. You’ve got to get up at four in the morning. You need the right mix of light, the right mix of rain, the right mix of everything. I usually don’t do landscape photos because you have to have a lot of patience and Photoshop skills, and I don’t have the skills, patience, or time. I travel to Singapore all the time for work, and this is a photo I had to take. I tried to get it 20 or 30 times. One day the lighting was bad, one day the sky was white. On this day, it had just finished raining so everything was nice and wet. That was a good photo; it felt like a nice accomplishment. And I sold the photo an hour after I posted it. That was exciting.
You mentioned earlier, and in previous interviews, that you’re not very technical with shooting. What, if any, are your gear must haves?
I go out with the absolute bare minimum of gear possible. When I first started, I was shooting Canon. I used to carry a backpack, my tripod, and four to six lenses. It was so heavy. Today I carry my Leica Monochrom with one lens. If I go on a one-month business trip, I’ll travel with one body and one lens, always a prime. I think I used to carry so much gear because I was afraid I was going to miss a shot. Eventually, I started shooting more minimally. When I got my 50mm lens, I shot only with that lens for a week. Then I put it away and I would only shoot with my 21mm for a week, then with my 35mm, and then my 28mm. This allowed me to learn what looked good with each focal length.
Do you have a favorite prime that you like to go out with now?
I probably shoot with my 28mm or 35mm the most. The 21mm and 50mm can be a bit limiting. At this point, I only have three lenses: a 28mm, a 35mm, and a 50mm. If I could only have one, it’d be my 35mm because I find it’s a good focal length. If you’re going to a dinner, you’re going to catch the person and a little bit of everything else in the scene.
Do you shoot everything manually?
I shoot everything aperture priority.
Other than always having your camera on you and ready, do you have any rules when it comes to your photographic process?
I don’t have a lot of rules. I won’t photograph somebody in a compromising position because I don’t believe in posting images that would make anybody look bad. One time, I happened to be walking by a bar where somebody was being thrown out by the police. He had two cops holding each of his arms, and he was kicking and yelling. I took the photo, and the photo came out great, but I didn’t post it because I don’t know the story. I don’t know if he did something wrong. I don’t know if he’s innocent. I have no idea. I have no context for what’s happening and neither will my viewers. I’m always careful if I post somebody’s photo. I always try to let them know, and I want to make sure they’re being shown in a positive light.
What do you look for in terms of light or framing in your shots?
I don’t do anything aggressive with the lighting. I’m not jumping in front of people as I don’t think that’s a very nice way to shoot. I want people to be happy in my interactions with them. Often, I let people know before I even take the photo that I want to photograph them. If you’re walking down the street I might say, “Hey, I like your hat,” or whatever it was that caught my attention. Then I might ask you not to pose or not to smile, and I’ll take a street-style portrait. Usually I give people a card and say, “If you want a copy, just let me know.”
I try to make sure my subject is right in the middle of the frame. I look in the corners of my images to make sure there aren’t any extra things that are cluttering the image. At 28mm, you’re going to be very close to your subject. I can put my hand straight out and touch whoever the subject is. I’m shooting that close.
Your portraits have struck me as being very intimate because they’re so close. How did you get over your fear of photographing strangers?
During Jay Maisel’s workshop, he asked, “What’s your most uncomfortable thing?” I said, “Photographing strangers. I’m not sure how to approach people.” He told me to go out and photograph 100 people and come back. I had to literally go out and stop 100 people on the street, hand them a card, and say I’m a photographer, I’d like to take your picture. You have to figure some small percentage will reject you. But you’d be surprised, many more will say yes than no. I got very comfortable with stopping and photographing people.
There’s this one photo I took of an older Japanese man who’s squatting down looking at his old flip phone. If you’ve never shot at 28mm before, you can see him and all the turnstiles—the entire scene in the frame. I had to have been a foot and a half away from the guy. I remember I just walked up to him and said, “Hey, I’m a photographer, do you mind if I take a photo?” He sort of nodded and went back to his phone.
If you’re shooting with a 200mm lens from far away to sneak a photo of someone, they’re going to get angry. If you walk up in a very friendly way and say, “Hey, mind if I take your photo?” you get a genuinely friendly response. People will feed off your energy.
Do you have a favorite story you like to tell from your experience in photography?
I’m surprised how many people I’ve met through my blog that I’m now really good friends with. One time I was leaving a company, and I mentioned on my blog that I was going to another company but hadn’t said where I was going. One of my readers who I’d never met before said, “Oh, you must be going to this place.” I asked how he knew. As we talked, he let me know that he’d figured out where I was going based on where I’d worked and my industry. Then he asked me to say hi to someone—who was the person who hired me. This reader told me he’d hired the person 25 years ago to work for him. I mean, wow, really small world. Our lives are surprisingly intertwined.
You mentioned you don’t really use Photoshop, but do you have any post-process that you follow?
I use Lightroom. For my color images, I do next to nothing. Occasionally, I might add light vignetting if I wasn’t shooting wide open, as my lenses naturally add it wide open. I might add a little bit of sharpening, contrast, and clarity, and that’s about it. I probably spend about 25 seconds per image. For my black-and-white images from my Monochrom, I’ll do more as the camera produces a very flat image.
How do you get your photos from Lightroom up to SmugMug for your portfolio and prints?
I use SmugMug’s Lightroom plugin. It’s the most useful tool. I literally just drag whatever images I want to the SmugMug folder in Lightroom and it uploads my images automatically to my site.
Why did you end up choosing SmugMug for your print sales?
I used to use Livebooks but hated it because it was Flash. It was too hard. I couldn’t do anything with it. I was really trying to sell prints, and I didn’t want people to be able to tell where ShootTokyo started and SmugMug ended, since I have my blog and print-sale sites separate. I wanted my menu to have one item for prints and one for my portfolio, and I wanted my visitors to click between them and not be able to tell they’d moved to another website. Setting it up was simple. I get to run my blog and visitors can buy prints. SmugMug pays for itself in spades.
Are there any other SmugMug tools or features you use the most?
I use the app quite a lot. It’s hard to show professionals the blog if I’m out at dinner or something, but it’s very easy to pull up the SmugMug app and quickly scan through my photos offline. I also use coupons a lot to take advantage of things like Black Friday or other events where you might want a sale to grab some momentum.
Do you have any advice for those looking to pursue a similar path in photography or blogging?
Take lots of photos. And take them for yourself. One of the most frustrating things is trying to make my audience happy. Instead, make yourself happy and hopefully your audience comes along for the journey. It takes a long time to build an audience.
I also have a personal policy to update one post a day. I go back to my older posts and review them, rereading to make sure all the links are good and any content that should be updated is refreshed.
What about advice for capturing the image?
Don’t be afraid to take the same photo over and over and over again. You have to work at your shots. If you think one particular scene is interesting, make sure you’re shooting at 6:00 a.m., at noon, at four in the afternoon, at 8:00 p.m., at midnight. When it’s raining out, when it’s snowing, when it’s hot out, when it’s sunny, when it’s cloudy. Just keep shooting it to learn the difference and find the shot that works. Photograph it for a thousand days, figure out what’s interesting about it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I got was to always carry a camera. It’s hard to take a good photo if you don’t have your camera with you. Another is to take the same photo a lot. When we started Jay’s workshop, he asked, “How many shots does it take to get the photo you want?” Some people said two or three. One guy said he got it the first time every time and was super proud. Then Jay said, “I must suck as a photographer. It takes me, minimum, 800 times to get the shot I want.” I think that really surprised everybody. His point was try harder. Shoot the scene in the rain, in the snow, in the morning, at noon, in the evening, in the middle of the night. See how it changes.
So keep shooting. Keep photographing the same scene until you get the shot. And make sure you always have your camera on you.