Japan, the JET Programme and five ways a 365 project will make you a better photographer

Japan, enchantingly photogenic, my home and muse for a year. This final post is an attempt to reflect upon my experiences, to give them a full stop.

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A little bit of background. During my year in Japan I worked as an assistant language teacher on the JET programme (Japan Exchange Teaching). The programme is run by the Japanese government and seeks not just to help children learn English, but to promote cultural exchange and understanding. At any one time, there are 4,000 or so 22-40 year olds from English speaking countries on the scheme. The application process is pretty gruelling and you have little say over where in Japan you will be placed, but I would not hesitate for a second if you are thinking of applying. It offers an absolutely unique experience – unforgettable, broadening and life changing. No more cliches, I promise.

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I was placed in Hagi City, an idyllic bit of rural Japan in the South West of Honshu island. The inaka (Japanese countryside) is the polar opposite to the Japan you have seen on TV – all rice paddies, quaint temples and fireflies opposed to the glass, robots and neon. It’s a beautiful little beach-side place, steeped in history, that I will always consider a second home. I was assigned to six schools, on alternate days, teaching all the way from little elementary school kids to 16 year old middle schoolers. To the little ones I was a movie star (at least I like to think so). For the older ones, too teenage and cool to make a fuss, I like to think English lessons were more fun when I was there.

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When I arrived I had never taught before and spoke no Japanese. One moment I had quit my office job in London and the next I was thrust in front of a classroom of 30 Japanese children, beaming up at me. Even now, when I think back, it seems weird that it happened – like it was another life.

Honestly, I could probably babble on forever about my experiences in Japan – like the time a Japanese airforce general insisted I sing Beatles songs with him on this Birthday, the time I played shamisen at city hall to hundreds of people (check out the video below), or the number of times I unintentionally ended up on TV. In the interest of brevity though, I will just say that there was never a dull day. The JET programme offers an unforgettable experience and I wholly recommend it.  You will have the time of your life. I think I may have just broken my promise about cliches…

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Now, back to photography. This 365 project has been instrumental in helping me to develop as a photographer. At the beginning of the project I had an entry level DSLR that I used to throw at things when I thought they would make a good picture. I had read the odd book and had some idea of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Really though, my understanding was theoretical and when it came to real world shooting getting out of ‘Auto’ or ‘P’ mode still felt like venturing into a mythical world of confusing numbers. This project has fundamentally changed that, to the point that I feel I am the master of my camera. I control it, not the other way around. I feel that I can now ‘make’ photos instead of just ‘taking’ them – and that is what photography is all about. So, in the tradition of the internet’s love of lists, here are five ways that a 365 project can improve your photography (with a few tips along the way) –

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five ways a 365 project will improve your photography

 1. Make photos, don’t take them –

Many use this as a defining line between a ‘photographer’ and everyone else. A 365 project forces you to get out there and shoot. Not just when you go somewhere interesting, but everyday. The vast majority of the photos in this project came from walking around my local neighbourhood. When you are tasked with capturing interesting photos on the same streets you travel to work everyday it forces you to think creatively – to experiment with long exposures, light trails, to think about your shots and how to make them interesting. For instance, as I roamed my local neighbourhood, I began looking for potential backdrops – scenes pregnant with potential photos. When I found one, I would wait – wait for an interesting person to step into the frame or a cyclist to trundle through. Then  SNAP. I learned later this is what photographers call the ‘decisive moment’, a phrase coined by the grandfather of modern street photography, Henry Cartier Bresson. Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ is most famously demonstrated in the following two pictures.

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FRANCE. Paris. Place de l'Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. 1932.

My own decisive moment about half way into my project –
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2. Start Projects

Projects give your photography purpose – a reason to pick up you camera everyday, leave the house and shoot. Having a project helped me to focus on my photography, to develop a cohesive style and viewpoint. Additionally, i encouraged me to think creatively and start a few mini projects – projects within a project. For instance, my series on ‘bikes’.

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bike

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If you have a reason to pick up a camera everyday everything else will improve from there. Thats half the battle! With just one caveat…

3. Nail your Exposure Triangle

Points one and two on this list are null and void without this one. Before you can get creative you need to know the exposure triangle. No excuses! It is like the ABC’s of photography – Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO and how they interact with one another. Before starting this 365 project I had read a book here and an article there and I kind of understood. Kind of. I was still largely stuck in ‘Auto’ and ‘P’ modes, letting the camera make all my creative decisions for me. This project however, forced me to knuckle down and learn it, playing with the settings until I understood. Practise makes perfect (another cliche promise broken).

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A shout out here goes to Jared Polin over at Fro Knows Photo. His videos were instrumental in connecting a lot of dots floating in my head, conjured from a Youtube video here and a magazine article there. He makes it simple. I highly recommend his website and tutorials.

4. Your First 10,000 photos will be your worst

This is another highly esteemed quote from the ignominious Henry Cartier Bresson. Many argue however, that this figure should be much higher in the digital age. Check out this article by this article by Eric Kim, and amazing street photographer and photography teacher. Shooting 10,000 pictures is far easier /cheaper with SD cards than it was with film. Shooting 10,000 pictures with a film represents a big barrier, one requiring a hefty dose of enthusiasm and desire to overcome. In the digital age, the most snap-happy might rack of 10,000 shots in a three week holiday. Mostly photos of nothing. The new number to shoot for is 100,000.

Following this logic, the quicker you get to that 100,000 the quicker you will improve. If you shoot every day for a year and you shoot say, 50 photos per day (on average), thats –

365 * 50 = 18,250 

Thats a big chunk towards that 100,000. Improvement is also iterative, the photos at the end of my project show clear night and day improvements over the photos at the beginning. Its great to have a years visual diary of my development as a photographer.

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5. Blogging, Social Media and Writing

Keeping a blog and maintaining a presence on social media are vitally important factors in being a photographer in a digital age. Before starting this project, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Now, I have a WordPress Blog which was ‘Freshly Pressed‘ and has 7,000 odd followers. I have learnt some vital skills which I hope I can take forward in my photographic career.

As an aside, throughout this project I have added some blurb to accompany my photographs, little stories and tid-bits about my time in Japan. Over the year, this has helped me improve my writing immensely and ended up serving as a second creative outlet, almost as rewarding as my photography.

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So, thats it. The final post. To continue with the cliche’s, I want to say a huge thank you to anyone who has followed my journey, commented or ‘liked’. You have made this project wholly more rewarding.

Moving forward, I will be keeping this blog. I have more adventured planned and will be posting some photos along the way. In the meantime, please check out my portfolio website, its name inspired by my time in Japan – snowmonkeyphotography.com.

staytuned

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Comments 7

  1. Victor Bezrukov, photographer February 27, 2015

    Cant get this explain and recommendation about the amount of photos. Sounds so crazy to take 50 pictures every day and to hope that after 100.000 one will become good phototographer. Take 1 and spend some time to analyze it. Using spoon every day not make one guru in food taste. There are many teachers today in photography business. But usually good photographers are not good teachers :-))

  2. Pingback: How do you “Street”? | FiLM-RiSS

  3. thefashionelves March 10, 2015

    Japan is out of my top 3 countries that I desperately want to visit!!!! You have some absolutely wonderful shots in here, but by god is it torture seeing these, I want to go so bad! I look forward to future posts!

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