These days, American David Powell’s blog is one of the top-rated photography sites on the Internet, called Shoot Tokyo, featuring a daily blog called Life in Tokyo, in both Japanese and English.
Powell captures unique glimpses of people and life in Tokyo through his compelling photos and delicate treatment of light.
The BBC, CNN, Yahoo and others have published his photos.
Catherine Makino talked to Powell in Tokyo, where he is based, about his sudden popularity and his photos.
Q: When we talked about five months ago, you didn’t know a lot about social networking and not many people went to your blog. How have things changed since then?
I am on the top page when you Google Tokyo Photography out of 37 million sites. When I first started my blog I only got about 10 viewers a day.
Q: How many people are coming to your blog these days?
I average between 1,000 to several thousand a day. Right after Japan’s earthquake I had 16,000 viewers in one day.
Q: What did you do to increase the number of people coming to your site in such a short amount of time?
Persistence. I blogged everyday; that was one of the keys in gaining a lot of traffic.
Quality content also plays a huge role and figuring out what people like. For example, one time I did a test and redesigned my site. I put up smaller photos. I received a lot of emails and comments saying, “Please don’t do that.” People liked the bigger pictures, so I quickly readjusted it.
Every time I make a change, I ping my readers, throw out comments or questions about what they think.
Q: Do you get a lot of comments?
Some days just a few and some days I get between 30 or 40 comments on single postings from people who ask questions or just want to share their thoughts. About 25 percent of my traffic is from repeaters.
I always encourage people to comment because I found that when you do, you get more comments. You also have to make an inviting atmosphere where people are comfortable in leaving comments or emails.
Q: How do you do that?
I’ll ask an open question or I’ll just flat out encourage people to comment. I’ll say, “If you disagree or have an idea, please feel free to leave a comment” and that usually starts a conversation.
Q: What technology did you find that makes a big difference?
A couple of things: I use WordPress and a photography theme on top of it.
A lot of people who post photographs don’t put in descriptions, so Google and search engines can’t determine what content you have. If I’m posting 40 or 50 pictures in a single day, there is a lot of information there. But the Internet can’t read that information, so I make sure I always tag in the alternative text for all my photos.
For example, if I post a picture of Starbuck’s in Nakameguro in Tokyo, I make sure I tag the photos as “Starbuck’s coffee in Nakameguro.”
Q: Then you always describe the photo?
I describe every single photo, so when the Google robots go up and scan my site they are going to read all that information.
I went to the Don Quixote store the other day. Now if you type in Don Quixote at Nakameguro I show up on Google’s top page. My site gets indexed with various keywords very quickly now.
Q: Who are your readers?
People who are photographers, people who are interested in photography or into Japan. They find the country interesting and fascinating. For example, a woman commented that her son was an exchange student and she was watching my site everyday, especially after the earthquake, to get the feeling of what life was like in Tokyo. The lifestyle here is intriguing to people.
Then there are some people who are really into the Leica, which is the camera I use.
Powell’s $10,000 camera lens
Q: What makes this lens different from, say, a $2,000 lens?
Its ability to process light. It’s more efficient than the human eye in processing light, especially if you are outside and it is dark out.
For example, if I were going to take a photo and it was dark out, I could make it appear brighter with my camera than what my eye sees. Normally, one way to get that is on a tripod with a long exposure to allow light to hit your light sensor for a much longer time. Others might use a flash.
Most people don’t want to carry a tripod around everywhere so this lens leaves three controls you can play with:
1) ISO – In film photography this determined how sensitive your film was to light. In the digital world it is how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. The higher the ISO the more sensitive your camera will be to light, but this comes at the cost of adding digital noise into your pictures and often at the cost of image quality.
2) Shutter Speed – How long you leave your shutter open thus how long you allow light to hit your camera’s sensor. The issue in low light because you can only handhold it for one-twentieth of a second or one-thirtieth of a second before camera shake is visible in the image.
3) Aperture – How much light you let pass through your lens and onto the sensor. With this lens you can let a tremendous amount of light in. This also controls depth of field. This is where my lens is pretty special and allows me to achieve some of the effects that I can.
Q: What do you mean by depth of field?
Depth of field allows you to select parts of the photograph in focus and other parts out of focus — if you see a photograph in a newspaper and the subject is very sharp, the background is thrown out of focus. This is controlled by aperture or depth of field, which enables you to isolate your image.
The smaller the number on your lens, the smaller the f stop number…. a lot of people use f/2.8 or some people might use 1.8, 1.4 or 1.2, which are very expensive lenses — the one I use is 0.95 that allows me to get very shallow depths of field and lets tremendous amounts of light pass through my lens.
I get something like a coffee cup, for example, and if it is a Starbucks cup, I can focus on the logo and blur the size of the coffee cup.
If I were taking your photo I could make your eyes razor sharp and your eyes and nose soft. It would make a very striking image of you. I could also photograph you and completely isolate you from your background.
Photos and the person
Q: How long have you been a photographer?
I have had a camera for as long as I can remember. But when my son was born five years ago I became much more serious and bought my first SLR camera. I also wanted a hobby outside work and family, something to balance it out. Then about two years ago, I got very serious.
Q: How often do you take photos these days?
Everyday. A lot of people do a 365 project to improve their photography — a photo a day for a year — some people do self-portraits, landscapes or something else. In other words, they want to learn. They are saying, “I am going to do this.”
I always thought I would never have time do this because I was so busy — and then I started a blog in November and said if I am going to start a blog I’ve got to do it for real or don’t do it at all, so I posted every single day. At first I was posting a photo or two a day because I didn’t know what my style was — and then once I figured out my style I got much more comfortable. For example, today’s post will be 40 photos that I think are keepers. I am much more comfortable just going out and shooting.
Q: What do you take photos of?
My day — I went to the coffee shop, had a date with my wife for lunch. It’s like following a day in my life. I also try to fill it up with daily life in Tokyo — how I see Tokyo, which is what people find interesting.
I like selective focus, never sharp from corner to corner. There’s always part in focus and out of focus, which I think makes it an interesting photo.
I like to notice things that people don’t see. For example, a convenience store near my house just started offering the old American style gas station coffee. The type with posts on burners that you need to pour yourself. I took photos of it and I’m sure people would walk by and not notice it — it’s nostalgia to me.
I also always photograph neat cars, little Italian mopeds, street signs, or whatever is happening around me.
Q: What do you think makes you stand out from other photographers?
Honestly, it’s that I’m always refreshing the content while others can be stale.
I try to capture the globe the way I see it. If you look at my postings it’s probably not the textbook way people would have photographed them. For example, I took a photo of the Shinkansen train at Tokyo station and I didn’t focus on the train, but the little guy who poked his head out of the little cubbyhole saying goodbye.
It’s the way you see it as opposed to just doing something that is sterile. If I see something that is interesting then I will snap it.
I like to capture everything around me and a lot of that is people. I’m not afraid to go up to anybody and ask, “Can I take your picture?” When you’re not comfortable taking a photo, people feel it.
Also, going back to the blog and why people come, it’s because I share a lot of stuff. Like I did a post the other day of 10 things I learned from daily shooting. And that is being re-tweeted over and over again.
When I started the blog I read that the only person you should make fun of is yourself. I’m pretty sarcastic, so it would be pretty easy to do it. I also wouldn’t want it done to me.
Q: What are you aiming for now?
It’s twofold: I want to continue to advance my skills in photography and in Japanese. I’m also just enjoying building a photo community and it’s nice to get recognized and get my name out there.