The model girl staring front of fire

John Yu: Firestarter

1. Can you tell us about how you got started in photography?

The model girl staring with a cigarette in her hand

I’ve actually been interested in photography for a long time, ever since I was 20 when I got my first camera I started taking photos, first of landscape and travel photos, and recently over the past 3-4 years, I’ve started to focus mainly on portraits. I found portraits to be interesting because I can capture different emotions as well as create light/mood settings to elicit an emotional response from the models.

2. What was your passion driving you during your journey? Who or what prompted you to begin?

The model girl smoking front of fire

I think what drives me is my passion for movies, I love movies and I’ve always wanted to create images that are cinematic, images that are able to elicit emotions from viewers. One of my favorite photographers is Chris Knight, some of my works are inspired by him. I love how he’s recreating sets from famous movies.

3. Could you walk us through your photoshoot planning process?

The model girl enjoying her cigarette front of fire

Generally speaking, once I have an idea/setup in my head I’d first plan out the necessary setup, lighting, makeup, and props that are essential for every successful photo shoot. If it’s a new lighting setup, often I’d go to the studio first and try out the lighting setup before inviting a model for the shoot. Once I have the lighting setup worked out, I’d talk with the model about what I want to achieve during the shoot. I have several models that I work with regularly so this communication process is often very smooth. Afterward, I will work with the markup artist on what I want to be done on the day. Finally, it’s a group discussion on when we all have the time and then it’s off to the studio for everyone!

Even with the lighting setup sorted out, often I’d spend another 15-30mins on the day of the shoot to adjust the lighting depending on the actual environment on the day of the shoot, as well as adjust to the model’s height/makeup/pose and etc. I believe having the right lighting setup is essential to a successful shoot.

4. As a photography expert, what sets your work apart from other photographers?

The model girl feeling lonely with cigarette

I believe lighting is the key to having work that sets you apart, so a majority of my time is spent on working out the best lighting setup and constantly learning about new lighting techniques. I believe the key to photography is to be able to control the light around you. Control the light and then you can control what you want to show to the viewer.

5. Where do you get your ideas for photoshoots?

The model girl ready to smoke

Often from movies to be honest and sometimes inspired by work from other photographers (but less so). I believe in recreating plus more. I don’t really try and recreate 100% of what others have done but do try and do 110% where that additional 10% is from my own creativity. To be able to create on top of what others have done, I believe that’s the key to having your own style.

The model girl staring and smoking

6. What are the most important components of an extraordinary photograph, in your opinion?

I believe to be able to elicit an emotional response from the viewer, that’s the key component of an extraordinary photo. To be able to allow the viewer to feel the emotion, to be able to place the viewer into the scene itself, that’s the key. I’m not so much of a technical photographer, meaning I don’t really care about the execution of the shot, but I care more about if the photo is able to capture the right emotion.

7. How do you strike a balance between your artistic expression and your client’s expectations during a shoot?

I make a big distinction between my own work and commissioned work. With my own work, that’s more about showing my own artistic expression but with commissioned work, that’s more about fulfilling the client’s expectations. However, I believe if you’re able to create your own style then often your clients will have a preference that’s very close to your own artistic style and won’t ask you to do something that’s completely different.

8. How do other artists influence your work? Are there any other photographers you look up to? Who?

The model girl staring her cigarette

One of my favorite photographers is Chris Knight, I love how his shots are so cinematic. He’s also inspired me to start using anamorphic cinematic lenses in my own works.

9. How do you enhance your vision after a session by post-processing your photos? Do you have a best-kept secret for editing processing that you’d like to share?

Yep, I strongly believe post-processing your photos are an essential part of any photography work. I only shoot in RAW to capture as much detail as possible during the shoot and my creative work is partly completed during the post-processing process. I also don’t like to edit in the camera settings very much, I believe in capturing photos that are as much as possible a recreation of what my eyes are seeing and then during the post-processing process show my own artistic expression. This is why I love shooting on Hasselblad cameras so much because their Natural Colour System as much as possible recreates what you’re seeing on the shooting set.

10. What are your top tips for aspiring photographers on skill development and finding their own creative voice? How did you develop yours?

My best advice is, if you’re serious about photography then please invest in good lighting setups, whether it is flashes, lights, or even just reflective sheets. Once you’re able to control the lights around you, you’ll find you are more likely to be able to express your own creative voice in whatever setting you find yourselves in. Otherwise, you’d often end up with shots that you’re less satisfied with. Once you have the lighting gear, experiment, experiment, and experiment. Don’t believe everything you find on the Internet, try for yourself and find one or two models that you can work regularly with that allow you to try different things. You’ll find, the more you shoot, the better you get.

11. What is your favorite piece of work you’ve ever shot?

I don’t have one yet, I often have a piece of work I’m happy with and then that piece of work is often replaced by work I shoot in the future. I believe I’m still growing and learning. All my best works are on my website:

12. Can you tell me about an upcoming project you’re working on and the idea behind it?

My upcoming projects are going to be focused on anamorphic lenses, I’ll be posting them once I have shots that I’m happy with. The idea behind these shots is trying to recreate that cinematic feel you often only find in movies.

13. Where can we view more of your work and connect with you?


Photo: @bitziz

Model: Shan Shan


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