Hirose Atelier – A traditional kimono dyeing workshop in Tokyo

Photojournalism / Portrait / Tokyo

I know I’ve been harping on about it endlessly but when you’re a photographer in a country such as Japan that is so rich traditional culture and arts, you’re going to have some easy days on the job.

Case in point, that time when I visited Hirose Atelier to take photos for an awesome book called Kimono Now. This place uses traditional Edo Komon stencilling techniques to print extremely intricate and detailed patterns or illustrations onto kimono fabric. Hirose-san, the owner, is a young star in the kimono world and one of the few remaining masters of this craft. It was absolutely fascinating visiting his workshop and seeing the painstaking process of dyeing and patterning swathes of fabric that will eventually be made into kimono.

Here are some outtakes from the book, hope you enjoy them!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (36)

Hirose-san lays out a bolt of fabric on one of his long tables in preparation for dyeing.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (35)

This is the interior of the workshop. The boards in the ceiling are long tables to lay the fabric out on. The lighting was super even and of consistent color temperature as well, which I assume is essential for the work they do here. It also made it super easy for me to take photos.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (34)

Hirose-san puts a stencil in place and makes ready to apply the dye using that spatula thing he has in his mouth

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (33)

Applying the dye, which looks a bit like mud, requires a lot of concentration and even application of force. Check out his forearm, he’s ripped!Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (31)Some fabric that has been through the process gathers in folds on a bench.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (28)

Here is a wider shot of the whole process. As you can see the interior lighting was amazing, which helped me out a lot.Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (27)Several of the wooden tools used to apply the dye hang drying above the sink.

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Alternate angle showing the progress he has made along the roll of kimono fabric.

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This guy in the back seemed responsible for laying out and pinning down the fabric.

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Here’s a roll of mostly completely patterned fabric. 

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Detail of previous shot

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Once a roll is done Hirose-san rolls it all up by hand. You can tell he’s done it a million times already because he’s really fast at it

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (18)

In this tiny room is kept every single stencil and pattern he uses for his work, catalogued in the huge books that he his currently showing me. Some stencils are tiny, others are huge, requiring them to be rolled up for storage. 

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (17)

Detail of a bird stencil as an example of some of the more intricate patterns he can do.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (16)


Stencils that have been stacked and stored in order. The place was kept fastidiously dry to avoid mould growing, and other damaging side effects of moisture. 

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (13)

I’ve actually forgotten what this sawdust is for! (the shoot was over a year ago) Anyway I thought it was a cool photo.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (12)


I took the opportunity to take a portrait since the environment and lighting were just so perfect. I was still using my Nikon D4 and zoom lenses at this point. There are some things I miss about that setup and there are some things that I definitely don’t miss, such as the weight and inconsistent autofocus.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (10)

Alternate portrait of Hirose-san back in the main workshop, once again loving the available lighting making full use of it.

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Just the entrance to the workshop.

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Here are some tubs of the dye used in his workshop. He makes them all by hand and you can see the process below:

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Heating up some ingredients for mixing the dye on an old stove.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (6)

Alternate angle – gotta get that sweet steam coming out the pot.

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Measuring and mixing for the final product.

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Wide shot to show the interior of the workspace where the dye gets made.

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Here’s a real close up so you can see just how fine the patterning is. All of it is done by hand!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (1)

Finally here’s another portrait of Hirose-san himself to close out this photo series.

That’s that for this week (month?), and I’ll try to be back soon with some more interesting photo-related shenanigans that I’ve gotten up to recently. The photos are piling up!

Kimono Designer Jotaro Saito + Tokyo Fashion Icon Kumamiki

Lighting / Locations / Models / Tokyo


Sometimes you really have to work for your shots, and sometimes all you need to do is show up.

When you have a top class kimono designer providing attire, an entire Japanese restaurant booked out for your location and a beautiful  model organized for the entire day then I can definitively enter that into the ‘glad to be a photographer’ variety of days that I’m on the job.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post I was fortunate enough to work with Manami Okazaki on her most recent book ‘Kimono Now‘, which is in stores currently. There were plenty of photos taken and a lot of the shots weren’t used so I thought I’d post some of the off-cuts here on my blog.

Ah the memories. I was still using a Nikon D4 back in those days :)

Jotaro Saito’s website is here for anyone curious, and he has a pretty cool showroom in Roppongi Hills for those who need kimonos on the cutting edge of fashion.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kimono Now (20)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kimono Now (18)

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kimono Now (15)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kimono Now (13) This is the man himself:Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kimono Now (11)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kimono Now (10)

Next up is Kumamiki (@kumamiki), who runs a mega-popular Youtube channel devoted to Tokyo kawaii fashion and also designs and produces her own line of clothing. She’s a badass. And super mega cute.

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kimono Now (7)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kimono Now (6)

So there you have it – the text is a little on the light side this time but that’s because I’ve been spending time writing random op-eds for Digital Rev and I’m definitely not used to writing this much. You can read the first article here; it’s a short piece on why lighting may or may not be relevant these days (hint, it is).

I’ll be back with more outtakes from this book Kimono Now – it was a real blast making it and I got to visit and photograph some really exceptional people.

A Book! Kimono Now by Manami Okazaki

Non-photo related / Photojournalism / Portrait

Here’s a philosophical question: if a tree falls in the forest but no one’s around to hear it, does it still make a sound?

Answer: Yes of course it fucking does.

Just like if you write a post for your blog and nobody’s around to read it, doesn’t mean it somehow doesn’t exist. It’s there all right; it’s just unpopular.

I’m kind of on a blogging roll at the moment, which is to say that I’ve made at least 1 post per month so far, which for me is a fairly regular basis. This at least means that the amount of blog posts I’ve made this year has surpassed the amount of people who actually read this blog (I’d say hi to my mum at this point but I’m certain even she doesn’t stop by here). Anyway, I know this sort of talk this doesn’t really befit an aspirant to the title of BEST FOTO BLOG EVARR but hey, things are things, and sometimes it’s alright to talk about things.

Here’s another question: if you shoot a photo and nobody bothers to look at it, does it still mean that a light sensitive surface was exposed to a convergence of light caused by a transmissive optical device for a precisely timed interval?

Answer: Yes of course it does. Just because no one’s looking at it doesn’t mean your photo never happened; it just doesn’t have any likes on Instagram.

The follow up question, and perhaps the more important one is: does it matter if no one is looking at your photos?

There’s a less definitive answer to that. I personally don’t have an opinion either way. Look or don’t look, it’s a free country. I generally shoot photos solely to please myself. I’ve mentioned it before but it’s akin to baseball cards. I like the process of collecting them (photos, that is) more than I like showing them off, but I also like it when someone looks at my collection and appreciates the time that’s gone into putting it together. I’m a little single-minded like that so it’s actually a pleasant surprise when I am reminded that indeed my photos actually are appearing in publications and stuff where completely random people can see them.

Of course, I know abstractly at the time of commissioning that my photos are going to be used on some pages somewhere in the world, but I never remember to ask for tearsheets and I hardly ever get sent a copy of the publication, so oftentimes I don’t even know which photo was used. But anyway, recently I received one such publication in which quite a few of my photos were used and I have to say it looks awesome .

The book in question is ‘Kimono Now’ by Okazaki Manami and is a real visual treat, going into the A-Zs of kimono production, fashion, history and contemporary culture. There are many great photos inside by many talented photographers, and somehow yours truly managed to be included.

I’ll be posting outtakes from the various cool shoots in the coming months (or years, depending on how I go) but for now here are some tearsheets and a photo of the cover so you know what to look for in case you feel like buying it!


Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kimono Now, a book (1)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kimono Now, a book (2)

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Kimono Now, a book (5)

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Finally – The Last Sentoshi has arrived


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Well, I’ve been promoted the living shit out of it for the last week or so, and here it is finally: the official release of “The Last Sentoshi”.

What is this? If you like photography and you like anime or superheroes, you might like this movie.

Why’d I do this? I dunno! But I really had a blast making it. I really have to thank Nissin Digital Japan (they make strobes) for actually having the balls to do something like this. They had my back every step of the way and really helped out on the production side of things. Not a lot of companies, especially in Japan, are quite so willing to put their trust in someone so untested such as myself. I also have to really thank the entire cast and crew for all of their own time they put in over our manic 3 day shoot. I’ll be writing up about the process of getting this project off the ground in future blog posts, as I really stepped out of my comfort zone for this project and as a result learnt a lot.

As for the AIR remote, it’s a wireless transceiver for their D700i strobe, and it’s really good. But promoting it isn’t the point of the movie. You’ll notice there are other camera/film/flash brands making their appearance here, not to mention the Nissin logo only makes an appearance for less than a second. That’s a testament to how much creative control the folks at Nissin surrendered to me, and how dedicated they were to making something good and entertaining, rather than a glorified ad for their new product.

By way of explanation, ‘Sentoshi’ is the pronunciation of “閃闘士”, which is a fictional term. Breaking down the Japanese characters we have 「閃」”sen”, which means flash, and 「闘士」”toshi” which means warrior. So Sentoshi = Flash Warrior, which didn’t sound very cool so I kept the title in its original Japanese. Hope that makes sense! Suggestions for a cool translation of ‘Sentoshi’ are super welcome!

Here are the English- subtitled versions and the straight Japanese versions. We worked really hard on it so I hope you enjoy it!

The trailer is here.

「最後の閃闘士」The Last Sentoshi: Trailer



I’m a bandwagon jumper. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I like to do things that everyone is doing, especially if everyone else finds it popular. Photography is one of those things, and so is eating.

Recently another one of those popular things is superhero movies. I mean seriously, those things have really really taken off. Seems like about twenty of those things come out every year, and people can’t get enough of them. Me either. I’m watching them all, without fail. Except that Fantastic Four reboot, hoo boy. Josh Trank really screwed the pooch on that one.

Anyway getting back to the point, superhero movies the new bandwagon and I’m a bandwagon jumper, so guess what! I made a superhero movie. Kind of. More accurately it’s a short film and it’s more anime-inspired than superhero-inspired.

Here’s the trailer. The official release is on September 18. Hope you enjoy it and please share if you feel inclined!

Also, here is the English subtitled version for non-Japanese understanding folks!

Portraits from the archives: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Lighting / Portrait / Uncategorized

Given that I’m somewhat nominally in the creative business, I occasionally find myself indulging in the delusion that I am some kind of flighty auteur type whose sensitive needs and fancies are incomprehensible to the common man, and that the everyday grind of administrative tasks such as emailing and dressing presentably are beneath me. This I use as an excuse for when I eat an entire bag of Funyuns in one sitting while marathoning the extended Lord of the Rings Directors Cut in my underwear. It also helps stave off the guilt when I spend a whole day hungover playing video games. Hey, I’m a sensitive artiste you know, I need all of this special time to get inspiration for my work, and by special time I mean rewatching season 6 of Seinfeld for the eleventh time.

Human experience is all relative though and in my line of work I’m fortunate enough to meet lots of people who manage being both creatives as well as fully functioning adults at the same time. One such example is the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethekul whose name I was extremely fearful about pronouncing right up until I met him and he said that I could call him Joe. Maybe he was being ironic, maybe that’s the moniker he actually goes by just so he doesn’t have to hear shutter monkeys like myself continually mangling his name but either way it works.

Anyway, if you’ve heard of Joe Weerasethekul, you’re obviously a film-goer of some taste. His feature films, 8 in total, are fixtures at fancy European film festivals, and a few years ago one of his works: ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives’ picked up some award called the Palm d’Or from this relatively unknown film festival at a place called Cannes (people assure me this is a big deal). I personally think his film ‘The Adventures of Iron Pussy’ should win a new award at the Oscars for Best Title every year in perpetuity.

I met him for these photos in 2010, and as usual my approach to photographing him consisted of trying to copy Dan Winters and failing miserably. I guess that should be my explanation anytime someone asks me what my personal photographic style is. Enough said there. What was nice though was hearing about his experiences firsthand and actually being in the presence of a true auteur whose achievements are worthy and whose artistic values I subscribe to. I should consider myself lucky when the biggest dilemma of my day is whether or not to put on pants – Joe is probably busy getting the Thai censorship board off his back so he can show his internationally acclaimed work inside his own country. The shoot itself was short – maybe only 10 minutes or so (I sat through the interview as well), but I definitely got the impression that this is the kind of artist I want to emulate; dignified, self-possessed and confident, with an unshakeable belief in the worth of his own work. My work often allows me to meet a lot of dedicated, intelligent people like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and through these encounters I can recalibrate my own internal compass to make sure I am always headed in the direction I want to go as an artist.

Gotta go now I smell my poptarts burning and I need to get back to League of Legends otherwise I’ll get banned from the server.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - apichatpong weerasethakul (3)

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Recent Portraits: Yoshiyuki Sankai of Cyberdyne Inc.

Lighting / Locations / Portrait / Uncategorized

I think I was about 8 when I watched James Cameron’s fantastic documentary Terminator 2: Judgment Day for the first time, and by golly that film scared the bejeezus out of me. Something about that scene where Linda Hamilton gets nuked, has her skin burned off and is turned into a skeleton in her nightmare really caused me to crap my pants. Also, the bit where the T-1000 stabs that carton of milk was particularly upsetting to me, for some reason.

But the scene that really lodged itself into 8 year old self’s head was the death scene of token black character Miles Dyson, Cyberdyne employee and inventor of the microchip technology that would eventually lead to the self-aware computer called Skynet and all the nuclear shenanigans that entailed. In this scene Dyson, in keeping with the fine tradition of all token black characters in cinema history, has been shot and left for dead by all the white characters who have vacated the area quicker than a train carriage emptying out after a particularly bad fart. Poor Dyson, wounded and unable to move, is left holding up a weight over the triggering device that will blow up Cyberdyne and end the threat of Skynet forever. As his breath fades away, we are confronted with the terrible tragedy of man’s eternal struggle with the relentless nature of time and creeping death, bearing the weight of sacrifice for as long as possible before the reaper claims you for the last. Dyson is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good but he continues to hold aloft that weight until his final gasp, because racked with pain and exhaustion though he is, he now realizes how sweet and precious each moment of life he struggles through is.

And when the end finally comes for Dyson in the form of fire, explosions and the utter destruction of Cyberdyne, we are left with a feeling of sadness at his death, and yet that sadness is tempered by the knowledge that in the end his life and death had meaning and consequence. As a frightened 8 year old, this scene really made me stop and reconsider my outlook on life. We should all try to be a bit more like Dyson.

How unsettling then, 24 years later, when I received an email from Forbes Asia asking me to photograph the founder of Cyberdyne Industries. I had been under the impression that, similar to my urine-soaked nightmares of the T-1000, that the ghost of Cyberdyne was well and truly behind me! Obviously not, as it appeared that Cyberdyne Industries not only still existed, but had its HQ on the outskirts of Tokyo, and no one seemed to think this was a big deal!

Now, I wasn’t sure which I found more worrying – the fact that I was originally told that I had only 5 minutes to shoot a cover and inside shots, or that the threat of invincible robot hunter-killer machines and a nuclear winter still hung over the human race. Both issues are certainly cause for concern however my approach to tackling multiple problems dictates that I should start with the more achievable one, which is why I emailed the press lady asking if it was at all possible to extend my 5 minutes to 10. Yes, I know that the possible threat of genocide and human extinction via autonomous machines definitely seems like the more pressing issue but I’m just an editorial photographer, what do you expect me to do?

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Cyberdyne, Yoshiyuki Sankai (10)

Anyway, while I waited for the lady to get back to me I began to do some research on Cyberdyne, even though I knew what I was going to find: death, destruction, and men made of liquid metal. Contrary to my expectations however, they were manufacturing robotic exoskeletons which can sense the intentions of the user through nerve impulses detected through the suit’s sensors, and assists them with a carefully applied amount of force that helps them ‘exert more motor energy than usual’. This revelation was surprising to me, because the Cyberdyne I thought I knew did not specialize in exoskeletons, but rather ‘living tissue over metal endoskeleton’.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Cyberdyne, Yoshiyuki Sankai (1)

My unease returned though when I noticed the name they had given their flagship revolutionary exoskeleton model: HAL. If not before, alarms bells were certainly going off inside my head now! The company responsible for the nuclear annihilation of Judgment Day, teaming up with the malevolent, murdering AI from the spaceship Discovery One? At this point I had forgotten all about the extremely brief 5 minutes I had been allotted to photograph Mr. Sankai, the visionary behind this new Cyberdyne. I would have been happy with 15 seconds if it meant I could walk out of there without HAL locking me out of the pod-bay doors to die alone and hopeless in the vacuum of space.

Eventually though the press lady got back to me and very nicely told me I could have 10 minutes, and so resigned to my fate I packed my gear and drove to Cyberdyne HQ where I met Mr. Yoshiyuki Sankai, the founder. And let me tell you right now that he is genuinely just a really, really nice man. I mean, the whole thing about building an army of robots in secret that will eventually gain sentience and wipe out the human race notwithstanding, I really warmed to Mr. Sankai. I could sense he really cared about his work and what the important innovations it is making in the field of robotics and the eventual subjugation of humanity. Sometimes you can get so caught up in a company’s image that you forget that behind the facade there are real, honest and committed people working towards their vision of a better future, or, in this case, apocalypse.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Cyberdyne, Yoshiyuki Sankai (6)

Anyway, my allotted 10 minutes turned into 20 minutes as Mr. Sankai was very generous with his time and seemed very amenable to all of the ideas that I wanted to try (even in the face of metallic doom I can’t help but get enthusiastic if I think I’m onto something good). Everything worked out great – I was really happy with the photos and Mr. Sankai was gracious and patient right up until he had to leave to have a meeting with the Minister of Technology, where I’m sure they bargained over the fate of mankind. The only real negative was that I was bumped from the cover by the Singaporean Lee Kwan Yew dude who died that month, but hey, considering that I managed to walk away from a shoot at Cyberdyne without getting Terminated, I consider myself pretty lucky already.

Well anyway, thanks for reading another overly lengthy blog post in which absolutely nothing of worth to the photographic community is discussed. I hope you enjoyed it, and please stay tuned for the next post about a shocking story in which an analog film hipster gains sentience. Bye!

PS: Just in case you didn’t get the joke (and to be honest, I can hardly blame you), Cyberdyme does not actually make killer death robots. They are a wonderful company at the forefront of ‘cybernics’, as it’s called on their homepage, which is about using robotics to help make people’s lives better. Their exoskeletons have numerous applications in the physical rehabilitation of stroke victims or the partially paralyzed. They are an awesome company!

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Cyberdyne, Yoshiyuki Sankai (4)Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Cyberdyne, Yoshiyuki Sankai (7)

Portraits from the Archives: Horicho


Now then, welcome to instalment number 2 of semi-regular blog posts from yours truly destined to stop within two weeks. This is the part where I realize that I really have nothing to add to the dialogue so I’m just going to pour out an unedited stream of consciousness, mould it vaguely into some kind of motivational diatribe and occasionally throw in not-so-subtle epithets like GEAR BAD PHOTOGRAPHER EYE BRAIN THINKY GOOD. Having read a fair share of photoblogrographer’s blogs in my time this really seems like the way to go in order to achieve fame and the everlasting adoration of all the Internets and that is certainly something that I want because I have a warehouse full of cleverly designed camera-themed print t-shirts that I really need to sell.

So anyway given that I’ve run out of things in my navel to gaze at, I’ll just get straight to the pictures today.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Traditional Wabori Tattoo (3)

Portraits being my main thing, I generally try to get around town photographing the most interesting people I can get my camera lens trained onto. I treat it like collecting baseball cards. Most of the time you don’t get anything good. But sometimes you luck out and you come across some really interesting and rare cards that not only make your collection look big, but also gives it value. These are the types of interesting portraits that I’m hanging out to photograph.

Now interesting people can be divided into three categories – there are people who do really cool or interesting things with their life, which gives some kind of context in which to base my portrait around. There are those who just look cool, for whatever reason. And then there are those who look freaking cool and do interesting, rare things with their life. Speaking as a person wot likes fotos, when you’ve got a subject who has that winning combination of cool visual aesthetic/amazing context/cool location in front of your camera then you’ve basically hit the jackpot, portrait-wise. It’s the photo equivalent being invited to the all-female nude slumber party at the Playboy mansion. There are so many things you want to try, and so little time to do it all.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Traditional Wabori Tattoo (45)Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Traditional Wabori Tattoo (7)

Case in point, the tattooed chaps you see here. I was fortunate enough to be able to go and photograph these really amazing locations and people for a book about traditional Japanese tattoo (or Wabori). The book is sensibly enough named ‘Wabori’ and is still available through Kingyo press by the way.

Anyway, as Wabori has a widespread (and deserved) image of being closely linked to the Yakuza underworld, these Wabori practitioners don’t really openly advertise their shops and opening hours, that sort of thing. Straightaway, this fact alone gives me a big photographer stiffy (insert telescoping lens joke here). In all seriousness though it’s exciting for me to shoot inside a place not many people get to see, mainly because I’m a curious person and also because it makes my photos look better – always a good thing in this business.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Traditional Wabori Tattoo (9) Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Traditional Wabori Tattoo (43)

Second thing that really gets my juices flowing – I get to photograph masters of their craft. Call me an idiot romantic, but virtuosity means a lot to me. When I see someone who’s really really really good at what they do, I get a warm tingly feeling inside. Sure, it may be the syphilis but who’s keeping track. Either way, I love meeting talented people and photographing them, especially if what they do is getting rarer and rarer these days. I really feel like documenting these fading crafts lends some meaning to my superfluous and otherwise insignificant existence on this ball of rock hurtling through the trackless black wasteland of our Universe. I don’t know where the existential crisis suddenly came from but I’m happy to blame it on the syphilis again.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Traditional Wabori Tattoo (18) Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Traditional Wabori Tattoo (28)

Finally, there’s always something about Yakuza gang members covered with freakin tattoos that’s always looked cool to me. Don’t know what it is but for some reason it’s just really fun to photograph, and not at all intimidating. Add that to the beautifully cluttered interiors of these Wabori studios and you’ve got a photoshoot that really just does all the work for you, and I’m definitely all about that. Of course, as I mentioned in my last post my immediate reaction upon seeing a cool location like this is to revert to copying Dan Winters, heck, basically anything makes me revert to copying Dan Winters. However possibly because I’m not as good as him, I always end up with some other stuff that just looks like I photographed it. I wonder…maybe if I find out what gear he uses and just buy all of that stuff it will solve my problems once and for all! It’s definitely worth a try.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed my masterclass on shooting portraits. To sum up my main points: don’t rely on your own skill to make interesting photos, just make sure your subjects and locations are interesting enough that you can’t go wrong even if your camera is set to P-mode and you haven’t taken the lens cap off. This really is the key to everlasting success as a foto graffa and by sharing these secrets I’m sure I’m angering the whole professional community but what can I say, I aim to be informative and interesting.

Join me in six months time for my next blog post, which will be a long form Haiku about how I imagine Dan Winters smells after a shower. Expect gratuitous use of the word sandalwood.

Now then, who wants to buy some T-shirts?

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Traditional Wabori Tattoo (47) Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Traditional Wabori Tattoo (46)   Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Traditional Wabori Tattoo (51)

Portraits from the Archives: Toyo Ito

Lighting / Locations / Portrait / Tokyo

Never let it be said that I am not an unstoppable content producing machine. I churn out photos like my camera has some form of irritable bowel syndrome, which in itself is a great metaphor for most of my photos. The thing I tend to forget about is the part where I put them up somewhere to be seen; namely on this blog. If anyone’s counting (and I doubt anyone is), you’ll find that I wrote a grand total of 4 blog posts last year, averaging one every three months which equates to typing roughly one word every 6 hours. A pretty gruelling schedule you might say and I say yes, by the time I got to typing my typing fingers had all been tuckered out by the endless button pushing, dial spinning and head scratching that my job requires of me. Facetiousness aside though, I think we can safely delete the title ‘social media guru’ from my LinkedIn account profile, as last year I probably put as much effort into self promotion as a bodybuilder puts into binge eating.

What’s the point of all this you say? Well yes dear reader (as I’m sure there is only one of you), this being the new year and being a time for new beginnings and resolutions doomed to die before Spring and all that, I decided I might try my hand at this blogging thing once again, even though at times it seems that I’m shouting into a stiff wind blowing back into my own face, which can be kind of fun but inevitably exhausting after a while. We’ll see how long I last this time and if I run out of things to blog I can always rely on the traditional photoblogrographer’s tried and true fallback position of bright sparkly GEAR REVIEWS as a half-hearted last gasp before I drop off the face of the Earth entirely once more.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Architect Toyo Ito (10)

I shot this portrait of ace architect Toyo Ito with a Nikon D800, which goes to show you how far back through the archives I’m trawling for these photos. I haven’t owned a Nikon for about a year now and I haven’t been happier since I switched over to Fuji even though the spectre of Full Frame still temptingly hangs over me like a naughty text message from an underage coed. Of course, there was nothing wrong with the D800 except for bulky, clunky interface, spotty and unreliable autofocus and bloated file sizes that gummed up my iMac’s HDDs with terabytes of photos 90% of which weren’t even worthy of importing into Lightroom. No, the Fujifilm XT-1 is much more my speed with its slim form factor and traditional interface making it easy to – hang on, when did this post become a GEAR REVIEW? We’re here to talk about photos dammit, and the point of these posts is to give you some insight into the photo taking procedure even though this photo shoot happened nigh on two years ago and my memory of what happened is decidedly dimmed by time and the alcohol-fuelled haze of memory-loss.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Architect Toyo Ito (7)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Architect Toyo Ito (8)

Anyway Toyo Ito, whom I found out much later to be one of the most famous architects in the world let alone Japan, winner of some kind of Pritzker prize, was one of those assignments that drifted across my inbox from a first-time client. The brief was basic: Toyo Ito is a famous architect, please go photograph him with one of his buildings. My immediate reaction (and it is always my immediate reaction) was to envision a Dan Winters-esque tableau picturing Mr. Ito as a towering but humble presence dominating the center of the frame, standing on a rise in the foreground which would conveniently be right where I needed it, with one of his architectural creations recognizably yet artfully out of focus in the background. The sky would be blue but smattered with clouds, as if foreshadowing something, and his expression would be distant and determined, with his body language anchoring him in the present. That was the photo I was going to take, and with my skill and confidence it would translate into glorious reality.

Of course, that’s the kind of optimism you have every time you’re excited about something and looking forward to doing it. You think to yourself, ‘sure, the last time I had the triple spicy jalapeño curry dip I got the shits so bad I turned into a hunchback for a week, but this time it will be fine!’ Well, every photo shoot is kind of the same way – you go into the shoot with high hopes that everything will be fine, but it’s usually not and you have to expend considerable energies trying to make something of the mess you’ve found yourself in, eewwww. Thoughts of creating a Dan Winters style masterpiece fly out the window and all you want to do is come out of the shoot with a frame that doesn’t shame your house and end your career in a gory act of self-disembowelment.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Architect Toyo Ito (4)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Architect Toyo Ito (5)

Case in point, it was raining when we arrived and the sky didn’t even have the decency to have moody cloud formations, just a flat, bright slate gray that will blow out to highlights if you even think of trying to get a decent exposure on the foreground. On top of that, there wasn’t even a nice hillock in the foreground for my subject to stand. The dream was dead. The shoot was shot. No Dan Winters ripoff for me, all that’s left is me standing amidst the shattered remnants of my dream to copy Dan Winters and the need to think of something new to photograph, quickly.

As a photographer it’s a guilty confession of mine that I’m often terrified at the prospect of using my own creativity. That makes life rather interesting as the situations where I’m forced to improvise are far more numerous than any normal, organized person should have to encounter. Anyway, in these sorts of situations my conscious brain sort of recedes into a fetal position and my primate brain comes to the fore. I babble and grunt a lot. I do gratuitous Borat voices, mostly in the vein of ‘is nice’ and, ‘I like’. Occasionally I’ll hear voices, my own, that will say ‘umbrellas! Umbrellas make strong visual thingys!’ I’m never certain whether I am saying these out loud.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Architect Toyo Ito (9)

Mr. Toyo Ito was, for his part, bemused, gracious and patient. I didn’t go overboard with my research on him because I never like the idea of being overwhelmed by how accomplished my subject is before I even go into a shoot. Also, it’s hard not to be impressed by someone who creates beautiful pieces of contemporary art that double as functional spaces that will serve people for decades. Still, I didn’t really over research him – there’s no point in knowing all sorts of random tidbits from his life if I can’t walk up to him and have a normal conversation, and to be honest it probably comes across as creepy if you start mentioning random stuff from their lives in an effort to jumpstart a dying conversation. So as it was we chatted mainly about travel, and he exhibited a polite interest in my life story of how I’ve come to be a photographer living in Tokyo.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Architect Toyo Ito (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Architect Toyo Ito (2)

I guess the point of this all is not to make me seem like a Dan Winters fanboy (I am), nor that I have a loose approach to interacting with my subjects (I do). It’s to say that sometimes when you’re forced to improvise on the spot it can be fun, if not terrifying in a way that makes my scrotum retract like the landing gear of a small Cessna. That’s photography for you though and if I didn’t want an interesting job there are a multitude of different ones I could have picked from.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Architect Toyo Ito (6)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Architect Toyo Ito (1)

Gear nerds! I’ve not forgotten you. The stuff I used on this photoshoot was:

– Nikon D800
– Nikkor 45mm f2.8 PC E
– 24-70mm f2.8G
– 14-24mm f2.8G
– Paul C Buff Einstein + Vagabond


Commercial / Friends / Lighting / Locations / Photo Gear

Happy New Year everyone!

You guys know the drill by now – at the end of each year I shoot a Nengajo (a type of Japanese greeting card for the New Year) of my close friends/team members in the theme of a movie poster, featuring the animal of the year’s Chinese zodiac. You can check out the previous ones here and here. This year it was to be the year of the sheep, so I rounded everyone up, threw them into a car and drove down to a farm outside Tokyo to do the photoshoot.

Well, actually it wasn’t quite so simple as that, as there was a fair bit of work involved in putting together all of the costumes and props, which meant hours trolling websites and vintage clothing stores around about Tokyo in order to find exactly what I wanted. I also needed to find a farm which would grant me permission to use their paddock and sheep as props for a whole afternoon, which meant driving down to several farms to check them out in person. Given that this year’s New Year’s card was loosely based as a Western movie poster I’m sure you can imagine that I had a hard time finding a suitably frontier-like location within a few hour’s drive of Tokyo! Luckily I found a great farm in the end, and the costumes came together pretty great, especially with the help of Yuka (see individual portraits below), who made one of the dresses from scratch!

Also, all of the sheep in the photo are real, live animals and yes, we had a worker from the farm with us the whole time to make sure none of them were harmed during the shoot. Sheep are quite fun to work with – most of them are quite happy to stand where you lead them to, and once you scatter a handful of feed on the ground they will stay there grazing for minutes at a time, allowing plenty of time for photos. It’s probably not a good idea to drop sheep food too close to your gear though, as I found out when one of the sheep almost bulldozed over my tripod and Hasselblad in its single-mindedness to get to the food!

Anyway it was fun times for everyone involved, and I’m so very grateful to have such talented friends who will give up an entire day to go along with my ridiculous ideas. As always with each year I’ve been blessed to have the support and help who I genuine respect and enjoy working with, and this is definitely one of the best parts of my job.

Please check out the BTS video below, as well as the actual poster and individual portraits of the people who helped me put this thing together. I’m looking forward to reaching even greater heights in the year of the sheep!



Me: Yes, this is me; Irwin Wong, Tokyo photographer. Nothing special here, let’s just move on.


Asuka: This is my wife! I can’t find the words to describe the patience and support she has shown me this year. She makes me always want to be the best person I can be, and that’s why I love her. Also, the incredible dress and corset she is wearing was made by the incredibly talented Yuka, who was another one of our team members for this photoshoot. Her profile is below somewhere.


Maiko: This is Maiko’s third appearance in one of my nengajo, and her skill as a makeup artist has only gotten better since I’ve known her! She’s a capable, calming presence on set whom I have learned to thoroughly trust over the years. The lamb she is holding was really docile for most of the shoot but here I managed to catch it during one of its rare bleating session.


John: As well as shooting most of the video for the behind the scenes clip, John is an awesome friend who often has to put up with me swinging by the craft beer bar he manages just to sound some ideas off him. Also, just like me he’s a big nerd with an appreciation of all things fine: beer, movies, videogames, cats, etc. Can’t wait to see what shenanigans we’ll get up to this year!


Hamish: Making his first appearance in my nengajo, Hamish used to help me out on the occasional photoshoot but now is a talented landscape/documentary photographer in his own right. Also, he has an awesome duderanch in Tokyo with about every gaming console under the sun, so I often find excuses to go around to hang out.

Yuka: I only met Yuka recently, but I count myself incredibly fortunate to be able to work with her. She’s a clothing stylist who specializes in repurposing old kimonos and turning them into awesome garments for rock bands, models and actors to wear. An example of such a garment is the one my wife Asuka is wearing in her photo above. I really hope to be able to collaborate with Yuka very closely in the future!

Anyway, that’s it! Please stay tuned for more – I promise I will post more on this blog this year (last year I only managed 4 posts), but as always thank you very much for stopping by and I hope you enjoyed the photos!