Maki Kawakita's Theatrical Light

Photos ©Maki Kawakita

By Irwin Wong -- A largely self-taught photographer, Tokyo and New York-based commercial photographer Maki Kawakita now shoots ad campaigns for major Japanese and US brands as well as working on her own series of self-portraits.

Shown here are Kawakita's photos of Japanese rock icons Glay, which were done in 2009. As with many of her shoots, the location is as much the subject of her photos as are the people.

How to commandeer a glitzy hotel lobby so she can fill it with her heavily gelled flashes? Turns out that part is pretty easy. It is the lighting itself that's a bit more complex…

“For the Hotel Glay series, our location was a hotel in Yokohama,” Kawakita says. Most of the furnishings and decorations seen in the photographs were already there as part of the hotel, forgoing the need for any set or prop additions. “Probably the only things we added to the location ourselves were the potted plants you can see in the pictures,” she adds.

Potted plants, and lights. Lots of lights.

In the photo at top Kawakita says the lighting was “slightly harder than it looks,” requiring a total of six lights. Several red-gelled Profoto 7As head were placed in the room behind the trailing band members to fill it with saturated color.

Another two red-gelled lights were placed in a room out of frame to the right of the camera. (You can see the reflection of one of the flashes in the mirror behind the guy with the hat.) One of them is beaming straight at the band members from behind and the other one is aimed to gel the room red. This lights the out-of-frame room to a color consistent with the rest of the background.

The lead singer – and to a lesser degree the other band members - were lit with another Profoto 7A head with a reflector coming in from slightly camera left. Other than that, no other light modifiers were used.

Six lights and we’re barely out of the blocks yet.

In the second shot (click for bigger) Kawakita uses twelve (yep) Profoto heads to turn the inside of the hotel lobby into a dreamlike scene. “We shot this at around 2am in the morning so we wouldn’t have people coming through the lobby all the time” she says.

As far as the lighting goes “It’s tough to remember the exact positions,” she says. Fair enough, I say.

For main lights Kawakita had two un-gelled heads in large soft boxes to either side of her, pointed straight forward. This is where things get a little more complicated.

There were a total of six lights with standard Profoto reflectors under the staircases to the left and right, behind the potted plants. Two of these lights are providing the rim lighting for the band. That more or less takes care of the lighting for the subjects. The rest of the lights were gelled red for the background. Another two were above the staircases out of view, providing the extra red glow.

In lighting the rest of the scene Kawakita converts the dull, featureless slabs of staircases into points of visual interest by lighting the palm fronds from beneath to throw shadows. She also adds some color in the mirror behind the giant chandelier. By letting the yellow ambient ceiling lights bleed in she adds another layer of color and depth to the photo. Subtle touches, but they balance they balance the saturated image.

To round out the lighting, several red-gelled Profotos bouncing off the walls behind her fill the scene with her signature red look for this series.

“I really enjoy doing this kind of conceptual commercial work, where I can create my own type of world,” Kawakita says. As a child she was heavily influenced by theater, having trained from the age of three in the art of Japanese Dance. The colorful, lively style of Japanese theater often includes elaborate, fantastical sets, costumes and makeup.

And it clear that Kawakita’s sense for settings and posing has its roots in theater. She also takes a lot of her lighting cues from the stage, evident from the amount of hard light sources she uses.

All of her lighting is self-taught. “ I may have a unique way of lighting, but I don’t know any other way to express myself”, she says. “If I have an idea I use it to realize that. I like the contrast. I like the saturation I get from it.”

Right now Kawakita is working on her photo book, Makirama. It is a series of self-portraits which will be exhibited in Italy, Turkey, the US.

“I’d love to exhibit it in Japan,” she says, “but we’re still working out the details on that."

You can see Kawakita’s personal style flowing through this series as well. Ingrained in her vision are lessons of staging, gesture and lighting learned from her experiences with theater -- which she applied to create her unique photographic style.

Kawakita is working on a book, due to be released in January of 2012. You can see much more of her work at or follow her on Facebook.


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