Shimada Yohei: Close to Home

Photos ©Shimada Yohei

By Irwin Wong -- Nara, Japan -based commercial photographer Shimada Yohei’s Workman series involves lit, cinematic portraits of everyday tradesmen at the local level. Today, a look at how he creates the images — and the importance of the self-generated project.

Shimada’s Workman series was borne out of several factors, the main being geographical constraint.

Shimada is a native of Nara, an ancient and historically significant city of 400,000. But Nara is far removed from the centre of the Japanese photo industry. Upon graduating from Kansai Art University Shimada did what most aspiring photographers do. He moved to Tokyo for several years in order to pay his dues as a studio assistant and intern.

Shortly after he became a full-fledged photographer, he decided to move back to his quieter hometown. But he quickly learned that there wasn’t a whole lot in Nara to keep him busy.

"Nara is a small city," he explains, "and the commercial photo industry there is next to negligible."

"Makeup artists, models, stylists and art directors gravitate towards Tokyo because that’s where the big agencies and magazine publishers are," Shimada says. "So at first it was hard to find people I wanted to work with in Nara."

Faced with a dearth of professional talent to work with in his small city, Shimada turned to a more accessible scene for inspiration.

"I didn’t know any models or designers in Nara, so shooting fashion was pretty much out of the question," He said. "Still, as a photographer I’m always looking to shoot something, so I had to think different lines and ask myself, 'where else can I find interesting subjects to photograph?'"

The answer was of course, in his local community. He started out by photographing his parents, who are both photographers themselves and own a small family portrait studio in Nara. Then he turned to asking his old high school friends, all of whom had moved into different walks of life. From there the project has organically grown upwards and outwards as he gains introductions to different types of craftsmen.

The result is a series of stylishly executed editorial-style portraits. Also, said he finds this project far more interesting and satisfying than shooting straight fashion. "I’ve found something that I hope I can continue for a long time," he says. All of this from the desire to create something cool and looking to the community for it.

"Also, once you have a few shots under your belt it makes it easier to show and explain to other people what you’re trying to accomplish," Shimada said, adding that it wasn’t hard initially to approach his friends and family to shoot the portraits.

Once he gets permission for a shoot, he then does a bit of location scouting. He works out pretty much everything he’s going to need to know for the day of the shoot, from the framing to the lighting, down to the positioning of the subjects.

"I like to have as much control as I can over a shoot," says Shimada. "Especially for a personal shoot, there isn’t any reason why you should be unprepared. Apart from weather, you shouldn’t have to deal with anything unexpected if you’ve planned things out properly."

With that philosophy in mind, a look at how he created two of his images.

Shimada began with a photo of his parents, above. In this instance, he let the ambient light to do most of the work, adding strobe as fill where necessary to bring up the shadows.

The fill took the shape of a Comet "Twinkle" flash head at low power bounced into a white reflector camera left to bring out the shadow side of his mother’s face. A second Comet bounced into another white reflector to camera right helped fill in the table and bring some definition back from the shadows.

Another interesting note about the process: Shimada photographed his mother and father separately, bringing them into the frame in post. “It makes it easier to get the lighting right in close quarters,” he said.

[Ed. Note: This also created some emotional distance between the two subjects, a strong entry point for the photo.]

For his photo of an auto-mechanic, Shimada used a Comet head with a grid camera right coupled with a shoot through at umbrella camera left to illuminate his subject.

Then, with his Canon 5D-MkII locked into place on a tripod, he took his gridded Comet head and shot a number of separate pictures with the flash illuminating different parts of the frame. He then combined them in post production. (The light from the ceiling was added in post as well.)

"In order to give the photo more depth I used the light in the back of the frame, on the rear of the car and sections of the wall," he said. "There are two reasons I use this technique. The first is that I don’t own enough flash heads to do complicated multi-light shots in one frame. The second is that I am shooting to a precise image in my head, and this procedure gives me the most control."

"It’s a lot of work," he adds.

This ability to pre-visualize the combination of shooting and post-production help Shimada to create his visually arresting location portraits.

"I may move to Tokyo sometime in the near future but I intend to continue this project as long as I can," Shimada said.

You can view more of his work at

Irwin Wong is the Asia correspondent for In this case, Wong learned of Shimada's work after the shot of Shimada's parents edged Wong out for first place in the Profoto Japan photo contest.

But you can also tip Irwin off to photographers in Asia doing cool stuff without defeating him, via Twitter at @IrwinWong.


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