“My current photography is largely snippets of day-to-day life in Japan, and the little things I notice. When I’m doing street photography, I tend to just wander through the streets keeping an eye out for spots with good light, or a good background. If I see something I like, I will sometimes meter, focus and frame the shot and wait for someone to come in and complete the photo.”
Paul Coates (born in 1988) is a Street Photographer currently based in Nagasaki, Japan. He’s self-taught when it comes to photography.
“I am a British photographer, who enjoys film photography, and has a range of film cameras. I always carry one with me to be ready to photograph anything around me.”
Interview with Paul Coates
Paul Coates, what was your most memorable moment shooting pictures out on the streets?
Recently, it was when I was out in Yokohama for a conference. I had my camera with me and I was getting some photos down by the waterfront before it started. I wanted to get a photo of a bird sitting in front of me, with the water, the bridges and the buildings behind it.
Just as I was about to take the shot, the bird was disturbed by a fisherman coming in from the right, and it too started walking in the same direction. I managed to get a better shot, with them both heading left, balancing out the photograph nicely.
Why did you become a photographer? And why street photography?
I originally became interested in photography because I had a broken film camera for some time, and my school offered the opportunity to join the dark room club. I thoroughly enjoyed that time, and continued after I left school. Street photography was one of the two things I had around me at the time to shoot.
I was still only 11, so I would just go into my local town and photograph the things around me. It wasn’t supposed to be street photography, but it is what you would call it these days. Now, I like the challenge of street photography, and how it integrates nicely with documentary style photography and travel photography.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to say with your pictures?
Photography to me is something I enjoy. There’s not always a particular message, it’s just what I thought would look good at the time. If I am photographing for a particular project, then there tends to be a message. For example with my “Isolation in Fukue” project, it’s about how people are leaving the island of Fukue for the bright lights of the city on the mainland.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
Henri Cartier-Bresson. I really like his ability to compose perfectly, capture real life, and remain unseen.
Your favorite photography quote?
That would have to be Robert Capa:
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
I definitely agree with his statement.
How would you describe your photographic voice and creative process?
My current photography is largely snippets of day-to-day life in Japan, and the little things I notice. I don’t have any particular creative process, but when I’m doing street photography, I tend to just wander through the streets keeping an eye out for spots with good light, or a good background.
If I see something I like, I will sometimes meter, focus and frame the shot and wait for someone to come in and complete the photo.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic voice?
“Keep taking photos, and your own style will develop.”
I think it is important to learn from the pros but not copy them. I think it’s important to look at their work, see what you like, what you think works in the photograph, and then go out and find your own thing with what you have learnt. Keep taking photos, and your own style will develop.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
The main thing about my work is it’s nearly all black and white, and it’s nearly all shot on film. For my work, I think framing plays an important role, but recently, I have been working on adding layers to my photographs.
What qualities and characteristics does a good street photographer need?
“If using a wide-angle lens, a good street photographer will know how the scene will look with that lens, and photograph accordingly.”
I think a street photographer needs to be very quick at framing well, and have a keen eye for what is going on around them. It’s also important to understand how things will look with the equipment you are using.
We often see things with our eyes and think, that looks cool. I’ll take a picture, but then when we see the image, we are disappointed because it doesn’t appear as we thought it would. If using a wide-angle lens, a good street photographer will know how the scene will look with that lens, and photograph accordingly.
What does a photo need to be a great street shot?
Good content, followed by good composition.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Living in Japan, my ideas for projects tend to be influenced by Japan and its people. But I also draw influence from the issues that I come across as a foreigner living in Japan.
What’s the biggest challenge shooting on the streets?
“Some days you just want to give up and grab a Starbucks.”
Not offending people, and staying positive. It’s always a downer when someone reacts badly to you taking a photograph of them on the street. And there are days when you just don’t see anything worthwhile.
It’s important to keep a positive attitude, but I think it’s also the hardest thing. Some days you just want to give up and grab a Starbucks.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
I use a Leica M7 and 35mm Summicron. I use a range of black and white films, TriX is a regular, but I have been using Fomapan and Neopan lately, and just bought a bunch of Ilford HP5 Plus. For colour I shoot slide film, Kodak E100VS usually. I also have a Lomo LC-A+ which I love using. And for digital I use a Canon 7D, with a fast 50mm and a fast 28mm.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
My favourite website, or at least the one I read the most, would be Steve Huff Photo. It’s great because it is regularly updated, so there’s something to read every day!
What photography book would you recommend?
I recommend “Magnum Magnum” by Brigitte Lardinois. It’s a beast of a book, but a fantastic guide to great photographers. Photographers of the Magnum agency introduce one other Magnum photographer and six of their photographs.
You learn a bit about the photographer and see some of their best work. If you are looking to learn about photographers, or need some new inspiration, get this book.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a street photographer?
Don’t stop shooting.