Michael Kistler is a fine-art, urban and street photographer living and working in Hong-Kong after spending over a decade in Tokyo, Japan. We like his blurry shots taken in slow-shutter speeds and compelling compositions that are able to capture the fleeting emotions of street subjects. Michael also shoots with his iPhone and those images are simply magnificent. Having shot in over 30 countries, he’s also conducting single-day workshops to cater to the needs of individuals who want to take their urban photography to levels ahead. Read this interview to know more about his work and techniques he employs, further, it’s always nice to read inputs on images of Eastern parts of the world as native photographers working there aren’t mostly able to express themselves.
I’m originally from Minneapolis and lived in Tokyo for 11 years before recently relocating to Hong Kong with my wife and daughter. Some places I lived along the way include Germany, Turkey and California. I’m a fine-art urban photographer by trade but consider photography a passion as well. If I’m not doing photography, I am usually thinking about it, discussing it or reading about it- an all-around photo nerd.
I have been shooting in some form or fashion since I was 18. Anyone who knows my age can do the math- in essence, a long time! I got my first Ricoh film point and shoot from my parents for my 18th birthday and fell in love with photography. I didn’t shoot consistently over that period of time but am currently engaged with photography many hours each week. I shoot every day on my iPhone and several times a week with my Canon. As for the number of photos, I don’t really keep track but have been trying to focus on quality over quantity. One of the dangers of digital photography is the tendency to over-shoot with the hope that you get something good. I would rather spend more time thinking about composition and how best to craft my images.
Good question. I’ve always considered myself a street photographer, but I tend to try to approach it in a more artistic and less literal way. I love movement and motion and am always striving to incorporate these elements into my compositions in unique and unconventional ways. I am particularly drawn to those moments where people and the urban landscape collide. I especially like the idea of the city essentially being this big drama where people are supporting actors or role players on the larger urban stage. I suppose the most challenging aspect of my photography on a personal level is to keep learning and evolving. Experimentation is key I think.
I am currently using a Canon 7D; my two main lenses are the 25-105 mm and the 50 mm 1.8. The 50 mm is an ideal street lens because I am forced to do a lot of the composing and focusing with my body rather than with the lens. I also do a lot of shooting on my iPhone and feel strongly that mobile photography is a big part of the future. I absolutely love the freedom, ease and accessibility of mobile shooting. My edits are usually pretty simple and involve small tweaks and contrast adjustments; thus far I have avoided heavy editing, preferring to keep my images close to how they were in camera. I use Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro on my Mac; and Snapseed on my iPhone for mobile edits.
Living in Tokyo for many years absolutely shaped my style. I sort of consider it my photographic playground in that I was free to explore, experiment and learn. It’s an incredible city that only becomes more interesting the longer you are there; it’s also a place that absolutely transforms from day to night, a quality that makes it very photogenic. Due to the huge population, there is constant movement and motion–the city really has a great energy and, of course, many striking characters in the big urban drama. I was lucky enough to live several years in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. Every day was like a virtual fashion show, providing many photo opportunities. Suffice it say, it was never boring.
My favorite photo is always the next one! The image I’m including (see below) is called Hoop Dreaming in Hong Kong. I like this one for a couple of reasons… first of all, it epitomizes street photography for me in all the best ways. The image was shot in a spontaneous manner and is very of the moment. It had just rained, and as I was passing a wet basketball court in Wan Chai, I saw a mini-world reflected in it. I’m sure it didn’t take long for the sun to dry out the court, and that’s the beauty of street photography–moments that come and go insanely quickly. The second reason I chose this was because I shot it on my iPhone. It’s a perfect example of why the camera you use doesn’t really matter, especially in street photography.
I would say that I’m careful with how I regard my achievements. I hope that I am just scratching the surface in terms of what lies ahead. I probably get the greatest satisfaction doing urban photography workshops; most of my workshops are single day sessions where I introduce people to more creative and artistic ways of photographing an urban environment. The sessions include instruction, discussion, practice and feedback- the workshops are dialogue-heavy with a lot of talking and sharing. It’s a lot of fun to work with like-minded people and spend an intensive period of time immersed in photography. That people like my work and feel that I have something to teach them is a huge compliment to me. I feel very lucky in this regard and hope to continue building up the workshop side of my photography business.
Hmmm… I think in some ways the more things change, the more they stay the same. Street photography today has most of the same elements as in the past. However, in Hong Kong, I see a lot of people doing architecture-inspired work- it’s interesting in small doses but has the tendency to get a bit sterile without the human element. Of course with more people shooting on their phones and sharing on networks like Instagram, you find a lot of copy-cat photography. I’m not sure sitting on the edge of a building and shooting your dangling feet with the city below is very interesting in the long-term. I guess this also raises some questions about how much social media have changed the photographic landscape. And Instagram is a great example of that–on one hand, the community gives people a platform to express themselves creatively, but it also creates this kind of sub-group of IGers who are consumed by producing the next slick image and collecting as many followers as possible. As far as assessing myself, I try to have realistic goals but to always keep moving forward by finding inspiration in new and different projects.
I have a few ideas but nothing terribly concrete at the moment. I love shooting in the rain so perhaps something colorful, abstract and rain-inspired in HK. In the meanwhile, I will continue doing my urban photography workshops in Hong Kong and work to further develop my fine-art portfolio.
My favorite photographers include Daido Moriyama, Saul Leiter, Vivian Meier and Ho Fan.
Finally, say something to our readers and young photographers:
This is easy: shoot, shoot and shoot. The rest will come. Oh, and I supposed it’s a bit cliché, but the camera really doesn’t matter- photography is about light, composition and the moment.