I learn about f-stops and all his friends from Pak Nol, my music and photography teacher way back in junior high (SMP). He was this Timorese gentleman who is a walking resemblence of Abraham Lincoln. Like all first-timers, in those days, I learn the ‘how’. Push this button and that will happen.
But I learn a lot of ‘why’ of photography from Novijan Sandjaya.
Novijan is a commercial photograher (website here) very well known in the industry circles for his imppecable style in complex and often very technical lighting set up, that always produce such beauty in precision.
I met him through my brother, who often assign him for the big advertising company he was working with at the time.
After a few meetups, he was kind enough to take me in, as in giving me access to watch him in his studio projects, and in empty time lots he would teach me.
I did not have a long time to learn from him, since my growing wedding projects kind of diverge us into our separate ways, but I learn so much in that short period of time. Very basic things, but very important things.
He is an idealist, a no compromise guy, and up until this second I am always thankful that I have him, the perfect idealist as my mentor.
Haha, just writing this brings back the memories. Vivid moments on the studio floor when he draw the exposure meter on a piece of paper. I still keep that paper. Hmm.
Why all the sudden writing of Novijan?
Because in a month of photographic adventure while I was in Ambon, I never failed to realize that short moment in my life had shaped my way of thinking everytime I hold a camera.
I will share three lessons that I learn from him that I think are monumental if you want to grow to be a good photographer.
Thank you Novijan.
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Lesson Number 1: Learn Photography Properly
There’s no other way. No shortcuts. No magic potion.
You have to know aperture, speed, ISO, exposure meter, white balance, dynamic range, f-stops, sync speed, composition, background, foreground, soft light, hard light, bounce light, fill light, main light, multiple exposure, hair light, key light, and all that jazz and everything in between.
You have to understand this up until the core of why it is the way it is. Why is that? Don’t be like a kid that can only answer, “because that’s what he told me”, or “because I was told to push this button, ‘ or “because the last time I set it that way it works”, but why?
You see, Novi studied photography in Germany. And he learn these whole shebang the right way, the proper way. So he despises people that think they can be good the instant way. The ‘read an online forum and you’re ready to go’ attitude.
Time is something that you cannot microwave.
And you need to have time. Time is something that you cannot microwave. Skills, experience, judgement, learning by doing, all of that needs time. Patience, soak it in while you’re at it. I am all about smart and speedy learning, but there are some things that really takes time. And that is a good thing.
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Lesson Number 2: Don’t Be A Big Hot Shot
I remember vividly this moment.
I just bought my first set of studio lights. Suddenly I thought I could pull a professional photographer session, so I put up some bedsheets in the garage and I shot pictures of my mom, Francy, my friends, my brother, his wife, his kid, and everyone that happen to pass by my house. The results? Not so bad! This photography thing is quite easy-peasy. And that LCD at the back of the camera? Wow, you cannot make a single mistake!
From the moment he picked up the phone, his voice was not of proudness, but of disgust.
The I remembered the stuff Novijan was shooting for his paying clients. Big brands, all glittery and shiny. Hey, I can do that too! So I sneaked a few Starbucks paper cups (very new and very cool at that moment, almost ten years ago) – and I began shooting away. Put it here, color the background, give some back light. And make sure ‘STARBUCKS’ is shown in all its glory. Voila! Wow, this looks just like that picture Novi took! Easy!
I emailed the result to Novijan and I picked up the phone, readied myself for some praise and sweet words from the other end.
But I was beaten to a pulp.
From the moment he picked up the phone, his voice was not of proudness, but of disgust. I kept on yammering how great the shots were, and kept on asking him of what he thinks.
He then told me, “Don’t be a wise guy. A hot shot. Someone who want to make it in a day. Starbucks cups, pfftt. Take a picture of a fork. A plate. A glass. A leaf. A stone in the sand. Then you give me a call.” Then he hung up. Dissapointment reeks from the earpiece. I can almost saw him shaking his head.
I was dumbfounded at that time. I just sat there listening to him talked about all of this fork and glass, but my mind was like, “What did I do wrong? Those are great pictures. Why is he mad at me?” It was the first and the last time my mentor speak that hard to me, and I did not understand why.
Many-many years later, when I also had become a mentor to a lot of people, I can now fully understand why he was mad at me.
People want it instant. People want to be a hot-shot in a cup.
It’s a lot like that comic Kenji. Kenji desperately wants to learn that killer secret move which is the highest form of kungfu, but his master only teaches him the very basic number one punch. On and on. Basic and basic. Simple and simple. Up until the moment the master finally shows him how to kill a man with just that one basic number one punch. It has been the most important training after all. All the other crazy kungfu move is easy if he got that one right, that one basic punch. Without he realizing it, he’s a deadly warrior now.
But unfortunately, not many wants to the learn that punch perfectly, timely.
*This is his photograph of friggin leafs. Leafs. No wonder he’s pissed at the cups.*
That’s why you seldom see great honest portraits from amateurs but more of the big breasted chick wearing a sexy army outfit holding a gun on a jeep. That’s why people got hooked on Instagram and the effects that makes everything looks good with a touch.
9 out of 10 of people that contacted me for career advise showed me a portfolio of the ‘Starbucks cups’ – photographs of glamour, gimmicks, complexity, of grandeur. They showed them proudly and then they waited for my praise.
But all I want to see is a ‘fork’. Seldom saw one.
For those who did show me pictures of forks – I know big things await them.
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Lesson Number 3: The Biggest Sin A Photographer Could Make
One of the most powerful thing he ever said to me is,
“Don’t be that kind of photographer.
The kind that drives a car with a camera inside his bag tucked safely inside the trunk and then see a beautiful frame: a panorama, a stretch of sand, a lone tree, a funny man, and then say, ‘Boy that will make a great picture’, but keep on driving. All the way to his destination he’s thinking of that frame. He then said, “Ah, there will be another time. I’ll pass that road again.” But then the frame dissapears. Forever. Untaken.
That’s the single biggest sin a photographer can make.
Ignorance is not a bliss.
Stop. Pull the camera out. Put the tripod on.
Get the picture.”
Ever since I heard those words, all I do in my entire career is stopping more.
I stop and I stop. I pull the camera out. I put the tripod on. I get the picture.
Sometimes I think the only difference between the good and the greats is the greats stop more.
* * * * *
Again, thank you Nov.
*All pictures here are created and copyrighted by Novijan Sandjaja. Used with permission*
**Beside an active commercial career, Novijan is now also directing NV Akademie – a photography school that he founded on the right, most basics form of the craft. I cannot recommended it highly enough for you that want to truly learn and understand. Not just the flashy stuff. This is hardcore baby.
Also don’t forget to visit NVPD.net to see how the greats do it.