Jiyang Chen is a New York City and Reno-Tahoe-based portrait and commercial photographer, with a background as a classical concert pianist. He’s been passionate about photography since he was a child, mainly due to its power to tell stories. He would like to have the chance to photograph Buzz Aldrin, the last living Apollo 11 astronaut, and sees a good photo to be one that captures the essence of people.
For him, it all started in the 6th grade, when his teacher brought an SLR and took portraits of the class:
I was fascinated with the camera and lens and how he was able to take far better photos with lighting from an open window than the professionals with the lighting setup that did the school portraits.
The same teacher had a large collection of National Geographic magazines in the classroom which further sparked his interest. He was drawn by Steve McCurry, in particular, and his way of telling stories through color and light.
His parents supported this new hobby and bought him some cameras and lenses. This hobby would later evolve into a career.
I was fascinated with being able to create something through this photographic process, capturing a moment in time. I never really took photography seriously until graduate school, when I bought a DSLR.
With film, I always felt like I could never have control over the full process, but that changed with digital. I could edit the colors and contrast and shadings to how I wanted my photos to look like. I started taking photos of my friends and eventually, I started getting paid for it.
Jiyang says that for him, a photograph is like a canvas on which he captures stories and emotions. He draws his inspiration from movies and soundtracks:
I like to look at something I’m photographing and visualize if it’s something I can put a soundtrack to. If I can, I’m on the right track.
But he believes that inspiration isn’t just something to wait for, as he quotes composer Tchaikovsky; it is more related to work than to pure chance:
“We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavoring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.” – P.I. Tchaikovsky
Jiyang is mostly focused on portraits and thinks that for a good photoshoot, there has to be a certain amount of collaboration. It’s not just about being photogenic for that magic to happen:
There is a presence and storytelling through the face and body that can be hard to bring out, but when the subject is able to tell a story through their face and body language, it makes my job a lot easier.
If you manage to make that person open up and create a connection, he says it’s easier to capture their true essence. His goal for when people look at a photo he’s taken of them, is for them to say: “wow, I look good, and I look like myself!”.
If he were to choose a really inspiring background for these portrait photographs, it would be Rome, with its streets, colors, and textures.
We shifted the conversation in a more technical direction and asked Jiyang for some tips that would help beginner photographs on their journey:
The easiest advice I can give for a beginner is knowing when to put your camera away.
If you shoot on a cloudy day, right after sunrise, or right before sunset, you can basically shoot anywhere and get a decent photo. But during midday, you have to be much more selective and the opportunities can sometimes be very limited.
But assuming lighting is good, I like to find diffused but directional light. I like to find ways to subtract light. If lighting is coming from everywhere, there is not much dimension in the face.
I like to find shade (in a room, under an overpass, against a wall) where I can subtract some of the lighting coming from other places and then find the light that is coming more from a specific direction to create dimension in the face (windows, sky, etc) and create catchlights in the eye.
When it comes to apps that help creatives with their work, he feels that some presets and filters can be overly simplistic and in need of more AI-enhanced functionality. Thus, apps could be used to create color editing palettes based on deep learning from previous works.
For example, skin tones are some of the most difficult things to edit, which is why portraits can look atrociously green or yellow from clicking on presets. But if the AI can analyze the photo and apply what it knows is considered pleasant and good skin tones, it can make life a lot easier for beginners (and professionals!).
Beyond technicalities, someone who is just starting in photography should be consistent and disciplined, he adds. Passion is mandatory, but it’s very easy to get distracted, and therefore, you won’t see improvement and end up losing interest.
When you take photos consistently, you will find improvement, and that’s when things start coming together and you start seeing good progress that motivates you and helps you to feel passionate about your art. That discipline sometimes is not easy to develop, but it is needed to push you past the times when you don’t feel like doing it. Think about it like boiling water. If you constantly let the water cool, the water will never boil.
Finally, we asked Jiyang to share some of his plans for this year and they are exciting:
My wife and I are expecting our first child in July. He will be the subject of many photoshoots.
Learn more about Jiyang Chen and his work at https://www.jiyangchen.com.