Musician fell in love with photography – What I’ve learnt in one year

I’m Ilkka Arola, a 32-year-old professional musician from Turku, Finland. I’ve been interested in photography and cinematography for my whole life, but the real turning point for me, was a year ago when I bought my first Fuji camera. Something just changed in me, suddenly I found myself using all my free time to learn more about both of these visual art forms. This article is a self-reflection on my first year with a serious photographic addiction and also a look at my current state as a photographer.

First, a bit of my background with photography and cameras. My photographic journey started when, as a kid, I was given my grandfather’s old Minolta film camera to take photos of family events and holidays. Later I had a small digital pocket camera for the same purpose. In my twenties, I was really much into backpacking and I just couldn’t travel to visually amazing places anymore without better camera: I bought the Canon 100D, the smallest possible DSLR I could find from the airport on my way to Nepal to explore the Himalayas.

Later as a big fan of Finnish traveling TV show Madventures, I started to gravitate more towards videos than stills on my backpacking trips, so I got even smaller portable device (GoPro 3+) and left my Canon home to collect dust.

 Like I said, my main profession is in the field of music, I play the trumpet and write music for my own bands. Often I need to record my concerts for online self-marketing purposes.

Last year I started to feel the need to upgrade my equipment as I wasn’t happy anymore with the material I got with my old GoPro. I was doing an intensive Google search marathon on portable video cameras when I found the concept of hybrid mirrorless cameras. Something in the Fuji system started to appeal to me, as my interest was not only in video but also to take better photographs for my music releases – I’m very much a DIY person with a passionate attitude towards many fields of creative work.

Well, finally I made the decision and ordered my first Fuji camera, the X-T3. Although I had a very videocentric background I soon found myself gravitating more and more towards stills photography, and that’s what this article is mainly about.

For the passing year, my main focus has been to learn the craft of taking quality photographs. I’ve been learning the basics of light, exposure, contrast, color and editing techniques. Shortly said, I’ve tried to learn everything that makes the photo look better on the surface.

After a while, when the camera was not a total mystery to me anymore, I started to explore the different styles and genres within photography. I bought photo books by greats like Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Saul Leiter, and started to follow numerous photographic Instagram accounts and YouTubers to maximize my eye exposure on different kinds of visual work.

Slowly I started to develop my own taste towards the art form, a preference on what genres and styles appeal to me more than the others. So, in addition to pursuing visually good looking outcome, I also started to think more about the feel and subject of the photos I liked, and also analyze what the photos I didn’t like were lacking.

So what do I like to photograph at the moment? I try to capture real moments in life rather than posing, I prefer to have a human element or another character that is easy to relate to in my photos. I like to mix a bit of mystery or poetic/romantic feel into reality if possible, so I don’t mind emphasizing the magic in editing a bit if that makes the intended message more clear. So I’m not a hardcore realist but I don’t like to create something that didn’t happen either.

As a father of two young boys and having my main career in another field of work, my time with photography is often quite limited. I try to shoot every day, whenever I can and wherever I happen to be. The majority of my photos taken this year is of my family.

Taking photos of fast-moving children is a great way to practice and improve your camera handling and decision making speed. To find more time to shoot I stopped cycling to places and started walking instead so that I can also practice while I’m on my way to work or to the grocery store.

Walking through the city while inconspicuously shooting strangers – I soon learnt that it’s called street photography and I needed to know everything about the genre. A few months ago I started to feel I needed a channel to show my pictures to other people and decided to share the street stuff on a new Instagram channel, not to mess up my already existing music-related account. I think showing my work to the world pushes me to get better as it helps me to make decisions on when the picture or edit is good enough and I can let go of it.

I love to shoot black and white as without colors I can concentrate more easily on getting the right balance between creamy midtones and strong contrast, as well as balance between sharpness and softness. I feel it’s a good idea to learn to use the light in photography without colors first.

I think black and white pictures can also take a bit more push of ‘magic’ when editing without becoming too unnatural. All in all, I just like very much the way you can present subjects with a black and white photo. Nowadays I also shoot, and sometimes even publish photos in color, as I decided not to be too afraid of screwing up the skin tones anymore.

You won’t learn it if you don’t try it. I’m also a huge fan of color grading styles in cinematography, so there are loads of interesting territory to explore in the world of color. I edit my photos in Capture One.

GEAR. I like the idea of having small and simple set up so that I can have the camera always with me. I haven’t really established a favorite focal length yet, so I’m trying out different lenses and slowly getting a feel of what I like. My goal is to end up being the one-camera-one-lens guy someday, but now I feel like it’s a good idea to try out different tools first.

My main shooting environments are either dark and wet outdoors (Finland most of the year) or pretty dark indoors at music clubs. So I need to balance between the low light capabilities and weather resistance when choosing lenses. My first lens was the Fuji XF23mm F2.

I find it’s great for indoors and outdoors when people are close to you. It’s also my only small weather-resistant lens, so I have it almost always in my bag as a backup if the weather gets too funky. My favorite lens at the moment is the Fuji XF35mm F1.4.

The main reason to get it was its low light capabilities, but the depth of field and the image quality also brings me joy always when shooting with it. The 35mm focal length also gives me a bit more reach than 23mm when shooting streets, but it’s still not impossible to shoot in small indoor spaces with it.

My last lens is the only zoom lens I have, the Fuji 16-80mm f4. It is mainly for my video work as it has image stabilization (the X-T3 doesn’t have it) and lots of reach to both ends, which has been very helpful especially when I’ve been shooting online streamed Jazz concerts lately.

For that work, the zoom is a must as there’s no time to change lenses as I need to find new different compositions in seconds without having much of room to move my standing position. Although this lens isn’t ideal for nighttime street photography for its size and aperture, it’s been very helpful to get used to new focal lengths before buying a new prime.

I’ve realized through my video work that I love to compose tight shots of musicians on stage with 50mm focal length, so that’s a style I might look into later with stills as well.

This passing year has been a weird one for travelling musician but surprisingly good for a beginner photographer with good connections in the music industry. Online streaming of concerts has exploded when COVID killed the normal concerts, and musicians still need portraits of themselves for new releases and ads.

People like to book someone they already know, and I’ve been very fortuned to get experience and income from these gigs. I’m really looking forward to the future with the disease gone: doing street photography when there’s actually people in the street, getting to play music again AND bring my camera to all those new places the music tours will take me!

In the photographic world, there’s a lot of talk about finding your own niche, and I certainly haven’t found my own yet in one year. But someday, as I continue to work with both music and photography, I will find a way to combine these two art forms hopefully in a meaningful, interesting and personal way.

A year ago I certainly didn’t see the COVID coming or that I would dive this deeply into the world of cameras. I guess for the next year it’s good to stick to the same plan I had for this one – to concentrate on doing the stuff I feel passionate about and let it evolve and lead me into places and situations I wouldn’t have thought of myself.

"I'm a Finnish professional trumpet player with a fresh addiction to photography. While I'm not working on my music career, I love to shoot with my X-T3 as much as possible every day. I try to capture interesting moments, life and people around me. Documenting the growth of my children with photographs brings me joy as well as the thrill of shooting strangers in the street."

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. The one thing that I noticed was that your images all have a consistant “look”, almost certainly from your own vision. This is good. Rather than trying to emulate 50 different styles that you saw elsewhere, you made photos that are from the way you see things.

    You are very effective with your Fujifilm gear.

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