Michael Yamashita has been shooting for The National Geographic for over 30 years, combining his dual passions of photography and travel, bringing to life countless stunning and breathtaking photographs that inspired many. One of the first professionals to switch to Sony since 2006, Michael Yamashita speaks about his journey to Ladakh, The Land of Snows, and how the a7RIII empowered him during this adventure in challenging conditions.
An Interview with Michael Yamashita
How do you achieve your uniquely emotional style of photography?
For me, the emotion is always in the eyes. That's the single most important element to capture in a portrait. Your average person will smile, because a smile is what is expected—everybody's putting their best face forward by smiling for the camera. But it's only when they drop that smile that you get serious and you start getting serious pictures. You have to invest the time with your subject to get the emotion in the eyes. The eyes are the soul of a person.
On my camera, I keep the Eye Autofocus function on constantly so that no matter where my subject is moving, wherever they are in the frame, their eyes are in perfect focus every time. Those eyes, and the emotion behind them, are going to be razor sharp. Another setting that gives me an edge is continuous autofocus, instead of single autofocus, because again you never know where your subject may be moving, especially when you're using these really fast Sony lenses. 1.4 depth of field is very shallow, so you need to be able to change that focus quickly and the only way you'll be able to do that is with continuous autofocus.
What do you enjoy about switching to the mirrorless a7R III?
Firstly, it has super-accurate focusing. With so many more focus points, I can put all my trust in the camera—I have pretty much everything on automatic, from autofocus to auto-exposure. When I let the camera do the work, I can concentrate on the subject, and that's the way I like to work. I think professionals want the simplest and best gear that lets them just focus on the subject.
The 'R' in the a7R III stands for resolution, and if you've seen any of my exhibitions, you know I love big prints. I don't know a photographer who doesn't like to see their work in as large a scale as possible! And with portraits, the impact is different when you blow it up much larger than a normal size. With this camera, you see in amazing detail. It's not just that the eyes are incredibly sharp—you can see every thread of hair, every eyelash, and of course every defect or imperfection in a person's face. You don't miss a thing, it's pretty incredible.
What were the difficulties you had shooting on location
in Ladakh, India?
In sub-zero temperatures, batteries can consume power very quickly. It's been very cold here in Ladakh, but with the new batteries on the a7R III, you can basically shoot all day without changing them. That's some amazing stamina. When you have good gear like that, it makes you more confident and it takes some pressure off when you're in the field.
As a photographer, I like to hear the 'click' sounds of the shutter. But when you're shooting portraits, the subject could be waiting for the click of the shutter, or performing for the camera, so it's better that they don't know when you're shooting. I like using the silent shooting feature for this, and I keep it on one of my custom buttons to hit on or off all the time. The silence is a great advantage for portrait shoots.
What are some of your favorite lenses?
My favorite lens for portraits is the Sony 85 1.4 G Master lens. It's super sharp, fast, and has a great bokeh. For portraits where I'm shooting fairly long, I also use the 70-200 2.8 G Master lens. These are my main arsenal.
I almost always have the camera on the widest aperture possible for portraits. I'm not so interested in depth of field because the eyes are everything in a portrait, so the focus on the eyes is really all you need. I don't care if the ears or anything else may be slightly out of focus. I want the eyes, and I love shooting at 1.4, especially for that beautiful soft bokeh that is part of the lens' natural look.
As a professional photographer, how do you prepare for difficult assignments?
I like to know as much about the location as possible, and who I'm meeting. I'll do research on the place that I'm going to—the culture, the religion, everything that I can find out. After that, I'll look into photographs taken there, because I want to capture something new. In this trade, we're going to a lot of places that have been photographed hundreds of thousands of times before, and my job is to come up with something different.
What gear do you pack to achieve the best shots?
The camera is certainly the most important. I use the best that money can buy, and right now I'm using the Sony a7R III. I also pack every lens and every focal length I have, which is pretty much every lens that Sony has, so I'm guaranteed the results I want, and have backups as well. This is a job where you can't afford to come back without the goods! It's one of the few professions where there's no room for error. That's why I want the best stuff, and that's what I'm carrying.
Do you have any tips for amateur photographers?
Great photography depends on your vision, it's all about how you see the subject that you're looking at. You need to have your picture in your mind before you have it in the camera. I like to say that I see the photograph before I click the shutter, and that can be a second beforehand, or a millisecond, or even something I've planned out for days and weeks. The most important thing that differentiates you as a photographer is your vision.