17th December 2013, Singapore – In a pretty saturated photography market in Singapore, emerging from the competition is never easy. Months ago we featured an Underwater Photographer who took to the depths, and we were really lucky to be able to be introduced to Master Photographer Tommy Chia, the photographer who took to the skies – he is a Professional Aerial Photographer.
In this 3-parts series, we are thankful that Tommy willingly shared with us his story, his experience and his life as a photographer which we hope to inspire other photographers and take a lesson out from Tommy. Life is not a bed of roses for the working photographer, it’s about strong determination, the attitude to learning and the ability to keep going and going. In this Part 1, we take a look at Tommy’s humble beginning and the things that happened in his life that lead him to aerial photography.
It all began in 1972 when Tommy borrowed a Kodak Brownie camera from his aunt during the end of his primary school education for a school excursion trip to Jurong Bird Park. The Kodak uses 120 film (MF) so Tommy was limited to 12 shots so he was “forced” to plan carefully for each exposure. Every shot has to be precised & calculated. After the roll was completed, he sent the roll for processing & developing – and totally fascinated with the final images -just the way he visualized and planned. After Tommy’s first experience with the Kodak, he started saving through his secondary school daily pocket money. I was informed that he saved $0.50 daily for 240 school days to put together a decent $120. $120 is big money in the 70s if you remembers. To start, Tommy’s family is not well off, his Dad was struggling with a meagre salary as a shipping clerk to support the family and that was why he rather save up his pocket money to purchase a camera. His official first camera was the (now legend) Canon Ftb, a 35mm SLR with a standard 50mm F1.8 lens – for $120.
Armed with the Canon Ftb, Tommy (and just because he has a camera) became the chairman of his school photography club. Back in 1975 not many students could afford to buy a camera and in the club, there was only 1 other student who has a SLR camera. Tommy started taking photos of his fellow school mates and all the major school events. At this exploration stage, Tommy enjoyed photography in general. He continued as a hobby without guidance or mentoring. Tommy eventually joined a local based photography club with his Ftb & 50mm lens in the hope of learning something from the club but sadly,
“No one wanted to talk to me as everyone else was holding SLRs and medium formats with large lenses and gadgets which I was not familiar with. I felt intimidated but did not despair.” said Tommy.
Not giving up. Tommy decided to “teach himself”, he went to the library and laid his hands on every other photography books that he can find. Tommy added that “Mentoring” was not common in those days. Older photographers (“Shifu” or Master) demanded respect but not too willing to share their craft or let anyone learn the trade secrets.
Tommy bought his first telephoto lens after he worked as an intern on board a passenger ship for a couple of months. There, the sea scene with all its different ships and ocean vessels continued to inspire and fascinate Tommy. After he joined the Republic of Singapore Airforce as a Radar specialist, he upgraded his camera system to a Canon A1 & AE1 and also added a couple of FD lenses. He even joined the (then) new Canon Photography Club as the first batch of committee members. After 6 yrs of service, he left the airforce in 1984 and went to work for a famous professional photographer (Teo Tee Hua of First Photo) who was also the club’s Chairperson. His company was the sole-distributor for a Germany brand of studio lighting, film processor and other brands of photography accessories. With Mr. Teo, Tommy had the chance to make sales call and demonstrations to other photographers. Through his working experience there and with Mr Teo’s fame, Tommy was finally “let in” into the World of Professional commercial photography in a big way.
Tommy described the experience as “Suddenly all my “windows & doors” were opened and I saw new dimensions, directions and spectrums of the commercial photography trade.” I was extremely excited to see a whole new world of answers before my eyes.”
In 1986, Tommy became a professional photographer and started STUDIO 8 where his main area of expertise was people, corporate and fashion. His ex-colleague – Joe later joined him in partnership after a year and it went on for 4 years of successful partnership. Tommy shared that Joe fine-tuned his skills and that helped him when he went on to shoot for some major local fashion publications latter.
Sometime in 1989, a bride-to-be engaged Tommy to photograph her pre-wedding. By then, Tommy had already developed his unique style of photography, and photographing that wedding secured Tommy another chance of gaining foothold in another photography world – Wedding photography. In the 80s the wedding photography market was dominated by Taiwanese-style creatives which mainly consisted of fanciful gowns and complicated backdrops fit for costume parties. Tommy’s style was simplistic and going with the idea of “less is more” and he incorporated high key and low key lighting techniques that modelled on the style of fashion shoots. That shot Tommy into instant fame, soon after, he was one of the most sought-after photographer for pre-wedding shoots by young executives (yuppies) couples.
At this point of time, the studio has 6 staff and business was so overwhelming – Tommy recalls that many times, he had to turn down jobs. In 1995, he took over a wedding gown shop – Inspiration Collection. Tommy was running the business complete with his own in-house design team and seamstress.
“We were the trendsetter at that period and I had many hopes and expectations for myself. Each job I took, each wedding we attended, gave me much satisfaction and further gave me inspiration that my work was recognized.” shared Tommy.
Good times didn’t last long, the global financial crisis of 1997 to 1999 came and the demand for made-to-measure customized gowns and wedding photography were adversely reduced as the public started cutting back on budget & expenditure. Tommy’s businesses suffered great losses.
“I felt myself spiralling in a never-ending freefall; I was very exhausted and burnt out. My confidence took a huge hit. I despaired and it eventually affected the people I love. But still, photography was not something I wanted to give up. I was again blessed with a helping hand when my father’s friend offered me a job, which then led me into the whole new dimension of aeriel photography.” said Tommy.
At this point, Tommy shared that most of the inspiration he had came from himself when he was determined to learn and be better. Of course, he also credits the people that lend assistance to him along the way; people who had a hand in opening the right paths for him and guided me. Running parallel, it was his own fire of passion that kept him going. From the lessons he learnt through his experiences, photography needs aspirations and passion in order to constantly keep pace with time and technology. So back to the story;
During the tough period of the financial crisis, a friend of Tommy’s father approached him to photograph their company’s new ship. Since Tommy was looking for a job at that time, he accepted the assignment although he had never done it before. He remembered the stories and experiences that one photographer had shared during the time when he was in sales, and taking cues from the magazines and calendars of ships that his father (shipping clerk) had been bringing home for years, Tommy gathered how shooting a ship was to be done and with everything that he knew, he went on to do his first aerial photography shoot.
The assignment was a success.
With this new experience and the refreshed passion, Tommy decided to go back to commercial & industrial photography. Tommy described it as tough as he had been absent from the scene for years at that point. Making it tougher, digital media was introduced and changed the photography landscape. Tommy recalled that he had to sell his old film cameras to buy digital cameras and he has to learn the new gadgets all over again. Investing into new gears, new computers and softwares was pretty much at the tip of every photographer’s mouth. With every changing year, kilobytes turned to megabytes than turned to gigabytes than to terabytes than to Petabytes. Many older photographers using films (analog) was not able to adapt to the new media and was “forced” off the trade.
Instead of allowing himself to be “expired”, he spent 5 years rebuilding my commercial portfolio and thus increasing his aerial experiences at the same time.
In 2007, Tommy’s studio was renamed as STUDIO 8 Pte Ltd. There were new investors and fresh fundings for new cameras, equipment and crew. He did progressively well each year, giving him a stable income and the experience and concentration he needed to enhance his skills in aerial photography. In 2009, videoman Mike joined STUDIO 8 and Tommy took the chance to pick up video photography as well – which added to the overall value and the retail packaging of aerial photography.
This year, 2013, a new chapter of life has started for Tommy, he formed a new company called “AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHER” to concentrate mainly in aerial, maritime, Industrial and commercial photography and video film making.
We will be back with Part 2 of Taking to the Skies with Tommy Chia.