an interview with jason watts
by Megan Dill
Hello Jason! Can you please start off by telling us a little about yourself?
I am a Southern California based photographer that specializes in Portraits and Weddings. I have a truly amazing wife of almost ten years and two boys under four. We live near the beach and Disneyland so we are always running from one to the other. I love a good cup of coffee, reading current events, an avid SNL watcher, baking chocolate chip cookies and old cameras. I am a mixed bag of interests to say the least.
You’ve been a photographer for over a decade now. How did you first get started in your photography journey?
It was a trip to Scotland that introduced me to photography. I was on a missions trip to help run after school programs in different elementary schools and one of my friends had brought her family’s 35mm camera. I was so intrigued with it. I am not sure what it was that awoke in me but looking through a camera on that trip taught me to see again. To be aware of my surroundings. It was like sailing down a new river never explored. That was all it took. I just fell in love with the art of creating again.
You have such a lovely collection of work. Simple, authentic, and timeless were words that came to mind. Where do you seek your inspiration?
Inspiration to me comes in many forms. My images are a direct manifestation of what I find beautiful and what moves my soul. Looking outside of the medium of your art is one the best ways to stir creativity. The work of Stanley Kubrick, both his films and photography made a huge influence on me early in my development. What I really love about Kubrick’s work was the diversity and topics covered while maintaining a singular vision. In addition, cinematographers Roger Deakins and Janusz Kaminski both respectively make my jaw drop. Currently, I have been really enjoying the work of Walker Evans, Dan Winters, Rodney Smith and fellow colleague Steve Stanton. All are amazing and yet completely different photographers, both in their methods and subject matters.
You embrace both digital and film photography. How much of your client work is captured on film? Do you prefer one medium over the other when it comes to your personal work?
For me it really doesn’t matter which medium I use. The only thing that is important is the final image. The means and methods are really footnotes to the final product. A photograph should stand on its own merit without explanation. I like shooting film because that’s how I learned photography and I love the dark room. I try to work a little of both into each portrait sitting. Plus, I find it helps clients to relax a little when they see me working with a film camera. They can sense the connection that I have to my craft.
Do you have any guidance for the digital photographer who may be considering dipping his or her toes in film?
Do it! I would start off with a system you have already shot with it. If you are primarily a Nikon person then buy a Nikon film camera, and so on. I still shoot with the first camera I learned on, a Nikon N80 which I think you can get on Ebay for like $15 for the body. Do you need to know how to shoot film in order to understand photography? No you don’t. But understanding film and using a darkroom helps you understand the magic behind photography. In the same way that you view a magician’s trick differently if you know how its done. You watch it from a different perspective but are still blown away by the end result. I love the way shooting film makes me feel. From start to finish, there is such an ownership and bond you create with the images you produce that can not be replicated with digital. There is no firing away with film. You have to be mindful of what you are doing and make each frame count.
What cameras and lenses can be found in your gear bag? What film stocks do you typically reach for?
Depending on the subject and setting, I might leave a few things behind but primarily I like to have options. There is no greater fear than being at a session and not having the right equipment handy. I primarily shoot with three cameras currently, a Nikon D800, D700 and a Pentax 67 with a 105mm 2.8f lens. For my Nikon equipment, I use a 50mm 1.4f, 50mm 1.8f, 105 2f DC, 17-35mm 2.8f, 70-200 2.8f, and a Petzval 85mm 2f lens. I also always have a grey card, film, lightmeter, and 0.6 ND filters for all my lens. For my color film I shot exclusively Portra 160, and 400. For my black and white work I tend to be a little more diverse. I love shooting Tri-x400, Ilford PANF Plus 50, TMAX100, Ilford 3200 and Fuji ACROS 100.
The connections in your wedding photography and family portraiture are so genuine. Do you have any tips for us on how to interact with your clients/subjects to capture honesty, or do you tend to take a hands-off approach?
I tend to pull back as much as I can and allow the scene to unfold. I would call it “controlled photojournalism”. For families, I like to set the stage, know the characters involved, and be ready. I found the more I influence the less natural people tended to be. But in order for this to really be effective, you have to build trust of your clients. Being able to read clients and their interactions within the first five minutes is the most important component. You have to establish a level of trust earlier on so that your clients forget you are a photographer. They forget that you have been hired to take their pictures and by doing so, they allow themselves to open up. The veil is removed and you get a glimpse of the soul, if only for a fraction of time. Photographic technique is secondary to the ability of connect with your subjects. That is paramount.
What is your biggest challenge when photographing a wedding?
In my opinion, the biggest challenge photographing a wedding is determining what to keep and what to remove within the frame in order to tell a story. Hemingway famously said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. How I cut the peripheral information and still tell my clients story is all feel. Unfortunately, there is no formula you can master or checklist to follow on what can be left on the cutting room floor. That part just comes with time. That is why it is important to understand your clients (characters), their story (wedding day) and lots of practices.
What is your favorite photo that you have taken recently?
It is a photograph of my wife and oldest son, who was sick at the time and needed a little comforting. It was a beautiful moment that was longing to be captured. I luckily had my Fuji-EX1 sitting by me and I snapped away. Those are the images I charisma the most. The ones that present themselves like a blooming flower in a great field. I will really cherish this one.
What is the best piece of photography advice that you have ever received?
Be more concerned with the “Who” rather than the “How” on photographing a subject.
You’ve recently partnered up with the Blind Children’s Learning Center in Orange County. What does it mean to you to be able to give back in some way with your photography?
I truly believe that we are granted with talents and abilities that are not intended purely for our own benefit but are to be used to better the community. When I started out, I had no idea the impact it would have on my heart. The school is, for lack of a better term, magical. From the amazing staff, numerous volunteers, and kids who conquer daily mountains with a smile on their face, I was moved. Photography, like any art, makes you more aware of life and its hidden heart beat. The images I have made not only benefited the school but taught me a great deal about myself. I would urge anyone to step outside of their comfort zone and give back.
As part of my partnership and commitment to the school, I am running a print sell with 100% of the profits being donated to the school. You can find more information on my site HERE. If you would like more information on the school and other ways to help out, you can check out their site HERE.
Thank you Jason for spending some time with us today and sharing your incredible work and thoughts with us!