Q&A: Elopements and "doing shit you love" with Vanessa Fukuyama (Vancouver, BC)

Vanessa Fukuyama (Fortune Hill Photography) has an eye for details — the kind of things easily missed, like a glance or a quiet smile on a busy wedding day.

"I think everybody has that side of them," she says. "What you see and what I see is going to be very different."

Perhaps it's to be expected that details would come naturally to the former project manager who worked for both Lululemon and the National Film Board of Canada — "I love a good timeline and a colour-coded spreadsheet," she laughs.

As a photographer, Fukuyama honed that eye photographing everything from star-studded WE Day events, to backyard children's birthday parties, to weddings, and now gorgeous elopements.

We spoke with Vanessa about building confidence behind the camera, photographing for Lululemon, and why "life's too short to do shit you don't love."

This interview has been condensed.

How did you get into photography?

VF: My great uncle — my mom’s uncle — was a really well-known photographer in Mexico and did that his entire life. My mom also used to dabble in the darkroom; she used to love developing film. So it kind of trickled through the family, I think. But my first real camera, I sold my car because I was taking transit to work every day. And I bought a camera [with the money]. That was the beginning of the end for me [laughs].

Photo: Vanessa Fukuyama via Instagram

I started trying to figure out how to take pictures, and took awful pictures of my cats for the first umpteen years, it felt like. And yeah, probably a very typical photographer story of a self-taught photographer just photographing everything around me, figuring out what I liked, what I didn’t, and slowly evolving from there.

Was that first camera film or digital?

VF: Digital. I want to say this was early 2000s, I think.

What were you photographing at the time?

VF: Flowers, friends, random strangers [laughs]. In Vancouver in the summer, there’s usually a ton of beach volleyball happening, and there’s usually a tournament of some kind happening at Kits Beach. I remember taking my camera down there and just photographing people playing volleyball. Anytime I could, I would go on the odd times when it would snow in Vancouver, and the city kind of quieted down. I’d go on snow walks and take photos. But yeah, it kind of just evolved from there.

It was a lot of trial-and-error. I tried landscape photography. I love landscapes, [but] I am an awful landscape photographer — I don’t know how to compose it properly; I don’t know how to frame the shot. It never looks as good as it does when I’m looking at it with my own eye. But I have friends that are just amazing landscape photographers. I tried everything. I photographed friends’ kids, and then slowly started photographing people, and weddings, and families, and figured out that’s what I really like. Every time I see a beautiful landscape, I always want to put people in it — so I was like, “alright, I should stick to people,” [laughs].

Photo: Vanessa Fukuyama (Fortune Hill Photography)
Has Vancouver always been home?

VF: Yeah, always. Born and raised. I grew up in Richmond, and then I moved to Kits for a number of years, and I lived downtown for a bit, and now I’m in East Van by Trout Lake.

What makes Vancouver a good city for a photographer?

VF: You’ve got everything from mountains to sea. Like, the Sea to Sky Corridor is amazing. You can go half an hour from your house and feel like you’re in the mountains, without any city around you, or you can go straight into the heart of the city and be in your favourite coffee shop or on a patio somewhere. And if you want to watch the sunset, the beaches all face west, so you’re always going to get a beautiful sunset. For the most part [laughs].

You also have a ton of lakes close by, so you don’t have to go where the crowds are; you can still get water shots without the big crowds if you’re a little shy. You just have so much scenery and so many different backdrops.

You mentioned you had already been working when you bought your first camera. What was the initial career? What did you think you would be?

VF: That’s a good question. I actually don’t even know if I had a career path in mind. I was a project manager at the time, so I was just kind of being a project manager; I hadn’t really thought too much about it. And then I picked up photography and never really thought of the photography career path — I just let it take me where it took me.

Photo: Vanessa Fukuyama via Instagram
How does project management mesh with running a photography business? How do you translate the skills, if you will?

VF: Being a project manager, I love a good timeline and a colour-coded spreadsheet [laughs]. So as far as making sure I’ve got workflows and processes, that side of the house came a lot easier to me in photography. And it’s come in pretty handy, because when you do photography as a side-hustle and have a full-time job, being efficient with your time is key so that you don’t burn out. And so that you still spend time with friends and family, because you shouldn’t abandon that for anything — especially now since COVID, given the new perspective on how important friends and family are.

But yeah, a lot of those soft skills translated really well into my business and helped me stay on track, make sure I deliver on-time, make sure I’m not burning the candle too much at both ends.

How and when did you get your first paid shoot?

VF: I honestly can’t remember if this was a paid gig or not. I remember this was the first time I was asked by somebody that wasn’t a friend or family to photograph something. And it was for WE Day. They always did an event here for high school students and brought in guest speakers, and a friend I used to work with had gotten involved with [WE Charity], and they were looking for photographers to capture their event. He put my name forward, and I was like, “holy crap, somebody actually wants me to photograph something.”

I don’t remember the first paid job, but I’m sure it was a very nominal amount [laughs].

Photo: Vanessa Fukuyama (Fortune Hill Photography)
Who was at that first WE Day?

VF: I did it for a couple years. The Dalai Lama was there one time. Shaq was there one year. I wanna say Martin Sheen was even there one year. There was a ton of big celebrity names, as well as the founders of the organization [Marc and Craig Kielburger] and a bunch of probably very well-known people in that sector that I didn’t recognize. But the high school kids all seemed to know everybody.

What did you learn from that experience? If you’re used to being able to control your environment as a photographer, what is it like shooting around thousands of people?

VF: It’s pretty overwhelming, but it’s also really easy to blend in when it’s that big. Because it’s so big, [and] there’s so much vying for your attention that nobody really notices the photographer, so it allows for really good candid moments. I also learned that events are not my jam [laughs]. They intimidate me, and I feel very stressed going to them, so I slowly stopped going to those. My introverted self just does not really like those [laughs].

When you got the WE Day gig, were you thinking at the time of taking photography more seriously? Or how and when did that mentality shift happen?

VF: I don’t know that I ever saw it as a career until recently. I always saw it as an alternative way to make money. I was never really good at, like, “where are you going to be in five to ten years?” Things happen so fast; I could be somewhere different in six months. So I was never really good at that kind of planning.

Photo: Vanessa Fukuyama (Fortune Hill Photography)

But I'm kind of really good with, “I’m just going to go with it and see where it takes me,” and I just try to follow what I like. It slowly morphed into getting more paid gigs, improving my skills, improving my client experience, really enjoying it, really loving being able to deliver photos of this particular moment in time for a family or a couple, and then it kind of just kept growing and growing. I kept getting more and more inquiries.

But yeah, I never really had a plan for it; I just knew I liked doing it, and it just kind of kept going.

Where did it take you in those early days, as you were starting to get inquiries?

VF: It was kind of everything people-related: families, birthday parties. I remember doing a year of, like, there was a group of friends who all had kids within the same 18 months, and they all had first birthdays around the same time, so I did four or five of those. And then family photos, weddings, couples — the couples were mostly engagement sessions for the weddings. It was a little bit of everything for a long time, mostly because I was just seeing if I could earn enough money to quit my day job and do that full-time, just out of curiosity. And then also, I didn’t really know what I liked to shoot, so I just accepted most people photography gigs.

What did you learn from those earliest days — both in terms of what you like, and how to deal with people in front of a camera?

VF: That was a big learning curve — I don’t know that you ever stop learning. I feel like it’s one of those things where you’re continuously learning something new. 

Photo: Vanessa Fukuyama (Fortune Hill Photography)

The biggest thing for me was the confidence shift that needed to happen in myself. Because having somebody stand in front of you [as you’re taking] their photos, and wanting to feel like you know what you’re doing, and [conveying] that feeling to somebody else, when in fact, you’re like, “I have no idea what I’m doing. Is this good? Is this bad? I’m just going to take the photo.” You know? Having a game plan, and then in the moment, blanking and being like, “oh my god, I totally forgot what I was going to do.” The minute you put people there, and they’re standing there, and they’re nervous, and you’re nervous, it’s like, “oh my gosh.”

So that, for me, was the biggest learning curve: figuring out how to take a moment for myself so that I can regroup, but have it seem like it’s not an awkward pause for a couple — and without conveying any kind of doubt in myself, them, or the moment. And a lot of times, I’ll try something, and it doesn’t work, but [I’ve learned] to just keep rolling with it — trying to use positive reinforcement, versus, “oh, no, I didn’t like that.” Learning how to pick my words carefully, run a session, all of that was huge. But the biggest thing out of all of that was learning to come across confidently when I wasn’t.

Do you have any good strategies in that regard — either in the moment, or building yourself up before a shoot? I know there’s the famous TED Talk about body language and power posing.

VF: I’ve had a few techniques over the years. The biggest way I got over it for myself, other than positive mantras as you’re driving — or listening to something inspiring, like an inspiring podcast that’s related to photography — I would say just try to practice as much as you can. I did a ton of practice shoots — I still do to this day. And sometimes I have a particular vision in mind of the type of photograph I want to try to recreate, just to see if I really like it, because [I’ll see] somebody else’s portfolio, and I’ll [think], “oh, that’s cool, can I do a version of my own?” 

Photo: Vanessa Fukuyama (Fortune Hill Photography)

And other times, it’s my flow of how I say things, and how I transition from one [shot] to the next to get a good variety for my clients. For me, that’s where I got my confidence from: practising, so that it became second nature — which is also hard, because then you’re putting yourself out there going, “I’m learning something, want to come help me?” Like, “come hang out awkwardly while I figure out my settings,” [laughs].

As you’re learning in those early years — how to interact with people and have a smooth session, as well as what you like and don’t like — you’re also figuring out your style, I imagine. How would you describe your style today?

VF: I’ve been pushing my style a little bit more towards lifestyle and more candid photojournalism on wedding days and in family sessions. More so in family sessions, I’ve been pushing the lifestyle [approach] more. I used to do very traditional, everybody standing with their arms around each other [and] looking at the camera for my family photography — which I still do, of course, because everybody loves that classic, timeless portrait — but I try to infuse a little bit more “human connection” moments. I’ve discovered that’s what I really love about people photography: that human connection between family members, between a bride and groom on a wedding day, between family members on a wedding day, and even guests and friends on a wedding day. And when you look back at photos from your past, it’s those feels that I want to bring up with my photography.

Photo: Vanessa Fukuyama (Fortune Hill Photography)

It's those in-between moments; it’s those big bear hug moments where you’ve got the biggest grin on your face and can’t stop smiling. Something I’ve always tried to focus on [during] wedding days — and I can’t remember who said this, but I’m totally stealing it from another photographer — they said, “I look for hugs and listen for laughter.” And those are the moments I also look for, because those are the genuine emotions that come out in those moments. They’re candid; they’re spontaneous. Those in-between moments — I love those.

In your career, you’ve done photography work with Lululemon. What have you learned from doing commercial photography?

VF: It taught me how to approach a very similar shoot differently every time. Because whether I was photographing on-model or off-model — the detail of a bag, for example — you’re still showcasing a top, you’re showcasing a bottom, you’re showcasing a bag. And it is repetitive in that sense, but it’s [about] finding ways to approach each shoot differently — whether it’s even just as simple as the words you say, the music you listen to, the energy you bring into the room, because you have to find your own way to make it unique and fun and exciting and inspiring, even though you’re photographing, you know, a pair of stretchy pants and a bag every single day.

Whether you’re working with models or families and couples, how do you get your subjects comfortable in front of the camera?

VF: Well, I’m a big fan of liquid courage, if possible [laughs]. Maybe not with models — they know how to do their thing. But for my regular lifestyle, family and wedding couples — maybe not on the wedding day, but during the engagement session — let’s go for a bevvy. 

I usually recommend, also, if you can have a bit of a break from when you’re done getting ready to when your photoshoot begins. And if you don’t, usually I take that time [and] we hang out for the first five, ten minutes, we chit-chat and get to know each other. I try not to jump into photography right off the bat. I try to keep it a little bit [casual], and I try not to start with super up-close [shots]. With wedding photography and engagement sessions, I try to get a mixture of fun and laughing and romantic — those moments — and I try to leave those romantic, cuddly moments to the end, because by then, they’re a little more comfortable with me, and I can get a little bit closer.

Photo: Vanessa Fukuyama (Fortune Hill Photography)

I try to start far away, giving you actions, then I work up to being close in those cuddly moments. And I try to make it feel like we’re just hanging out — like we’re just going on a walk, and I just happen to have a camera.

Let’s talk gear. What’s your favourite lens to work with and why?

VF: I currently shoot with a 24-70mm. I try not to go any wider than a 24mm. I find I’m not very good at keeping my clients in the centre of the lens so that they’re not super-distorted. I wouldn’t mind going [with] a little bit [of a] longer lens, maybe up to a 105mm or something like that, but I also try to travel really light. I’m not very tall; I’m just shy of five feet, so to carry a gigantic backpack on my back is a little bit too much [laughs].

[The 24-70mm] just gives me the ability to use one lens and not have to change between lenses during family sessions when time is of the essence, [and when you’re dealing] with little ones with short attention spans. And then with engagements, it gives me a good enough range that I can start far away and still have a full-body shot with negative space, which is what I like as well.

Where do you fall on natural light versus bringing off-camera flash?

VF: I am definitely one that will use natural light over bringing a bunch of stuff, but I always have a flash diffuser in my bag, and a remote that I can always pop out if I need a little bit of extra light. I’ve been photographing a lot in trees and trails of late, so sometimes, depending on the time of day, it can get kind of dark in there — especially if the sun’s already starting to set. So I always bring a flash with me, and I’m not opposed to adding a little bit of light from a flash. But I try to use natural whenever possible. I don’t really use a lot of strobes or in-studio equipment — unless I’m actually in-studio [laughs].

What does your editing style look like post-production?

VF: I try to keep it pretty true-to-life. I might do some retouching if there’s clutter in the background of an image. If there’s exit signs — anything red, really — I try to always remove, just because red is such a jarring colour that your eye is always going to go there.

Photo: Vanessa Fukuyama (Fortune Hill Photography)

I don't do a ton of Photoshopping — I do a little bit here and there. I’ll do some skin retouching, especially if it’s a close-up of the bride. Because sometimes, depending on whether she got her makeup professionally done or not, I like to try to take photos for the vendors as well, so the vendor has a really nice, professional photo for their portfolio.

One of your biggest offerings is your elopement photography. What got you into that, and what have you learned about how to do those well?

VF: The elopement stuff just started in the last year and a bit. Since COVID, actually. Because when COVID hit, I’d been photographing weddings for a while, but obviously, weddings got put on hold, and a lot of my 2020 clients rescheduled to this year — and a couple have actually rescheduled to 2022 and 2023, just due to travel restrictions. 

When that happened, I was kind of looking at things and realizing, I love a good dance party, but big weddings with large guest lists — because I’m an introvert, I end the day pretty drained. And I love every minute of it, but I photographed a couple of elopements this year, and I found that I come home on a high. My energy level isn’t as drained; I feel like I can give more on a wedding day. It doesn’t feel better than a big wedding day; it just feels different. And I think that just suits my natural introverted nature a little bit better.

Do you think you’ll keep the elopement shoots post-pandemic?

VF: Yeah, definitely. I definitely want to focus on that — not to say that I won’t photograph a big wedding party, because those are a lot of fun, and I definitely have a bunch of those on the books for the next little while. But I think elopements and small weddings are really where I want to focus my wedding photography moving forward. You get to know your couples a little bit better, there isn’t as much, “okay, we’ve gotta go here, and then we’ve gotta do this, and we’ve gotta do this.” There’s still a little bit of that, but the pace feels less frantic; it can be a little bit looser.

Photo: Vanessa Fukuyama (Fortune Hill Photography)
I want to end on a quote: “Life’s too short to do shit you don’t love.” Tell me about that.

VF: Part of that kind of came with my shift in services — and it’s been kind of a couple years in the works. I started to realize that even though I love people photography, there’s still types of people photography that I don’t enjoy. Like, events are a little bit nerve-wracking for me, and I don’t really enjoy the lead-up to [them]. I don’t mind the end, because I’ve gotten to know some people, and people have gotten to know me, but that initial [build-up] is stressful. 

I started to kind of notice shoots that I was doing that I wasn’t really loving — like, starting to dread going to. And I didn’t ever want to bring that type of energy to a shoot; I want to only bring happy, positive, fun, reinforcing energy. So I kind of shifted things. I don’t know how long I want to be a photographer for, but if it’s only for a short amount of time, let’s focus on the things that I love — the things that I walk away from feeling like I’m on a high afterwards, you know?

And COVID really brought that [home]. It made people realize how short life can actually be — and it’s totally cliche, and everybody knows it. You know, what happens if today’s your last day? But I think for a lot of people, COVID really made that a little more tangible in their real life. I [realized], “you know, I have friends that love doing [certain shoots] — let’s pass it along to somebody who’s going to give that client the best experience possible, and I’m going to focus on the types of [shoots] that I can provide the best experience possible for my clients.

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