This month’s Creative Spotlight features Ngan Tsutsumi. Fleeing Vietnam as a young child in the early 1980’s, Ngan grew up in rural America in Garden City, Kansas. After obtaining her B.A. in Psychology, she went on to study fashion design in Chicago at IADT before discovering photography in the joy of taking pictures of her own children. Her breathtaking photos tell a story, enticing the senses with her use of the space around the subjects, and she has an exceptional way of showcasing surprise and joy in her clients. With proficiency in so many styles and an intuition about the right angle for active families, she embodies the photographic experience all of us want in a photo shoot. Balancing her role as a mother and photographer lends itself to an exceptional ability to capture the love found within families!
How did you become a professional photographer—what led you down this path?
I was a small town girl in the city exposed to all the creative minds and it was there that I realized how wonderful it is to create. After finishing Fashion Design school, I made some personal life decisions, got married and moved to Japan. We lived just outside of Tokyo for four years before moving back to the States. After buying my first real camera there, Japan truly opened my eyes to creativity, but I didn’t realize my passion for photography until I had my first child. In capturing my own family’s memories, I got to experience photography behind the lens—and words of support and love when I sent those images to my father-in-law in Japan. I finally dove into the world of professional photography 4 years ago, after considering it for several years.
What were your first steps to becoming a professional photographer?
I remember leaving a voice message for a friend to see if she and her children would model for me and hearing her excitement through the line! I left messages for several other friends, and they were all gracious and supportive. I remember fondly those awkward sessions. To this day, I take photos thinking of what my father-in-law will think of them; his words bring me so much joy and motivate me. He was my first fan.
You have a big family—how do you balance your time as a mother AND as a professional, and what is your secret to getting great shots of YOUR OWN kids?
I have four children—the oldest is nine and the youngest is one. Life is busy and that keeps me motivated. Children are a joy to photograph because they have no filter, which works great with my love for storytelling. My children have been a wonderful source of reference. A pretty picture is pleasing to the eye, but a picture that tells a story will have a lasting impact.
When meeting with a client for the first time, what kind of guidance do you give them in terms of background, clothing, hair, makeup, or props?
The first 10-15 minutes of a session with clients, especially new ones, is mostly getting acquainted with them. I use that time to try different poses and decide quickly what the client is comfortable with or seems to enjoy; then pursue it and eliminate what doesn’t feel right. If the client wants coaching through their session, then we go that direction. If the client knows what they want, then I ease back on coaching and make minor suggestions so that the client is still getting what they want but a bit more refined. I do feel that when a client is open to being coached, the photo session is more fun for me. Depending on what we want to accomplish, a complex background may be perfect for the situation, while a simple one will work well for others. I do prefer a simple background whenever possible; a clean canvas allows for more creativity and doesn’t distract from the subjects. This is also true for clothing and makeup. I prefer not to use many props and believe that they can become a distraction if not used creatively. However, I do at times use props for their ability to add interest to a photograph.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while establishing your own photography company and what lessons (professional or creative) have you learned which changed the trajectory of your business?
When I started pursuing photography professionally four years ago, I had no professional training and attending school wasn’t realistic. I turned my focus to the next best thing: BOOKS. I bought lots of books, studying most nights over the next few years–I still reference them to this day. I had my camera everywhere I went, like an extension of my arms. I find the business side of photography to be complex, and even now I am still learning to navigate the complexity of management, accounting, and building my clientele. The true blessings of this journey are the new connections and friendships I have made. I have had the opportunity to work for some business clients, they include Hello! Destination, WIN Bubble Tea, and SmartShoot.
Where do you find the inspiration to produce the right poses for such a wide variety of subjects—newborns, families, children, seniors, couples, maternity shots—and make them all look so beautiful?
Working on a variety of projects both challenges me and keeps me focused. Every project is an opportunity to highlight my ability as a dynamic photographer to create memories for my clients. Before each project, I try to learn as much as I can about my client. Building a relationship is so important to a successful photo shoot. If I sense that something does not work during the shoot, we move on to the next thing. I like storytelling, so when given the opportunity, my purpose is to capture people in a way that has a beginning, middle, and ending just like when flipping through a picture book.
What is it about South 40 that lends itself to presenting the right background for so many types of shoots?
I love everything about South 40. It is a beautiful, clean canvas for all sorts of imaginations. I also find Ann and Jeff very pleasant to work with, and every experience with them has been positive. They complete South 40, and their personalities and knowledge are what makes South 40 different from other locations. I especially like the creek at South 40, the old RV tucked away in the weeds, the sunflower and open fields, and the new White House. I can’t say that I like one more than the others because they each have a uniqueness to them.
What do you think of the new White Room and how do you think you might utilize it this holiday season?
The White Room is beautiful and a fantastic addition to an already gorgeous location! I have already used it for several shoots and look forward to being back at South 40 during the most beautiful time of year: Christmas. The White Room is furnished beautifully, but I find the area around windows to be the most fun. When framed well, photos shot here come out absolutely beautiful.
What camera did you use in your last photo shoot at South 40–camera, lens type, lighting, any other specific items which made the shoot more successful?
I usually pair my D6 Mark II with the 24-70mm and my D5 Mark IV with the 70-200mm. I use a large aperture 70% of the time. A shallow depth of field makes an image more personal and intimate.
I used to bring all my gear with me to every project, but soon found that I didn’t use most of them. When I did bring all my gear with me, I found myself pausing my sessions often trying to incorporate those gear into the shoot. I realized it slowed me down, forcing the client to stop and wait and interrupting the flow of the shot, so I no longer carry all that gear. Sometimes I will bring a flash and a small reflector but only if I know that I will be needing it. For example, if I am shooting portraits or headshots, I will bring with me a reflector as well as a flash. A flash helps eliminate shadows. A secret weapon of mine is a portable ladder–I am only 5’1”.
With a huge growth in the industry, what tips and tricks can you give aspiring creative professionals to help them stand out in the field? What is a long-term photographer “dream” you want to fulfill?
Photograph what you love the way you love it, even when it’s not perfect. If it speaks to you, it will speak to someone else too. And practice, practice, practice. Give yourself grace, never stop learning, and look for the light first! My dream is–when my children are grown–to one day travel to developing countries and photograph life as it is lived.
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