On an early morning at Sandy Beach, amateur photographer Ryan Sakamoto is setting up his gear to capture another image of the rising sun, the dawn sky, and the surf. Out comes the Fuji XT2 and a 16 mm lens, set for a long exposure.
In the final image, the waves purposely blur and the clouds are warm and bright against a periwinkle sky. It’s a gorgeous picture.
“I’m chasing the light,” he says. “Photography is all about lighting. How to use the light, how to see the light falling on your subject.”
It’s his passion, and it brings a light to his life, as well. “At 5 a.m., the beach is empty. I feel the cool air, the sound of the water, the smell of the salty ocean. It’s dark and peaceful. It’s my happy place,” reflects Sakamoto, on a big reason why he will only shoot sunrises.
On Saturdays, he meets his friends who are part of a photography group known as Da Crazies. Dave Furumizo is part of the group, and regards Sakamoto as a friend and mentor in the short time they’ve known each other – about a year.
“I consider him my sensei. He is a wealth of knowledge; he has a great eye for composing scenes to photograph and is very serious about his craft. Whenever we shoot together, I always try and picture how he would compose a scene and look forward to seeing the end result. I learn a lot just by seeing that end result and having shot with him that day,” Furumizo says.
When Furumizo got into this craft a few years ago, he says he would study other artists’ images, and was “immediately drawn to Ryan’s style of seascape photography. When I first met him, I felt like I met a famous artist!”
Another colleague, Tony Zerga, is the owner of Pro Camera Hawaii in Aiea. “Ryan was one of the first guys [in Hawaii] to put himself out there with long-exposure landscape photographs. He’s a real craftsman, and admired by many. I’ve admired him a long time,” says Zerga, who’s known Sakamoto for about eight years.
Those lovely landscapes. They’re ethereal, otherworldly; serene, soothing. “He has a style of bringing out drama and mystery in a scene that really interests me,” adds Furumizo.
“It’s obvious he puts in time to get his skill down,” says Zerga. “A lot of people want to get to Ryan’s skill level, and I like that he’s willing to share and teach others.”
When Pro Camera Hawaii started featuring artists in its store, Zerga chose Sakamoto first. “He’s a great photographer – and he’s also a great human being.”
Professional photographer and friend Nicholas Kau of NKK Photography needed a photo of himself for his portfolio, and hired Sakamoto to shoot it. “I chose Ryan because he’s incredibly meticulous with his art. Being a landscape photographer taught him to see and understand how light affects his subjects. He transfers that understanding to his portrait photography, capturing environmental portraits like only a master landscape photographer can.”
Kau continues, “As a photographer, I’m not too comfortable getting my picture taken. Being comfortable is the most important thing when being on that side of the lens. His relaxed method brings out his subjects’ true self.”
Sakamoto’s been documenting landscapes since 2009, though he’s been carrying around a camera for most of his life. “Before this, I was the unofficial photographer for the Kalani High School girls’ basketball team, which my daughter played for,” he backtracks.
Long before that, he took photography classes at St. Louis School, where he loved it, but couldn’t continue the hobby due to the cost of buying and developing film. This was well before the digital era democratized photography for the masses.
Drawing and airbrushing remained his creative outlet for many years, while he started in 1979 what would become a decades-long career as a warehouse manager for a distribution firm, dropping off magazines and books at stores around Oahu. The firms have changed, but his title remains the same.
Sakamoto is an artist at heart, and as a child growing up in Palolo, “I drew a lot. My artistic side grew from there. After high school, I started airbrushing, which became a side business. I did T-shirts, illustration boards, murals, and a lot of banners.”
His company, Graphic Force, lasted for 15 years before he closed it. “It burnt me out. In the last few years I was turning down lots of jobs because I was tired, and it wasn’t fun anymore,” he admits. (This is an important plot point for later.)
After that ended, he decided to resume photography. When his daughters, now 25 and 21, were graduated from high school, there was no longer a need to shoot their games.
That’s when he could switch his focus to “more creative” subjects: By and large, his favorite is landscapes. “With my pictures, I hope to show people the beauty I live in. I think of beaches as having white sand, but I’ve been to the mainland where the water is brown and the shore is mud,” he says.
If you look hard enough, you’ll see some of him in each picture, too. “There is a part of my soul in every image. My images are moody, like my personality,” confesses Sakamoto, a self-described “extreme introvert.” This is the way he can talk to you, share who he is.
He also likes environmental portraits – shooting a person outside, not in a studio. He recollects one of his favorite shoots, of two Polynesian tattoo artists in 2015. It was a rare freelance job, for Pacific Ink & Art Expo.
“We met at the beach in the late afternoon, so I had two hours to shoot before the sun set. I was losing light fast. It was very stressful!” he laughs now, but at the time, it was all he and his two assistants could do to set up the camera, the flash, and the filters, while waiting for the weather to cooperate.
“Outdoor photography is all about timing. You’re waiting for the clouds to part, the light to be just right. It took a lot to get those pictures,” Sakamoto sighs.
It was worth it, though. He says the client liked it so much, it printed expo banners and a vehicle wrap.
Moreover, Sakamoto says he loved his own work. “It so rarely happens that a photo comes out the way I want it. More often than not, the vision in my head is not what ends up in the camera.”
He needs this joy. Sometimes, it’s the thing that gets him through a stressful week.
At work, he constantly manages delivery deadlines. When he leaves work, he returns home to help care for his wife’s parents who live with them in Kaimuki. Five days a week, he and his wife, Iris, make meals and do laundry for them.
On Sundays, they have dinner with his mother, who has Alzheimer’s. His mother lives in a care home, so he doesn’t have daily responsibilities to her. However, there is a mental toll in seeing his mother degenerate.
It’s the weekend shoots that rejuvenate his spirit. There’s been a few times he’s crawled towards Saturday thinking, “My God, I must shoot tomorrow.”
If he can’t? “I’m all thrown off if I miss it. It stresses me out even more!”
For the most part, he gets out on the weekend. Iris (“my best friend”) supports the hobby. Saturdays, he meets with his photography buddies to shoot a location that they pick. Sundays, he goes out alone to a place he picks.
For the last many years, it’s been East Oahu. “In one year, I went to Sandy Beach 30 times! That is a very special place. Every time I go, there’s something new. Sometimes the rocks are covered with sand, other times they’re bare. Sometimes I see new rocks. It’s always changing,” Sakamoto says.
This year makes eight years as a landscape photographer, and as his network grows and his name circulates, people approach him for business. He’s not really interested.
Remember how he mentioned earlier he got burnt out with his airbrushing business? Bringing money into the mix removed all the passion, and that’s what he’s afraid of.
“I don’t want to lose my love for it,” he explains. “My friends just don’t understand this. I’m constantly fighting this business thing.”
Friends like Zerga and Furumizo get it. “There is no doubt in my mind Ryan could make it if he went into business, but I know exactly what he feels by wanting to keep it a hobby. If it was work, maybe it wouldn’t be fun anymore. He knows what he’s doing and has a loyal following,” supports Furumizo.
Sakamoto’s goals are “to be the best I can be as a photographer. In five years I’d like to have a gallery show– just to validate my skill.”
So, no to monetizing his hobby. For now, Sakamoto is just going to keep chasing the light.
More at www.ryansakamoto.com.