Photographer’s Q&A – Warren Toda
This week’s Q&A is with Warren Toda, freelance photographer in Toronto, Ontario. His web site is www.warrentoda.com.
US actor Nicolas Cage poses in front of a movie poster for his film ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ after a press conference at the 34th annual Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Canada, 15 September 2009. Photo by Warren Toda.
What were your first steps in the industry?
A long time ago, I was in charge of circulation and distribution for The Globe and Mail, in the east-end of Toronto. Okay, who am I trying to fool – I had a Globe and Mail paper route when I was 11 years old. I had to get up at 5:30 am, six days a week, in the snow, rain and cold, and bicycle through the darkness, uphill and against the wind. But if it wasn’t for me, The Globe and Mail wouldn’t be where it is today. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
When I was seven years old, I had a cheap, plastic, point-and-shoot camera with a light leak. I did portraits of all the other kids on the street. With each roll of film processed and printed, I got a free roll of film. What a deal! My father would reload the camera and back outside I’d go.
In university, I used to skip classes to wander about downtown Toronto and shoot whatever caught my eye, using a Minolta SLR. Always used B+W film which I processed and printed myself. I once snuck into a British Royal tour as it passed through Toronto. None of the real photographers complained and, in fact, some where quite helpful. But the police, who probably noticed my bright blue university jacket, yanked me out.
In my twenties, I started doing pictures for a few weeklies (all B+W film), and some small Canadian and US sports magazines (all 35mm transparency). I also did some medium-format work for small commercial jobs.
One day, the editor of a local weekly paper told me to stop wasting my time at her newspaper and go work at one of the big dailies in Toronto. So I did.
I started by doing freelance spot news, features and sports. I took the photos to the Toronto Sun, Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. The Star never used any of my pictures. My second picture in The Globe was a front page. Since the Sun used almost everything I shot, I gravitated that way. One day, the Sun was short-staffed and the photo editor called to ask if I would work a shift.
My very first shift at the Sun started at 10:00 am. I walked in the door at 9:45 am. The photo editor handed me an assignment sheet for a job that started at 9:00 am. He just said, “Here, you’re late.” Minutes later and only three blocks away, I got my first speeding ticket which cost more than I would make that entire day.
When you were a student, what did you want to do after graduation, and are you where you thought you would be now?
I graduated from university with a degree in chemistry. First job was at a university research lab doing research into Alzheimer’s Disease. I actually helped get something published in a science journal somewhere. But the whole research thing moved too slowly (no Internet back then). I then went to work for a private, commercial lab which was, at the time, my ideal job.
Since the lab managers knew that I took pictures, they occasionally hired me to shoot things that needed to be photographically documented. Yes, I photographed a dead mouse (allegedly) found in a beer bottle for a case where the customer was trying to sue the brewery. I had the opportunity to work for a couple of other pharmaceutical labs but they were far too corporate and too confining. Just walking into their offices felt weird.
While working at the private, commercial lab, I was still taking pictures on evenings and weekends for local and daily papers. One day, I got brave, or foolish, and just quit my lab job to pursue photography full time.
Today is certainly not what I expected when I went to school and my bank account proves it. Sometimes I wish I had moved into photography much sooner, perhaps forgoing the university degree in favour of a photography-related program. However I also wish I had won a multi-million-dollar lottery by the time I was 20 years old.
What or who are your biggest inspirations?
It used to be reading the newspapers every single day and analyzing every picture, including the advertising pictures. I loved reading the “Best of Photojournalism” annual books from the NPPA, as well as Life, Time and National Geographic. But today, with some exceptions, magazines have faded into entertainment fluff and newspapers are too concerned with numbers.
Newspapers have to (re)learn to get out of the way and let the pictures do the talking. Some newspapers are like bad sportscasters who can’t shut up and let the game just happen.
Many years ago, while reading the Toronto Star every day, I noticed that the best sports pictures were always shot by a photographer appropriately named “Goode” (the late Jeff Goode). I also thought it was interesting that the best feature and news pictures were done by a “supreme” photographer, (Boris Spremo). I was fortunate to meet both. At every news event, I always made sure to notice where these photographers stood, what lenses they used, and everything else they did. The next day, I would study the Toronto Star to see their results and to see if my pictures even came close.
Through the late 1980s–90s, all the news photographers I met were (and still are) very helpful. I’m not going to name them because I’d forget som, but they were/are from all the Toronto daily papers as well as Reuters, The Canadian Press and Macleans.
Do photo editors today still have the time, (say, 30–45 minutes), to spend with some guy who just walks in off the street with pictures? Do they still say, “Go into our darkroom and look at some of the pictures on the light table and see what you think,” or, “Wait while our darkroom makes contact sheets of your film and then we’ll go over your pictures” ? Some photo editors actually used to do this.
I remember a photo editor who, after saying my day’s pictures weren’t that good, handed me two packs of film along with, “Here, try it again and come back tomorrow.”
Shahar Peer of Israel returns the ball during her second round match at the Rogers Cup women’s tennis tournament in Toronto, Canada on 20 August 2009. Photo by Warren Toda.
Do you have a mentor?
No. Many years ago, I read every single photo-related book in the Scarborough and North York public library systems. I then drove into Markham, Pickering and Toronto to read their library photography books. No kidding.
This included books about photojournalism, general photography, architectural photography, sports photography, advertising photography and even wedding photography. Also books on marketing, advertising, running a small business, and industrial design (hey, industrial design books have really good pictures and good design is about shape, light and lines).
I once had a summer job at a book publisher which carried a lot of instructional photo books and also many coffee-table photo books. The publisher had a policy that any damaged books were either sold cheaply or given free to employees. It was surprising how many photo books got damaged that summer.
What was a pivotal point in your career?
Probably quitting my real day job and then realizing that both nothing and everything was before me. Shortly after this, noticing that my bank account had fallen to $7.00 was also somewhat motivating.
Early on, I bought a lovely Nikon 400mm f3.5 lens. It’s price was $3,600 and was bought on a two-year lease with a $10 buyout at the end (with interest, the total cost was just under $4,000). Most other freelancers at the time didn’t have a long lens. This 400mm lens (plus converters) enabled me to do more news, sports and even feature pictures. All I had to do to pay for this lens was get one or two pictures published per month. Easy.
And just to point out, 15 years after buying the 400mm lens, I sold it for $2,000.
Firefighters battle a truck fire on Highway 401 after another truck flipped over on the Highway 427 overpass (rear) and dropped a load of steel pipes onto the 401 roadway. — This picture shows what can happen when you have cameras with you on your day off and stuff like this happens only a few thousand feet away. Photo by Warren Toda.
What are you working on now?
Trying to find more work to feed my bank account. Trying to finding interesting work to feed my photography.
It’s easy to have wild, crazy or big ideas for photo projects. The problems are actually getting started and, of course, the fear of failure. It’s easy to come up with a list of all the things that can go wrong with a project. But maybe that’s just me.
Some photographers only do projects that will get them onto front pages and magazine covers. Others only do projects that try to change the world. Nothing wrong with either. I think all photographers have an ego to feed. I also know a photojournalist must get their pictures published to get an audience.
But sometimes, small ideas get lost or neglected. Small projects are perhaps easier and quicker to pursue but they are also less likely to get published.
So the question is: is it worth doing a project that won’t get published or won’t change the world? If no one sees a photo, does that picture really matter?
My always-ongoing project is to do a better-than-half-decent photograph.
How important to you is multimedia?
On one hand, it has zero importance. No one is asking for it unless you’re a staff photographer at a newspaper.
Very few papers are even presenting video properly. Certainly there are still technical issues with broadcasting via the Internet compared to broadcasting by television or radio. No matter how much papers deny it, they are competing with TV and, to some extent, with radio.
There are lots of opportunities for papers go beyond the printed page and be different, yet no paper is bothering. I don’t think it’s an editorial issue but rather it’s a marketing failure and a corporate failure.
However having said all that, multimedium possibilities exist, it’s relatively easy and inexpensive to do (compared to years gone by), and it has great potential for both editorial and commercial purposes. I don’t think it can be ignored and it would be a great thing to learn.
Back in Grades 7 and 8, I had a school course called “Multimedia” (and back then, none of us kids knew what that odd word meant), where we learned about mixing audio with still images. We also had the option of learning “video” (aka. movies) – back then it was 8mm or “Super 8” film.
Audio was recorded on a reel-to-reel and it was edited with scissors and tape. Movie film was also edited with scissors and tape. Still images were shot on 35mm transparency. The results of our work were shown on a gigantic school screen using multiple slide projectors and a movie projector. The visuals were synchronized using a stopwatch and your ear (i.e. by listening to the audio track). There were no computers or digital anything back then.
One classmate went onto a career in stage/TV acting and directing, two others became actors, and another is currently a CBC-TV journalist.
Toronto Raptor Jose Calderon defends against the Detroit Pistons in the first half of their NBA basketball game in Toronto Canada on 05 November 2008. — Photographers in Toronto know why I have to include a Calderon picture here. :-) This is an extreme crop from a full-length picture. Photo by Warren Toda.
How do you ensure you are progressing as a visual journalist?
I try to keep up with, or at least be knowledgeable of, what others are doing. But ultimately, there is no right way to do anything. Techniques and styles come and go. Stories often go in cycles. But it’s important to know what’s possible.
Technically speaking, today’s photojournalism is vastly superior to anything done before. But content-wise, I wouldn’t say the same thing. Today, there’s definitely more volume and perhaps that makes it seem better.
While there’s an infinite amount of pictures on the Web, there’s also a lot of junk. Just because it’s in focus doesn’t mean it’s a picture.
There are some also many photo(journalism) books which are good to read over and over again. Unfortunately book publishers today don’t seem to be as willing to do photojournalism books unless celebrities are involved.
Going to conferences to see and hear other photographers talk about their work is always inspiring. This always acts as a good kick in the pants for me to get moving.
Sometimes there’s no need to look at what other photographer are doing today. Instead, look at what some great photographers did many years ago. Inspiration, vision and creativity weren’t invented with the Internet.
What are some of the must-see web sites you visit? Please include why you visit these sites (e.g. inspiration, guidance, information, education).
Probably none. I think the Internet fad is dying out :-) . Except for NPAC.ca and Environment Canada’s weather site, there’s no site I consider a must-see.
I think the huge volume of web sites have turned most of them into commodities or “me too” sites. It’s very difficult to produce a site that’s not only different today but also stays different tomorrow. This applies not only to news sites but also to photography sites. Perhaps all web sites have a natural lifespan.
As far as photographer sites, I tend to find and read them at random, as I stumble upon them through the magic of the www, rather than bookmarking them.
Russian Marat Safin plays his second round match at the Rogers Cup men’s tennis tournament in Toronto Canada on 23 July 2008. — Tennis is usually nice to shoot but photo positions are sometimes limited. This was shot from a spectator area to make the most of the light. Photo by Warren Toda.
What is your favorite way to unwind?
From April to November, I bicycle. Other than that, I try not to get wound up. I know that sounds funny but a wise US photographer once said: “When things get stressed or when you’re dealing with idiots, take a few deep breaths and think about bluebirds in Vermont.”
After some larger news/sports events, it’s nice to sit, chat, eat and drink with the other photographers who were covering the same event. It’s like social media but without usernames and passwords. And you don’t have to worry about spilling food on your keyboard.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
• It’s not a baseball. Hold your camera with two hands.
• Nice picture. Too bad it’s not in focus.
• Go where the reader can’t.
• The best picture in the world means nothing if you miss deadline.