Michael Kistler: A street photographer based in Tokyo

This is the start of a series I intend to do with people whose work has inspired me. I hope you enjoy it. Please click through the links and see more from each artist’s streams.

Inspiration. Flickr has been great to me. I have learnt so much from viewing the work of others. It is a great buzz to stumble across a photographer’s work and find that image after image just gets better and better. To begin this series of interviews with photographers whose work inspires me I have chosen one of my very favourites on Flickr – Michael Kistler. From the thumbnail in my contacts’ list on Flickr his images jump off the screen. His work is consistently thought-provoking. Compositions are striking and engaging. Based in Tokyo, his view of street life there captures and enchants. For me, he is also one of the leading lights in mobile photography. Following him on Instagram, is a daily delight. I could try to describe his work but his photography does not need description. Go check it for yourself on his Flickr stream, and his Instagram page.

Hey Mike, thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me. I really appreciate it.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m originally from Minneapolis but have lived in Tokyo for more than 10 years. I live in Shibuya with my wife, Mami, and three-year-old daughter Meisa. I am lucky to live in one of the most photogenic cities on earth!

Let’s go back a bit. How did you get into photography? What are your earliest memories of photography?

A great question…

I always remember there being a camera around. Both my father and one of my brothers were photography enthusiasts at different points in their lives. My brother was always hauling (bribing!) me to the river near our house, using me as a model for different projects. I have a lot of polaroid memories (hey…maybe a title in there somewhere) and just unearthed a couple of old cameras last time I was in town. I wouldn’t say I got into photography until after high school, and even then, it was just snapping around.

What about your first camera? Tell me about that.

My parents bought me a point and shoot Ricoh film camera that I used for many years. That’s probably where I learned the basics of composition–even though I really had no idea what it was at the time. I took that camera on my first trip to Europe as well as Asia and almost always shot B&W film. From early on the monochrome aesthetic really appealed to me. I felt like it removed a lot of noise from the images.

Do you have a style? Are you aware of adhering to your style when you shoot or do you adhere to it when you process?

I think I have a style…but I don’t give it a huge amount of thought. If I had to characterize my work it would probably be B&W street photography with a less conventional and more abstract feel. As for style, it’s probably easier for others to judge or define it than it is for me.

What kind of camera do you use? 

I mainly use two cameras: Canon 7D and iPhone. I recently bought a compact Ricoh GR but thus far am not really sold on it.

Do you prefer to use manual, auto or a mix?

I prefer a mix. I’ve heard a lot of photographers emphasize the importance of only shooting manually. I guess I’m generally a believer in tossing out the rules. There is a time and place for everything.

 Did you use to shoot film? Do you still?

I touched on that a bit already. I haven’t shot film for several years now but keep threatening (myself) to do so. Hopefully one of these days soon. I have an older Canon AE1 that I’d love to get to know again.

Tell us a bit about your post-processing; how do you go about it?

I keep my post-processing very simple. First of all, I’m not that great at it. But I’d also like to spend more time shooting and less time editing. I generally do some tone tweaking and contrast adjustments but generally don’t do a great deal of PP. I’m trying to use Silver Efex Pro a bit more these days.

Why do you photograph? Do you feel you have to? How do you feel when you go for a time without photographing?

I don’t feel like I have to. I just feel as though I want to. I hear people talking about not shooting due to a lack of inspiration. That’s not really a problem I have. I find that photography has given me the ability to see things I would have otherwise overlooked and I have too much fun with it to ever be bored or uninspired. I don’t really go any length of time without shooting so I guess I don’t really know that feeling. At the very least, I shoot with the iPhone everyday.

What advice would you give someone stepping out in a big city to shoot street?

Spend some time just observing and trying to get a feel for the energy of the place. Also, don’t try to hide what you’re doing–it only looks suspicious and makes people wonder what you’re doing. I always carry business cards and tell people I’m happy to send them an image if they contact me. I have also found that eye contact and smiles go a long, long way.

Are you a Mac or PC guy?

Mac. Mac. Mac.

Who would you like to give a shout out to; someone you feel whose work we have to see?

Arpita, she is absolutely one of my favorite photographers with her unique ability to produce compelling compositions again and again.

You shoot a lot with the iPhone. How has this impacted on your relationship with photography? 

The impact is almost indescribable. The iPhone started as pure fun…and still is. But it’s turned into something much bigger and more significant. As a lot of people would agree, one obvious benefit of the iPhone is that I’ve always got it. There’s never that feeling of missed opportunities because I’m without my camera. More importantly, though, is how much that additional shooting has improved and sharpened my eye. I think in some ways the iPhone is simple because you’re limited in terms of functions so you just go out and shoot. The flip-side of this, however, is that because of its limitations, I believe it actually takes more skill to produce a strong composition. All of this has bled into my DSLR shooting and made me a better photographer. I will argue with anyone that the camera doesn’t really matter.

What ambitions do you have in photography? 

Mainly it’s just to keep exploring and growing, letting my mind and eye lead the way. I’m just entering an exciting and scary stage in life where I will try to make a living solely based off photography. So the short-term ambition is just to survive! I have a fledgling company called Urban X that I’m going to be working on, and I am also immersed in a street photography workshop series called Finding Yourself in the Streets with good friend and insanely good photographer Mimo Khair. We have already done workshops in Shanghai and Tokyo and intend to do them in different cities all over the world.

Is Flickr still the best platform for a photographer to share and learn about photography?

For me it is. I’ve resisted going elsewhere in part because I’m a creature of habit. Also, I like the community aspect of Flickr a lot and have met some very good friends there. It’s hard to break away from that first love.

What advice would you give to a budding photographer?

Shoot. Shoot. Shoot. Simple and obvious but very important. You need to get the reps in if you want to be good.

Now, I am putting a gun to your head and asking you to choose three of your favourite images. Tell us a little about them.

You are! Wow, this is tough…I’d prefer someone else chose them. I will choose three recent ones just to make things easier.


free admission to the future

 This image I took in Minneapolis and means a lot to me mainly because it’s my daughter; but it’s a rare street image that features her, making it even more special to me. It was just one of those moments when everything lined up perfectly. The background; her stance; the mood. I like imagery that is open to interpretation, and I think this can be viewed in a lot of different ways from hopeful to apocalyptic. That I will leave to others.


a sort of homecoming

This was taken in Shanghai in an area where it’s easy to fall into cliched photography. I have been trying to work more on layering my images, so in that sense I was happy with the composition. More than anything, though, the mood here strikes a chord with me. Good photography should be evocative or thought-provoking and I hope I’ve accomplished that here.


re: evolution

This I shot with my iPhone in Tokyo. I have been increasingly interested in using shadows in images, trying to find ways to look at something that is simple and complex at the same time. It’s often a challenge for me because in Tokyo, the large number of people often come out in a jumbled mess. I probably got a bit lucky here with the spacing and timing. And then I gave it a flip just to change the perception a bit.

Thanks Michael. It is great to get to know you a little better. 

In this series, I’m asking photographers to choose three of their own personal favourites and I know it is not an easy task. A photographer’s eye evolves. What may appeal one day, may change the next. Very often images reveal things earlier unseen. For me, trawling through Michael’s Flickr stream to select my own three favourites was not easy. I love everything that Michael does. (I curated a gallery of these here.) The thing that impresses me about Michael’s images is the ability to bring elements together. City life is hectic, relentless and in the world’s biggest city – Tokyo – even more so. Yet, Michael can make it stand still; suspend its momentum. He sees potential in composition that brings striking results. As in this image he took in Tapei, Taiwan -


His eye for dark and light is particularly sensitive. He has so many images which represent this, but the one which stands out for me is this one -


It sums up the old adage – less is more.

The final image I have selected is a portrait. In his stream, there are a few fine portraits among his street work. What I like about this is the connection Michael has made. The guy, a friend of his, just opens up. There is a wonderful smile, enchanting eyes and the cherry on the top is the cigarette. Now, we all know cigarettes are bad for you, but man, they can make photographs look so cool. And this is what this photograph is – super cool!


This is the first in a sereis of profiles I intend to do with some of my Flickr friends. A big thanks to Michael for being my first. He has a sensitivity, an alertness that the best street photographers need. He is a constant source of surprise and inspiration to me. I had the great pleasure of spending an evening with him last year in Tokyo and it was so cool to discover that we shared many things besides photography in common. A very big thanks to you, sir. Thanks for sharing your world with us.

Connect with Michael - Flickr ~ Instagram ~ Facebook

8 responses to “Michael Kistler: A street photographer based in Tokyo

  1. Very interesting indeed…. his simplicity – the simplicity with which Michael approaches his photography – allows him to be a very complex photographer…… and very inspiring too of course… thanks to both of you,,, :)

  2. Brilliant!! So cool to learn more about the photographer behind the images! Always blown away by Michael’s work. Thanks Brendan for posting this! Looking forward to your next interview!

  3. Love the interview Brendan. I have been following Michael & his friend Mimo for quite some times on Instagram and Flickr. Michael strikes me as such an interesting person, I love his photographic style and would love to pick his brain with iPhone photography questions. I am hoping to attend one of their workshop at some point. I also follow Arpita which he mentioned. I have to go back and have a closer look at her work now.

    • Hi Josee,
      Two fine photographers. If you can – you should definitely take their workshop. Thanks for this visit and kind words. Do you have a Flickr account?

      • Yes I do have a Flickr account: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhoudephotography/ I actually went through some of your photo stream and I must say I am in awe of your work. Your style is so unique. It blows my mind how you can create these amazing blurs. I will try your iPhone technique you describe in G. Mulcahy’s short film of you and see what happens.
        Thanks for your reply,

  4. Pingback: Travel and Photography | Photographic Punctuation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s