Inside The Photographer’s Studio: Joyce Choo

It’s been said that the photography scene in Singapore is a mostly male domain. But Joyce Choo of Joyce Choo Studio has outlasted a fair number of colleagues with a career that spans almost twenty years. Well known in the industry for her intuitive grasp of beauty and detail, the veteran photographer has won numerous awards for her delicately rendered images of subjects as diverse as portraiture, landscapes and living creatures. Prior to establishing Joyce Choo Studio in 2004, Joyce was the co-founder of Cactus Studio, which is still fondly remembered by industry people today.


Stepping into her studio at Henderson Industrial Park , one can’t help but be enveloped by a coziness and warmth that comes second only to Joyce’s vibrant personality. Joyce has a four year-old French bulldog, Uno, whom she fondly describes as her “personal PR assistant”. As a commercial photographer, Joyce is the woman responsible for the images used in major advertising campaigns in Singapore . To date, her clients include Nestle, Hewlett Packard, Standard Chartered Bank, Canon, Nokia and SIA.

We intended to ambush Joyce at her studio for this interview, but we ended up being ambushed by an enthusiastic Uno instead. Truly, we are the lucky ones.

How it began…joyce1

Joyce Choo Studio is located at the exact space where Cactus Studio was. How does it feel coming back to Henderson Industrial Park ?
It feels good! When Cactus Studio first moved in, we found an empty bird’s nest perched on top of one of the beams. That was very memorable. Four years later, when I decided to come back (as Joyce Choo Studio) the place was in such a bad shape that I had to rebuild it from ground-up. So the entire process was a homecoming for me. Like a bird returning back to its nest. So must re-JOYCE!

Gee that’s corny! There are less than 10 female photographers in Singapore today. And you’re one of them. Is it tough?
I don’t let that affect me. Of course, there are times where people wonder if I could handle strenuous shoots or heavy-duty setups, but situations like this eventually boil down to good communication skills and a commitment to delivering a job well done.

Do you feel pressured sometimes?
Nah. My philosophy has always, “If you can work with me, work.” After all, we’re in the business of creating images, so be professional about it. Doesn’t matter if I’ve breasts and you don’t, right?

Were there instances of clients coming to you because you’re female?
Not really. Of course, if the job involves a degree of sensitivity, for instance, female nudes or topless people, the client is more likely to consider me. But it’s equal opportunity, mostly.

How old were you when you discovered photography?
My interest in photography started way back in school, when I was still studying at Nanyang Girls’ High School. A few of us who enjoyed creative things decided to attend photography classes together, at one of those community centre photography clubs in Geylang. Every Sunday at 6 am , a group of 20 photographers would gather at the association to shoot one girl. At the same time. Siao eh (crazy)! So I kept telling myself, “Next time I want to shoot one by one. One by one! Not like this!”

What did you study in school?
Higher Accounting. Can you believe it? It was so boring. Luckily my dad bought me a Rollei 35, so I took a class at a photography association and I started to shoot for school events. As a result, I started to earn some pocket money by taking orders from schoolmates who wanted copies of my photographs.

Wow. We’re impressed. So when was your first professional assignment?
When I graduated from school, I became Mr. Teo’s assistant at First Photo. Basically, I followed him around for one year as an “industrial carrier”, and picked up valuable studio techniques and practices from him.

joyce3Big in Japan

Tell us something we don’t know about you.
I get bored very, very easily. So easily bored that in 1987, I decided to go to Japan on my own. I was 26 years old then, and Singapore was no longer providing me with enough excitement or inspiration. So I gathered up all my savings, which was about S$12,000, packed my bags and told my parents, “I’m very bored. I need to go somewhere! Bye!”

But you are an only child, right?
Yes. It wasn’t easy convincing them that I needed to go someplace outside of Singapore . When I first started working as an assistant, my parents would stand outside the gate worrying whether I was coming home or not. And they would say things such as, “Why don’t you find a more sin-nang (less tiring) job? Sit behind a desk and do paperwork. Easier, mah .” But I know I won’t like it, because it’d have been boring in no time. Eventually they accepted my profession, but not before a period of adjustment.

Why Japan, of all places?
I wanted to go to America at first, but I didn’t know anyone there, whereas I knew a Singaporean who was based in Japan , and he offered me a place to stay. Looking back, going to Japan was a scary experience although I certainly didn’t think so then. I had only one telephone number and one address, I’d never flown so far before on my own and I didn’t know Japanese. It was lucky that I managed to find my friend when I arrived in Tokyo, otherwise I’d have to sleep on the street!

What was Japan like?
Japan was booming in the 1980s. Billboards would change every week, and the creative industry was at its peak. I was in Tokyo for almost a year. I was fortunate enough to meet the top five photographers in Japan during my stay. What an eye-opener! I was still very gong-gong (inexperienced) then, so imagine my surprise when I first entered studios that had very elaborate setups. I’ll say things like, “20 lights? Wow!”

Were you attached to a studio in Tokyo ?
I basically earned for food and transport. For a while I was attached to photographer Hideki Fuji, who was nice enough to give me 1,000 yen (S$800-900) a month. This barely covered my transport and food! I stayed with Hideki for close to a year. His idea of teaching was different from others. I spent three months just looking at his older works, examining his pictures. I had to redo all the filing as well. But surprisingly, the “training” was very effective, and I learnt to shoot shadows from observing his work. But most of the time I was busy soaking in everything I saw, and showing my CV to various people I met.

Besides Hideki, who else influenced you while you were in Tokyo ?
I was privileged to meet fashion photographer Kazumi Kurigami of Camel Co., who was one of the top three photographers in Japan then. In the old days the industry was still film-based, so we depended a lot on filters. Kurigami specializes in filters; at any one time there could be as many as 10 filters in front of his lens! I toured his huge studio and tried to get a job as an assistant, but he couldn’t take me in because he already had five. Instead, I went to observe three of his assignments and learnt more about his work. He totally inspired me to start my own experiments with film processes and filters. For two years after I came back from Japan , that’s all I did in my free time. Experimenting.


From Cactus to Joyce Choo Studio

Why did you come back to Singapore ? One year’s very short.
Because I’m a good girl! My mother kept writing letters asking when I was going back, so eventually I decided it was time to head home.

You mentioned you experimented more after you came back.
Yes. A friend of mine was kind enough to loan me his studio facilities so I could experiment freely. I did a lot of tests; lighting, film processing – in the darkroom. That period of time was really fun. I could sit in the room for hours at a stretch just to draw visuals.

How did Cactus Studio come into existence?
I went back to First Photo after Japan . Although our team of eight photographers was a big happy family, I needed a break after nearly six years of working in the same company. A couple of friends said to me, “Why don’t you start your own studio?” and that’s how Cactus Studio started in 2001. Do you know that I wanted to name the studio “Camel Studio” at first?

Why Camel Studio?
That was the name of Kurigami’s studio in Japan . He’s my idol! But friends shot it down, saying, “Why Camel? So dirty, so ugly. Don’t lah!” So in the end, I decided to call it “Cactus Studio”. After all, it’s still part of the desert, right?

Cactus Studio is still fondly remembered by photographers today. Why did you close it down and start Joyce Choo Studio instead?
My partner had to go back to Europe . I love the name “Cactus”, but I decided it was a good time to change the name of the studio. That was in 2004.

How would you describe Joyce Choo Studio?
Comfortable. Cosy. A happy family.

Film vs Digital

We know that you are one of a few photographers that experienced the transition from film to digital photography. What was it like?
Personally, it was very frustrating. The transition years started in 1998. Art directors started using the computer to create visuals, and what they did was to cut and paste images. They didn’t consider things like perspective, whether or not the visual can be reproduced realistically. So it was hard for us to fulfill the client requirements.

Were there other obstacles?
Oh, lots! Back then photo retouching was expensive, and only a few agencies such as ProColor do it. And very often, it doesn’t mean that once an image is retouched, it looks natural. So we actually spent more time dealing with these agencies than on the actual shooting process. It’s a lot better now that we can do digital imaging (DI) in-house, but clients like to take advantage of this convenience. They want it for free.

Has digital photography increased the cost of running a studio?
Definitely. In terms of equipment, our running costs have gone up. I remembered my first Canon DSLR and Kodak power pack cost S$30,000, and a laptop cost S$9,000. Making sure that images are properly downloaded onto magnetic optic drives led a few sleepless nights in the studio. Even though we’ve moved away from film, most clients don’t understand that they should pay for material costs and loading fees. For photographers, three years is the maximum lifespan of basic equipment such as cameras, software upgrades, storage media and computers. Unlike film, these assets aren’t stabilized. Three years later they are still running costs.

Do you think digital photography is affecting the craftsmanship of photography?
People are getting lazier because of the convenience of software like Photoshop. I’ve had assistants who don’t even want to do basic tasks like blowing. They say things like, “Just clean up in Photoshop lor!” But this mindset is not acceptable. In fact, nowadays it’s common to find young photographers who prefer to enhance images in Photoshop to correct fundamental things like lighting. In the end, out of 10 images taken, 9.5 need DI. But this actually creates more work for the photographer.

Do you miss film?
I miss experimenting with film. Although you can do the same with digital photography, it’s different, because most of the time you’re actually experimenting with software effects. So digital work can drive you crazy sometimes, especially when you lose control because you’re not the one doing DI. I hate that.

Perspective on the industry

What do you think of the industry now?
There are a lot more photographers in the market. But not all of them have the right skillset to fulfill certain job requirements. The good thing is, photographers are getting gutsier, because they have the freedom to try new things. The current trend these days is renting equipment to keep costs low, which I think is very healthy.

What changes do you wish to see in the industry?
I hope that all the photographers can put aside their differences and unite to educate clients on loading fees and copyright. We have to work together to bring up the status of the photographer in the creative industry. It took three years for the modeling industry to fight for loading fees for models, but they pulled it off. Now, it’s an industry standard. I believe we can do that too. In the past, clients could make excuses like, “Why should we pay loading fees? We supply the creative, we supply the concept. All you do is shoot”, but times have changed. Photographers are doing more and more DI work, and clients must acknowledge that.

Would you describe yourself as a creative?
I think all photographers are creatives.

Do you have any advice for the new generation of photographers?
It doesn’t matter if you’re self-taught or technically trained. All your mistakes should be made when you’re assisting – so learn from your boss’s mistakes. Above all, photography is about how you see things. So if you have the chance to go overseas, go. Try to see more, learn more, open yourself up to new perspectives and the way you view things. Even if you’re a commercial photographer, always try to find time to create something of your own.

Lastly, share one little secret with us.
I like to think up ideas in the toilet. Things like, “Where to put the lights for next week’s shoot ah?” Don’t laugh, it’s very productive!


Written by Ho Pei Ling