Zenji Uehara and his Experimental Photography Produce Unique Images

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“I want to convey a sense of wonder rather than logic”, says Japanese photographer Zenji Uehara about his work. A book editor until his mid-20s, Zenji quit his day job to pursue photography after seeing the photos of legendary photographer Daido Moriyama. The experimentation that Zenji pursues doesn’t just involve new techniques: he actively designs and invents new add-ons for his cameras and lenses, some of which have sold many units worldwide.

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I’ve never quite found the appeal a lot of photographers have found with the Lensball. To me, it seems a tad gimmicky. What I found most unappealing was the inconvenience of the system. The attraction of taking an image with a crystal ball is to view the world around you inside that ball itself, sort of like the inverted 360 panorama action cameras produce. However, if you balance the ball on a flat surface, your image has to include part of that surface in the frame. Otherwise, like the countless images I’ve seen taken with this, your fingers will be visible in the shot while you handhold the ball. I don’t understand why people would pay anywhere between $44 to $74 for something that produces images of this sort.

I don’t remember where I read about the Soratama at first, but I recall being astonished when I saw the results it produces. A part of me wondered if they were Photoshopped images of frames taken with a Lensball. How else could the photographer have achieved this effect – a full sphere floating in the centre of the frame without anything to support it? As I dug deeper into its origins, I learnt about Zenji and his ingenious creations. His Soratama not only produces a clean spherical centre better than Lensball does, it took things a step further by eliminating the need for any kind of hand-holding or surface placement. Our interview with Zenji goes into the inspiration behind the making of this product, its development, and his other inventions for creative photography over the last few decades. It takes an innovative and visionary mind to engineer products that produce unique results and Zenji isn’t stopping any time soon.

The Essential Photo Gear of Zenji Uehara

Zenji told us:

I often use the Sony α7R IV and the SAMYANG AF24mm F2.8 FE for kaleidoscope photography. This camera produces beautiful images with high resolution.

The Phoblographer: You consider yourself an experimental photographer. How did you get into photography, and what sort of photography do you specialise in?

Zenji Uehara: When I was 25 years old, I worked as a book editor but, I quit my job and became a photographer after seeing Daido Moriyama and his works. Seeing his passion for photography, I decided that photography was a great medium to put my energy into. Which led me to also study photography under Daido Moriyama for two years, starting in 1986. Mr Daido is famous for his grainy black-and-white photographs, and at first, I mimicked his style of photography. After some time, I began to experiment in various ways to find my own style. Then, one of my editors used the title “experimental photographer” when talking about me, and I liked the title, so I myself, began to call myself an experimental photographer. My subjects are mundane things that are very close to me. I believe that it is important to discover subjects close to us, rather than going to far places to photograph beautiful landscapes or sceneries.

A self portrait

The Phoblographer: What was the main inspiration for manufacturing the Soratama filter? Which camera gear do you most use with the Zenjix Soratama and Kaleidophoto images, and how does this help achieve your creative vision?

Zenji Uehara: When I came up with the idea of the Soratama, I published the crafting method using an empty Pringles tube. However, I got feedback saying that walking around with an empty box of Pringles [was] a bit lame. So, I decided to have a factory make them into products. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III and Olympus ED 30mm F3.5 Macro are used for shooting with the Soratama. Since this camera is a Micro Four Thirds, it has the advantage of having a wide field of depth, making it easy to define the edges of the ball. By inserting a 70mm extension tube between the space ball and the lens, the size of the ball in the photo is adjusted.

A handmade Soratama

I often use the Sony α7R IV and the SAMYANG AF24mm F2.8 FE for kaleidoscope photography. This camera produces beautiful images with high resolution. Also, this is a wide-angle lens, so you can capture a lot of triangle patterns. The lens is compact to prevent vignetting. The smaller the lens, the better since the edges of the tube won’t be captured in the photo. Set the camera on a tripod and shoot from above. When you move the subject, the pattern changes.

The Phoblographer: The Lensball crystal has been selling in the millions over the last handful of years. When was the moment that you realised you could produce the same effect with just a set of filters on your lens? How did you arrive at this visionary idea?

Zenji Uehara: I originally made handmade lenses and used transparent spheres in that vein. I realized that I could capture the inside and outside of the ball at the same time when I took a photograph with a transparent sphere, and I felt the potential of this image. However, if I pick the ball up with my hand, my fingers will also be in the photo, so I devised a way to keep my fingers out of the picture: the Soratama. The word “sora” means “midair”, and “tama” means “ball”.

The Phoblographer: Have you had a significant response to your Zenjix Soratama product? Tell us some of the positive feedback been from Zenjix users.

Zenji Uehara: It takes a bit of skill to shoot with the Soratama. You have to adjust it to fit your camera and lens, and it needs a bit of technique to get it in focus. However, there are many people who find such tediousness refreshing and become addicted to the Soratama.

And then, there are those who use their own ingenuity and new ideas to take pictures. For example, some people add more transparent spheres to the space balls to take unique pictures, and it is fun to see people use the space balls underwater.

The Phoblographer: So technically, this filter (with its extensions) produces a circular ball-like effect in the centre of your image. Can you tell us about the physics behind this achieving this effect? 

Zenji Uehara: The filter is drilled, and an optical ball lens is glued to it. The way the Soratama works is that you take a close-up picture of the scene inside the ball lens.

By changing the length of the extension tube, lenses with different focal lengths can be accommodated. Also, by changing the step-up ring, it can be attached to lenses of various diameters.

The Phoblographer: Are there any limitations regarding which lenses can and cannot use the Zenjix filter? Can smartphone cameras also use it?

Zenji Uehara: Yes, there are some limitations. It is recommended to use a macro lens or a close-up ring. You need to also be able to take close-up shots to focus on the ball lens. A lens with a focal length of about 35mm to 50mm (35mm equivalent) is easy to use. And yes, we actually have a product for smartphones, but it is currently out of stock. If you are using a smartphone, you will need to be able to attach a convex lens and focus on the ball lens.

The Phoblographer: Tell us about the recent Soratama awards. What was the judging criteria for selecting the winners, and who were some of your favourites from the 2020 contest?

Zenji Uehara: The Grand Prize for 2020 went to a close-up photograph of Rapeseed blossoms. I really liked the fact that the aperture was wide open for more depth, creating an image that was different from a typical Soratama photo. The grand prize for 2019 was a photograph of hurricane lily. I appreciated the idea of making a space ball by myself and putting the subject between the Soratama and the camera. It’s important to have some new ideas, not just to take beautiful pictures.

The Phoblographer: You’ve got some fascinating kaleidoscopic images on your Instagram profile. What feelings are you trying to express when taking a ‘Kaleidophoto’?

Zenji Uehara: In the case of kaleidoscopic photography, I want to convey a sense of wonder rather than logic. When you try to study photography, there are many promises to be made, such as composition. However, there are no rules for this kaleidoscope photography, and you can take pictures based on your own senses. I believe that the element of chance is important in photography, and the concept of Kaleidophoto is to intentionally attract that chance.

The Phoblographer: What apparatus did you use to accomplish this? How do you control the number of reflections in each Kaleidophoto?

Zenji Uehara: This kaleidoscope photo effect was not achieved with Photoshop, but with 3 pieces of glass inside a tube to create a sort of a kaleidoscope to attach to my camera lens. A normal kaleidoscope has a peephole that is too small to look through for a camera, so I made a kaleidoscope for photography. By using a wide-angle lens, there will be more triangle patterns in one picture.

The Phoblographer: Photographers these days prefer to shoot landscapes using ultra-wide lenses, but you seem to approach this differently. What is the inspiration behind using Soratama for circular images of forests and flowers?

Zenji Uehara: I wanted to create a small universe inside this ball in which forests and flowers were the ideal subjects to achieve this.

The Phoblographer: Could you tell us about some of your experiments in photography that weren’t as successful as Zenjix? What lessons have you learnt from your earlier experiments?

Zenji Uehara: I don’t create to sell; I create as a means to capture creative photos. Everything I have created is, to me, a success since they all have a purpose. Maybe to some, there might have been some that weren’t as successful, but I would say that there hasn’t been an experiment that wasn’t successful in my eyes since it is important to experiment with even the silliest ideas.
For example, this is an experiment where a camera is attached to the end of an electric drill driver and rotated.

At first, I was only able to capture a circular pattern, but then I came up with the idea of using a strobe while the camera was rotating and succeeded in capturing a stationary subject at the same time.

The Phoblographer: More people opt to use smartphones and editing apps instead of cameras and creative lenses and filters like yours. How do you think we can bring people back to the more traditional style of photography?

Zenji Uehara: I think it’s natural for people to jump on the bandwagon of what’s convenient. If we are able to convey how something that most people may think is inconvenient is something that can do more than one expects, I believe more people will gain interest in the traditional style of photography. I also believe people can quickly get bored of apps that one can get their hands on easily, so there is always a chance if we can show people the beauty in traditional photography.

The Phoblographer: Over the next 5-10 years, what is your forecast for the future of these products? Do you have other creative projects being developed now?

Zenji Uehara: In the next 5-10 years, I could see not just people using my products but also taking unique pictures and create a whole new vision, leading to more people getting interested in my product. I can’t say for sure right now since I don’t know if I’ll release my future products to the public, but we will see!

All images by Zenji Uehara. Used with permission. Visit his website, Instagram, Twitter, and Youtube pages for more

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