Maurice Fitzgerald is the owner of Far East Photography Tours in St. John’s. — Photo by Dan MacEachern/The Telegram
Maurice Fitzgerald, owner of Far East Photography Tours (75 Airport Rd., a recent offshoot of his decade-old photography operation) used to paint, and bought a camera to take reference photos, and then — after cockily throwing the manual away — took photography lessons at Cabot College to learn how to use it properly.
“Then I realized there’s a whole other world to this that I didn’t even know existed,” says Fitzgerald, who loves the variety in the photography business. “One minute to the next, I’m not really sure what I’m going to be photographing,” he says. It can be a simple shoot of the convention centre one day and aerial photography from a helicopter — requiring him set aside a mild fear of heights — the next.
Who opened Far East Photography Tours and when?
When? Oh my goodness, when was that? I opened Far East Photography Tours five years ago, so that would be 2008, thereabouts? Approximately five years ago.
What does Far East Photography Tours do?
It is a tour for photographers or photo enthusiasts, whether they be amateurs, advanced amateurs or professionals alike. It was inspired by the cruise ship industry. I remember watching the news one night with my wife, and watching Mayor (Dennis) O’Keefe talk about the volume of cruise ship visits coming into the city and how they were growing that industry. And I noticed that everybody on the news clip getting off the boat had a camera, over the shoulder or in their hand. And they were all lined up to get on the giant buses to do various sightseeing tours, and I thought that would be a great idea, to offer a sightseeing tour that was based on photography. So that was the inspiration for the Far East Photography Tours.
I did that for about three years, geared towards the cruise ship industry alone, and changed gears after about three years because I found that there were a bunch of situations that I couldn’t control, like the weather. I also found it difficult to really give 10 or more people one-on-one time, whether they had individual questions. After about three years, I decided to scale back and do more private tours, so now I do them for one to three people. So they’ve been scaled back, and I think that’s the sweet spot. I’ve switched gears from the cruise ship industry, that was the inspiration, but now it is more or less for individuals that are travelling as a couple. I’ve a lot of husband-and-wife combinations. I just recently had two sisters, two grandmothers from the Prairies that are very into photography. I find I get a lot of couples. Or, I just recently had a mom and dad and a teenage son who’s really into photography. More often or not, it’s people who are in St. John’s for business, whether it be for a convention or in town for work, and they take the camera and they find out that I offer this tour. So it’s a lot of private tours, just one on one.
Because it’s not just taking them around to see the sights. You also instruct them on how to take pictures, is that right?
Yes, absolutely. It is a bit of a sightseeing tour in the sense that I will share my knowledge. I was born and bred in St. John’s, worked in downtown St. John’s. I share my local knowledge of the community, but it is geared towards photographers. It’s half and half sightseeing tour/photography workshop, and basically there is no set agenda. It’s fully customized to the person who’s travelling. So if one person wants to see rugged seascapes, we might go to Cape St. Francis. If another person wants to see rural Newfoundland, we might go to the Southern Shore. If someone else really wants to focus on old architecture, we’ll stick around St. John’s. It really depends. There’s no set agenda or itinerary. Once the initial contact is made with the traveller — I’ll ask them a bunch of questions about what they like, what they hope to see, what their interests are, and then I’ll make recommendations based on the feedback. So one tour is not the same as the next tour.
Not to make you give out free advice or anything, but what’s the most common thing that an amateur photographer needs to do to improve their pictures?
Slow down. Really. Well, not necessarily slow down. Everybody has a digital camera, whether it be an iPhone or a point-and-shoot or whatever the case may be. They kinda go “snap snap snap snap,” they’re looking around, they’re too busy. I always tell people, “Just stop, take a few minutes. Listen to the ocean. Listen to the sounds. Take in the smells.” Take a moment to check out your environment and see what inspired you or attracted you to that location, whether it be downtown St. John’s, or whether it be the coast of Cape Spear. And once you take a moment to take in your surroundings, you go, “OK, this is what attracted me,” whether it be waves crashing or the pattern of clouds or the Cape Spear lighthouse. Take a moment to just stop, slow down and just look and absorb the scenery.
So that’s one thing. For a lot of people — I don’t want to get too technical — but for a lot of people who have digital SLRs, they always think they need to put their camera in manual mode to take a better picture. They think, for some reason, “Oh, I need to shoot in manual to get a better photograph,” which is not necessarily the case. Cameras are very smart these days, and you don’t necessarily need to shoot in manual. You might find that you’ll get more misses than hits, for lack of a better term, and it’s just basically teaching them to use the camera that they have, and some of the automated settings better or more efficiently, and let the camera do a lot of the work for them.
How many people work for Far East?
Do you have any sort of business background or is it something that you’ve picked up as you’ve gone along?
The business side of it, my wife would probably have more experience from the business perspective. No, I don’t have any formal business education. It’s kind of been trial by fire. Like most young entrepreneurs, you get an idea and you move forward and you learn as you go. We did do a business plan at the Y enterprise centre when we started, about 10 years ago. … That was good. That helped us get our head organized, and here’s the ABCs and 123s of how to start out, all the necessary steps. Getting an accountant on your team, and legal advice on your team. So we took the proper steps to get our support network in place. But no, I don’t have an MBA or a business degree. Sometimes I wish … (laughs).
What’s been the biggest challenge on the business side of things?
I’m the epitome of small business, I guess, so for me it’s time, and trying to wear too many hats and all the necessary hats at the same time. Multi-tasking is the biggest challenge. I’m the photographer. I have to respond to the emails. I have to do the proposals for larger corporate clients. I’m my own IT guy. I do my own web maintenance. Bookkeeping. Those kinds of things. It’s trying to do it all and still be a small, small business. I’m quickly realizing that at some point in time you’ve got to let some of that stuff go and outsource it to people who can do it more efficiently for you, and it’s a better use of your time.
And we have a young family as well, two small kids, seven and 12. Our daughters obviously keep life busy as well, so trying to balance family and business. It’s not a 9-5 job, either, for me. I work all the time, depending on the client. Friday night past I was shooting at a local bar, shooting live entertainment for the bar. And Sunday morning I was shooting architectural photography on the Southern Shore. So you don’t know from one day to the next or one week to the next where you’re going to be working or what time of the day. It depends on the client’s needs.
Let’s talk about your location. Why are you out here by the airport?
I worked from my home for about six years, which was very good, because it was convenient and it kept our costs in control to some degree, so it was a good first step for us, working from home.
Eventually we ran out of space. As I mentioned before, we’ve got a young family, so once again, young family and a small business in your home — those worlds would merge together sometimes. I’d planned to work at home for five years. I was there for six, and then I realized that, you know what? When your kids are getting older, home needs to be home for them, and not a small business operation, where clients will be coming back and forth, and have to worry about the CEO of some company stepping over their bike because they just got off school and I didn’t know their bike was in the front door. Just typical day-to-day routine.
When I decided to start to look for a space, it was really challenging to find space for a small business. I’ve got an area here, just under a thousand square feet. I was looking for something small and conveniently located for me personally, for our home life, our kids in school and where they go to after-school programs. And also something that was affordable. Two or three places that I did go to, when I told them what I wanted to do — I need more open volume and space — and a few places that were available, they were sectioned off for small offices, and I would need to open those up, and the landlord basically said no. Not interested. “I don’t need to go through this construction to accommodate you when there’s three people behind you who will take it as an office space.” They were just looking after their own best needs, obviously.
So it was a challenge to find a place. This place actually (became) available. And the landlord worked with me and it was vacant. It was a new building, so it was just timely. And the location is actually quite good for me personally. I’m five minutes from my house. We live in the east end, our kids go to school in the east end. So geographically it’s a good location for me personally, but I have clients that are from St. Philip’s-Portugal Cove; I have clients from Mount Pearl, from downtown. As the city starts to grow and the geographic area starts to grow, to some degree I’m kind of in the middle of everything, really. The parking is convenient. And with the Outer Ring Road, clients from C.B.S. are 15, 20 minutes away. So it’s not a great distance by any means.
Why the name “Far East”?
My wife works in marketing and communications, and she came up with the idea, because we were kind of capitalizing on the “far east of the Western world” (slogan) that Tourism Newfoundland and Labrador had established many years ago, and they still use it to some degree. We were just building and expanding on that theme. We’re physically located in the east end of St. John’s. We physically live in the eastern part of Newfoundland and Labrador, so it’s the far east of the western world. So we were just kind of building on that theme.
What plans do you have for the business? You’ve got the studio, the photography tours — do you have any other plans in mind?
I’m just going to continue on. I’d like to continue to grow Far East Photography. The photography tours, I’d like to grow that more and get more of an international reach. I’ve done that — I’ve got clients from Australia, clients from Las Vegas, clients from Vancouver, people from all over the world that are coming and enjoying it, so I’d like to be able to grow that more. I like being outdoors; I don’t get outdoors as much as I used to, so I really love the fact that I can get out and share the province, get outdoors and hike and take photographs.