G Gunawan – Cosmic Unions
Over the past two decades, G Gunawan has overcome many challenges to become an in-demand creative. As a Muslim man born to a Chinese family in Indonesia who would eventually call Australia home, he has always been saddled with the label of ‘minority’.
None of this was enough to stop G Gunawan. After joining his mother in Sydney in the hope of a better life, he left no stone unturned in finding opportunities to thrive. A chance gig as a wedding photographer became the catalyst for a rich and varied career that extended from Aussie altars to both urban and rural night skies.
But it doesn’t stop there. Over recent years, G Gunawan has more than dipped his curious toes in the YouTube waters – creating a dynamic channel that includes reviews, tutorials, and personal content. He also imparts his hard-won expertise on budding creatives for Nikon School.
A devoted husband and father of two, G Gunawan is an affable and authentic soul who would make anyone want to dust off their camera and get out into the world.
We sat down to learn more about his life, work, and signature take on marrying Astro and wedding photography genres.
What was your first significant memory of photography?
So, when I was around 15, I was a big fan of John Claude Van Damme. I had his poster in my room. It was a portrait where one side is dark, and one side is bright. I didn't know how to create that at the time. I had this point-and-click camera with a flash... a film camera. I tried to create that image and couldn't nail it because the flash kept on going all the time. I didn't know about SLR cameras that could control the lights. So, I just gave up.
But that was the moment that really hit me. I really wanted to create these photos like this.
What was it about that photo?
It’s got a very mysterious mood. One side was fully light and the other half, fully dark.
Did you eventually learn how to capture that look?
About six years later, after I started to learn photography.
You didn’t take any more photos for six years?
Exactly. And I only got into photography, because my circle of friends was playing around with SLR film cameras. I was like “oh, that's interesting. Let me give it a shot.”
Can you tell us a bit about the journey from deciding to “give it a shot” to your first paid gig?
Back then in 2001, digital SLR did not exist. Or if it did it was still pretty rare. So, I basically learned from my community of friends - some of them using the Nikon FM10. I was using my uncle's camera that I borrowed from him. I tagged along with them for a couple of shoots. We’d take photos of our friends as models, mostly outdoors, that sort of stuff.
Three years later, I think 2004, and I got my first paid gig shooting a 17th birthday party with a film camera. It was scary. I only got the gig because the official photographer pulled out last minute. But I pulled it off.
It pushed me out of my comfort zone and increased my confidence.
Were the people – I guess, your first clients - happy with the results? Were you?
I was happy. The people? I actually don’t know. I didn’t communicate with them afterwards.
This was back in Indonesia, before I moved to Australia. I only knew the artistic side of things, but I didn’t know how to communicate with a client.
Which is a big part of it.
A huge part of it.
Did you move here with the intention of pursuing photography?
No, I never thought photography would be my main career, actually. When I moved here, it was basically the same thing as most migrants. Move for a better life, find a job.
But I was lucky because when I moved here in May 2005, for the first two months I couldn't get a job. I was like “two months is too long”. I had a lot of rejections and one person even said during an interview “your English is not good enough” and then just hang up.
So, I was like “okay, I got this photography skill. I might as well just look around for a photography gig and see how far I can push it.” Through a group of friends, I got my first wedding client.
That was the ninth of December, 2005...
Wow. you remember the date.
I remember the date! It was in the Swissotel, In Sydney. I charged $750 for the whole wedding shoot, including an album. And I sourced the album from Indonesia because that's the only way I knew how to source one at the time.
So, I did my first gig and it just basically rolled on from there, you know, referrals and everything. I still get in touch with specific clients up until today.
Oh, you keep in touch with your first wedding client?
Yes. And they were aware that they were my very first client. I think they’re proud to be part of my journey.
Amazing. Did that journey start out with the local Indonesian migrant community?
Yes, the bride was Indonesian, but she was brought up here. The groom was from the Philippines.
Did that first gig ignite an interest in wedding photography? Or was it more... that’s where the work and money was?
Both. At the time it was probably more where the money was. Now, it’s more – yes, I need to make money from shooting weddings, but I also really enjoy it a lot, because that’s where I can explore my creative vision.
Do you have a signature style across the board when taking photos at weddings? Or do you meet the couple, look at what the wedding is going to be like and develop your style to suit?
It can be both. But I would say it’s more that I've got my own style. I think with wedding photography, if your style changes depending heavily on the couple, it opens up the opportunity for them to be very particular with the style that they want. And that can be not a good thing. Yeah. Because if you don’t nail it, you’re in trouble.
Of course. They’re important photos.
Exactly. So, I'd rather to be known for my own style, and a couple comes to me. A couple might say “you do what you want, we trust you.” And that's when I can do my own style, plus explore something new with them. Something that I think it suits them best.
You talked about how initially, you hadn't yet learned how to communicate with clients. I'm guessing in order to make a couple feel relaxed and the photos not to feel staged?
100%, even up until today, I'm still learning those skills. It's something I have to learn all the time. What I do actually starts from the very first impression, whether that's call or whether that's text, or Zoom call, because from the very beginning, I want to make them feel comfortable. And that plays a huge part on the wedding day, because the more comfortable they are, the more they can vibe with me, the more they get what I'm trying to say and direct them. And also, the more that they can be themselves on a camera, which is very important.
Do you have any examples of what you’ve done to make them feel comfortable?
You congratulate them, and it has to be genuine. You don't want to do it because of the sake of doing it. You congratulate them and get to know them. You get them to talk, you listen, you ask how they met. Some of them meet through friends, some of them meet through social media platform. And depending on how well I'm vibing with them, I might try to throw in some jokes around and on the day as well.
I direct them. I pose them sometimes, but most of the time I direct them, and I get them to move along as I'm shooting and give them prompts. Like: “hey, whisper your favourite vegetable in the sexiest voice possible.” Then I just get ready to shoot because they’re cracking up laughing. These are the kinds of moments that I'm looking for.
Okay, so you started with weddings. When and how did you start to gravitate towards Astro? They’re quite different disciplines.
Initially, I liked to do weddings in the city. But now I like to do weddings out in a more natural space. I’m getting more and more clients that are actually based in places like the Southern Highlands. Those are beautiful locations. Blue Mountains as well. And my style has changed over time, because now I use a lot of flash and strobe - creatively. I also now hire an assistant every time I do a wedding.
For those who are new to or don’t know anything about photography – what are you able to do with flash and strobe that you weren’t able to do before?
Flash and strobe create something that you can't see with your eyes. Because you can kill the ambient, like it might be like daylight situation... And then you use flash in a way that the end result is it's dark, but with some flashlights going in and filling the light. It creates a wow factor.
Nowadays, do you take more wedding, Astro, or cityscape photos?
That’s a really good question [laughs]. I do bits and pieces of everything to the point where I sometimes wonder “what’s my niche”?
I guess, unless you’re hyper-specialised, it’s good to diversify?
Exactly. I want to be known as a wedding photographer because I really enjoy doing it. I really enjoy interaction with the couple and providing them with the memories that last a lifetime. And then, Astrophotography as well, because I love running workshops on the subject and teaching people about Astro. I would say those two are my niches.
I will still shoot anything and everything, but if I can choose, wedding, Astro, and sometimes combining the two.
That’s interesting. What does combining the two disciplines even look like?
Last Sunday, I went through Blue Mountains because the Milky Way season is coming to an end. Right now, the Milky Way is setting horizontally towards the horizon, instead of vertically. So last week, I saw okay, this is a perfect condition to shoot because it's cloudless, clear sky. I asked my clients that are getting married on the 11th of November “do you guys want to come to the Blue Mountains? I'll shoot you a couple of shots under the stars” and they said “yes”.
So how combining the two disciplines looks: the Milky Way in the background. And I just pose them probably looking at each other in the foreground and use the flash — from the side or from the back — to light them up. That’s the basic idea.
I mean, if you want to go crazier you absolutely can, but it would involve a lot more logistics - extra lights, maybe an extra assistant.
There are costs involved in all photographic disciplines, but I’m curious about those involved in wedding and Astro – I’m assuming the latter requires more personal investment?
When it comes to equipment, wedding actually costs a lot more. Most cameras —DSLR, mirrorless— can do astrophotography. You don’t need a camera with high speed. You can just use a basic camera. It’s the lens that actually does a lot of the work for Astro.
Speaking of the Z 9, which you use, have you found that mirrorless has enhanced your practice?
100%. I’m actually glad that I moved to mirrorless. The one specific feature is the eye tracking, especially at night, is just awesome.
Was there a significant learning curve in going from DSLR to mirrorless?
A bit. The good thing is that Nikon’s menus are pretty similar across the board.
You have been making tutorial and practice-based videos on YouTube for a while. Can you tell us a bit about that world?
Yeah, that's actually a very interesting one. I started on YouTube in 2017 with the intention to learn how to make videos. Nikon hadn’t got mirrorless yet, so I was using the D750. That camera is really good camera for photos, but for video, it's very limited, right? But I made it work.
The content that I was aiming for wasn’t really niche. I was just like, shoot whatever comes across my mind. I made a commitment that in that year I want to make one video a week. I only missed a few. But that content that was pretty hit or miss also led me to my first video job, because people saw what I could do. And when mirrorless came out, I was like, okay, yeah, I gotta make the move and purchased the Z 6, which really helped in creating videos.
Did you find that as you made a video a week, the quality of your videos improved exponentially? Or was it a slow build?
Slow build. Because there’s a lot to learn. And in saying that I haven't loaded a video over the last six months. I gotta go back into it. I’ve been busy learning the business side of photography, which is a killer for a lot of creatives out there.
Speaking of the business side - from looking at your videos, it’s clear you have quite a likeable personality. How important is your personality to the social media and business side of your practice?
This is what I'm telling all my friends in the industry: “you have to put yourself out there.” Because with the rise of technology, creating for video and creating content in general is becoming easier and easier, even iPhones can do an awesome job. So now, to differentiate yourself, you need to be yourself. I am a shy person. I still am, but I used to be very, very, very, very, very shy.
I remember when I was first doing my vlog, I held that Nikon D 750, that big-ass camera with a big-ass mic on top, in Darling Harbour walking on Pyrmont Bridge... I was shaking. I was like: “I gotta do this. I gotta fight this. I gotta fight the fear.” So, I just winged it. And talked to the camera, whatever came out. But I think everyone - creators, photographers - they need to put themselves out there one way or another. AI is going to play a part as well, so the only thing that can differentiate you is yourself and your personality.
What helped you become less shy? Exposure? Getting out of your comfort zone?
Yes, but you have to take a few steps back first. To get out of the comfort zone, you need to know where you want to go. Like your goal. You got to set your goal of who you want to be, what do you want to do for a living. And the cost of not getting out of your comfort zone is that you're going to stay where you are for the rest of your life.
So that reality kicks in. I just have to put myself out of my comfort zone every now and then. And learning crafts like photography that really helps, because the more you learn the more you know, the more you get more confident. I also play me Music. And the reason I bring it up is when I get to learn guitar and then play in front of people, that gives me a lot more confidence as well. So, I think all of those combined stack up.
There’s a video on your channel called “There’s always something to Photograph”. Can you tell us a bit about it?
I created that video because I often hear from photographers or other people that, you know, “there’s nothing there”. They blame the environment. They blame the people. They blame everything. To me, that’s a lack of recognising what’s available to them.
How would you suggest that someone in that situation, as you put it, “trains their eye” and recognises what’s available to them?
A couple of things. I would say that if you cannot go anywhere else, look around you and look at what’s there. Even though right now, like, if you... [Holds up a remote] ...I’ve got this remote right here, right?
You can create something nice. You can focus on any single button. You can point it to camera. Get different perspectives. That kind of thing. There’s a lot there to play around with. Yes, if you can, go out then go out to places that can ignite your creative brain, but no matter where you are, there’s always something to photograph.
You have 19K followers on Instagram. How important has social media been to your professional life?
Yeah, well, social media is important for us creators. Because that's where we live. That's where we showcase what we can do. That's how we communicate with the world, basically. The number of followers, I know it sounds cliche, but it really doesn't matter much. A lot of people aim to get more and more followers, without knowing what they’re going to do to get the followers. Followers are good as a social proof. But you should aim in creating content that has value to your audience. And with that, then the followers will increase. They will come.
Good advice. Have you had people approach you for work based on the photos they’ve seen on your Instagram account?
A lot. Actually, one of them was Nikon. When they approached me, I was like: “oh, this is just another person asking what camera I use.” Then after I realised it was Nikon, I said “Really?!”
You teach Nikon workshops on astrophotography. What have you learned through the process of helping people find or train their eye?
I’ve learned a lot. One of the biggest things is that what we think is easy is not necessarily. Because to me, I got so used with the exposure triangle and all that. But a lot of people still struggle to understand the exposure triangle and the concept of it.
I love that every single person has different way of learning. Sometimes you need to teach verbally, sometimes visually, sometimes you need to teach by getting them touching a button.
What kind of satisfaction do you get from teaching?
That's a really good question. I always say that my satisfaction comes from how much the students learned and progressed. The more that they learn, the more they can create something, the more that ‘aha’ moment kick in, in their heads, then that's my satisfaction right there.
Because my aim is not about myself, right? When I'm teaching, if I'm thinking about myself, if I’m good or not, I will get nervous. But if I am having my headspace, like, I'm there to give value for them. The more they can absorb the information and what they can learn then the more that I'm happy.
If for some reason all your professional photographs were about to be destroyed and you could only hold onto one, which would it be?
That’s a tough one. A really tough one. You’ve got me thinking.
I would probably say – this one photo of me standing in Tessellated Pavement in Tasmania, with the Milky Way rising in the background.
You took the photo?
I took the photo myself. I travelled to Tasmania in April, by myself, just to catch the Aurora Borealis. I got that, which is good. Then, I just travelled around out there for the next two nights and took this photo. The reason why I want to keep it is if I had to start my career again and could only launch it with one photo, it would be that. It showcases what I can do.
From where do you draw your inspiration?
I think we sort of feed into each other in this world, with the presence of social media. I definitely draw imagination from other photographers. Sometimes it’s the music that I'm listening to – I browse music that I want to download and store in my library to use for my videos, then sometimes some music triggers some result in your head.
And sometimes, maybe when I'm just doing absolutely nothing, or maybe something like washing dishes, or having shower, ideas pop up in the head. And I just write it down. Can be from anywhere.
If we were to peek inside your gear bag, what would we find?
Well, it's a lot at the moment because of the weddings and all that, but if you want to keep it short:
The gear that I always carry with me when I'm travelling right now is the Z 9, the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S and the Z 30, which is the crop sensor. That's a really good camera for vlogging and general-use street photography. And you will see the NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S and you will see, the NIKKOR Z DX 12-28mm f/3.5-5.6 PZ VR.
I mean, if you want to go crazier you absolutely can, but it would involve a lot more logistics - extra lights, maybe an extra assistant.
What would you say to someone starting out in photography, who is overwhelmed by all the competition these days?
You’ve got two options. You can compare yourself to other people. Waste your minute right there. Or you can spend that minute learning about your craft and improving yourself. Short answer is to never compare with other people. I know it’s very hard in this day and age, right? Because you look at other people’s work, you say “wow, that’s great”. But we need to understand that what’s put on social media is fully curated. Right behind that one, single awesome photo is a hundred photos that suck.
Focus on yourself, take shots, and keep going from there.