Blogs are personal things. They’re alive only so long as the owner(s) are active and interested in maintaining and regularly updating content. By the same token, they take on the personality of the author(s); after a while, a reader probably has a pretty good sense of what the author is like – or at least how he wants to be perceived.
So, this virtual interview is my attempt to reach out to my readers – both now and in posterity – to help you put a personality behind the images and words. First clue: I’m writing this from my iPhone in the middle of one of Kuala Lumpur’s legendary traffic jams. It’s rush hour, and raining. I haven’t moved more than 100m in the last hour. I hate traffic, especially when there’s plenty to be done. In fact, hate isn’t strong enough a word to describe how I feel about it. The waste of opportunity and productivity just drives me mad.
But enough of that. You probably want to know more about what makes me tick as a photographer. My self-confessed impatience is telling, though: I’m a very restless person who always has to be doing something. And that also applies to photography: I want to push the limits, challenge myself and make better images. Without further ado, to the questions.
Why start yet another blog?
Because I want to get to know my audience – it’s nice to have that relationship, as well as feedback to know what people like and what people don’t. It doesn’t mean I’m going to change my shooting style to all HDR, for instance, but it helps me to tweak things. I do take this seriously though. It’s a huge commitment and a lot of work to regularly update and generate content – especially when it’s free and at the expense of other work.
Do you have any formal photography training?
No – I’m actually a physicist by training (Balliol College, Oxford) and a ‘corporate raider’ – I’ve spent just as much time in the consulting and M&A businesses as photography. I taught myself by practicing, reading, experimenting, looking at other people’s photographs, and talking to a lot of people.
What are your favorite subjects?
I’m a diverse photographer. I shoot pretty much everything, though my speciality is watches/ macrophotography and photojournalism; I dabble in food, architecture and travel/ landscape. I used to be a very serious birder, spending entire weekends in swamps being eaten alive by mosquitoes, but these days my back protests at the weight of the lenses, and frankly I’m just tired of scratching insect bites. I was even official photographer for a popular local jazz club for a year, which was fun, but left me bleary eyed the next day at work. Curiously, the only thing I’ve never shot is sport – with the exception of some motor racing. I like to apply different techniques to different subjects – this inevitably yields a different perspective on things.
Do you have an aim or objective when shooting?
Yes and no. Yes if I’m on assignment, no if I’m just out and about – but I’ll always have a camera on me. Preferably something small and portable; it used to be the Ricoh GR Digital III, but that was supplanted by a spate of mirror less cameras that I never really liked except for the Olympus Pen Mini; now it’s a Leica M9-P. Above all though, I try to present a view of the world (or my subject) that’s unusual, compelling, and aesthetically pleasing. I do try for perfect compositions even under demanding conditions, which is why my keeper rate is pretty low – 2-5% is normal. It’s worse than fixed deposit returns.
What’s the most frequent question you get asked?
Hands down, which camera/lens/widget should I buy. The answer is always, if you know you need it, you won’t be asking me. If you don’t need it, then buy it if you want it but don’t expect it to make you a better photographer.
Do you have any heroes?
Aside from XYZ-man and his ilk? Photographically, there are a few. Ansel Adams, of course, for his ‘processing’ – I try to do what he did in the darkroom, but with photoshop (and color!). Cartier-Bresson for his sense of timing. Sebastiao Salgado, for his epic photojournalism – the images are masterful in their composition, moving in their content, and excellent in their processing, especially considering most of his work was done on film! Alex Majoli, for his work with compact cameras. I think it was from him that I realized the camera really didn’t matter at all.
Why do you like shooting? What keeps you inspired after all of these years?
Many reasons. It’s the freedom to create, in manageable bite-sized chunks; you don’t need a huge amount of time to produce something very satisfying. And everybody does it differently. It’s meritocratic; the better your skill, the better your image. I also admit that part of me likes the gear…
Doesn’t having more people interested in photography make it harder to be successful?
Having lots of people interested in photography isn’t a bad thing – yes, there’s more noise out there, but it also means there’s more awareness and new/ different opportunities. May the best man win – more true than ever.
What’s the favorite image from your career so far?
I’m going to say it’s one I haven’t taken yet. If I’m not improving, I need to try harder.
How do you know when a photograph is good enough to keep?
This is a tough one to answer. I think after a while you build up an instinctive sense of what works and what doesn’t, and what you like and what you don’t. If I’m selecting one image from a sequence, then I pick the one with a mix of a) the most emotion; b) the best composition; and c) the best technical aspect – exposure, focus, etc. If I’m culling a set from a shoot, then firstly I figure out roughly how many images I need to tell the story or deliver to the client – and then progressively cull the weakest.
How do you shoot and not disturb the flow of events around you, or miss something else when you’re shooting?
Be fast, and be prepared. If you’re ready, that means being observant and with camera held at high port; I can get in, get a few shots, and get out again most of the time without anybody noticing. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if people notice anyway – it can be a good thing when you want to capture intense emotion, too. Always, always, look around you – above and below too – you never know what you might miss otherwise.
If you could only shoot with one body and one lens, what would it be. Also what equipment do you miss the most?
I see we’re back to gear again! I can have one body and one lens for each subject type, but for obvious reasons the same setup I use for watches isn’t going to work for photojournalism, birding or sport. I wish I had a high magnification tilt-shift lens to maximize depth of field and resolution, but sadly the tilt-shift macros only reach 1:2 and are not useable with extension tubes or bellows.
What annoys you most about photography/ photographers these days?
People who believe equipment makes the image, and that the more expensive the camera, the better the image.
What’s more important – talent or practice?
Talent comes from practice.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting in photography?
Practice, practice, practice. Use your imagination, experiment and try out. Ask other people what they think of your images; get them to give you constructive feedback; but remember also that opinions are personal, and everybody’s got one – so don’t get discouraged.