You’d think that after 13 years of this I’d have mastered the art of camwhoring for decent self-portrait, but no. At least the collage shows two things: firstly, a relative progression of personal style over the years, secondly, that file sizes have continued to balloon…all of these are at the correct relative size to each other. Also, that I’ve gone through a hell of a lot of gear. You might even spot a Canon in there if you look closely enough.
Today’s topic is a rather personal one, but something which has been asked with remarkable frequency: how did I get into photography in the first place? I’ve been shooting seriously for the better part of thirteen years; taking commercial assignments on and off since 2005, and full-time pro for the fourth time since the beginning of last year (2012).
As you all know, I wasn’t a photographer or even an artist by training or education; with the exception of one painter, my family is a complete artistic desert – traditional Chinese families tend to be full of doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and if you can’t do any of those, then self-employed businessmen. And that’s pretty much where I come from; I make no pretences about having a long photographic lineage or even having decades of experience – I don’t think that’s necessary; this is one of the few professions where your work speaks for itself.
We’ll start from the beginning: my tertiary qualifications are in physics/ cosmology; I attended Oxford quite young, graduated at 16, and found myself in an employment environment in the UK that wasn’t quite so hot after the post-dot.com crash, and certainly not at all hot for non-locals and oddball wildcards. The simple reality is that no matter how smart you might be, what degree you hold, or how well you do at interview, most employers are completely unwilling to take the risk on hiring a 16 year old for a professional corporate position. I was told repeatedly that everything was great, but I was simply too young*. In the end, I landed up not taking the (supposedly) glamorous investment banking career that my peers got into, but accepting the only offer that came: audit.
*Who knows, it might have had something to do with child labor laws. Clearly auditors have no such qualms, since I rarely did anything less than a 70-hour week.
For anybody with a creative bone in their body, this is not far off the equivalent of being sentenced to solitary. Your colleagues are there because they too couldn’t get more interesting or higher paying jobs elsewhere for whatever reason, or they’re simply as dull as ditchwater. I had both in my intake; the more interesting ones left after a few months after realising how grave an error they’d made. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I had no choice to persevere. But at the same time, I needed an outlet. I used to doodle endlessly, make half-baked ideas and designs and generally explore the creative side of things. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time in big chunks anymore – between silly working hours and the necessity of studying for the charted accountancy exams – mostly rote learning of incredibly dry material – I had to find something that could still satisfy piecemeal.
Photography was something I’d always had more than a passing interest in; however, when younger, film provisioning and developing was the preserve of my parents. I remember going on more than one trip where I was assigned to carry the camera – what my brother and I dreaded because of the weight (a small Minolta SLR), if only we’d known – and then coming back and getting told off because I’d wasted film on photos without people in them! At such time as I’d had enough of my own allowance to buy my own camera and pay for my own film, comparatively, I went crazy; a whole roll a month, sometimes! Unfortunately, I made the decision to go with APS-C because of the seductively small cameras, not knowing any better at the time.
I made the same mistake again in my last year of university; I went digital with a Sony U20 simply because it was the smallest camera that had autofocus and an LCD – all 1″ of it. But, I did experiment a lot, shoot a lot of images, and generally enjoy the process. Cue forward a few months to the start of work, and the onset of chronic boredom: I needed a bigger fix. Doing research online made me realize two things: I needed more camera, and I was missing out on a lot of photographic control. I made a slightly less bad decision on the next camera thanks to DPR – a Fuji S5000; though I had it for all of two months before realizing that a) the sensor was rubbish, and b) a 10x zoom is rather pointless. I even bought all of the overpriced ‘system’ accessories that the chain stores were pushing (so there really are people who fall for that kind of thing; I was one of them).
My neighbor in London at the time was a well-known illustrator and keen photographer himself; it was due to his influence and generous offer of lens loans that saw me spend most of my savings on a D70 a few months later. With that came liberation, of sorts: this was more camera than I knew how to handle, and it was responsive in a way that nothing else had been, whilst still being relatively easy to use, and able to deliver great results under very low light conditions. I photographed a lot during those days; probably more than I have since unless on assignment. I’d shoot on the way to work; go out at lunch; and again on the way home. A thousand frames a day was pretty normal for me. And yes, I took plenty of photos without people in them.
At this point, my interest in watches was also developing in parallel; however, being a poor impoverished auditor, all I could do was collect knowledge and participate in various internet fora; the kind and generous people whom I’d met – most of whom I’m still in touch with today – would invite me to attend their events and fondle the watches I couldn’t afford. One of them had a lot of gear dedicated solely to macrophotography of watches; I thought it silly at first, but later realized it made a lot of sense: not only could I shoot what you’re interested in, but I’d also get a chance to appreciate the pieces afterwards through the images. I made and collected photographs of the watches I couldn’t afford; these were the beginnings of my experiments in watch photography, and my experimentation and development of off-camera flash and other lighting techniques. Needless to say, more gear followed. But in hindsight, this was a turning point for me, too: firstly, you have to shoot subjects you’re passionate about; since you understand what you’re photographing, you’ll also be able to find a unique angle or point of view to capture the essence of the subject.
The next big shift in my photography came in mid-2004; I went on my first dedicated photographic trip – to Venice. On my own and armed with a camera, I planned to roam the streets from dawn to dusk shooting everything and anything. Unfortuantely, that dream was aborted: during a transfer at Schipol, somebody ran into me and knocked the camera off my shoulder; it flew, fell, and bounced. The person ran off to their flight and I was left too shocked to do anything. Fortunately, other than a small hairline crack in the plastic housing, the D70 appeared to be fine. I’d later discover that something internal was seriously out of alignment; looking back now at those images, I see astigmatism in the lens and consistent focus errors – probably due to a dislodged AF array or submirror. Not knowing any better, I just continued on at the time. That trip made me realize two things: firstly, the importance of a backup, and secondly, planning: after day three of seven (in hindsight, too long), I ran out of ideas and started counting the hours til I could leave.
To be continued…
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