OT: Of cars and cameras

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Race girl

In many ways, the two industries are frighteningly similar: technologically complex, requiring huge capital investment for relatively small margins, enormous marketing machines, some semblance of ‘celebrity’ endorsement, and ever shrinking improvements just waiting for whatever technology is just over the bend (hybrids, Foveon sensors, etc.). Perception over substance rules, too. And there’s a lot of crossover between the enthusiasts of both – I have a huge number of students who are also petrolheads. But there are enough differences that one could learn from the other, I think…

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A very OT review: the 2013 BMW Z4 28i

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In a break from regular programming, I’m going to take up one of my readers’ suggestions from a flickr comment and review something different for a change: a car. There are a few automotive journalists I admire and whose work I enjoy for various reasons; the Top Gear trio, Chris Harris, etc. But I’m going to approach this in the same style I approach my camera reviews: from an unashamedly practical standpoint and with some nice images. I’m an enthusiast and nothing more. Read on if you dare.

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OT: Thoughts on blogging in an increasingly crowded space

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Content consumption and creation is a 24/7 business.

The internet is no longer the tool of knowledge sharing it originally started out being: it’s a commercial and marketing platform, pure and simple. Money goes to he who shouts the loudest, whether they might have anything worth listening to or not. Like everything, there’s good and bad to this. The good is easy: it’s made doing business ever easier than before (even if Paypal takes a huge cut as financial gatekeeper); especially for small businesses and individual proprietors who’d otherwise never have had access to those customers or audiences. Information is easily available; almost everything is there if you look hard enough. And on top of that, there are new and exciting streams of income that simply didn’t exist 15 years ago – sponsorship, paid blogging, pay-per-click, email harvesting…but is any of it really sustainable?

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Choice, compromise and creativity

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What do these two things have in common, other than they’re from (very, very loosely, give or take a decade) the same era?

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Taking stock

_5019362 copy Time for a breather.

For those of you who are curious about what I do, (and also so I don’t forget)…as far as I can determine, here’s the current list of my regular activities. I’ve found that I certainly can’t do the same one thing for long, and there’s definite value in having inspiration from many sources.

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Off topic: hobbies and photographers

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It seems that a lot of my other photographically-inclined friends and students share the same few passions – watches/ horology, cars, cigars, food/ wine, travel, and to some extent, hi-fi. It could be because serious photographers tend to be mostly male (no sexism intended, but 90% of my reader demographic and students are male) and these are male pursuits; however, the funny thing is that a good number of the ladies in the 10% share these interests, too. I’m not counting casual or passing fancies here – I’m only including people serious enough to devote a meaningful chunk of time and income towards these hobbies. Even so, the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of just a few pursuits*.

*My point of view could however be biased by the demographic of my readers; I suppose if I surveyed those who lived in countries with strong anti-smoking laws, expensive car operating costs, and reasonable public transport – sounds like the UK – we’d find that cigars and cars drop off the list.

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The commercial reality of reviews, writing and blogging

It would be an understatement to say that the site has taken on a life of its own far beyond what I would have envisioned a year ago. (At that point, I’d have been happy not to see a zero traffic count when I checked at the end of the day.) We have pretty much a complete ecosystem – Facebook page with 4600+ fans, a very active Flickr pool with 4,700 accepted images, 800-odd contributors, and on average, two hundred images for me to moderate daily; there’s of course the iPad app, and various local communities of readers and fans brought together by various events and workshops.

I post at least every two days, and sometimes more frequently than that. The posts average 2,000 words in length – those of you who haven’t been out of college that long will remember essays of that length took some time and effort to complete – plus the correct images and illustrations required to support the text. Some of these are even longer – camera reviews run in the 4,000-5,000 word range, and require even more extensive testing under controlled circumstances, plus shooting images specifically for the site. Let’s not even talk about how much time is taken up by double checking anomalies that could be potentially caused by sample variation or file handling. Magnum opuses – like the Camerapedia and dictionary (exclusive to the iPad app) – have upwards of 30,000 words and take cumulative weeks of work.

Then there’s the correspondence: direct emails, comments, Facebook messages and posts, Flickr messages and posts, group threads. I have no idea how many individual messages this comes to, but I do know that on an average day, I get 200-300 emails. Long ago – perhaps foolishly – I made a promise that I’d do my best to reply to and interact with all of the readers who cared to do so. I’m sticking by that, because I think it’s one of the things that differentiates this site from others – especially the larger ones where the proprietors sit in the clouds and pontificate, then largely ignore their readers.

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Ignorance, fear and photographic freedoms in Malaysia

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Photograph all you want. Prague, Leica M9-P, 50/1.4 ASPH

Several recent experiences in Kuala Lumpur have prompted me to write this article. They’re all pretty similar: I’m out and about walking on a public road, photographing various objects – never people – and I will be accosted by a rent-a-cop or security guard telling me that I am not allowed to photograph. Photograph what, specifically? Everything and anything which he deems is under his jurisdiction. There are two problems here: firstly, photographing from a public place is allowed so long as you are not on private property; the intended use is actually irrelevant – at least in Malaysia. The second problem is that these people are often immigrants who have both a very poor command of any of the local languages, zero to no education, and often questionable immigration status.

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Think carefully. Though this was shot a few years ago from the street and a good 50m away, I still subsequently had unhappy people waving and holding out stop-hands at me. Nikon D3100, 28-300VR

What this means is that even though you might be able to legitimately convince another person that you’re within your legal rights to photograph where you’re standing, you’re at a dead end because the rent-a-cop you’ve got to deal with is both ignorant and incommunicable. It’s extremely annoying because I’ve had this happen four times in the past week; I know my legal rights and won’t push it in a situation where I’m on private property and I’m trying my luck. The trouble is that this seems to be a worrying trend; it’s happened with increasing frequency over the last year or two. And it’s not because I’m photographing any different subjects than normal, or any more frequently – if anything, I’m shooting a bit less of my own personal work.

Although you could try very hard to convince them that you are a) harmless and b) within your rights, I’ve since found it less frustrating to simply move on to the next place and try to continue shooting – assuming of course that I’m still in the mood at all.

I can see why some of the more interesting places might be off limits – building owners have a legitimate interest in protecting their property rights after all; the problem comes when somebody is trying to protect rights that are not legitimately theirs in the first place. In fact, smart building owners should generally encourage non-commerical photography – in a world that is now full of social-media savvy consumers, you’d be stupid not to do otherwise. I can’t see any downside in having hundreds of images – some of them probably quite good – of your property out there, especially if it’s a commercial building and high tenancy rates are one of your objectives.

This level of ignorance is a very sad thing for Malaysia, because it compounds the existing lack of appreciation for art the population at large already suffers from. People are very happy to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a stack of PowerPoint slides that contain absolute garbage and executionally impossible strategies, or for life insurance schemes with an EV far less than parity – yet something that actually requires skill such as the production of a photograph, or copywriting – goes completely unappreciated.

The underlying problem is twofold: firstly, education, and secondly, something a little more deep-seated that’s a cultural mentality which we shouldn’t be proud of – and certainly shouldn’t keep encouraging. The lack of education keeps the population as a whole focused on assigning value to tangible things only – ignorance keeps people from realizing the added value of service, design, packaging, visuals – in short, the whole customer experience. It seems that repeat customers are not really a high priority for most businesses here – they just want your money; whether you come back or not is not their problem. It certainly isn’t the problem of the minimum wage employees actually doing the work.

A viciously destructive cycle is born: you don’t get repeat customers because the service is crap, so you have to cut costs to maintain profitability, which means even worse service, and even fewer customers. Do something wrong, and everybody is reading about it on Facebook or Twitter in a matter of minutes. Make the wrong person angry, and that number can easily run into the tens of thousands. The inverse is also true, of course. (It’s just one of the many reasons why I try to reply to every single message I get.)

I can’t help but wonder if a lot of why we’re stopped from photographing things is because there may be some borderline illegal elements at play – foreign workers without permits or operation without permits or licenses are at the top of the list, and both are rampant in Malaysia. In cases like this, I can understand why proprietors get understandably nervous about any form of documentary, especially cameras. A government that seems to turn a blind eye to this kind of thing for the right amount of ‘convincing’ does not help things, either. Once again, it boils down to a lack of education – forget prioritizing a sustainable business over a profitable one – and the cultural obsession with making money any way possible. Again: if you’re running a legitimate operation, a smart person would want as much publicity as possible to create awareness. It would seem that there are not so many smart people here.

On the whole, I’m both saddened and frustrated. Malaysia remains one of the most rich countries for photographic opportunity because of both the pace of change, depth and variety of cultural traditions and large social contrasts. It’s a great place to practice social documentary and architectural photography – or it would be, if we could just photograph within our rights. Interestingly, I’ve almost never experienced this kind of restriction overseas – I don’t know if it’s because I fit the stereotypical Asian tourist profile, or because the general level of education is higher, but the difference can be felt. In fact, I think I only remember being stopped from photographing something once in London – and I was at fault because I was trying to be stealthy despite the liberally posted ‘No Photography’ signs inside a private museum.

There is one workaround, however. Despite proliferation of cameras and variety, the perception of ‘big black camera equals threatening’ remains; use a small, nondescript compact and you’re generally ignored. (In fact, I was most frequently stopped when shooting with the F2T; it probably doesn’t help that I’m very, very slow with this camera due to a lack of built in metering, manual focusing and general care with film.) Fortunately, compact camera technology has evolved enough that using one doesn’t entail as much of a compromise in image quality as it would have done a few years ago – even under low light conditions. Granted, I love the D700+85/1.8G’s ability to make beautifully cinematic stills at night, but I can still do exhibition-grade work with the RX100 and it’s 28/1.8 equivalent. What it does mean is that a change of style is in order; mainly because I no longer have the same freedom of choice in equipment if I want to shoot the same subjects – or, I simply have to shoot different subjects.

I suppose one really has to look at the bright side of things here – I could continue to bemoan the ignorance and diminiution of photographic freedom, or I could embrace the forced change as a challenge to push me out of my comfort zone which would in turn force my evolution as a photographer. I might not like it, or think the overall change in societal attitude is a good thing, but it’s not as though we have much of a choice is it? MT

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POTD: Electoral reforms

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Protest. Leica M9-P, 2.8/28 ASPH

I chose today’s image in light of what’s going on in Malaysia at the moment. If I was in KL, I’d most likely have been there shooting. This is history in the making, or what is probably the beginning stages of it. I have to say upfront that I hate politics, and try not to think about it – let alone pass opinion – because it just makes me angry. Hundreds of thousands of people joined the Bersih 3.0 rally yesterday demanding electoral reform, and got teargassed and fire hosed in return. There were a lot of families in the crowds, too. I’m sure there were the fair share of violent anarchists too, but surely not 10% of the population of greater Kuala Lumpur is trying to raise hell.

This is prime evidence that there’s an extremely strong discomfort amongst the masses with the current leadership.

Yet the rest of the world sees a) the responses epitomizing an oppressive government that’s trying to suppress/ repress the population and b) at some point in the not too distant future, all hell is going to break loose when the number of people completely overwhelms the police. And it’s going to be May 13, 1969 all over again – one of the most embarrassing and bloodiest days in Malaysian history.

I just hope whoever is really in charge wakes up soon enough to realize that continuing along this path – being driven by greed and power – is going to destroy the hand that feeds them first place. Leadership has never been about ruling and controlling people; a good leader always has their people fully supporting them because they feel like they are part of the process, and there is some element of fairness. It’s okay if you’re going to make money out of being a head of state – there is a lot at stake, and plenty of responsibility that lies on your shoulders – just don’t do it at the expense of the people who entrusted you with that responsibility in the first place. MT

POTD and Off Topic: Test drive notes of a different sort

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Eyes, part one. New F30 BMW 328i Sport. Nikon D800, 28-300VR.

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Eyes, part two. Outgoing E90 LCI BMW 320d M. Nikon D700, 28-300VR.

Perhaps I should have called this post ‘a parable in headlights’. I am a BMW fan, which isn’t to say I don’t like other makes; the lower vehicle is my daily car, and serves me well in a versatile manner for everything from grocery shopping to ferrying the wife around to the occasional spot of sideways driving along my favorite piece of road on Sunday morning. It also has a remarkable engine that puts out somewhere in the region of 210bhp and 450Nm after a little ECU tweaking – oh, whilst managing a consistent 35mpg in our abysmal traffic. (I’ve seen it go as high as 58mpg for long distance cruising, and it’ll do 0-62mph in about seven seconds). I’d say this is much like the car equivalent of the D700: you can do pretty much anything with it, and it does a very competent job and doesn’t get in your way. Even the standard non-M sport base 320i petrol version is a nice drive, and the only difference between the two is body roll, power and suspension stiffness. Otherwise, they handle much the same – think of one as moving along at five-tenths, and the other as eight-tenths.

The new model – codename F30 for BMW geeks – is a bit of a different beast. I test drove two versions – the normal, base, bog-standard 320d with no frills or options; and the ‘sport’ package 328i with (optional) adaptive suspension, active steering and BMW’s new masterpiece turbocharged 2-litre petrol that puts out about 250bhp and 350Nm. The 328i was one of the most nimble, responsive cars I’ve ever driven. It was just so easy to drive; I felt confident straight away and able to push the car to perhaps 90% of its limits (or at least the limits to which I feel comfortable driving on public roads). Even the new electric power steering system, whilst oddly and irregularly weighted at low speeds – the sensation of the rack ratio changing while maneuvering at 5mph feels like the front wheels are losing traction, but you’re most certainly not – becomes perfectly weighted and direct (if a little less communicative than I’m used to) at speed. The paddle shifters, combined with the new 8-speed ZF gearbox, make firing off a gear change fast and easy. And that engine…oh boy. It’s got power and torque everywhere in the rev range, and just feels more eager to rev than the 2 litre turbo diesel I’m driving now, even though the car I drove only had 40km on the odometer. The only thing I didn’t like about the car (apart from the increased price tag, nearly 10%!) was the odd-feeling steering at low speeds. Would I buy this? Hell yes, if I could find some spare organs I didn’t need, or perhaps a hidden hoard of diamonds under my floorboards.

The base 320d (F30) on the other hand, was utterly horrid. I hated it. I didn’t feel confident in the car at all; the suspension wallowed and rolled; the steering was equally odd at low speeds, but strangely disconnected and uncommunicative at high speeds; even the interior materials felt a step down from the other car – even though they were supposedly built at the same plant. Even though the engine was a supposedly updated version of the one in my car, it felt tight and underpowered, lacking the midrange punch between 1800 and 2800rpm that I’m used to. Would I buy this one? No.

I felt that this odd duality gave the new 3 series a similar personality to the D800: a specific tool, which if configured (optioned?) correctly, would do a peerless job; but was also capable of being entirely inappropriate in some situations compared to the old model.

Conclusion: newer isn’t always better, often the refinements mean that what you’re going to use it with (i.e. the engine and options, in this case) is almost equally as important as how you’re going to use it. As a consumer, don’t always get fooled into thinking that you need to change something. Just because a new model is out doesn’t in any way reduce the capability of the existing model you own: yes, it might be better for some things, but if those things aren’t important to you, then why spend more money? You’d be surprised at the number of emails I’ve been getting in the last few days asking ‘D800 or D700?’ when clearly the person using the camera has no need for large file sizes, but every need for speed or higher ISO. Know what you need your tools to do first before you buy them. MT

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