Workshop report: 30 Sep Finding Light in Kuala Lumpur

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Group portrait with chiaroscuro. Sony RX100

Two days after the Making Light Workshop, three of the original (masochistic?) participants joined three more new ones for a part two: Finding Light. I originally decided to run these as a pair to collaborate with photographer Kristian Dowling, who was unfortunately not able to make either one of the workshops in the end. No biggie.

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Quartered. Sony RX100

The underlying point behind the pair of workshop sessions was that street and studio are far more related than you might think: how are you going to create stunning light and compositions if you don’t know what it looks like? Similarly, how is one going to recognize it if you don’t know what is possible when all of the elements of the photograph are within the control of the photographer?

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Why would this not be street photography? Olympus OM-D, ZD60/2.8

We started off with the obligatory coffee, a discussion on what street photography is and isn’t, and some thoughts on etiquette, before finishing with a quick critique of participant images. Street photography, to me, is something that is a very ill-defined genre (and to be the subject of another article, I think) – let’s just say for now that anything you see when walking is fair game – people, street scenes, abstracts, architecture. I generally approach it from a reportage perspective. On the subject of etiquette, I think it’s simple: don’t do anything you wouldn’t want done to you. This includes unflattering images and invasion of personal space.

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Untitled. Sony RX100

For the first hour or so, we just walked – no cameras were allowed. This was to encourage participants to start seeing and looking for frames; I would stop and point out interesting things, compositions, geometries and other potential shots, to the point that before we reached the first staging point, there were several cameras out…

Exercise one covered seeing in place: conveniently, the place I selected for lunch was deliberately done so because of both the quality of its beef noodles, as well more importantly, the fact that it was an extremely rich photographic hunting ground. Once duly refueled, the participants were required to stay in their seats, and shoot from that position. Lens changes were allowed. This forced them to think carefully about perspectives, foregrounds, potentially intrusive elements, as well as of course composition and light.

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Shooting in place. It forces you to find compositions in a scene; those little documentary moments.

For the second exercise we did something I like to call ‘stages’. The stage, in street photography, is a background or backdrop with a interesting texture or light; it’s a good way of teaching anticipation and timing because the composition is predetermined, and the photographer just waits for subject to walk through the right portion of the stage before pressing the shutter button.

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A staged example. Sony RX100

Next came timing and anticipation – I like to use point and shoots to teach this because they have just about the right amount of shutter lag to represent your reaction time when shooting with a responsive camera; however for this exercise we substituted with a 2-second self timer.

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Practicing timing with the help of a handy wall, and lots of pedestrians. The objective was to trap the pedestrian at the very edge of the wall – but while the 2-second self timer was running. Olympus OM-D, ZD60/2.8

Another tool I like to use is layering; this can be achieved by means of reflections, stacked foregrounds and backgrounds, or longer perspectives – or perhaps a combination of all three. This technique works quite well when there’s a lot of glass around, but becomes more challenging when you are in a ‘dirty’ environment and nothing is clean or reflective.

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Bus reflections. Olympus OM-D, ZD60/2.8

The final, and most difficult exercise of the day was to learn to hold your ground and shoot through people – this lets you get very, very close indeed, to the point of having headshots with a 50mm. It requires some courage to position yourself in the middle of a stream of pedestrians, but once the participants built up their confidence, it became easy – just look like you belong.

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Shoot through exercise. Sony RX100

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And a result of this technique. Olympus OM-D, ZD60/2.8

Putting everything together wrapped up the day – an opportunity for the participants to figure out which of the techniques best suited their style by just shooting anything and everything – and I’m pleased to report a huge improvement in composition and angle from the images I saw at the first briefing. I think what was most telling is that none of them really had the same style – it was a consistent mix of the various techniques taught, and with different subjects. Well done!

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Divided reality – my personal shot of the day. Note leading lines, quadrants, context, perspective use, human elements…Sony RX100

Based on the success and feedback of this session, I’ll probably be doing another introduction to street photography workshop in Kuala Lumpur at some point, as well as a standalone introduction to Photoshop day – both will be for a very limited number of participants – I like to keep things small because it allows me to give each person more attention – please visit again regularly for updates. MT

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A visual metaphor for our banking system. Sony RX100


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  1. Andrew Yaw says:

    It was an awesome day out. Second round of beating from the master after the ‘Making light workshop’ :). This workshop changed my perspectives on street photography. Looking at not only the life around you but also the architecture, reflections, natural frames and much more. I have never walked around KL that much before. I plan to do it again alone this weekend. Who says you need to travel far to take pictures? The challenges were all interesting and some tough to train us into seeing things in ways never before. It really sort of reminded me of the “Wax on, Wax off” training technique in ‘Karate kid’. Lol. Really, for me it was. Especially the part where we had to shoot with our 2 second timer on and stage the subjects on a particular part of the frame. Epic fail at 1st. After a while though you slowly learn how to anticipate the subject’s movement and then.. ‘click’. Success! and then again and again. It was a full on day with tons of learning and perceiving. Ended the day at 8 PM after a slight debriefing and chattering in a cafe. Thanks Ming for a great day out. Can’t wait for the next one. Have a great time in Japan.


    • Thanks Andrew! I’ll organize something once I get back from Tokyo – I’m running my students through an even more intensive three-day wringer now 🙂

  2. Ming,
    Are you planning a workshop in the USA or Canada? I would love to attend, but Malaysia is a tad too far 🙂


  3. Excellent article Ming! I really get a lot out of this type. When are you coming to SF Bay area?

    • Thanks Bob – it’s in the plan, I’m looking at April next year, but nothing’s firm. Pending final details on schedule for a video I’m directing. Don’t worry, there’ll be a series of announcements on the blog 🙂

  4. Interesting read. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Umberto morandi says:

    Why none of the participants uses a lens hood?

    • Perhaps you should ask them? I only use one for impact protection. My lenses either are chosen for flare resistance, or flare creation – sometimes it can be rather atmospheric and add to the pictorial value of the image.

      • Great observation, Umberto. I can’t speak for others but the reason I didn’t use a lens hood was because I had just purchased the Olympus 75mm a day before the workshop from Ming’s special dealer. Refusing to support Olympus’ decision to sell their lens hoods as “optional”, I decided to order a knock off version from eBay instead. But AFAIK, no lens hood was forced to be removed by Ming during the workshop 🙂

  6. Sounds very nice! It’s sad Finland is so long away from Kuala Lumpur ;).

  7. I like your, “For the first hour or so, we just walked – no cameras were allowed. This was to encourage participants to start seeing and looking…” idea. At art college in the early ’60s I remember walking the city streets with my tutor Adrian Henri – the Liverpool Beat poet and Pop artist – and he remarked many times that everyone else was just staring straight ahead zombie-like; no-one was tilting their heads to look above their eye-line at the rich details, shapes and textures of the architectural heritage of Victorian Manchester, or even sideways to feast their eyes on the expanding panorama across the street. We photographers (and artists) are lucky in that we explore so much more of the route visually, even when simply going from A to B physically.

    • Absolutely. And once your eyes are truly open…it’s difficult to remove the camera from your face. The hard part comes in deciding what makes the cut – and how to keep raising that bar.


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