About the ‘Robin Wong’ look…

I find it humorous how people can look at a photograph and say that is has the “Robin Wong” look. Truth be told, I haven’t successfully developed a distinctive photography style yet (unlike others like say, our host, Salgado, McCurry, Leibowitz etc). I am still in the process of experimenting, trying out different techniques and shooting methods,  and deciding what works and what doesn’t. I believe photography is a dynamic process that requires us to go beyond our comfort zone and try new and different approaches. Growth in photography takes time, and I, like everyone else am still learning.

I have received several comments here, as well as emails and posts on my Facebook Page asking me if there are “magic settings” or post-processing tricks to produce the images I share. In summary, I think Thom Hogan had it right when he said, “There is no such thing as Magic Settings”. I agree with Thom: every scene has different photographic requirements, and no matter how we optimize the camera there can never be a one size fits all solution – even for ourselves, let alone different photographers who obviously have different preferences. I think it is important to acknowledge that what works for me, may not necessarily be the most suitable choice for you, or any one else. There is no absolute right or wrong.

However, since I’ve been asked many times, I will share what I can in this post about my process. No, this isn’t a “cheat sheet” – there isn’t one, remember. I will share my thoughts and experience and talk about why I did certain things in a situation, and the logic behind my choice of general camera settings.

1. Your camera does not know what you want. You have to tell it what you want. One of the most common traps in photography is the expectation from the photographer that the camera knows what is on their mind and can automatically set itself up accordingly. No matter how sophisticated and intelligent the camera is, it is after all, a mere tool, with no heart, no emotion and no thought. Sure, for most cases, the average calculated value given by the camera (for parameters like metering, AF, etc) is good enough, and will almost get you 99% of the way there, but there are also times when the average values deviate from what you want to accomplish (like intentional over or under exposure for example) and the output won’t be what you wanted. The camera cannot decide whether you want to freeze the motion of a running kid, or slow it down just enough to give you some dramatic blur. The shutter speed it picks is simply an average it expects to be right. The camera does not know when you’re willing to sacrifice ISO in exchange for shutter speed. You have to tell the camera what you want by controlling the input. 2. What your camera sees is not what you see. You should see through the camera’s eyes, not your own. This problem is inherited from the traditional optical viewfinder, which is becoming increasingly redundant in my opinion. What you see through the optical viewfinder is not what the camera will output. While the optical viewfinder is great for framing and composing based on the lens’ coverage, what the camera processes and ultimately spits out for you is dependent on your exposure settings. Modern mirrorless cameras get around this with electronic viewfinders and live view: which offer a processed view from the image sensor itself and matches what the camera sees. You can judge exposure, white balance, and focus accuracy through the electronic viewfinder, and have live feedback as you change settings. The instant results even before hitting the shutter button means less error and a higher chance of nailing your shots.

3.  Set exposure as accurately as possible. If your images are constantly underexposed or overexposed, you will lose image quality as you correct them in post-processing. It is worth reconsidering your shooting techniques, and ask yourself why your images are always under- or overexposed. It doesn’t matter if you shoot on manual, aperture priority or shutter priority, as there are ways and tools (like exposure compensation) that let you control exposure and get what you want. It’s important to understand how these settings work and what your needs are. I personally shoot with aperture priority, and resort to shutter priority only when capturing motion (both fast and slow). I rarely shoot manual, unless an external flash is involved or I’m shooting macro. When shooting Aperture, Shutter Priority and Programme, the “exposure compensation” is your best friend. Some may argue using different metering options will give you better results, but I find exposure compensation to be more effective. Don’t be afraid of extreme adjustments in exposure compensation – I have compensated by up to +2 EV, in a backlit situation, to get what I want.

4) Focus, focus, focus. Near misses can ruin an image by shifting attention away from where you want it. One popular focusing technique is having the focusing point set to the center of the screen, then lock focus (by half-pressing the shutter button) and the recompose the image before fully pressing the shutter button. This technique works best, with longer focal lengths as field curvature is not an issue, or if you’re using a wide lens, it works when your subjects are not too near to you. But if your subject is close (say 1-2 meters away) and you are using a large aperture lens, focus and recompose will give you inaccurate focus due to parallax. The only solution is either to move the focusing point or rely on tracking (most cameras) or compensation systems (Hasselblad). Sometimes, focus misses are inevitable regardless of technique, I certainly don’t have a 100% hit rate. Curation is your best friend here, I only keep and show images that are in focus.

5. Get rid of unintentional camera shake. Always watch your minimum shutter speed – I apply 1/focal length rule of thumb for minimum shutter speed, but this depends on your camera, resolution and stabilisation (if any). If I intend to push the shutter speed lower, I will always be careful; Image Stabilization is helpful but not magic. For critical shots, I will make sure I shoot at a comfortable minimum shutter speed. Hand-holding technique is also important but for ultimate stability, get a tripod.

6. Shoot RAW. Use Olympus Viewer 3 if possible. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to shoot RAW, because RAW will store ALL the information available. While this isn’t the popular choice, I find Olympus Viewer 3 to be the best software for optimizing the Olympus RAW file output – in terms of fine detail reproduction, color balance as well as high ISO noise reduction. Unfortunately, it’s also slow, laggy, buggy and probably has two dozen other issues that make it a bit of a pain to integrate into your photographic workflow. But I can’t deny that I seriously love the overall rendition, though.

7. The “Robin Wong” look is a myth. I do not have any secrets. I do not hide anything or hold anything back. Those who’ve shot next to me and seen the my camera screen understand that the “Robin Wong” look is a myth, and I am glad to debunk it here.

8.  Have fun while shooting. Enjoy your SHUTTER THERAPY. If you’re not having fun, all the technical bits don’t really matter.

There are so many considerations to making a good photograph, and it’s not logical to make a complete list of items to check while shooting. In the end, practice makes perfect. In general and especially since going commercial full time, I believe that I shoot a lot MORE than most. That, more than anything, accounts for the consistency and quality of my images.

__________________

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2017 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. i can spot a robin Wong photo… even with one of my eyes closed… even after drinking 3 bottles of red hose…
    i would describe it as
    Magical
    Happy
    Warm
    Genuine
    Clean
    Detailed
    Defined
    Strong
    Simple
    Pleasant
    Likeable

    Something that comes out of years of experience in the streets…
    Something like a super power..:)

  2. Hi Robin,
    I think I never commented but follow your blog and now Mings site since a while. I would entirely disagree your statement that you didn’t develop a “look”, I think there is a lot of people beside me out there who could quickly identify one of your pictures…
    When looking at your pictures of people I’m always quite impressed how much trust they put in you, I travel a lot to Malaysia and other countries butI’m never brave enough to ask anybody to take a picture. So, in brief, it was another good read and great pictures to look at. Please continue that path ..
    Greets, Stefan

    • John Brady says:

      Hi Robin, I think your look derives from your personality. You clearly have a great way of putting people at ease, and this results in lots of portraits which also look very candid and unposed. I’d venture that your look doesn’t come so much from your technical photographic skills (good as they are) but from the personality you help your subjects to share.

      • Robin Wong says:

        HI Stefan, thanks for the kind words, and you are being too kind. Glad to know that my photographs are recognizable and there is a distinctive look to them.

      • Robin Wong says:

        Hey John,
        I believe in shooting while my subjects are feeling at ease and comfortable with my lens pointing at them. I guess that is just the least I could do in showing respect to the people that I shoot.

  3. Hallo, Robin,
    what makes your pictures special for me is the intense look of your portraits. Especially the eyes of the people attract my attention. And the calm and friendly expression of their faces make me look at you pictures with the Wong-style.
    Maybe part of your secret ist the way you deal with your subjects. You seem to make them feel comfortable and relaxed so that reflexes in their expression, i think.
    It´s your experience that makes you care for your models rather than looking at the shooting technics what could rather irritate your subjects and disrupt the mood you archive in your pictures.
    But despite of that i have one question. You give the advice to expose as accurate as possible. Is that necessary for m4/3?
    In my experience, when shooting Fuji correct exposure sometimes result in blown-out backgrounds and undersaturated Skies. And what is more (with Fuji) you sometimes get blochy faces with little texture in them, especially, when the sun is bright. But underexposing up do 1 1/3 Step and sometimes even more helps the pictures a lot, particularly when it comes to portraits and landscapes.
    So maybe it depends on the system you work with?

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks for the kind words!
      Always, always ensure your exposure is as accurate as possible when shooting with any Micro Four Thirds camera. Too much under or over exposure will have undesirable consequences in the images.
      The blotchy skin is not a problem with Olympus at all.

  4. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    You’re on the nail, saying the camera can’t do it all for us, Robin. I wonder how many photographers rely on auto this and auto that? Ultimately, they tend to be readings from some kind of average – whether it’s focus or exposure. To really capture the shot, it’s better to go manual settings, if this is a viable proposition – so that you CAN nail focus and exposure. And once that’s right, post processing is vastly simpler.

    • Yeap, what we see and what the camera sees are different things, and definitely the camera can’t read our minds yet!

  5. I agree on you not having secrets about your photography, but there is definitely the “Robin Wong look” . . .

  6. David Griffen says:

    Thank you for this post Robin. Your posts are always very helpful. Your pictures are the main reason I have an Olympus em5 mark II and lenses. Your use of Olympus viewer 3 made me search and find one of your old posts on your processing: https://robinwong.blogspot.com/2014/01/my-post-processing-for-blogging-purposes.html. Have you made any changes to your work flow? Thank you and keep posting!

    • I am currently using Capture One Pro to post process my Olympus images. I am still experimenting and figuring out this software. Nonetheless the essential steps remain the same.

  7. Funny how I was reading this post on mingthein.com and as I scrolled down thought that all the photos looked like taken by Robin Wong. Not Ming Thein. It was only at the very end I realized it was not Ming Thein, but Robin Wong writing.

    So, it may not be the processing, but you certainly have your own look in your photos!

  8. Great post, Robin, it’s always a great idea to go through this mental checklist you describe here. Thanks for sharing! Marcus

  9. Like David, I also think you have a style, following your own blog since a few years as well. And your description is well thought-out, and I bet it’s useful to many. What I would add personally is that for me center-weighted metering is crucial, because I care for my subject, and not so much for the background. Of course this is old school thinking; I’m an old guy. I’d also like to add that it’s important to not always use your lenses fully open, especially when you’re close to your subject already – Ming as a watch photographer will probably nod on this. Even with µ43rds, depth of field can get very shallow, and for product shots like Ming does them, tilt-shift lenses would be very nice to have (even better than focus stacking, but that’s for another article). For this one, let me say that I still like that Robin Wong look.
    Cheers,
    Wolfgang

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks for staying with me all this time, Wolfgang! Appreciate the visits and comments, as always. Of course there is no absolute one set of settings for any situation, do what is best for you. There are more than one way to get the shot and you choose the one that works for you the best.

  10. gnarlydognews says:

    surely there is the RobinWong app for iPhones… isn’t it? just point at any scene and the A.I. will get you the perfect look
    /s

    • Robin Wong says:

      A.I. is the thing for the future of technology, and I think that will happen sooner than what we all expect. If that is possible, surely a Robin Wong App is not too far a stretch!

  11. David Bullman says:

    Hi Robin, I do agree with some of what you have said, but would argue that its maybe the Robin Wong style than the look.Having stumbled across your blog a few years ago i have enjoyed your pictures and blogs since then, and quite often look at a photo that is posted on myFacebook page and can tell instantly its one of yours.It is the way you shoot, what the subject is,the people,the colours, etc.
    I think everyone has their own unique style.You clearly have a lot of passion for photography and what you shoot and it comes through in your pictures, in away that nobody else could do.They would shoot the same scene, but it would be different.
    I have noticed recently you’ve stopped putting up settings on your pictures, which is a shame as i a complete amateur found them very helpful and have helped me improve my shoots. Another great blog Robin..

    • Robin Wong says:

      Hey David,

      You are being too kind! I do not necessarily think I have a very unique style yet, but I do believe it is developing into something. Not sure what it will mutate into, but the key is keep learning and growing. I am shooting more and more and experimenting on new techniques. Exciting times ahead!

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