Robin’s less obvious street photography tips…

Despite the recent explosion of street photography related content and images, there are very few new and original ideas being explored. Phrases like “the decisive moment”, “if your photograph is not good enough, you are not close enough”, and “F8 and be there” have become clichés in articles on street photography tips and tricks. There is no dearth of self-proclaimed gurus or street photography masters, all offering wise advice, suggestions and must-do checklists to magically guarantee you an upgrade to the next level of artistic progression. I, on the other hand, take a more practical and no nonsense approach to street shooting. In this article, I share my thoughts on street photography – thoughts which may not be considered mainstream.

1. I am a human being first, photographer second. 
I came across this saying by a journalist who had witnessed the horrors of war and decided that there were times the camera should be put aside. Unfortunately I cannot recall the source, but I find it just as applicable today and in settings that aren’t scenes of war. I have witnessed too many guerrilla-style street photographers ambushing their victims with ultra wide angle lenses just inches away from their faces and blinding them with a direct burst of flash into their eyes. When these people, who no doubt feel violated and annoyed, confront the photographers, they are greeted with verbal assault and a stubborn insistence on photographer’s rights in public spaces. I always encourage anyone who follows me on my street shooting sessions to be respectful and polite. If a subject doesn’t want to be photographed, for whatever reason, just smile, apologize if necessary, and move on. There is no need to get aggressive over a street portrait. Would you be happy with a photograph of an unwilling subject? Is photography not a documentation of humanity in its different forms?

2. You win some, you lose some
The most popular mistake I have observed of many newcomers to street photography is their attempts to capture everything in a single session. They fret over different lens choices, different compositions and worry on missing out on the decisive moment. I think it is important to realize that you cannot, and should not shoot everything. You will miss some critical shots, and that’s fine. Instead of shooting as many images as possible, try to have more specific goals for each session? Having more selective subjects to work on can help focus your energy on generating consistent results and improving your hit rate. Give yourself a theme to play with – like shadows, hands, motion or focusing on specific geometric shapes on the street. Work with one lens if possible and minimize your shooting variables. Again, even if you do not come home with a lot of keepers, don’t beat yourself up. Street photography is partly a game of chance and you aren’t lucky all the time.

3. Know your location
I’m frequently asked why I keep returning to the same shooting spot over and over again? I have done Chow Kit, Pudu and Petaling Street so many times that people start to think that I’ve lost my marbles. But knowing your location is important in street photography. I need to know the layout of the streets like it was the back of my hand and I need to know exactly how the light and shadows fall at each street and turn. This knowledge gives me the power and control I need over composition and spotting the right moment. I can only achieve this by constantly visiting the same spot again and again. If you are passionate about shooting flowers and you want to shoot the best flower photographs in the world you may have to shoot the same flower ten thousand times before you achieve your goal. A lot of street photographers are focusing energy on their shooting technique and choice of gear but almost completely neglect knowledge of their shooting location.

4. What you shoot matters
People often ask me about the EXIF data or the lens that I used for certain shots. The truth is, this information does not matter as much as people think and do not make or break shots. Instead of focusing on what the best lens or techniques and settings are, first ask yourself “what to shoot?”. A good street photograph has a strong subject. It can be something as simple as visually interesting patterns on a building, or a shadow of a human crossing a road. Either the subject tells a compelling story or the content itself is dramatic enough in nature to create energy for the shot. You can start by shooting the things that attracted your attention in the first place. Shoot what moves you. Then you will begin to identify what you like to work with on the street and will start developing your own style of shooting. It does not matter how many megapixels you have, how sharp your image is or how clean your high ISO files are, if you have a weak subject, it is still a bad photograph.

5. The most important thing to remember – enjoy what you do
I have seen too many street photographers obsessing on what their peers will think of their shots, or doing all they can to improve themselves to gain acknowledgement. While a desire to take your game to the next level is good, you should not forget to have fun too. I do street photography because I love it – simple as that. I love being out there and interacting with people. I enjoy the peaceful long walks in the morning before it gets too hot in this tropical Malaysian weather. I like the feeling of astonishment and wonder when I come across a rare photography opportunity, and the feeling of accomplishment from nailing an image is priceless. There is no point worrying about what others think of your shots and letting that ruin your session. Do what you want to do and most importantly, do it for yourself. Be true to yourself, and others may see your unique identity in your photography work.

I was not joking when I said shoot what you love. I love cats. I take every single opportunity I can to shoot and sometimes play with the street cats I encounter. Yes I know cat images are frowned upon in the street photography community, but who cares?

I hope you have found some of these tips helpful. They are not the typical “how to conform to certain street photography rules and standards” or “how to become a carbon copy of that idol street photographer of your choice”. I am a practical photographer and I choose simplicity. If you have an unorthodox tip or trick to share, please do contribute with a comment!

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2018 onwards. All rights reserved

Photographing mixed martial arts

I had the opportunity to shoot the One Championship, an international mixed martial arts (MMA) event in Kuala Lumpur recently, thanks to a special invitation by Van. In order to push myself and grow – photographically – I need to go out of my comfort zone and shoot something new. While I am quite experienced in shooting concerts and live music performances, indoor sports is an entirely different matter. It was also an opportunity to do another stress test on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, and see how it handles a poorly lit, fast paced action environment.

Shooting MMA fights proved to be a huge challenge for me. I am not a sports shooter, and I have only basic knowledge about mixed martial arts fights. It is crucial to know the game well in order to be able to predict crucial moments and better prepare for the shot. I was shooting from a spectator’s perspective, from a fixed seat about 20 meters from the cage. Without the freedom to move around, my choice of composition was severely restricted. Also, I was not close enough to the cage to use shallow depth of field to blur out the metal mesh of the cage. The lighting on the fighters was harsh and uneven, and so dim that I needed to use ISO3200 or higher when shooting at F2.8. Despite the challenges, I did what I can and tried my best to get some keepers from the evening.

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Photographing Pulau Ketam on two wheels

I had a quick photowalk at Pulau Ketam recently, an idyllic fishing village island near Port Klang. Since the entire village is built on floating platforms with narrow walkways, the only way to get about is bicycles or electric bikes. I found it interesting to observe everyone going about their daily routine and chores on two wheels. Therefore – I narrowed down my choice of subject to just people on their bikes. It was a huge challenge to shoot when scenes may appear repetitive – due to similar backgrounds and subjects on similar looking rides.

In order to achieve an adequate variety of shots to form a cohesive series, I played with slow shutter speeds to induce motion blur, panning shots as well as portraits of the locals still on their bike while running errands. I only used the M.Zuiko 17mm F1.8 on my Olympus PEN E-P5 for these shots. This is part of an on-going exercise to improve my use of 35mm (equivalent) focal length.

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Postcards: My quiet hometown, Kuching

I was born and raised in Kuching, the City of Cats situated in Borneo. Kuching is a small city and drastically different from Kuala Lumpur – where I am based currently. There are no extensive highways, skyscrapers or excessive concrete structures. The air is cleaner, the sky is always blue and people there are generally friendlier as well. Many photographer friends are willing to pay good money to travel far to see and shoot different places and cultures. While I always encourage them to travel, I also remind them to slow down and look at what they have around them. I love my hometown, I grew up there and I know it well. Knowing your subject is critical in improving your photography. What place would you know better than your own roots?

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Second take – the Sigma 16mm f1.4 in the field

As mentioned in my initial review of the Sigma 16mm F1.4 DC DN Contemporary lens, I had the lens for a few more days – enough for a quick round of weekend shutter therapy. Considering I shot mostly at night/low-light for the review, I took this opportunity to test the lens under more favorable light conditions. I also shot images with human subjects as I normally do for my street shooting.

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Review: the Sigma 16mm f1.4 DC DN C

After my review of the Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO, a few people suggested a lower priced yet seemingly competent alternative – the Sigma 16mm F1.4 DC DN Contemporary lens. A dear friend, Amir, who recently obtained a Sigma 16mm was kind enough to loan it to me for review purposes. So is this really a budget-friendly option to the 17mm F1.2 PRO from Olympus, and does the Sigma lens perform well enough under the standard Robin Wong lens torture tests?

Some quick disclaimers; neither Ming Thein nor I are associated with Sigma Malaysia. This is an independent review and my approach is always based on user experience and may be subjective. The Sigma 16mm F1.4 was used on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II for all the sample images shown in this article. All images were shot in RAW and post-processed using Capture One Pro, with minor adjustments. You may view the images from this article in higher resolution on an online Google Photo album here.

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Experiments with ring lights and insects

I am currently experimenting with an alternative lighting solution for my insect macro work – LED ring lights. My usual insect macro technique of using wireless off-camera flash (as seen in this article) may be effective in shooting bugs hiding in difficult to reach places, but it is also physically challenging to execute. Holding the camera and macro lens steady with just one hand with the flash on the other can be tiring for hikes in the forest hills – where these insects are usually found. The LED ring light, in theory, should be much easier to use. Let’s see if my hypothesis was correct.

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Tips from street photography workshops

One of the more rewarding experiences as a photographer is the opportunity to conduct photography workshops. I have been conducting workshops for Olympus Malaysia, and recently Panasonic Malaysia, that focus primarily on an introduction to photography – conducted in the form of a photowalk. Workshop participants are usually new-comers to photography and are looking to learn how to use their newly purchased cameras. Not only do I have to share photography tips and tricks, but I also have to be able to walk the talk and demonstrate, on the spot, how certain shots are executed. It is easy to talk, but shooting and showing instantaneous results is the challenging part. I’ve compiled a series of photographs below that were shot over the course of a few workshops, and used to demonstrate certain techniques live.

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Concert photography: Robin’s view

Just as I was returning from my short holiday to Phnom Penh, I was invited to shoot the dress rehearsal of an unusual rock concert, Let’s Rock, at KLPAC (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre). The concert featured lead vocal performances from three prominent local singer-songwriters, Nick Davis, Bihzhu and Fuad (from Kyoto Protocol) and was backed by the KLPAC Symphonic Band orchestra, a 20 member strong choir group from the Young Choral Academy and a 4-piece band. They covered iconic rock songs from the 50s all the way to the present day hits: such as Elvis Presley, Beatles, Queens, Guns and Roses, U2, Coldplay and many more legendary rock artists! I was privileged to be there at the dress rehearsal and was blown away by the concert. The photographs have been unexpectedly well received and are circulating around. In this article, I wanted to share some crucial tips on managing a challenging live stage shoot.

Note: MT previously wrote about concert photography here.

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A blast from the past II: revisiting the Olympus OM-D E-M5

Of all the cameras that I’ve reviewed in the past, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 will always have a special place in my heart. It seems appropriate to follow the previous revisitation of the very first E-1 by revisiting the E-M5. The E-M5 was a game-changer for the mirrorless interchangeable camera world, pushing the boundaries for capabilities and setting high standards for other mirrorless manufacturers to follow. It’s been 6 years since the release of the E-M5 and I want to explore the significance of the E-M5’s role in changing the perception towards mirrorless cameras as a serious tool. I spent a day with the E-M5 for my shutter therapy and all the images shown are fresh out of the trusty, old E-M5.

MT also reviewed the original E-M5 some time back, here, and wrote about how it was a game changer for him professionally at the time, here.

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