Heresy and sacrilege: MT and SOOC experiments

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Due to an idle browser, more idle hands and pre-Raya* specials, the un-camera is no more. I traded in the GX85 for an Olympus PEN-F (previously reviewed here), available now at just half of its original launch price (at least in Malaysia) and with bonus goodies of grip with built in Arca rail and extra battery. For a modest supplement, it seemed like a good deal. I’m getting a bit ahead of myself: firstly, why? Well, a couple of things: if I’m going to shoot something serious, then I’ll break out one of the ‘Blads. If I’m not, then managing a three year old and the associated peripherals means that you don’t really have a lot of payload left over for hardware, let alone time to use it. But there are still opportunities to be had, and often single interesting grabs that require something quick**. On top of that, I admit the un-camera had a couple of serious deficiencies: firstly, the body was plastic and felt like it – grip it with moderate force and you’d be rewarded with a squeak or three. The back control dial was a bit recessed to access easily, and turned stiffly. Default color needed serious help (more on this later) – and lastly, I just didn’t like the fact that despite having a very comprehensive feature set (4K, dual IS etc) it felt like an appliance and had nigh on zero emotional value to shoot.

*end of Ramadan
**I’ll be the first to admit this does not describe the current generation of Hasselblads; but we
are working on it.

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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

Repost: Avoidable photographic errors

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Rule number one: there are no rules. A ‘mistake’ may not necessarily be a mistake if it helps convey the message or story or feeling intended by the photographer. I can easily think of multiple examples that go against every scenario described below. That said, for the most part, I’ve found these ‘mistakes’ to hold true. And if you want to achieve something very specific, then you either won’t be reading this article in the first place, or you’ll know when to bend the rules. The general viewing public probably has some preformed opinions of what is right/good, but these are born out of as much ignorance as conditioning by companies trying to sell more software or lenses or something else. There are rational reasons why these opinions may not necessarily be right in the context of fulfilling creative intention.

The previous article covered the differences between eye and camera, and what this means in practical photographic implementation.

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Repost: Practical differences between cameras and human vision

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Synthetic moon rising. Why is it so difficult to get sunsets to appear ‘right’? Read on for the answer.

Many photographs do not work as we intended. Subsequently, we find out they do not work because there is a difference between what you saw and what your audience sees in the image. Sometimes this comes down to lack of skill in translating an idea, but often it’s more subtle than that: the camera doesn’t see what we see, and we need to be both highly aware of that and how to compensate for it. For instance: it’s no big deal to make a monochrome image, but our eyes only perceive a lack of color under very exceptional circumstances. Yet it’s these differences that make some images stand out as being exceptional, and others not really ‘work’.

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Format equivalence, engineering and practical envelope

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So which one has the biggest practical shooting envelope? They’re all the same; read on to find out why***.

Much has been written about depth of field, angle of view etc. equivalency for the various common sizes – I won’t repeat that. What I’m more interested is what consequences it has in practical terms on shooting envelope limitations, and how the apparent multitude of choices aren’t really choices at all – with a very few exceptions. To complicate things further, just because something can be done from an engineering standpoint doesn’t mean that it’s desirable from a marketing standpoint, and that’s before we even attempt to factor in how other things like haptics, controls, build quality etc. affect the overall shooting experience. Two examples: a consumer APS-C-sized camera with weather sealing and no feature or control compromises (think D5600 or 200D size); or a 1″ camera with really top class interchangeable optics (well, Nikon tried, but the market didn’t accept it). Or a rugged ‘professional’ compact, sensor size irrelevant. See what I mean?

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Experiments with stereoscopic photography

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What’s old is new again, history goes in cycles etc. – is all true. One of the earliest widespread experiments in photography – dating to the mid 1800s or earlier – was that of stereoscopy: the making of a three-dimensional image from two normal flat images but shot from a relatively offset position. Though there are many methods of varying complexity that can be used to create the illusion of three dimensions, they all fall back to the same fundamental theory: we humans physiologically have stereoscopic vision because we perceive an object from two slightly different positions; our brains interpret both the difference in images and probably also the physical position of eyeball, focus muscles, iris etc. to gauge relative spatial position and absolute distance. Without this – two dimensional images are reliant on cues such as overlap, shadows, fade/haze etc. to create suggestions of distance and position. Photography itself is the projection of a three dimensional world onto a two dimensional recording medium: this brings about significant limitations in reproduction and fidelity, but at the same time opens up great possibilities for artistic interpretation that a person with normal vision simply cannot see with their naked eyes. In essence, we are forcing both eyes to see the same image at the same time.

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Working with difficult subjects

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Negative space in pastel

…Or, “how to shoot without inspiration”.

Pessimistic? Depressing? I’d see it as the opposite: this line of thinking wouldn’t even exist if that was the case. We’d have packed up the camera and gone home otherwise. But sometimes: we’re either masochistic, or working pros*, and we want/need/must make an image. Example: you’ve finally manage to scrape together the leave and spousal permission for a photography trip…and it rains all week, or worse, it’s overcast and rain is threatened but not implicit. It’s Alanis Morissette’s updated Ironic. Or you sign up for a job that turns out to have quite different subjects in reality to what the client claims; or the model arrives and let’s say heavy photoshop is probably insufficient and one should consider illustration. Consider today’s post not quite a tale of woe, not quite an instruction manual, not quite a catalog of humour, but perhaps a little of all three. What all situations have in common though is that some (well, quite a lot) of creativity managed to squeeze out images the client and photographer were happy with, but at the time – all early in my career – they were the cause of a lot of stress…

*Arguably, the former group also includes the latter.

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The best value in photography today?

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Fighting words. When your three year old decides she wants to be like daddy and bugs you pretty much every day for a couple of months for a ‘real camera, not a toy one’ – what do you do? It seems a little painful to sacrifice a new camera to what will almost certainly be death by something that makes perfect sense only in the mind of a toddler, but at the same time I’d really rather she not start helping herself to the Hasselblads. Cue every photographer’s favourite activity: gear shopping*. Initially, I considered something shockproof, waterproof and submersible; but the good ones weren’t cheap, the cheap ones were really quite painful to use, and the controls were oddly not very small-finger friendly – requiring a lot of force to press and cryptic icons to decipher. She recognises ‘on’ and ‘play’ icons thanks to iPads and youtube, and that’s about it. Perhaps the big silver button too, since that makes a noise to take a picture. By now you’ve probably seen the header image and figured out my solution…

*To be read with extra sarcasm.

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Creativity by the yard

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The split

I’ve heard it said more than once that the world is divided into three kinds of people: those who create, those who support, and those who criticise. The former see the world differently and as a result land up being mostly societal misfits; at least until you become successful (which is nearly never, since the deck is stacked against you for reasons I will explain later). The corporate world wants to have the output and the commercial results, but is unprepared to support the infrastructure and requirements. The second group forms the majority of the population: ‘support’ can mean anything from consumption and patronage to supplier of key enablers such a services, environment or tools. And the latter – some serve as useful moderating reality checks and balances, but most just become bitter and jealous internet trolls. Today’s post is several things: an exploration of these roles, a series of suggestions from the point of view of a creative, and perhaps an apology (excuse?) for my wandering attention.

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The habits of successful photographers, part II

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There are very few behind the scenes photos of me working – you’ll find out why below.

Continued from Part one. Today’s post concludes with an examination of the commercial part: whilst there is a good portion that’s simple common business sense (or not common, judging from the overall failure rate of small businesses) – there are elements and applications that are specific to photographers only, which I’ve tried to distil here.

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