Photoessay: Indirectly Mondrian

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Today’s set is a curation of images accumulated over the last couple of years – somewhere in my subconscious, I think there must be a cubist/surrealist influence that probably has something of the Mondrian about it. Every so often, there’s a rectangular compositional arrangement that makes itself known, compels me to photograph it, and then file it away – almost always the composition will pop up as a visual non-sequitur when I’m busy shooting something else. It isn’t always colourful, rectangular, drippy and delineated – but there’s usually at least two of these properties that show. Visual work may be derivative, but it doesn’t have to be outright duplicative; there also seems to be quite a lot of recursion and crossover with other obsessions of mine – mostly wimmelbild. Perhaps it’s a merging of an underlying desire to seek visual structure, but preserve an underlying intricacy and detail that holds your attention as you try to figure out exactly what you’re looking at In any case – I’ve processed these, filed them away for later and whilst clearing my archive – here they are. Perhaps it’ll be worth revisiting in another year or two as a long term project – sometimes these underlying themes only emerge with time and some degree of detachment at the actual time of execution… MT

Shot with a variety of cameras over the last few years, and post processed with Photoshop Workflow III.

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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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Photoessay: Life in Osaka

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Today’s images are a stream-of-consciousness style set of observations of life in Osaka. I wanted to see if there were any perceptible differences from the audience side given these were not shot in my usual way, but rather a series of quick grabs whilst I was there for reasons other than photography, and with photography not as my primary objective. The usual (heavy) curation took place after the fact, which may perhaps dull the value of the exercise as the same biases are therefore applied to both more deliberate and these opportunistic sets. Is the way we see so immutably hard coded by force of habit and practice, that even when we are not trying, the result is indistinguishable? I leave you to let me know. MT

This series was shot with a Canon G1X Mark III and Nikon D850/24-120VR, and postprocessed with the Monochrome Masterclass workflow.

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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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Photoessay: Workaday life

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Alternate title: another day, another dollar. As otherworldly as some bits of Tokyo might be to the casual visitor, like every city – there are more than the fair army of salarymen keeping everything running below the surface. The job is thankless, uncelebrated, mostly unnoticed, but necessary to keep the big wheel turning. We do it because we have to, and in doing so, a sort of Stockholm syndrome emerges: not exactly love or affection, but we still take pride in our work. Are they happy? Sad? Indifferent? Perhaps the sort of bittersweet melancholy that comes from celebrating small triumphs and mourning little losses. Individually our problems are our own; collectively, they’re the mood of a society. Every time I visit Tokyo, the word that sticks in my head is ‘stoicism’ – even if there are little escapes here and there. MT

This series was shot with a Canon 100D, 24STM and 55-250STM lenses, an X1D-50c and 90mm, and a H6D-100c and 100mm. Post processing was completed using the techniques in the weekly workflow and PS Workflow III. Travel vicariously and make the most of your trip with How To See Ep.2: Tokyo, or T1: Travel Photography.

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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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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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