Stream of consciousness

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Thoughts, truths and insights from the years presented in no particular order…

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Thoughts on the Photokina 2014 announcements

Every two years, photographers and gear heads alike gather eagerly to see what we should spend our money on next: it’s the circus of Photokina. Today’s post is a collection of thoughts on the more notable new announcements.

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Quick thoughts on the Sony A7 and A7R

Image from B&H.

The internet is going to be full of anticipation, excitement, speculation and various forms of virtual hand-wringing over Sony’s latest announcement: full frame mirrorless. I’m sure some bloggers have already had a chance to use one, but given the local market entity’s attitude, don’t expect to see a review from me anytime soon (if at all). As interesting as it is, I simply won’t be able to get a camera. What I can do is put together a few initial thoughts. I don’t normally join the equipment frenzy, but I think this is significant enough that it warrants some serious consideration.

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Sony and Olympus: what does it mean?

Following the accounting scandal that saw former CEO Michael Woodford ousted, Olympus’ coffers were looking decidedly empty; at that point, many potential suitors were rumoured. It turned out that Sony was the one whose offer was accepted. In a share transfer and cash deal – completed about a month ago – Sony pumped US$645 million into the company, to hold a total of 11.5%. What’s more interesting is that on most of the major business sites, this wasn’t reported as a transaction to invest in the cameramaker; rather, Olympus was frequently referred to as a ‘world leader in medical imaging’.

Although photographers know and love Olympus as the manufacturer of various quirky cameras and small systems, the truth is that margins in the medical industry – anything with ‘surgical’ or ‘medical’ in its name means an extra couple of zeroes on the end of the price tag – are much, much higher than the camera business. Like Nikon, it’s been making a good chunk of its income from something other than cameras for a long time. (I don’t know how much it makes from dictaphones these days, though.)

I’m going to take off my photographer hat now and wear my analyst/ M&A/ consultant one, for a bit of change of pace. Let’s put the pieces together.

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Judging the 2012 Maybank Photo Awards

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This article was originally published in The Malaysian Reserve on 7 December 2012. Reproduced with permission

For the whole 14th of November, a number of people sealed themselves into a room at Menara Maybank to pick five winners from a thousand shortlisted candidates. We looked for four things: light, subject, composition, and the idea; the ability to look into the image and at the scene through the eyes of the photographer.

Judging photo competitions is not as easy as you might think: firstly, photography is art, and art is subjective. What might count as a winner for adjudicator might not necessarily be so for another; I found myself both mediating disputes and causing them.

This is perhaps a good barometer for the contest itself: out of over 19,000 entries – larger than the 2012 National Geographic and DPReview photography competitions combined – there were enough that passed initial scrutiny to make life very difficult for us. We had clear winners in some categories but insufficient runner-ups; or a very close fight for first, or even no outstanding winner at all, with every candidate lacking something. More encouragingly though, several talented photographers entered and stood out in more than one category – our Photographer of the Year, Muhamad Saleh bin Dollah; Street Photography winner, Chau Sau Khiang and Studio winner, Hairul Azizi bin Harun in particular; and yes, we judged blind without knowing the identiy of the photographer.

These photographers showed strong images across disciplines, yet managed to maintain a consistent style, standard of technical execution and compositional balance. Contrary to popular belief, specialization is not always a good thing when it comes to the arts: the experience gained from being a multidisciplinary photographer helps you to apply different techniques across various subjects to achieve a unique look to one’s images.

Our Photographer of the Year had one quality that none of the others demonstrated: the ability to consistently edit and self-critique one’s own work. Whilst we saw a lot of technically and compositionally strong portfolios, the flow of the images submitted let them down; either there would be one black sheep image that stood out uncomfortably from the rest, or the images would be too similar and show a very breadth of skill. As a photographer, one important thing to remember is that you’re judged on the images people see, not the ones they don’t – conscious exclusion is therefore critical.

The results were both encouraging, and in a way, disappointing. Whilst it’s clear that there’s some real talent in this country and the level of enthusiasm was a very pleasant surprise, the average standard of some of the ‘professional’ entries was considerably below that of the amateurs. There is clearly better work out there in the media – I’m just surprised we didn’t see any of it entered. Professionalism means consistency and quality of delivery, not merely turning up to push a button. Many people would go to great lengths for the opportunity to make photography into a career – please don’t waste that; make the most of your opportunity and have some pride in your work. Any other way, and you risk damaging not only your own reputation but also that of the entire industry.

There was actually one entry that stood out to all of the judges: Kumaraguru Krishnan’s Photographer of The Year portfolio. It’s a series of out of focus images, with some vaguely people-shaped forms. Collectively, we believe that it was the only entry that really challenged creative boundaries and whose photographer actually stopped to question the rules. Even though the images may appear to be a series of mistakes, the consistency of theme, style, color – even the amount of defocus – indicate otherwise. The set was reasonably well edited – perhaps two of the images were too similar – but otherwise, it left a positive impression on us.

To all the photographers and entrants, thank you. For next year – assuming I’m still judging – what we’d like to see is a bit more creativity. The awards are a fantastic and very visible platform to get your work seen, and who knows, perhaps launch a photographic career. Don’t assume that rules must be followed (we had a landscape where all elements were precisely placed at the rule of thirds, but completely disregarded the natural flow of the scene and thus resulted in a boring, imbalanced image) – they’re merely there as a starting point to prompt you to think and challenge your eyes.

Don’t be afraid to submit something and not win – that’s an overly kiasu mentality. Instead, challenge yourself, and focus on showing us the way you see the world. At the end of the day, it’s that continuous need for challenge and self-improvement that differentiates humans from animals and the great from the mediocre. Remember, photography is subjective: a stronger photograph makes a stronger argument, and we can all gain something from a different point of view. MT


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Street photography in context: diversion, documentary or nuisance?

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The Police are everywhere. Prague. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

After spending some time thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that street photography – I prefer to think of it as ‘reporting on life – is an increasingly popular genre of photography for several reasons:

1. It’s easy to do, and accessible to all – the barriers to entry are low. Wildlife or say automotive photography, for instance, is not. There isn’t any setup involved beyond remembering to take your camera with you when you leave the house, no matter where you live.
2. The definition of the genre is extremely broad; to the point that you could probably almost say there was no definition at all. This means it’s both open to much creative interpretation, and also an excuse for anybody whose generic images have no specific idea or subject in mind.
3. As humans, we are psychologically drawn to other people: no man is an island. Street photography lets us get our fill of humans without having the tread the social minefield of heaven forbid, actually having to interact with them. (It’s a bit like the internet in this regard.)
4. Everybody likes to play documentary photojournalist once in a while.
5. Building on from #4, some photographers have a burning need to record everything and everybody around them – I’m one of these people – and sometimes we just shoot out of compulsion, because our compositional minds just simply do not turn off. Having trained yourself to see workable frames in the most unlikely of places, it’s difficult to un-learn this skill (or curse, depending on whether you’re the photographer or the one waiting for the photographer to hurry up).

I believe the sum of these things is that street photography falls into one of three categories for the vast majority of photographers and audiences – diversion, documentary, or nuisance.

For the unafflicted photographer, it can be a nice genre to experiment with when you have the desire to shoot something, but you have no clear subject in mind. Taking a walk with a camera allows you to go in with a blank but receptive mind, and just wait for an endless parade of subjects to pass you by. They’re all time-sensitive, however; if you don’t react fast enough, they’re gone. This doesn’t matter, however, because there are always more subjects where they came from, and you weren’t going out shooting with something specific in mind anyway. Serendipity is probably the best way to sum up your overall attitude towards it.

Similarly, for casual viewers, street photography can provide an interesting window into the lives of others; an unusual or otherwise missed moment preserved for posterity. You see it, appreciate it for a little longer than the actual fleeting instance of the moment, and move on. It doesn’t really stick in your mind.

Of course, this all depends on the strength of one’s compositions; of chief importance for all images, street or otherwise, is having a prominent subject and a clear idea of what the image is supposed to achieve or say. Purely aesthetic images are fine, too; but the execution must obviously support the idea.

Those who take street photography a bit more seriously start to tip over into the documentary category – they view the images they capture as preserving a slice of life, or singling out an interesting instant from the constant flow of life around them. This is of course a continuum; you can be looking for just that little bit more over your normal street photographer, or you could be very, very serious about the decisive moment like HC-B. These photographers don’t always have a clear idea of what they want in an image, but they recognize an interesting scene when it happens and are ready to respond and capture the shot.

I think I fall into this category. Whilst I still make some images that I consider to be aesthetically pleasing rather than saying anything strong or documenting a particular moment of life, I do look for something out of the ordinary in my images; I think it’s probably the natural progression for all street photographers as they eventually land up with far too many ordinary looking images. This leads to seeking the common theme that separates out the strong images from the weak ones – and it always comes back to idea, subject, and execution (which covers framing, light, processing etc.)

To some extent, as a competent photographer, I feel that we have a moral duty to record life for posterity – especially so in fast-changing environments such as developing countries. I’ve lived in the same neighbourhood of downtown Kuala Lumpur for the last seven years; in that time the landscape and flow of people has changed so much that there are things I don’t even remember seeing, much less capturing, in my old images from just a few years ago. If we, the first hand observers, don’t even remember – how are any future generations going to manage? I’ve shown images to fellow residents, and will inevitably be told at least once or twice something along the lines of ‘I’ve never seen that before’, or ‘Where’s this? So nearby, really?’.

The observer must therefore be an impartial one, with an abstract but fixed idea of what is ‘ordinary’ in their minds. This is something that gets harder and harder the longer you live in a place, or the more familiar you get with it; the foreign soon becomes the commonplace and soon you won’t notice anything at all. Observation and recognition of differences is an innate human skill; but continuous observation and attentiveness is very much a trained one.

The nuisance
In trying to be both observers and recorders, we must endeavour not to become public nuisances. In a previous article, I talked about the ethics of street photography and the importance of maintaining basic human standards of politeness and courtesy; something that many modern photographers choose to ignore behind the pretence of anonymity, or simply choose to ignore. It’s true that we feel less inhibited as photographers when we are not in our own comfort zones or cities of residence; at the same time, this is when we are also at our most observant and probably least culturally sensitive state. It’s worth remembering that what we might not find culturally offensive at home could well be the opposite overseas.

Often, the most interesting things happen well within the boundaries of polite personal space; intruding that makes me (personally) feel uncomfortable; it’s important to remember that we as photographers have both our personal and group reputations to maintain – it certainly won’t help anybody if street photographers are eventually perceived as being at the same level as paparazzi.

So where does this all leave us?

My personal opinion – and I stress this is highly subjective – is that those of us who have the ability and inclination, should go beyond the realm of causal snapping and treat street photography as social documentary/ reportage; try to say something with every shot, but at the same time, do this in an ethical way that doesn’t intrude on the privacy, rights or personal space of the subject(s). The overarching goal should be to preserve these little vignettes on present-day life for posterity; this also means making the work accessible and viewable to as great an audience as possible, which is one of the reasons why I use flickr.

I’ve noticed that my personal street photography style has evolved over the years from – get a worthwhile composition, to get people in frame, to get as close as possible, to cinematic style with plenty of OOF areas, to get close but retain context. It seems that today I’m working towards a style that documents man in the context of his environment, natural or built; I don’t specify a man and his individual, personal characteristics as much as use that figure as an abstract for the idea of humans in a particular situation. Where you choose to take it (and if you even bother with street photography or reporting on life) is very much a function of personal style – something you will have to discover and define for yourself, if you haven’t already done so. I just thought it might be interesting to throw another perspective out there. MT


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved