Stepping back for context: wider street portraits

My photography buddies often ask me if I get tired of shooting the same streets in Kuala Lumpur, and my answer has always been the same: no, because I do things differently each time. While the background and setting remain the same, we can choose to vary our choice of subjects and the way we approach them. I have been shooting portraits of strangers for a while now, and I see my style changing progressively. Some of the changes are subconscious as you cannot do the same thing all the time and expect different results.

For a while now, my most used lens on the street was the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 lens as it gave me medium telephoto coverage, a tight perspective for close up headshots and provided sufficient control over depth of field. It was a huge challenge to approach strangers and get so close for my shots, and I was happy that I pushed through this process and overcame self-doubt when talking to strangers on the street.

In contrast to that, I have been moving myself further away from the usual head and shoulder shots and decided to pursue a wider environmental style of portrait. Instead of 45mm F1.8, my most used lens now is the 25mm F1.8 on the streets.

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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.

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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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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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