Saturday, November 05, 2011

Embracing Imperfections, Chasing Simplicity

One of the issues growing as a photographer is trying too hard to be perfect. I may not speak on behalf of professional photographers or "those-who-have-been-in-the-field-forever", but as a developing and learning photographer, I see myself falling into the traps of wanting to be perfect or doing too much to avoid mistakes. Then it comes to a stage where the process of shooting becomes too stressful, because the checklist of "to-do items" and worse, the superbly long list of "what not to do"have dictated the overall shooting experience. Keeping in mind at all times the rules and regulations of what is supposed to be a good photograph and acceptable practice in getting the right shot can be rather daunting and exhausting at the same time, and it slowly saps away the joy of shooting in the first place. Oh dear !!

The more you read, the more you explore the advanced techniques of photography, the more you know, the more confused you can be. Imagine, before clicking the shutter button, you are haunted by so many things happening in your head all simultaneously at once, how to compose the subject, which aperture to choose to achieve adequate field of view, the right ISO for the right lighting to minimize the digital noise, is the shutter speed fast enough to freeze motion, is the light coming from the right direction, how was the white balance compensated for the stray colour cast, am I standing too near, should I zoom in, should I use wide angle instead, how do I get my subject to look at me without giving me that awkward stare, what if I was standing at the side instead… goodness gracious the list of considerations go on and on and on can be rather scary when you really went through my train of thoughts. Then the traumatizing questions started to kick in, did I miss anything in the “must do” checklist? Back to square one, we are.

Trying too hard and too much at one time can be disastrous, and hey, where is the fun of shooting?

All images in this entry were shot with Olympus DSLR E-5, mostly with Zuiko Digital 50mm F2 macro lens , and a few with 25mm F2.8 pancake lens.

The sky was green. Cross Process Art Filter applied.


Lounging by the roadside.

My favourite photographs of the day.
Left: Breaking the language barrier.
Right: Vanity vs Generosity.

Morning conversations.

A beggar.

Earphones and the street.

Playing a flute and flaunting a nice bag.

That dude seems like he was in pain or something. Toothache maybe?

A friendly greeting.

Sometimes, I wonder what they think when they look at me pointing at them with my camera. Hmmm...


Then I pulled myself together, and took a deep pause, perhaps drew a few steps backwards, and looked at myself hard. I looked at where I was, and I realized, there were just too much happening, and I needed to slow down and really simplify things a little. Simplicity works best. And simplicity is anything that technical and artistic perfectionist is against. The thing is, we were not trying to please anyone to begin with. I shoot, because I enjoy my shutter therapy. I shoot, because I love shooting and making beautiful images happen. I shoot, because its my way of spending time and doing something that I can look back and smile, because I know I did something that matters, something that will grow over time and expand into something: what is that something I do not truly know or understand now, but my heart rarely betrays me, and I know by following my heart it will lead me somewhere, someday. Hence, with this little faith, I moved on, and I continued doing my shutter therapy. Perfection is something everyone strives for in everything, which is near impossible in reality anyway, but simplicity is not something that can be achieved easily.

I chose simplicity.

It is so different what we read and have in mind on what we want to accomplish, than practical photography, actual shooting on the field. Photography is all about being practical most of the time. Like engineering, practicality does not necessarily mean you get to do what you want all the time. I have learned that in order to truly be hands-on, you need to do it to truly experience it. It is like driving, you do not just read a book on "how to drive a car", and claim that you can drive and get your driving license approved. There is a lot of time involved to be on the actual road, actually learning how to drive an actual car, before you can tell others that yes, you can really drive. Similarly this applies to photography, what that professional photographer or the workshop-oriented website taught you how to shoot may seem plausible and beautiful, but when it comes to actual real-life shooting, you may not be able to make it happen. It takes a lot more than just raw knowledge and technical understanding to execute a successful photograph, it takes experience, patience, courage, photographer's-instinct and quick judgment to make final tuning to your camera settings and correspond to each unique shooting circumstance you are thrown into. Not everything can be taught by reading the book. Downloading the entire online photography guide into your brain wont make you a better photographer either. It will make you a smarter photographer who knows more, but it does not guarantee you making a better photograph.

Practical experience is crucial in everything (we engineers know best)

Seeing a photograph of a lavender, then reading the entire lengthy scientific explanation of the biological composition through journals and publications is not the same as seeing a living, healthy bush of lavender plant growing in the wild during spring. Being able to touch the plant, feel the texture and then plucking it off and smell it, will complete your encounter with the lavender.

Reading tonnes of technical explanations on macro photography does not mean you know more than a practicing macro photographer who has shot thousands and thousands of macro photographs, and just because you have seen some very beautiful macro photographs does not give you the right to judge another macro photographer and tell him that his macro photographs are not artistic. You have only read the descriptions on how the lavender smell like, and feel like when you put it in your hand, if you have not seen one and smelled one, how would you know how a lavender truly felt like and smell like? So your imagination and judgment can override real life experience? If you have not shot a single macro photograph before, in comparison to that macro photographer who has possibly shot hundreds of thousands of macro photographs, please don’t act like a god and condemn another photographer's macro photographs. As simple as that.

Same goes for all sorts of photography. You may think you know a lot, or you are good at something, but knowing a lot of techniques and tips do not put you above photographers who have shot years and years and spent a great deal of time developing their passion through their photography work. Just by shooting one or two wedding assignment does not make you an expert wedding photographer.

Me and Jason Lioh.

A man walking down interlocking pavement, and a burst of Indian Lady laughter.

Xavier in action with his Olympus PEN E-PL2 and the awesome M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 lens.

Kitchen helper. Cross Process Art Filter applied.

Shirtless and drying shirts.

Meow !! So I love cats. So what? They love me too.

Morning conversations 2.

Friendly kid with cool hair. Oh my, how I miss the bokeh on the 50mm F2 after using the pancake lens for a while.

Market list

Lady vs Vegetables.

Perfection is not achieved by reading and knowing alone. (Near) Perfection can only be attained through real life practice and countless experience. It is so easy to talk, and criticize the photos or others, spot other people’s mistakes and weaknesses, and speak as if it would have been easier to create a better photograph. Perfection through words and advise are empty and void, because those words may never truly be remembered or be of any use when all the shooting condition go against you in real life. One of the most common rule: To shoot a good portrait, avoid direct sunlight. But you were out in the afternoon, and you found this really great looking old man playing with his grand-daughter that laughs uncontrollably out in the open, the  explosive emotions, such strong facial expressions, but sadly both the old man and his grand-daughter were exposed to harsh sun. You cannot possibly direct them to move into the “shade” so that you can shoot a better portrait shots of them to reduce shadow and produce even skin tone. It just does not work that way !! You shoot what you get, and you shoot it as it is. You have to embrace the imperfection. You have to accept that shooting conditions are rarely ideal.

Yes, let me repeat, the shooting conditions are rarely ideal, and you have to accept it first, before you can deal with it. Achieving perfection should have been out of the window. Dealing with, and working around the imperfections can be done to a certain extent, but to say that taking complete control of the photography situation especially when you deal with practical shooting is just plain gibberish. You do not get studio lighting everywhere, and please do not tell me you get to carry your studio lights everywhere you go to, even just to shoot that one plate of beef noodles you eat in a dimly lit back lane of a city street. You deal with what you have to deal with, and you make do the best with whatever tools you have in hand. You have to accept certain limitations, and you execute what you think is best. At this point, all the checklist of what to do and what not to do may have 90% of the items being canceled off, and probably none of the to do list are applicable at all. A good photographer knows how to think and act quickly, adapt to the changing shooting situations, and come through at the end of the day. A good photographer does not carry with him a list of the things to do. A good photographer should be able to differentiate between a practical solution, and a fantasy created for the illusion of perfection. A good photographer does not chase perfection blindly. He knows when things are less than perfect, and he knows what best to do when it happens.

It is very important to prioritize practicality in photography. Know what works, and know what do not work. Know the right tool for the right job. Know when to respect others work when you do not have enough experience to comment constructively. Know when to keep quiet, even if you do not agree with the other photographer’s insight in certain photography genre, and accept the fact that there is no absolute right and wrong in everything, just personal preferences in terms of approach and execution.

It is selfishly annoying for you to tell others “I think when someone gives me the peace sign on the street, it is a bad pose I wont be interested in taking that photograph. Its unnatural, disgusting, and you should not do that”. You may have your own ideology and philosophy that you strictly adhere to, but it does not mean the whole world has to follow you and your way of life. You are not the traffic light. You do not tell people when to stop and go. You do not blink red or green.

Similarly, I particularly dislike people quoting some smart advise from possibly an older generation photographer and made it as if it is a must do rule. Seriously guys, wake up, who made rules? Just because Henri-Cartier-Bresson used Leica, it does not mean you must use one and only by doing so you can create good images. He lives In the pre-WW2 era and probably if he is alive and actively shooting in our time now,  what makes you think he will surely be still using his Leica?  He would probably  be marveling at what Olympus PEN and the 12mm and the 45mm can do. Posssibly he would have kept his Leica aside and shot with a Sony NEX or a Canon Full Frame. Who knows what the possibilities are? To ignorantly quote everything and diligently follow what the older photographers did in their time, can be rather misleading. We are not living in their era. We are in our own world now. We have no way to connect to their world. We have to define our photography, based on our own experience and time. We have to be practical. We have to embrace our time. We have to embrace what is practical for our time. I do not understand how people can revere those older photographers as gods, when 90% of their photography work can no longer be applied today. Don’t start when they do not even use Lightroom or a memory card !!!

Oh and don’t tell me you are going fully film and ditched showing photographs online and go fully prints only. Then we are swimming in entirely different circles. I shall flock together with my brothers of same feathers.

Man, Chow Kit market is such a nice place. First time visiting, I should do this more.

Xavier said: The market is so full of energy and life !!! I agree with him.

Morning market shopping.

Great lighting effect, creating depth and 3-D feel on the subjects.

Local food, front: Lekor and back: Pisang Goreng.

Salted peanuts. Why can't food be part of street photography? You do find food on the street too you know.

Luke's E-P3 (front) and Xavier's E-PL2, PEN cameras are dominating the street these days in KL.

After a long 2 hours street hunting, 2 glasses of cold iced herbal tea was... the closest thing to heaven.

Soong Kee beef noodles was lunch. Delicious !! Some claim this to be the best beef noodles in KL.



To me, I do my photography, my own way. You may lecture me of what our forefathers did with their film and all the wonders that they have done and how they did it the hard way. Yeah, whatever. I am not doing what they are doing. I am not doing it with their set of equipments, and certainly I do not plan to do so in anytime soon. I have my own set of photography goals, and I want to define my own path. I am not living in their shadows, and I do not want to be bounded by the restrictions and rules that they have set. I want to surpass them, I want to go further than where they have been. Seriously, none of them have been to Malaysia and see the beauty of Malaysian streets, and many of them have not seen the wonders of Malaysian flowers and insects. They probably have not tasted durians and rambutans (if you have not tried those, don't say anything or assume anything about Malaysians until you have).. I like my tropical fruits. I like to take photography with my own set of ideologies and identity. I am who I am. Why should I try to be like some old or dead photographer? Be yourself, be original, and most importantly, find your own way.

This morning’s shutter therapy session was joined by old time shooting kaki, Jason Lioh, and new friends, Luke and Xavier. In this shooting session which we attacked the streets of Chow Kit, my favourite hunting ground, I have only one thing in mind: simplicity. I embraced imperfections, and was fully aware of what I can and cannot do, and I avoided trying too hard. Above all, I had the best of times when I was doing my shutter therapy, and I am sure those who truly shoot for the joy and fun of photography can relate to what I am saying here. Leave the stress, leave the overzealous aim to accomplish perfection behind. Instead, embrace imperfections, acknowledge that life is not perfect, and no human is. It is ok to make mistakes, allow yourself to make mistakes, and learn from the mistakes. Then you will see that your photographs stand out, not because of the perfection that you try so hard to grasp, but it is the imperfections that define your individual personality and that is what makes you and your photography work unique. Be yourself, and stay true to yourself.

Instead of thinking too much and reading endlessly of what the lavender is made of, take a pause, and remember to smell it.

21 comments:

  1. Hi Robin, I love your pictures, I like the markets and people in the street naturally, you photograph so exceptional, the entire system lenses and Olympus are very good, particularly the 50 mm and 85 f2 macro mm new micro 4 / 3. I have a 5d mark II and not so good with these proprietary parts also makes me jealous and I want to be with you in one of these walks so interesting photo, so that always end with a good meal. jajajaja

    greetings from Spain

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  2. Hello calata,
    Thanks so much for your kind compliments !! When you do drop by Kuala Lumpur let me know, we can arrange something, would love to bring you around the streets and eat some good food too.
    Indeed I love Olympus system, but hey your 5D mk2 and canon lenses are awesome stuff too !!

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  3. Good photos of the market, people, and even cats. It's astonishing how well you can do these even when being in a group - for me, it's much easier to concentrate when walking alone.

    Oh, and durians and rambutans are great :-)

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  4. Hello Wolfgang !!
    Thanks for the compliments !! Yes, I agree with you, shooting alone actually brings out the best in the photographer.
    You love durians !! Thats great.

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  5. Robin, i couldnt have said it any better. Your words reflects exactly how i feel about Photography....simply said, its all in the " Shutter Therapy" so to say! Someday i hope to walk with you to enjoy that therapy

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  6. hello stanley,
    thanks dude. If you are in kl gimme a holla. We shall go shutter therapy together!!!

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  7. First time stumble upon your blog, Robin, but I am so glad I did. What a great post. I read something else recently, said something about 'when you copy & try to duplicate a photograph, you are just singing along to the radio' felt like that kinda tied into your thoughts on the blog. Will definitely be sharing. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

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  8. Thanks Chelsey,
    It was my pleasure to share my thoughts. I am glad you find them applicable and related to your own opinion as well.
    Thanks so much for the compliments !!

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  9. Great set of pictures as usual and some good practical advice. I am an engineer too and tend to spend far too much time reading and analysing instead of making pictures. That's changing now and I reckon an hour of shooting is worth more than 8 hours reading lol.

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  10. "lounging..." is the best photo in this series. Congratulations, Robin!

    Bartosz

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  11. Hello Jan Jurewicz,
    Thanks for the kind words, and agreeing. It is not a bad thing to read and understand more about photography, but we engineers know that hands on is also very important, and cannot be skipped. Shoot more !!!

    Hello Bartosz,
    Thanks mate !!I love that photo too.

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  12. beef noodles, best in kl? try shin kee along lebuh ampang, across the road from the more esteemed lai foong. dry style yellow mee with the best minced beef gravy i have ever had! the hakka lady also opens her stall at night behindthe hong leong bank in petsling st. check it out.

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  13. Hi Richard,
    I said "some" claimed it to be the best in KL.
    Thanks for the pointers. Will check it out if I have the chance.

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  14. Hi Robin

    Having read your post it brought a smile to my face, you are so on the money...I to struggle with the " you don't shoot with a leica " so you can't possibly produce anything of merit brigade.

    I have also viewed blogs espousing the same to be totally unmoved by what those with such kit produce and post highlighting the venerable red dot brigade.

    I also like you think if one of those icons of yesteryear where choosing now they would undoubtedly pick a pen and those primes to go with it. It is quiet, unobtrusive, beautifully crafted and produces with the lenses you have reviewed stunning imagery.

    It is also important not to lose sight of the fact that the camera is one part of the jig saw the eye of the photographer is the vital piece that sets the image with an ability to draw the viewer in and have a narrative that is there to read. I have often said you could give a high end canon / Nikon et al to, a complete novice and it would produce acceptable results, I believe this was borne out recently where the photographer whose name escapes me had a monkey get hold of his canon and it took a blinding self portrait !

    I have been an Olympus user for some while now and it was partly your review of the ep3, the 12mm and 45mm lens that persuaded me to buy them. Am I happy you betcha, it is all you said and more I absolutely love it.

    Just saying.

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  15. Hello Shooter,
    Thanks so much for identifying with me and sharing the same footing with some of my thoughts being put forth.
    About the earlier photographers, I have nothing against them really, I do find some of their work amazing and I draw a lot of inspiration from them. But to worship them and follow whatever rules they have set clearly is not a good way to approach photography in the modern world, especially so if whatever those rules actually do pose more restrictions and boundaries than encouraging exploration of more creative and newer ideas.
    Glad to find you picking up the Olympus PEN system. E-P3 is a gem by itself, it received very positive reviews not just from me but everyone who used it has said they have got to love it.

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  16. Great minds think alike. Here are my birds set up like music notes. Birds

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  17. Robin, yours is a great message. and your photo work is exceptionally sensitive and interesting. I have learned so much from what you have written in your posts on this blog. Thank you. Your commentay and your photos are truly exceptional. Frank, in Oregon USA.

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  18. Thank you so much Frank.
    It was my pleasure to share my insight with my readers !! Glad you like them and find them applicable. Thanks for your kind compliments on my photos too.

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