Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Shooting on the Street and Being Myself

Most people who shoot on the street do so for certain reasons, and we will somehow discover that the motivations and reasons to shoot are very different from one person to another. Similarly, when the photographers attack the street subjects, the way they approach the subjects, choose and how they work with the given photography opportunity would vary. I am very sure many would have this in mind when they saw something they wanted to shoot: "How would HCB approach this subject? What can I do to make this shot look something close to a good street photograph?" Thank goodness that did not really happen to me because I was never a fan of HCB. Nothing against him, I recognize his great talent and accomplishments as an artist, but his photographs just never spoke to me. 

Now this is where I believe I am different from many street photographers. I am not even sure if I should call myself a street photographer, but whenever I am on the street looking for subjects, I just looked for subjects that speak directly to me. I don't have pre-planning or that template of what street photographs should look like in my mind when I am out there doing what I do. As I take my slow walk on whatever streets of choice in Kuala Lumpur, I just let myself open to any opportunities, as long as the subject attracted my attention, that subject is worth my effort and time working my camera with. I do not have specific theme or "projects" planned out beforehand, or have anything particular I wanted to achieve. I call my street hunting sessions "shutter therapy", which means, the main purpose of me being out there shooting was purely a form of entertainment for myself, a way to enjoy myself, and have fun while doing photography. Hence, anything goes, really, and who freaking cares if anything I photograph would not qualify as street photographs anyway?

All images in this entry were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko Digital 50mm F2 macro lens. Location of shoot: Chow Kit 

Toys in Hands



Something Missing

Covered

Duality

At the corner

Boy with Flower

Facing the road

Open

Being busy

Not enough hands

Shave

Head Rest

Smile


The problem with the newcomers to photography these days is the "copying" culture. You buy that local photography magazine, and there is this amazing photograph shown in glorious two page spread, and then the next page there was a long description on how to achieve that shot, with details down to using what lens and camera, what settings employed and with bonus extra, finishing off with the Photoshop tricks and tutorials on the final touch. It was as if a good photograph can be mass-produced, manufactured and delivered to every single tom, dick and harry as long as you can read and follow instructions of easy steps 1,2,3. Everyone is made to believe that photography is easily copied and everyone can do the exact same thing. Now if that particular photograph has been done a thousand times by everyone else, what is the fun of contributing to a multiple clone production? It takes a lot of effort and time to understand what works and what does not, there never is any shortcut or 1,2,3 step by step instructions. You have to get your hands dirty and you have to do the hard work, again and again, going through the process repetitively until you break through and found your answer. Sometimes it takes a few attempts to get it right, sometimes it takes a thousand trials before you finally grasp the whole concept. There is no easy way out. 

Another issue I find with many new-photographers, especially those who involve themselves in street photography generally, is being buried too deep into their philosophical world, surrounded by books written by prominent and established street photographers. Then they would go on and rave about certain "style" and "techniques" which made the photographs work wonders, much like what they have learned from the books. Even if those techniques and styles can be rather extreme and go against the norm of photography, it does not matter, because breaking the rules is the next big thing in photography. It gets worse and worse, accepting poor standards of photographs, such as "blur is ok, because blur can be artistic", or "why must photographs be in focus, out of focus can be interesting" or "don't look at your photographs for one year and you will start to think differently". As much as these extreme rules can improve your photography growth, being obsessed with them, not knowing to apply which ones that work and separate the ones that wont suit your own individual style, becareful, they could work AGAINST your photography. Not everything you read on books are necessarily practical or relevant to yourself. You have to do your own experimentation to find out what works. Reading and knowing (you think you know) are not enough. Photography is not about concepts or arguing about the definitions that define good photography. To me, photography is about shooting and producing good images. It takes time to mature, and grow. You will grow, when you spend more time shooting. 

One last issue I would like to discuss is how many new-comers to photography are dying in seeking approval from their peers. Art, after all is a communicative medium that demands an audience, even if it is a small one. Being an interactive medium, photography will be viewed and discussed by the said audience. Therefore, this can be a dangerous thing. Some photographers have become obsessed with collecting "likes" and "praise-worthy" comments, when they post their photographs on all sorts of online platform (well it is a digital world now) such as Flickr, 500px and even Facebook. If their photographs received overwhelmingly positive response it would make their day, otherwise, depression and misery would follow if no one cared, or even a single negative criticism was received to slam the photograph shown. I am not too sure if this desease is a new thing in the digital photography world where social media and  Internet have become the center of attention of everything, but surely, shooting to please others won't get you that much further. I do not have a Flickr, I had a 500px account which I am no longer active in (after I figured that social networking is the main thing, not photography) and I only share photographs of delicious lunch that I eat on Facebook. The only place I show my photographs freely is this blog, and this blog has become sort of a visual diary for myself, documenting my life and important events that happened around me. In this blog, you cannot click "like". In this blog, you cannot comment individually on the photographs. This was the perfect place for me, because my readers do not have to say anything if they don't want to, yet at the same time, I know, there are people reading and viewing my photographs (thus fulfilling the need for an audience in photography). And if someone decided to give criticism and comment, they usually have something important to say, most of the time it is something very useful, sometimes things that I never realized or saw in the first place. 

I think it is very important to be yourself when you shoot. Show yourself through your photographs. It does not matter if the photographs you took does not resemble anything else out there or look like whatever they are supposed to look like. Being yourself means putting a part of you into your photograph, and that shows your identity as a human being, something that people will be able to recognize you as they look at yourself through the photography work that you show them. 

28 comments:

  1. You make some interesting observations, in my opinion. People these days seem desperate to put things, experiences, people, activities, whatever in neat little boxes. You do quite a lot of street photography, hence you "must" be a street photographer. I, myself, use a lot of Nikon equipment - I, therefore, must be a Nikon fanboy.

    And on and on. I don't see you as a street photographer. You do all kinds of photography, and you have a keen eye for situations, color, composition and timing. In my book, that makes you a (great) photographer, period. Full stop. Who cares what others think or feel the need to categorize you based on camera choice, subject choice, and so forth.

    I think the term "shutter therapy" is extremely apt. After all it IS a form of therapy - doing what you love, and are obviously good at, using equipment you love. Food for the soul and it shows. The little comments you place under the shots you made are expressive, to the point, relevant and funny. It makes one appreciate what you thought and felt when you made the capture.

    You are graciously and generously sharing your work and vision on the world with people around the world. Free, without holding back and honest - just as you see it and feel it.

    If people don't like it, the heck with them, they can go elsewhere. But I for one love it and so do countless more. Your work is great because it's honest, it's technically excellent and you have "the eye" for composition, color and timing.

    Just like HCB. Does that make you a reincarnation of HCB? Of course not. He did things his way, and you do it your way. Who cares? This whole copy mentality is baloney, if one would ask me.

    Just keep doing what you love, Robin! It really shows. And, IMHO, that's the key to really great photography.

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    1. Thanks Andre for such kind words, you were being too kind !!
      I was just ranting about some issues that I have observed, and how I wish I can tell them not to worry too much or think too much, but to simply enjoy photography. Honesty, as you have pointed out is something very important, it shows if you are trying too hard to be someone or something that you are not.
      Shutter therapy is fun !! Everyone should do it.

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  3. You hit it right on the nail (you too Andre). I see a lot of people recently that just like to complain about everything too. If people tlak about gear (we use the tools after all) they complain because we talk about it and not the actual pictures...but if we talk about pictures they complain because they dont like it or dont like the camera used to take the picture. I guess that people forget how t be polite and not comment at all if they dont have any constructive way of saying things and help others "improve".

    I have a Flickr account too, but I mainly use it to blog directly from it (at www.rafavarium.com for those interested). I dont get many views, but I mainly do it because I love to write stuff, lol.

    Keep doing what you do! I enjoy it, and since I decided to use the m43 system, your site has helped me make very important decisions that I have not regretted!

    Best!

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    1. Hello Rafael,
      Thanks for the kind remarks. I too, use Picasa just to host my images which I use on this blog, but I set those images on my Picasa album private.
      Glad to see that you enjoy using the micro 4/3 system, it is such a joy to use !

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  4. simply love the caption that you have for your shots

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    1. Hey Eric,
      Thanks, and I thought those captions were rather straight to the point.

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  5. Robin, you have it right. Keep on doing what you enjoy doing. You will never regret it. Really.

    I truely enjoy looking at your photography, and I am still surprised that you are not a professional photographer. Maybe when you decide to retire from your well paying engineering career you might choose to earn a few coins with your photography talent. On the other hand, you may also find that photography isn't as much fun when you depend on it for an income... But, hey, you should not have any problem selling some of your work to occassionally buy and new camera, lens, computer, or software by having your passionate hobby pay for itself!

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    1. Hey Gregg,
      Thanks for the kind words.
      Well, to be frank engineering in Malaysia pays peanuts, but I guess it is sufficient for me to survive thus far. Yes, I do take in paid assignment from time to time to have that extra income, funding gear upgrades or replacements, as well as to have a few expensive meals along the way.

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  6. A single picture really has a thousand of words to say. It captures the beauty of life that can be treasured for the rest of time. Nice captures by the way.

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    1. Thanks. That is the purpose of photography, to capture and share the beauty of life.

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  7. Robin ..... love those 2 shots of urs 1) Not enough hands and 2) Smile. Those are the exact shots that I would go for. Great article as usual and it has gone to my file library.

    What sort of filter do u use for ur lens? Still learning for B&W photos.

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    1. Thanks Daniel.
      I use cheap hoya filters, but when I do really care about sharpness (shooting macro) sometimes I take the filter off. The filter is only there for protection so I do not pay much attention to it.

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  8. Robin: Great shots, as always, and a lot food for thought. Regarding your last point - seeking approval of our peers - I'm still wrestling with that myself. I post very little to flickr, mostly cuz not interested in most comments that I get on photos (too superficial). I'm mostly interested in making photos that please ME, and then my second audience is my wife (she's a tough critic!). Of course, that brings up the point of why am I doing it (photographing) at all?

    A small story to illustrate - recently I was at a real "landmark" lighthouse in the Northeast US (Pemaquid lighthouse in Maine). It was near sunset, there were folks with cameras (some very amazing and expensive rigs!) all over the rocks at the foot of the lighthouse, taking the same shot that you can see in all the calendars, etc of Maine. I went and took the same angle, but since I didn't bring a tripod (wouldn't fit in my airplane luggage), I just lay on the ground and steadied my camera on the rocks, why not? Then I started shooting the rocks themselves and got lost in the interaction of sea and rocks, was having fun. I saw some unique angles to shoot the lighthouse from and tried a few ideas out. Then I saw an older man with a linear tracking timelapse slider which he was pointing towards the waves and had an Iphone mounted on it! I asked him (politely) - What the H*LL are you doing??! And he said experimenting... we got to talking and I asked him the same question - why? He told me that he makes images because he enjoys the process of doing it. He very proudly showed me the movie of the waves that he had made with his Iphone (he is a professional videographer). It was "just waves", but he had found for himself a new way of looking at them. And why not, in the end it's all about seeing our world - and hopefully sharing that vision.

    Tom

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    1. thanks Tom for sharing such an insightful story. Sometimes we are all being carried away by trying to capture that "award-winning" shot, trying too hard and at the end of the day we often come home with nothing more than ordinary images, possible images that have been shot a million times by others before.
      And your encounter with the iphone shooter that was attracted solely to the waves and capturing its motion, I can tell you I can relate to him !! When I was studying in Australia (where I stay back then was only 30 minutes bus ride away from the nearest beach) I visited the beach often. While I was there I would just sit by the rock over-looking the sunset and get lost looking at the waves crashing on the rocks !! I am not sure how to explain but the patterns and splashes were very mesmerizing and hypnotic at the same time. I just never did think of shooting the waves, and surely that man you met did !! Seeing the beauty, recording and sharing it, thats photography for sure.

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  9. BTW, this is "The Shot" which everyone takes at this landmark:

    http://www.westford.com/fingerhut/Lighthouses/Pemaquid-Lighthouse.jpg

    I've never seen a line of photographers jostling for position with their tripods before, I guess that I don't get out enough! Some really nice (and expensive) Gitzo and Really Right Stuff tripods holding monstrous heavy Cannons and L-class lenses. Glad they are having fun, but not my way of doing things at all...

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    1. That is a wonderful landscape scene, no wonder so many people flooded the place !!

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  10. I so look forward to your writing and photographs each evening just before I go to sleep, it's the best read of my day. The thoughts and remarks left by your readers are insightful and entertaining as well. Your an inspiration Robin Wong, I'm grateful to have come across your blog.
    Tom Collins

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    1. Thanks for the kind words Tom !! I was just sharing my photos and usually some thoughts that went along with them. Glad to be able to connect to my beautiful readers.

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  11. Hi Robin,thanks for the photos and the musings.I still haven't done much street shooting yet as I feel very selfconscious taing photos of strangers.Also my wife says I shouldn't take photos of children as here in Tasmania it is considered rude(and maybe creepy?)I know I wouldn't like a stranger taking photos of my children when they were younger.so how do you get around this problem?I know you said you get the person to acknowledge you,but it's not the same with kids.Maybe if I looked more profesional!!!!I probably just need to be more confident...Thanks, Tony

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  12. hey Tony,
    Thanks for the kind compliments.
    Kids almost never protested to have their photos taken, and usually they are accompanied by parents. I think the people here are more open minded to have their kids photographed, but bear in mind that the kids here that I snapped were mostly out in the open (open street), not in a shop or inside a cafe, but literally on the street.

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  13. Hi Robin,
    Wonderful photots. Wonderful writing... nothing more to say. I love it. Well, you've inspired me to try street photography. I think this 'shutter theraphy' as you call it truly reveals one's heart, soul and sincerity through photography. Shooting to express your emotion and your own content... nothing more, nothing less.
    After, having tried several style of photography...e.g landscape, birds etc.. I can really tell that street photography is something intense and emotional that every photographer should try.

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  14. I think with digital photography all you need is technical competence. Shoot a few hundred shots and you are bound to get a couple ok looking photos. Once in a while you see photographs with soul that invokes certain emotions. I guess that would separate photographers who approach it as art and people who just take photos.

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    1. Hello Alexander,
      I think technical competence is more needed for film photography, no? At least in digital photography most things are automated and calculated by the camera, with very little chance of error (unless you really do not know what you are doing). Since the technical difficulties have been taken out of the equation (well, lets say, its minimimzed), more attention can be paid to the craft, and focusing on artistic vision.
      Well, the argument can go on forever, but it is important to be yourself when you shoot.

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  15. Well, in that case all you need to have is a competent camera and lots of gigabytes.

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  16. Your points are valid, sir. One more thing that I could add is to limit the amount of photos you post. That seems to be a problem with many photographers in this digital age.

    I have not really developed a style. I go where my heart takes me. One day I'm only interested in brightly coloured landscapes and then next day I've got black and white people photos in mind. I think this lack of direction does hurt my chances of developing a truly impressive body of work. Of course, I'm not working to become a professional, so really I only have myself to please.

    You are right about the emotional aspect of displaying your work. I do like to get positive feedback; I'm sure most of us do. That isn't what photography is about, though--or is it? If photography isn't about provoking some reaction in the viewer, what is it for? I know I'm jumping into the philosophical deep-end here, but I think it is a valid question.

    You are right that this blog style format allows you to get away from that, but it certainly forces you to come up with interesting things to say to accompany the photos! I don't know if I could consistently inform or entertain with my writing as you do. Keep up the good work!

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion Dillan, about posting less photographs. I guess having a set of numbers in mind before a shooting session would help, and that would make a photographer being more selective when he was shooting.
      I think that would have been more similar to approaching photography with film. Interesting thought you have raised up there and it is very valid.

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