Xiaomi's Poco X3 NFC - A Photographer's Review

I bought myself a new smartphone - a budget USD200 Xiaomi's Poco X3 NFC. This midrange phone has some sweet specifications - 120Hz refresh rate 6.7 inch Full HD LCD display, beefy 5160mAh battery with fast charging, latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 732G processer, 6GB RAM and 64GB internal storage. The main reason I decided to take the plunge was the incredibly affordable pricing of just under USD200, I got mine during launch from online retailer store at Shopee for RM799, with free shipping. The camera specifications are nothing to scoff at either - the Poco X3 features the latest Sony's 64MP image sensor. Since I have been using this Poco X3 for about a month now, I thought why not do a review for it's camera performance?

For those who prefer to watch a review in video format than read lengthy blog articles, here is a YouTube video review I made for Poco X3's camera. 

Some important disclaimers first. This is not a sponsored article and I have no affiliation with Xiaomi or Poco. I bought the Poco X3 with my own money, and it is my own smartphone that I do use daily for more than a month now. I am only reviewing the camera's performance from a professional photographer's point of view, and I will not be discussing other aspects of the smartphone. I am not a videographer and I believe other YouTubers or reviewers are more qualified to speak about the video performance. I will also not be testing the selfie camera because I believe we don't need the selfie camera and we can do without it in any smartphones. Stop making them already!

I have been shooting with the Poco X3 whenever I can, and I did bring it out for several shutter therapy sessions before the second partial lockdown happened in Malaysia (thankfully). I have tested the Poco X3's camera in several shooting scenarios - city landscape, close up food lifestyle shots, street shooting as well as night city scape. All the images shown in this blog entry were straight out of the Poco X3 with minor cropping and contrast tweak only. 

Poco X3 claimed to have a quad camera setup at the rear of the smartphone. I disagree. To me there are only two usable cameras at the back of the phone. The quad camera setup refers to: 1) Main 64MP camera 2) Ultra Wide camera 3) 2MP Macro camera and 4) Depth sensor. I just don't see how a 2MP macro camera is any useful in 2020, and we practically can't shoot with the depth sensor any way, it is ridiculously laughable how the marketing gimmick used by Poco/Xiaomi included these two as part of the camera setup. That left us with only two, truly usable cameras - the main camera and ultra wide camera. 

One of the key features of Poco X3 is the large 6.7 inch Full HD LCD with high refresh rate of 120Hz. 

Minimalist & Budget Macro Photography Setup - Anyone Can Shoot Macro!

I have blogged about my macro shooting technique several times now and I still use similar method to grab my insect macro shots most of the time. I do however experiment with different ways to achieve the same results, either by using macro converters or alternative lighting techniques such as LED light. The fun of macro photography is the many different options available to play with and there is no right and wrong - you just choose what works best for you. Obviously the most expensive option is macro lens, and most practical if you do a lot of macro shooting, but for those who do not do macro all the time, investing in a macro lens may not seem like a wise thing to do. Therefore, here is my suggestion for a minimalist and budget setup. 

As usual, I made a video to accompany this article, and in some situations, real life video demonstration is more effective than me typing endlessly here. 

There are two items required in this setup - a macro converter, the Raynox DCR-250 and a cheap, small, but powerful enough LED light. I was shooting with my own Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and M.Zuiko 75mm F1.8 lens. 

My humble setup - Raynox DCR-250 Macro Converter and Al-Cheapo LED Light, used on my own Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II + M.Zuiko 75mm F1.8 lens

Mini Photo Projects - This Can Improve Your Photography!

I have not talked about doing photography projects much, but have been meaning to. Most people I have met in real life, or participants who attended my photography workshops will remember me bashing in the concept of doing projects to take photography to the next level. All higher level photography - large exhibitions, photography books or any other established and published photography work all come in one form of project or the other. Therefore it is beneficial to understand the concept of photo projects and how to apply it to our own photography. 

I made a video for those of you who prefer to hear me speak and let the video run in the background while doing other things. Here it is:

Photography projects can be a long term endeavour but let's not complicate things - I encourage you to start with mini projects. Any photography outing, even a short one hour photowalk in the streets downtown can be a good playing ground of a mini photo project. The main reason I highly suggest any photographer who take their work seriously to do mini-projects is to start thinking in series. I see too many photographers take wonderful images which stand out beautifully individually, but fail to form a larger meaningful body of work. Photography as a form of visual story-telling needs to be presented in a series of work, not just any one hit wonder that too many social media photographers aim for today. You have to start to think beyond what one photograph can do, and how a series can come together to tell a more complete and compelling story. 

Before I dive deeper into the concept of mini projects, let me demonstrate one which I did very recently. I went on a shutter therapy session with a group of friends to Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur. In mind, I wanted to take this 2-3 hours photowalk as a mini project, with a series of 10 images in mind. I shall share how I plan the shoot, before and during execution of the images, as well as how I curated, arranged and sequenced the images to fit into the final mini project form. 

Images were all shot with Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO lens. 

The opening image is a teaser image - it shows a prominent landmark in Kuala Lumpur, the Petronas Twin Towers and also hinted that the location of shoot is very close to the city center. The opening image can be playful, it does not have to be linked into the main story immediately, and serves as an appetizer to start the meal. If you examine this image closely, you will also see the bit of Malaysian flag that clearly indicated this place inside Malaysia, and parts of a wooden house, typical scene of a village here locally in the background of the image. Within this single teaser, you know you are in Malaysia, not far from the city, in a village environment. 
The transition from the first teaser image to this second establishing shot is quite obvious - the Twin Towers in the background. Now you clearly see the wooden village style residential buildings, a common sight here in Kampung Baru. The defining look of this location is the contrast between old styled, wooden built homes with hulking concrete and steel skyscrapers in the background.  

Another establishing shot, showing more of the Kampung Baru environment. This time, besides the road, the greens in the background and some parts of the buildings, you also see some residents. I chose this shot because of the playful nature of the shot - the motorcycle rider has a friendly smile, a common kind nature of villagers here, and she had her kid in the cart she was carrying with the motorbike. 

We cannot talk about a location without it's residents. People make the place. The link between the previous shot and this one, is the resident of Kampung Baru. In this image, the man was making a very popular breakfast for Malaysians - Roti Canai. This type of flat bread was made fresh, hand-tossed, pulled and fried on the pan. While executing this shot, I patiently waited for the man to pull the bread and had the bread stretched out - building up energy for the coming shots. 

Still in the same theme of village residents - now we are amping up the energy a few notches up. I found this man riding his bicycle, another frequent type of transportation among the people here, and I chose to shoot him in motion. To express the movement I adopted the panning technique, slowing down the shutter speed to create the background motion blur. This movement energy peaks at the mid of the series of images I am showing, much like watching a movie, the climax or most dramatic part happens in the middle or toward the end of the movie. 

Riding on the same energy from the previous shot, and still on the same theme of residents, I had a shot of a jumping cat. Cats are residents to Malay villages, mainly because dogs are prohibited and considered unclean by Muslim religion practised here locally. Therefore, cats become the default go to pets for the villagers, and you will see a lot of pet cats roaming around. I found this cat on the tree and managed to capture the cat in mid jump - the high energy transition from the previous panning shot. And the green background showed some environment of this village that I wanted to portray as well. 

My set of images will never be complete without a close up portrait of a cat. And I found the perfect way to showcase a cat headshot and still stay on course with this mini project's story-telling. As I mentioned earlier, cats are residents here as well, and the collar tag showed that this cat was a pet belonging to a family nearby. I shot this image wide open at F1.2 to soften the background, and tone down the mood of the image, diffusing the energy, as we are coming to the end of the series very soon. 

Staying on the green theme, this image was important and I had a lot to say here - road safety in Malaysia needs a lot of work. You have a road sign covered by overgrowth of grass and bush, something which was not supposed to be allowed to happen. 

The final shot before my closing image - another image with important safety message I want to say out loud. Residents riding a motorcycle without wearing helmets, something that should be taken more seriously. Especially they had 5 people (though mostly kids) on one singular bike!

My closing image was quite a simple one, but it forms a circle to complete this mini project. This is the same shot as the opening image, but instead of having the twin towers in the reflection of the mirror, this time it was me, the photographer. 

From the captions I hope you can see how I curated and sequenced my images to form a series of images that make sense. 

A mini project allows you to focus your effort into a tangible final output. A mini project has an end-product which you can finally close, and move on, or continue to expand on another project should you choose to do an extension. There is a beginning, and an end to this journey, and you get a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at the end of this mini-project. 

I highly suggest limiting the numbers to begin with, there is no point going out on a photography shooting and then show a series of 500 images, that is pointless. It is not the quantity, but the quality that matters when it comes to photography, and having a mini project in mind, it guides you to find images that fit the topic or theme you have decided. Instead of running around shooting at random things, you have a mission and purpose - you are gathering pieces to be fit together to form a proper body of work. Sometimes, less is more, and finding the right image to fit the theme is the main challenge. I'd say for a short walk of 1-2 hours session, anything from 5-10 images for the mini project would be ideal. Anything more will be redundant and unnecessary. Of course if you are doing a one year project or documentary then you may curate your images to 50 or even 100 images in your set. 

What separates a great photographer from others? Curation. A great photographer only shows his best of the best, and knows how to hide his sub-par work. Approaching mini project, a critical component to work at is curation - how you select, cull, arrange and finally sequence your images into the final set of images for the mini project. I have shared my thoughts in the captions and I hope they do make sense and help you to understand curation a little better! How to learn curation? Go to exhibitions, read photography books! 

The great thing is - anyone can do a mini project, you can start yours now, and it does not cost you anything. It will change the way you think about your photography, it will push you to fight harder for your images while shooting and it will improve your approach to photography, and how you see photographs at the end of the day. Photography is not just about great visuals and shooting beautiful things, you can take your photography further by having something to say, expressing your ideas, emotions and message through your mini project. Your photography is your story!

So what are you waiting for? Start mini photography project now!

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Malaysia on Partial Lockdown Again

Today is the first day in effect of Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO), a fancy term the government concocted as a less brutal way of describing a semi-lockdown they are imposing on parts of Malaysia. Sabah, Putrajaya, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur are all affected by this partial lockdown, and I happen to be residing inside Kuala Lumpur at the moment. I guess it is inevitable looking at the rising cases of Covid-19 and I am not here to question the decisions made by the officials. I do however want to discuss the impact of this movement restrictions on myself - how is this affecting my professional photography career at the moment, what is the consequence on my own personal well-being, and how is this changing my content creation schedule and posting?

The first lockdown, almost a complete lockdown happened earlier this year in March and lasted more than 3 months long. That did not do my photography business any good, since I was deriving my jobs mostly from on location shoots - event coverage, weddings, lifestyle products, casual portraits, a huge majority of my income are photography jobs that require me to be at a function or event. When all events, gathering, public recreational activities were banned during the first lockdown, that effectively obliterated any possible income I can possibly make as a photographer. It was not an easy time for me. Thankfully, I did have sufficient financial safety buffer to fall back onto, and the YouTube channel which I started a year ago started to gain traction and contributed a little to slow down the drain of cash flowing out. And of course, I have many of you awesome, beautiful blog readers, YouTube viewers and long-time supporters to thank for - the donations and coffee money seriously made a big difference and pulled me through those dark times. 

In June, the government lifted the lockdown and imposed a less strict movement control, allowing businesses to operate and life somewhat started to resume and we did almost achieve a little normalcy. Since events were allowed (with limited people and strict social distancing in place), weddings and other outdoor, public activities were no longer banned, my photography jobs started to slowly come back and I have actively been shooting from July till recently. I did not get as many jobs as I like, but it could have been a lot worse, and I was doing better than many of my peers. Some had clean, empty calendars throughout till the end of the year. I was thankful mine was starting to fill up. 

Then this second partial lockdown hit. Due to recent rise of Covid-19 cases in Malaysia, the government decided to implement CMCO on a few areas in the country, including the city I live in currently - Kuala Lumpur. This cancels out all public activities, events, gatherings - anything that needs more than 10 people, any recreational activity - all prohibited. That also means, whatever few photography jobs that I have secured for the coming month are all vanquished, just like that. What I was supposed to earn and save for the coming year end - Christmas - let's just say they are all gone. The government did say the semi-lockdown will be effective from 14 October to 27 October, but looking at the history on how they tell the dates, the 2 weeks period was never 2 weeks, it started from 2 weeks back in March and dragged on till 3 months long lockdown. At this rate, I'd say this second partial lockdown will last at least a month or two, if not longer. 

Financially I am less worried now, I did take in some jobs between July and early October and have saved up another buffer for this coming dry season, and I have the growing YouTube channel to supplement a little additional income. I am however more concerned for my own mental health. One very important thing that kept me sane all this time, you all should know this by now - Shutter Therapy. I need to go out and hit the streets, doing random photography with my camera at least once or twice a week (more if I have the time of course). With this new lockdown in place, the government did not specifically mention public filming, photography and videography are not allowed but they prohibit any recreational, non-essential activities. Being a responsible citizen, I think the best thing is not to wander the streets with a camera aimlessly. The last thing I want is a confrontation with the police which will end up with me in jail and a hefty thousands of dollars fine. 

I have also made a few content shooting in the public, including some videos which are waiting to be published. So for the coming week or two, there will still be regular posting of videos to YouTube, and do expect some fresh photography - one on street photography and another one on insect macro photography. Thankfully I managed to get these content before the public parks were closed and the semi-lockdown began to happen. I guess, from now onward, I have to make videos at home, either from my balcony (God I hate filming from that balcony) or from inside my room - which I have been doing more and more recently for videos that I need to push out very quickly, for example the update on JIP/Olympus announcement. I do see myself continue to make videos, content and publish them on regular timetable, that won't change unless I have something else more important to do. The content creating has also helped me a lot, giving me a purpose, connecting me with an actual audience, allowing me to do something that actually helps people!

I do have a lot of ideas for new videos and blog posts, as well as shooting projects. I have so much I want to do, and things were starting to recover and get better. Everything was returning to normal, then this partial lockdown came out of nowhere, completely turning everything upside down. 

I guess for now, all I can do is lay low, stay safe, avoid any outdoor photography and do whatever I can creating content indoor, inside the confines of my tiny bedroom and ride this storm out and hopefully, the storm will be over sooner than later. 

Wherever you are in the world, I hope you are doing better than me!

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Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra Camera Review

Samsung packed in plenty of camera firepower in their latest flagship smartphone Galaxy Note20 Ultra, and I had the privilege to loan one and review the camera's performance. The Note20 Ultra comes with 3 camera modules: ultra wide angle, main wide and telephoto camera. Being a photographer myself I am genuinely curious to find out about the camera performance and I have been using the Note20 Ultra for more than 2 weeks, and I even brought it with me home to Kuching, Borneo for a one week vacation.

Important Disclaimer: The Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra was on loan solely for review purposes from Samsung Malaysia and has been returned to them at the time this article is published. I am not affiliated with Samsung in any way, this is not a sponsored post, and Samsung did not ask me to do this review. I am testing the camera capabilities of the Note20 Ultra because I wanted to see how far a flagship smartphone camera has come. I am only discussing the camera performance of the Note20 Ultra. I will not be reviewing the video recording capability, as I am not a videographer and there are other more qualified reviewers to talk about the video aspect. I will also skip the selfie camera because, guys, we don't need the selfie camera. I believe smartphones should just get rid of the selfie camera, the world will be a better place without it. 

I am reviewing the Note20 Ultra from a photographer's perspective - many tech/gadget reviewers just gave a quick glance when it comes to camera performance in their smartphone reviews. Also, I have not see a professional photographer's review of the Note20 Ultra. 

The Samsung Note20 Ultra has 3 camera modules:
- 108MP 1/1.33 inch image sensor
- 26mm F1.8 OIS
- 12MP
- 13mm F2.2 with 120 degrees Field of view equivalent
- 120mm F3 Periscope Lens, OIS