Humza Ahmad Visiting from Japan

Last weekend I have an unexpected visitor from Japan! At first I thought, hurray, finally after so many years of blogging I am getting a visitor from the land of rising sun. You see, I have had numerous visitors from many countries: the US, UK, Germany (too many visitors from Germany, not complaining, but certainly the number is alarmingly high), Finland, Russia, China, Belgium, Itally, Australia and many more, but none ever from Japan. Looking at my blog readership demographics, it has been consistent over the past few years that the top visitors are from the US, Japan and Germany. Sometimes UK and Thailand creeps into the top 3 spot, but Japan is always sitting very high in the list. So imagine the excitement when I got someone coming from Japan!

(Having said that, I have met several amazing Japanese blog readers currently working and residing in Malaysia, truly beautiful people.)

Here is the plot twist, Humza is an American from New York currently residing in Japan, with high family origins from Pakistan! I have had visitors from New York before, but no photographer I know from Pakistan yet.

Portrait of Humza Ahmad, taken with Olympus PEN E-P5 and M.Zuiko 25mm F1.8

I brought Humza to a local wet market, Pudu and we had a quick shutter therapy there. I had to leave by noon because of work in the later afternoon hence it was such a short session, but a sweet one nonetheless. Humza told me his story on how he got involved in photography and the obsession grew ever since. Along his story-telling, a few lines caught my attention and would definitely stayed with me for a long, long time. He said this when he decided to get a proper camera:

"I am an adult now. I need to take proper pictures. I need a proper camera. Every adult shown own a decent camera." - Humza Ahmad

Wow, I never thought of owning camera that way! I agree, we should all own a real camera and be able to operate it and take decent pictures. It is like a rite of passage and that will be something I tell the younger generation kids - you are growing up, and to be an adult, you must own a real camera!

I hope you have had plenty of fun being in Malaysia for the first time, and do come back for our unhealthy yet yummilicious food! I shall bring you to more shooting locations and hopefully I shall be able to make more time.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Dynamic Range - Sufficient?

One topic that I seldom discuss is dynamic range and that is usually because I rarely stretch the limit of the camera. I always look for good lighting condition and pay attention at how the light falls onto the subject or the frame that I am shooting. However I do acknowledge that in some situations, having good dynamic range capability will can help in obtaining a better photograph. I am not a landscape photographer so I do not need that massive shadow and highlight recovery capabilities. For what I normally do, the worst situation would be people hiding in shades versus those out in the open under harsh Malaysian sun. Even in such a challenging situation an Olympus OM-D (from the first generation E-M5 till now) is sufficient to produce a pleasingly balanced image, with some massaging of the RAW file of course.

This is a processed RAW image, with extensive shadow and highlight recovery. Take note it was not an easy shot, with a dark skinned man in the shade and some of the other guys under harsh tropical sun. 

This was the original unprocessed image. 

Some would say that a HDR image would help with multiple exposures from the dark to bright areas, creating a more balanced output. Nonetheless, street shooting is usually a snap and go situation and I rarely spend too much time at one spot. Besides, the OM-D's RAW file was good enough for some stretching when it comes to highlight retention and shadow boosting. Surely this is nowhere near what a full frame camera can do but it is not too bad either. I do not mind the little overblown background as the overexposed part of the frame was truly representing the harshness of being in a tropical country. Over-correcting the image would have resulted in an over-processed look which may look completely unnatural. 

I understand the pain of dealing with dynamic range limitations when shooting landscape. Sunrise or sunset photography in particular demands every bit of dynamic range you can squeeze out of the camera. Hence the heavy investment in accessories that may help, such as graduated ND filters. Nonetheless, for other less challenging situations, do you find your camera struggling in terms of dynamic range? Or do you think your system is sufficient for what you do? Discuss in the comments below!

Updated Post-Processing Video on Ming Thein's Site - Is There A Robin Wong Secret Sauce?

After numerous requests, questions and weird accusations of me hiding my secrets when it comes to post-processing, finally, I have made a new video published on Ming Thein's site addressing those concerns.

Things that I have heard people said about me and my images:
1) There are hidden steps on how to achieve sharp looking images, a complex sharpening process to have that crisp yet natural look
2) The vibrant colors and how to get that look: vivid yet not overly saturated and still looking pleasing
3) Robin Wong has a secret filter that he applies to his images to automatically generate that look
4) It is impossible to get similar images like what Robin Wong does even if you use the same cameras and lenses simply because he has advanced post-processing procedures
5) Robin Wong's post-processing is cheating, because he gets good results all the time.

Oh dear... in short, my response would usually be:
1) There is no secret sauce and my post-processing routine is perfectly normal.
2) I apply minimal editing to my images and I believe in efficient and quick processing so I can spend less time on my computer and more time out there shooting. Isn't shooting with your camera more fun?
3) Sharp images? Make sure your images are critically in focus. Natural colors? Don't play with the color sliders too much, leave the original color profile in tact. No shortcuts and no secrets. Just plain old shooting discipline, and get it right in camera!
4) Post-processing is not rocket science. You do not need to apply complicated layers, masks and extensive adjustments to make your image shine. I acknowledge the need for extensive image manipulation work in some scenarios, but for street photography and most hobby shooting purposes, why complicate your life? Keep things simple and most of the time, minimalism works. Less is more.

Therefore, I made a short video showing my complete post-processing workflow, right from the start after I have imported my images into an image editing software. Take note that the adjustments and settings I have made are applicable to any image editing software, they are not Capture One Pro specific.

The video that I have made is not a tutorial or "how to" guide on post-processing. It is an extension of my sharing on what I do with shutter therapy, or what happens after a street shooting session. Think of this as me inviting you to see what I do with my images, the selection process and how I do minimal processing to get the final batch of images to be used on blog articles.

I am still noob in making videos so please do bear with me with some kinks. I know the audio isn't perfect and there were some hiccups (uneven levels). If you must know, I am using a RM10 (USD2.50) PC desktop stand microphone that was designed for old webcam use. I am using that same microphone on my desktop to shout profanity and vulgar phrases to my teammates when I play online games such as DotA. For the first time I am putting that microphone into something more of a productive use. I should really be investing in a proper microphone if I were to continue making more videos soon. Nonetheless, it was a good start, and that al-cheapo stand microphone did a good job for something so old and not "pro".

While I am not a fan of making videos, I understand that some things are better illustrated with videos. I sure will be making more contents from now on, so do subscribe to my Youtube Channel if you have not.

IKEA Cafe - An Unexpected Find

I do camp at random cafes often to get most of my blog article writings done, as well as replying emails and doing "paperwork". Why not work from home? Because home is too comfortable, with the bed constantly calling me for short quick naps, the ever present gaming PC with friends forever online with frequent invitations for a game of DotA and basically I have programmed home to be just home for rest and play and not conducive enough for productivity and serious work. Besides moving out of the house into a new environment has its psychology explanation on how it can boost productivity. With good coffee, comfortable environment and a huge enough table for me to work, I am set.

I have some favourite locations that I rotate around but recently I found this really awesome place, and an unexpected one: Ikea Cafe.

All images were taken with Motorola G5S Plus smartphone camera, using Google Camera app ported over and HDR+ feature enabled for most shots. 

An important criteria for my cafe "workstation" is large working space. I cannot work on a cramped table or small seating areas. That is a Lenovo Miix 510, a 2-in-1 tablet/PC device that I have used to write my blog articles for the past 2 years. Yes, it is a Microsoft Surface clone. I bought a clone because obviously the original Surface is so overpriced and I cannot afford it

The abundance of natural light is great to create illusion of space. I have generally favored bright working locations. I hated all my previous employment working offices that use the health damaging, headache inducing and skin-tone disaster fluorescent lighting. 

Everywhere you look at, even up above the ceiling level, the whole place is just beautiful!

The awesome thing about this place? It is not that packed during weekdays, which is fantastic. They serve good coffee too, and at super cheap price in comparison to many other hipster cafes in town! A cup of Latte here costs about RM7.40, in contrast to the typical RM12 found everywhere else. I can't vouch for the coffee quality, but the one time I tasted it was decent enough. 

I honestly cannot imagine how busy and packed this cafe will be during the weekends, when humans from all over the place crowd IKEA for no reason and there is that cheap coffee just outside. I probably will never find out and just come here during the non-peak hours in the week working days. 

I thought to myself, hey this place looks really gorgeous and lets take some photos! I whipped out the ever ready smartphone and started snapping away. Although this particular shooting session was a brief, non-serious and purely for personal "visual diary" purposes only, I did not take it easy. Every photo that I took, even if it is personal use and has no consequence if I screw up, I made sure I did my best and found ways to make them look as good as I possibly can. Photography is about constantly seeing, working your vision and doing the best with what you have in hand. While the tool may be simple (smartphone camera) but the photographer can surely work harder to get good shots. No excuses and stop being lazy! Put some effort, and just start shooting away. 

The smartphone may have a lot of limitations but you know what? The limitations should not stop you from shooting. Same goes with whatever camera you have with you. I see so many friends or photographers feeling defeated when they do not have the latest, most powerful and coolest camera or lenses. I am not saying don't upgrade your camera, I am just saying, whatever you have, just use it. An image is an image, no matter how grainy the high ISO is, how limited the dynamic range is and how little the megapixels it has. 

Coffee is only RM7.40! Probably cheapest "overpriced" coffee in town. 

Obviously all furniture are from IKEA, and the cafe has the IKEA smell. 

Some buttery sugary fatty food to feed you and make you fat. 

I don't think the culture of returning trays, culteries and bowls/plates will catch on in Malaysia anytime soon. 

Using the Motorola G5S Plus for a while now, especially with the Google Camera app installed, I don't think I wish to have a better smartphone camera anymore. 

Yes, it is not perfect, in terms of image quality, autofocus, limited manual functions, and no RAW file support. Seriously, for all these demands, I can have them all satisfied with my Micro Four Thirds system for any serious shooting. For everyday snapshots, the smartphone is sufficient. 

I also found that the HDR+ feature to help tremendously in situations with difficult lighting conditions. Unfortunately, using the HDR+ on the Moto G5S Plus slows down shooting operations significantly, and there is a lag between shots. 

If you walk by that IKEA Cafe during weekdays, do have a peek inside. You might just find me in there working, writing my latest article for Ming Thein, or for this blog here. 

And if you buy me a cup of coffee, I will feature a portrait of you here! Sounds like a good deal?

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Motorola G5S Plus Shoots KL At Night

I initially wanted to shoot with an old, old compact camera, the Panasonic LZ8 which I bought in the year 2008. Yes, 10 years ago, I purchased a budget compact camera and I still have it. However, the LZ8 refused to start up properly, giving me an error message (after a few days of inactivity the camera fixed itself and is fully functional again). I was already planning a night photowalk with some friends so I thought why not shoot with my current smartphone, the Motorola G5S Plus, and see what I can produce with the budget smartphone instead?

ISO400, 1/4 sec

From the short walk we had around KL city area, I only had one particular shot which I was happy with, as shown above.

Here are some things I had in my mind while shooting with the Motorola G5S Plus:

1) There is a manual mode that allows full control of shutter speed and ISO which I have not used before this. The manual mode made a world of difference when shooting in low light. The Auto mode daringly bumped up the ISO to ridiculous 3200 all the time in this session shooting the city buildings at night, rendering images that will make any of our eyes bleed.

2) The manual shutter speed control has limitations. The slowest I can go down to is 1/4 second, which is not slow enough for any long exposure photography. I was not able to do light trail shots and even for normal city buildings at night, with 1/4 second shutter speed, I need a minimum ISO of 400 or higher. ISO400 on a budget smartphone is not doing so great either.

3) I wish the shutter speed can go as slow as 30 seconds, or better, 60 seconds. That can open up even more shooting possibilities. Though I understand non-photographers may find no use with such long exposures.

4) Though the camera is rated at 13MP on specifications, honestly, the final output quality, after pixel-peeping thousands of shots I have taken with the Motorola G5S Plus, is closer to probably 7 or 8 MP only. I have the 10 years old Panasonic LZ8 tiny sensor compact camera which was also 8MP and can deliver sharper, cleaner and more detailed shots than the modern day smartphone camera.

5) I am in no way expecting the smartphones to surpass dedicated cameras. Look at it this way, instead of selling a mediocre 13MP camera on a smartphone, why not do some downsampling to 8MP? You will have a great 8MP camera with better overall image quality. 8MP is still plentiful these days, good enough to fill a 4K screen. Surely, an optimized 8MP camera on a budget smartphone is a good solution.

6) I wish there was an option to shoot RAW, purely for shadow and highlight recovery purposes. Nonetheless, that is probably asking too much for a budget smartphone. I don't think including DNG support in the camera will shift the cost of smartphone manufacturing significantly either.

7) I need to find a replacement for my broken tripod. Shooting at dangerously slow shutter speed without a tripod or any means of image stabilization is no fun at all.

8) How I wish smartphones have the capabilities of the 5-Axis IS from Olympus. Seriously, with the powerful stabilization, the smartphones can truly do wonders.

9) Before anyone asks, of course the image shown above was post-processed. However, I do my post-processing with minimal adjustments and the changes of colors, contrast and exposure balance were done to bring the image as close as what I saw with my eyes in real life.

Do you shoot night photography with your smartphone? Do share your thoughts!

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