Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Sifu-less Photographer

I have just come across an awesome read written by a dear friend, Brandon Eu, regarding his take on the significance of a photographer Sifu (Please give it a read if you have not, it is a wonderfully written blog entry). Brandon further described the importance of choosing the right master in photography to learn from and to encourage us to grow, keeping us in the right direction by distinctively minimizing the production of “digital garbage” along the way. While I do find myself nodding to the many arguments he openly brought forth, I cannot help but look at myself walking towards a very opposite direction.

I have walked the path of photography without a master or sifu. Shocking, no?

The rain was dying off, hence the waterproof cover was removed, and street sales resumed.

Finding customers on a rainy morning is difficult, I bet.

The best way to spend time on a gloomy Saturday morning.

Do not misjudge my statement, I do not mean to negate the necessity of having a sifu, or someone “professional” to guide a newcomer to photography. I have often compared the arts of photography to Kung Fu, and the camera as the photographer’s sword. It is the natural order of Kung Fu that dictates the students to learn everything from the strict teachings and practice them as hard as they can to perfection. The secrets and special techniques have been passed on from generation to generation. Having a Sifu is important, no doubt, but let me share with you what I have been through, and illustrate my story. I shall reveal the most important point at the end of this entry, so do bear with me.

You can Pick up the Basics on your own

Do you need a graduate diploma from a photography school to certify that you have mastered the basics of photography? With that in mind, do you really need a sifu to teach you everything from the start, even the very fundamentals of photography? There are so many articles published online to guide photography newcomers, especially the understanding of camera basic controls, and fundamentals of making a good photograph. By spending just a few hours reading and subsequently experimenting on field would definitely be putting you right on track. By self-learning, you actually can grasp the understanding better, since you form your thoughts all by your own. All you need is a little time and patience to do your own research, and try what you have learned to verify your basic understandings of photography.

The dude who refused to wear glasses.

A way to kill time while waiting for the rain to pass, read the paper.

This was one of the only few kids I found on the streets this morning. Where the hell did the rest of the children vanish to?

Your own passion is the greater motivator

Passion is perhaps the most important ingredient in photography, and is unswervingly equivalent to faith in religion. If you truly have the passion in photography, you will self-motivate yourself to improve, and make wonderful images. While many others would require their sifu to spur and push them further, I believe the passion that exists within the photographer to be the greater motivator. Only with the passion that the photographer will push further beyond his limitations, and achieve greater heights. Your sifu cannot force you to become a better photographer; you have to want to become better on your own.

Be Inspired

If I were to learn from another photographer, I would not go and ask him “how do you make this shot happen? Please teach me.” Instead, I would ask myself “What do I love about this shot? What makes this shot work? What I can get from this idea to further improve my own work?” I unearth inspirations by looking at impactful and powerful images. Why restrict your inspiration source from one sifu, when you can draw your inspiration by studying the works of dozens of other great photographers? Saturate your mind by viewing awe-worthy photographs of great standards, and sooner or later your mind will start to work its way out towards higher standards.

Found this car, and I did not know the owner was actually nearby. He walked towards the car, and I turned and walked away and hoped he never yelled. He never did.

"Something" was happening inside this shady inn.

Again, so many lifeless vehicles lying around the backlanes. I never stop finding them each and every time.

Break the Norm

I find most of my friends struggling in keeping up with the rules and restrictions set by their Sifus. There are rules on getting the right exposures, and better compositions. There are even certain golden guidelines on how to make a great photograph. Funny, if everyone knows how to make great photographs, then the world would be void of “digital garbage”, no?

The problem lies with the sifu forming a set of rules for his disciples to follow. So the students follow the rules strictly, which in the end, limited their ability to think outside the rules. Their ultimate goal is to become as good as their sifu, and I am sure the sifu is not letting them surpass him by keeping some secrets to himself. So what can we do to beat the crap out of the sifu? Learn some new kung fu moves and kick him square in the ass. Seriously, why restrict your potential to one narrow path led by a sifu? You are free to explore so many other available roads.

Dare to break the rules, because rules are meant to be broken. Go to the extreme, and then you bring the best out of yourself, not what your sifu wants you to be.

Wheel-less proton.

It was not an everyday thing to find a guy leaning against a giant trash bin and laughed out so heartily.

This dude whores attention. I purpusely shot him from far. He posed for many other photographers who stopped by, and his poses were... not really photography friendly anyway. I'd rather have him captured unnoticed.

Be Original, be Yourself

How can you be yourself, or claim that your work is of your own, if you tell people that your skills and knowledge were obtained from another person? You have probably become a carbon copy of that sifu of yours. You may learn many tips and tricks from that sifu, but when you sell your work, are you selling your own work or your sifu’s?

Originality is of extreme importance, you should create images, not reproduce what your sifu has so successfully done so many times previously. There may be many sifus out there, but there is only one you, and you should choose photography as a medium to express yourself free. You speak and tell your messages loudly to the world through your works. It is this freedom that makes photography such a powerful tool. You can only maximize its full potential by being yourself, being original, and breaking free from learning everything strictly from a sifu.

Perhaps the Joker should try some yellow cream on his face, instead of white.

One man's trash is another man's treasure.

I caught this young dude hanging up the signboard. He was so focused that I could photograph him front-on.

I think by now all sifus out there are about to push the nuclear missile launch button towards

Instead of Sifu, I believe, photography friends would benefit me better. We learn, we share and we all grow together. This, my dear beautiful readers, is the most important point I was referring to at the beginning of this entry.

Photography Friends

Photography friends are the people who possess parallel interests and passion to nurture the growth in photography. They are always around to openly, yet politely comment on your work, give you constructive, productive and meaningfully consequential feedback. They encourage you and they empower you to go far. They speak to you as a friend, not someone superior or mightier than you, and their words are useful because they do not mind sharing and helping each other out, as friends. Rivalry may exist, and a little healthy competition amongst peers may essentially lead to expedited improvement and learning curve, which is a common benefit anyway.

Funny, even trishaws in KL looks more authentic than the ones in Malacca.

I originally did not intend to photograph this dude. But he was staring at me for minutes. Hence I returned his stare by sniping him instead.

Trying to break in?

Photography friends may not be as near to perfection as sifus, but I would like to think that imperfections are what make us human. Photography is human.

So there you go, if you have read this far, you must have fully grasped the reason why I do not have a photography sifu. I am blessed with so many wonderful photography friends around me, and to me, they are worth more than all the gold or diamonds in the world.


  1. Man... Those shots are really amazing man... It was quite sometimes since I do the street shooting and u make my hand damn itchy now... =.=|| Why la I need to work in such a beautiful weekend... should arrange a round of street with u soon and prepare to be inspired.... Hehehe.... Sifu~~~


  2. hey fred,
    I am usually available lor, come KL la ahahaha.
    but I wanna do street in Malacca lor. different feel lerr.

  3. me no sifu la... still noob ahahah...
    but I am a good photography friend la !!

  4. thanks for the reference. Really appreciate it bro~ :)

  5. hey brandon,
    no worries !!

  6. i'm nuts! :P no where near being a sifu

  7. hey allen,
    thats the point of this entry, there is no need for sifu for us ahahahah, just be ourselves and we will be fine.

  8. nicely written!

    When I was getting my new SLR, i had tons of questions in my mind about photography.

    I kept trying to look for sifu to learn too but i guess, my "limited" circle of friends can't really hunt a sifu down.

    After reading your post,I have to admit that I did learn more by sharing and learning together with my buddy.

    I think, I have to stop seeking for sifu and lets us be the sifu to our self! ;)

  9. hey photogmao,
    Thanks !!
    Yeap, I also find friends to be more helpful, especially getting useful feedbacks, and encourage us to go further.
    keep that DSLR of yours clicking !!

  10. Captivating shots bro.. and good advice as well.

    I always believe that having a sifu is simply just a plus point, but as you said, if you really want it, you can make it happen.

  11. well there's a Chinese idiom which goes like this, “When I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, their bad qualities and avoid them.” that's translated by the way.

    So, I believe we learn anytime from the people around us. Regardless who they are, a beginner, sifu, guru.. whatever.. we can take the good qualities from them and learn from them. I believe, even those we regard as "sifu" or master class photographers, they never stop learning.

    That is also one way for us to expand our network or circle, through sharing the common interest, and also keep your heart and mind opened. :)

  12. hey cyril,
    thanks man !! Yeap, if there is a will there is a way !

    hey allen,
    thanks for sharing that. Very true, we "ambil yang jernih, buang yang keroh". Know how to differentiate what is good from junks, and continue learning to grow. Life is a journey of learning after all.

  13. i like ur post..and i am sharpening my skill without sifu too..-(