Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Learning, Bit by Bit

In the midst of football fever and an exceptionally crammed schedule, I managed to stretch my time out a little to meet up a very important friend, and had a street walk with him. Alright the football fever part was a lie, since I could not sit still for 5 minutes with my eyes on the TV without finding myself reviewing and processing my photographs on my PC the next minute. Initially I did not intend to do any street shooting at all on last weekend, and I have called off a few invitations from some friends because I wanted to prepare myself mentally and physically for the wedding dinner assignment. Nonetheless, for more favorable reasons than one, I found myself tagging along and street shooting alongside someone who has been into the photography (street too) scene for a long time. It was a rather eye opening experience, which I wish to document it here.

Conversation. Even cats need to talk to each other.

I was shown the flaws of my methods in street shooting. I have also gained a few invaluable tips and tricks. The nudges and knocks are what I needed to grow.

1) Shooting from too far away

One of the limiting factors which have impeded the opportunities on the streets would be the usage of a long lens. For starters like me, using a long lens was undeniably a plus point, enabling possible shots from afar, without having the fear of rejection or dealing with offensive subjects on the streets. Zooming in across the street, some people are not even aware of their photographs being taken, and others would care less, than say you shooting them in less than 6 feet away. Truthfully, I was doing street photography in my comfort zone, and I did capture a few shots which I am happy about. To move beyond this, and push on further, there is a need to leave the long lens behind.

Against the direction of the traffic. I think the element that made this image work would be the beamlight from the car.

Double backpack. Why not let the weight down for a while?

Sugar cane.

I still love the long lens though, do not get me wrong. I still think certain shots are best executed with a long lens. However, I must not stick too closely to my comfort zone. I must explore other possibilities, and who knows where that could lead me to.

The main hitch with long lens is the almost absent feeling of intimacy. Yes, you can zoom in extremely close with just the head and shoulder pose, but the connection between the photographer and the subject is utterly missing. There is no feeling of engagement, as if the subject is so far away, which is true since it was indeed captured far away from where the photographer is standing. The facial expression may appear natural, yes, but at the same time, blank and distant. Generally, a powerful portrait or people photograph can actually speak to you directly, and it holds you on. I can safely claim that very few, if none of my previous attempts have yet to come to that level. Yes, I know I am new, that is why I am learning and improving. It is time to strive for a more intimate portrayal, and make photographs that viewers can feel as if they were there too. Not an easy task, but if I do not mentally prepare myself, and take the first step, it will never be accomplished. Therefore, the long lens, has to go.

Morning walk

Who needs mattress?

At the back of the shops

2) Move close, like really close.

All photographers may either stumble upon this, or being told at some point of their learning path, that “if your photograph is not good enough, you are not close enough.” This saying applies universally, and especially even more true on the streets. The most important step in achieving that intimate impact shot would be to inch in as much as I possibly could. Not an easy task, if you ask me!!

I do not quite know how to explain this, perhaps it has something to do with the distance between the lens and the subject, or this is all in my head. The distance gap between the lens and the subject may affect the overall output of your photograph. If the subject is aware of your presence as another person, you get an entirely different kind of expressions, as if a connection has been established. If that connection, the feeling of being associated as another being on the street is successfully documented in the image, the value of the photo would leap one bound.

The person looked into your eyes, the person can relate to you in certain ways. Every viewer who sees that photograph, can evidently perceive, or feel the level of closeness with the subject, and feel as if they were the one walking on the street and look into the eyes of the subjects. This is the intimacy I was talking about earlier. Or maybe, all this is just in my head, which I hope is not my case.

Even if you do not get the eye contact, or the person does not seem to respond to your presence, the close distance shots of the subjects can bring out another dimension of reality. The long lens created a compressed background, which means you do not see much of the background in your shots. But wide angle or ordinary short lenses capture everything on the background. With proper execution being close enough, the interaction between the subject and the background can be obtained. Isolation of subjects may be one important technique, but sometimes, to tell a more compelling story, you need to illustrate more details. To do that, there is no going around but to move in as close as possible to the subjects.

Breathing life into the umbrella


What the tourists do

3) Stop

I have been crazy for exploring the dangerous parts of town, for many of my previous attempts in street photography. I have one rule in mind: to keep moving. I do not stop, and even if I do, I would stop for very briefly to get the shot on the fly. Being constantly on the move reduces the chance of being a target, and I have to abide by this rule to consciously tell myself KL is not exactly a safe place, and the idea of braving the streets alone was nothing short of lunatic.

However, distance traveled does not equal to the number of subjects captured. Recently, shooting in a less “troubled” area of the town, I was able to take a pause, and really opened my eyes to see what was around me. With a little patience, sometimes, “things” will come moving along. There are certain hotspots where many “things” will pass through, and staying in that hotspot for some time can be really rewarding. By stopping, I can also concentrate more with what my fingers are doing with the camera, be more aware and attentive of my surroundings, and predict what was going to happen next.

One of the many uses of a pen

Water the pot

The cap alternative.

4) Blending in

Again back to the point of intimacy. Another important part to consider in order to accomplish intimacy in the shots would be blending into the crowd. Blending in is not exactly something I am very good at, since I did not come from KL, and I do not speak local languages.

When you look at the photographs, do you get the feeling of the person looking at you as a photographer, or just another person on the street? If I do not blend in well enough, I will get the “WTF” look, as if “What the hell is this blardy guy with a huge camera doing on my street? Who does he think he is to take a photo of me?” kind of expression on their faces. If that kind of message is captured in the shots, I think it has sort of ruined everything, don’t you think? Therefore, blending in is important, and I still have a long way to go in this regard. At least I do not get people who would chew my head off, but cold stares, and the not so welcome look are quite common. I need to be seamlessly as I can being a part of the street, to be able to capture what the street is all about.

I must also accept the fact that not everyone wants to be photographed, or feel comfortable having a camera pointed their direction. It is prudent to distinguish possible subjects, and possible harms. Filtering the subjects based on the level of danger and risks have become something quite routine in my mind. Blending in may be crucial, but there is no point putting myself out in the open, and let the lions maul me over. To remind myself, if I miss one shot, there are plenty others to explore. That is the magical thing about the street; it never runs out of subjects, in fact, it is the most abundant place for photography opportunities. You just have to get your huge heavy ass out there and start shooting, with less complaining of course.

Grab on

What is he going to do with the RM note in his hand?


5) Originality Matters

I think one of the challenge that most newbie photographers (like me) is facing would be originality. We are being exposed to so many photography works out there by professionals or more experienced photographers that we often struggle and strive to climb to the standards and levels being set by those predecessors. Unknowingly, or more likely the case of majority, the photographers have attempted to emulate, or more crudely put, “copy” the works in order to accomplish that next level. Plagiarism is not something that new in Malaysia, yes?

I believe in immersing my mind with wonderful, awe-worthy and beautiful photographs, created by anyone, anywhere in the world. It is one thing to know and be able to differentiate between great photography works, and not so great photography works (which may be extremely subjective at all levels). Nevertheless, it is also natural for many new photographers to try and create that exact same shot that he admires, to prove that he can also do that. If he can do what that great photographer whom he admire can do, he has been elevated by one large step. In that state of delusion, many newbie photographers find pride and joy in trying their best to emulate the “high standard” photography styles, but at what expense? Loss of originality, if you ask me.

Street shooting is not something new. I confess that my shots are not 100% original. It is still a constant battle in my mind, trying to squeeze the original, fresh, creative and new ideas out. It is so much easier to just copy and paste, is it not? It is so much easier to pluck another person’s great mind, and plug it into our own work and claim that we are indeed good enough. I have been warned sternly not to fall into such category, not to stoop that low and lose my identity as a photographer, and a person in the process of learning photography. I must learn to take pride in my own style, what defined me as an artist (I am not qualified to call myself one yet, I believe). Originality may not come easy, but walking down the wrong path may eventually lead to a stunted growth.




I need to search myself to plant my feet firmly on the ground.

Why do I keep coming back to the streets? I am honestly not quite sure. But I can tell you this much, I really enjoy doing it, and every time I get a good shot, the ‘rewarding’ feeling is just indescribable.

I can also tell you that, I will be shooting on the streets for quite a long time.


  1. Great shots Robin. I like the ones where you actually have eye contact without the 'WTF' expression. The 50mm doesn't really get me close enough for those :P

  2. hey brsndon,
    Olympus 50mm can get you close enough !! eheheh

  3. For the first time, I paid attention in your writing more than your photos. And no, your photos still remain shuttergod-like quality. LOL.

  4. hey chong,
    LOL !! Thanks !! You actually read the crap I wrote? Impressive.

  5. You've got some amazing shots here! I did something like your last shot before... hee hee... http://davidchuaphotography.blogspot.com/2009/11/trapped-in-ball.html

  6. hey david,
    thanks !! I think the shots are pretty ok, but not "amazing". still have lots to learn.

  7. My friend recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!