Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Engineering Vs Photography

It is difficult to find a hardworking government servant. It is even more difficult to find an artistic engineer. It is almost impossible to find an honest lawyer.

When I was at the 50th OCF Convention in Malacca last year (where hundreds of people from numerous universities from all over Australia flew in) I have heard that very striking remark made by one of the speakers during the OCF 50th Anniversary Thanksgiving dinner night.

Since I have decided to pick up engineering (right after my Form 5, at the age of 17) I have unintentionally left the artistic world behind. Sub-consciously, I was constantly submitting myself to the scientific and logical side of brain power. Everything has to form logic; practicality is a priority in engineering. In order to understand how things work, engineers must train their mind to analyze problems systematically by following a set of rules. In order to manufacture products which are deemed safe and usable by public standards, certain codes and strict regulations must be adhered to. We are bound by restrictions in order to maintain a reasonable level of compliance and unified standards as guidelines for engineering practice in general. We are not encouraged to stray too far from these guidelines and standards, hence we have been taught not to think too far outside the box.

A gloomy morning start.

Old shops of striking colours.

Another death of a motorbike.

Welding the joints. Let it burn.

Rules rules rules. Equations, practicality, maths, laws of physics.

After going through years and years of gruesome engineering conditioning, started in college, then university and recently, moving into the beginning of a career path, slowly but painfully the artistic side of me was being drained and sucked dry. I guess this was a necessary sacrifice, an inevitable give-and-take situation. With the purpose to gain a firm engineering foothold, somehow, the artist in you will have to be murdered.

Want to know how badly this affects a person in general, by removing art from his general wellbeing?

Think of an engineer, what do you see? Nerdy look, spectacles, either skinny or obese. They seldom look fit and healthy. Their clothes are usually “that one kind look” with almost zero sense of fashion. The hair is often either too messy to form a style, or combed straight to the sideways. Worse, many have early hair loss. Their manner of speech is so robotic, and their conversations are always too straightforward and factual. Their jokes are lame, and they laugh at things only engineers can understand. They tend to think too much, and overanalyze a situation, and they often must try to prove something, or make a point. Their minds are so rigid and inflexible that they are completely sealed off from fresh and new ideas. Their train of thoughts are narrow, and they stick to statistics and evidence, which may be safe and wise, but at the same time, boring and lack of thrill. Furthermore, their deficiency of emotions really bothers me, and you almost never find an engineer that cries after watching a sappy movie. Technicality is god, and art is evil.

For every developed city, there are the people of the street.

A dysfunctional painted Flag.

Just another distorted reflection.

I see myself going into that path, and one day, it shocked me to my balls. What have I become? When did I decide to walk this road? Why did no one warn me about such dire consequences? All you hear before you jump into the world of engineering were how much respect you will get (because you are smart) and how much money you could earn. Now I am an engineer, I do not feel smart, and certainly I am not rich. Instead I have turned into a monster at the verge of losing part of my humanity and being almost void of art.

In stark contrast to my complains, I do love engineering, as odd as that sounds. I do acknowledge the importance of engineers and their role in making sure everything in this world is in working order. With no engineers, things will fall apart, literally. That is what fascinates me in the first place, to find out how things work, and to make them work.

Everything has to find a balance.

Can you spot me on that traffic light?


Puddle of mudd.

Tourist attraction, one of many in KL.

And then there was photography.

Since I picked up my first 3MP Kodak compact point and shoot camera, I started to realize how much art-less I have become. As a beginner in photography, I tend to compare my photos with my friends. I question myself, why can’t I take the photographs like they do? What did they have that I did not, to produce such stunning images?

Initially, I led myself to believe it was all the techniques. Quite predictable, don’t you think? Being an engineer, I got obsessed with the technical side of photography very quickly. I rampaged through the internet looking for articles on basic photography: how the camera works, what settings work best at what situations, how to do proper compositions and correct flash control, right photo-processing techniques, etc etc. By just using a mere compact camera, I already understood the concepts of ISO-Shutter speed-aperture relationship, and able to control them decently well. I pushed my compact camera to the limit, mostly to experiment (again, engineers) new techniques and settings. I was a happy self-taught photographer. I have gained a considerable amount of photography knowledge and understanding on how to capture a good photograph. Ironically, the saddening fact was my photographs were everything, but good.

Walking by with something in hand.

Oyama, a cool dude I have met recently whom I went to attack the streets with last Sunday. Thanks dude for making it, you were awesome.

The flags seem more vibrant in the reflections.

How the city was kept clean.

After killing three compact cameras, I thought, maybe it was the tools that limited my photography growth. What a big mistake that was. Everyone told me how instantaneously their photographs can improve straight after they have switched to DSLR system. What a miserable fiction. Having a little bit of spare cash from my one year graduate development programme in Perth, I decided to upgrade to DSLR system, the very same system I am using now. I got even more obsessed with the technicalities of the camera. I kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and I did not even see it. Did I improve in photography? Yes, and no. Yes, my photographs are sharper, with more beautiful colours, creamier bokeh, less noise in high ISO shooting…. etc etc. No, because those photographs still lack the crucial element that brings out the “ooomph” factor.

It came to a point where I took a pause and looked straight hard back at myself. I asked, what went wrong? Was it because my gears were not good enough? Was it because I was not good enough? What did I do wrong? A friend of mine, who had no idea what ISO or shutter speed is, shot a much better photograph than I did.

Yeah, we have the abundance in this country.

Open window. Just in case you need to jump off.

Setting it up.

Empty crates.

Then it came to me, and I started to see how destructive being an engineer can be to the artistic side of a human. I finally saw the horror: I was incapable of seeing things artistically. Consequently, I was not producing anything artistic, because I did not have that artistic vision in me all along !!

I thought being technically sound is good enough. I thought, knowing what shutter speed-ISO-aperture combination and controlling the white balance would be sufficient. I was so wrong. Looking back at my old photos, all at once, they all screamed back at me: no heart, and no soul. I desperately needed to open up my mind to creative thoughts. I needed to bend my mentality. Art is about expression and emotion. I want expression and emotion to be seen in my photographs. I want to break away from the technicality obsession, and start embracing art. I am not trying to be an artist, but merely, accepting the truth: photography is art. You can come up with the most stunning camera techniques, and you may know how the camera work inside out, but if there is no art, your photograph will never be anything but plain and ordinary.

Old Central Market, KL.

Happiness in the morning.

Do you have my phone number?

Perhaps I have not successfully described the magnitude of such sudden revelation I have had about a year ago, the drastic impact it imparted to me. It was painful to admit my photographs suck. It was not easy to find strength to recognize my weakness, and face it. Blame that on my photography ego, yes I have one, so does every photographers out there. Amongst the few decisions I have made was to let go of my first macro lens. This act symbolizes my sacrifice to break away from the clutch of technical obsession (yes I was crazy about macro, which is almost 100% technical) and to force myself to pick up new genres of photography.

It was not an easy process, but very necessary to push myself out of that engineer’s box. I must not depend solely on technical understandings and how I control the camera. I have to learn to pre-visualize my shots, formulate an idea, have a certain degree of conceptual layout in my mind on what kind of photograph to expect in the end. Aaaaahhhh, now we are talking about art. I must learn to see things differently, keep an eye open for details, and pick up things that people normally would not be able to see. I must learn to express feelings and emotions in a photograph, finding ways to add drama and impact to an otherwise boring looking photograph. I need fresh ideas, I need creative inspirations, I need to create new images, and something I can call my own. I started to shoot the things I really love, instead of shooting a photograph which is perfect in technical sense. I took photographs of the things that captured my attention and imagination, instead of trying to please my blog viewers (I know many of you guys just want to see babes and boobs, heh !!). I implanted simple messages and stories into each photograph, which I hope to be conveyed in some ways to my viewers.

Anyone inside?

Innocence, how did we lose it?

A year has passed on since that revelation, how do I feel about my photography work? Improvements, yes, but not much, really. Nonetheless, the big difference is me being more comfortable handling the camera now. I know what is missing from my photographs, and I am doing what I can to slowly gain what I never had previously, the artist in me. It may not just happen overnight, it may take a heck longer than I expected, but the journey is worth it.

Photography has evolved into Shutter Therapy. Knowing the depleting artistic element in my soul, I utilized photography as a tool to compensate the deprivation of art. The damages that engineering world has inflicted to my soul shall be healed by photography. This is a channel for me to express myself freely, and garner a huge sense of satisfaction while doing so. This form of therapy is important for me, my soul, and general balance of wellbeing.

I strongly believe that photography is a long, long journey, and we never stop discovering something new and interesting along the way. Photography has also become a lifestyle (my shutter therapy is an evidence to that) and more and more people are picking up cameras and start making wonderful images.

Now the question remains, are you merely just clicking the shutter button, or are you painting the digital canvas, with light?


  1. waaaauuuuwww~ ur pics awesome robin..really awesome as I know exactly where is the place and etc.. different view of mine..nice~

    Looking forward for another outing with you!~ thanks to you too for making it last sunday~ :)

  2. hey oyama,
    Thanks man for the kind comments. No la, not that awesome ahahah, but improving bit by bit. I am looking forward to your photos !! Quick quick post liaw, don't hide all to yourself ahahahah. I am very sure you have very great photos too.

  3. no lah~ really look dull one~ >_<"
    dont know shud post or not~ hahah

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  5. hey Oyama,
    I don't believe you !!! Must be very pretty one ahahaha. We all see things differently, hence you will have very different shots.

  6. Again, Robin you amaze me with your philosohphical insight. It was a pleasure to read your words. And a pleasure to see such great pictures. I noticed some warmer colors - vey pleasing for my eye. Yes, i think you should try to show us a whole story with one picture. I love that picture with the welder.

  7. You nailed it about macro photography. I find it boring, becuase there is no art, it's all technical :)

  8. hey bartosz,
    Thanks !! I am no philosopher though, just trying my best to express what is in my mind. I just want to pen down my thoughts, because if I do not make an effort to remember, I will forget sometime later.
    The welder shot was quite a lucky one. Actually, there was something interesting, which I did not present in that shot. The welder was standing on the roof frame about 3-4 storeys high, and he did not wear any safety harness or helmet !!

  9. hey bartosz,
    True, macro is all technical. However, I was drawn to macro in the first place, because it reveals a world that our normal eyes are not able to see. I still love macro, and I am returning to macro lately, to improve in my technicalities. Nonetheless, I am emphasizing more on art these days, hence exploring other genres such as streets.

    I see you love street photography too !! Some very lovely photos from your Flickr. And taken with a compact PnS, those are very, very amazing shot.

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  11. Hey man. I'm studying engineering right now, and I quite understand what you are going through, though mostly, as I am experiencing it as well.

    I am currently studying engineering now. As I much as I like to know what makes stuffs tick, I never liked formulas, equations, laws, or any sort of that matter.

    Like you, photography is now my avenue to vent and release my frustrations. I smile every single time when I think of photography. And the joy it brings.

  12. hey keith,
    wow seems like we are on the same boat !!
    Yeah, the formulae and equations, they all can be overwhelming. Too much technicalities can freeze our brain somehow. That is why we need art to balance it. Photography could just the the solution you need to counter-weight the technical force driving your mind.
    OMG I do smile too when I think of photography !!

  13. @robin,

    Really great images. I love the vibrance and life that are in them. I just started a blog about shooting in manual mode. You should think about writing a guest post for the blog. Check it out: http://shootinginmanual.wordpress.com

  14. hey Brian,
    Thanks for the kind words !! I appreciate it.
    Great site you have there !! However, I must admit that I do not shoot in full manual mode though, most of the time I am on Aperture Priority, and I only shoot fully manual if I use the external flash.

  15. OMG !!! this is awesome,see you in KCH sifu Robin.

  16. hey Awang,
    Thanks !! but I am not sifu la, still noob ahahah

  17. I like your blog, I'm seeing myself here. Engineering discipline combined with Photography skills could be a very very strong set of skills. Imagine the use of latest technology combined with the creative passion, it's simply the best there is.

  18. hey,
    i have been going through a somewhat similar stage in my life but instead of discovering photography as my gate way from science, i have started with being a photographer. i am a senior in high school and will be graduating soon and pursuing the studies of chemical engineering. in result i am afraid of losing my artistic life while i study because i know most of my time will be going into engineering. in the end i was just wondering if there was a bridge between the two for you? is photography helping you with you career? as well as your "therapy"?

    i just noticed this was a very old post, i hope you see this... if not it is quite okay.

  19. Hey Robin, this old post resonates with me. I am still learning about how to take compelling pictures. You have mastered the art, man! Your blog site is in my list of favorite photography pages. And those food pictures are killing me. Keep up the good work and thank you for sharing.

  20. Robin, don't be so hard on yourself, you've been able to carry forward your experience in macro photography into doing street portraiture very well!

    Best way to train your eye is to look at as many images as you can from as many sources (Photography & Art books/images)Such resources is limited in Malaysia, but with the internet there are great many other opportunities.

    BTW, you don't have to "sacrifice" your "lenses" because you feel it is limiting your exploration of photography, as you should know it is not the lens.

    Besides your fans here (+Olympus), who do you use to critique your work, talk to you about your heart, and future directions?

  21. Good day Robin...btw Im admire your writing and I believe I'm in the same situation. Being an engineer at the same time I'm wedding photographer.Sometimes need to struggle between engineering and photography,the commitment itself.

  22. Hey robin..... I love your photography but tell me is it good in terms of the money. I mean the job opportunities. I do have an artistic talent also i love to capture things and sometimes they are as good as dslr right from my smartphone.

  23. You say your images still isn't any good and that is where the art comes in. The more you learn the less you know.
    I'd recommend people to be more artistic/go into artistic careers but to be aware of that if you are doing the right things, you will 'never' be satisfied with your work. But in the end, the highs are greater than the lows, and that is what keeps me going.