Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sudden Shutter Therapy Sunday

I have been deprived of shutter therapy sessions lately. For the previous few weeks, I have been rather busy with my day job at the construction site, and on the weekends, as I have blogged I have had full actual day weddings which I have covered for three consecutive weekends, including a new one yesterday. It is quite scary watching my time slowly being sapped away just like that, without much time for myself, to do the things I want to do, and to have proper rest. All the remaining free time were spent on post processing for the wedding assignment, and I suddenly feel like a photoshop zombie now. There was no time for shutter therapy at all, and no shutter therapy is directly equivalent to a very unhappy Robin Wong.

I woke up to a cloudy late Sunday morning, preparing myself for an afternoon shooting session with a photographer friend Aaron Chin (do hop over his site, he has some serious talent that I truly admire). Suddenly, I received a call from Aaron about the cancellation of the shooting session. There and then, I suddenly have a whole afternoon to myself, finally !! There was really only one thought that crossed my mind: hit the streets. Not even considering the gloomy sky with high chance of thunderstorm, I headed out of my house, jumped into the next train to Chow Kit, my most favourite spot for street hunting.

Silhouette of pigeons against the KL Tower, an iconic landmark in Malaysia.

Burst of laughter. It was amazing how fast and accurate the 50mm f2 macro autofocus is being used on the Olympus E-5, in such situations that require lightning fast response.

Fortune telling.

Waiting at the bus stop.

For the first time, I finally felt like myself again !!

I do not know quite how to explain this, for the past 3 weeks I have not had my usual shutter therapy, I somehow felt that my week was not complete. It was as if I have not fulfilled a very important duty. When I was on the streets earlier this afternoon, I felt whole again. I felt free and really full of joy that I think it somehow showed on my face. The people on the streets today reacted rather differently to me, and I think they must have noticed something different in me. I was happy, and the chain reaction affected the entire process of photography, the subjects I was photographing responded to my expression, and I think in the end, really I was actually capturing what I was expressing in the first place !! I know this is hard to believe, but I thought it was what happened through this afternoon’s session, for many of my shots evidently shown here.

The wonderful thing about street photography is not so much about how you photograph or play with the camera, but more on what you photograph. It does not place too much emphasis on how good your camera is, or how well you control your camera (although both can aid greatly in achieving what you intended to accomplish) but more on how you find your photography subjects, and what you choose to put in your frame in the end. As the streets of Chow Kit are full of people, living their everyday lives, showing the true and beautiful colours of true Malaysian identity, it is only natural that one would be attracted to the people as their main subject.

Where did the feet go?

Shelter from rain. You can see the light drizzle on the shadow area of the container.

Concerned parents. They were trying to cross a 4 lanes road with heavy traffic. If you know the horrendous conditions of Malaysian traffic, you should be worried too.

This old dude was sitting in a back alley.

Bent back. It was quite a gut wrenching sight seeing this old man struggled as he walked.

A tree that grew and stuck itself on a building.
DRAMATIC TONE Art Filter applied.

Many debates have been spawned for decades on which method works best In street photography in terms of approaching people.

There are the traditionalists that demanded the importance on asking permission before photographing any human being. There are also many naturalists that preferred everything at their original conditions without the interference of the photographer to pollute the scene. There are photographers who would go to the extreme to capture scenes of drug dealings and prostitution taking place. Whichever approach that have been utilized I can crudely break them down into different categories, defined by the awareness of the photography subject towards the photographer’s presence. The stronger the awareness of photographer’s presence, the less natural the photograph will turn out to be. Conversely, the lesser the awareness of the photographer’s presence, the lesser the interference is being introduced to the scene. I am not going to argue which is better, or which is worse, but I do think each approach works in different situations more effectively, and the photographer must be prudent enough to select which method that worked best at that particular given situation.

The level of awareness of photographer’s presense:

1) Subject is totally unaware of photographer’s presence.

This can be accomplished by using a super long tele-lens, such as 70-300mm lens and you can quietly, stealthily, attacked your subject from quite a far and safe distance. The results are completely natural, unobstructed photograph. In situations when you know it is not safe to get near, or certain subjects that you know for sure would not allow you permission to photograph them (such as beggars, homeless and handicaps) this is the best weapon of choice. Also, people are less likely to feel threatened because you are standing quite far away. The drawback of this approach would be the absence of connection between the subject and the photographer. There is no intimacy, no engagement in whatever manner that it feels as if the subject is far away, isolated in its world, without speaking directly to the viewer.

Incomplete construction.
DRAMATIC TONE Art Filter applied.

The head is still attached.

The dead mileage. PIN HOLE Art Filter applied.

Joyful Sunday by the roadside.

Waiting patiently for the cobbler.

I smiled to this guy, and this was how he reacted to me..... so I snapped it.

2) Subject is aware of the photographer’s presence, but unaware that the photographer is photographing the subject.

To get close to your subject means you have compromised your cover, since your camera, no matter which form, small or big (compact, PEN or DSLR of various sizes) gave away the fact that you are a photographer. They may be aware that you are near, and you have a camera, but they wont pounce on you just yet, since you are not showing any offence. The trick is to do a Hip Shot, getting in really close, walking by the subject, and point the camera at them snapping away without them realizing what you just did.

This is a very powerful technique. Using a wide angle lens, pointing from a low angle at such dangerously close distance can yield powerful impact. Tips: do not look at your subject when you photograph them at hip level, do not look at your camera and walk casually by without chimping. The closeness is something to be desired, yet at the same time the original natural conditions of the subject were preserved. This is also the most fun technique to employ, because the results can be very unexpected. However, the disadvantages of this method would be the difficulty in composing, since you shoot without looking through the viewfinder/live view. You can get a shot of a man with half his head being chopped off, or probably captured nothing at all if you angled your camera wrongly. Focusing can be an issue, since where you point the camera can be rather random. Nonetheless, for any failed attempts, the frustration is easily killed off by the successful ones.

Backs on the wall.

Riding a bike with my mum.

And the bike carries coconuts too.

They posed for me, thinking that their photos might end up in newspaper.

3) Subject is aware of the photographer’s presence, and know that the photographer is photographing the subject.

In this case, you will have no choice but to ask permission to photograph the subject, or hit and run.

Asking permission would be a wise thing to do, and a lot of people on the streets can surprise you at times, being very friendly. Some would strike up conversations, and even make friends. Then you photograph them, with their full consent. This approach is a safe approach, and you get intimate subjects, because how the subject sees the photographer is being captured. There is direct eye contact, and the subject is fully connected to the photographer at the time he is being captured. This falls into the category of street portraits. Nonetheless, the sense of being natural and not interrupted is compromised. If the subject is doing something, for example a cobbler mending shoes, it would be completely unnatural for the photograph to have eye contact, since you do not look at people when you mend the shoes !! Or worse, they could abandon what they were doing, and just stand still and pose for you, which will then create an empty photograph of a man, lacking anything else that would have otherwise made him an interesting subject.

On the other hand, hit and run technique is quite the opposite. Although the subject is fully aware of the photographer’s presence and his attention to photograph the subject, the photographer can work his hand and camera so quickly that the subject has no chance to respond. With the blinding speed of DSLR AutoFocus, this method can be achieved. Normally if you just attacked one or two shots, smiled at them and moved on, they would not really care and be bothered by you at all. One important thing, always, always smile. I did this a lot, because I was already so close, and I just pointed the camera and snapped away, and quickly moved on. This approach preserves the natural conditions very well, because the subject has not reacted to the presence of the camera and photographer just yet. You are standing at the close enough range, looked through the viewfinder to compose the way you want it, and you nailed the shot just as it was on the scene with minimal, if no interference. If the subject started reacting negatively and pulled out a knife, it was a cue for you to apologize, or run. I suggest the later.

It would be great if there is another guy photographing me photographing this kid pointing that thing at me.

Wow, that was a LOT of bags !!!

Kiwi fruits.

Vegetables served by a lady.

Two friends lounging out in the open.

I used a combination of all the approaches mentioned above. There are situations when some did not work out well, and I missed some really good opportunities. An important thing to keep in mind, if you miss one shot, it is ok, live with it, learn to overcome the mistakes, and grab that next coming opportunity. The street is so full of photography subjects, they just beg to be photographed. Furthermore, it is also important not to do anything crazily stupid and provoke a scene. If your request to photograph has been rejected, just smile and walk on.

I truly do wonder, how many people actually had gone street hunting in Chow Kit. I seriously have met very, very few photographers there. It does seem like Chow Kit is not a very popular place. Of course, it is known that the streets there are not exactly safe for an evening walk, but I like the authenticity of the place, the distinctive identity of the people there and how everything is so opposite of what you see about Malaysia through the televisions or tourism adverts.

I do am not sure when will I be free for shutter therapy sessions again. Looking at the items lined up for the coming weeks is not very encouraging indeed. I shall do my best to make time for shutter therapy, and God knows I need it badly.


  1. i misssssssssss shutteeer therappyy, gosh, i cant even type right~~

  2. Hey gerald,
    I have got another wedding to cover next weekend, and the weekend after next I will be in my hometown Kuching. Go find Yeow and Lee ahaha I think they are forever ready for shutter therapy !!

  3. Robin, I have trouble loading all of your photos. Many of them only show partially :/


  4. Hey Bartosz,
    I have hosted the images on another site. Please kindly refresh the page, do let me know if you still can't see the photos. Hope everything is working fine now. Thanks for informing.

  5. You're a shutter therapy... addict! :P

  6. Chong,
    I am, and proud to be one !!

  7. Yay! Now I can see all of your photos! :) I love that photo "Shelter for rain". You composed that very nicely. And there are some great advices for street shooting. Thanks!

    Please visit my flickr account, I have added new photos :)

  8. Hello Bartosz,
    Glad that the photos are working fine now. Thanks for the compliments, I shared what I could. Will check your flickr regularly, no worries mate !!

  9. Noton in his book "Waiting for the Light" has one photo taken in Chow Kit :) It instantly reminded me of you! Check that book out, it's really awesome.

  10. HI Bartosz,
    Wow, I am sure any street photographer would love Chow Kit !! thanks for the heads up, will surely look if the book is available at the local store.

  11. Come and join us Gerald. we are "safer" than Chow Kit :)

  12. nice tips on taking photos of people on the street ;)