What You Shoot Is More Important Than How You Shoot

I remember the time when I just first stepped into the world of photography, where everything was new, tempting and exciting. From the gear point of perspective, there were so many lenses to lust for, that ultra wide angle, that super long gigantic lens, or that macro lens, all seem like they can make my life so much better. Then there were endless list of shooting techniques to explore: HDR photography, long shutter speed exposure, etc and of course. being overly adventurous when it comes to post-processing, spending heaps of time trying to make the photograph look better by sliding the adjustment bars here and there and clicking a few more magic buttons to add that "creative" effect. The burning sensation, and the stamina to go on and on were abundant. However, as I went along the journey, little by little, the processes that used to entice me got stripped away. After countless hours of shooting session, only I came to realize photography is a lot more about seeing, conveying my personal vision and inner voice, and imprinting parts and pieces of my own characteristics and personality into my pictures. 

Gone were the days of "I wish I had that lens", or exploring funky techniques, or copy some unorthodox shooting methods done by popular photographers. Now, when I am out there shooting, I am happy with an obsolete Sony A350 (the camera is.... 6 years old?), and just one or two of the cheapest prime lenses in the Sony lens line-up: 35mm F1.8 or 50mm F1.8, and I never wished for anything more. Instead of trying to process my images to make them "pop", now I am more inclined to just convert my files to black and white, and actually I found myself loving black and white more often than I originally thought I would. Everything has been simplified, and the main focus was shifted heavily on finding my subject, creating a vision and making that happen in photographs. I still find myself struggling in this area: translating my visual thoughts into physical images (well... I consider pixels as physical quantifiable entities), but I have noticed my lack of strength in this area, and I am pushing myself to see better, and really shoot more than just technically accurate photograph. I believe photography is a lot more than just properly focused, accurately exposed images. 

All images in this entry were taken with Sony Alpha A350 and 50mm F1.8 or 35mm F1.8 lens

Taking Off

Morning Coffee

Breakfast Companion

Looking at the Photographer

Edge of a Building

Bare Feet

Walking Out

In the very beginning, most of photography new-comers would struggle with "how" to shoot. What is the right aperture, is the lens sufficiently wide open to create shallow depth of field, should I worry about the high ISO noise if I push further one more stop, did I switch back the white balance settings to Auto.... will the focusing be fast enough to grab that moving shot, etc. Well, all those thoughts will always run around in the head somewhere, but they should not be the deciding factor of creating a good photograph. The main question I ask myself now, is not "how" to shoot, but "what" to shoot. Choosing the right subject matter, deciding on the interesting point of view, and knowing "what" works in a good image, those are the main priorities in determining the shot. Only after I figured out "what" I want to shoot, then the "how" to make it happen came along. 

For example, the photo of the cat above in "Looking at the photographer". I saw that the cat was standing at the walkway, that was the initial impression. Then I asked myself "what" I wanted to do with the cat in the shot, and I decided I needed a good background, and conveniently there was a few men nearby doing something at the back kitchen. Immediately I decided in the photograph, the cat would be the foreground and the men in the background, I moved myself until the positions aligned the way I had in mind. Now I have my subjects right (both foreground and background) I decided on my composition next. I wanted to include a lot more of the surrounding to strengthen the main subject. I wanted more width. On my Sony A350, I had the 35mm F1.8 on, which was barely a wide angle lens. To compose the frame to see the side red wall (which was nice) and a bit of the zinc roof to create the sense of location, I moved myself back about 4-5 steps. All the above happened in about 3 seconds, and as I was making final composition my other fingers were fiddling with the settings: setting the aperture wide open to F1.8 for shallow depth of field (I love bokeh) and setting the focus point to the right position. Now was the time to figure out how the shot worked, and I knew to shoot an animal, it was best to get down to their eye level, so I bent down and turned the live view on, and I took one shot. I was not satisfied because the cat initially was not looking at me. I made sure everything was setup properly, and then I "meowed" at the cat, thankfully it responded and it looked back at me, voila!! I immediately clicked the shutter button. 

I doubt that shot would win any awards. I do not think anyone else will think that it was anything special. To me, it was my own vision that made the photograph happen, and I wanted it that way. It fulfilled "what" I wanted to shoot, and as I got the shot, there was a sense of satisfaction, no matter how simple the photograph turned out to be. It did not matter if my gear was cheap and lousy. It did not matter if the image was almost straight out of camera with no "magic" post-processing to turn the cat into a tiger. It was the whole process of getting the shot that was really fun, and worth going out there and shoot. This was the part that got me going and going. 


Cooked vs Raw


In the pot

Incense coils

Joss sticks

Friendly stranger

I think it is extremely crucial to decide what you really want in your photograph, before shooting. Often I noticed new comers to photography just randomly shooting away, hoping that they would capture that lucky shot. Or they thought that anything that their amazing latest super megapixel high ISO camera with lenses (that are so expensive that you can buy a car with it) can automatically create national geographic kind of images. I think the sense of knowing what works and what do not only develop over time, similarly this applies to personal photography style. 

Getting the basics right is paramount for any new photographers, I must admit that. Hence, concentrating on the technicalities of photography, it is rather difficult to think about the other part of the photograph which you cannot directly control from the camera (how to direct your portrait model to pose, how to control the lighting setup, how to find the right angle to shoot the flower). Only when you have reached a level where you are comfortable with the camera controls, with no second guessing on the exact aperture opening you want for a shot, or knowing how slow the shutter speed is needed for a particular panning moving shot, and most important of all: having absolute confidence on the trinity exposure relationship (aperture-ISO-shutter speed): then you can progress further, because those technical settings will no longer get in the way of your shooting. The main thought process should be the main subject, what you can do to capture it creatively, not what shutter speed or ISO for the subject !! 

Most people would easily understand what shutter speed, aperture and ISO are, individually. When you combine all three together, most of the time, everything fell into a mess. If you have not mastered these very basics, take up photography courses, workshop, find a mentor, practice, practice, practice and practice until you get it imprinted in your head. Mastering your camera settings with ease will open yourself more flexibility and possibilities, because your main thought process centers on what you are shooting, not how you set the camera. 

Kevin, Moon and Ripi

That... that..... evil temptation !!!!

Ripi giving it a go

Kevin testing out that amazing RX1. Amazing camera, seriously. 

And finally, that was me in action. Thanks Kevin for the snap.
Photo Credit: Kevin Ng, taken with Sony RX1

On the personal side of things, my work has become unexpectedly busy, eating out a huge chunk of whatever that was left of my free time. I have been working on the past few Saturdays, hence no shutter therapy session, and it has been about 3 weeks since I last shot on the street !!! Imagine how itchy my hands were, and I actually bargained my way out of work for today. To be fair, I stayed up working overtime till midnight for the past week, everyday, and on Thurday night, I actually stayed until Friday morning ungodly 2.00am, supervising a construction site, and got home about 2.30am. Yet at 8am, I have to start my work on site all over again. I then told my colleagues I needed rest and they all agreed that having Saturday off was not too far of a stretch that I actually deserve, after all that late nights. 

Kevin texted me last night asking if I would be free to accompany him as he wwas going to test his Sony RX1 on the streets. I immediately said yes. As we were shooting at Petaling Street, Ripi suddenly called and asked to join me, because his morning shooting session at the Putrajaya Hot Air Balloon Festival has ended early. Joining Ripi was Moon, and then we moved as a group, which was rather spontaneous, but hey, I think this was the most fun I have had for weeks. I know I have been involved with huge photography functions, such as the Sony Experience (conference whole day thing), Olympus Macro workshop and the Fujifilm Athena Carey photowalk thing, but nothing truly beats a relaxing, slow walk, and shooting on the streets. Shutter therapy was what I have been missing the past few weeks, and being able to do it this morning with a group of beautiful people, I was happy and suddenly all the stress and pressure from work were lifted. 

The weekend is still young. Tomorrow, MORE SHUTTER THERAPY !!!!!!!!!


  1. Valuable thoughts, born of experience. Thanks, Robin!

    1. Cheers, Reverend !! Hope some will find it useful.

  2. Very true what you write here Robin, and oh, I love that cat image! I wouldn't have meowed I guess, because I'm more observer than director, but wow what a result! Congrats man...

    (I'm not saying that the one or other technique is better, in my case that cat would probably have walked away without me getting the shot you did. What counts are results, so I mean it - you've had a great result here)

    1. Thanks Wolfgang !!
      Well, it comes down to what you wanted in the image. If you do not intend to pollute the image, then of course, not meowing is the right thing to do. I wanted eye contact, hence I tried my luck meowing !

  3. I enjoy watching your pics as much as reading your stories, good job Robin!

  4. Ah, exactly what I have been musing for a few months. The content is THE major factor given that you are not having fundamental exposure, focus, under performing / inappropriate gear.

    Has anyone bought the RX1 yet?

    Hello Ripi!

    1. Hey Ananda,
      Indeed, content is very important !
      No one within my circle of friends had the RX1. I think it is just too expensive. But I think it is a great camera nonetheless.
      Will be seeing Ripi again tomorrow, I will say hi to him for you.

  5. I think it's a combination of both. Not everyone has the constant opportunity to shoot compelling subject matter every time.

    1. You do need both to create a good photograph. However, when I am awed by a great photo, it is rare for me to admire its technical perfection. It is often the content that makes the biggest impression.

  6. Hi Robin !
    Thanks very much for sharing the pearls of wisdom with us ....your readers !
    Often we re so distracted by the thought 'only if I had that new lense /software /shiny piece of new equipment my photos would be so much better ...' that we forget that we are here to find and express our unique creative point of view ...
    Thank u for getting us to be focussed again ....:)

    1. No worries!! Being focused is very important.

  7. Love the shots... You have a point here Robin... What to shoot is more important... but one has to master his camera first! Robin, what are the prospects of becoming professional photographer in Malaysia? Can one really earn a living out of it?

    1. Thanks for the kind words Johan. Being a photographer as a living is not easy here, and surely, there are too many photographers around already.

  8. Ah, the magical name of Zeiss on that RX1. A tempting piece of equipment indeed, but very expensive. Like you say, its the content, not so much the technical qualities that actually nail the shot. Although having both helps... then again, I still love my Jurassic D80. I've seen some fantastic photographs produced by a pro using a.... cellphone!

    1. Hey Andre,
      That D80 is not a Jurassic, it is still a great camera !!

  9. Long time follower, first time poster here. But after this entry and your amazing work at Holi festival I had to write something.
    Absolutely love your blog. Your photography is a testament to the art and technique itself instead of latest technic.
    I totally felt with you about that cat shot. Sure, there are many great shots one takes over the years which happened out of pure luck. However, I cherish those the most, that I took having a visualization first, and figuring out how to conserve my visuals in a photograph. Maybe those are often enough no special shots, and don't really hold a candle to lucky shots that are visually more powerful, but they are "my" photographs, and to me those are more important than the shots I happened to actuate the shutter at just the right time out of pure luck.

    1. Thanks phlOw for the kind words !!
      Yes I agree that sometimes luck play more important part, as the same goes to everything else in life. Do not worry about snything else, the most important thing is to shoot it the way you want it, so that the image is yours !

  10. You photographs demonstrate the important ingredients into making great pictures-

    Your passion,
    Your vision &
    Your skills and talents.

    Your gear (camera phone, P & shoot or M4/3 or any camera) plays a minor part in getting those great shots.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks TH Wong for the kind words. There is still more to learn and explore !!

  11. ello robin..
    i agreed with u robin..its remind me when 1st time i bought d gear..i always ask myself how to shoot d pic..how to take a great pic..how to capture a great moment..how to compose d object..and many more..bcoz of that i always search at d web all info about photography..try to shoot like d others but d result is not what i need..then i realized..i need to learn d basic..i must start from '0' ..after that i found in d web about workshop that i can attend..i join that workshop till now..still in learning process n i enjoy it..and then i know what type photography that suit me.. " d important is what u want to shoot..what story that u want to tell..dont shy if u dunno some setting..just ask from d expert..sharing is better thsn silent.."
    will see u n join u to take a pic..
    *hadi nik*

    1. Thanks for the kind words Hadi !! Yes do join us next time for any shooting !!

  12. I agree a lot. For me, I thought the technical bit would be very easy, so I took it one step at a time. Also, I very quickly realized that the moment you see something worth shooting is the wrong moment to learn the tech stuff. I learned most of it by taking boring pictures of the furniture in my apartment and never show them to anybody. And of course I used everything auto in the beginning. Also, I almost never used flash until I felt confident that I knew available light photography very well. I bought the CV25/0.95 to make sure I had lots of light. :)

    Then, of course, comes the stuff you have to get outside to learn. How subjects behave, where to find interesting subjects etc. As a windsurfer I always wanted to shoot windsurfing and recently I realized I had grossly underestimated how fast shutter speed I needed. Everything slower than 1/1000 s came out blurry!

    Happy shutter therapy! Back in sweden, I now long for spring, so I can find other things to shoot than lifeless landscapes and hunched people hurrying to get back indoors.

    1. Hey Rasmus,
      Now you have brought out a very important point which was shared with me by my friends Amir and Sanjit: know your subjects well, and do your research. Simple planning and preparations will go a long way in creating better images. Knowing your subjects, understanding the characteristics (best way to shoot, optimum time, etc) will surely benefit the photographer heaps.

  13. Great post as usually. Thank you for your thoughts and pictures.

  14. Great post as usually. Thank you for your thoughts and pictures.

  15. Hi Robin,
    Very valuable piece of advice with examples to really encourage a newbie like me to advance and enjoy photography. Your posts are interesting and benefitial.

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