Saturday, September 06, 2014

To Achieve That "Robin Wong" Look

I find it rather humorous how people can refer to certain look and feel to photographs that look "Robin Wong". Truth to be told, I have not successfully developed a distinctive photography style yet (unlike established photographers, such as Ming Thein and Steve McCurry, one look and you know those are their photos), and I am still in the process of experimentations, trying out different techniques and shooting methods, deciding what works and what do not. I believe photography is a dynamic process that require us to continue to study, dare to try out new and different approaches and push beyond our boundaries of comfort. Growth in photography takes time, and I, like everyone else am still learning. 

However, I have received so many comments here, as well as email and requests on my FB Page asking me to share my "magic settings" or post processing tricks to produce the images I always show here. No one put it better than Tom Hogan when he blogged about "There is no such thing as Magic Settings" (click here to read). I agree with Tom, there really is no special technique or settings that work universally, every scene in photography condition changes, and no matter how we optimize the camera it will never be the same being used at different locations and by different photographers who obviously have different preferences and mindset. I think it is very crucial to acknowledge that what works for me, what I do and practise in photography may not necessarily be the most suitable choice for you, or any one else. Also, there is no right and wrong, just different approaches to get to where you want to. 

Since the requests have been made multiple times, I shall share what I can in this blog entry. No I will not give you that "cheat sheet", instead I will share my thoughts and experience from my shooting background. Why I did certain things in specific manner, and the logic behind my choice of general camera control and setting. 

All images in this blog were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M1 and M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 lens. . 

Innocent Eyes



Sweet and Yellow

Transparent Patriotism


1) Your camera does not know what you want. You have to tell your camera what you want. 

One of the most common misconception made about cameras, is the ability of the camera to read the photographer's mind and automatically produce images that he imagined so beautifully in his mind. No matter how sophisticated and intelligent the camera is, it is after all, just a mere mindless tool, with no heart, no emotion and no thoughts, obviously. It has some processing capabilities, much like a small computer built into the camera, to calculate a few relevant parameters to aid you in photo-taking. Metering, autofocus, are calculated based on an average value. For most cases, the average value given by the camera is good enough, and will almost get you what you wanted, but there are also times when the average values (shutter speed calculation, focusing) deviate from what you wanted to accomplish, hence the images will not come out as expected, for example having underexposed/overexposed images, or images out of focus. 

Some camera  users do not understand how the spot metering works, and just because some of their professional photographer friends told them that spot metering gave you better control over difficult lighting conditions and will be more accurate, does not mean it will help you much if you do not even know how to use it properly. Wrongly spotted metering area will constantly give you inconsistent exposure results, again a classic case of expecting the camera to know what you want. 

Another example is the trend of not using flash. Yes, I know flash will not be the most flattering option, but not having flash and using high ISO combined with slow shutter speed in very dimly lit condition will only yield disaster. The camera does not know you are not putting it on a tripod, and shooting hand-held. The camera cannot decide how fast the shutter speed is needed to freeze that running kid. The camera does not know that seeing high ISO grain is equivalent to end of the world for you. 

You have to insert your own input. 

2) What your camera sees is not what you see. You should see through the camera's eyes, not through your own. 

This problem is inherited from DSLR traditional optical viewfinder, which is an OLD technology being stagnant and not improving for decades now. What you are seeing through the optical viewfinder of a DSLR is basically a mirrored (corrected of course, if mirrorred it would have been a reversed image) image of light through the lens, which is very close to what your eye sees. Yes, it was great having the ability to judge framing and composition based on the lens' coverage, but what the camera sees, processes and ultimately spit out for you will not be the same as what is seen through that optical viewfinder. In fact, no one camera in the world is able to reproduce 100% similar image taken in comparison to what was seen through our naked eyes. 

In modern cameras such as mirrorless Olympus system, you have inclusion of Electronic Viewfinder and Live View. Electronic Viewfinder is basically showing you a processed view, from the image sensor itself, and displaying results which is live and as what the camera sees. What you see through the electronic viewfinder and live view is what you get from the camera. You can judge exposure balance (whether it is bright or dark), white balance, and focus accuracy through the electronic viewfinder, having live feedback as your settings change. This offers a whole world of difference, enabling you to instantly see your results even before shooting. I know there are many Optical Viewfinder loyalists, and I understand that the EVF and Live View technology is still evolving and not perfected yet. But ask yourself this, what else can you do with an optical viewfinder? There is not much more to improve on, but the electronic viewfinder is quite a recent addition in the digital photography world, and is getting better and better in every release of modern cameras. 

The old flaw of not seeing images live through the optical viewfinder has been mitigated in the evolution of Mirrorless System. What you see is what you get is a powerful capability and will give you less error and higher chance of nailing your shots.


Cheerful

Tied Down

The Entrance

Hanging Out

Boots

Stranger 1

Water

Brightness

3) Set your EXPOSURE as accurately as possible. 

If your images are constantly underexposed and overexposed, you will lose image quality as you correct them in post-processing. It is also a cue for you to reconsider your shooting techniques, and question yourself why are your images always not accurately metered. 

I will not comment on how you get your exposure settings right, whether through full manual control (setting all parameters independently, ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture), or Programme, Aperture and Shutter Priority, as I believe you should not get anything too far from the actual results you seek, if you understand how they work and know how to use them to your own needs. I personally shoot with Aperture Priority for most shots, and will use Shutter Priority when shooting images capturing motion (both fast and slow). I rarely do full manual shooting, unless I shoot with an external flash (different conditions) or shooting macro (which is a completely different topic). When shooting Aperture, Shutter Priority and Programme, the "exposure compensation" is your best friend. Some may argue using different metering options will give you better results, but I would say, use the exposure compensation to get what you want. Do not be afraid to go crazy with exposure compensation, I have compensated a backlit situation up to +2 EV to get what I want (note, it is to get what I want, not what is considered right). 

Again, if you have "what you see is what you get" ability in your camera, such as an electronic viewfinder, it will be a lot easier to evaluate what settings are necessary and how much exposure compensation is needed. 

Having accurately exposed image will yield you best color and image detail capture. 

4) FOCUS FOCUS FOCUS

Based on my observation, almost 70-80% of soft images, images that were not as sharp as they should be, where due to out of focus, even by just that slight margin. Pin-point accurate focusing is extremely important to obtain the sharpest image possible. 

One popular focusing technique is having the focusing point set to the center of the screen, then lock the focus there (by half-pressing the shutter button) and the recompose the image before fully pressing the shutter button. This technique will work best if your subjects are not too near to you (10 meters and away) but if your subject is placed relatively close to you (say 1-2 meters away) and you are using a large aperture lens, such as the Olympus 25mm F1.8 lens, then using the focus recompose method will give you inaccurate focus, due to shift in focal plane. This explanation will get very technical, if you want further clarification, kindly do more research on Google. The solution to this problem is to set the focusing point to where you want to focus and make sure your subject is focused correctly. 

Another reason for miss-focusing, is having back or front focus issues with cameras and lenses. Not bashing DSLR here, but it is true that DSLR (using Phase-Detect AF) has much higher tendency of missing focus, either by front and back focusing. This is a simple fix if the camera offers AF Fine Tune adjust in the camera, but this option is only available for higher end DSLR (more expensive ones), not for ALL DSLR especially the entry and mid level. It can be frustrating not being able to get accurately focused images all the times. If you are using cameras employing "contrast-detect AF" (most mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras), the focusing is always accurate and does not suffer any focus inaccuracy. 

Subject movement can also influence your focus accuracy. That man standing there, even if he moved by a few centimeters backward, you will get a slightly out of focus image if you were shooting with F1.8 and F1.4 lenses. Take multiple shots of the same subject, just in case. No matter how reliable you think your continuous focusing is, there is still chance of missing focus. Always take more shots just in case. 

A lot of people complained that they were not able to reproduce the sharpness in their images in comparison to what they see on my blog, well, did you ensure painstakingly that every single image you took were in pin-sharp focus? I do not have 100% hit rate. I do have misses, not because of the camera's fault. it can be me setting the focusing point wrongly, or the subject moved. At the end of the day, of course I only show images that are fully in focus. 

Happy Morning

Gloves

Seeing Double

Windows

Arrangements

Sleepy

Activities 

5) Do your best to get rid of Camera Shake. Always watch the minimum shutter speed

This has to be a conscious decision, deciding the minimum shutter speed required for hand-held shooting. I apply the rule of thumb of 1/focal length as a minimum shutter speed. Whenever I intend to push the shutter speed slower, I will always be extra careful. Surely the Image Stabilization will help in steadying your shots, but it is not magic and will not 100% get rid of shake. For critical shots, I will still make sure I shoot at comfortable minimum shutter speed. How you hand-hold you camera is also important, generally it is crucial to use both hands to hold the camera steady. The best option, which may not necessarily be the most convenient, is to mount the camera on the tripod. 

6) Shoot RAW. Use Olympus Viewer 3

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to shoot RAW, because RAW will store ALL information which can be easily retrieved and reproduced in your final images. 

Then, Olympus Viewer 3 is the BEST software out there to optimize the output of Olympus RAW files. The output from Olympus Viewer 3 is visibly better than any other photo-processing softwares, in terms of fine detail reproduction, color balance as well as high ISO noise suppression (while maintaining good amount of detail). I know that Olympus Viewer 3 is slow, laggy, buggy and probably has two dozens more issues that put everyone off and dropping their consideration to integrate it into the photography workflow, I fully understand. I cannot deny the fact that I seriously love the output of the Olympus Viewer 3, consistently giving me excellent JPEG files. 

So how come my high ISO image samples (in my review blog entries) show so little noise and yet still maintains so much detail? Olympus Viewer 3. NOISE FILTER OFF (most of the time). Noise filter can be added to further suppress the noise, but at the expense of some details of course. 

How can I achieve such incredible sharpness, looking at 100% crops? Did you apply any kind of sharpening? Olympus Viewer 3. NO SHARPENING ADDED. When I set to noise filter off the images always, always come out SHARP. 

The photographs have great color rendering. What software was used to process the images? Olympus Viewer 3. I adjust to correct  my white balance manually sometimes. 

Fanning

Green

Hot

Carmen doing a Selfie with a random kid

Trying out the new Art Filter in E-PL7, Partial Color

7) Having sense of what works, and WHAT Good Photography is. 

This is a subjective topic, so I shall thread lightly. There is this important aspect of photography, called "artistic sense". Not everyone has it naturally, some people are gifted with strong artistic sense (they can make wonderful images with very limited experience in photography), there are those who do not originally have artistic sense, but trained to gain better sense (I fall into this category), and there are some (quite a lot actually) that no matter what they do, how desperate they are, the artistic sense is difficult to come to them. 

Understanding how a good photograph should look can help you prevent from doing certain things that do not work while shooting. Or more importantly, understanding what a good photograph is, and what does not work will surely help you minimize mistakes in taking photographs. The painful truth is there are many people (especially newcomers) who do not know what is good or bad photography, and just blindly click away expecting somehow, miraculously the images they took will garner many likes in Facbook postings or Flickr Groups. 

For myself, it was not easy to develop the artistic sense, it took me many years to learn a few simple things, and even today, sometimes I question myself if I had any at all. How to develop the artistic sense? Immerse yourself in artistic things, listen to music, watch stage art performance, see paintings, read, appreciate poetry, and more importantly, understand yourself and be yourself. While no one can be 100% original, but having ample amount of artistic inspiration will surely help motivate you into pushing your creative boundaries. 

8) "Robin Wong" style does not exist

I do not have any secrets. I do not hide anything or hold anything back. Friends who are with me, shooting with me, and see the whole process of shooting to blog here, will understand that the "Robin Wong" look is a myth, and I am glad to debunk it here. 

See steps 1 to 7, they were usual steps and I have shared them here in blog writing (supplemented with tonnes of images) all this time, nothing is new, nothing is more. There is no special sauce that I use. There is no mysterious technique. 

What makes me different from many others?
Perhaps, I shoot a lot MORE than others. 

There are so many considerations to making a good photograph, and surely it is not logical to make a full list of items to check when shooting. Nevertheless, my principles and beliefs have been stated here. 

I do not trust the camera, I control the camera and manipulate it to get what I want. 

I always remind myself that what I see is different from what the camera sees, and I will see my images from the camera's point of view. (EVF or Live View, with What You See Is What You Get)

I strive to achieve most accurate exposure that I want

I make sure my images are in tack-sharp focus, and steadying the camera the best I can to prevent shake. 

I shoot RAW and process my images in Olympus Viewer 3 for best high ISO noise control and fine detail reproduction. 

If you have followed all these steps, you should be able to achieve the results I normally display here (there are surely many variables to take into account, such as lighting, choice of focal length, etc). 


Carmen Hong in action, with E-PL7

Jackie, also trying the E-PL7 out. He has the silver one. 

Jackie, Carmen and Emily shooting that poor little baby. Emily uses an E-M10 which she has purchased recently. 

Oh... and most importantly...

9) Have Fun while shooting. Enjoy SHUTTER THERAPY. 

If you fail to do just this one step, EVERYTHING else before this does not even matter. Trust me. 

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31 comments :

  1. I'm here! And I read the post. :p

    Haha, I LOL-ed at No.6 and I promise I will give it a try with my new desktop once that arrives. :D

    I love Arrangements, btw. Looking forward to the next shutter therapy!

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    1. Thanks for coming and I hope you enjoyed the E-PL7. Looking forward to reading your blog update.

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  2. Wonderful, wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. I like this post, particularly when you mention the GREAT utility of the EVF. I am a happy owner of an OM-D E-M1, and using EVF has greatly improved the quality of my pictures.
    Speaking about OV3, I assume that the same RAW conversion engine is used by the E-M1 when it creates JPG files, but it is MUCH MUCH FASTER in the camera than in the software. Which setting do you suggest for having a JPG which is as close as possible to the image actually viewed by the sensor? (I know that the answer can change depending on situation, but which is the solution which is good for most of situations?) I found that the ‘Natural’ setting, used by most, renders an image which is too flat and too ‘pale’, when compared to the ORF file which I can then manipulate by OV3 (or LR, or others).
    Francesco

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    1. I agree it is much faster to do it in camera. Having the flexibilty of RAW is important to me, to adjust White balance as well as having that extra headroom for shadow and highlight recovery, if necessary (seldom do, but just in case).

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    2. Yes, of course I also prefer and use very often the RAW files, however when shooting in RAW+JPG, or maybe in just JPG, having a JPG file which is ready to be used can be useful in some case. Just, I can't find a pre-setting (natural, vivid, muted, portrait...) which fully satisfies me, so I have to come back, very often, to the 'manual' adjustments of RAW files. Any suggestion for JPG setting? (I really like, however, the 'art' pre-settings, also because in those cases there is no need to having an accurate color and contrast reproduction)

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    3. I basically set everything to default "0" or normal. No additional sharpening or contrast or sharpening. For my review blog entries I set the Noise Filter to OFF. For my usual shooting and own usage, normally I set the noise filter to LOW. I am ok with the little detail loss, but having a cleaner overall image. I use Auto White Balance, but I will tweak it manually since I was shooting RAW, so if you shoot JPEG you might want to watch out in case the white balance is not what you expect from the camera.

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  4. After reading you blog, I immediately became intruiged with Olympus Viewer 3. Especially when you mentioned that you never had to do any sharpening. This is really great info! I defintely give Olympus Viewer 3 a try!

    Great blog as always!

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    1. You should give it a try. By default, the "0" sharpening setting already is very good, and some actually tone it down for more natural looking results.

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    2. Robin, just installed OV3 and it's really quite simple to use. I only have 1 question though, sorry if this sounds stupid. You mentioned that you set "Noise Filter" to off on OV3. Is it the same as setting it to off on the camera?

      Thanks!

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    3. Yes, the Noise Filter is exactly the same as in the camera. So if you have chosen certain settings in camera, in RAW, it will capture that information and apply by default by Olympus Viewer 3. Hence, you can change the settings and that is one of the wonderful flexibilities of shooting RAW.

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  5. I thought this was going to be out buying clothes, getting a hair cut, etc. to get that Robin Wong look. To my surprise, it's all about photography. :-D

    I continue to think about taking photos like yours, but I just never seem to take the time. Photographing sports is more challenging to me and less tedious than experimenting with settings. That said, I'm experimenting more these days with modeling-type photography and portraits.

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    1. Oh dear, I am not really a guy to refer to when it comes to Fashion.

      I think it is crucial to continue experimenting and trying different techniques. And I am glad to hear that you are doing so!

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  6. Hi Robin, thanks for all info. I am a happy EM-1 owner and am very impressed with your focusing ability, specially on moving subjects. Can you kindly share what methods you use the most (single, constant, manual) and what additional techniques (enlarging, peaking, face recognition, eye recognition)? So may options! Maybe you just use one or two and master it really well, I still keep switching a lot. Thanks for the fantastic blog!

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    1. I use Single-AF, and set the focusing point to where I want to focus. That includes moving subject and I find that even S-AF is quick enough most of the time (well, I do not shoot sports or fast action scenes). After you hear the AF confirmation "teet teet" you must press the shutter button quickly.

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  7. Hey Robin - nice set of photos and some excellent advice. The one consistent feature of the photos you share, or maybe I could say one of the most important things about your images is that they so wonderfully display street life in KL and Malaysia. My main interest in viewing your work is to enjoy seeing the culture they convey, and because the quality is first rate nothing interferes with the depiction of the subject matter. Your images always remind me of my time in Asia. Thanks for the good work.

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    1. HI David,
      Thanks for the kind words! I think what you were referring to was the subject content in photography, which is also very important. Having a story, message or idea to convey are important, not just creating visually interesting images.

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  8. Two questions Robin:
    1) What would be your second processing software of choice?
    2) What are your thoughts on the Pana/Leica 15mm? Will you be reviewing it? I haven't seen many reviews of this lens.

    Thank you!

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    1. Hi Guillermo,
      For my post processing softwares and technique, please refer to this blog entry here http://robinwong.blogspot.com/2014/01/my-post-processing-for-blogging-purposes.html

      I have only a short encounter with the Panasonic 15mm lens. I do not think I will be reviewing it. If I say bad things about the lens, I will get bashed by one party. If I say good things about it, I might get bashed by another. I will keep my reviews to only Olympus products

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  9. Robin,
    Thanks for your informative blog.
    I had not heard of Olympus Viewer 3 until reading this blog post. How does it differ from a Olympus Viewer 2 which came with my E-M5 and which I have updated?

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    1. Olympus Viewer 3 can be downloaded free from Olympus Website. It is the upgraded version from Olympus Viewer 2, added few features and surely is more efficient.

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  10. Hello Robin, I'm very glad to know that you use so little postproduction and that Olympus Viewer 3 is the best partner for Olympus Raw, because I'm in a budget and I surely prefer to spend my money in a wonderful lens like the 45 mm f1,8, rather than purchase a software like Adobe Lightroom or similar ones. Thanks to your wonderful pictures I decided to sell my Fuji S5 and to buy an OMD-EM10 that is on the way: you certainly know that Fuji S5 is world famous for its JPEG out of camera: I'm sure that with your advices I will obtain wonderful JPEGs just out of OV3!
    Thank you again and best regards,
    Luca - Italy

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  11. It's been a while since I last visited. Great photos as usual. Keep it up !

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  12. Robin,
    In Viewer 3, there is an option to export as ".tiff" instead of .jpg" , does "tiff" going to yield better results in the final editing using other 3rd party software (assuming if the software supports ".tiff") ?

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    1. Dear Teoh,
      Tiff is a file format for very specific usage (you can do some reading/research). For most use, JPEG is good enough.

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  13. I types something, but Im not sure if its in.
    Anyway, number 9 is very true. I cant comment on the others since I dont really take photos anymore.

    Keep up the good work bro. Your photos are superb! Kind of made me miss walking around Kuching, but I've no time nowadays =(

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  14. So here's the question of the day: Does anyone know of a good tutorial for Olympus Viewer 3? That's the real trick here, I think.

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  15. Robin, I have a question re: Olympus Viewer 3 too. I watched your post-processing video and noticed you never select "Distortion Correction". Is that because automatic correction is applied when reading the raw files in, before doing any edits? But what is the purpose then of that option in the "Edit" menu, and specifically the "Auto" setting there? Can you please explain why you never select "Distortion Correction"? Thanks so much!

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  16. Thanks for this very informative article Robin.
    Do you shoot in sRGB or Adobe RGB and why?
    Regards,
    Miike

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  17. Robin, I've been reviewing your focusing tips. One thing is not clear to me. When you say you set the focus to where you want it, is that using the screen grid?

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