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Tips

On Personal Work (and also a departed railway station)

One of the things that I figured I should write about is the personal project. I recently stumbled upon a great article regarding this and will also be drawing out quotes here and there in the process. Anything in italics is quoted from the article.

Photoessays/stories and other larger bodies of work are what will become the portfolio of any photographer. While a great single might win you a POYI or two, it’s the projects that most editors will look at, they are the equivalent of a results sheet to a photographer. Which is why they are so incredibly important.

For my first mentorship, we were mentored on how to do a long photo project, the entire project compressed into a number of days of non-stop shooting which taught us more than we had ever learnt before. Doing a long term work is important “if you care about growing as a photographer and therefore as a person” Indeed, if I had never done my first long term work (the railway images that you’ve been seeing here and there), I probably wouldn’t be here blogging away and many other things would never have happened.

“I’d suggest starting with a subject that you care about, whether you stumble upon it or have to push yourself to figure out what you care about. The more outside of your interest or what matters to you the subject is, the harder it will be to stick with the effort.”

Personally, I’ve had a fixation with things from the past, this sentimental obsession that plagues my every day life (including my music preferences). The closure of the station was to me a no brainer really. It coincided with my mentorship and it fit in perfectly with my overly sentimental/romantic ideals.

farewell, mother and son

Once you have a topic or a subject, start doing research. Learn everything you can about that person, that place, that subject. See what else has been written, photographed, researched.

Unfortunately I didn’t have a lot of time to conduct research, and there wasn’t a great deal about it anyway. Only a single page from Wikipedia. Most of my research was done on the ground, interviewing all the stallholders, getting a feel of the location and spending hours just sitting there. It was through this method of just being there through which I got most of my information (and also, images).

Shopkeeper Mala with her daughter who does not intend to continue the business, but instead intends to go into the travel industry

The goal then is to find an approach to the subject that tells an interesting story

By entering a realm with your camera, you’ll begin to understand things more deeply, you’ll see things you can’t from afar and realize potentials.

I can find no better way to phrase this really. With my camera in hand, it not only opened me up to new opportunities, it also made me look at things more closely and visually and the extra attention yielded knowledge or ways to see that I had previously not seen. Honestly, there are only so many ways that you can photograph a train station before you get repeats. The trick is in seeing new things, things that were previously unseen. Out of the many images I took, there were remarkably few repeats. It was a nonstop process of experimentation of new things to figure out what worked and what didn’t.

Of course not everything you photograph will end up in the final edits.

Remarkably true. Out of all the images that I took (going into the low thousands), there are only 50 or so that are really remarkable and usable. As I said before, numbers help (to a certain extent). It was a brutal but necessary step to slash everything that I felt didn’t belong in the set. In the end, for my final exhibition, there were only 5 images. (Though others have ended up in other places).

one thing to ask yourself is if you want the project to end by asking or answering a question, by leaving things all neatly concluded or leaving loose ends for the viewer to wonder about?

And is there ever an end to a photo project? To me I believe that it’s all a matter of interest. Once you’ve grown tired of something, it will show in your images. The best images are made from things that you are passionate about, because you will give your all to make sure they work. Sometimes what is needed is to step back and just review everything that you have. And other times, if you feel that you have hit a dead end, it’s perfectly fine to cut all ties. Your work can only be as good as you believe it will be.

for me, there was a definite ending. Here, the Sultan of Johore salutes to the gathered crowd before he drives the last train out of the station.

But most important of all is that you begin. It doesn’t matter what or how, just as most people have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, it’s always the starting that is the most difficult. Get past that, and nothing will hold you back.

As promised, the link to the well-written article on the longer form of photography (the visual narrative)!

Shopkeeper, Naseer, embraces his niece as the station nears it's last day and he prepares to move out to the new station in Woodlands.


Knowing your history, photographically.

While some of us might have dropped the subject as early on as we could’ve, history is still a very integral part of photography as well as photojournalism. (History itself is quite important, but that’s for another time.) Knowing the images that have defined photojournalism and brought it to what it is now is probably one of the best things you can do for your photographic education. Aside from throwing around big names that everyone knows, it’s just as important to be able to recall photos from your memory, not only because you can reframe them in the modern context but also so that it’s possible to visualize and understand what goes into a great photo.

And aside from all that, it’s great fun being able to look at new work and go ‘I’ve seen that before’ or something like that.

One of the most prominent instances of this (which was also quite recent) was the reproduction of the famous Iwo Jima image.

Image by Joe Rosenthal

Just about anyone has seen this landmark image, and something like this came right out of the aftermath of 9/11.

Image by Thomas E Franklin

while the two images are not necessarily identical in composition, the idea is present in both. The tilted flagpole at an angle coming up from the same side of the frame. The presence of Americans in both images and of course, Old Glory perched right atop both flagpoles.

The editor who chose the 9/11 image as the front page cover of the next day’s news article said he selected the image to give American audiences a sense of hope and repair after all the trauma that had occurred; chillingly similar to the sentiments reflected in the earlier photo.

As if to reflect the importance of flags, there is yet another image which is quite important for it’s time.

Image by Yevgeny Khaldei

This photo is by Yevgeny Khaldei and it’s another one of the iconic images of history. Once again the use of the flag as a symbol of national pride, as well as the importance of it being taken over the Reichstag during the fall of Berlin.

It’s interesting to note that in all 3 images the flags are at a set angle and the individuals are all men from a certain sector of society. All the images were produced at a significant point in history (although there are years in between them).

Another case of striking similarity that I noticed was from Don McCullin’s work.

 image by Don McCullin

It brought to mind this image from last year

Image by Rich Lam

This was taken during last year’s Vancouver riots and all the controversy aside, visually the images are remarkably alike.

So what does this mean?

Well for one, knowing the visual history of photojournalism is extremely useful for being able to summon up images/work to mind would be helpful for any photographer who was teaching others or trying to evaluate his own work.

But that aside, imagine if you could take a shot which not only had contextual significance and visual power, but also had a layer of historical visual similarities to go along with it. What a powerful image it would be.

Across the course of history, there have been several images that have been burnt into the collective human consciousness and if you were able to bring elements from previously impressive images into your own work, you’d be creating things at a much higher level.

And why not? There are so many images in the world which still can be mirrored and brought into today’s context.

Image by Dorothea Lange

Image by Alfred Eisenstaedt

Just to show a few. If you’re looking to discover more works by renowned photographers and iconic images of the ages, spend some time trawling the web for them. Better yet, buy one of the many anthologies available just to get a feel of what our past is made up of, visually.


Numbers matter but they don’t count for much.

I recently spoke to a friend who’s bought a new camera from a reputable brand. It was an interchangeable lens system and he tells me that aside from the bells and whistles, he bought the camera solely because it could shoot 10 frames per second (this statement itself seems ironic). I asked him why that was his deciding factor and he replied “why not? Might as well get the most for my money”. He’s not a sports photographer, and for the rest of the day his camera was set on rapid shot and left firing away for the rest of the day.

What he’s doing is by no means wrong, but it’s one of the least efficient/costeffective ways to do things. He’s not a sport photographer so there isn’t any need to buy a camera with a high fps (and a lower end camera with lower fps but roughly the same specs will cost less). Not to mention that one of the things that I’ve found with shooting multiple exposures quickly is that unless you’re shooting a scene that’s changing quickly, it’s a pain in the ass to go through all the photos later during the edit. Most of the images will look exactly the same and any good feeling leftover from having a beast of a shutter will be replaced by all the memory those images will take up.

Honestly to some extent, numbers will indeed play a part. 300 images will be infinitely better to work with than 30, but once you hit 3000 it’s getting a bit silly. Think back to the days of film in which Cartier Bresson, Eugene Smith and for the new school, Joe McNally rose to fame with. One roll of film was 36 exposures, and there was no delete function. One of the things that I’ve been consciously trying to do is to focus on framing instead of continuously firing and hoping to get a lucky shot. So if you’re shooting a thousand frames an hour, give your SD card a rest and focus on the framing instead.

And please, please don’t buy yourself a camera just because it has high fps, there are many other things to consider as well that are more important to a developing photographer!


The Age Old Adages

There are a ton of ‘age old adages’ that exist within the realms of photography and it would take me an innumerable number of blog posts to cover all of them. Given that this is the first ‘real’ post I’m going to start with the basics, for there are times when all of us need some reminding (myself included!)

As is always the case with rules, they may be broken and they are by no means universal. However, I’ve found that being conscious of them has helped me out a great deal and they’re applicable to everyone, even the most basic photographer who is picking up a camera for the first time. (Yes, I’m saying that this is more important than knowing ISO/Aperture/Shutter Speed, because these days Auto works fine in most circumstances)

1. Carry your camera with you all the time.

I saw this the other day and thought it might make an interesting image. Thankfully I had my DSLR with me to snap it down.

Personally I am quite guilty for not following this rule, there are many times when I don’t have a camera on me. However, it’s still the case that sometimes the best images present themselves to us while we’re on the move and we’re not prepared to capture the moment. It’s not very practical to stuff a DSLR into your bag and haul it to school/work everyday, but it’s a good habit to have, even for a trip to the supermarket. Maybe there’ll be a double rainbow on the way.

For the luckier ones who happen to have spare cash hidden all over the house in hidey-holes, you might be interested in splurging a little and getting the reputable Leica M9 or Fujifilm X100, both of whom take really beautiful images (given that the scene is just as beautiful). For those of us who prefer to keep our money in the bank (and don’t have a lot of it), a simple compact camera, or the iPhone make good alternatives. On flickr, the iPhone has quickly established itself as the most used camera. The idea isn’t to have the best camera technology in your hands, instead it’s to capture the best moment with whatever that you have and always being ready to do so.

This is of course easier for travel photography for there are few travellers these days who are found without a camera to document their adventures. Besides this, there are a few other things to note, whether you’re on the road or not.

2. Always reset the settings after you’re done.

Sometimes you’ll look up and suddenly there’ll be a perfect scene in front of you. There’s golden light filtering through the trees casting upon two children holding hands ambling through the muddy back alley of a third world country. Immediately, you dive for the camera (which should at least be with you), yank of the lens cap and compose the scene before firing away. You’ve got 6 shots off before your subject moves out of the light and the moment is gone forever. You’re ecstatic, you managed to get the shot off! As you hit the Playback button, you realise that something is horribly wrong. All your photos are underexposed and (sometimes) out of focus.

It’s happened to me many time before, most likely because I’ve set the camera to manual for a scene that was taken a while back, and I forget to turn it back to normal once I’m done. For the record my defaults are ISO 400 in Aperture priority mode. I’ve never really needed anything else. Modes aren’t the only thing that mess me up, I sometimes turn my camera to manual focus and forget to switch it back. It’s a mad scramble for the switch after that.

Anyhow, it’s a really good idea to turn your camera back to the defaults that you are used to once you’re done shooting a scene on custom settings. This way you’ll always know what adjustments have to be made to the default setting before you take a shot (if there are any at all). Doing so will save you a lot of grief, there will be no tears shed on photos that ‘could have been’.

It doesn't matter how good the scene is, an overexposed photo will only ever be, an overexposed photo.

2.5 Keep the camera on

As I wrote the above rule, I realised that there was something else that was important. If you know that there might be some great shots coming up, leave the camera on and the lens cap in your back pocket (this is a personal preference, though). It doesn’t drain too much battery and it will save precious seconds in setting up, especially if you’re shooting on the street.

3. Keep one eye glued to the viewfinder, and the other open to the world

Now that the above 2 rules have been settled, that leaves us ready to get down to the shooting. While skill with the settings of a camera is important, what’s more important is to be able to recognise the moment and trigger the shutter at the precise instance. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting on auto or full manual, the crucial thing is to be able to seize the opportunity when it presents itself.

Don’t always look straight ahead as you walk, look in all directions. Watch the people and places that you pass, sometimes the scenes are right there before us but we miss them and walk right by. If you’re in a car, it doesn’t mean that things are going by too quickly to capture. Take a photo of the driver, even if he’s a total stranger, get a shot of the buildings as they go by. If it’s raining, get a shot of the water trickling down the glass, in fog, get a shot of the fog for mood. Some of the best photos I’ve got were made by paying attention to the pulse of life around me and getting it down in jpeg quickly enough. By taking more images, you automatically increase the chances of getting a great shot, compared to not having your camera with you at all. Who knows, maybe some day an incidental shot from 3 years ago will be the winner of a photo competition. You never know.

I shot this while we were in the car, it was moving pretty quickly and I only had a couple of seconds to get ready before we went right by. If I had been reading a book or sleeping, I would have missed the scene entirely.

Above are the 3 rules that I find most relevant and important to me. Do you agree or disagree? And if you disagree, what would your three rules be? Feel free to leave a comment below.