Last month while having lunch, a friend casually asked me whether I signed up for the photography workshop at the American Club. She said that it would be conducted by a famous National Geographic photographer and that it consisted of five days of photo-taking and critique sessions. Even though she couldn’t remember the name of the photographer, I knew I wanted to sign up instantly.
I have been shooting for a few years now, both as a hobby and as a free-lance food photographer, but I have never had any formal training in photography and it would be a great opportunity to have a professional critique and evaluate my photos. It would also give me some incentives to go out and shoot more. Ever since moving to Singapore, my photographic subjects had dwindled down to food and my dogs only. Don’t get me wrong, I love shooting food, and the income that comes with it, but I miss the days when I would just grab my camera and go out and shoot anything that captures my attention. I blame it on the hot and humid weather in Singapore, but I also know that’s not the only reason. In short, I needed to be inspired, and what better way than to spend five days with an award winning photographer from National Geographic?
That photographer turned out to be Michael Yamashita. He is every amateur photographer’s dream come true, for he, just like you and me, is entirely self-taught, and managed to turn his passion for photography and travel into a successful career. Singapore is actually where it all started, where he did a photo campaign for Singapore Airline in the 1970’s. That portfolio led to his first assignment with National Geographic, and the rest, like they say, is history.
During the workshop, we were asked to choose a subject and shoot it over the course of several days, until we’re satisfied with what we have. I first chose the Botanic Garden because I know the place well and it’s easy for me to go back everyday to shoot. After one afternoon of shooting, however, I decided that the subject is too similar to what I’ve always been doing, namely, landscape and detailed shots of flowers and leaves. I wanted to take this opportunity to push myself, to do something entirely different, but the question is what?
We met in Chinatown Complex at 7am to shoot the market scene. I tagged along Michael and got some pointers. He said in a busy market place, a corner stall is always a good place to position yourself, because it’s open on two sides, and you get a better view of what’s going on. So I chose a fish stall on a corner where the fishmonger is a friendly woman with a pleasant face. I waited, and watched her chopping up fish after fish after fish. Finally, she’s done and was ready to hand over the fish to the customer. I clicked away until I got the shot I wanted: transaction at a fish stall. This process is what Michael calls setting up a scene and waiting for the right moment to happen.
Michael says you should always place the person in his/her own environment, so it’s important here to show lots of fish in the foreground and also some background of the fish stall.
Later I also took this photo of a man showing me his live fish.
A very important lesson I learned on that day is that you need to have patience and be ready with your camera when the right “moment” occurs. People will be nervous and shy away when they see you with a big camera pointed to their face, but if you just stayed and watched, they’ll eventually get used to your presence and go back to doing their own stuff. After a while, they’ll forget that you’re even there. That’s when you can catch them at their most natural and relaxed state.
I changed my subject from the Botanic Gardens to Orchard Rd, so that I can have more opportunities to shoot people. I went to Emerald Hill off Orchard Rd in the afternoon to shoot some shop houses and caught two old men reading newspapers in front of a store and two students walking by. Nothing too spectacular, but I didn’t run away when one of the old men started eyeing me suspiciously and instead stayed and kept on clicking.
Went to the critique session in the morning but didn’t shoot in the afternoon because I had out of town guests.
7am We met up again on a group shoot in Little India. There was a religious ceremony taking place in the temple so everyone got down on the floor and clicked away. I was so surprised that hardly anybody paid us any attention at all and carried on with their daily routine. The day before we talked about using fill flash to bring out the details so I tried it out here. Because in food photography you never use flash, it is one of my weakest points, and I don’t even own an external strobe, both because I don’t need it and because it’s added weight, but I’m beginning to see that a little bit of flash can make a huge difference in a photo. Not only can it highlight details it can also freeze certain parts of the photo while allowing other parts to be blurry in a low light situation. I don’t have an example of this later use of strobe but another member took some excellent shots using this technique.
Here in Little India, I am again overwhelmed by how friendly people are. Most people smiled and waved at us when they saw our cameras.
Some indulged us in our request and others gave a shy smile when they realized I had stolen a shot of a private moment:
One cheeky old man tried to rip us off though when we gave him some money to take photos of his parrot:
We spent quite some time with the old man and his parrot. I first shot the man sitting with the parrot in the cage. Then when we found out the parrot is the one picking out the fortune I decided to focus on the old man’s hand and the parrot when it chooses the fortune. The two best shots are posted above. This is what Michael calls “anticipate to a point, shoot lots, and hope you get it.”
In the afternoon I went back to Orchard Rd again, in the pouring rain. When it rains there’s a lot of reflection and people running, so potentially it can be very rewarding. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t find anywhere to stand without getting wet and wasn’t very good at balancing my umbrella so I didn’t get any good shots in the rain.
When the rain stopped, I again found myself in Emerald Hill. This time, I was in the midst of the Hungry Ghost festival. In the back of a row of shop houses, people were burning paper to pay respect to the ghosts. I lurked around for more than half an hour, getting myself and my poor camera covered in soot, and finally got one good shot.
The first time I went to shoot on Orchard Rd, I wanted to get a photo of people walking in front of the Visitor’s Center but the light was too bright at that time, resulting in a huge white space behind the UOB building. I had wanted to go back again at a later time and shoot a night scene. As Michael says, when shooting night images, it’s better to have some ambient light. That way you don’t end up with a huge dead space of blackness. So today the light was right, but I still couldn’t get a satisfactory shot. I guess some photos are better in your mind’s eye.
On the way back home I passed by Louis Vuitton and visualized a shot of one or two shoppers walking in front of the window display. I wanted a clear silhouette instead of a motion blur because I thought it would go better with the clean LV graphic display. As Michael says, “ Choose the light, choose the background, and wait for the moment.” This proved to be easier said than done because on a Friday evening, there were way too many people walking past the window so it was almost impossible to isolate just two pedestrians. Also, Michael said that silhouettes should be clean, which means no missing limbs and everything had to be clearly defined. After about 15 minutes of crouching with camera held up, I decided to give myself a break and put it on a tripod. Another 20 minutes later, I gave up and made a mental note to come back another time when the foot traffic is lighter. This is another lesson I learned: it sometimes take a scouting shoot to get the photo you want. Anyway, this is the best out of the more than 30 minutes of shooting. I wanted the people to be in front of the graphic part of the space, instead of in front of the window display, but it just didn’t happen on that day.
Day 5 - Final day of the workshop.
Today we’re putting together a slide show consisting of photos we took during the five-day workshop. Despite my strong desire to sleep in, I dragged myself out of bed to go back to Orchard Rd one last time to see if I can find any good photo ops. Have you ever been to Orchard Rd at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning? I’ve never seen the place so empty. The night before I was complaining about crowds, but now I couldn’t find a single person to shoot except for street sweepers and buses, so I settled for that and practiced panning. Here’s a bus speeding down Orchard Rd, with Ngee Ann City in the background.
After an hour of non-action, I went to have some coffee and kaya toast in Paragon and when I walked out, I noticed a lit up sign that would make a good background. So I sat myself down on a bench on the sidewalk and waited for someone to walk down the steps in front of the sign. I waited and waited and waited, but nobody walked by. I finally found hope when I saw a cleaner sweeping the steps and got my camera ready, but he kept on missing the steps in front of the sign. After what seemed like ages, he finally came into my frame and started sweeping the steps, but he was done in less than five seconds and I only got two frames. His limbs are visible but it’s hard to see what he’s doing. There will be another re-shoot at this location, I know.
By now, I was thoroughly exhausted after four days of workshop and shooting, involving getting up at 6am on three of the days and juggling out of town visitors in between. My legs are numb from crouching for so long, my feet are hurting from walking, and my fingers are starting to cramp up from holding the camera. I’m slowly starting to realize that maybe I’m not cut out to be a photojournalist. On top of that there was the issue of food. I had never eaten so much in my life! Somehow, getting up at 6am tricks my body into thinking that I need two breakfasts. So I eat one after the photo shoot and another one when we get back to the American Club. It doesn’t help that the club has been plying us with a changing menu of warm baked goods and fresh fruits everyday. In addition to the double breakfasts, I also find myself eating more snacks throughout the day: when I needed a break from the shooting, when I’m waiting for the light to change, etc. All this walking around and holding a heavy DSLR had better be burning up lots of calories or I’ll become overweight before I ever have even a glimpse of hope of becoming a photojournalist.
Despite the danger of turning into a whale with severe arthritis and sleep deprivation, I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop. For almost three straight days after the workshop, I found myself looking at my surroundings and seeing potential photos everywhere. Out of all the photos I shot for the workshop, my all time favorite is one that I took on my second day of shooting. The background is something I see everyday: a colorful poster plastered all over Orchard Road to cover up unsightly construction that’s taking place. Armed with my newly heightened sense for detecting photo ops, a spark went off when I saw it again that day. I decided to take a photo of someone walking in front of the poster. Preferably that someone would be slightly out of place among the glamorous women of Amazonian proportion depicted in the poster. I was waiting for an auntie or uncle in flip flops, but got something even better:
When I saw him I knew he was my guy: a little bit clueless, in a little bit of a daze, and just a little bit out of place. The only question is, will his stride and position be lined up with the women in the poster, and they did!
So here it is: choose your background, choose your light, wait for a moment that’s special, keep on clicking, and hope you have it.
And one last thing: only check your LCD once to make sure you have the right exposure, otherwise, don’t look at the photos you’ve taken until you’re home. Because whatever you’ve taken, you already have it. While you’re checking the images that you already have, you could be missing precious images that you could be shooting. If there’s one thing I learned and will never forget in this workshop, this is it.