Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Learning Photographer

Recently I am getting more and more questions, some which got me into deep thinking. One of them was asked by several friends in person, and from readers through emails: Why don't I run some sort of photography workshop? It was not an easy question to answer, because the real truth was that I never wanted to conduct any workshop in the first place. The reason that came to that was because I do not believe I even qualify to teach anyone anything. I do not have the credentials, or any sort of credibility that I can have anyone to refer to. My work has not been published anywhere else except in local magazines and newspapers which happened some dinosaur ages ago, and I do not exactly participate in competitions, wrote any books, or held any photography exhibitions at all. If suddenly there is this funky photography workshop conducted by Robin Wong, one might wonder who the heck is this guy, an online blogger who reviews Olympus gear? Get real !!

It is not a shame for me to admit openly that I am after all, nothing but a learning photographer, much like the majority of new-comers to photography. I do not see myself higher than anyone else, nor do I wish to impose that sort of perception. I am still in the midst of discovering my own photography style, I am still in the progress of experimentation when shooting. There are so much more to explore, things to learn and experience through this long journey of photography. Therefore it is no surprise that most of my writings in this blog cater more specifically to the general learning crowd. The one unexplained phenomenon was that I unexpectedly received many visits from those who are far better skilled and experienced than I am, for that I have been truly humbled and felt very honored.  

All images in this entry were taken with Olympus DSLR E-520 and Kit Lens 14-42mm F3.5-5.6

When I am on the streets, when I come across such irresistibly cute creatures, I would take a pause, and play with them for a while. Being on the street is about doing what you want to do. If you found that nice ice cream stall and in that mid-day hot sun you just have to have something cold, buy yourself one !!

On the way to the morning market


You are not alone

Working boots

Very engaging conversation

Very old buildings. 

There are no magic rules, no perfect camera settings. 

I think one of the reasons why people would want to attend a workshop, which I believe would be for the wrong reason, is to find that miraculous guide that can instantaneously transform a nobody photographer into a celebrity photographer overnight. They expect that the workshop conductor would be able to provide some very magical formula to change normal photographs that look like snapshots, into National Geographic level kind of quality. Alright, perhaps I have exaggerated a stretch too far there, but you do get my idea. The important truth to be acknowledged is that there are no magic rules to follow. Every photographer, great and small, they all have their own style and preferences. You may be able to pick up some tips and tricks, or how-tos when it comes to technical execution (lighting setup, direction of a shoot, etc). but a majority portion of what makes a photograph work will depend on the photographer. There are many things that made the photographer successful and famous that can never be taught, or transferred to anyone else. His dedication to the craft, his uniques artistic sense, his raging passion to shoot,  his undying determination to improve in the game, his perseverance in pursuing greater goals, and all the sacrifices, failures, disappointments, those are all the things that shaped the photographer. 

I did receive dozens of questions on my settings that I used when I shoot on the street. There was never a fixed setting. I did a lot of things on the street. When I wanted shallow depth of field, I would open up the aperture to the widest. When I wanted to see everything in focus, shooting buildings and old architecture, I would narrow down the aperture. If I wanted to freeze action (eg a kid running) I will engage higher ISO settings or increase the shutter speed. When I wanted to do a panning shot or induce motion blur, I would slow down the shutter speed, and even so, the shutter speed was varied due to the motion that I was encountering, eg a slow man walking will require a much slower shutter speed to pan, in contrast to a motorized trishaw speeding its way through. When I shoot under bright morning sun in the open, I use the minimum ISO of 100-200, but when I moved into shade, I would bump up the ISO, and it also depends on how dark the shade was. Sometimes I use flash, sometimes I do not. Sometimes I use manual focus, if necessary. 

There was never a fixed setting that works in ALL situations. Even the guidelines given by anywhere you read, books or internet, would not work accurately for most situations, and it is very crucial for the photographer to recognize the need to fine tune the camera setting to work for that specific shooting circumstance, adjusting the parameters accordingly to accomplish what you have in mind. How to determine what works and how to set the camera, it all comes down to experience. The more you shoot the more you would be sure of what to do. And everyone has different ways to work around the limitations on a similar problem. 

How to build a house


Left Alone

Paying full attention

Waiting for food to arrive

Flower and Smiles

Use the right gear for the right situation

Another set of similarly difficult to answer questions would be "what is the best camera or lens for street shooting" or "is this camera better than that camera" and "should I buy this lens or should I upgrade that?"

I am not sure why people would trust me with these sort of questions, because honestly, I have only used ONE camera system so far: Olympus. I have not shot with any other systems extensively enough to make any useful comments. Yes I review Olympus gear, because based on my experience handling Olympus cameras and lenses, I understand the system inside out, and I can optimize the output from basically any Olympus gear, past or possibly anything coming out in the near future. The layout of the menu system is basically the same, the customization, characteristics of parameters, they behave similarly, even with a DSLR from Olympus 4 years ago. However I have completely useless information when you ask me about anything else than Olympus. Would Olympus 45mm F1.8 be better than Nikon 85mm F1.8? How would I know, I have never used that Nikon lens before !! Can Olympus OM-D replace a Nikon D300s? Maybe, and even if I did use the D300s, how can I give you such a conclusion? What I am trying to say is that I would probably be the last person you should ask for such advice concerning gear choice and purchase. 

I also strongly believe that using the right gear is important, corresponding to that particular shooting requirement and need. It is getting very exhausting reading how people would categorize and discriminate photographers who use certain gear. The arguments of primes over zooms, or higher grade lenses over budget kit lenses, etc. Long lenses vs short lenses, or how that "perfect" all-around lens to be used in all situation. Generally, if you need certain focal length, you will need it. If you are shooting a concert, and your position is about 30-40 rows from the stage, you are still stubbornly claiming that long lenses are for pussies, then you have missed the most important point of this discussion: choosing the suitable gear for the job. Similarly if you want to see the eye of that insect, mount that macro lens. Some people will then argue "oh I do not shoot concerts or I do not like insects", but that is totally besides the point, is it not? 

Coming back to the popularly asked question: "what is the best lens to shoot on the street" that I have been getting very often. If I want to shoot something from far away, I will not hesitate to use the long tele-photo zoom lens, and zoom in ALL the way to the longest end for the reach. If I wanted to capture close up head shots, I will not hesitate to use my favorite 50mm F2 macro lens, and blur the background into oblivion while recording every single details of the wrinkles and lines on that beautiful face. If I was faced with very tight space to move around, and I needed to fit in more frame, surely the wide angle will come in handy. No, I do not encourage changing lenses often, or shoot with many lenses or camera bodies at the same time. You have to use the one that suits your shooting condition at that moment. There is no one lens to do it all. Different lenses are designed for different purposes. It is also wise to carry more than one lens with you. 

Walking difficulties

The one sitting on high chair

It was a hot morning

Girl selling "petai"

Medicine seller


I am happy where I am, being a learning photographer. I love shutter therapy. I love shooting, whether on the streets, or in the jungle looking for little insects. I believe the most important part of photography for hobbyists/photo-enthusiasts, is the fun factor. You have got to enjoy what you are doing. Every, single process of photography, from planning the session, to being on the field executing the shots, until the post-processing stage, and sharing the photographs whether within your small group of family and friends, or through online social media community. 

I have seen many, many friends (new-comer to photography) who claimed that they love photography, but only after shooting for a year or two, you never heard anything from them anymore. And worse, the next thing you knew, the cameras and lenses were on sale in the local buy/sell forum section. What happened? They said they did not have time anymore for photography. Well, if it was so fun as they have claimed to be, surely they will make time for it. Then they said it was no longer as fun as it used to be. I am guessing it was never fun from them from the beginning. 

Will I be happier shooting with better capable cameras and lenses? Maybe, who knows until I give it a try? The desire to pick up the camera and go out to shoot, the passion to create something visually interesting, the determination to improve and be better, and the immense amount of joy going through that every single process of photography, must stay in tact, being a learning photographer. When everything falls into place nicely, and you accomplished that shot you have had in mind, that intense amount of joy happened right there and then is beyond orgasmic, that the positive feeling stays for a very, very long time. If you have not discovered what that is, let me give it to you in two words: Shutter Therapy. 

And if you truly love photography, you will crave for MORE and more. 


  1. Hi Robin,

    i now and then look at your pictures and sometimes find then quite interesting, but....... why B&W?

    i really don't understand why you use those fine Olympus cameras with their wonderful color jpegs and don' t take advantage of that.....? I can just imagine your rather dull pictures in interesting colors!

    1. Funny thing, I was just admiring the B&W photos and someone wrote that they would be better in color?!?! To each his own. We do this for fun and it really dosn't matter what anyone else thinks. I rarely look at my own picures from last week. So, I can't expect anyone else to be interested in my photos (about 80% B&W).

    2. Hello Unknown,
      Why B&W? If you have not the answer to that very, very important question in photography, then you should give yourself this particular challenge: strip away the colors from your photographs, and try to make your photographs work. You will then see, instead of "using colors to make the photographs interesting", you will pay more attention to many other things that create a strong photographs.

    3. Hi Dwight,
      Thanks for the very kind comments. Color of B&W, as you have put it, are different medium, and they should stand on their own. They should not be compared to each other also. Black and White is a genre, or category on its own !!

  2. Robin, I really like what you had to say with your words in this post. You really covered a lot of ground, and brought it all to a logical, wise conclusion. I really like that first photo of the cat! It reveals a lot about your non-threatening personality that it is not concerned that you are there - and probably very close and aiming this big black tube thingy right at its face.

    1. Thanks Gregg, and what an interesting observation about the cat !! Well, in all honesty I think the street cats were extra hungry anyway and would be very friendly to just about anyone !! Not that I was special or anything, but I do like the way you see it.

  3. Robin, Forgive me for pointing out the obvious: I would sign up for a workshop called: The Successful Photo-blog: From Finding the Shots, to Post-processing; From Clicking the Shutter to Responding to Comments. You can't deny that you are highly qualified to share your knowledge in this field! :^)

    1. Thanks so much Reverend for such kind remarks, but any of those things I would really share freely, all you need is a coffee session with me and some time to spare. Workshop will be unnecessary, and too formal. My knowledge and experience are nothing that special yet, anyone can do what I do !!

  4. Robin I enjoy your blog and like you I am very much learning, not quite a beginner, still very much trying to figure out my own personal style. I have a lot of fun though as I go through the process of trying to improve as a photographer.

    I would agree with everything you said here except for one thing: going out with more than one lens. I adopted a mantra for 2012: one camera, one lens. When I go anywhere, I think ahead as to what type of gear I would require and then take along only ONE lens, prime or zoom, doesn't matter. I found that when I had more than one lens with me, I was distracted, and spent too much mental time thinking about which lens to use. It really did take away from my photography, of being in the moment and going with the flow. I'm happier just working with the lens on the camera and taking what it gives me. It also makes for a very easy working set-up, just a shoulder strap across my body with camera and lens. That's just my preference though. People need to find what works for them.

    1. Hello Carlo,
      Thanks so much for your kind compliments. I think we can all relate to each other very well because we are learning photographers.
      Of course there is nothing wrong staying with one lens, if that works for you. However, when you use that one lens, the important thing that I am trying to highlight here is still the same, and very applicable too "use the right lens for the right situation". Say, if you are shooting a concert, and you are not exactly near that stage, of course the lens to do the job would be tele-photo zoom lens. Same as you are shooting on the steet. If 50mm or 35mm (or any other focal length) corresponds to your perspective best, then opt for it. I just find how some people can be so stubborn to just ignore the fact that, sometimes, we do need to use the right tool to get the job done.
      You will often see me using just one lens too (though I usually carry more than one, but I rarely change lens, unless there is an absolute necessity).

    2. Robin only said it was wise to carry more, but he didn't say it was a must. I personally like to plan ahead only use 1 lens if I can as well. But there are instances where you are at somewhere that you probably won't be back again and you don't want to be limited to taking one kind of photo while you are there. The distraction caused by the time taken to change to another lens is a small price to pay when the image you are trying to take could not simply have been done with the 1st lens.

    3. Very, very well said Chad !! Thanks for adding that. I agree with you, if that particular lens is needed to get that shot that you desperately want, if changing the lens will accomplish that, why not? Since most camera bags have at least some space for another one lens.

  5. This is my favorite post of all. The thing you are most qualified to teach, Robin, is Humility. Alas, Humility is something that cannot be taught, especially to those who need the lesson the most.

    1. Thanks Dwaine !!
      I think it is not so much of humility, but being human, and acknowledging my own flaws and imperfections. I am after all a learning photographer !!

  6. For general fun photography in mostly afternoon good light, out with family, travelling light with Olympus EPL1 works for me. Put on a Olympus 12-50mm in good light (or other m43 lenses) and I was amazed on how much detail it can capture compared to kit lens and it can give some DSLRs a good challenge and I have photos to prove it. It only gets trumped by better cameras in low light like OMD, or top Nikon/Canon cameras but do I care. The fun with family is still there taking pics, and lots of fun composing and practicing exciting people shots doing activities. Perhaps not the same as street photography which tells a story on the street in your neighbourhood, however, I way I take photos of family not paying much mind to my m43 camera, has some similarities in telling a story especially when I see one unfolding with their play and activities. The bigger DSLR cameras I use for wedding work, my 2 Nikons deliver very good results with quality lens (learning the photography skill and practicing is actually more important than which brand you buy), but for playtime with cameras, and family adventure, the lighter m43 cameras are taking the world by storm and growing fast in North America now with lots of publicity in last 2 years with all major manufacturers offering mirrorless now. My 2 cents on how I see things.
    I really enjoy reading your articles, Robin, as they speak volumes to the heart and soul of photography as an art and communicating ideas or stories through photos.

    1. Thanks Adrian for the very kind compliments, and also sharing your thoughts further for the importance of having fun while shooting. Indeed the bigger cameras are there for the professional jobs, but when things are not that serious and we are just shooting casually, using mirrorless system as everyday camera is the way to go.
      I think it is exactly the same with street photography, documenting your family fun, capturing the moments and emotions that only photos have the power to immortalize them. Perhaps they may not carry much weight to the wider audience but for you and your family I am sure the many photographs you have taken are worth more than gold, and they will be cherished for many more years to come.

  7. Nice read and images, makes me want to head out and shoot. It's shutter therapy after all!

    1. Thanks Alf, and yes, lets go out shoot more !!

  8. I think this: you speak about your photography with love and passion. this is the first great thing that a good teacher must do: give his passion to his students. it's not important how good you are. it's important how many passion you have and you'll give :)

    1. Helo Ugo,
      I think we are all passionate about photography here, maybe some more than others. However, it takes a lot more than just passion to be a good teacher !!

  9. Rafael Alcaide Juan9/03/2012 03:42:00 AM

    Hi, Robin!
    Nice and delicate work, as always. I'm with you, the gear is not so important. Is better a bad camera that you know, if you can use their good and weak points in your benefit, than a "number one" camera with infinite menus and buttons that you doesn't control. Obviously, you know perfectly your cameras, the pictures above show clearly that. A simple camera is not needfully a bad camera. The OM-1 is a simple camera, and is the better camera that i've ever used! Practice do perfection, or at least, ... do practice... and that's fun!!! Thank you, Robin. You are a master to me!

    Rafael Alcaide Juan. Ibiza. Spain.

    1. Thanks Rafael for the kind words.
      I strongly agree with you, practice is very important, and only practice can make perfect, or near perfect. OM-1 is a great camera, I have friends who use it that raved about it. Great stuff.

  10. Hi, Robin,
    Everything might be exactly as you say, but only from your own personal perspective.
    From the perspective of the others (or rather my perspective) you are modest to the extent that what you wrote here is simply not true.
    You wrote a terrific article on composition , to give just an example.
    Or - once, you described very precisely your monochrome settings.
    You are well aware of everything you do and have a tremendously nice way of expressing your ideas and stating your points.
    That already makes you a terrific teacher for those who are wiiling to learn from you.
    And, make no mistake about that, you are a brilliant photographer with your own vision and style.
    So thanks for your ramblings and your shutter therapy. Really.
    Best regards,

    1. Hello Valerij,
      Thanks so much for the kind words of encouragement. I share some of my settings and thoughts, because I thought i would jot them down, and usually I have a lot of things going on in my mind that I want to just get it out !! Thankfully there is this blog as the output and the place where I can ramble on and on, because it is my own place.
      I think it still takes a lot more time to develop my own vision and style, those are not something that I can claim easily for now, and I am after all, still in the learning process. Nonetheless, every single step that we take, no matter how small, we will improve !!

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