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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Photography requires no expensive cameras


All too often, when I tell people that I do photography, the first thing they ask is which camera I use – as if it is the most important aspect of photography. I don't understand why that is. Surely the first thing you ask a writer is not which word processor they use to write with; and that the first thing you ask a carpenter is not which brand of hammers / screwdrivers they use – so why should it be any different for photography?

Yes, professional photographers do own expensive cameras. But that is out of necessity – that is, they are not using more expensive cameras because they are professional, it's because in order to get the shot that they want, they need the relevant tool to do it. I am not a full-time professional photographer, but I actively use four different cameras for different purposes. Using better cameras usually give me a leg up when I process the images because lesser camera simply don't have the right specs to do what I want them to, and I end up spending more time inside Photoshop to tweak to perfection.

To illustrate the point that you don't need expensive equipments to take good photographs, I have a collection on Flickr where things are grouped by the tools that I use. I do this mainly because I want to tally up what tools I use for each image. Using Flickr's API it is easy for me then do some data analysis on my own photographs.

Canon EOS 100

Yale University Old Campus / 1996 / SML

Yale University Old Campus / 1996 / SML

The Canon EOS 100 was my first camera. My dad bought me this in 1995 when I left Hong Kong for Yale. It is a film camera. I learned the art and science of photography by working as the photo editor for The Yale Herald, a newspaper published weekly with feature articles. I had to work in the darkroom every week for my assignments. Although I never took a photography class at Yale, I honestly believe that working in the darkroom constantly every week for four years provided the foundation of my photography. It is also through printing my own prints that I am able to translate techniques learned – e.g. working with filters, dodging + burning, pushing + pulling – that allow me to work more efficiently inside Photoshop these days.

I still have this camera. It is my only film camera so I don't want to throw it out even though I don't use it very often these days. I still intend to maybe take some slides with it but never really had the chance. There is something very special about taking photographs with film. With 36 shots max per roll, I tend to spend more time when I compose my shots. The same can be said for my HDR photography and similarly for long-exposure shots. If I know that I will likely need to be holding that position for a long time, and any mis shots would mean spending more time being stuck at the location, I tend to take extra amount of care when I compose. It's interesting to me how my setup and tools change the way I photograph.

Sony Mavica FD7

Numbers in a City: New Haven / 1997 / SML

Numbers in a City: New Haven / 1997 / SML

Sony Mavica FD7 was my first digital camera. I bought it in 1997 after I've made some money in the summer after my sophomore year. It's hard to imagine now how much money I paid for this camera. At a resolution of 640x480, it stores images onto 3.5" floppy disk and I paid $999 USD to buy it. I don't own it anymore because one of my ex kind of stole it from me and refused to give it back when I broke up with him as part of his “revenge”. Ugh.

Canon G2

Manhattan Bridge / 20030706.G2 / SML

Manhattan Bridge / 20030706.G2 / SML

I bought the Canon G2 in 2001 after working in New York for a while. Before the G2 I actually bought a Sony CyberShot DSC-F55 but the performance is so bad that I decided to get back onto the Canon camp. And the G2 does not disappoint.

Pigeon Attack / 20040623.G2.02032 / SML

Pigeon Attack / 20040623.G2.02032 / SML

I eventually decided to buy a DSLR mainly because when I started to do more long exposure shots, the G2 becomes a bit too noisy for my taste.

Canon EOS 10D

Manhattan Bridge HDR (B+W) / 2005-2006 / SML

Manhattan Bridge HDR (B+W) / 2005-2006 / SML

I can't tell you how much I love my 10D. I bought it in 2005 second-hand from a friend who is a professional photographer. He bought a new 20D and no longer had use for the 10D. In fact it was he who recommended that I get the 10D either new or from him after commenting that there are potentials in my G2 photographs. At the time I really thought that he was just trying to sell his junk to me – but frankly I am really thankful that he was such a used equipment pusher then! :)

Brooklyn Bridge HDR (40087-40092) for gewandhaus / 2006-2008 / SML

Brooklyn Bridge HDR (40087-40092) for gewandhaus / 2006-2008 / SML

I don't really use this camera anymore really but I do keep it around as spare in case my 7D die. But I really owe much to this camera. Most of the most amazing photographs on my Flickr stream were taken with the 10D. By publishing my photos via Creative Commons, it gained a lot of exposure and subsequently they brought me lots of fame which was completely unexpected, such as being used in Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra's season catalog.

Bird Houses / 20071230.10D.46705 / SML

Bird Houses / 20071230.10D.46705 / SML

A completely unexpected side-effect from using an old camera while everybody upgraded is that if people are looking for photographs taken with that particular camera, there aren't that many on Flickr. So now if you go on Flickr searching for photographs with ”canon10d” as tag and then sort by interestingness, the photo above comes up as result #1. And if you look further, spot #1, #3, #4, #5, #6, #9 were also taken by me:

Flickr Explore: Tags: Canon 10D: Sort by Interestingness / Screen Shot 2012-09-30 at 5.32.04 PM / SML Screenshots

Flickr Explore: Tags: Canon 10D: Sort by Interestingness / Screen Shot 2012-09-30 at 5.32.04 PM / SML Screenshots

Nobody really bothered with the 10D anymore after 20D came out because a lot of the metering on the Canon TTL tech does not work with the 10D. It also ‘sounds’ like it doesn't have enough spec because it's a 3M pixel camera. Don't let the specs scare you. In my experience, the number of pixels rarely matter. What matter is the quality of the pixels. I have made A2 prints with photographs taken with the 10D with no issue at all.

Carmen Miranda, Coney Island Mermaid Parade 2008 / 20080621.10D.49128 / SML

Carmen Miranda, Coney Island Mermaid Parade 2008 / 20080621.10D.49128 / SML

One advantage of having an SLR is that because of its shear size, it gets you front and center wear the action is. No more being stuck behind crowds. The SLR with your myriads of lenses get you in front of any crowd – right next to the pros. Don't believe me? Try it yourself at any public event. Remember to bring along your heavy L glass – the bigger the better – add another spare with another huge lens and see if anyone check for your press pass.


Ship's Figure Head / Coney Island Mermaid Parade 2007 / SML

With an SLR, people also volunteer to pose for you. I don't think that people would ask me to take photos of them if I was with my P+S.

Canon SD850IS

Untitled Forms / 20090924.SD850IS.3202.P1.SQ / SML

Untitled Forms / 20090924.SD850IS.3202.P1.SQ / SML

Point and shoot does have its place though. How often do you want to carry all those tech with you all the time? And that is exactly why I bought the SD850 at the first place. It has just enough controls but is small enough for me to carry it around all the time. I took the photo above when I was walking my dog one night. My P+S is always with me everywhere that I go. Yes the pixel quality is not as good as the SLR – but I would rather take the shot then not having anything at all.

Kiss / 20091129.SD850IS.03533.P1.L1.SQ.BW / SML

Kiss / 20091129.SD850IS.03533.P1.L1.SQ.BW / SML

A side effect of carrying a P+S is that people are more willing to let you photograph them if you look like a tourist who just want to take some photos. I don't think that I would be able to get many of the photos in my kiss series if I did not have my P+S with me. Sadly I don't have this camera with me anymore. I lent it to a friend in New York and I never arranged a time to meet her up before I left New York. Oh well, hopefully she would have some use for it!

Canon EOS 7D

New York Life (aka Union Square bokeh) / 2009-11-24 / SML

As I started to work on more videos, I find myself needing a camera that is capable to producing videos. This is why I bought the Canon EOS 7D. I had wanted to get the full frame 5D then but I can't really afford it. The 7D is somewhat noisy but for its price I think that it was a good decision. Plus at the time the 5D Mk II's focusing tech is not as good so I decided on the 7D instead. Still not a full frame – but if I want to photograph full frame I actually can just use my Canon EOS 100. :)

Putrajaya Landscape / SML.20110203.7D.07266.TM01.BW

Putrajaya Landscape / SML.20110203.7D.07266.TM01.BW

This is my default camera body now. With all the accessories that I have it's somewhat heavy but it is what I use when I travel. My main reason for traveling is to photograph different places and culture. So it has lots of use. The CMOS sensor is very good quality. It is a big improvement from the 10D.

EL Wire Dress, Diana Eng

EL Wire Dress, Diana Eng's Fairytale Fashion Show at Eyebeam NYC / 20100224.7D.03492.P1.L1.C23 / SML

7D's rapid firing action also makes it perfect for photojournalism. Often for live action events there is no time for you to even decide on how to frame because the moment it gone if you don't release the shutter soon enough.

Kiss: Ryan Gilbert + Michael Correntte / 20100117.7D.02110.P1.L1.C23.BW / SML

Kiss: Ryan Gilbert + Michael Correntte / 20100117.7D.02110.P1.L1.C23.BW / SML

Earlier I mentioned that my Kiss series owe much to having a P+S – but sometimes having SLR also fetched you the opportunity. Because I look series, these couples let me photograph them while I was covering another event at the bar and the photos were subsequently published in a a French gay lifestyle magazine – which is so awesome!

Epson 4810 Scanography

See-ming Lee / 20090902.4810.SQ.BW / SML

See-ming Lee / 20090902.4810.SQ.BW / SML

You don't even need a camera to do photography. I experimented a little bit with scanography – the art of photographing using a scanner. Since scanners do not ‘photograph’ the whole photograph at the same time. You ended with these rather interesting composition which can almost be said to be of cubist tradition:

See-ming Lee / 20090902.4810 / SML

See-ming Lee / 20090902.4810 / SML

If you want to use your scanner as a camera though, make sure that you wipe the glass clean – as you see above dust spots are everywhere. You can tweak them in photoshop but wow painful – so as with all photography setup: do it right the first time and you don't need to tweak things to death later on.

Canon G12

Division / SML.20120831.G12.00112

Division / SML.20120831.G12.00112

Since as I mentioned earlier on, I don't have a P+S anymore, so I bought the Canon G12. The video function is fairly good so I am also using it to work on some video

人流 Human Logistics: 香港地鐵藍田站 Hong Kong MTR Lam Tin Station / SML.20120905.G12.00184

人流 Human Logistics: 香港地鐵藍田站 Hong Kong MTR Lam Tin Station / SML.20120905.G12.00184

Acting as a tourist again: no one bother me when I photograph inside subway stations in Hong Kong

iPad 3

Motherboards Diversity / SML.20120917.164110.IP3

Motherboards Diversity / SML.20120917.164110.IP3

Shopkeepers in Hong Kong really dislike people taking photographs of their store. I guess probably because a lot of times local photojournalists take photographs to report bad behavior at the store. For these instances, the iPad came to rescue. The quality of the pixel suffers somewhat here but again I'd rather have the shot then have nothing at all.

LG e400

Waking up: A photographer ought to be able to create good images even with the shittiest camera. I can

Waking up: A photographer ought to be able to create good images even with the shittiest camera. I can't yet, so I will try.

I am waiting for iPhone 5 to be in hand, so when I moved to Hong Kong two months ago, I went out and bought the cheapest Android phone so I can at least use Google Maps without popping up a giant iPad on the crowdy street in Hong Kong. That's why I own the LG e400 now. As the most inexpensive phone on the market, to say that its sensor is sh!tty would be an understatement.



It is however precisely how bad the camera is that I had the realization that if I am to become a good photographer, I really ought to be able to take photographs regardless of the equipment I use. In other words, by making myself to create good images out of the worst available tool, I am in fact pushing myself to become a better photographer. I am no where near that point yet, but I hope that one day I will be able to.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Diversity – or why I moved from New York to Hong Kong to create SML Universe


There is a saying that ”every 7 years is a cycle”. I am not religious – but I did spend time studying philosophies from different religions and schools of thoughts – and interestingly the number 7 as an indicator for cycles kept coming up. This is interesting to me. Whether you believe in such numerology or not, I recognize that today, on my 36th birthday, was a moment of rebirth within my fifth cycle, for a decision which took me a year to finalize: my move from New York to Hong Kong after working and living for all of my adult life in America.

Those who know me for long know that I have traditionally been very active in social media – be it on Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud, Tumblr, FriendFeed, YouTube, Vimeo – basically as someone I met on these social network said, I am everywhere. But if you look at the year before July 2012, I could not be found on the internet. I tweeted a couple of times mostly as an ambient device to let people (mostly my family) know that I was not dead, but that's about it. I did this because I wanted to not have any outside influence on my decision. I wanted to make sure that it makes the most sense to me. But to tell you why I made such a drastic decision, I have to tell you a little bit of myself.

As a gay man growing up in Hong Kong, I remember crying every single day after school in private – there was not a single day that I was not bullied. When I was accepted to Yale, I got excited because I thought that if Yale truly lived up to the popular claim of “one in four and maybe more” then I should be ok. It turns out that although Gayalies was a nice support group, my being Chinese was not that awesome within the predominantly WASP presence. I was invited to some Asian American functions but because I was gay, I did not feel welcome either. As an art major with close to none art background, I was not much of an item. Being a programmer almost automatically labeled me as a non-artist. When I took an interaction design class at the MFA program, I focus on making the programs work and not how pretty they are – it was completely dissed. I also recalled telling my graphic design professors that I had a great time the summer after my sophomore year (1997) working at and they just gave me a disapproving look and questioned why I would want to do web design which was (and probably still is) ‘99% garbage’ anyway. Even after I started working for an interactive agency, since I prefer PC (at the time) over Mac (seriously OS9 is crap, sorry), I don't really fit in. The IT department thought of me as a trouble maker and annoyed their software licensing process. And if you think that coming out to your parents is difficult (I did that when I was 14), try coming out as a PC user at an AIGA event. I also had a lot of trouble explaining what is that I do – I use programming as part of my prototyping process to design interaction – which I felt and do still feel is the only way you can design interaction – to experience what you design as you refine over time. Storyboards just don't cut it. People like to place me as either category, but I am neither and I am both. It was very frustrating. I am thankful that over time I have met some people who became mentors to me because they understand me, but they are also far and few between. As a minority in a minority in a minority, I have never felt my voice heard. I struggled my entire life but I also accepted that reality that I would simply be a loner. I am ok with that.

Fast forward to the summer of 2007, I was invited to cover the gay pride parade for a company. Since I was already there, I also took the opportunity to photograph everyone else in the event. It was a very emotional experience for me. Before then I had long disregarded the gay pride as a complete marketing machine. But after that day, I truly understood why so many gay men and women choose to march down sixth avenue every year – the joy of being accepted. On that sunny afternoon, the streets were packed. It was a city-wide party. People all over the tri-state area came to New York. They were cheering in ecstacy. Yes I know they were probably cheering for the hot guys and gals wearing close to nothing :) but it doesn't much matter. For the first time, I feel accepted. If you had not been accepted for who you are all your life, you would understand how it felt. I have never experienced that until then.

When I got home that night, I wrote a manifesto about life:

Life (Manifesto) / 2007.07.07-2012.09.25 / SML

Later, I created a Flickr group called Life Celebrates Diversity (Twitter) so people who do not feel heard can have a voice. As I started doing more photojournalism and started blogging about art, I suddenly recognized that there are a lot of artists around who do not have much media exposure because they are simply don't have the know-how to gain the social media klout. I have long been interested in network theories, and I enjoy using social networks and for a large degree Google as a testbed for network theory experiments, so I created SML Fine Art (Twitter), a Flickr group with the mission to preserve the diversity of art – be them small, medium or large.

All of my Flickr groups have a common objective and guiding principal: it sets no limits – no one is there to ‘curate’ the content. Life doesn't pose a limit on us, so who am I to set a limit on others? Subsequently I have created many others: SML Graphic Design (Twitter), SML Viz (Twitter), etc – all areas where I am interested in. I created them so it accepts everyone. It was also a really great way for me to notice works of interest and subsequently gave me the opportunity to meet them in person.

Since I belong to a ton of visual social networks anyway, I am more than happy to post things of interest to FFFFound, which get tweeted, and auto-post to Tumblr and basically let things sip inside the social net – a process which a friend called the ‘incestuous reality of any social network’. My hope is that through these networks the work which I believe to be important would at least gain a little bit of much deserved voice. This is what my passion lies: to do what I can to give a voice to the little guys – those whose voice were not heard mostly out of bigotry. I never had a voice when I was younger, and I wish for others that they could have the opportunity to be accepted.

I wanted to do this full time for a long time, but I could not while I was in New York. As an ’alien’ in America, I was bound by US law to work full time at a company. As such I joined a couple of startups whose philosophies appear to be in line with mine. Unfortunately, as investments come in and when revenue matters, so did their business plan. They were wonderful folks, but I cannot really work full time at a job which pays me no salary and are not inline with my philosophy. I am grateful and thankful for the experience – I have learned a lot, but I thought that it was time that I moved on and do my own thing. Having my own company allows me to do that. It doesn't really pay much right now. Starting from scratch is difficult. But you cannot measure value with a dollar sign. I have done a lot of freelance in the past in New York for lots of money but it never buys me happiness. I now only work on things which I believe to be meaningful regardless of pay. I am thankful for the support of my family to allow me the luxury to realize my dream. Conventional wisdom suggests that doing everything for free generates nothing in return, but my experience tells me that it is far from the truth. There are many things which could not be bought and those are most valuable. Even if we must focus on money, my experience with licensing everything for on my Flickr stream for free via Creative Commons suggests otherwise. It is a bit hard to believe but I actually made money from my CC content because people who had the budget for photography for their projects ended up giving me credits and send me cheques for photo placement. It's crazy. Those who couldn't afford to pay will never be able to pay anyway so what does it matter?

In any case, I still do some freelance projects on the side if it's meaningful to me. Money is not a measure of value for me. I prefer bartering – which before the concept of money was invented was how people do business anyway. I also hope to spend half of my time in the next 10 years documenting the change of China through photography as showing Chinese culture in a positive light is important to me. I may not agree with everything that the Chinese government is doing, but as a Chinese, I am proud of my culture. Which is exactly why I don't have an English name. You need not agree with the politics, but the people, the culture and the arts are really spectacular. I also hope to meet the local artists in my journey, as I have seen some really interesting things happening in contemporary art in China.

So there you have it. I am in Hong Kong now because after connecting all the dots of what I did in my life, I think that I have found out what I love to do and I want to do exactly that – which interestingly was the same conclusion that Steve Jobs came to while he was still alive.

Update: 2012-10-15

If you wish to learn more about how Creative Commons indirectly helped me gain influence on the social web, check out this article recently written about me where a photograph which almost got deleted from my camera ended up being the most popular photo on my Flickr stream and in turn became synonymous with Twitter when it comes to journalism.

Storyful tips and tools: How Creative Commons helps creators and journalists

Monday, September 24, 2012

One typography book to rule them all

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
–J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954, chapter 2
Robert Bringhurst: The Elements of Typographic Style / SML.20120919.1211092.IP3

The only book you need for typography.

Recently I moved from New York to Hong Kong after spending more than a decade working in Gotham City. During this process, I had to ‘minify‘ a one-bedroom apartment filled with wall-to-wall books to a personal set goal of ten. It turned out to be a very challenging process – and it took me a long time to get it done. Ultimately I had everything down to 30 boxes – which was much higher than my goal, but still an extreme reduction no less.

If you are a book nerd like me, you would understand my dilemma of throwing books away. Yes I know – I haven’t touched most of them in years, and they were pretty much collecting dust — but they are also treasures to me. I remember when and why I bought each of my books, and I recall the lessons I learned from reading it. I had donated them all to charity so that they won’t go to waste, but saying goodbye was difficult.

The process did result in something positive in the end: helping me identify the gems of each genre – in other words – the one book to rule them all!

As a designer, I own a lot of design books. And since design books are visual and are not really about just the words, Kindle + electronic books simply don't do their justice – maybe in the future that will change – for now you simply can't get the same experience from their electronic equivalent, and it is for this reason that most of them don't get issued in electronic format.

So if you ask a designer to get rid of his books, it's a heartbreaking task. In the end, I kept only one book on typography: The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. On Amazon, I recommend seven books on typography. But if there is only one book which you want, this would be the one.

Ironically this was also the only book on the reading list for my graphic design education at Yale – I suppose that's what a good education buys you: the wisdom + access to the gems in each category, saving you the time to read all of the books only to come to the same conclusion?

Here are the rest of the books on typography which I recommend, if you are interested:

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Photoshop tutorials for medical researchers: simple color conversion

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I often get emails from my sister (who is a medical researcher) asking me how to do some very simple image processing tasks. I usually just do it for her but when she recently sent a file to me I thought that maybe it would be easier to just teach her how to do it so she can do it herself.

The task was really simple: convert a color graph against black background to a black graph against the white background. I did this in Cantonese with a mix of English because this is how we speak to each other – this video is really meant for her. But maybe when I have time I will go and add some closed-captioning.

Lessons learned from making this video:

  • As someone who has been using Photoshop since 1995, all the keyboard shortcuts are really second-nature, but for a complete n00b the learning curve is fairly steep.
  • I am on a Mac right now but my sister is on a PC. It is quite a mouthful to explain both.
  • I think conceptually and visually so I often have trouble spelling out what the functions are.
  • Found a nice Mac app for displaying keyboard / mouse press interaction: Mousexposé. Useful for both Skype screen share as well as video capture.
  • I used Screenflow 3 to capture the video but the audio track is in fact recorded separately. Process: audio was captured with the internal microphone. I clapped at the beginning to make a visual wave mark, and then I used my Sony PCM-M10 to record at the same time. I am doing it this way because I don't currently have a mini cable to connect the field recorder to the computer. Otherwise I probably would just connect the line-out directly to computer.
  • The audio file from the PCM-M10 is then placed into Ableton Live and cleaned up with some EQ / mastering tweaks using iZotope Ozone. The finished 24-bit 96kHz aiff is then exported and placed into Premiere where I visually matched the ‘clap’ mark and then I discard the bad audio from the video.

I know, it's a lot of steps – but if you don‘t want to deal with having to drive yourself mad to clean up audio from bad microphones with huge noise floors, this is the way to do it!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Good designs make you happy

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Cubitec Shelving Units x3 / SML.20120916.IP3 Three sets of Cubitec units unpacked and shipped from New York in 2012

At first it might seem a lot to splurge $245 USD x3 on these puppies, but once you realized how durable and configurable they are, you will fall in love with them.

I bought 3 sets of Cubitec shelving units (designed by Tel Aviv designer Doron Lachisch b.1948) from Design Within Reach back in 2009 when I was still in New York. Now that I am in Hong Kong and the space is smaller, I am reconfiguring then into something else.

Well designed products appear simple at first and they make you ponder over the price-value ratio. But like a fine wine, good designs demonstrate through their beauty of functionality that they simply get better and better every year.

SML Books / 20090903.10D.52429 / SML Cubitec shelves as configured in New York apartment. Pardon that mess!

The shelves are constructed with highly durable plastic. And as you can see, all three units fits perfectly inside my MeBox (another fine design example) – which is unfortunately no longer available for sale. Sure you can go to Ikea for some knock-offs, but what did those shelves you bought form 5 years ago look like now? My Cubitec looks brand new like the first day I bought it, and it continues to bring me joy everyday.

Highly recommended.

The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir, a book by James A. Reeves

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This is a story about being a man in America. – James A. Reeves

The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir, a book by James A. Reeves / SML.20120916.IP3.000808

As I stand behind the philosophy of diversity, often I forgot that it is just as important to reflecting on who I am as the assumed dominant voice of the world – to be a man. In his book titled The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir by writer / photographer / designer extraordinaire James A. Reeves (Twitter / Flickr) gave a frank and honest account of the things he saw and experienced during his journey as he drove cross-country across America. Through witty commentary and often funny + ironic photographs observed through the author's lens, the book is a joy to read and provides great insight about men as well as cultures + customs in America.