My Story: The Artist??? Hmmm???

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a photographer. So, I am not going to write about how I fell in love with photography as a young boy and to begin to talk about my first Brownie. We have no artists in our family. I have never attended art schools. However, during my “hero’s journey” to the abyss of all abyss at the age of 17 (I would blog about this in my third blog installment), I became attached, emotionally attached, to Classical Music, especially the 18th to 19th century Romanticism. Classical music was my emotional support back then. I am no longer intellectually fixated in that particular period of my life. A great story can be told which is beyond this blog at the moment, however.

I came to understand that artists are gods. They are morality breakers. They set new standards. They defy norms. They set trends. Their visions are some forms of truth about ourselves and the world they and we are living in. They are historical and a by-product of our age. They are here because the world needs them. They are here because visions need to be actualized and experienced in the real world. At least, in an age when artists are considered movers and shakers of world affair. Nowadays, it isn’t much so unless you are involved in the art world. I think I know what art is but I didn’t have the tools to represent my visions until I took up photography.

You should know by now that I didn’t take up photography as my new calling until I left my management job around 2011. I have little or no interests in photography until one of my old time staff Alex bought a Sony Powershot camera from Circuit City back in 2009. He paid about $120 for it. He showed it to me. I was blown away because it has 8 megapixels. The last digital camera I had was an Olympus with 3 megapixels and I paid over $250 for it. I was really impressed by the technology advancement. So, I went with him to Circuit City and to buy the same camera for myself.

I was more intrigued by the technology and the technological aspect of photography the most at the beginning. I quickly realized that at ISO 400, photos showed significant noise. The next day, I went back to Circuit City to exchange for another Powershot model with 10 megapixels. Same thing….high image noise level at ISO 400 and beyond. Then, I bought the Powershot S3 with a slight improvement with noise at ISO 800. Not long after, I jumped to the DSLR platform, a XTI Rebel. It has never occurred to me that smaller sensor would create more image noise at a higher ISO. The rest was history.

By the time I left this company, I was already shooting with a Canon 1d Mark III and a 500L F4 IS. The first genre I have mastered was bird photography, at least, on the technical level. Bird photography is very gear and technically oriented genre. If you don’t have enough reach or long enough lens, you can never be able to capture great shots as seen often in the National Geographic. Anyone who is serious about bird photography would be shooting with a $6k 500mm or 600mm lens. Back then in 2009 or 2010, there weren't any good quality, affordable long zooms. Very early on I have come to know what is considered a technically good photo. The photos captured by these 500mm or 600mm $5k to $6k lens are out of this world. You can see individual feather on the birds. Even shooting at F8, you would still get some very shallow depth of field.

A Sandpiper shore bird captured in the Jamaica Bay Wild Life Refuge Center with a Canon 1d mark III + 500L + 1.4x converter. I was literally kneeing in the swamp water to capture this shot at such a lower, ground angle.

A Red Tailed Hawk captured in Prospect Park.

Spotted this Yellow Bellied Sapsucker at Prospect Park by the hill.

Eventually, I realized my own short coming in my bird photography. I wasn’t able to travel far enough places to capture different species of birds in various behavioral environments. I was no longer being held back by my gear. Now, it was my shooting locations. As long as I was living and shooting in the North East region in America, the types of bird subject matters are all the same and somewhat limited. I spent a lot of time in the Jamaica Bay Wild Life Refuge Center. My artistic strength is always my ability to reflect and reassess my styles and techniques. By late 2010, I sold my $6k Canon 500L F4 because I was done with bird photography. It was time for me to explore other genres. My next challenge was cycling race photography in general and maybe multiplying another 10x difficulty factor to shoot NYC bike races in pre-dawn condition. As much as it is crazy to race bikes before 6 am in the cold morning, it is also crazy to try to capture stunning, emotional charged race photos under the same environment.

My tools for my cycling race photography (at the moment)....Nikon D500 with a Tamron 70-200 f2.8 VC G2. Yongnuo remote triggers and speedlite. A high capacity lithium ion flash battery back. My wider angle lens is a Sigma 18-35 f1.8 ART.

My current camera for cycling race photography is a Nikon D500, Tamron 70-200 G2 F2.8 VC and Sigma 18-35 F1.8 Art. For my lighting system, I am using one or 2 third party manual speedlites, and a handful of wireless triggers. Depending on how complex my lighting setup I want to make, I may bring one or two lithium ion battery packs with some crazy recycling time. I could basically shoot any bike races with this setup. For the HH Racing Thursday FBF Race Series, I even brought my 3ftx3ft light box to light up the podium.

Jesus Martinez from team Dave Jordan took the overall win in the Master Series. With a 3ftx3ft softbox, you can get some nice soft, diffuse light even when the ambient light is in near darkness.

For other non-bike racing related assignments, I would also bring my Tamron 45mm F1.8 VC and an ultra wide angle lens, Tokina 11-20 F2.8. I would also bring my second body, a Nikon D7200, for backup. I only believe in shooting with a second body as a backup. Most of the time, I only shoot with one body because I don’t rush shots. I plan my shots visually first and to execute my vision at the locations. I compose my photos in real time because my D500 has over 100 AF points. As for my shot setting, this is a sensitive subject. All I can say is that I would never allow my shot vision to be altered by my exposure setting just because I am shooting in a low light environment. In another word, if my shot demands me to have a greater depth of view, I would shoot at F5.6, 1/125s or faster, even if I have to use a very high ISO setting. I would never use a wider aperture to compensate for the low light environment because that would alter the way I have visualized my shots. With my longer zoom, I would use F2.8 to F4 the most with a shutter speed beyond 1/250 flash sync. It could be 1/400s, 1/500s, or even 1/800s. I have the know-how and the lighting equipment to do a full flash power flash sync at those fast shutter speeds. Any shutter speed lower than 1/250s with the flash sync, you get blurry photos with a bit of ghosting effect. Bike racers move too fast for the 1/250s flash sync.

I am only as good as my gear allows me to capture the shots. I am forever obsessing with my gear to the extent that I never shoot with new cameras, lenses, or lighting setup in my paid assignments. With any new equipment, it takes me days to sort out all the technical issues I may have. With new lenses, I would go through days to fine tune the AF focus accuracy and sharpness. I didn’t spend over $1k to $2k for new lenses or camera bodies to produce blurry, out of focus, uninspiring photos with technical flaws that couldn’t even pass a photography 101 exam. I know no photographers who aren’t obsessed with their cameras and equipment. Every photographer I know would expect to get the best they can afford and the best they can do the jobs for them. In few years, I would be switching cameras and lenses again too.

I know few of you who hate digital photography because you think shooting film is a purest form of pictorial art. Well, some would say a painting is the purest the most. What are you going to say about that? Right? Regardless, digital photography is here to stay, and is just another form of artistic medium and expression. I have shot in analog photography for about a year and shooting in medium format to 35mm. I know how to develop my own black and white and color C41 negatives using the zone system. I can never imagine shooting bike races in analog photography. The workflow is too slow and the lighting condition isn’t ideal enough to be shooting in film.

You can say that I am a self taught photographer. I acquired my skill through shooting a lot and to actively participate in various photography forums and message boards. I would enter contests and challenges to test myself. I would post photos I took in that particular week and to ask for critique. I start to learn how to read a photo and to deconstruct the shooting process and the workflow. I spent hours looking at shots I admired and to think about how would I shoot the same subject matter with a given shooting environment and equipment. I followed few pros and to learn their workflow and to study their comments carefully. I read books on the theory of lighting and how to visual light in a real world setting. And I keep shooting and changing my technique year after year.

Coming from the bird photography background, I think a good photo should be technically flawless as a start. It should be sharp when it needs to be. The subject should be in focused unless for a different artistic reason. White balance and color balance should be correct or at least they are represented because of some artistic reason. For people subjects, no chopping hands, feet, or head. No background distraction that would remove the viewer’s attention away from the subject matter. Finally, there has to be a story with a proper composition using various rule of third. A technically flawless photo without a story is boring. A technically flawed photo, even with a story, is a major distraction and a huge turn off. To me, it tells me that you have not learned your craft. Is ok to produce technically flawed photo in your first year starting out. Not when you have been shooting for years. You get bonus points if your photos can generate and create emotion in the viewer’s mind and heart.

In this blog segment, I want to highlight some of my most memorable shots I have ever captured in the NYC racing scene. The below gallery is my all time most memorable shots I have taken for the past years. I am sure I have missed some. They are the best of the best because there are some interesting stories behind each shot and how they were captured. Few of them could have been technically improved however.

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