I find it humorous how people can look at a photograph and say that is has the “Robin Wong” look. Truth be told, I haven’t successfully developed a distinctive photography style yet (unlike others like say, our host, Salgado, McCurry, Leibowitz etc). I am still in the process of experimenting, trying out different techniques and shooting methods, and deciding what works and what doesn’t. I believe photography is a dynamic process that requires us to go beyond our comfort zone and try new and different approaches. Growth in photography takes time, and I, like everyone else am still learning.
I have received several comments here, as well as emails and posts on my Facebook Page asking me if there are “magic settings” or post-processing tricks to produce the images I share. In summary, I think Thom Hogan had it right when he said, “There is no such thing as Magic Settings”. I agree with Thom: every scene has different photographic requirements, and no matter how we optimize the camera there can never be a one size fits all solution – even for ourselves, let alone different photographers who obviously have different preferences. I think it is important to acknowledge that what works for me, may not necessarily be the most suitable choice for you, or any one else. There is no absolute right or wrong.
However, since I’ve been asked many times, I will share what I can in this post about my process. No, this isn’t a “cheat sheet” – there isn’t one, remember. I will share my thoughts and experience and talk about why I did certain things in a situation, and the logic behind my choice of general camera settings.
1. Your camera does not know what you want. You have to tell it what you want. One of the most common traps in photography is the expectation from the photographer that the camera knows what is on their mind and can automatically set itself up accordingly. No matter how sophisticated and intelligent the camera is, it is after all, a mere tool, with no heart, no emotion and no thought. Sure, for most cases, the average calculated value given by the camera (for parameters like metering, AF, etc) is good enough, and will almost get you 99% of the way there, but there are also times when the average values deviate from what you want to accomplish (like intentional over or under exposure for example) and the output won’t be what you wanted. The camera cannot decide whether you want to freeze the motion of a running kid, or slow it down just enough to give you some dramatic blur. The shutter speed it picks is simply an average it expects to be right. The camera does not know when you’re willing to sacrifice ISO in exchange for shutter speed. You have to tell the camera what you want by controlling the input. 2. What your camera sees is not what you see. You should see through the camera’s eyes, not your own. This problem is inherited from the traditional optical viewfinder, which is becoming increasingly redundant in my opinion. What you see through the optical viewfinder is not what the camera will output. While the optical viewfinder is great for framing and composing based on the lens’ coverage, what the camera processes and ultimately spits out for you is dependent on your exposure settings. Modern mirrorless cameras get around this with electronic viewfinders and live view: which offer a processed view from the image sensor itself and matches what the camera sees. You can judge exposure, white balance, and focus accuracy through the electronic viewfinder, and have live feedback as you change settings. The instant results even before hitting the shutter button means less error and a higher chance of nailing your shots.
3. Set exposure as accurately as possible. If your images are constantly underexposed or overexposed, you will lose image quality as you correct them in post-processing. It is worth reconsidering your shooting techniques, and ask yourself why your images are always under- or overexposed. It doesn’t matter if you shoot on manual, aperture priority or shutter priority, as there are ways and tools (like exposure compensation) that let you control exposure and get what you want. It’s important to understand how these settings work and what your needs are. I personally shoot with aperture priority, and resort to shutter priority only when capturing motion (both fast and slow). I rarely shoot manual, unless an external flash is involved or I’m shooting macro. When shooting Aperture, Shutter Priority and Programme, the “exposure compensation” is your best friend. Some may argue using different metering options will give you better results, but I find exposure compensation to be more effective. Don’t be afraid of extreme adjustments in exposure compensation – I have compensated by up to +2 EV, in a backlit situation, to get what I want.
4) Focus, focus, focus. Near misses can ruin an image by shifting attention away from where you want it. One popular focusing technique is having the focusing point set to the center of the screen, then lock focus (by half-pressing the shutter button) and the recompose the image before fully pressing the shutter button. This technique works best, with longer focal lengths as field curvature is not an issue, or if you’re using a wide lens, it works when your subjects are not too near to you. But if your subject is close (say 1-2 meters away) and you are using a large aperture lens, focus and recompose will give you inaccurate focus due to parallax. The only solution is either to move the focusing point or rely on tracking (most cameras) or compensation systems (Hasselblad). Sometimes, focus misses are inevitable regardless of technique, I certainly don’t have a 100% hit rate. Curation is your best friend here, I only keep and show images that are in focus.
5. Get rid of unintentional camera shake. Always watch your minimum shutter speed – I apply 1/focal length rule of thumb for minimum shutter speed, but this depends on your camera, resolution and stabilisation (if any). If I intend to push the shutter speed lower, I will always be careful; Image Stabilization is helpful but not magic. For critical shots, I will make sure I shoot at a comfortable minimum shutter speed. Hand-holding technique is also important but for ultimate stability, get a tripod.
6. Shoot RAW. Use Olympus Viewer 3 if possible. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to shoot RAW, because RAW will store ALL the information available. While this isn’t the popular choice, I find Olympus Viewer 3 to be the best software for optimizing the Olympus RAW file output – in terms of fine detail reproduction, color balance as well as high ISO noise reduction. Unfortunately, it’s also slow, laggy, buggy and probably has two dozen other issues that make it a bit of a pain to integrate into your photographic workflow. But I can’t deny that I seriously love the overall rendition, though.
7. The “Robin Wong” look is a myth. I do not have any secrets. I do not hide anything or hold anything back. Those who’ve shot next to me and seen the my camera screen understand that the “Robin Wong” look is a myth, and I am glad to debunk it here.
8. Have fun while shooting. Enjoy your SHUTTER THERAPY. If you’re not having fun, all the technical bits don’t really matter.
There are so many considerations to making a good photograph, and it’s not logical to make a complete list of items to check while shooting. In the end, practice makes perfect. In general and especially since going commercial full time, I believe that I shoot a lot MORE than most. That, more than anything, accounts for the consistency and quality of my images.
Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2017 onwards. All rights reserved