Monday, May 16, 2011

Malaysia Part 2

Also in this issue:
  • O Canada!  (and O Boston!)
  • Two New Products (and one revised one)
  • DRM Conundrum - Part 2 
  • More insights from the Sony team
Last month I spoke about my romp to Malaysia, and that although I was there for a week, I only had ONE DAY to actually go out shooting and try to capture a visual taste of this large and widely differing country in a photojournalistic style.  How can you possibly capture the essence of a country in just one day?  Even more challenging, how can you do it “National Geographic Style”, where photographers often spend months in a country, getting to know it and visiting a gazillion nooks and crannies?  Let me share with you some of the techniques I used to try to tackle this difficult challenge.

The first and most valuable technique was to band together with other like-minded photographers, all of whom knew the area and spoke the language.  Being a photographer in a new country can certainly be an intimidating experience, especially since just being a foreigner with a big camera makes you stick out like a sore thumb.  But often the best shots include people pictures, and as many of you who have taken my seminars know, I think candid photography is rude – it’s much better (and to some people, much more scary) to approach strangers first, build a rapport, and then get their permission to take their picture.  On top of that, in order to make the picture stand out to a photo editor, supplemental lighting (usually involving wireless flash or a reflector) is usually a requirement.

And I’ll tell you, nothing makes this process more comforting and productive than to be with 4-5 other photographers who are after the same kinds of shots, who will huddle together for safety as you approach strangers, and who all help each other out when it comes to holding wireless flashes, borrowing a lens, or just bouncing compositional ideas off each other.  We all worked together as equals and challenged each other creatively.  Synergy all the way around.

Where did I find such photographers?  Well, I had an unfair advantage.  I met some fans at the convention who, by their own admission, would never have gone out to shoot their own country had I not been there as a catalyst.  There’s something about being with other photographers with a shared mission.  You just work differently.  

From left: Eng Kee, Sim, Alvin, and me.  Not shown: Lew, who joined us Friday night.

A Corny Picture
In our first romp on Friday night, we came across a woman who was selling ears of corn on the street.  After taking some time to talk with and get to know her, we asked for (and got) permission to shoot a portrait, during which time she was quite patient as we tried several different lighting techniques.  We took the left image first and, finding it lacking, tried it again, this time with another photographer holding a wireless flash (with no diffuser) to her left.  Huge difference.  Moral of the story: High-ISO capabilities may be nice, but there’s still no substitute for good light.  (Click on any photo to see a larger image.)

Wireless flash need not always be this dramatic.  Another much more subtle example appears below where using wireless flash made a significant difference:
One more wireless flash example: While wandering around an apartment complex, we walked by an apartment with the kindest woman looking out at us through the window.  We all put our cameras down and started talking to her.  (Well, not me.  I just listened. :-) )  She was very kind and she invited us in for a cold drink.  We couldn’t turn down her hospitality.

If you’ve ever wondered how the National Geographic photographers get into the homes of strangers to take their environmental portrait shots (illustrating a person in the environment in which they live or thrive), it is usually by this very method – walking around, being friendly to others, striking up conversations, all the while putting your cameras away until you get to know your subject a little bit.  The woman was very shy when it came to having her picture taken – it took a lot of friendly coaxing, and even then she wouldn’t let us shoot her until she put her head scarf on.

Then I wanted the environmental portrait, showing others how she lived.  Below is that shot, without and with wireless flash:

Again, wireless flash is just another tool, but it has the potential to add interest or drama to your subject depending on how it’s used.   It doesn't always have to call attention to itself.

A Classroom Shot

While visiting the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, I came across a small group of children (clearly a visiting class) and their teacher that were really quite animated – singing with spirit, and interacting with their teacher enthusiastically.  (All except one, that is.  She seemed to be related to the teacher and not part of the class.)  I asked if I could take their picture, which appears below. 
For this I had the A900 and used the F20 flash as a fill flash.  This is one of those cases where I had to shoot quickly because the smiles and poses wouldn’t last long.  But had I been thinking, I would have done things differently.  First of all, because the back row was further away from the camera than the front row, the pop-up flash didn’t illuminate them as much and were darker (which I was able to correct for somewhat in photoshop).  But I completely forgot about the A900’s shallower depth-of-field, meaning the back row was more out-of-focus than if I had shot with my A55 which was also in my camera bag.  Sigh.

But what really haunted me about this shot was that other girl – the one who didn’t seem part of the class.  Unlike all the others, she didn’t smile.  Ever.  And after this class agreed to be photographed, she made sure she was in the front row, and also made sure that the orange brochure could be clearly seen in the shot.  (I didn’t mind – it added more color.)  The brochure seems innocuous enough – “Department of Islamic Development Malaysia” – but I still got the distinct sense that this girl had been coached to pose this way.  Was I being used to help spread the word about their cause?

Land of Contrasts

On the outskirts to Kuala Lumpur lies an area called Kampung Baru.  According to Wikipedia, "It is also one of the most valuable tracts of land in the capital and is estimated to be worth up to US$1.4 billion. But so far Kampung Baru elders have turned developers away, saying they want to preserve their ethnic Malay lifestyle."   So there are many opportunities to get pictures of an old, poor looking village contrasted with the ultra-modern city in the background (like the image below).

(Want to know where I took this exact shot?  The A55 embedded the GPS coordinates in the image without any effort on my part!  What a great tool.)

VIdeo Freeze Frame

North of Kuala Lumpur is a famous Hindu temple called Batu Caves.  In addition to the requisite monkeys that always seem to hang around such temples, there was also no shortage of very cool architecture to shoot.
Below is an image that was taken during a religious ceremony.  What’s noteworthy about it is that the Majaraj was looking at the camera for maybe a millisecond, then went on paying attention to people who weren’t tourists.  How did I happen to get this shot at just the right time?  Well, I was using the A55’s AVCHD video mode, and this high-quality image was actually a freeze-frame!

Mind you, it’s not as high-resolution as what the camera would produce as a still image – it’s 4.2” x 7.68” at 300 dpi – but it’s way better than most consumer products that came before it.  Where else is this freeze-frame technique useful?  Well, if you have young children, you know how fleeting a genuinely happy expression can be, and I’ve used this technique occasionally to substitute for shooting at the decisive moment.  Just shoot video and find the decisive frame later.  Voila! 

Bridge over Boring Water

Here’s a shot of a suspension bridge which I tried to make more interesting by including some grass in the frame.  But the grass was too dark so I illuminated it with a flash.

The Lightning Shot

So there was a thunderstorm in downtown on Sunday night. I wanted to capture it, so I did what I usually do for lightning: Camera on tripod, low ISO, small f/stop, continuous shooting, and use a cable release with the shutter locking mechanism so it continuously takes pictures, and hope for the best.

But although there was plenty of lightning bolts over the downtown buildings, for some reason none of them showed up in the images. (An occasional frame got lighter... but that was it.) My theory was it wasn't dark enough; and that a bolt of lightning was trivial compared to six seconds of light per exposure.

What to do? When I got back to the hotel I looked up an image of lightning from Google Image Search and photoshopped it in.  You can see the results above.

Was this ethical? It is if I don't mislead you about how I got it. My goal was to illustrate an event that actually occurred, kind of like an editorial shot which goes along with an article about lightning. This accurately represents what I saw when I was standing there. 

Other shots from this day can be seen on my website: .

O Canada!  

I’m writing this from Boston, where there’s still time to join me for the Boston Field Workshop on Saturday, May 21st.  It’ll be a fun-filled day starting with a refresher course on light and composition and all the tricks that the National Geographic photographers use to take engaging travel shots.  Then we’ll embark upon a walking tour of the city designed to hit several known and not-so-well-known highlights when the sun is at its best.  The challenge will be to wander about, and ask yourself "How can I take this interesting landscape and make an interesting photo out of it?"  (Seminar attendees learn that just because it looks good to you doesn't mean it will make a good picture!)  Of course I'll be there to provide encouragement, suggestions, and guidance.  And attendees will be encouraged to share their good shots and challenge others to improve upon it while in the field.  You’d be amazed at how effective this technique is, and all without any pressure or judgementization.  (Hey, that’s a word!)

There’s still time to sign up for the Field Workshop – just head on over to .

And the rest of this year we’ll be doing a lot of seminar-ing (look it up! :-) ) in Canada: Alberta in June, Nova Scotia in July, and Ontario in September.  For those of you not familiar with them, the Friedman Archives Seminars were designed to shorten the learning curve for digital photography by clearly explaining what’s important (you’d be surprised by what’s not included in the “what’s important” list), starting with light and composition and slowly going over to the technical side of things as the weekend progresses.  Previous attendees with a range of prior experiences all say that they benefitted greatly from the weekend, with a new vigor for creativity and a more intuitive understanding of the technical stuff.  If you live in Canada you really shouldn’t miss it!

You can find more information about the seminars and a schedule here: 

New Products

Here are some projects I'm working on that are just on the horizon:

1) A900 Ebook Upgrade: It has always been my policy to offer free upgrades for all of my ebooks.  Last month I updated my Alpha 850 and 900 ebook to include details on Firmware Version 2 (as well as clean up a whole bunch of typos).  The new .pdf is being distributed free to previous owners of both the ebook and owners of the printed version of the book who registered their purchase with me.  One of the best new features – all of the internal references (and there are a lot of them) have been hyperlinked!  If you haven’t received notification of the new version yet sit tight – you will be soon. 

2) The Spanish version of the A33 / 55 ebook will be out during the coming week!  Look for it on .

3) New Video: When I was giving my Wireless Flash talk in Malaysia, there was a camera at the back of the auditorium videotaping the whole thing.  I’ve taken that footage and added screen shots and enhanced the audio to produce my very first video lecture, which will soon be available for download – just USD $9.95 for a 50-minute lecture.  Watch for its availability at the page. 

DRM Conundrum – Part 2

Last month I spoke about my personal feelings about the lengths that corporations will go to to keep you from illegally sharing copyrighted material, using restrictive techniques commonly referred to as “Digital Rights Management” (DRM for short).  (Funny how the word “Management” is a euphemism for “Techniques Which Also Restrict Legitimate Use” :-) ).  Anyway, as you may remember, Sony Malaysia had offered to spread the word about my books if only a form of DRM were implemented, because file sharing is quite rampant in that part of the world.  Many of you provided some insightful comments at the end of that blog post, with several suggesting “Why not just imprint the customer’s name and email address on each page of the .pdf?  If it’s found in the wild you know who to take legal action against”. 

Why not indeed?  That solution felt right intuitively and Sony readily agreed.  And so much of last month was spent modifying (and debugging!) my shopping cart to provide this very functionality, which is now up and online and will be applied to all ebooks of the newer camera models.  Huzzah! Thank you all for your help and level-headed suggestions regarding this very religious and polarizing issue.

More Insights from the Sony Team

Last month I listed some of the insights I've gleaned from talking with George Wong from the Sony Alpha Malaysia team.  Here are some other tidbits I neglected to share the first time:
  • Camera turnover in Japan is a new camera every 4 months!  In Malaysia it’s more like every 3-4 years.  Because of that slower turnover Sony decided to start coming out with more firmware upgrades for their cameras.
  • Asian countries buy five times more "fast" lenses per capita than Western countries.  (They must love bokeh! :-) )
  • Sony's high-end pro camcorder division is a separate entity from the Alpha division and there was no concern from the NEX VG-10 group that it might eat into high-end sales of their pro cameras.  Why the less-than-perfect video implementation then?  Answer: It was just a first-generation product – they put it out there and were surprised at the positive reaction.  Future versions might very well improve on the video specs.  

    It took five separate engineering companies to produce the semi-transparent mirror used in the A33 and A55 cameras.

Until next time,
Yours Truly, Gary Friedman


  1. As always Gary, I enjoy your blog! But this is my first post; prompted by your "lightning ethics". This was the image that most attracted me in your blog; I'm an admirer of your photography and consider you perfectly capable of delivering that shot sans photoshop help. Still, I don't consider this to be an ethical violation since you revealed your secret to us. I work in the health industry (pharmacist) and ethics/morals are a critical component of my practice. I too have a favorite photo prominently displayed on a wall that I took of a pier with photoshopped elements added to enhance the image. When others admire it I'm always obliged to reveal my "ethical dilema". I imagine there's very few photographers out there that have not done the same with one of their images that was just lacking a critical component. Again thanks for your blog. DT

  2. I am always in awe of how you manage to pack so much great information in a seemingly concise document and with such painless delivery! I always walk away feeling a little smarter after reading your newsletters and viewing the latest additions to your blog.

    I have no issues with "photoshopping" images. Like good photography, good post-image editing requires keen artistic sense and technical skill.

    I suppose it's philosophical. Any image taken through something other than a 50 mm equivalent lens is already modified/enhanced/distorted. Adding flash to brighten up the foreground grass - as you did in an image above - is yet another artificial enhancement. And in the days of film, processing the image modified it further (remember the Kodachrome reds and Fujichrome greens?).

    I think of Photoshop as another tool, merely a different semantic in pre- and post-image production. It's still the sharpness of the fundamental image, the color, and the framing that sets the stage. If the original image of the towers sucked, no amount of post-processing would have likely saved it.

    Speaking of post-processing, I know a local painter who depicted a beautiful image of a white tail buck standing in an open field. Technically beautiful, but it really didn't go anywhere beyond a few art shows. Then he took the painting back into the studio and added a small surveyors stake with a red flag - an understated suggestion that the lot upon which the buck stood was about to be developed. It had such an emotional impact that the painting hung in the White House for a time.

    That's the long way of saying that the lightning image was beautifully and appropriately done. The external lights on the buildings works real well with the added bolts - making it appear the lightning has traveled around the structures as it hit. That's art.

  3. Hi Gary

    As we have grown to expect, another entertaining, informative and interesting blog. Enjoyed it very much. Who cares about PP lightening - you are Gary Friedman and I've learnt most of it from you.

    (About time you did the UK though!)


  4. Cheers Gary for writing about Kuala Lumpur. We had a good time taking pictures together.

    Eng Kee

  5. Hi Gary short time watcher and first time blogger,
    Given how much new cameras are more computer like with every generation it seems to me that significant firmware updates could be used as an actionable source of income for camera companies. I am not talks bug fixes or minor system upgrades I am talking significant upgrades that value to the camera over previous firmware. I think it is good for booth the camera owner and the camera company. The get extra revinue from and existing camera owner base and we as owners get more value and function out of our current camera without the significant cost of a whole new camera. What are your thoughts on this idea