Category Archives: Photography

Thoughts on 2012

Another year flies by and I thought I had better pen some thoughts down before I forget them.

An Instagram photo of the clouds over Bishan, 28 Dec 2012.

An Instagram photo of the clouds over Bishan, 28 Dec 2012.

1. Photography is now in the pocket

In the mid 2000s, I used to conduct a few photography workshops in partnerships with Canon. Back then, my mantra to the audience was to use as high a resolution a digital camera as you could afford, because you’d never know how big you need to print them or what kind of HD displays you would be using them in the future as photo frames. I scoffed at phone cameras because they were just so primitive then (they were horrid).

Today, that mantra has gone out of the window as the old adage of “having a camera with you at all times” is more important than the actual megapixel count. Smartphones can now do spot exposure, HDR processing to overcome high contrast scenes and have really good color reproduction. And the most amazing thing is that you can share them instantly on social media, rather than wait a few days to get 4R prints and then another few weeks to show them to your friends.

If I go out with the kids and forget to bring my Olympus Pen along (the full frame Canon 5D sees very little action today due to its enormous bulk), it’s still ok because a modern smartphone has a really really good image sensor. And I don’t print photos anymore, photos are now shared by default on Facebook and Instagram, and this blog no longer hosts photos like it used to.

Isabel in soft focus, Instagram style.

Isabel in soft focus, Instagram style.

Instagram has been a great tool that I have grown to appreciate. While some pros may decry the use of vintage filters, I love it because the same effects are much more difficult to achieve in Photoshop, and if you choose to take photos first and Instagram it later, you still retain the original image. And I’ve always been a fan of square 1:1 ratio images. In the past we used to fantasize about owning medium format cameras just to get that square look…today who cares?

I predict that compact cameras will become obsolete within the next five years, and dSLRs will once again become the domain of pros instead of consumers.

2. Xbox Rawks

The Xbox ambassadors and the rest of the usual gang of suspects at Dance Central Championships. You won't find another group of more energetic young folks elsewhere (excluding this botak lah)

The Xbox ambassadors and the rest of the usual gang of suspects at Dance Central Championships. You won’t find another group of more energetic young folks elsewhere (excluding this botak lah)

For the past year, I’ve been the business lead for the Xbox 360 in Singapore, the fifth guy in the job since the product was launched in Singapore during the early 2000s. While I have been driving the marcoms for Xbox and our other Microsoft retail products in the past five years, it’s a whole different ball game to be actually doing product management for such a complex product line.

And till today, I still have to tell people I don’t spend all my time playing games. It’s a continuously challenging business to manage, and while I can’t write much about all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes, what we did publicly was truly fun and groundbreaking this year.

The explosive finale of the Dance Central Championships 2012 at Plaza Singapura.

The explosive finale of the Dance Central Championships 2012 at Plaza Singapura.

Dance Central Championships came about because we’ve always wanted to bring Xbox to the masses in a big non-traditional way. It blew our minds when over 1000 people signed up and the finale was simply electrifying as contestants did the most amazing moves on the stage. The finale coincided with the launch of Kinect Star Wars and it was a pleasure to work with the 501st Legion of Star Wars enthusiasts. Trust me, you don’t see such passion very often – these guys live and breathe the Force.

Halo 4 launch, 6 Nov at Funan. We've never packed the crowd in like this before.

Halo 4 launch, 6 Nov at Funan. We’ve never packed the crowd in like this before.

The Halo 4 launch was something of a full circle thingy. When I joined Microsoft in 2007, my second day of work was the Halo 3 launch at Suntec. While we had to scale this one down due to budget constraints, we organized a Royal Rumble-style Ultimate Deathmatch as our first tournament in many years and it was truly gratifying to see fans line up to see who would be the last one standing.

In my previous job as a journalist, I wrote many stories, but I could have never imagined writing a story like my past five years in Microsoft and being part of the amazing Xbox journey.

3. The Goblins

The Tan family, Xmas 2012

The Tan family, Xmas 2012

Isaac will be ten years old soon, and Isabel will be eight. Feels like yesterday that Goy and I were still pak-tor-ing (going out on dates). Sometimes I get a bit disoriented and forget that I’m a father to two kids. With them yakking and cracking jokes and arguing all the time, sometimes I feel more like their older brother. Especially since I don’t feel so grown up myself.

It’s really not easy to inculcate solid values and be a good role model to the kids, and often I fall short. But I’m glad the kids make it a fun journey…most of the time. And they are the main reason that I…

3. Fought the education system 

It started one day when Goy showed me this ACS Primary sample mathematics exam paper that was so ridiculously tough I lost my cool. I said, “That’s it, I’m writing a letter to the papers.”

One letter led to another, and before I knew it, I had sent and gotten six letters published, and other letter writers contributed their thoughts too. The letters are archived here in their original unedited form (the Today letters have since gone offline, such a pity)

Crippling learning with unrealistic standards

It’s a strong foundation that counts

Is the Education Ministry really listening to parents’ feedback?

Why would people want to have kids in Singapore?

Getting to the root of kiasuism (this was a guest column for Today’s National Day Rally edition)

It is not me who is kan cheong

Did the letters help the situation? I think it did, because since the first letter, education has become a bigger talking point in the public space. The Gahmen stopped publishing names of top PSLE scorers this year and while the problem lies more in the sheer unreasonable breadth of the primary school curriculum, at least they’re doing something.

The problem with the education system, I suspect, is that there are too many layers and differing approaches, and no single visionary who can articulate what kind of education system is good for our kids. To solve this problem at the root, we need leaders with actual field experience and I am awaiting the day when an acclaimed educator become the Education Minister.

I’m not saying that the current Minister Heng is doing a lousy job, it’s just that the PAP’s way of appointing ministers needs to take into account that a finance/army/civil service guy may not appreciate the nuances of education like an ex-teacher would. To change the world, we don’t need technocrats and administrators and policymakers. We need people who know what it takes and are willing to risk everything to improve our children’s lives.

I’m done with letter writing for now, because I was starting to sound like a broken record.

4. My Monster.

My Monster 1100 Evo at one of the old Seletar airbase buildings. Vintage filtered with the help of who else but Instagram.

My Monster 1100 Evo at one of the old Seletar airbase buildings. Vintage filtered with the help of who else but Instagram.

I first started riding army bikes in 1996, and enrolled in the civilian Class 2B course in 2007. Only in 2012 did I finally realize the long-time dream of owning a Class 2 (400cc and above) bike and after much consideration, I chose the Ducati Monster 1100 Evo and it is an exhilarating ride. I have written about it here.

Seriously, 16 years is a pretty long time to wait, but I guess I was too busy in between.

5. People moving on.

Several colleagues have left Microsoft and I am deeply grateful for all the things they have taught me and gone through with me. Great friends are hard to find in any workplace, and I’ve been blessed with knowing so many talented folks since I started working in 2001. All this sounds very clichéd, but our personality and attitudes to life are often shaped by the meaningful relationships we have and cherish.

And my ex-boss Ben Tan has so many classic lines that I remember by heart. Eg. “Don’t wrestle with pigs!” “Stack them high and watch them fly!” (referencing mass stacking at retail). “How do you get from good to great?”

An old SPH friend, Chee Kin, left us suddenly this year. He was a kind and funny mentor during my journalism internship years, and now I can’t crack anti-Sun Ho/China Wine jokes with him anymore. Quite a few friends have passed away (the first guy during Primary 5) and it is always a grim reminder that our days on earth are numbered and unknown to us. All the more reason to enjoy life for what it is and never regret the things we do. It’s either now or never, people!

6. Passing another violin exam

A shot of my violin and my teacher's violin.

A shot of my violin and my teacher’s violin.

To many kids, passing the ABRSM music exam is no big deal, since everyone is doing it (usually not by choice). To an adult like me, who has no natural innate gift in music, clearing my Grade 5 exam was a big accomplishment.

This was a frightening exam to go through, because I realized that I still could not get rid of the jitters and shakes whenever I played in front of a teacher or examiner. I concluded that I simply did not have stage performance confidence – an irony because I have no issues giving speeches in front of huge crowds. Goy helped me overcome this (mostly) by constantly practicing with me with the piano and I learnt how to minimize the tonality issues. I just managed to score a merit rating and it felt like a distinction already.

I continue to learn the violin because it’s too late to just stop now, when I’ve worked at this for over 11 years, and because every lesson is such a humbling experience for an arrogant nature like mine. Violin is truly a great antidote for the inertia that threatens to subsume me every day.

As usual, I don’t think too hard about the future and what I want to do in 2013. Everything happens according to God’s plan and all I ask for is to be happy in the things I do and achieve contentment at all times. I feel the edginess and impatience of the mid-life crisis (all the old AC boys are experiencing it) and we have to keep remembering to get together lest one of us disappear from sight without warning.

Pok's wedding in KL

Pok’s wedding in KL, probably the last time we will look relatively young. Age will hound us from here on.

And 2012 was great because the last of the dragonboat gang – Pok and Naveen – finally got married. Now they’ll understand what we married men have been talking about during our Adam Road suppers :)

Riding The Monster

I didn't realize how similar the curves of Gardens by The Bay were to those on the Monster.

I didn’t realize how similar the curves of Gardens by The Bay were to those on the Monster until I parked the bike and looked through the lens. This is a truly fortunate combo of the right dawn lighting, street lighting and juxtaposition. Christmas Eve 2012.

The Ducati Monster 1100 Evo is my first Class 2 bike and it was a shocker to ride during my first 24 hours with it. The engine vibrated terribly, you can’t go slow in the carpark (or actually below 40kmh) without clutching in halfway, and the engine is always complaining if you don’t rev enough. And if you aren’t careful, you’re breaking the speed limit…by a lot.

But what a pleasure it is!

Having only ridden bikes like the SAF hybrid street-scramblers (about 185cc, from Honda and Yamaha), learner bikes in Bukit Batok Driving Center (Honda 125s, 400s and 600s) and my Kawasaki Ninja 250R, I did not know a modern motorcycle could be as rough as a Monster. The Japanese bikes were really easy to handle with smooth engines and clutch controls, while the Monster is the complete opposite.

Its torque-y engine lurches forward, always eager to get off the stop line. You can hear every mechanical whirr and click when the wind isn’t rushing through your helmet. The engine gets hot enough to sear your thighs red though the jeans if you decide to do multiple short trips (I have a photo to prove it). The tiny tank only holds enough fuel for 140km before the fuel reserve light comes on, so frequent trips to the petrol station is mandatory.

However, once you get used to those quirks, man, you learn to love this Italian stallion (no, no, not Stallone) and its unique character – arrogant, impetuous and always challenging you to take a firm rein or just buzz off.

If you’re going to own a high capacity bike, why not own one with character? I’ve always loved the Italian approach to art and science, driven forward by ego and passion and a deep understanding of aesthetics. That’s pretty much like my own personality, as my friends would readily tell you. So a Ducati is a natural fit.

I was considering the Ducati Streetfighter 848 at first, but the Monster’s classic design language spoke directly to me while I could never love the aggressive lines of the Streetfighter as much. As well as the lower seat height :) The Streetfighter probably has more in common with modern anime-inspired Japanese bikes like the Kawasaki Z1000, the latter of which was one of my earlier candidates for the Class 2 bike but it was just too bulky with that gigantic inline-4 engine.

Monster at Upper Peirce

Upper Peirce Reservoir is one of my favorite locations for any bike photo shoot. But be careful of the monkeys who always look for a chance to grab your gear and run away gleefully.

The current Monster design is superior to the original 1993 forebear, with a much more muscular trellis frame, stouter tank and a well balanced mix of smooth curves and twisted metal innards out in full view. Even though the Triumph Street or Speed Triple is arguably a more well-rounded machine for city use, (the triple engine is much smoother to ride at all gears, as I’ve experienced with the Triumph Daytona 675) there is no contest in the looks department.

The Monster engine may vibrate incessantly but once you hit the sweet spot at each picky gear, it’s really enjoyable. The exhaust sound is a sweet mix of bassy low notes and happy mid-tone barks and I think the matte aluminium stock pipes look superior to any third-party alternatives. I removed the odd-looking flyscreen and now there’s nothing to obstruct my view as I soak up the beautiful sunsets or empty morning roads. It responds nimbly due to its compact shape (a neighbour thought it was a 400cc bike, and really, it is just a little bigger than a Super 4), and the bike just commands so much presence whether moving or stationary.

I don’t know if this same affliction hits other Ducati owners, but I now have a weakness for Ducati apparel even though they are quite pricey (A Puma-Ducati tee is usually about $50, and it’s hard to find good discounts even with free shipping from the online apparel store). To make you feel even more special, Ducati sends you a membership card all the way from Italy embossed with your bike’s frame number. You can’t do much with the card but it’s the thought that counts and most companies don’t do this sort of consumer marketing anymore.

With the crazy COE prices for cars (S$81.8K for 1600cc and below as I write this!), Japanese bikes getting more expensive now due to the high yen, and European bikes coming down in price due to the weak euro, I suspect there are going to be more Ducatis, Triumphs, MV Agustas and other continental bikes on our roads in the next few years.

But I could be wrong – there’s still a strong stigma against bike ownership in Singapore thanks to the reckless riders on the roads, as well as inconsiderate drivers. To make things harder for bike class upgrades, the Traffic Police tests are getting harder to pass with more stringent testers. My Class 2A and Class 2 tests were no walks in the park. Taking a minimum of over three years to get a Class 2 licence (400cc and above) is very long, but then again, I do understand the rationale behind this restriction. I don’t think I could have respected or handled the power of a Class 2 bike during my early biking days in the army.

One just wonders how long people will tolerate the high car prices before considering going the patience-draining motorbike licence route.

Off topic: I’ve always wondered about the high population of Honda Super 4 owners in SG – don’t they ever think of upgrading to a nicer looking bike if they could afford it? The Super 4 is the equivalent of my Corolla Altis – a nice bike for daily commuting, but nothing more. I was dead set against owning a Super 4 during my year of Class 2A ownership because it’s enough to be an everyday Altis owner :)

In recent weeks, I’ve been scouting Singapore for the right backgrounds to take portraits of the Monster, and here’s a small gallery with more to come:

Found this beautiful backdrop on Christmas Day morning at Punggol Way. The footpath is much narrower than it looks.

Found this beautiful backdrop on Christmas Day morning at Punggol Way. The footpath is much narrower than it looks.

Another shot at Punggol Way.

Another shot at Punggol Way.

Monster At Gardens 2

This was taken at Gardens by the Bay itself.

Changi Coastal Road at dawn.

Changi Coastal Road, along the pathway at the carpark, at dawn.

Monster at Changi 01

I installed these drop-dead gorgeous Rizoma Circuit 851 mirrors but removed them soon after because the mirror is so small you really can’t see much of what’s behind you. Sigh, it would have been the perfect naked bike mirror.

Monster at Changi 03

Changi Coastal Road, as the sun rose. Most of my shots are taken in the early hours because the family is sleeping then, and so is the rest of Singapore. This way one can ride the Monster the way it’s meant to be ridden – without stopping :)

 

Of Art, Ads and Naked Men

I was driving into Orchard Road with the family a few weeks ago when I saw the huge billboard (above, from Mr Brown’s site) from Abercrombie & Fitch. I was so stunned that I took a second look and probably put myself at risk of an accident. It was a black and white image of a rippling male body with his genitals barely hiding from view underneath the low-slung jeans.

I said to Goy: “Wow, that picture is going to cause a few accidents.” but left it at that. After all, the billboard did its job of capturing my attention and the male model does have an amazing body. And it was a very well-taken photograph, never mind that it had little to do with A&F apparel at all – such is the nature of brand advertising.

In recent days, the billboard has become a tabloid-style news story. First it was reported that the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) had suspended the billboard. Then it came to light that the Authority had no authority to do so, since A&F was not part of its group and not beholden to their bidding (which I found was the more newsworthy bit, rather than the near-naked guy). The Media Authority of Singapore  supported ASAS’ call but said that the industry is self-regulated. In short, nobody can take down the ad except A&F themselves, and I’m sure many ad agencies are rubbing their hands in glee thinking about what they can achieve now with their clients.

I don’t know if they’ll ever get the billboard taken down but I oppose such a move on artistic grounds. Yes, we are a conservative society, but we are also living in a wasteland of mediocre visuals and advertisements. If you’ve ever visited Rome, one of the key attractions is a statue of a very nude man – Michelangelo’s David.

I’ve visited the statue twice, and both times, I’ve just sat there staring at the sheer beauty and perfection of the sculpture. No, I’m not gay, but there is something enthralling about the artistic depiction of a human body. And you don’t see people going “eeeee, that man is naked!” because it is undoubtedly art, and it is not vulgar.

And the Christian fundamentalist shouldn’t wrongly compare the story of Adam and Eve who fell into sin and quickly covered their nakedness in front of God – our Creator made them perfect and unclothed but sin caused them to become self-conscious of their bodies. Man would of course fall greater into sin and lose self-control of their bodies, which is what the Bible warns against repeatedly. Then we should also consider what happens when someone views an image that he purports will make him lose self-control of his body – this is the line drawn between art and pornography.

When it comes to art, everyone has the right to disagree on the interpretation. What is vulgar to someone may seem as virtuoso to another. But art is always judged and weighed in the zeitgeist of the times, and overlaid with common standards of morality and sensibility. It is not surprising to see ASAS’ objection to the ad, but one also must ask: “Are there a lot of people who are upset with the ad?” Personally, I haven’t heard anyone complaining and demanding the billboard’s removal. These sort of images, my dear ASAS, are par for the course these days.

And as a Straits Times forum writer pointed out, there are far more vulgar ads going around that ASAS does nothing about. It’s just that they are all smaller than the billboard in size.

I’m more upset with the general low standards of advertising in Singapore which celebrates the lack of wit, creative expression and artistics standards. Marketing managers are happy to adapt the most boring global visuals they can get from their HQ and just get their media agencies to book the ad space – because they don’t know what they can achieve in creating customer excitement. Most of them have never stepped into Bras Basah’s Basheer Books and flipped through the vast collection of award-winning advertising visuals and graphic art, and thought about doing it better themselves.

I’ll be very clear here: I don’t wear Abercrombie apparel, nor am I a fan. I’m a conservative in many ways, but I also appreciate art deeply. I’ve taken my fair share of sexy fashion photos during my photography days and I hope they weren’t seen as vulgar. I’m also very inspired by the billboard’s abs of steel and I shall do more sit-ups tonight.

If ASAS hasn’t gotten it by now, the whole furor has just given A&F the absolute best advertising in town – public controversy where the advertiser hasn’t really done anything illegal. The more ASAS tries to pull the billboard down, the worse it will look on them, because all A&F did was to put up a thought-provoking visual and it turned out that ASAS is really toothless after all its public statements. Bigger powers may step in, and they will be in turn branded as prudes or overreacting by the younger crowd in Singapore.

It’s always amusing to us media and ex-media alumni how stories are generated in Singapore. Many times, newsmakers do not know when they are exposing themselves to ridicule or embarrassment when they decide to go public with something. Then the media has a field day and the newsmaker wonders how did things go this way.

Just leave the billboard alone folks. A&F will change it when next season’s apparel arrives anyway. So far there haven’t been any car accidents right?

Nikon should have gone further than 1-inch

I’ll just start off with the disclaimer that I don’t fancy Nikon cameras. There is a long story behind how I gained much respect for the Nikon semi-auto F4 camera, and lost it all when I was forced to use the atrocious Nikon D1 as a young photojournalist. When it comes to professional dSLRs, it’s Canon or bust for me.

(Never mind the fact that I use my Olympus Pen more frequently than any other camera these days.)

Anyway, the world was waiting for Nikon to announce its new mirrorless camera system and they did just that this week. I was expecting more from Canon’s longtime rival, but they lived up to their disappointing reputation. Calling it the “Nikon 1″ system after the 1-inch sensor in the camera body, this will no doubt send the fanboys into ecstasy. But there is little reason to, and here’s my take.

The 1″ sensor is just too small to compete

Here’s how the various sensor sizes stack up, from Dpreview.com

This Dpreview article goes into detail about why the author thinks that making a 1″ sensor system will work well for Nikon – that it will not cannibalize their cash cow dSLR market. I completely disagree. The Nikon sensor needs to be at least as big as the Micro Four Thirds sensor to succeed.

dSLRs, despite their popularity, are really designed more for professional work than casual use. The casual user will probably never bother to learn how to use the manual dials on his dSLR camera, and sooner or later, will be frustrated by the sheer bulk of it. Neither will they be keen in investing in better zoom lenses, or even prime lenses.

The main reason why many people have upgraded to dSLRs in the past ten years, is due to the obvious limitations of their compact cameras in terms of image quality and flexibility. And some very effective marketing too.

With the Micro Four Thirds and NEX sensors being about half the size of a 35mm film frame, yet producing an image that is nearly as good in color and resolution as a dSLR (to most consumers), the three small players Panasonic, Olympus and Sony have grabbed an amazing amount of market share in just two years.

According to this Bloomberg article, the mirrorless camera has jumped from 5% in 2009 to 40% market share today in Japan. Canon and Nikon’s number crunchers must be petrified by this figure, but I’m sure things aren’t so bleak for them worldwide. Still, it’s a sign of things to come as the Japanese are often early adopters.

Nikon is coming into a new market that has been created by the smaller players. It has to play by their rules and benchmarks. By now, many consumers may have become aware of the great quality produced by the current crop of mirrorless cameras. Consumers are not stupid, and many do their research online (especially those who can afford a mirrorless camera worth USD700).

It just takes a few review websites to demonstrate in coming weeks that a smaller sensor will not produce the same image quality, especially at the same megapixels. It will also produce less depth-of-field effect, which is a great marketing tool (hey see that dreamy out of focus look!).

Nikon might be trying to avoid cannibalizing its own dSLR market, but as market data already shows, the mirrorless cameras have already done just that. So why not just go with what consumers want, and grow the market by selling a big-sensor mirrorless camera rather than run away from the inevitable decline of dSLR units?

The Nikon V1 is not that small

And furthermore, Olympus has an upcoming Micro Four Thirds camera called the E-PM1 that is 110 x 64 x 34 mm in dimensions. The Nikon V1 is 113mm x 76mm x 44mm, and the lower-end J1 is 106mm x 61mm x 30mm. The J1 is not that much smaller, and yet has a smaller image sensor than the Micro Four Third line of cameras.

Now personally, I’m comfortable shooting with a modern smartphone, my Olympus XZ-1 compact, my Pen camera or EOS 5D. They all produce great images for the money, and my photography experience can help overcome most of the inherent limitations they pose. But to the average joe, they want the best of every world, and yet they don’t know how to expose a photo correctly. They just want to buy a camera that can do it all, and must be the most advanced out there if they are going to fork out the cash.

The consumer will judge the Nikon 1 system not merely by its design, but by its minute specifications and review ratings. So unless Nikon pulls a big rabbit out of the hat, the N1 series already takes a hit before launch.

Legacy lenses support but…

What can help Nikon or Canon catch up is some form of legacy support for its older lenses on the new, smaller body. On my Pen, you can use an adapter ring to mount other bigger Oly E lenses or old school manual lenses from brands like Leica. For example, I currently use a 25mm lens meant for the bigger E-series on my Pen.

The Nikon 1 system will have an adaptor for older Nikkor lenses, but the crop factor is so high at 2.7x, I’m not sure if this will entice any existing Nikkor owner to get the new body. For example, if my maths is correct, a 24mm Nikkor wide angle lens will produce a telescopic 65mm field of view on the N1, totally negating the value of the original wide angle. And imagine a 300mm Nikkor lens on a Nikon 1 body! This is all because, I reiterate, the sensor is just too small.

I won’t comment on subjective things like design (I do dig the metallic red!) but I would just say that in trying to compete with the smaller players, Nikon may have actually forgotten that it’s no longer just a two-horse race. Instead, the hounds are actually racing ahead of the horses.

Now, I could be completely wrong in my analysis above and the Nikon 1 does roaring business when it launches in late October. And my bias towards Canon will never motivate me to buy a Nikon to begin with.

I just hope I’ve laid out some objective facts before you spring for this system. Do give all the various platforms a try and make your own decision.

Let’s see what Canon comes up with, and I hope to be thrilled.

Update: An interview with Nikon’s RnD GM was published by Dpreview after I had posted the above. It’s interesting how the Nikon 1 sensor is able to do all sorts of advanced stuff like shoot at 60 frames per second, and uses a hybrid autofocus system. There’s also this quote:

And, if the company’s market research is correct, there’s every chance this market sector’s expectations are very different from those of the enthusiast photographers who are currently scratching their heads and expressing their dissatisfaction about the new product.

Hey, they’re referring to me! But Nikon, please hear me out. For any new camera system to take hold of the mainstream, it is often up to us early adopters and enthusiasts, as well as the professionals, to embrace it and start spreading the word around. The average consumer is not confident of investing in any new camera system unless it is obviously amazing/groundbreaking or comes with much recommendation from their friends or from their social networks.

One mistake I felt that Olympus made when they were launching the Pen system in 2009 was trying to attract the female crowd with lifestyle ads. That’s not wrong in itself, but they failed to convince the early adopters and pros to come onboard (“is this Pen a girly camera?”), and that’s also part of the reason why Panasonic had more opportunity to shape the market despite Oly launching its products first. There are those of us who sprung for the EP-1 immediately at launch even without reading an Oly ad (and I never regretted it), but there are even more who have sat on the fence because of mixed messaging.

And Nikon is also assuming that the new features they’ve packed into the Nikon 1 system is a big carrot to entice the average consumer – let’s see how the market reacts.

Photography in the new age of mirrorless and apps

Till today, I still can’t believe I took this photo with my phone.

The writing on the wall has been there for two years. Mirrorless cameras are the next wave and yet the two big camera makers have not stepped into the arena. Just read this Bloomberg article:

Canon Inc. (7751) and Nikon Corp. (7731), the world’s two biggest makers of high-end cameras, may be missing out on the industry’s biggest technology shift since film rolls became obsolete. The two Tokyo-based companies use mirrors in all cameras with interchangeable lenses, a technique Sony Corp. (6758) is shifting away from. As a result, Canon and Nikon’s combined share of the Japanese market has fallen by 35 percent, while Sony’s share has doubled, according to estimates at research firm BCN Inc.

- Canon Hanging on to Mirrors Means Opportunity for Sony, Panasonic Cameras, Bloomberg, 7 Sep 2011

Since I got my lightweight Olympus Pen in 2009, I’ve largely stopped using my Canon EOS 5D except for sessions when I need to do macro shots or shoot the sky outside of my window. Honestly, it grieves me that my Canons don’t get used so much now, given their way superior image quality and shooting capabilities, but I no longer need the professional quality they provide, nor can I tolerate the weight of the gear during family outings.

It’s not just about my need to carry a lighter camera that can do a “good enough” job. The way we share photos has changed dramatically in the last decade, and that in turn has changed the quality of photos that we need, as well as the type of cameras we prefer to carry around.

In the early 2000s, when digital photography was still in puberty, it was a race to get more megapixels out so that printed photos wouldn’t look pixelated. The original (and much disliked among SPH photogs) Nikon D1 sported only 2.1 megapixels, and yet this was considered cutting edge in 1999. Today, the Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III gives you 21.1MP and really, only pros need that kind of resolution.

If I ever return to professional photography, I’d be happy with all the megapixels I can get, but I still remain a non-pro currently. My 13MP EOS 5D turns six years old this year, and it’s an amazing camera for my needs.

The mirrorless (or hybrid) dSLRs will continue to gain ground over traditional dSLRs in the consumer space, and it is inevitable that Canon and Nikon will release their own models once the market data finally convinces them that their legacy business is not optimized for today’s consumer audience. Perhaps they are already working on it but it will take time to get to market, as well as develop new, smaller lenses for the new lineup. Lenses make or break a camera system, and that could further delay Canon and Nikon’s engagement with the mirrorless audience.

Despite my fondness of the Olympus Pen (and I think the new EP3 is awesome despite the small advances), I am still a Canon faithful at heart and will return to the fold once they produce the “good enough” mirrorless camera for me. After all, it was a Canon that accompanied my professional growth and a Canon that took my wedding photos.

Now back to megapixels – Many consumer compact cams offer 16MP today, when what most people need is not more than 10MP. Why?

Most of us have stopped printing photos – at least those of us living in developed countries. I feel sorry for the film processing shops, and puzzled when companies try to sell us 4R-sized photo printers.

C’mon, just about everyone is on Facebook, and that is what we use on a constant basis to share our images. To make uploads faster, I usually downsize my photos to 1.5MP (1500 pixels by 1000 pixels) because most of the time, people are going to be viewing them on a smartphone or tablet. Even on a huge 24″ screen, Facebook doesn’t allow full-screen views currently (but that could change any time).

I remember when I was conducting photography workshops about 5 years ago. I would tell the audience to shoot images in the highest possible resolution available in their camera because we are entering into a HD world. Perhaps one day we could plaster our walls with cheap LCD screens and fill it with high-res family images.

That advice still holds true, but none of us could have imaged how social networks like Facebook and Twitter would add another perspective to how we store and share stuff. I’ve never bothered with the likes of Flickr to share my photos, but since FB came online, I’ve shared thousands of images happily.

Back in the last decade, I used to scoff at camera phones too. They produced really awful images with high grain, fuzzy details and wrong colors all the time. But check out the phones of today – Android, iPhone and Windows Phones can produce really stunning images (as long as you don’t intend to print them on A4 sized paper!) with good contrast, details and color balance. They will only get better and faster at sharing images.

Another image that I took with my phone. These days you can do some metering on the phone by selecting the exposure spot on the screen, making it possible to capture difficult scenes like this.

What really makes smartphones great cameras are the apps (do you remember a time when phones apps did not exist?). If you’ve used Instagram or Hipstamatic, they can really transform ordinary photos into amazing Polaroid-style visuals. Whether you like them retro or pop-art, these apps have built in filters that hit the emotional buttons perfectly when you decide to show them off.

The Goblins at Thomson, taken with the Hipstamatic app that does fantastic color toning for a 1980s feel.

The new Canon S100 (as well as other high-end compacts) has a GPS built in to help record the location of photos, but this is essentially a feature that will go largely unused. What would be really useful in a camera are WiFi/3G modules and a built-in app to downsize images and upload to social networks immediately. Growth in the compact camera market has been slowing down and that’s because smartphones do a better job of sharing images despite their lower image capturing capabilities.

Photography for consumers has always been about sharing and showing off their latest images. The problem is that today, compact cams and dSLRs (including the mirrorless guys) remain unplugged from our social lives while trying to offer incremental new features that most people don’t need. Until camera makers figure out the new paradigm and how to leverage it better, the phone makers are going to be having a field day.

PS: Another endangered species is the dedicated camcorder. Prices have plummeted dramatically for HD camcorders in the past few years, but they’re up against phones and cameras which can do a “good enough” job of HD video. For now, camcorders still provide superior autofocus tracking, color balance and image stabilization over other products, but the writing is on the wall for them too.

Full Armor Gundam

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I purchased this Full Armor Gundam FA-78-1 Master Grade set because Hobby Link Japan was selling it at 40% off at 3000 yen (S$45). I regretted it soon after because it became obvious why this relatively new release (2010) was being discounted so heavily both online and at local retail – the original color scheme of dark green, bright orange and white was not aesthetic and this Gundam was based on the retro RX-78 instead of the more modern/aggressive One Year War version.

But I saw that there was potential in the base design – it had a very rugged heavy armored vehicle design philosophy like my Votoms Scopedog and the decals had a good military feel to them. This Gundam just needed a better color scheme.

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So after many days of mulling and color testing, I gave it the Iron Man War Machine treatment – gunmetal grey, copper, dull chrome and some champagne gold on the cannons just to make it a bit more “rich”.

I glued down all the detachable armor parts because they kept coming off anyway (thanks to Bandai’s useless gel sticker approach) and also because I don’t really like the retro RX-78 design underneath all the armor parts. I ordered the waterslide decals from HLJ and spent a long time (over 6 hours) pasting as many as I could – I like decals and you can also call this the Full Decal Gundam hur-hur.

In closing, I’m pretty happy with the end result! If you’re not going to paint this set, I don’t recommend the purchase due to the poor base color scheme. If you are, I think there are many opportunities to make it a really cool Gundam based on your personal color preferences.

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As I was taking photos this morning, there was an opportunity to do these mood shots as the morning sun blasted into the living room.

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The only downside to using the champagne gold (chrome silver + gold leaf paint) is that the white decals don’t come out so prominently.

Some history on the Full Armor Gundam from the Gundam Wikia.

As the RX-78-2 Gundam continued to score victory after victory against the Zeon forces in the One Year War, the Earth Federation Forces engineers began to devise several different upgrades to supplement and further increase the combat capabilities of the Gundam. The upgrade program, called the Full-Armor System and Weapon System (FSWS), developed several options packs to increase the Gundam’s already considerable power. One of these designs was the Gundam Full Armor Type, which vastly increased the Gundam’s firepower and armor.

However, due to the Full Armor Gundam’s massive increase in weight, it suffered a sharp drop in mobility which the new thrusters could not sufficiently compensate for. It was deemed that the loss in speed and maneuverability would be unacceptable and the Gundam Full Armor Type never left the development stages. The Gundam Full Armor Type would never be built, and only existed on paper. Although the FA-78-1 Gundam Full Armor Type was deemed to be a design failure while it was still in the planning phases, the Earth Federation continued to design new upgrades to for the RX-78-2 Gundam under Full-Armor System and Weapon System (FSWS) program.However the plans for the unit would later be used as the basis of creating the FA-78-2 Heavy Gundam.

Isaac’s Gundam Avalanche Exia

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This is the second High-Grade Gundam set that Isaac and I worked together on. The Gundam Avalanche Exia 1/144 is a recent release by Bandai from the Gundam 00 series and for a small model, has a magnificently complicated design. I do wish I could have painted it for better aesthetic effect, but I’m saving the airbrush for bigger models with more details and decals.

As I continue to assemble more Gundams, I have increasing admiration for the artists  who come up with these designs that mesh together art and robot mechanics.

Of course, you could say that all the Gundams look the same (I thought the same just a year ago), but take a closer look and you will be able to appreciate how the designs have evolved over the years from the very first RX-78. Essentially all Gundams are based on a samurai design, which is always cool Open-mouthed smile.

Now if only the guys who designed the atrociously ugly, insectoid Transformer movie robots understood it like the Gundam designers.

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A journey with the Space Battleship Yamato

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For better or worse, I tend to go overboard with my hobbies. What was supposed to be a dalliance with photography turned into a full-time job. My love for tinkering of PCs has kept me working with, and currently, in the IT industry. And about a year ago, I started to get fascinated with Bandai model kits and now I have more paint bottles and unopened model kits than I can keep track of.

I’ve been trying out various grades of Gundam model kits to develop my airbrushing and assembly skills. But when I found this Space Battleship Yamato 1/500 scale model kit, I knew that this would be the one kit to pour all my learning into.

Now let it be clear that I don’t really like battleships, whether they are WWII models or even Star Destroyers. It’s more fascinating to admire the small planes that take up space on a carrier (eg. Tomcat, Phantom etc). And I remember building a few ship models when I was in primary school and hating the whole gluey mess along with ridiculously small parts.

But the Yamato is different. For one thing, this formed part of our childhood memories. Our generation of boys watched dozens of iconic Japanese cartoons when they aired randomly on SBC’s Channel 8 during the 1970s and 1980s. With little to do in the house in those days before the Internet or Xbox, one could spend hours just watching different anime dubbed in Mandarin. And the unique mix of a traditional Japanese warship with futuristic space cruiser elements really sticks in the mind for decades.

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Bandai cashed in on the Takuya Kimura movie vehicle late last year with this new plastic model kit that stretches across 70cm in length. Before I started on the kit, I looked around the Internet to see how others had built their versions. Without painting, the kit looks like a big piece of flat plastic. OK, many different pieces of plastic.

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But I also wondered how much “realism” or weathering effects to give this baby. As I’ve gotten more into this “gunpla” hobby, I have observed that too many people spend big money on kits and airbrushing systems without understanding the basics of aesthetics.

For example. I would look at some of the showcase models at some of the hobby shops in Singapore and shake my head at the over-Gundam shading done on beautiful models. Less is more, folks. In my case, my background in art and photography does help me visualize the final look of my kits.

Now while I would prefer a cleanly painted and glossy robot that looked like it just stepped out of the factory, the Yamato demands a dirty or aged look. The anime and movie are set in dire times for humanity, and the Yamato first emerges from its underground factory, breaking through concrete and mud. A flat coat of paint would not give the Yamato the character it deserves – so there was not much choice but to give it gradated airbrushing and further washes of grey to bring about the post-apocalyptic look.

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This project took about three months, or perhaps eight to ten man days. A lot faster than the last Votoms Scopedog project that took nearly a year thanks to prolonged procrastination.

Overall, I would say that the Yamato is relatively easy to build until you come to the small parts. On some turrets, some plastic pieces broke off (combination of thin plastic parts and several layers of paint) and I either glued them back or just threw them away. The nice thing about a “weathered” look is that you can always claim it was “battle damage” when it comes to missing or broken parts.

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On one hand I was terrified of losing the tiny turret parts (there are about 34 turrets if I counted correctly). On the other hand, pressing them into the main ship body really caused my fingertips to hurt, and a few other hull parts cracked in the process.

The other difficulty I had was deciding what shade of medium blue to use. The red was easy – just go for a screaming red tone like a Ferrari. The blue was tough because if you go for the default blue that the plastic was moulded in, the whole ship looks too dull. A lighter blue would allow for more details to be called out, but would not contrast well with the red lower hull. Personally I think I could have used a deeper shade of blue but what the heck.

The other odd thing I noticed was during the final panel lining stage, using black enamel paint to wash over the base acrylic coats. With the semi-glossy red portions, it was easy to remove excess wash with thinner. With the dull blue portions, the enamel paint was very hard to remove with enamel thinner so I had to work fast and use it to create more weathering effects like vertical streaks across the hull. Perhaps I had to coat the entire ship with a glossy coat before I did the panel lining.

Oh well, live and learn. Enjoy the pics, taken with my trusty Canon 5D. Which I had trouble taking in my cramped HDB apartment because this ship is just so long!

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